Applying Lessons from Circle Swimming to Prison Advocacy

The number of letters, emails, calls, etc., I got after I published this was truly moving overwhelming. It looks like many advocates and activists share a sense of immense exhaustion and feeling unwell and many of us want to get better. For me, as you know, this journey includes total commitment to a whole-food, plant-based diet and to daily outdoor exercise: running, cycling, and swimming. The last of these is the only one at which I’m a veteran; before I semi-retired from the sport in 2016 I was an open water marathon swimmer. These days, for practical reasons (little boy and full-time job=> no time to schlep to the bay, acclimate, and then pour hot tea down my gullet to defrost myself) I swim for no longer than an hour in one of our city pools.

We don’t have many public pools; the ones we have are beautiful and the staff is great, but there is a serious nationwide lifeguard shortage. This means opening hours are extremely limited and the pools get crowded. It’s become rare to have only one person to split a lane with, let alone have the whole lane to yourself. At one of the pools I swim in, there are regularly at least five people to a lane. In the other it’s about three and four. Because these are strangers, not masters teammates, the lanes aren’t calibrated to people’s exact pace, and the fast/medium/slow lane categories are completely arbitrary. Bottom line – I regularly end up in a lane with people who swim either faster or slower than me. Many of the slower folks are delightful people who stop at the pool end to let you pass them, but unfortunately not everyone has the proprioception or the humility to do it. And so, sometimes I get stuck behind folks who really should know better and who make it impossible to pass them (I should say – because I know firsthand the aggravation this causes, when I swim with faster folks I’m hyperconscious of them and let them pass at every opportunity!).

I’ve narrowed the possible coping strategies to five, and some of them are better than others:

  1. Do nothing and fume. Or, do nothing and slap the water in rage, or kick a little extra hard to vent your frustration. This does not help – not at all – and essentially the only person I punish by marinating in my anger over this is myself.
  2. Appeal to higher authorities, namely, to the lifeguards and ask them to reorganize people by lane. This is kind of drastic – I’ve never done it myself nor have I seen it done in city pools. At some private clubs I’ve swum in, the lifeguards are experts on tactfully doing this, but it also carries the frustration of dealing with your problem through third parties rather than practically resolving it yourself.
  3. Change lanes mid-lap and swim back. Here’s how this works: You swim behind the slow person for as long as conceivably possible (to earn yourself some good laps later) and then, right before the wall, shift to the other lane and swim away fast. This obviates the need to confront the other person in any way, and if they are clueless it won’t upset them, either, but you could run into problems confusing the slow swimmer or other swimmers and, in some situations, could be a bit dangerous.
  4. Aggressive mid-lap pass. This is an emergency move, and an undesirable one, but sometimes people don’t leave you much choice. You carefully check if there’s anyone coming toward you in the opposite lane (i.e., that the other swimmers are already behind you) and them quickly shift to the left lane and beat the slow swimmer to the wall. Beyond the obvious risk, this is also a physically aggressive move and I would not be surprised if it upset and scare the slower swimmer.
  5. Confront the person at the wall, either through body language (touch their foot lightly, shift to the middle of the lane to block their turn) or actually say “can I pass?” I’ve never seen anyone manifestly refuse to let another person pass after a confrontation, but for a lot of people who look forward to their pool time as their happy place, it could be several laps before the work out the nerve to do it (now that I think about it, I bet there are cultural differences in pool behavior between different countries).

The wisdom we should all cultivate (I’m working on this myself, yo, so don’t think I’m anywhere close to circle swimming nirvana!) lies in deciding which of the five approaches is appropriate for each situation. For example, I think that option 1 is only good when you have a few minutes of cooldown before your workout is over, and then it’s best to channel your frustrations into working on your butterfly or backstroke or do a couple of leg laps without fins, which slows you down coming into the wall. Option 2 is only good when you’re at a pretty hierarchical or at a pretty expensive facility. As to options 3-5, their desirability depends on who you’re dealing with, and here it’s worth remembering that you don’t actually know the person from Adam, and that behind the cap and goggles, “slow-ass” might actually be a lovely person on whom you’re unfairly projecting the frustrations of your day. It’s quite possible to choose the wrong strategy and add unnecessary stress to what should be a blissful hour for everyone–which is where self-compassion and compassion for others comes in, bigtime.

I think about this stuff a lot when I’m in the water, and a couple of days ago, while discussing this with a friend, I realized that these ways of handling conflict with someone you don’t know have recurred elsewhere in my life, especially in the context of prison advocacy. As I work on our book in progress about COVID-19 in California prisons, I’m realizing that a lot of stuff has been happening, at the state and at the county levels, behind the scenes, and while we were privy to the horrific outcomes of all this through the information we got from our incarcerated friends and family members, we were not exactly privy to the inner workings at CDCR or at the Receiver’s office. We know that they paid no heed to the AMEND report, but did they consult with anyone else? It seemed not from the Quentin litigation, and it seems not from the Plata litigation, but surely not everyone who works there is pure, unadulterated evil, and we need better information about internal disputes and conflicts on how to manage this. We know, for example, that the rank-and-file physicians at Quentin were clamoring to save lives (I’ve spoken to prison workers and many of them are decent, conscientious folks who have had a horrific time for the last year and a half.) We also know that various county jail officials worked extremely hard to make vaccination available to their population (this I know firsthand because they consulted me, and they impressed me as being decent people who were well aware of their responsibilities.) I actually don’t know, and have no way of knowing, whether the top brass at CDCR, CCHCS, and CCPOA sleep well at night. And the problem is that the best approach to getting this pandemic under control as numbers in prison are beginning to rise again depends a great deal on understanding these people and where they come from, and on figuring out how to best work with them, around them, or against them.

Over the course of this struggle, I had some experience doing variations on all of these themes. The litigation, of course, is full of animosity; all the media work, especially the press conferences and the news editions, was also highly confrontational, on purpose. By contrast, I got to collaborate with Orange County officials on producing their vaccine advocacy video because there were people there who were trying, in good faith, to save lives, and it was worth working with them. And in introducing the AMEND FAQ into prisons and our videos recorded by formerly incarcerated folks, we sought to work around CDCR to raise vaccine literacy behind bars by providing sources that our friends and neighbors inside could completely trust–thus working around CDCR (and, to be honest, counting on smuggled cellphones to do the work.)

In order to draw more careful lessons about how I’m going to do advocacy in the future, I need more complete information on which of these strategies worked and which didn’t – and why. For now, I’m providing some help in the form of a wonderful partnership with the Covid in-Custody Project, spearheaded by the unfailingly superb Aparna Komarla (read her recent and worrisome stories on the Davis Vanguard COVID page.) From now on, this blog will host all the data collected by the Covid in-Custody Project at this link, where you can get information about CDCR as well as several jails. Look for a post on resident and staff vaccine rates soon.

My heart is still very much in this battle, even as my body, mind, and spirit needed a health reset–I’m not constantly on twitter or facebook but I still care very much about what’s going on and am figuring out ways in which I can be optimally useful in this fight. In the meantime, if you swim at a city pool, in the name of all that is holy, please let faster swimmers pass you at the wall.

The long and winding road of Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal woes

Source: Al Jazeera

by Thomas O. Falk

Legal experts say Benjamin Netanyahu’s fight against corruption-related charges could take years to conclude after his recent removal as Israel’s longest-serving leader, with court delays likely pushing full-swing witness testimony back until October.

The trial has been suspended since June 16 as the prosecution and defence teams haggle over how to handle new evidence that recently came to light.

Netanyahu stands accused of conducting illegal business with companies and accepting luxury gifts from business friends in exchange for political favours. He is also accused of having promoted media companies in return for positive reporting.

The former leader has denied all accusations against him, saying the charges are a political witch hunt spearheaded by opponents.

Postponing the court case is nothing new.

While still in office, the man known as “Bibi” actively delayed his trial, attempted to limit the courts’ powers, and even tried to change the immunity law in his favour, Mazen Masri, senior lecturer in law at The City Law School, told Al Jazeera.

Now as the Knesset’s opposition leader, Netanyahu could file another request for immunity, but that would be relatively futile as he does not have the backing from lawmakers, Masri said.

“Netanyahu stated that he reserves the right to file a new request for immunity, but it seems that his chances to do so are not good. There are questions on whether he can file a second request. And even if he can, the numbers [in the Knesset] are still more or less the same,” he said.

‘High-quality testimony’

So far, the trial has proceeded in a way characteristic of situations involving highly sophisticated and powerful defendants supported by excellent – and expensive – legal advice, said Hadar Aviram, professor of law at the University of California.

The charges against Netanyahu relate to three cases, and so far his defence team has been attempting to find holes in the prosecution’s claims.

“The testimony is fairly strong but the defence exploits every weakness of each of the cases, relying on high-quality technology expert testimony,” Aviram told Al Jazeera.

All three cases Netanyahu has been charged with display different degrees of magnitude, yet they seem to involve a reoccurring theme.

“Case 1000” involves a relationship between Netanyahu and businessmen Arnon Milchen and James Packer, and the accusation is that Netanyahu received expensive gifts from them in return for advancing Milchen’s business interests.

“In many ways, Case 1000 is the simplest and strongest of the lot,” said Aviram.Play Video

Milchen’s employee Hadas Klein has testified the gifts were not merely an exchange between friends but were accompanied by demands from Netanyahu, who would allegedly contact Milchen to say that “the pink champagne and cigars have run out” and the stock needed to be replenished.

Once, when Milchen bought a necklace for his wife, Sara Netanyahu, he received a message pointing out a matching bracelet was missing from the gift delivery.

“The defence will argue that considering the vast wealth of the parties, these lavish gifts were not outside the ambit of the friendship. Notably, Milchen and Packer were not prosecuted, and Packer, who is now very ill and abroad, will not testify at the trial,” Aviram said.

Give-and-take relationships

Case 2000 centres around a deal between Netanyahu and co-defendant Arnon “Noni” Mozes, owner of the national newspaper Yediot Aharonot. It is alleged that Mozes would ensure flattering coverage of Netanyahu in the newspaper in exchange for legislation limiting the distribution of its competitor – the Adelson-funded publication Israel HaYom.

The conversation between Netanyahu and Mozes was recorded by prosecution witness Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s chief of staff, at Netanyahu’s request, which, legally, is a double-edged sword for the prosecution, Aviram said.

“Case 2000 is more tentative. The recording is damning, but the very fact that it was made could be an argument for the defence that neither Netanyahu nor Mozes saw anything wrong with the conversation,” said Aviram.

Beyond that was a complicated interpretive question: to what extent was this conversation a deviation from the usually murky give-and-take relationships between journalists and politicians, said Aviram.

Case 4000 involves a relationship between Netanyahu and Shaul Elovitch, owner of news site Walla and controlling stakeholder in the Bezeq communications group. As with Case 2000, this one involves pressure by Elovitch on journalists to provide flattering coverage of Netanyahu in return for legislation favourable to the Bezeq group.

The central prosecution witness is journalist Ilan Yeshua, who testified that he was constantly pushed, warned, and harangued by Elovitch to portray the Netanyahu family in a flattering light.

On cross-examination, however, the defence elicited that Yeshua was involved with various politicians in this manner, though he did specify that the scope and intensity of the pressure to favourably cover Netanyahu was stronger by orders of magnitude.

All of the above leads Aviram to believe that Case 4000 was “the most severe and the one that, at least until recently, looked bleakest for Netanyahu”.

The defence has succeeded in halting cross-examination to search Yeshua’s phone by an expert witness to reveal material pertaining to more politicians. However, this initiative might backfire and reveal more damning information against Netanyahu, Aviram said.

Blanket denials

Overall, there already appears to be an overarching strategy from Netanyahu’s legal team. The most prominent is plain denial.

“So far, Netanyahu’s consistent response to the cases against him is ‘nothing will happen because nothing did happen,’ and the defence has followed up with a blanket denial of all the accusations,” said Aviram.

“The argument will be that none of the occurrences described in the three cases is excessive in a climate in which relationships between journalists flourish and wealthy old friends shower each other with gifts.”

However, the strategy is by no means a bulletproof tactic for Netanyahu. Two of Netanyahu’s allies are unavailable to testify on his behalf: Sheldon Adelson is dead and Packer is ill and abroad.

“It will weaken the defence’s case,” said Aviram.

While hundreds of witnesses are expected to testify during the trial, one should not expect Netanyahu to take the stand himself, as the risk outweighs any potential benefit, Aviram said.

“It is unlikely that Netanyahu will testify at trial. He cooperated with the police investigation and, in his interrogation, flat-out denied all the allegations against him – and he has nothing to gain from being exposed to questioning again.”

It will take significant time until a verdict is reached, given Netanyahu’s status and resources.

“We are looking at years, if not decades, of appeals, which will delay if not thwart any actual incarceration,” Aviram concluded.

Escaping the Opinion Marketplace

With our refreshing family vacation at Harbin Hot Springs now over, I have a lot to contemplate. The interruption of the constant stream of internet opinions, takes, takes on takes, speechifying, and moralizing was so profound that its effects on my wellbeing were palpable. For the first time in a long time, I found some space to hear my own thoughts and, more importantly, to let them go, like puffy, airy clouds, making room for for sensations and feelings.

Perhaps unfortunately given my line of work, in the last few years I’ve experienced profound exhaustion resulting from the constant bombardment of takes, ideas, and invitations–sometimes quite coercive–to “be a part of the conversation.” I tried writing something about this a few months ago, which focused on the schoolmarmish, admonishing tone of so much of what is written these days by my milieu–academics, journalists, and other opinion people. But I don’t think I managed to capture how oppressive all of this is, how inauthentic.

In her book Our Word Is Our Bond, Marianne Constable analyzes the nature and operation of legal speech, arguing that law operates through the trappings of language. Much of legal education, accordingly, focuses on the minutiae of language and what it implies, constitutively, for the world of policy. I’m not a linguist, and surely this is not a particularly original take on this, but I’m getting the sense that performative, declarative speechifying has now become so commonplace it transcends the world of policy. Everyone is busy declaiming and declaring where they stand on various issues. It seems like the natural counterpart to Citizens United: First we argued that corporations were people, and now people are behaving like corporate PR departments, issuing statements, apologies, excoriations, and the rest. This is all playing out in a few arenas–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram as the main culprits–all of which I vowed to leave when I retire, but waiting another fifteen years to give myself some freedom is too punishing.

Since late March, I’ve been working hard on reclaiming my health, which suffered serious setbacks in the last four years and especially during the pandemic year. While working on the San Quentin case, documenting the COVID-19 disaster in prisons, and advocating on the media and in scholarship, I became seriously inflamed, suffered constant headaches and digestive upsets, put on an enormous amount of weight, ate and slept very poorly. I’m now convinced that I was very close to a heart attack. I can only imagine the deleterious effects this catastrophe had on the health people I talked to and collaborated with–people inside, people recently released with friends inside, family members and loved ones living with the stress of incarceration on the outside.

I’m happy to report I’ve now reversed, and improved, all the health problems I had. I lost 40 lbs and am on my way to losing 15 more and returning to my high school weight. I’m eating a whole-food, plant-based diet rich in vegetables and fruit and exercising daily. My resting heart rate is down from 82 to 57. All my other metrics have been reversed and are now optimal. After a long break from endurance sports, I completed a sprint triathlon last week, scoring a personal best. I continue to run, bike, and/or swim daily, supplementing with pilates and strength training. I am determined to retain my good health, because I know how awful it is to lose it.

One thing I realized at Harbin is that the focus on my family’s happiness and on my own health and wellbeing has a price. It means I haven’t pushed out as many chapters of #FESTER as I perhaps ought to have done (though you can find bits and pieces here, here, and here.) It means I haven’t been aggressively hustling for conferences and travel and vividly engaging with the current conversation on every topic as I would perhaps strive otherwise. A few days ago I gave an interview on the Cosby reversal on NPR and had to actually sit down and read the decision, because I hadn’t been religiously following the takes, let alone supplying takes myself. Given how well I’m feeling and how awful I felt before, I think this is a fair price to pay.

I am reminded of Patty Sun, Andrew Taslitz’s widow, and what she had to say after his untimely death. She wrote:

In the past four months I have kept seeing accolades to Andy’s amazing productivity—the 100+ articles, the zillions of case books, etc., and I have always told people that yes, he led a normal life, yes, he got plenty of sleep and yes, he even took plenty of naps.

But that’s not really true. His life was not normal, at least not to me, and it certainly wasn’t balanced. Yes, I know he genuinely loved his work and yes, I know he had a brilliant and unusual mind, and yes, I know he was cut down in his prime when he still had so much more to give. But all of that came with a price. Not the teaching or the mentoring, but all that scholarship.

So what was the price in the end? In the entire time we were married we only took a two-week vacation once, and just about every vacation we did take was wrapped around one of his conferences or presentations. The furthest he went on each of his two sabbaticals was his front bedroom, because he spent every single day on his manuscripts.

So in the end how do I feel about his productivity? Yes, he enjoyed it, but he also killed himself trying not to disappoint people or to break deadlines.

And as I sit here with the dogs on July 4th, I think was it really that important to add one more book review to his CV or to do one more tenure letter as a favor for someone he never met? I’m glad his peers all loved him for the reliable genius that he was, and I don’t know how he feels wherever he is now, but I am very, very bitter.

Yes, he was a great academic mentor and collaborator, but the price for all that frenzied output was me, and there’s a part of me that will never forgive him for it, because he died right after he promised to slow down and enjoy life itself more.”

I’m taking these words, and the testimony of my own lived experience with improved health, to heart. My bottom line is this: I would like to create a clearing in the dense forest of my life, away from all this chatter, and do as little as possible to clutter my world and yours with more superfluous, unoriginal speechifying. I want to post only what I consider essential and important, stay out of scurrying activity that is not, ultimately, that relevant, and “participate in the conversation” only on my own terms. This is not some glossy, precious wellness flummery. Stress is real, and it can kill you. I won’t have this chatter take me away from my family and from my own body.

This means prioritizing active time–swimming, running, biking, taking dancing, hiking–and time in nature, which I intend to do every day of my life from now on. It also means prioritizing my family over everything and everyone else.

This also means that something else has become important: If you, too, are feeling unwell, stressed, bloated, achy, weepy, exhausted, burnt out, and ready for change, and want to transform your life through a combination of plant-based foods, exercise, and mindfulness, please hit me up on email. I’m a certified mindfulness meditation teacher; I have tons of experience in endurance sports and have taught pilates and aerial fitness; and I have a certificate in plant-based nutrition. More importantly, I know what it is to feel less than your best and how it can rob you from a full participation in your life. Please don’t let this profession, even as you work on noble, important, pressing issues of our time, rob you of your time on Earth. I can help. Let’s talk.