Monday, March 16, 2015

Escape on the Lake

Quiet and gray, crispness in the air

Clouds and surface combine in one

Snowflakes fall heavily into dark water

Pulling on the oar, my breath freezes

The shore recedes, gray water surrounds

Mountains rise above our cabin set on a hill

Snow attaches slowly on evergreen needles

Ripples run outward from the silver canoe

Horses in the pasture stamp feet

Field lays fallow, yellow stubble wetted

Fowl paddle by as all shapes fade away

Isolation embraces and nature encircles

Lying back, staring up; sky is falling

Thick, wet crystals land gently on bare skin

Solitude is my blanket; silence my music

Weight and worry slide off, melting away

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Memories of the Duchesne County Fair

Who remembers watching the horses come off the side of the mountain as they would sit back on their haunches and slide down?  Usually their rider would be out in front holding onto the reins, running and sliding just in front of the horse.  Eventually they would reach the bottom and drop out of sight momentarily…then in a mad rush horse and rider would come galloping through the river and into the rodeo arena.  As a young boy I knew of a few people who rode in the Crazy Horse Race year in and year out.  It seems most of the riders were younger guys who didn’t know better yet, but there were a few experienced riders that continued to race.

At the end of every summer I looked forward to the Duchesne County Fair.  Shortly after my family moved to Duchesne my dad was put to work fixing the old wood rodeo stands, repairing seats, gates, and fences.  I loved to spend time with him as he put up new lumber and painted it as the fair approached.  My dad, Reed Van Wagoner, would go on to serve on the Fair Board for several years and as Chairman for some of that time.  His service on the Fair Board and his work as a deputy sheriff allowed me to spend a significant amount of my time around the fair as it was set up, executed, and closed up.  I remember when the Blue Fair Building was brand new.

For a year or two I had plans to be a bareback rider in the Little Buckaroos rodeo.  I never made it, but one year, with a brand new set of school clothes on my body, I won the greased pig contest.  Both my dad and I got in trouble when I got home that night, but I did win a bag of Jolly Ranchers.

My dad was on the Fair Board the year the old rodeo arena was replaced.  I think he was Chairman of the Fair Board that year.  It was fun to go down every day or two to check on the progress, to watch the new chutes and announcer stands put together and to watch the huge light poles go up.  

That year Charly McClain put on a concert at the fair.  Sitting up front with my parents and family friends was a cool treat.  At one point in the concert Charly McClain asked for a ten year old boy to come up to the stage.  I happened to be 10 that year, the summer before I started sixth grade.  My dad shoved me a little and told me to get up there, but I hesitated, not sure if I wanted the attention and uncertain what would happen.  Suddenly one of my dad’s friends sort of grabbed me and threw me out in front of the stage.  Pretty soon one of the stage hands had me by the shoulder leading me up on stage where the beautiful Charly McClain took me by the hand.  I was thrilled and terrified at the same time.

She told the crowd that she was going to dedicate the next song to me.  Before she started she leaned over and whispered in my ear.  In the days and weeks afterward several people asked what she whispered to me.  I told most of them it was a secret.  But, here is what she said to that ten year old:

“The music is going to be really loud.  Don’t let it scare you.  Just smile and squeeze my hand.”

As they started the song I recognized it from the radio.  My mom always listened to KNEU 1250 AM at the house and car and I had heard this song more than once.  She started to sing the song “Men”.  Here are the lyrics and a link to the video.  Looking back, it may have been a little grown up for a ten year old, but I just kept thinking that a beautiful woman is holding my hand in front of my family, all of my friends, and everyone in my hometown.

Some men treat you just like a lady
Others treat you just like a child
And they can drive you so far away
Or they can drive you wild

Some you wanna show to your mama
And some you wouldn’t show to your dad
Some wanna take you straight to the altar
And some just wanna take you to bed

Women, I’m here to tell you about ‘em
Men, we couldn’t make it without ‘em
I’ve loved a few and I’ve a few that need a friend
There’s nothin’ better than men to hold
There’s nothin’ better than men

Some men are as cold as December
Some are ‘bout as hot as July
Sometimes they fill your life with happiness
Sometimes they make you cry

Women, I’m here to tell you about ‘em
Men, we couldn’t make without ‘em
I’ve loved a few and I’ve found a few that need a friend
There’s nothin’ better than men to hold
There’s nothin’ better than men

As she finished singing the song she turned to me and leaned over to give me a kiss.  In shock I turned my face away…I think I remember hearing a few gasps in the crowd.  Then, I came to my senses and turned back.  She kissed me on the cheek leaving a beautiful mark from her dark red lipstick.  The crowd roared and my knees felt weak. 

As I left the stage, I was given an autographed picture and a Charly McClain hat.  I took that hat to school every day for the first month of school.  I remember when Mr. Lowell Caldwell, our principal, came to my desk.  He saw the hat and asked: “What was better? The hat or the kiss?”  It wasn’t even close between the two.  (I was jealous later when I found out that my mother had lunch with Charly McClain and her husband Wayne Massey at the El Cid.)

Other concerts followed through the years—Pam Tillis, Earl Thomas Connelly (who was very drunk during his concert), and others, but none were as good as the Charly McClain concert.

I loved watching the rodeos from the announcer’s stand where I could watch the cowboys with their gear preparing to ride the rough stock.  I loved watching the demolition derbies and the horse pulls.  I loved listening to the corny clown jokes.  I loved walking through the displays in the Blue Fair Building.

Two summers ago I took my family back into town and we spent some time at the fair and the rodeo.  My kids loved the parade down Main Street, even with the rain.  They loved the food from the vendors outside the rodeo grounds.  Growing up my mom always warned me not to buy food from a certain food vendor.  As we asked one of my friends for a recommendation she shared several, and then, more than 20 years later, she gave me the same advice regarding the same food vendor—“Don’t buy food from there.”

As I’ve lived all over the United States and traveled abroad, I’ve come to realize how truly special it was to grow up in a place like Duchesne.  The Duchesne County Fair was and is an amazing opportunity for family, friends, and neighbors to come together every year and celebrate the community and way of life.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

When Fear Replaces Faith, Cowards Act: Terrorism in France

There are no justifications for the terrorist act that took place in Paris this week.  The cowardly and coldblooded murder of 12 individuals is a sign of weakness of those who committed the act.  I am no fan of satire directed at religion, except perhaps in those cases where religion crosses the line into international and domestic politics.  Radical, and other forms of Islam, cross the line into politics which invites the commentary of the world at large.  Some of the commentary, especially with such a diverse pool of believers, is going to be painful to many.    

While I may not agree with some of what was published by Charlie Hebdo, I do believe in their freedom of expression.  Our French compatriots know that free expression can and does make for a stronger and freer society.

Often satire can feel painful to those who are the targets, especially when sacred things are ridiculed or made light.  As a practicing Mormon, I’m familiar with the feelings generated by occasional public or personal ridicule for my religious beliefs and practices.  Words, however, are truly dangerous only when they present a threat.  While I do not know of the actual motivations driving the cowards who murdered 12 individuals, I will venture a guess.  I suppose that they felt their faith, either personal or that of the wider world of Islam, was threatened.  Perhaps they felt that the cartoons in the magazine threatened to destroy their personal beliefs.  Or perhaps they felt that it threatened to destroy the beliefs of their family, friends, and personal believers.  Either way, it seems to me that these terrorists, and any and every person who cheers or supports what they did in any way or measure, sees the foundation of Islam as a delicate structure, one that could be pulled down or damaged by the work of some French writers and cartoonists.  It seems in a moment of their own crisis of faith they sought to punish others. 

How sad this reality must be for those terrorists and their supporters?  Faith cannot be strengthened by meaningless acts of violence.  Anytime faith rests upon the need to commit violence against those with opposing ideas, it is no faith at all but only fear.  The words of non-believers, no matter how harmful, should not be a cause for violence.  If words of criticism are accurate, make positive changes.  If words of criticism are inaccurate, seek to correct them.  If you can’t correct inaccuracies or vulgarities, ignore them and live by faith.

Peaceful followers of Islam should condemn the violence of these terrorists in no uncertain terms.  Condemnation of these terrorists does not equate to approval of the work of Charlie Hebdo.  Condemnation of these terrorists equates to recognition of the value of life and freedom.  Condemnation of these terrorists equates to a faith that is strong and firm.  Then peaceful followers of Islam, if they so desire, should defend their faith through words and kind deeds.

My heart bleeds for the freedom loving people of France.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Stage Left to Stage Right: A Tale of Fun at DHS

This is a short recollection of an event from my 7th grade year at Duchesne High School.  It's mostly accurate, I think.

“Did you get it?” I asked impatiently while trying to keep a look out for our teacher. 

We had less than a minute before she would come back to find us.  Quickly I glanced back at my two friends, JS and MW.  They were attempting to unlock the bar on the exterior door to the high school auditorium so we could sneak back in later during our lunch break.

“Got it,” JS said, closing the door quietly.

Turning we ran back down the aisles between the seats and upon to the stage just as our teacher stepped out from the dressing rooms.

“Come on you guys.  Quit playing around.”

As I followed her I looked back at the long rope hanging from the rafters at center stage.  One more class period until lunch, then we would be back.  The rope held so much potential.

We wolfed down our lunches over at the elementary school and then hustled back up the sidewalk to the side door of the auditorium.  With a quick look around, we ducked through the door, locking it behind us.  The large room was dark and eerily silent.  Carefully we made our way up onto the stage.  Feeling around we found the light switches, bathing the stage in bright lights for our pending adventure.

MW grabbed the end of the rope.  It was thick, maybe three inches with a large knot tied at the bottom.  Rope in hand we climbed up the ladder at stage left, to the small platform about 20 feet up on the wall.  The platform was small, crowded with old, abandoned stage props from productions past.  There was barely enough room for the three of us. 

The length of the stage lay before us.  We were ready to experience it at high speed.  I was anxious for my turn.  Since MW pulled the rope up we decided to let him go first.  Holding tightly to the rope, he carefully climbed over the railing of the platform.  With a deep breath and a scream, he jumped.

He flew across the stage with a full-throated yell.  As he reached the apex of his swing at stage right, the backstage door from the hallway opened.  In walked Principal JD and another teacher.  They looked up to see MW fall from the sky right in front of them and then streak away toward the other end of the stage.

Quickly JS and I ducked behind the props on the platform, hoping to remain unseen.  MW gave one brief look at us as he came back up toward the platform; his eyes were a cross between terror and amusement. 

Passing back out over center stage, MW offered a weak greeting to our esteemed principal.

“Hey, JD.  What are you doing in the auditorium?”

The initial look of shock was receding slowly from the principal’s face as he began to realize what he was seeing.  Unfortunately the teacher with him remained confused for at least a few more swings.

“Well, hello MW!  What are you up to?”

“Not much.  Just going for a swing.”

“Really?  Just a swing?  All by yourself?”

JD looked around, expecting to find some co-conspirators.  MW was a very social person, not likely to be engaged in any mischief alone.

Coming back by again, MW answered: “Yes, I’m alone.  Couldn’t get anyone to come over with me.”

I felt JS shaking next to me, trying to keep his breathing quiet.  Neither of us wanted to get caught, even for something so trivial.  Luckily for us MW was an expert at being in trouble.  I hoped he could keep us safe, the same way he had when we built the clubhouse off campus in elementary school. 

As his kinetic energy began to zero out, MW dragged a leg across the floor to bring him to a full stop. 

JD remained unconvinced that MW was swinging by himself on the stage during the lunch period.  MW was never alone.

“Come on, you’re really in here swinging all by yourself?”

He was squinting his eyes looking around the stage and into the darkness of the empty auditorium seating. 

“Yeah, I like to come here to swing by myself sometimes.  You know, just to clear my head.”

JS forced out another controlled breathe next to me.  I realized I was doing the same thing.

MW compliantly walked over to JD.

“So, I guess we’re going to your office to talk for awhile?”

“Yes.  I guess this is worth a chat.”

As they walked away, MW looked straight ahead, giving no indication of our hiding place.  JD stopped at the door and turned to look around one more time.  As he walked out, he turned the lights out plunging the stage and auditorium into a deep darkness. 

JS and I stayed in place for a few more minutes just in case JD tried to slip back in to catch us coming out of hiding.  Climbing down from the platform was a bit iffy in near pitch-black darkness.  With a few bangs and a slip or two we made it safely back to the stage and made our way quickly to the exterior door.  We slipped into the bright sunlight and walked away safely.

It turns out that MW had to sit through a half serious lecture for about twenty minutes in JD’s office.  He talked about the importance of rules and being safe.  He asked him a few more times about swinging alone on the stage.  He never gave us away.

Looking back on the events of that day, I still think about that rope.  Part of me wishes I had carried the rope up and taken the first and only swing.  Flying across that stage with a dark auditorium to one side would have been amazing.  Looking down to see JD and the other teacher standing there would have added to the thrill. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Swing Shift: Race, Body Cameras, and Safety in Law Enforcement

For the third time he watched the video with his captain, trying to explain what had happened.  It was simple domestic dispute.  Now his partner was dead and he was sitting in a hospital bed.  The day had started out so differently for everyone.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he leaned over to tie his shoes.  His shift started in thirty minutes, just enough time to finish suiting up and make it to the precinct.  It was his second day back on swings.  The transition from graveyard to swing was the toughest for him, throwing his sleep pattern into disarray.  Also, for the next four weeks he wouldn’t see much of his children except for in the mornings.  He made himself wake up early enough to eat breakfast with them and see them off to school, and then he tried to get a couple of more hours of sleep.  Usually he wasn’t successful.

With shoes on he walked quickly down the stairs to retrieve his gun belt from the top of the refrigerator.  Along the way he paused, as he did before every shift, to look at the pictures of his family on the wall.  The picture in the center showed a happy family, posed together in matching clothing with a scenic backdrop from a nearby park behind them--mother, father and four young children.  Individual pictures of the children surrounded the larger family picture.  He and his wife had been married for eight years.  The children had come quickly, welcomed into a cheerful and loving home.  Well the home was as cheerful as you can expect with four young children keeping mother busy while father was transitioning between shifts every four weeks or so.

Tonight had the potential to be special.  His oldest daughter, Maddie, had a dance recital in an area of town that fell into his assigned patrol area.  His partner had suggested that they stop by the recital to watch.  Maddie loved to show off her daddy in uniform.  If the calls fell right, they should be able to see her dance and stay around for punch and cookies after the recital.  His wife was excited for a little extra help wrangling the two-year old Jeb.  Jeb, who hated to hold still for almost anything, was enthralled by his dad’s uniform with the various pins, patches, and accouterments.  The twins, who had followed just a year after Maddie, were now six years old.  Both Adam and Allison were surprisingly well behaved for their age, perhaps to make up for all the hard work they created for their mother during their first three years.

Looking in the mirror he adjusted his gun belt one more time, trying to shift the bulletproof vest to make it more comfortable.  Luckily the autumn weather was cool, making the vest more bearable.  Turning to the door he remembered one more thing, the newly issued body camera.  He and a few dozen other officers had received the cameras just a week ago as part of a pilot program.  Reaching back up on the fridge he pulled down the camera and strapped it to his chest.  With the heavy vest, he hardly noticed the small, light camera.

His wife was out running errands before picking up the kids from school.  With a last glance at the pictures he left the house.

Two and a half hours into an uneventful shift he was feeling hopeful that they would make it to the recital.  So far they had responded to a disturbing the peace call that was called in by an old man who hated disliked the young teenagers next door.  With the music turned down calm was restored, at least for now.  During a short foot patrol through one of the parks they had managed to nod their heads to several joggers and they gave one person directions to an elusive street address.  With just under an hour until the start of the recital, things were looking good.

Unfortunately, trouble waits for nobody, especially for police officers.

“Unit 342, Control.”

“Control, this is Unit 342.”

“342 we have a report of a 10-16 in progress at apartment 112 in the Greenbriar Complex.  Other units are 10-6.  Are you able to respond?”

He looked at his partner, feeling his daughter’s recital start to slip away. 

“Well, Daniels, doesn’t look like we’ll make it to the recital.”

“Don’t despair yet, Hansen.  Watch us work a quick miracle.”

He keyed the mike and responded:

“10-4, show us en route.  What other details do you have?”

“Caller states that her husband and son are arguing loudly.  They’re starting to push and shove with a few punches thrown.  She is unable to get either of them to leave.”

“Copy.  Are we aware of any guns in the home?”

“Caller indicates that she is not aware of any firearms in the home.  The son does have some priors for assault and petty theft.”

When they arrived, the fight had escalated and moved to the front yard.  Several neighbors were out watching as the police cruiser parked along the curb.  Both officers quickly exited their vehicle and headed in the direction of the altercation, ignoring a few of the taunts and jeers from a few of the neighbors who weren’t fans of law enforcement.  Father and son were mostly yelling, though both had blood on their faces. 

“Break it up!  Break it up now!” Hansen yelled.  For a second anger and sadness welled up inside of him as he thought of his daughter looking around the room for her daddy knowing that she would be disappointed again.

Both men were large and physically dominating.  Neither even acknowledged the presence of the officers.  Neighbors and others began to shout encouragement to the combatants and jeers toward the officers.

“Control, 342.  We’re going to need back up as soon as you can send it.”

Hansen glanced nervously at the growing crowd of neighbors.  What he saw made him nervous for two reasons?  First, there were several young children who didn’t need to be exposed to this violence.  Second, he and Daniels were two white officers in an economically challenged African American neighborhood with a high crime rate.  They were unlikely to get any help from the neighbors and may even get the opposite. 

A woman, who must have been the caller, began to scream at the officers, “Stop him!  Stop him before he beats my husband to death.  What are you waiting for?”

Suddenly he felt the weight of the body camera on his chest.  It was now clear that he and Daniels were going to have to use force to break up the fight.  Everything they did would be recorded and potentially dissected by the police department, the media, lawyers, and maybe even a jury.  His training told him what he needed to do in terms of use of force.  When he was issued the camera he was told to stick to that training.  For his own safety, the safety of his partner, and for the safety of the community, he knew he needed to forget that the body camera was recording what was happening.

But he couldn’t so easily forget.  Here he was with two large men trying to beat each other senseless surrounded by a group of people that seemed to hate him and his partner.  If this goes down badly, the video will become the focus of a public trial by the media, in social media, and by the police department.  The need to stop the violent actions of these two men in this moment was not dictated by race.  It was their sworn duty to enforce the law regardless of race.  If things were to get out of hand, however, the fallout would be driven by race and the perception of racial injustice.  Perhaps institutional racism, inequities in the past and future had led these two men to their current actions.  Even if that were the case, how should it impact the actions of two law enforcement officers trying to enforce the law?  To use force will be seen as an exhibit of racism.  To ignore the need to enforce the law in a black neighborhood will result in charges of racism as well.  What could they do but their duty? 

Hansen had been in such situations several times over the past six years.  In an effort to prepare him, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours had been spent to teach him how to reduce the tension verbally without the use of force.  In this circumstance, however, he recognized that events had moved beyond their ability to restore order with words only.  Force would have to be applied to one or both parties.  The goal would be to avoid escalating the use of force beyond what was necessary to restore order, protect those involved, and to protect his life and Daniels’ life. 

He and Daniels would follow their training, but he would make sure they were extra deliberate about their decisions and vigilant about appropriate use of force.  Hansen wanted to go home to his wife and children and he wanted to go home without the fear of any unfair retribution for doing his job.  And, he wanted to get Daniels home safely.

Carefully both officers moved forward, hands on their holstered weapons.  Hansen’s thoughts kept returning to how the video would play out after the altercation.  Would he be able to justify what would be on the video?

“Hansen.  Hansen, tell me again, why did you hesitate here?” asked the captain pausing the video.

Sitting in his hospital bed, he could hear two other officers speaking in the hallway.

“Daniels’ wife didn’t take the news well.  The baby is only eight months old.  Won’t even remember his father.”

Monday, November 24, 2014

Crimea's Russian Destiny

Tonight I’m going to take a controversial stance on the issue of the Crimea.  Without condoning the methods employed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the annexation, it is my opinion that, when all is said and done, Crimea should belong to Russia, at least more than it should belong to Ukraine.  History, demographics, and public opinion fall heavily on Russia’s side of the ledger on this issue.

The history of Crimea, as with any geographic area that has hosted civilizations, is complex.  Tribes and nations have come and gone, leaving in their wake no certainty regarding ownership of the land.  How do we track right to a land that has been populated by the Cimmerians, the Scythians, the Greeks, the Golden Horde, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Russians?  The Cimmerians and Scythians would be difficult to locate today.  Ancient Greek colonies along the Black Sea coast of Crimea no longer exist; abandoned ruins are all that remain in places like Chersonesus and Feodosiya.  The Greeks obviously have no viable play left for the Crimean peninsula.  Crimean Tatars put in place the Khanate, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, followed the Golden Horde. 

Under Catharine the Great, the Russian Empire wrested control of the peninsula away from the Khanate and the Ottoman Empire in 1783.  In the 19th century, the Russian Empire sought to gain additional territory as the Ottoman Empire began to climb.  Using the rights of Christians in the Holy Land as a reason, Russia went to war in Crimea against an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia.  It was a shock that the Christian nations of the West sided with the Muslim authority, giving rise to the idea that Russia was the defender of Christianity and civilization.  In open conflict with the West, Russian blood was spilled on Crimean soil, tying the land tightly to Russia.

From 1783 to 1954, Crimea was part of Russia.  Today there wouldn’t be any question about ownership of the Crimea if it weren’t for Nikita Khrushchev.  For a variety of reasons, Khrushchev basically gifted Crimea to Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.  It seems certain, that at the time, the gift seemed largely symbolic due to the expected longevity of the Soviet Union.  Nobody expected it to become a geographic pawn between the Russian and Ukrainian nations.

Demographics in Crimea make Russia’s case of territorial possession stronger.  As of the 2001 census, Russians make up 60.4% of the population.  Only 24% of the population is ethnic Ukrainians.  Russians have outnumbered Ukrainians since Russia gained control of the territory.  In terms of national and ethnic identity, Crimea is not Ukrainian--it's more Russian.

The only other argument for territorial control that is viable today belongs to the Crimean Tatars.  After World War II, the Crimean Tatars were deported from the peninsula forcibly and allowed to return en masse only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Today they make up more than 10% of the population in Crimea.  While the Tatars could mount a convincing argument for political control of the peninsula, their current numbers and the power of the Russian state make that highly improbable.

Public Opinion
In 2008 I was in Ukraine on a business trip for the US Air Force Academy.  As part of the trip we spent some time in Yalta and other parts of the Crimea.  One evening a few others and I went to dinner at a Georgian restaurant in Yalta.  This was just after the Russian invasion of Georgia.  Neither Georgians nor Americans were popular at the time.  As we sat in the restaurant, we could hear loud cheering and chanting at a nearby public arena.  Our hostess seemed very nervous at our presence and partway through dinner asked if we were Americans.  When we answered in the affirmative, she almost started to cry.  I asked here about the noise and what was wrong.  She informed us that there was a large pro-Russian/anti-American gathering taking place at the nearby arena.  She begged us to eat quickly, leave quietly, and to lie about being American.

The meal was delicious as Georgian food usually is.  Unfortunately, our departure coincided with the end of the rally.  Walking back to our hotel, we put our heads down to try to avoid any attention.  In the middle of the boardwalk a group of young Russian men stopped us, grabbing one of my associates by the arm.

“Who are you?  Where are you from?  Are you Americans?”

An entire group of about 15-20 men stopped around us, waiting to hear our answer.

Looking up, I smiled at them, and with poor pronunciation I said, “No, we’re from Canada!”

The mood immediately lightened and several of them clapped us on the back.

“We love Canadians!  Welcome to Crimea!  We hate the Americans.”

“And we hate the Ukrainians,” yelled another one to the cheers of his fellows.

Over a period of three years I traveled to Crimea on four separate occasions.  There was an overwhelming sense of belonging to and support for Russia.  Russian national flags flew from dozens of buildings in Sevastopol alongside the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

One poll in 2008 indicated that over 60% of the population in Crimea was open to the idea of seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.  The same poll revealed that a significant portion was willing to stay with Ukraine if given greater political autonomy. 

The fall of the Yanukovych and the rise of Russian attention on Ukraine lead to a popular uprising of support in Crimea to join with Russia.  Calls for a referendum on annexation arose almost at once.  Polling prior to the referendum, by local and third party sources, again indicated overwhelming support to leave Ukraine and join Russia.  The credibility of the actual referendum is questionable because of the percentage voting in favor of annexation—over 96%.  Such results indicate that results were manipulated to some degree or another.  Even without the manipulation, it is likely that the vote would have shown overwhelming support for annexation to Russia.

Among all of the issues impacting the question of territorial control of Crimea, the only one that is not on the side of Russia is the legality of the annexation.  The referendum and seizure of Crimea was not done in accordance with international law and norms.  Without the assistance of a legal expert, I’m limited in my ability to hit all of the relevant issues.  I would venture to guess, however, that Russia would not recognize a similar vote for independence in a place like Chechnya or Dagestan.  The annexation of Crimea flies directly in the face of Russia’s claims of control over its own territories populated by non-Russians.

The legality of the annexation is made more questionable by Russia’s role, perceived or real, in aiding and abetting separatists in eastern Ukraine.  

Ukraine's Need for Crimea
Crimea is important to Ukraine for two primary reasons.  First, it provides a strategic location for the basing of naval forces in the Black Sea.  It provides a method for Ukraine to protect the rest of its Black Sea coast and establishes a degree of legitimacy in terms of military projection.  Second, and more importantly, the annexation of Crimea by Russia represents a direct threat to Ukrainian statehood.  If Russia can seize Crimea from a sovereign state, using historical arguments of national ties and based on a referendum that was conducted illegally and outside of accepted international norms, then Ukrainian statehood is under a real and direct threat of extinction.  

The annexation of Crimea is Russia's gate on the path to seizing greater swaths of Ukraine if they so desire, starting with east Ukraine where they can (and are) fomenting separatist movements with political and military support.  Further if the Russian government and military can weaken the Ukrainian government sufficiently and cause enough violence and instability, then President Putin may well use it to justify sending in forces in order to protect Russia from the expanding chaos.  Essentially, President Putin will pull regurgitate bastardized versions of NATO arguments for bombing Serbia and for the US invasion of Iraq.

With all of the factors weighed, Russia has much stronger ties and stronger claim to Crimea than does Ukraine.  Unfortunately, Russia used a political crisis in Kiev to gain control using illegal and questionable methods.  With greater patience and willingness to play by the rules, Russia could have regained control of Crimea legally.  Instead Russia showed the world that the rules only apply when they want them to apply.  It’s interesting this is a charge that Vladimir Putin often throws at the United States.  Russia’s actions and methods in gaining Crimea, and its continued effort to sow chaos in Ukraine, heighten concerns throughout Europe about further territorial aspirations.  Crimea has become the poisoned fruit that increase distrust and uncertainty in Russia’s international relations.

Russia's seizure of Crimea also highlights the weakness and lack of preparedness of the West.  NATO and the EU failed to foresee Russian reactions to events in Ukraine.  They failed to react in any meaningful and timely way.  The result is an emboldened Russia.

See additional posts regarding Russia and Ukraine:

Thoughts on Ferguson

There is a definite racial imbalance in this country. Most of us who don't have overt racial biases or tendencies, especially those of us who are white, don't notice it as much as those who are in the minority. Unfortunately, there is often a negative interaction between some minorities and law enforcement. In the vast majority of these cases, race isn't driving the issue, but poor decisions by people. Race, too often, is claimed as the cause. Usually these interactions occur in economically disadvantage areas that are overwhelmingly African American. The economic conditions of these minorities in many cases are the result of the past's institutionalized racism. Find a way to invigorate these communities economically and crime will drop. If we can drop crime, these types of interactions will decrease. 

Riots in Ferguson are not merely a sideshow cause by a few nut jobs. It's much larger than that. This involves thousands of people taking advantage of the situation in order to steal and commit further violent acts. There are individuals and groups that gain from fanning the racial flames beyond what is necessary or helpful. Going after a cop and an institution before getting the facts of what happened doesn't help a bad situation. When the truth came out about what happened, it merely made people angrier when things didn't turn out the way they demanded. They made a terrible situation much worse. Instead of heightening the awareness of racial problems among other parts of society, they instead have drowned out the voices of those with reasonable concerns. There is a massive gap in the methods and purposes of today's protesters as compared to those in the days of Martin Luther King, Jr.

If these same "concerned" citizens focused on the issues that are having a widespread and devastating impact on the black community, then the rest of the world would take them more seriously.

Institutional racism exists today, but it is largely the result of what happened in the past. Fixing economic imbalance isn't an easy thing. Both parties have failed at it. Many would argue that Johnson's War on Poverty did as much to maintain and exacerbate the imbalance as anything that Reagan attempted. But, it's important to understand that neither of these presidents implemented policies with the intent to disadvantage the minorities. Simply, it's a complex problem with no easy fixes.

Somehow poverty rates among minorities have worsened under President Obama and a Democrat controlled Congress. Should we assume that he is racist? Absolutely not. Rather we should realize that the problem is beyond his scope of abilities and understanding, just as it has been for so many other presidents. Large government programs, tough new laws, or billions of dollars won’t fix this problem. It can only be fixed in individual homes.

Here's my biggest problem with the terrible death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the terrible death of Trayvon Martin in Florida--two young men died who shouldn't have and those deaths brought down the condemnation of millions of people in this country, people with good and some with bad intentions. But, when young black men are killing other young black men nearly indiscriminately in places like Chicago, those same voices are largely silent. That is where we see the true cost of institutionalized racism, not in these handfuls of sensationalized cases where the media and people on both sides of the racial equation distort the truth. What are Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, President Obama, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Mitch McConnell and others doing to stop the type of violence that is killing hundreds and thousands of young black people? Instead, everyone goes crazy when an isolated incident occurs. We pat ourselves on the back and convince others and ourselves that these are the real issues and that by tackling these issues we're going to impact the problem. We're not; we're making the problem worse.

At the same time we can't dismiss the reaction of protesters.  For some this simply is a reason to run rampant, be violent, and steal a few items they may want.  For many they are reacting to a situation that symbolizes the oppressive reality of their economic condition and their interaction with authority.  People, at all levels of society, must use this unfortunate event and the needless fallout, as an impetus for meaningful dialogue.  This issue is a behemoth, something that will not be fixed quickly or easily.  

Addendum - The Day After
 As I was driving home from work last night, I was listening to local talk radio as the nation waited for the results of the grand jury decision.  One of the callers hit the nail on the head with his description of what is happening at the street level, where law enforcement and minorities interact.  The caller described himself as a large, black man.  He said he weighs around 260 lbs and has several tattoos.  Each time he's been pulled over he can sense the nervousness of the officer making the stop.  As he said, here is an officer who deals with terrible things and terrible people every day.  Unfortunately, too many of those criminals happen to be young African American males.  The caller expressed his understanding of the source of the officers nervousness.  Society's economic and criminal realities are what they are--that officer on the street is not responsible for making them what they are and in most cases doesn't want the interaction to be about race, but about protecting and serving the public by enforcing laws fairly.  

The caller wasn't trying to justify this type of interaction at a societal level, but at an individual level.  Neither that caller nor the officers that pulled him over created the current situation.  They are dealing with an unfortunate reality that sometimes negatively impacts good and honest people.  The caller went on to explain how he acts in situations where he has interacted with police officers.  First, he recognizes that they deal with terrible people and terrible things on a daily basis.  Second, he does his best to show respect to the officer for two reasons--one good and one bad in my opinion, but both make sense.  He respects the officer and the job he is doing and he wants the officer to respect him as a person.  He also shows respect out of fear because he, the caller, doesn't want to be a victim of an escalating situation.

Our citizens and our law enforcement agencies can do a much better job of communicating and interacting.  Citizens of all social backgrounds need to feel ownership for the legal system.  They need to know that their voices will be heard on issues important to them.  By bringing those on the fringes of the system in to participate, law enforcement will gain greater support which is invaluable when terrible tragedies occur.

Many of those who feel disenfranchised in our country don't realize it, but we do have one of the best legal systems in the world.  It's not perfect, but it works better than almost anything else being used.  It works better when everyone understands it, supports it, and is engaged with it.  The reaction to Ferguson shouldn't be to further marginalize either side.  Instead we should find a way to have a deeper, more meaningful dialogue.