Monday, January 21, 2019

...Two Steps Back

It felt like progress last October when former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder. An indictment of an out-of-control police officer is about as rare as World Series celebrations on the north side. They just don't happen much.

But in Domenica Stephenson's sweeping, across the board exoneration of his three co-conspirators and his own slap on the wrist sentence, Van Dyke's conviction now seems like an aberration. In just three short months it already seems like a relic from a different time.

A second-degree murder charge with a six and three-quarters year sentence? Seriously? Van Dyke discharging his weapon sixteen times into Laquan McDonald wasn't manslaughter—it was murder.

And if not seething disdain for anyone who dares challenge a cop in court, it is impossible to justify or understand Stephenson's ruling. Its abject dismissal of the prosecution's evidence was more appropriate for a Soviet-era court or one in Salvador Allende's Chile. 

But for one in the heart of America? Never.

These send a dangerous message to the officers within the Chicago Police Department. They give carte blanche to an organization that has earned its reputation for being something less than ethical and above board.

Excuse my misanthropic streak, but no individual, organization or political entity should possess limitless power. We can't handle it.

Van Dyke's actions weren't conducted in a heat-of-the-moment, life-and-death exchange of gunfire in a shadowy gangway. They were the deliberate result of an irresponsible cop squeezing his trigger sixteen times on a spacious, well-lighted street as McDonald walked away from him.

They were as purposeful and deliberate as David March, Thomas Gaffney and Joseph Walsh's falsification of the events and circumstances surrounding that night.

Chicago can't afford another black eye. Already plagued with a reputation for political corruption and wanton gun violence, these rulings do little to alleviate either.

Van Dyke murdered. March, Gaffney and Walsh lied.

Effectively letting them off scot-free only deepens the perception that something ain't quite right in the City of Chicago.

In the chilling words of the ex-cop quoted in Mary Schmich's Chicago Tribune column yesterday, “People get the police that they seek, and God help the city of Chicago.”

As it apparently needs to be pointed out, no one sought Jon Burge. No one sought Anthony Abbate. No one sought Patrick Kelly.

No one sought Jason Van Dyke. Or David March. Or Thomas Gaffney. Or Joseph Walsh.

No one in their right minds would.

Chicago needs better police officers. Not more-powerful ones.



Friday, January 18, 2019

One Step Forward...

I was heartened when Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago cop who unloaded sixteen shots into a young African-American man, was found guilty of second-degree murder.

Worse than the shooting itself was the reaction by the Chicago Police Department. Their first response was to cover it up. Bury the video. Concoct a plausible cover story. Lie on the reports.

This. Didn't. Happen.

Never mind that one of the most incriminating pieces of evidence in a criminal trial is whether an offender attempts to cover up their crime, thereby indicating an awareness of right and wrong.

By virtue of a concerted effort to misrepresent what happened on South Pulaski on October 20, 2014, the Chicago Police Department clearly knew they had overstepped their boundaries. That they had, for lack of a better word, fucked up.

And they almost succeeded.

It took a lawsuit to get the dash cam video released. And when it was, it was as damming and as incriminating as the CPD had feared. There was Jason Van Dyke, a.k.a. John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne Johnson all rolled into one, pumping sixteen shots into a confused and at-loose-ends black kid walking away from him.

But Van Dyke and his fellow officers maintained that McDonald had turned on them and wielded the knife in a threatening manner.

There was just one problem. The video somehow missed that.

Circling the wagons, they resolutely persisted in their lie. Despite filing reports that contradicted everything portrayed in the video, Detective David March and officers Thomas Gaffney and Joseph Walsh were exonerated yesterday by Judge Domenica Stephenson.

She argued that the angle of the video was such that it made it impossible to determine what officers at the scene saw. (Which must be the reason Van Dyke is facing a prison sentence and the wearing of body cams by police officers is being mandated across the nation.)

In her ruling, Judge Stephenson unequivocally backed every single taken by the Chicago Police Department that day, including (one has to assume) the doctored reports filed by its officers. She stated the cops at the scene had every reason to believe an attack was imminent and that deadly force was warranted.

Judge Stephenson, let me ask you: when was the last time you considered a person walking away from you a threat?

This isn't a ruling based on the case at hand. This is judicial editorializing. This is an opinion piece. Domenica Stephenson is outraged by the prospect of Jason Van Dyke in prison and to even things up has cleared his guilty-as-hell co-workers of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

Wow.

I'm not anti-cop. They are an unfortunate necessity in a society where people frequently act with something less than kind regard for their fellow human beings.What I am against is the abuse of authority. Be it a CEO, a president or a cop. 

In fact, little else makes me as angry.

Which is why I find Judge Stephenson's decision so infuriating. These cops lied—plain and simple. It's in writing. Gaffney, March and Walsh lied to protect a co-worker who was way out of bounds. I don't care what the FOP's whore says. March, Gaffney and Walsh counted on the time-honored code of silence to save their asses.

Thanks to Judge Stephenson, they needn't have worried.

Tell you what. The next time you're ticketed by a red-light camera, go to traffic court and cite the March/Gaffney/Walsh defense. That the camera isn't an accurate depiction of events as seen by you.

Baliffs and lawyers and judges need a good laugh, too.

And if you're an African-American living on the south or west sides of the city, I don't blame you at all for feeling the fix is in. That the police frequently have a little extra law on their side.

In light of this ruling, it will be very interesting to see what kind of sentence is handed to Mr. Van Dyke today.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

7 Republicans 7

I'm trying to understand how seven Republican congressmen could vote against a measure designed to restore paychecks for the 800,00 federal workers caught in the crossfire of our latest display of government dysfunction.

I mean, sure, eleven voters didn't think Babe Ruth belonged in the Hall of Fame. Unanimous decisions are a very rare thing. 

But this is different. And a little more important.

Taking a step back, we should understand the measure was an unqualified success with strong bipartisan support. 98.3% (98.3!) of our Congress agreed this was the right thing to do.

Something to cheer—at last.

But like any inquisitive being, you have to ask yourself: who the hell would oppose this?

If it even needs clarification, let me point out that these folk are working. Or being forced against their will not to. This isn't welfare or social security or medicare or any of the other socialist programs Republicans wet their beds over at night.

These are paychecks. For work already done.

Paychecks for people who don't enjoy all-expenses-paid golf junkets in Hawaii. Or complimentary dinners in posh restaurants. Or premium seats at Lincoln Center events.

These are people who don't enjoy deep discounts on exclusive rental properties in Georgetown because they have votes to sell.

These are people who pay their way. 

By voting against this, you have to assume the attitude of those opposed runs along the lines of screw 'em. This is the NFL announcing R Kelly will be this year's half-time entertainment at the Super Bowl. 

Let the kids suck on ketchup packets from Burger King. Let the parents beg siblings, parents and neighbors for gas money. Overdue bills? Shit, that'll just mean more money in my pocket when my bank/mortgage company/credit card forces them to pay late fees and higher interest rates.

I'm sure Republican Seven have their reasons. As Glenn Grothman (WI) observed “That's why we're twenty-two trillion-dollars in debt. These people around here can't say no to anything.”

I don't have to think very hard to know what Grothman's reaction would be if he were the one being asked to work for free or being furloughed.

And neither do you.

As an anti-Republican, I suppose I should thank these misanthropes for the ammunition. For proving—once again—the lengths they will go to to enact their toxic ideology.

I should wish that Representatives Justin Amash (MI), Andy Biggs (AZ), Ken Buck (CO), Paul Gosar (AZ), Glenn Grothman (WI), Thomas Massie (KY) and Ted Yoho (FL) be made to understand—in the most vivid and immediate manner possible—the direness of the sentence they have advocated for.

Even in the Trump-inspired Dark Ages, their heartlessness is startling.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

An Appreciation of Grand Funk Railroad

In this, the age of “populism” (quotation marks intended), I thought it'd be a good time to expound on Grand Funk Railroad, a Cream-inspired power trio that broke out of Flint, Michigan in 1969.

Recipients of some of the most-brutal record reviews any band ever received, Grand Funk nevertheless became a concert ticket and record-selling behemoth, boosted by the unwavering allegiance of their fans.

But I never cottoned to them. At least not at first.

Just as the Jefferson Airplane and the Allman Brothers Band spawned dozens of uninspired jam-band clones, legions of bands attempted to replicate Cream's power trio approach, which was capable of bludgeoning even the stoutest listener into submission with sheer force.

Grand Funk could only approximate Cream's strengths, appropriating the most-obvious elements and repeating them ad infinitum. It was pretty dull listening.

But one thing stood out. That was Mark Farner's stentorian voice. And when “I'm Your Captain (Closer to Home)” somehow made it to my ears in 1970 (which was odd considering I didn't own a radio capable of pulling in an FM signal), I heard something different. Melody. Strings. Tempo changes. OMG—is that a flute???

This was not my grandfather's Grand Funk Railroad.

After more albums of mostly forgettable—but profitable—hard rock, Grand Funk had another epiphany. Towards expanding their sonic palate, they enlisted the talents of keyboardist Craig Frost.

The results were found on Phoenix.

By then immersed in the sounds of War and Sly & the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder (featured regularly on the era's demographic-free FM radio), “Rock 'N Roll Soul” appealed immediately.

A tidy little ditty lasting three minutes and forty seconds, it exposed yet another facet of the Flint, Michigan quartet. It put the funk in Grand Funk Railroad. Edgar Winter? Humble Pie? Eat your hearts out. 

(I should add that I'm an all-day sucker for a throaty Hammond B-3.)

An appearance on ABC's In Concert the following January cinched it. I was a fan.

This sweet spot continued through the We're an American Band LP, released in July of 1973. An invigorating mixture of hard rock and hard Top 40 fare, it had me thinking of Grand Funk in the same manner I did Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.

Of course, it didn't hurt than less than a year later I saw Claudia Lennear in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which brought to life the carnal delights alluded to in “Black Licorice”.

And yes, I still have the gold vinyl LP—with stickers.

Alas, it was not to last. Grand Funk made a purposeful move to embrace the hit single aesthetic. Even a fine re-make of the Soul Brothers Six's “Some Kind of Wonderful” couldn't halt the slide.

While they at last had the broad-based radio play they'd always coveted, it came at the expense of many of the core fans who had embraced them sans airplay and critical kudos.

Fortunately, Caught in the Act (a 1975 live LP), captured what had by then evolved into a very tight and very energetic live unit. It melded the old and new Grand Funk into one package that everyone could enjoy.

Citing burnout and internal tensions, the group disbanded shortly thereafter. But not before issuing the Frank Zappa-produced curiosity Good Singin' Good Playin'. Despite possessing one of the most-arch personalities on the planet, the producer claimed to be a fan.

And it doesn't get more populist than that.


Monday, January 7, 2019

How to Fall and Miss the Floor

Kickers are almost an afterthought in the NFL. And when they're not, they're practically generic. Never waste a high draft pick on one. And never, ever over-pay them. They're just not worth it.

Despite punters having punted and placekickers having placekicked for as long as linebackers have been linebacking and quarterbacks have been quarterbacking, this attitude has even permeated the game's Hall of Fame.

To date, four placekickers have been enshrined. And just one—that's one—punter.

It does not compute.

In the wake of Cody Parkey's otherworldly 2018 season, I wonder how important Bears' fans consider the position. Or even Bears' coach Matt Nagy.

Bears' GM Ryan Pace certainly embraced the kickers-are-generic ethos, releasing the Bears' best-ever placekicker prior to the 2016 season because he was set to earn about three-quarters of what Cody Parkey averages on his current contract.

He was also—gasp—thirty-four years old. Incontestable points, all.

In his three seasons since, Robbie Gould has made 82 of 85 field goal attempts (96.4%), and converted 75 of 82 extra point attempts (91.4%). Points surrendered? Sixteen.

In the same time span, Gould's four successors have hit on just 57 of their 75 field goal attempts (76.0%) while converting 99 of 105 extra points (94.2%). Forfeited points? Sixty.

Since being dismissed for being too old and too expensive, Gould is a combined 157 for 167, a success rate of 94.0%.

His replacements? 156 for 180, a success rate of 86.6%.

If that weren't bad enough, know that Gould has erred on as many kicks in the past three seasons as Cody Parkey did in 2018.

Ryan Pace is young. He is learning on the job. And his capricious release of Gould smacks of arrogance and ignorance. Of far-reaching decisions based on insufficient evidence.

Next year is not guaranteed. Nor is the year after that. The Bears had the playoffs in hand this season, and surrendered them in a fashion worthy of horrormeisters Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King.

Khalil Mack will always be a feather in Pace's cap. Just as the premature release of Gould will always be a thorn in his side.

GMs are important. So are placekickers.

It is a lesson I hope Mr. Pace is soon to embrace.


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Oh My God! I'm the Fake News Media!

I recently posted a lovingly written piece on the Dallas Cowboys, with commentary on their post-1995 playoff failures.

I managed to overlook two wild-card victories (one following the 2009 season, the other following the 2014 campaign) which, needless to say, negated the twenty-two year gap without a post-season victory I made a centerpiece of that post.

With records of 11-5 and 12-4 respectively, I never imagined either team would've been relegated to wild card status, and mistakenly assumed their divisional losses were their only post-season appearances.

And you know what they say about 'assumed'.

The Square Peg deeply regrets the error.

Of course, the Cowboys pulled out a spectacular victory tonight over a very talented Seattle team.

Yay. 

Anyone for an Even Ten?

The football team upon whose wins and losses I once lived and died is again in the playoffs. But in the midst of a nine-game post-season losing streak dating back twenty-two years, excitement is muted. Expectations sit at a table marked 'reserved'.

Once upon a time, such a thing was unthinkable. In the days of Tom Landry and Gil Brandt and Tex Schramm, the Dallas Cowboys were damn near invincible. A perennial power beginning in the mid-sixties and stretching all the way to the mid-eighties, they sustained their success with only an occasional first-round draft pick.

When they had one, they drafted unerringly: LB Lee Roy Jordan in 1963. G John Niland in 1966. DE Ed “Too Tall” Jones in 1974. DT Randy White in 1975 and RB Tony Dorsett in 1977.

But the bulk of their rosters were built with late-round picks and walk-ons. Like 1965 eleventh-round DT Jethro Pugh. And 1965 Baltimore Colt castoff OT Ralph Neely. 1967 seventh-round OT Rayfield Wright. Or the 1973 signing of the undrafted NFL 1970s All-Decade Team's wide receiver, Drew Pearson.

The 1968 draft was especially fruitful, yielding fifth-round OT Blaine Nye, sixth-round LB D.D. Lewis and sixteenth-round DE Larry Cole. And 1975 was even better, refueling the already-powerful Cowboys with deep-round gems like G Herbert Scott, LB Mike Hegman, OT Pat Donovan and LB Bob Breunig.

All were long-term starters who played with distinction. Many were named to Pro-Bowl and All-Pro squads. Some made it to the Hall of Fame.

The list goes on.

There's 1964 tenth-round QB Roger Staubach, who scared off many teams because of his Navy commitment. Come to think of it, perhaps those clubs knew more than the Cowboys. Because six Pro-Bowls, an NFL MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, two world championships, four Super Bowl appearances and enshrinement in the Football Hall of Fame is abundantly disturbing.

There's seventh-round pick Bob Hayes, who after gaining fame as a sprinter in the 1964 Olympics was chosen by the Cowboys in a decision that revolutionized the position of wide receiver.

Third-round SS Charlie Waters, who was selected to three Pro-Bowls. Third-round DE Harvey Martin, named to four Pro-Bowls. Fourth-round C John Fitzgerald. And finally, six-time Pro-Bowler slash walk-on FS Cliff Harris.

It was a remarkable time. No NFL team won more games over the course of the decade than the nineteen-seventies Dallas Cowboys. No team went to more Super Bowls. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers won more.

Inevitably, what goes up must come down. By the close of the seventies, many of the stalwarts cited above had begun to retire. Some were traded. Some sustained career-ending injuries. Equally-talented replacements weren't always found.

Even the masters of evaluation, Gil Brandt and Tex Shramm, began missing. But the biggest loss was the 1979 retirement of quarterback Roger Staubach.

An older-than-normal rookie owing to his Navy obligation, he was 27 when he debuted with the Cowboys in 1969. He was 29 when he secured the starting QB position over Craig Morton in 1971. As a full-time starter in just eight of his eleven seasons, Staubach made them count.

His discipline and conservative lifestyle were frequently at odds with his teammate's free-wheeling ways, but on Sundays Staubach had an uncanny knack for corralling them and leading all concerned to victory.

However talented he was, Staubach's successor—Danny White—never seemed capable of exerting the same kind of leadership. On momentum alone, the Cowboys visited the next three conference championship games but lost in successive years to Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington.

The Cowboys continued to win, but never got close to another Super Bowl.

There was a brief and highly-celebrated resurgence in the early-nineties, when it looked as if new owner and GM Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson might re-create the glory days. But their dueling egos made this impossible, and Johnson resigned after the 1994 season.

With a talented core still intact (and still undiminished by injury and substance abuse problems), the Cowboys won another Super Bowl in 1995, making it three championships in four years.

But Jones' increasing involvement in the day-to-day operations of the team was a source of friction with a succession of coaches, even as Jones devoted more and more time to making the Cowboys a financial juggernaut. The grinding minutia of talent evaluation was pushed to the back seat.

With a few notable exceptions, the Cowboys' draft picks suffered accordingly.

Since their last post-season victory in 1997, the Cowboys have ebbed and flowed. A good season here and there followed by repeated lapses into irrelevance. None of Tom Landry's seven successors have eclipsed his achievements, just as Jones hasn't made anyone forget Gil Brandt and Tex Schramm.

For every Brock Marion or Tony Tolbert there were three Shante Carvers or Ebenezer Ekubans or Bobby Carpenters. And however remarkable Tony Romo's story was, he was closer to Don Meredith and Danny White than Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman.

While Meredith's teams were derided as the team that “Couldn't win the big one”, Romo struggled even to win the small ones.

I suppose it was only natural that the Cowboys would return to earth. Inhabit again the land of mortals after twenty consecutive winning seasons and rosters stuffed with Hall of Famers and Pro-Bowlers.

All these years later, I'm left to wish the franchise wallowing in a team-record championship drought and mired in a nine-game post-season losing streak had an owner as adept at enriching his team as he was at having his team enrich him.