Sunday, July 25, 2010

Waiting for Conrad

There were two cases before Conrad Black took the floor at the district court in Chicago on Thursday. The first was Barry Ware, who'd been convicted of drug offences and who was sentenced to twelve years. The second was a detention hearing for two guys whose counsel seemed a bit unsure of themselves, and who you had to hope were court-appointed.

I'd arrived at 7am, as the clerk had told me the day before to get there early if I wanted to get a seat in the court for Black's status hearing. As it turned out, he wasn't due in court until 12.30. So me and anoter intern and a large part of Barry Ware's extended family were the only ones present for the majority of the morning.

Conrad Black and the media pack finally swept in with their blackberrys and posh aftershave at 12. One of Black's team of not-quite-heavies had suggested to Stephanie (intern) and I that we should go and wait in the queue for the seats with the journalists, but we told him we'd been there since seven, at which point he seemed to realize we were just geeks and let us off. He also gave te press a lecture about not filming or broadcasting from the courtroom in any way, which I assumed meant he was federal staff. It wasn't until I later saw him pushing photographers off Black's car that I realized which side he was on.

The hearing itself was brief. Black's team again pushed for him to be allowed to go back to Canada, this time on the grounds of his wife's health. The judge, Amy St. Eve, refused (again), repeating that she still did not have a thorough enough financial affidavit. Conrad Black agreed to the terms of his bond, said surety would have to come from his friend Roger Hertog as he couldn't afford it himself (hmm) and then they all rushed back out.

I'd been sat next to a guy who used to be a Chicago DA, but who now does TV slots for a Canadian channel. He got me and the oter intern into thepress section downstairs in the lobby. About fifty journalists were hoping for a few words of wisdom/apology etc from the man himself, but in the event he went straight for the doors and his own car. The doors of the building are revolving, which is an obstacle to a cameraman attached to a soundman. We also saw one crew wrap themselves around a pillar outside, with the presenter trying to get his mic into the middle of the scrum.

Anyway, I got one photo, then they were gone, so I went to get a burger.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rail trek

In Chicago. Had two nights in Denver - shared hostel room with Marielle, a massage therapist called Candice and next door to a man who described himself as 'vibrating with joy'.

My brother has rubbed off on me. I have become a train geek. These Amtrak overnighters are not like the European ones. Loads of space, no passport controls every ten minutes, no Soviet-style loos which you can't use when the train's in a station. It was three hours late however, which felt comfortingly like home.

We had a big Christian youth group in our carriage. Less pot-smoking and card playing and more boggle and guitars. One of the leaders had a very annoying habit of playing an imaginary trumpet. He nearly got a smack, Christian or not.

Felt like a character in an Agatha Christie made-for-tv film having breakfast in the dining car. There was a old gentleman with a brown shirt and braces sat opposite me who didn't say a word, and slept through the wait for his food. When it eventually came, he took three bites before puking it up on the floor, which was somewhat unexpected.

Anyway. Now in Chicago. Massive buildings, massive pizza, Transformers 3 being filmed downtown. The set looked like a disaster zone - exploded cars, trashed buildings, soldiers with M16s. Shrewsbury on a Saturday night?

Monday, July 5, 2010


One thing that's taken a bit of getting used to in Houston is that even when it’s raining hard enough to hurt here, it’s still really hot. With the air-con jacked up, you end up wearing all your layers indoors and stripping off outside.

There was a car stuck in the underpass near our house over the weekend. It’s not small – it looks like an SUV, although it’s difficult to tell – but on Friday night the driver obviously thought he or she could make it all the way through the flood water that had poured onto the Allen Parkway, and got caught out.

Hurricane Alex technically never hit Houston. After brewing in the Gulf, it turned left and made landfall on the coast of Mexico on Thursday, but the storms we had from its edges were spectacular; at least if you’re from a country where storms generally last an hour at most and everyone gets excited when there’s a rumble of thunder. Here, we were being warned by road signs and news broadcasts to fill our gas tanks and stock up on water and candles, although most of the locals agreed there was nothing to worry about.

We drove three hours north of Houston on Friday. While driving there was wet but manageable, the further we went the better it got. It was when we turned round to head back that you could really see the storm.

About ten miles from downtown, we tried to get off the freeway. The traffic was stacked up on the frontage road, but we just thought everyone had had the same idea –trucks were still powering down the I45 despite practically zero visibility. It wasn’t until it was too late to turn back that we realised the frontage road was under a foot of water. We were lucky enough that the car directly in front was the same size as ours, which proved to be the only way we could judge which bit of road we could feasibly drive on, and where the dips were. The girl in front put one side of her car on the pavement, which seemed sensible, and which we copied. We didn’t think about the fact that you can’t actually see the edge of the road, and it was only when she sank into a dropped kerb and flooded her exhaust that we realised we should back up, go round, and very slowly make our way back on to the freeway heading downtown.

Despite roads being closed, the police cordoning off drains that were flooding like fountains and cars being abandoned on the side of the freeway in two feet of water, within two days it was all gone, and everything was back to normal. You've got to give Houston credit for efficiency. England would shut down for three weeks for less.

Monday, June 28, 2010

World Cup and other mass participation sports

Having been told that Americans can’t be bothered with soccer and couldn’t tell their Arsenal from their proverbial elbow, it turns out that trying to get into Sawyer Park sports bar when the US is playing is pointless – it’s packed to the rafters. This is good – it made the US vs. England game much more enjoyable last week, even if I had the only lonely England flag in the pub, which I had to quietly stuff back into my bag before skulking out when it all ended in a draw. And I’m glad I had the excuse of an airport-run instead of sitting through yesterday’s debacle.

There have been some good editorials on the sport. Once I’d got over the fact they kept talking about the US playing Britain (which hacked off Scottish housemate as much as me I think – talk of writing angry letters to editor abounded), there was a big discussion in The Week about why football isn’t any great shakes over here, despite the fact that it’s the most played sport in America outside of basketball. The journalist disliked the idea of the US being forced to enjoy the World Cup, saying those who push the US to love football are actually closet lefties, believing that ‘rejecting soccer is xenophobic, provincial, and just as disreputable as America’s “rejection of socialism”’. That seems a bit harsh to me, but he also added that people here don’t like things that end in a 0-0 verdict; that really, sports are popular because they show that all that running around achieves results.

The Critical Mass Friday night started well and ended badly. We did however manage to cover around 16 miles before the police showed up. This time they chased one guy down Washington Avenue and into a cul-de-sac before pushing him onto the ground, cuffing him and stuffing him in the back of a car. To be fair to the police, no one seems quite sure what happened – the cyclist was possibly told to stop and didn’t. But the problem with forcing one cyclist into a dead end road is that there are another 250 behind him, demanding their rights as part of the traffic and taking photos. It didn’t help that the police car had run over the cyclist’s bike, crushing one of the wheels entirely.

On a better note however, we also saw a guy playing a banjo while stood on a small plank of wood over the back tire of a bike. He was raising awareness of the treatment of veterans of Afghanistan, and did it completely naked in New Orleans. That apparently raised even more awareness than it did in Houston.

Friday, June 4, 2010

David Lee Powell's execution date is set.

On 15th June 2010, the state of Texas is due to execute David Powell, currently on death row at the Polunsky Unit. He has been there since 1978. Of these 32 years, the last ten have been spent in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, after the 1999 breakout from the unit of a group of prisoners led to total lock-down for all death row inmates.

David Powell has plenty to recommend him as a useful member of prison society. He had no priors before the murder, and had become addicted to drugs when the murder occurred - he has been clean since incarceration. In 32 years, he has persuaded inmates not to get involved in gangs, he has helped them with their legal documentation, he has helped supply materials for inmates who want to develop their art or their writing. He has edited articles for those trying to get work published, and provided a political education for those around him. On a more basic level, he has also taught prisoners to read and write, which when you’re locked down for 23 hours a day with normally not even a radio, can be a lifeline.

David Powell does not deny killing Officer Ralph Ablanedo in 1978, and no one wants to take away from the enormity of Ablanedo's death. But is it humane to give someone a life-sentence of 32 years, and then execute them at the end of it? Since David arrived on death row, 70 countries have banned the death penalty. This is a man who could make a big difference to the general prison population were he given clemency.

If you want to know more, the link will take you to Amnesty International USA’s webpage. If you feel it’s the right thing to do, please send their email to the paroles board. Execution is set for 15th June.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Staying in with Tim

I’m getting behind with this. But at least now we’re all in the house. It’s the United Nations of downtown, with five of us gearing up to beat the crap out of each other during the world cup, even if it’s only verbally. Flags are ordered, alarms will be set for the 6am matches, and now all we have to do is sort the food for the post-match breakfast.

Friday Night Lights has become an institution, at least for the ladies amongst us. We’re supposed to be getting out, seeing a lot of Texas, being self-righteous and disagreeing with the politics here. Instead, we’re watching a lot of Tim Riggins. I’m the only one who thinks that kid needs a hair cut, but nevertheless I’ve been sucked in.

We also did the second Critical Mass of our stay on Friday. A group of 300ish cyclists managed about two miles before the first rain spots started, and within another 200 yards we were all wedged under the Chevron garage as the wind changed and we all got blasted. Cyclists are very friendly in Houston though - strength in numbers. I can't think of a nicer bunch of people to be crammed in with.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Angola and the clerk

Wilbert Rideau was in town last week. He spent 44 years in Angola for the murder of Julie Ferguson, which he has never denied. Angola is generally acknowledged to be the worst prison in the USA, and of the 44 years he spent there, 12 were on death row. Wilbert has been in prison so long that his death penalty was overturned when the US initially banned capital punishment in the 1970s, and he was given a life sentence instead. He had two re-trials, both also with all-white, all-male juries, but it wasn't until a final trial in 2005 that his sentence was commuted to manslaughter. He was given 21 years, and as he had already served 44, he walked free.

Whatever you think about Wilbert Rideau's crime and the fact that his conviction was overturned, he has a perspective that's pretty unique. He's now heavily involved with capital defence teams who are trying to convince their clients to support a plea bargain - in other words, to accept life without parole in exchange for the state not pushing for death. But if you know that you are never going to leave the confines of the likes of Angola, that must be an extremely tough option.

In the same week, I met a records clerk who also had links to the prison. She first got talking when she pointed out to everyone in the room that I have a freaky way of writing. But she ended up telling me that her father was one of the youngest men to ever go to Angola. He was in for 25 years, and she remembers being searched by guards as a five year old when she went to visit him with her grandmother. On his release, her father lasted only a few months before he was back inside, and she's convinced he was institutionalised. Finally, he overdosed on heroin.

Is this the ultimate catch 22? No one wants to stay in, but it's also incredibly difficult to survive when you're out.