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NY Times article: Armed “militias” are not legally protected

This article was published on the NY Times website by a former acting assistant attorney general for national security at the U.S. Department of Justice

In the swirls of disinformation that now pollute our political discourse, one is particularly dangerous: that private militias are constitutionally protected.

Although these vigilante groups often cite the Second Amendment’s “well regulated militia” for their authority, history and Supreme Court precedent make clear that the phrase was not intended to — and does not — authorize private militias outside of government control.

Indeed, these armed groups have no authority to call themselves forth into militia service; the Second Amendment does not protect such activity; and all 50 states prohibit it.

The danger of these groups was brought home on Thursday with the announcement that the F.B.I. had thwarted a plot by people associated with an extremist group in Michigan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the government.

Court documents say that the group discussed trying the governor for treason and murdering “tyrants.” Six men now face federal kidnapping conspiracy charges, but unauthorized militia activity continues in Michigan and elsewhere.

The unnamed militia involved in the kidnapping plot is part of a growing number of private paramilitary groups mobilizing across the country, wholly outside of lawful authority or governmental accountability. These organizations — some of which openly refer to themselves as “militias,” while others reject the term — often train together in the use of firearms and other paramilitary techniques and “deploy,” heavily armed and sometimes in full military gear, when

Sometimes they want to fight against the perceived tyranny of the states, as when they stormed the Capitol in Lansing, Mich., this spring to demand the end of the governor’s pandemic shutdown order, egged on by President Trump’s tweets to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”

Sometimes they want to usurp the functions of law enforcement, as they’ve done in Kenosha, Wis., and elsewhere, purporting to “protect” property during racial justice protests, often in response to false rumors about leftist violence, rumors stoked by the president’s calls to designate “antifa” as a terrorist organization.

Most alarmingly, some of them are planning their own poll-watching and openly training in preparation for the post-election period.

Whatever their stated purpose, their conduct is unlawful and not constitutionally protected. Even before the adoption of the Constitution, the colonies recognized the importance of a “well regulated” militia to defend the state, in preference over standing armies, which they perceived as a threat to liberty. The militia consisted of able-bodied residents between certain ages who had a duty to respond when called forth by the government.

But “well regulated” meant that the militias were trained, armed and controlled by the state. Indeed, 48 states have provisions in their constitutions that explicitly require the militia to be strictly subordinate to the civil authority.

Likewise, state constitutions and laws then and now generally name the governor as the commander in chief of its armed forces — and only the governor or a designee has the power to call forth the able-bodied residents for militia service.

Emerging from the American Revolution, the founders reasonably were wary of insurgencies that could threaten the stability of the new Union. Shays’ Rebellion and other early armed uprisings against the states only solidified those fears. Thus, the “well regulated militia” in the Constitution’s Second Amendment refers to the militia once called forth by the government, not by private vigilante organizations deciding when and under what circumstances to organize and self-deploy.

The federal and state government control of the militia has also been confirmed by the Supreme Court. In 1886, the court upheld the constitutionality of a state criminal law that made it unlawful for “any body of men” outside state or federal governmental authority to “associate themselves together as a military company or organization, or to drill or parade with arms in any city or town of the state.”

This criminal statute and others were enacted after the Civil War and are on the books of 29 states. The Supreme Court said without question that states had authority to control and regulate military bodies and associations as “necessary to the public peace, safety and good order.”

The court’s 1886 decision was reaffirmed in 2008 in Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller.That case established that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms for self-defense, but “does not prevent the prohibition of private paramilitary organizations.” Although there are many gray areas about Second Amendment rights, this is not one of them.

Which brings us back to the authority of the states. In addition to state constitutional and statutory schemes by which only the governor may activate “able-bodied” residents for militia service, other laws also forbid paramilitary activity and the usurpation of law enforcement and peacekeeping authority.

Twenty-five states prohibit teaching, demonstrating or practicing in the use of firearms or “techniques” capable of causing injury or death for use during a civil disorder. Eighteen states prohibit either the false assumption of the duties of public officials, including law-enforcement officials, or the wearing of uniforms similar to military uniforms.

All these laws point to a single conclusion: There is no right in any state for groups of individuals to arm themselves and organize either to oppose or augment the government.

Now, more than ever, state and local officials must enforce these statutes. In battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as other hotbeds of militia activity like Oregon, Idaho, Virginia and Texas, they must ready themselves for unlawful private militias showing up at the polls and on the streets during ballot counting and beyond.

Those groups, like the Three Percenters, Oath Keepers and others that claim to be “patriots” but answer to their own interpretation of the Constitution, are likely to hear the president’s unsupported claims about election fraud as their license to deploy to the polls to “protect” or “patrol” the vote.

Their armed presence not only would violate state anti-paramilitary laws, it would likely violate laws against voter intimidation as well. State attorneys general, secretaries of state, local prosecutors, law enforcement officers and election workers must know about these laws and be prepared to enforce them. They should announce this in advance and consider taking pre-emptive action through attorney general legal opinions, cease and desist orders, and prosecutions or civil litigation.

These efforts must continue after the election, when the threat of civil unrest could be at its greatest. State and local leaders, in both parties, must denounce armed militia activity, whether from the right or the left.

These leaders may also have to take swift action to protect public safety and preserve constitutional rights. But the law is on their side — private armed militias find no support in the U.S. or state constitutions or in American history. They must not be tolerated in our society.

Mary B. McCord, legal director for Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and a visiting professor, was the acting assistant attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice from 2016 to 2017.

How the Tampa Bay Times Reports Bicycle Crashes

Reviewing Tampa Bay Times stories about crashes involving bicycles from approximately June 2019-2020 reveals a common litany of problems:

  1. The use of phrases and language that implies cyclists’ culpability in most crashes, even though nationwide, studies have shown that most car/bike crashes are the fault of motorists
  2. Relying solely on police reports and press releases and law enforcement statements that cannot be verified or are themselves often biased or unknowable at the time of the initial investigation.
  3. De-personalizing crashes by indicating that a vehicle hit the vulnerable road user instead of the driver of that vehicle
  4. And often, there is no follow-up, so your readers are left with the initial impressions—and biases—of the investigating officer, even if the final investigative reports contradict initial reports.

Example of reporting “facts” with no source:

1.https://www.tampabay.com/news/pinellas/2020/05/23/bicyclist-dies-after-being-struck-by-drunken-driver-in-pinellas-county-troopers-say/?fbclid=IwAR0XxXSh2V16UWC-dWNQ4Ft64oQhwFqNwJE1xPoXVIfg4hrQE2OcpjFonO8

In a recent report, a drunk driver allegedly hit and killed a cyclist. Romy Ellenbogen reports, “The bicyclist traveled into the path of the car, which hit him.” No source is cited. Even if the investigating officer made the statement, he has no way of knowing this. And the motorist was drunk. Saying the cyclist “traveled into the path” suggests culpability, as if he left his line of travel and swerved in front of the drunk driver. This phrase reoccurs in your bike crash stories. But in this case, there is no attribution of that statement of fact.

Examples of reporting with charged language from law enforcement without questioning how they would know what they said or questioning why it is relevant:

2.https://www.tampabay.com/news/pinellas/2020/05/23/bicyclist-in-madeira-beach-critically-injured-after-collision-with-garbage-truck/

In May 2020, Josh Fiallo reported on a collision between a garbage truck and a cyclist on Gulf Blvd., with this language that reflected a press release from the Pinellas Co. Sheriff’s Dept. PIO: “Julie Henning, of Alexandria, Virginia, couldn’t stop her bike in time from hitting the City of Madeira Beach garbage truck because she was riding downhill, witnesses told deputies.” The fact that the cyclist “couldn’t stop her bike in time” implies she was at least partially culpable, perhaps going too fast downhill. (Speed limit is 35 mph, which I can almost guarantee that the cyclist could not have reached that speed descending that bridge.) The PIO release is unclear in what direction the truck was traveling. But in whatever direction the truck was traveling, the cyclist had the right of way. If the victim had been a motorist, I doubt that TBT would have reported the car “couldn’t stop in time.”

And the lede? “A 44-year-old bicyclist is in critical condition after a garbage truck entered a bike lane on Saturday morning and she struck its passenger side, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said in a release.” That the cyclist struck the vehicle again implies she did something she could have avoided. Maybe the truck cut her off.

3.https://www.tampabay.com/news/breaking-news/2020/02/12/cyclist-killed-after-being-hit-by-truck-on-state-road-60/

Gabrielle Calise reported, “Brian M. Bentz, 57, was heading south on a bicycle in the intersection and entered the path of the truck, troopers said.” The phrase “entered the path of the truck,” language similar to #1, is not knowable, even if the trooper said it. Moreover, it implies the cyclist did something wrong. This happened at an intersection, if the cyclist had the right of way, he may have entered the “path of the truck,” but the motorist may have been at fault for running the red light. Could this have been written, “Vincent A. Givens, 36, driving a 2018 Ford truck east on State Road 60 at St. Cloud Avenue, collided with Brian M. Bentz, 57, who was heading south on a bicycle in the intersection. A state trooper investigating the crash did not indicate who had the right of way”?

I found no follow-up story.

4. https://www.tampabay.com/news/hillsborough/2020/01/06/teen-bicyclist-killed-after-being-struck-by-suv-in-brandon/

Frank Pastor reported that, “A red 2000 Ford Explorer was headed north on N Parsons Avenue when deputies said the teen rode into the SUV’s path. The driver saw the bicyclist right before impact but did not have enough time to avoid a collision, according to the Sheriff’s Office.” Again, we have no information on who had the right of way or whether the cyclist was in a lane and was hit from behind by the motorist. Obviously, the motorist did not have time to stop, but why? Was the motorist speeding? And the fact that it was a 2000 Ford Explorer adds nothing to the story. Couldn’t it have been written that “A motorist struck and killed Terry Martin, 16, who was riding his bicycle on N Parsons Avenue, just south of Clemons Road. No determination of fault was made by the investigating officer”?

I found no follow-up story.

5. https://www.tampabay.com/news/pinellas/2019/12/05/pinellas-bicyclist-82-dies-after-being-hit-by-dump-truck/

Chris Tisch reports, “[The cyclist] got to Seminole Boulevard, where he rode into the path of a dump truck driven by Iran D. Manrique-Herna, 54, of Tampa.” Did the cyclist have plenty of time to enter Seminole Blvd. but the truck driver did not see him?

I found no follow-up story.

6. https://www.tampabay.com/news/pasco/2020/03/10/14-year-old-bicyclist-killed-in-crash-in-pasco-county/

Chris Tisch reports, “Jayden Relyea of New Port Richey was pedaling a bicycle east on Slidell Road about 7:25 a.m. when the crash occurred. The teen went through the intersection with Moon Lake Road and was hit by a northbound Jeep Wrangler driven by Ann M. Feeney, 61, of New Port Richey, troopers said.” Again, saying the cyclist “went through the intersection” implies he was at fault. Who had the right of way? A statement that it was not reported who had the right of way and that no fault was assigned would be helpful.

I found no follow-up story.

7. https://www.tampabay.com/news/pasco/2019/12/27/woman-biking-with-dog-is-struck-and-killed-on-us-19-in-hudson/

Brandon Meyer reports, “A Homosassa woman riding a bicycle died early Friday after she was hit while crossing the path of a pickup truck on U.S. 19 at New York Avenue, the Florida Highway Patrol said…. Clendennen had a green light and Casson failed to obey a pedestrian control signal or use the marked crosswalk, the Highway Patrol said.”

Given that the victim is dead, how does the officer know the motorist had a green light?

And then there is the infamous phrase used in too many bike crash stories, “Casson was not wearing a helmet.”

I found no follow-up story.

8.https://www.tampabay.com/news/st-petersburg/2019/09/20/driver-strikes-kills-woman-as-shes-riding-her-bike-in-st-pete-crosswalk/

Reporting a crash where a driver hit and killed a cyclist in a marked crosswalk, Caitlin Johnston writes, “Only one of the 10 bicyclists who died was using a bike lane. That collision involved a drunk driver, [Transportation Director Evan] Mory said.”

What is the purpose and relevance of that statement? Without context, it suggests that bicyclists were in the wrong in nine of those crashes because they were not in the bike lanes. Bicyclists have all rights to ride in the travel lane, if there is no bike lane. And even if there is, they needn’t use it if it unsafe to do so.

Yet, here are a couple of examples where TBT reporters duly repeat unverified exculpatory information about motorists:

9.https://www.tampabay.com/news/pinellas/2019/12/17/teen-on-bicycle-seriously-injured-in-dunedin-crash/

Brandon Meyer reports, “The driver of the Jeep didn’t stop, though Pinellas sheriff’s investigators said witnesses told them that the driver may not have realized they had hit someone.” How would witnesses come to that conclusion? What facts could that observation be based on? And it is then repeated a couple of paragraphs later: “Witnesses told police that a black Jeep Wrangler with a dark-colored soft-top did not maneuver out of the teen’s path, and added that the driver may not have realized they were involved in a crash.”

It’s also puzzling why this was reported: “The teen was not in a crosswalk at the time of the crash, police said.” Why is this relevant? A cyclist isn’t required to be in a crosswalk.

And again, the victim is to be blamed because, “The teen, who wasn’t wearing a helmet, was taken by helicopter…”

10.https://www.tampabay.com/news/hillsborough/2019/11/13/driver-arrested-in-hit-and-run-crash-that-killed-bicyclist-in-tampa/

In an otherwise excellent story, Tony Marrero writes, “’It’s likely that Baker didn’t see Weinert,’ [Highway Patrol Sgt.] Gaskins said. “But if Baker had stopped, checked and called for help, he wouldn’t be facing a felony charge that could land him in prison for up to 30 years,’ Gaskins said.” Why do we allow Gaskins to speculate with exculpatory information? How would he know that the driver didn’t see the victim? Again, it’s blaming the victim for putting himself in a position of not being seen.

Not to mention that Gaskins highlights that merely hitting and killing a cyclist is not a big deal as he wouldn’t be in much trouble. That is an issue TBT should explore. Under Florida law, a driver can hit and kill a cyclist and pretty much walk free, unless he was drunk, left the scene, or it can be proven he was driving recklessly. Not carelessly, however. Even if distracted by her cell phone, a driver will only get a ticket and fine. In fact, a driver can simply say, “I didn’t see the cyclist,” and be relieved of any criminal responsibility.

Example of gratuitous victim blaming:

11.https://www.tampabay.com/news/transportation/2019/09/28/bicyclists-stage-rolling-memorial-past-scene-of-recent-st-pete-fatality/

In a story about a memorial ride for a cyclist killed on MLK by a driver who was distracted by his cell phone, Dennis Joyce writes, “Participants were encouraged to wear helmets and white clothing, use bike lanes, stop at lights, and keep a slow pace.” Which all seems to be intended to remind readers that cyclists don’t wear helmets, or use bike lanes, or stop at stop lights and speed. If this were a procession of motorists honoring a victim of a car crash, would you write that? And it’s in the passive voice. Who “encouraged” them?

TBT can do better—and have. Here are well-reported examples of TBT putting bike crashes into context:

12.https://www.tampabay.com/news/breaking-news/2020/04/04/traffic-death-on-bayshore-boulevard/

Obviously, reporter Marlene Sokol interviewed witnesses and avoided any charged language that implied the pedestrian was at fault.

13.https://www.tampabay.com/news/breaking-news/2020/01/09/pedestrian-seriously-injured-in-bayshore-boulevard-crash-in-tampa/

Christopher O’Donnell obviously did not rely on a law enforcement press release and filed a good report that did not try to assign blame to the victim.

14.https://www.tampabay.com/news/tampa/2020/01/10/driver-in-deadly-bayshore-crash-had-just-drank-whiskey-tampa-police-say/

O’Donnell and three other reporters followed up with additional information the next day.

15.https://www.tampabay.com/news/tampa/2020/01/21/is-tampas-bayshore-boulevard-really-that-dangerous/

This follow-up by Charlie Frago is welcomed, as it is one of the few stories of such crashes that follow up on the original reporting and provide a larger perspective.

16.https://www.tampabay.com/news/tampa/2020/05/05/widow-sues-pinch-a-penny-over-death-of-bayshore-jogger-hit-by-pickup-truck/

More follow-up by Anastasia Dawson.

I will note that the crash on Bayshore Blvd. in Tampa (all covered in stories #13-16) was of a victim with what researchers call “high social capital,” i.e., a white, upper middle-class man. Research shows such victims are often covered more sympathetically than, for example, lower socio-economic black men.

I would encourage TBT editors to take a few steps:

  1. Always ask law enforcement agencies if fault was assigned, and if not, to prominently report that.
  2. To take a more holistic approach to reporting such crashes by not focusing solely on what the cyclist or pedestrian may have done, as it perpetuates the notion that motorists have priority on our streets and that walkers and bike riders are interlopers.
  3. Personalize stories to include names of victims and motorists and have them take action, instead of referring to the vehicles as taking actions.
  4. Follow-up fatal and serious injury crashes when the final traffic report is issued.
  5. Question law enforcement when they seem to make judgement calls or speculate on what might have happened, especially when they use the phrase that the vulnerable road user “entered the path” of a motorist.

You can download a research paper by Bike/Walk Tampa Bay regarding the reporting of bike crashes in the area over the past 10 years.

There is evidence that lately bicycling is increasing greatly, and I fear more lives will be ended or forever altered. We should report their stories in a way that respects their right to be on the road and does not assume that they must be at fault when crashes occur.

What a dunce!

I’ve not written in this blog, which was started in 2003, since late 2018. When I next tried to post I got a message:
Fatal error: Allowed memory size of 33554432 bytes exhausted (tried to allocate 2348617 bytes) in /home4/xxx/public_html/wp-includes/plugin.php on line xxx

Got it? I didn’t. Googled it and found that I needed to increase memory size using FTP. FT what? Played around but was intimidated and never could find a fix. Well, I found a fix but lack the courage to try it. Basically, I was paralyzed by techno gobbly-gook.

Then my brother comes to visit this week. He walked me through it and within minutes I was back online.

A lost year…to fear. But I’m back.

Italian city cycling

As this research attests, bicyclists make better motorists than non-cyclists. That doesn’t surprise me. A lack of attention going at 15 mph can result in serious injury or death, so cyclists are at least more observant.

Attention is mandatory in Italy, from which I just returned, and there was a difference between drivers in the north and those in the south.20180919_175226

In Milan there seems to be a widely understood pecking order. Pedestrians are at the top. If motorists see you on the curb waiting to cross, they will stop. That differs from American drivers who seem to claim the right of way if you are not in the crosswalk; if they think they have a good chance of beating you to the open space, they will not yield. But what’s more astounding is that Italian motorists don’t seem upset about it. I saw no road rage in Milan.

Cyclists are next. Again, motorists yield to them patiently, though I could appreciate it if they were perturbed. While only one of all the cyclists I saw on the street ran a stop light, they read their cell phones while riding in the middle of downtown traffic. This 20180919_175601was true of all manner and ages of bike riders. Rather than take the middle of the lane, they tend to ride closer to the curb than I’d feel comfortable doing. But again, motorists seem tolerant and don’t pass unless it’s safe to do so.

Next in the pecking order are motor scooter drivers. They are insane, weaving in and out of traffic, often commandeering the lane going in the opposite direction. But again, I never saw a motorist get upset.

20180920_185713But I learned from a tour guide in Naples that scooter drivers pay dearly for the privilege. Insurance rates are high and about the same as they are for cars, according to the guide. And she confirmed what we witnessed: The rules are different in the southern part of Italy.

In Naples, pedestrians cross a street at their peril. Scooters are even more aggressive than in Milan. But again, motorists seem unfazed by them. I asked a taxi driver about it and he shrugged it off, saying they’re crazy but he seemed to carry no ill will.

This is just one guy’s reading of the traffic culture there. I couldn’t readily find statistics on accidents involving cyclists or pedestrians in those two cities.

20180919_174829Why are so many American motorists intolerant of cyclists and walkers? I don’t know the answer, but I have one theory. Americans take “individual liberty” to mean they are always first in the pecking order. Others be damned. We have lost the idea that we’re all in this together. And the idea that we should yield to anyone for any reason has been pretty much tossed in the trash bin.

The village on a hill

I had plenty of time to anticipate this day. The Italy trip with my brother Paul and wife Karla included first a few days in Milan, a week in the Lake Como region, and then a few days in Le Cinque Terra.

And then there was the seven-hour drive on October 2, 2018. We followed along the Adriatic coast and then turned inland toward the Molise region. Our destination was the village of Castelmauro signCastelmauro. We began to climb, more than I expected. And the roads in the final 10 kilometers were rough, including a couple of washed out sections. They were barely wide enough for two cars, but it didn’t matter as we had them to ourselves.

IMG_2950

Castelmauro, Italy, where my grandparents and generations of my maternal family have lived

At 6 p.m. we entered the 2300 ft. high town and immediately were taken with its medieval charm. I still have not found much history of Castelmauro, but I know it dates to the 11th century. As recently as the 1970s, its population was more than 6,000. Today, barely 1,000 people live there. But I wasn’t looking for its attractions or its history. I was searching for my own history.

A minute or two into the town, I saw a young woman walking who looked like Federica Mancini, the woman we had hired as our interpreter. “Federica? I asked. She was a bit startled, then said, “No. But I call her. She is my cousin.”

I had done as much online homework as I could. I had also sent about 30 letters to various Italians named Petta or Petti in the region, as there was always a mystery as to my grandparents’ surnames. They were similar but changed according to the census taker or forms they filed throughout their lives. Petta, Petti, Pitto, Pitti. (My grandparents Anglicized the name to Patti in the 1930s.)

I didn’t receive any response to my letters to the six Castelmauro Pettas, so with the help of an Italian speaking wine distributor in St. Pete named Andy Mezzari, I began calling them. At the home of Leonardo Petta, his daughter Rosaria answered. She had read the letter and was pretty sure we weren’t related. But she offered to help me find my family. Shortly before our trip, she sent me the birth records from the village archives for my grandparents Pasquale and Maria. They were both named Petta, answering the mystery.  (They were cousins, according to family rumors.) Rosaria also led us to Federica.

That evening we checked into our hotel, the Parc delle Stelle, a modern place a kilometer outside of town on a hill. It seemed out of place in this ancient town, but I learned the owners, with the land already in the family and experience running a trattoria, decided to open the hotel more as a wedding center than a hotel for the few Castelmauro tourists. We were the only guests, and the owner spoke English. I had also sent her an email asking if anyone on her staff might be a Petta. It turned out that, unless there is an event, they are the innkeepers, cooks, maids, etc. But she said I might be related to the Petta who runs the local gas station.

The next morning we met Federica and went to the municipio and met Giuseppi Petroniro (We may be related–my great grandmother was a Petroniro) who the mayor had assigned to help us find our relatives. He showed us not only our grandparents’ records, but the birth record for my grandmother’s father, Luigi Petta. He also identified another of Pasquale’s siblings I did not know about, Vincenzo. That would turn out to be a key piece of information.

IMG_2931

The original city wall of Castelmauro, a village that dates to the 11th century.

Federica was a godsend. Not only was her English good, but she seemed to know everyone in town and had their contact info. on her phone. After a walking tour that included the streets where my grandparents were born, we visited Antonietta Petta who was in her 80s but not related to us. Still, as Federica told her of our quest for our roots, she began to cry. Family is important to her. I wish she were part of mine.IMG_2925

(I learned on this trip that Italian women do not take the name of their husbands, though the children of the marriage, of course, do.)

IMG_2960

Both Italian and an ancient Croat language is spoken in Acquaviva Collecroce

IMG_2961

A street in Acquaviva Collecroce

We then went to the nearby village of Acquaviva Collecroce where my grandmother’s mother was born. Both Italian and an old Croat language are spoken there. When the Turks invaded Croatia, many fled across the Adriatic Sea and settled in Acquaviva. My grandmother once told me she spoke a little “Slavic,” obviously learning it from her mother, Aurora Mattiaccio. Federica knew someone in the town who had lived as a boy in Australia, a country with its own history of Italian immigrants. Rino spoke all three languages, was a history buff and loved researching families. He took us to the town office where a man working on what seemed to be a computer as old as the town found records for Aurora. Those records provided leads that Rino followed to trace that side of the family back another three generations!

It was now time to visit Maria Felicia at her gas station. We arrived at about 2:00 and still hadn’t had lunch. At the station café we had some pizza and beers, over which we explored the connection. She said her grandfather was Vincent, the brother I never knew my grandfather had until that morning. But she wasn’t sure we were related because she didn’t know any of Vincent’s siblings. Her daughter then said, “Let’s call Raffaele,” Maria Felicia’s 89-year old uncle living in Germany.

He said Maria Felicia and I couldn’t be related because Vincenzo only had three siblings, none of whom were Pasquale. But I pushed back, confident in the records I found and explained why Raffaele, born in 1929, might not know Pasquale and all eight of his brothers and sisters. The first two girls, born in the 1880s, died as infants, and Antonio and my grandfather left for America long before Raffaele was born. And not only did I find online records for my grandfather’s family, Rino pointed me to a website where I could find images of the actual handwritten birth records.

IMG_1338Federica translated the histories we told one another, I with my English and Mary Felicia and her daughters Serena and Monica with their Italian, wonderfully accented with all manner of hand waving. I think if Monica accidentally hit someone while talking, she’d exact serious damage. Serena then left to get Maria, one of Maria Felicia’s cousins. She joined the animated conversation and charades. They were still unsure, given Raffaele’s recollection, but I would have none it. “We’re related,” I said. “I want us to be.” So did they.

IMG_1346 (2)

From left my 2nd cousin, once removed, Monica Petta, her father, Maria Felicia, my second cousin, Karla, me, Maria Petta, another second cousin, Paul, Serena Petta, Monica’s sister.

We took pictures and I promised to send more information and pictures of the Pettas in America, though none of my relatives use the name. For some reason, some changed the name to Petti and, as I said, my mother’s family became Patti. I’ll also send digital images of the records that have been on a shelf for a century and a half just off the town square.

We had a little time left to visit Rosaria and her parents. They graciously offered us food before our drive to Naples, and we told them of what we learned. Again, more pictures. More cheek kisses. More smiles.

But not enough. I’m ready to go home again.

Left, Right, Center

Tom Edsall’s recent column, as always, is well researched and thoughtful but reinforces the idea that the Democrats must choose between “liberal” or “moderate” candidates. I disagree. The copy editor also chose a poor headline: “Should Democrats Embrace the Center or Abandon It?”

The problem is first, the definition: What is a liberal Democrat and what is a moderate one? Put another way, what is a centrist?

One Democrat supports abortion but with late-term restrictions, background gun checks but not an assault weapons ban. She also supports the Dreamers and a $15 minimum wage. Another supports unfettered abortion, a ban on all but long guns for hunting, a stricter immigration policy but no minimum wage increase. Which is the centrist? Can you vote for both or neither?

Edsall falls into the trap many do: He wants a clear battle of black vs. white, or in this case liberal vs. moderate. But Democrats need to escape this straight jacket. I happen to support a ban on high magazine semi-automatic guns. I support a woman’s right to choose. I support the Dreamers. I support transgender rights. But I can support a Democrat who is willing to raise taxes, consider dramatic changes in tax laws that engender a more level economic playing field and believes that healthcare costs must be dramatically reduced—even if that candidate doesn’t support a semi-automatic weapon ban, believes there should be some restrictions on late-term abortions, supports tighter immigration enforcement and believes transgenders should use a gender neutral bathroom.

That’s because for me, the most important issue in this country is the economic stagnation of the middle class and income inequality. And I think many Trump voters would agree. Offering solutions to the economic question has a great chance of minimizing the importance of many social issues with enough voters to provide Democrats with a comfortable margin of victory and a solid grasp on both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government and in many cases, state governments, too.

Naysayers will argue that voters vote emotion, not financial interests. The failure you feel when you can’t send your kids to college is an emotion. The fear you won’t have enough for your old age is an emotion. Your despair that you can’t feed your kids is an emotion.

The challenge is encapsulating those messages for the rallies, fleshing out plans on candidate websites, and tying the costs with a direct source of income. Speak boldly, confidently, measuredly. Candidates also have to restore in voters the faith that government can help them. That may be the biggest challenge of all.

Regarding Coner Lamb’s recent win in a conservative Pennsylvania House district election, Edsall states, “Among Lamb’s constituents, cultural liberalism is, consequently, a liability — even fatal, electorally speaking.” Funny, Trump’s immoralism was not a problem for white evangelicals because they thought he would shake up things and represent their economic interests. Remember during the campaign, Trump was not clearly anti-abortion or anti-gay and he was clearly immoral.

Edsall also makes a statement that begs explanation: “Insofar as Democrats place a higher priority on purity than viability, they may be risking an indeterminate extension of the Trump era.” Really? And even if that were true, does that mean electoral defeat? It seems that the GOP has had tremendous electoral success by emphasizing purity over viability, too. It has now caused them governing problems, but not voting problems.

Democrats do need a big tent but not no tent. The congressional primary in Illinois pitted a renegade endorsed by several liberal groups against the incumbent Dan Lipinski. He apparently opposes abortion, marriage equality and Obamacare. The question I have is, what makes him a Democrat? If it is an aggressive economic reform agenda and I was in his district, I might need to calculate how successful he might be in thwarting Democrats on abortion, equality and healthcare vs. how likely a more liberal candidate can win the district. And in the general election, am I willing to allow the election of someone who opposes all that I support?

In Nebraska, the former Democratic congressman running for a House seat, Brad Ashford, “is to the right of many in the Democratic Party on abortion. He backs abortion rights but has said he’s open to some restrictions late in pregnancy.”

How many Democrats support abortion with no restrictions? What if in the future a test can reveal the color of a child’s eyes. Would they support a woman who wants to abort a child a week before it is due because she learned the child’s eyes were brown and not blue?

Meanwhile, according to the same Politico article, “progressives are taking solace in forcing Lipinski to the left on several issues, including immigration and the minimum wage.” Progressives, that’s progress!

Lamb says he’s personally opposed to abortion, but wants it to remain legal. That’s all we can ask. We’re electing him to be a legislator, not our pastor. He also clearly supports economic populist ideas that progressives want.

In a recent Rolling Stone article, “The president of the United Mine Workers, Cecil Roberts, summed up the reasons why white people were about to vote for a Democrat here, hailing Lamb as ‘a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, Social Security-believing, sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat.’” I’ll take four out of six. (I don’t care about his fearing God.)

In think Jonathan Chait sums it up nicely in a New York Magazine article, “Republicans have used ethnonationalist themes for decades to sell voters on an unpopular economic agenda: Election messaging is all American flags, crime, and being tough on terrorism, while the policy agenda is about lax business regulation and regressive tax-cutting.

“This disconnect between politics and policy is Republicans’ weakest point. Their strategy can be hacked.”

Tim Ryan, who ran against Nancy Pelosi for speaker last year, may be trying to justify an overall move to the center by Democrats, but he’ right when he says in The Rolling Stone article, “that Lamb ‘embodies to me what the next iteration of the Democratic Party is going to look like. Veterans, working class, really representing people who are underemployed, who were maybe making some decent money 10-15 years ago but aren’t now.’” There are a lot non-veterans, upper middle class, economically secure voters who can get behind that message.

I am not trying to make the argument that  Dems need to be more “moderate” or “move to the center.” I think the message is more one of emphasis, not an either/or. I support abortion rights, gay rights, better race relations, immigrants, gun control and a higher minimum wage. But if I were a candidate that’s not what I’d lead with. The greatest challenge this country faces is income inequality. Once we fix that, some of those other issues become irrelevant in an election. Not for all voters, for sure, but enough to give the Democrats the chance to change this country for the better. I think that will also give more of those value voters a reason to have a conversation about their issues and compromise.

Who you calling a scaredy-cat?

20170914_184941Don’t let the photo fool you. I had the hard job.

My friend Greg just wanted to ride his bike in the mountains for the week. But when he saw Karla and I arguing about whether the TV antenna had to go on the roof, he forcefully stepped in. She was convinced we didn’t need to and didn’t want me up on the roof. I’d like to think it was because she loved me so much that she could bear the thought of anything happening to me. But Greg and I finally convinced her that on the roof was the only place we’d get good reception.

And yes, in what our president and most of his supporters would describe as the greatest country in the world, our infrastructure is so bad that a half million-dollar home in an affluent town has few options for television service. The one available is satellite but it’s costly and not efficient when you only live here part-time. There is no cable and the only internet service is 1.5Mbps download DSL. On par with dial-up. No cable and the alternative microwave service is limited by tower space, which is currently full and not signing up new customers.

So we are on the roof installing an antenna to get the major channels to supplement HBO, Netflix and other services we subscribe to. We just have to realize that with 1.5mbps download speeds, streaming a movie is a solitary affair. No multi-tasking allowed.

We’ll “we” are not on the roof, but Karla and Greg are. But like I said, I have the hard job of running the automatic channel scanning function on the TV to see what stations I get as they re-positioned the antenna. Back and forth I went scanning and re-scanning. It took a minute or two for each scan while those two just sat there on the roof waiting for my report, doing nothing.

As you can see, Greg apparently has no problems with height, as he leans over the edge to attach the cable to the soffit. And Karla is connecting the antenna. We literally had hand-to-hand combat to see who would get on the roof. She beat me. OK, I let her beat me. Heights are not my thing.

When we visited the Vatican years ago, we took the kids to the cupola atop St. Peters. They admired the view while I clung to the back wall as my shins sweated. Yes, shins can sweat all by themselves. All it takes is an intense fear of falling off the edge of anything more than six feet off the ground.

When we lived in Virginia, cleaning the gutters was a joint effort. I held the ladder and Karla climbed up to clean them out. The ones on the front of the house were hardest. They weren’t any higher or more difficult to get to, but they were in full view of the street where neighbors marveled at either my ability to get my wife to do the hard work or my cowardice. I think I know which.

Once in awhile I was brave, as when I installed Christmas lights on the upstairs dormers. They were high above terra firmer, maybe as much as 10 feet! The roof was steep, so I would lay the ladder along rooftop and gingerly climb it. It was like crossing the Grand Canyon on a rope bridge. I dare not look down, knowing that I would not likely survive the fall. I would die of a heart attack at the mere sight of the ground.

So here we are, my friend and my wife on the roof, while I hit “set up,” “antenna,” “channel scan,” “start.” It was tough work, but someone had to do it.

Our first bike trip and a visit “home”

If this piece becomes incoherent, I’ll blame it on fatigue. Today will likely be a 24-hour endurance trek. Up before 6 a.m. in Vienna, we fly to Frankfurt. After a two-and-a-half hour layover, we head for Denver. A two-hour train ride from the airport, another 20-minute drive home and our bodies will think it’s 2 a.m.

Fatigue is the recurring theme of this two-week vacation. Neither Karla, Paul or I slept well on the flight over. I hesitated to take Ambien and regretted it. But we muddled through the day and then slept 10 hours that night. Three days walking about Prague and a six-plus hour car trip to my ancestral home, six days biking in Czechia, Germany and Austria and another two days exploring Vienna has left us exhausted but wiser.

It seems that we yearn to “sleep in our own bed” not because we tire of the new experiences and exotic sites but that we cram them into every day. Next time, we’ve vowed to build in a few down days. We’ll sleep late, linger at cafes, take naps and eat light.

And no standing. That is most exhausting to me. My back and legs ache. After the walking tour of the Schünbrunn Palace, I knelt in front of a bench, lay my torso on the seat, and had Karla apply pressure to the back of my shoulder. I was a spectacle to passing tourists. A couple even offered help or inquired if I was OK.  I can bike all day, am OK walking, but can’t stand to stand.

Prague could never live up to my expectations but it’s beautiful with friendly people and most important, cheap beer. A full liter stein is less than $4. The Vltava River runs through the town crossed by many bridges. Fortunately, we were a mile or so south of the famous Charles Bridge. On one side is the tourist center of the town and the nearby old Jewish Center. Crowded and noisy, I’d never stay there.

relatives

Paul and I with a fourth and third cousin in the home town of our great great great grandfather.

The trip to Wiehe, Germany, where we suspected our great great grandfather John was born was the highlight of this first portion of the trip. I’ve written more about it here: http://bit.ly/Wiehe.

The German highways are not unregulated race courses. But the drivers do not suffer fools, which are those who linger in the left lane. The max speed limit I saw was 130 kph, though many drivers exceeded that by 20-30 kph when passing. If you are in the left lane they will tailgate at a distance of a few feet until you move over, which happened to me when I was passing someone but at a much slower speed than the car that suddenly appeared from behind. Everyone does pull over. No one stays in the left lane. If only American drivers were so considerate.

Throughout our trip, drivers seemed far better than Americans. They drove fast, even in the city. But if you so much as approached a designated crosswalk, they will stop on a dime. Fines for not doing so can reach hundreds of Euros or Czech crowns. Motorists, walkers and the many cyclists seem to co-exist well. Pedestrians and bike riders alike patiently wait for the crossing signals

Prague’s buildings, spared bombing during World War II, are beautiful though many are defaced with graffiti. I heard no complaints about that, though it’s prevalent. We couldn’t tell if it was gang-related, though everyone assured us that the city is safe. Many of the streets are cobblestones with unusually wide seams between them that seemed to be regularly cleaned out. No dirt or debris built up between the stones. The seams were a half-inch wide and at least that deep. Almost all the sidewalks were mosaics of smaller stones about 2-inch square, sometimes aligned in intricate patterns and almost always with a clear delineation by stone pattern of street from sidewalk.

The tourist highlights were the palace and the Jewish quarters tour. The former is now a blur. I can’t seem to remember the particulars of opulence and its occupants. The Jewish quarters was another matter. The Jews suffered the usual oppression in Czechia for centuries. Walled in, the could not live elsewhere and had to wear yellow hats when they ventured outside the ghetto. In the early part of the 20th century (I believe), the entire neighborhood was razed, but not before one guy built a complete model of it. We visited four synagogues, one of which I think is the oldest operating one in the world.

The bike trip itself was not ideal, but we had a great time. We had one day of a steady rain that cut short the ride considerably. The day before was also a bit wet. And it was not a week of hard riding. I rode ahead a couple of times to get in 5-10 kilometers at a decent pace, but the rest of the time I smelled the daisies with the rest of the group. And that was OK. Virtually all the rides were on bike paths and the scenery was gorgeous. We covered no more than 35 miles in a day with two rest stops and a lunch. But it could have gone south. See: http://bit.ly/Kebike.

More important, it was a great group of people. All were Americans, all in their 60’s, save one older couple and a daughter traveling with her mother. Vermont Bike Tours seems to be a class act. The 4-star hotels and places where we ate as a group were well appointed and good food. The tour guides were very professional and shepherded us without hovering. We spent two nights each in Czeny Krumlov in Czechia, Passau in Germany and the Wachau Valley in Austria. Each town was picturesque and easy to navigate. We met at least one couple, from Houston, who I think we’ll see again as his father lives in Bradenton.

Two days in Vienna was plenty. Nice town with a rich history but lacks charm. Unlike Prague, it suffered heavy bombing in WWII.

Key to this trip was learning we could vacation for two weeks comfortably. We’ll probably try a longer trip in the future. Maybe cycling will be part of it. I think Karla’s experience with an e-bike may mean we can do something a little more challenging next time. But I’m OK with what we had.

I still think a month in Tuscany or Provence or somewhere in Bavaria with day trips, perhaps again to Wiehe and certainly to central Italy where my mother’s family is from, is a definite goal. But with plenty of down time.

 

 

Getting “chicked” by your wife

This bike trip from Prague to Vienna was not without risk, especially to my marriage.

Karla agreed to give it a try and even became enthusiastic as the departure approached. We picked one that was supposed to be easy. In St. Pete, we ride to restaurants, theatres and museums on our bikes, where it is pancake flat. And she had ridden a 20-mile ride with my bike club. She wasn’t worried.

Unfortunately, we went to Colorado in early July, and Karla was not about to ride in the mountains. So she did not, as the Vermont Bicycle Tour folks recommended, “train.” But that 20-mile ride convinced her she could handle this. Karla never lacks confidence, no matter how misplaced it occasionally may seem.

When we signed up for the trip, Karla declined the offer of an electric bike. My brother Paul, however, grabbed one as he had suffered a knee injury after we registered for the trip. They told him it would be much easier to switch to a regular bike from the e-bike rather than vice versa, as there was a limited supply.

The first day we rode just 8 miles to test the bikes and determine any needed fit adjustments. The route had one hill. Karla had to walk it. Paul motored up fine. But she didn’t panic; this was an “easy” biking vacation.

That night we were talking about the trip with some of our fellow travelers, and one of them mentioned that the trip was actually rated “easy to moderate.” Karla looked at me with a sightrly piqued expression. “You didn’t say anything about ‘moderate.’”

Yesterday, Karla walked up a couple of hills. The fine line between a challenge and a disaster might be breached. I tried pushing her up the hills, and I always stayed with her. Misrepresenting the ride was one thing. “Abandonment” would have found its way into the divorce papers.

One of guides, Peter, had mentioned earlier in the trip that there was an extra e-bike on the trailer. At lunch he suggested to Karla she might want to try it for the afternoon ride. Paul was loving his. After a couple of hills, Karla did not hesitate to accept the offer.

It took less than 60 seconds for her to realize this was a game changer. She had a big smile on her face. Early in the afternoon ride, I rode ahead to shoot a quick video of her and Paul coming down a hill. There they came. The two smiling e-bikers. After shooting the video clip, I mounted my bike to catch them.

I pedal. I pedaled harder. I hammered as best I could. They were nowhere in sight, I’m sure they were still smiling.

Finally, after a mile or two, I caught them. How quickly they forget. The thought of easing up for me never occurred to Karla.

Today, the e-bike proved invaluable but not just because of hills. It was 20 degrees cooler with a steady drizzle. We took a train to what proved to be, despite the weather, a beautiful national forest near the border of the Czech Republic – or as it is more recently known, Czechia, and Germany. We put on our layers and rain jackets. Fortunately, the guides had installed fenders on the road bikes, which meant that our backs didn’t get any wetter, if that was possible.

Karla and I were the last to leave the parking lot. Almost immediately, it started to rain harder. Karla became the mare who knew that she was headed back to the barn. We were on a bike path with only the occasional train track crossing to slow us down. I soon realized I was getting a workout. At the first hill, my heart rate was elevated. I stood on the pedals or downshifted to spin a high cadence—anything to stay close.

We caught a few riders, announced “on the left,” waved them goodbye. A little while later, the next group was in sight. Again, we paid our respects in passing and motored on. Another hill and I was at risk of getting dropped. Karla was sitting upright, pedaling an even cadence and pulling away, but she was not smiling. I dug deep. Fortunately, she had trouble with the map bag and had to stop. I caught her and then began to try to hold her wheel. It rained harder.

We made it to the mid-ride lunch stop. We settled in to what was described as a typical Bavarian beer garden, though obviously we huddled inside. Everyone grabbed a bowl of soup.

After lunch, Philip, the other guide, gave us our options. We could go on the rest of the ride, though he allowed that it was still raining and likely to get harder. And we would be on main roads with lots of traffic. Or we could shuttle to our hotel in Passau, which he described as a picturesque little town with lots of beer gardens. We could take warm showers and maybe a nap. Clearly, he was selling that option hard. We all opted for door number two.

And I avoided the ignominy of getting “chicked” by the broad on the e-bike.

She now wants to buy an e-bike for Colorado and ride with me on the hills. I think she’s getting this “chicked” thing. It’s her revenge for this “moderate” trip.

A trip home

For the past 45 years, I’ve from time to time researched my family’s history, not that it’s historic in any way. And it’s not so much that family roots bind me to something larger. In many ways, it’s about the hunt, the sleuthing to fill in history’s holes. I like the research, the discovery of information, the eureka moment when the past is crystal clear and personal.

It often comes by accident. My brother Rich found a random number on a document and on a hunch plugged it into a patent search engine. Up popped a patent my great great grandfather, John Griendling, received for an adjustable barber chair in the 1870’s. A few years ago another accident led me to an extraordinary yesterday.

Sites like Ancestry.com have made it much easier to conduct genealogical research. They review the original documents and write up the information in a digital record that is easily searched. But the original documents can provide extraordinary insights.

In the early part of the 20th century, census takers had come to the home of John’s daughter. John had immigrated to the U.S. in 1844 with a knapsack and a claim to be a cabinet maker. But Germany is a big place and proved to be a blockade to more research. During censuses of a still immigrant country, the government wanted to know where your parents were from. I had seen on previous censuses “Germany.” But on this particular one, the census taker made a correction that opened the door to yesterday’s extraordinary events.

I can imagine the conversation he had with Leina, my ancestor. “Where was your father from?”

“Wiehe,” she said

“I never heard of that country.”

“It’s a town in Germany.”

“Oh. That’s what I want, the country not the town.”

wiehe street

“Main” street in Wiehe, Germany

So he crossed out Wiehe and wrote in Germany. He didn’t erase it or obliterate it, but put a single line through it. Meaning I could see it on that photographed census sheet. Of course, I immediately looked up Wiehe and found that it was a hamlet in the Saxony area of Germany. I knew John had renounced his allegiance to the King of Saxony to become an American citizen. Was this his hometown?

As Karla and I had always wanted to see Prague, and I had convinced her to try a biking vacation, we selected a Vermont Bicycle Tour itinerary from Prague to Vienna. We spent a few days prior to visit Prague, and since Wiehe was less than four hours away by car, I decided to visit Wiehe.

I wrote the mayor and the head of the tiny historical society of Wiehe. They responded and invited me to visit them when I came to town.

We awoke early yesterday, plugged in Wiehe to the GPS and took a road trip. We got lost where the GPS failed us. We made a stupid decision to go to a McDonald’s on the way. It was on the other side of the road, and we discovered too late that we couldn’t return to the highway in the direction we were headed without backtracking several miles. And then within 5 km, the main road to Wiehe was closed for re-pavement. We had to drive what appeared to be an ox cart trail to come in from the other direction. We arrived about noon.

I had spent a sleepless night worrying about all the things that could go wrong with a once in a lifetime visit for which I only had a few hours to spare. Would we get lost? (Yes.) And when we arrived, would we receive a perfunctory welcome and not much insight into the family’s history?

Frau Dagmar Dittmar, burgermeister for Wiehe, was stout and loud and warm and gracious. But she spoke not a word of English. She got on the phone as we waited in her office and summoned the welcoming party: the town historian; the former pastor of the only church in town; a former English teacher who by her own admission was unqualified for the job—and two Gründlings, a woman of 74 and one of her nieces.

The history chief held in his hands a family tree chart. The former pastor, a long-handwritten piece of paper. They had done their homework. They had a portion of the family tree I was unaware of and a list of Gründlings born from about 1810 to 1854, among them August Gotthold Andreas Gründling, my great great grandfather, born in Wiehe April 29, 1811. (The earliest citing of my ancestor was on the ship manifest where he was referred to as Gotthold; he changed it to John by the 1860 census.) His godfather was another Gründling from Dresden, obviously a relation and now another avenue of investigation.

grundling home

The Grundling home in Wiehe, Germany

We spent an hour trying to communicate (the English teacher was right about her qualifications). Google Translate was cumbersome. But the excitement on both sides was palpable. Especially me. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

They had obviously worked hard to make our visit productive. Their hospitality, though, was most appreciated. They walked us through the town. The old schoolhouse was now a museum. The church is big but modest, spruced up by plywood facades and painted walls. They took us to 77 Leopold–von-Ranke-Sraβe, the Gründling homestead. They seemed as happy to see us as we were them. They felt honored by our visit. We felt overwhelmed by their warmth. They made it feel like home.

All because of a clerical mistake.