A Modest Proposal to End Love Locking on Bridges Forever

Everywhere you go in Europe, you see eyesores like this:

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Ever since some moron decided that attaching pieces of metal to public walkways was a thing, the scourge has proliferated. There are so many locks on the Pont des Arts that its railing partially collapsed last month

Here's my proposed remedy, which I might turn into a kickstarter campaign.

  1. Buy 10-15 bolt cutters. 
  2. Give them to the people who usually root around in public trash cans looking for deposit bottles to redeem for money.
  3. Promise these folks 50 cents for every lock they cut off and return to a central collecting point.
  4. Take the locks to a recycling center.

I bet this would have the entire bridge cleared in days, if not hours. There are lots of bottle collectors out there, they are extremely resourceful and persistent, and they have nothing but time on their hands.

You might ask: is this legal? I am sure it would be under American law. (How about German law? Help me out, readers!). Since the custom is apparently to throw the keys away after attaching the lock, whoever put the locks there has manifested an intention to permanently abandon the property. Or in less legal language, they've decided to throw away the lock in a public place. Which is littering, and is illegal. Removing litter is not only legal, it's a public service.

My proposal kills three birds with one stone: the bridge is cleared, the poor make money, and the metal gets recycled. I think I'll start a kickstarter project for this. Who's with me?


2010: The Year of Irena Sendler?

Irena Sendler


I'm listening to the radio a few days ago, and a feature comes on about Irena Sendler, whom I've never heard of. The more I listened, the more intrigued I became. I even bought the first full-length book about Sendler -- Die Mutter der Holocaust-Kinder -- written by Polish journalist Anna Mieszkowska and translated into German in 2006.

Sendler (1910-2008) was a Polish Catholic social worker who, during the occupation of Poland, worked closely with the Żegota group, formed by exiled Poles to aid Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The group provided relief to Jews in ghettoes in labor camps and smuggled thousands of Jews to safety. Working with several dozen other Żegota volunteers, Sendler began smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. As an experienced non-Jewish social worker, Sendler had permission to travel freely into and out of the Ghetto to study and treat the constant typhus outbreaks there.

It soon became clear to her that everyone left in the ghetto was destined to either die of hunger or disease, or be shipped away in trains, never to return. The Jewish mothers in the ghetto knew this as well, which is why they tearfully entrusted their children to Sendler and her accomplices. Together, they smuggled the children out in empty streetcars at the end of their shift, ambulances, fire trucks, under grown mens' overcoats, through the cellars of buildings abutting the edge of the ghetto, in boxes, under blankets, in trucks, through sewage canals. Sendler's ingenuity knew no limits. The infants were given sedatives and put in tiny wooden boxes with unobtrusive breathing holes. Young children who could not stop crying after being separated from their mothers were smuggled out in a cleaning-supplies truck. The driver, who was part of the conspiracy, would step on his guard dog's paws just before the checkpoint, so that the dog's bellowing would mask the Jewish child's sobbing. Sendler kept track of the names of the rescued children by engraving them on spoons or placing lists of names in jars buried in a Warsaw garden. Altogether some 2,500 children were rescued. Every Pole who participated in these actions (and there were hundreds of them) risked execution.

After the children arrived on the 'Aryan' side, they were placed with individual families, or in orphanages or childrens' homes, usually run by the Catholic Church. They were given (and taught) new names and identities. Of course, all of the families and organizations who took the children in risked death, since that was the punishment for Poles who concealed Jews during the occupation. Sendler herself was denounced in 1943 by another member of the organization, who gave up her name under torture. Sendler was incarcerated in the Pawiak prison and tortured herself. She refused, however, to give up the names of fellow Żegota members or reveal the location of the lists of the rescued children. She was sentenced to death. Shortly before the sentence was to be carried out, the Żegota managed to bribe an SS guard with a large package of dollars, and he set Sendler free on the streets of Warsaw, claiming that she had been shot while trying to escape. According to Sendler, the bribe was later discovered, and the SS officers involved shot.

After recovering from her severe injuries, Sendler lived out the rest of the war in the underground, continuing to actively aid the resistance. After the war, she and her accomplices began the process of tracing the children they had rescued from the ghetto, using the buried lists and other pieces of information. Most of the families of the children had, of course been gassed to death in Treblinka, so the next problem became what to do with the rescued Jewish orphans. Some stayed with their foster families, but others were placed in Jewish orphanages, and many ended up emigrating to Palestine or other countries. Eventually, they came to realize they'd all been rescued by the same person, and many of them now hold regular reunions.

After the war, Sendler received little recognition for her wartime deeds, not only owing to her humble nature but also her closeness to the Catholic church. However, the new state took advantage of her extensive training and experience in social work, and she rose in the ranks of the post-war state healthcare system. In 1965, she was recognized as one of Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem, and, after the collapse of Communism in Poland, she was gradually recognized as a national hero. However, her rise to worldwide prominents came as a result of a play written by...wait for it...a group of schoolgirls from Uniontown, Kansas. The play they wrote for a high-school history project, Life in a Jar, has now been performed all over the world, and the play's original authors met Sendler several times before her death in 2008. A documentary film about Sendler made by American director Mary Skinner has also just been released. There's even a school (g) named after Sendler in Germany.

2010 looks to be the year in which Sendler will finally achieve iconic status, and who can doubt her memory deserves it? There's much more work to be done to illuminate the historical context of her actions, though. The book I linked to at the top of this post is really nothing more than an annotated interview with Sendler, with pictures from her own personal archives and digressions on various tenuously related subjects. The book makes no pretensions to be a definitive biography, but it does conflict with the Wikipedia entry on Sendler (and with several written sources) on several points. Indeed, the book is partially an attempt by Sendler to 'correct the record' on what had been reported about her in the Polish press.

It seems to me like it is high time for a serious (but not dull!) scholarly biography about Sendler and her accomplices. A feature film also seems inevitable. Wouldn't it be refreshing if it were directed by a European filmmaker?


German Joys Fundraising Appeal: Gulf Regional Advocacy Center

Executions19302002


We interrupt this blog for some naked fund-raising. Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of hosting an impromptu speech by Danalynn Recer, Executive Director of the Gulf Regional Advocacy Center(GRACE), in Houston, Texas. Recer started GRACE in 2002, bringing with her years of experience representing death-sentenced inmates in Louisiana and other Southern States. GRACE's mission was to try to improve the quality of lawyering in capital cases in Harris County, Texas, the county that includes Houston, America's fourth-largest city. At first, GRACE had next to no resources, and operated out of the attic of Recer's home. Since then, they have expanded somewhat, and now have a full-time staff of 5-6.

As the chart above shows, Texas is the United States' leading death-penalty state, and historically, almost 1/3 of the people executed by Texas were sentenced to death in Harris County. There are many reasons for this fact: a high murder rate, Harris County prosecutors' enthusiasm for capital punishment, elected judges who knew they would have to answer to a crime-weary public at the polls, and underfunded and sometimes incompetent defense lawyers.

To understand why GRACE's work is so important, you have to understand a few basic facts about the American criminal justice system. Death penalty trials in American courtrooms are not genteel affairs. The prosecution views its job as getting a conviction and convincing the jury to sentence the defendant to death, and approaches the task with abundant resources and grim commitment. To preserve his chance at a 'not guilty' verdict or a sentence of less than life, the defense lawyer must likewise pull out all the stops. He must interview all important witnesses, locate people who can bolster the defense's version of events, get expert help to test the state's evidence, and develop a convincing 'counter-narrative' to the prosecution's case.

Further, the defense has to think about the punishment phase of the trial, too. If the defendant is convicted of capital murder, there is a separate, second trial, called the 'punishment-phase' trial, in which the jury decides whether the defendant will be sentenced to death or life imprisonment (those are the only two choices). The same jury sits for both parts of the trial, and the jury has the ultimate say whether the defendant is convicted and what sentence he gets. This means the defense lawyer has to convince the same 12 citizens who just found the defendant guilty of murder that there are 'mitigating circumstances' that call for a life sentence instead of a death sentence.

In most U.S. states, there are public-defender organizations who represent poor people accused of crimes. These are publicly-funded offices in which dozens or hundreds of lawyers work together to provide legal assistance to criminal defendants. Public defender offices generally provide pretty good representation -- there's quality control through the hierarchy, and opportunities for further specialized training. Harris County has no public defender system. Lawyers for capital murder defendants are private-practice criminal defense attorneys. The only restriction is that they must go through some training, and then apply to be on a special 'list' from which judges can pick them. Some of them are quite good, but others aren't. Further, many of these lawyers only rarely get picked for capital cases. They may have little experience with the time-consuming, emotionally-draining task of putting together a punishment-phase case for a death penalty client.

This is where GRACE comes in. GRACE has brought the latest techniques in death-penalty representation to Harris County, Texas, including sophisticated methods of jury selection and thorough research into 'mitigating' evidence, the legal system's term for evidence about the defendant's character and background that call for a reduction in punishment. It's not an easy job to convince a jury that someone they've just convicted of a heinous murder should not receive the maximum penalty -- but it's possible. 

To do it, you have to show that the defendant, despite his flaws, is not a monster. The jury should learn of the many facets of his personality beyond his crime: his background, the trials and hardships he faced, and redeeming personal qualities that show a potential for decency. Often, the most compelling testimony is not from psychiatrists or experts, but from the defendant's friends, family members, pastors, or former teachers. If this evidence convinces at least one jury member that the defendant's life should not be forfeited, the defendant will receive a sentence of life in prison. In Texas, this means the defendant will spend the rest of his natural life in prison, with no chance at parole. This is itself quite a harsh punishment, but that's Texas for you.

GRACE excels at helping appointed attorneys  win life verdicts. GRACE's particular specialty, though, is to put together a comprehensive showing of personalized mitigating evidence before the trial even starts. People from GRACE, and appointed lawyers, then meet with the prosecution and urge them not to seek the death penalty, arguing that the jury is unlikely to sentence the defendant to death, given the amount and quality of mitigating evidence. Often, the prosecution can be convinced to withdraw the request for capital punishment. Sometimes, a life-saving deal can be worked out, which prevents the need for any trial to take place. Despite occasional cases of innocence, there's usually strong evidence against people charged with serious crimes in places like Texas, and a non-death outcome is often the best realistic chance a defendant has.

Using these techniques, GRACE has helped avoid potential death sentences in dozens of trials. GRACE's work is one of the factors that has led to the unprecedented dropin death penalty verdicts coming from Harris County, once the 'killingest county' in the United States. In fact, in 2008, not a single person was sent to death row from Houston, a stunning development that has turned heads nationwide. And in 2009, GRACE Director Danalynn Recer helped secure a life sentence in a case that would have been an 'automatic death penalty' case in years past. As a local newspaper described the case:

Your client is an illegal immigrant who got drunk and killed a cop. He's on trial in Harris County, which sends more convicts to Death Row than most hemispheres. And you somehow convince a jury to forsake the death penalty and give a sentence of life without parole? That is some lawyering.

The paper, the Houston Press, awarded Recer the title 'Houston's Best Criminal Defense Attorney'. As Recer noted, the verdict in this case belied the stereotype of Texas jurors as 'bloodthirsty'. If you present them with a coherent, concrete case for life, they will respond, even when the crime itself was extremely disturbing.

And yes, GRACE needs your help. They are a shoestring non-profit organization. They do not accept payment from their indigent clients, and they receive no general funding from any government entity. Their funding model is designed to maximize their independence. As you can imagine, fighting hard for accused murderers is not exactly the key to popularity in a place like Texas, and GRACE wants to be able to pursue innovative legal strategies without having to please governments or institutions who may have competing agendas. Therefore, GRACE relies to a large extent on contributions from supporters. Ideally, they'd like lots of people to make a commitment to give a certain amount each month. This helps them plan for the future and maintain a constant stream of income. The higher the donation the better, obviously, but GRACE is happy even with smaller amounts.

GRACE's website contains much more information about the organization and its activities, and features pages which guide you step-by-step to set up monthly donations. You can also donate to GRACE from outside the U.S. I've seen GRACE's Spartan offices, and can assure you that not a penny will be wasted. It will all go to saving lives and making sure people facing the ultimate penalty get the best legal assistance money can't buy.