Furlong, Robinson and the Georgia Straight

John Furlong, the iconic figure behind Vancouver’s 2010 successful Winter Olympics, is suing Laura Robinson and the Georgia Straight for writing and publishing a supposedly defamatory article about him. The article alleges that in 1969 and 1970, as a volunteer Frontier Apostle brought over from Ireland by the order of Mary Immaculate (Immaculata School) in Burns Lake, BC, he employed physical brutality and racist taunts against First Nations children in his role as a teacher of physical education. The allegations of past abuse would never have surfaced were it not for the release of his self-serving autobiography, Patriot Hearts, in which he claimed to have immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1972 and not 1969, which records clearly demonstrate. His former students concluded, rightly or wrongly, that when Furlong failed to include his earlier stint in Burns Lake, he was essentially denying their history.  While the Prime Minister may have issued apologies for past treatment of First Nations people, Furlong’s lacuna and subsequent denial (‘It never happened”) reminded them of the continuing problem of individuals in the dominant culture failing to take responsibility for past sins against them.

The question now in this case is whether Furlong has suffered a grievous injustice (as a National Post editorial and his lawsuit claim) or whether the children (now adults) of the First Nations community in Burns Lake suffered unjustly from his presence at the school. No doubt his lawyers will try to divide and conquer, looking for the inevitable inconsistencies in testimony that would arise after forty years. However, he will have to deal with sworn affidavits from abuse victims and finding motivation for Robinson’s supposed slanderous article and the Straight’s willingness to publish it. Robinson herself, it should be pointed out, has a long history of muckraking in the upper echelons of the sporting community, advocacy for First Nations people, and fostering the arts in native communities by enabling them to tell their stories.

Perhaps a greater problem for Furlong might be his life and character in the decades since his return to Canada. When confronted with the Robinson’s article, assuming the facts in it were verifiable, Furlong might have said that as a young man he had entered a culture where harsh physical discipline was the norm. He might then have issued an apology for what some would perceive as errors, and the scandal would likely have blown over. However, his outright denial and his minimizing the missing part of his autobiography (“nothing of interest” happened during that time) may be indicative of a large amount of hubris in his psychological profile. It may also indicate that he has other things to hide. Does Furlong’s life since Burns Lake indicate that he has grown out of such behaviour or does he continue to have problematical personal relationships, albeit relationships invisible to the outside world? For instance, how is he viewed by his former wives or partners or by those who have worked under him? No question that he has had great support from people who were part of the Olympic project and even from some people in Burns Lake and Prince George.  Has he, as a public figure, successfully covered up his dark side?

Then again is the whole story about his years in Burns Lake fabricated or hyped to bring him down from his lofty pedestal? Would those (eight and counting) native people be making up these stories and lying because they have some personal vendetta against him? We have a hint about his legal strategy from his public comments about Robinson. He claimed that she has a problem with male authority figures. Even Robinson admits she has a problem with male authority figures in the sporting (especially hockey) world who, through unbalanced power relationships and incentives, take advantage of their young charges. As a journalist and writer, Robinson did much to unveil the behind-the-scenes activities of the culture that produced Graham James and his young victims, including hockey stars Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury. Since it might be argued that someone who verbally abuses, kicks and beats children is as culpable as someone who sexually abuses them (and does just as much damage to their psyches), Furlong has no choice but to sue. Otherwise, if the public comes to believe the allegations, his life becomes a titanic lie and he will no longer be able to make a living on the public speaking circuit. Therefore, he will come at Robinson and the Straight with all the legal forces he can muster.

Whatever the actual outcome of the lawsuit, justice is at issue here. Any person severely slandered in this way needs justice to restore his tarnished image. On the other hand, the First Nations people cannot escape their existential predicament in one or two generations. They are dogged by the massive injustice of Residential Schools, fostered by religious orders and, in turn, supported by successive governments, that came into existence to purge them of their pagan pasts and bring them into the fold of the dominant Canadian (i.e. Christian) culture. Any attempt to deny this past reality is felt as a profound injustice and a denial of their reality.

Finally, was the Straight justified in publishing this article even if the allegations were true? Had Furlong not written the autobiography, would past transgressions needed to have been revealed, especially if he had completely turned his life around? Or was his offense criminal in nature and needing to be exposed under any circumstances? It’s a complex case that will have a ripple effect on future attempts in Canada to expose people’s past behaviour. It will also be a test of Canada’s relatively new and more relaxed libel laws.

Interview with David Rovics

TROUBADOR FOR TROUBLED TIMES

An interview with singer/songwriter David Rovics

I had been completely unfamiliar with David Rovics, his work or the man himself, when moving out to Vancouver from Toronto in 2006.  When I joined the Solidarity Notes Labour Choir, headed by talented musical director Earle Peach, we began work on a first-rate Peach arrangement of a piece entitled “Drink of the Death Squads”.  While it took the better part of the year for the choir to learn its rhythmical intricacies, the political impact of the song was immediate.  The “drink,” as it turned out, is Coca Cola and the locale of the song was Colombia, where death squads killed union organizers (and still do) at an alarming clip.  Like Rovics himself, the song is savagely satirical, politically intelligent, and deadly serious, as witnessed in its refrain:

The baby drinks it in his bottle/ When the water ain’t no good/Even the dog drinks it/But he don’t know if he should;/And even some folks say it’s the nectar of the gods/ But Coke is the drink of the death squads.

This kind of writing has assured Rovics of a place in the pantheon of great lyricists, like his models Jim Page, Leon Rossleson, Bruce Springsteen, James Keelaghan, and Robb Johnson, who, with the exception of Springsteen, serve a limited market of politically aware people. Some of his songs such as “Jenin” and “Death of Rachel Corrie” are heartfelt elegies. The  power of the Corrie ballad is breathtaking:

And as your Caterpillar trucks/Upon her body pressed/With twenty tons of deadly force/Crushed the bones within her chest/Could you feel the contours of her face/As you took her life away?/Did you serve your country well/On that cool spring day?

He writes his songs in a rapid-fire way, usually following a major incident, as in “The Mavi Marmara”, which tells the story of the illegal boarding of a Gaza flotilla ship and the murder of several passengers by the Israeli army.

Rovics is actually an Easterner, having been born and bred in Connecticut.  He moved to Portland, Oregon in 2007 for the purpose of helping to raise his five-year-old daughter, Leila.  His former partner moved to Portland to attend medical school; he sees Portland itself, with its free downtown public transit and proliferation of bicycles, as a model for future urban development. Although he still feels like an Easterner, he was also pleasantly surprised to find the vibrant music scene that Portland has now become. Moving west has not mellowed Rovics one iota. He continues to sing out against injustice, especially the injustice toward the Palestinian people.  Part of the reason for this focus comes from his agnostic Jewish father who has always been an example of iconoclasm and moral courage to David.  His father married “out of the faith” and eschewed both the faith itself and the proclivity of Jews in the 1950’s to assimilate into the dominant capitalist culture.  This second rebellion is reflected in Rovics’s lifestyle: spare and simple. His apartment, where he lives with his current partner, Reiko Maeda, is given over to child-centeredness: his daughter’s artwork on the walls (in addition to political posters) and even a shower curtain with a map of the world.   Keeping with that theme, Rovics has also produced a CD of lively children’s songs: “Har Har Har: Songs about Pirates, Penguins and Punk Rock Babies.”

This interview took place in Rovics’s Portland apartment.  I was struck by the ease and directness with which he answered all questions.

 

Klonsky: What and who were your earliest political influences?

Rovics:  My earliest political influences were probably my parents but my first introduction to political activism was the anti-nuclear movement prevalent at Rowe Camp (in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts) where I went in 1979 at the age of twelve.  The intensity of the movement at that time was a result of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The Rowe Center is best known for its workshops in New Age spirituality, yoga and open-minded forums on politics.  For me, however, at that early age, the camp had a profound influence on my development. It was unmilitary, non-competitive, and emphasized cooperation and caring.  Its politics and activities were also politically radical and would be seen as much even today. For example, to reduce gender bias and counteract homophobia, the camp held a “sex change day” where the girls dressed as boys and vice versa. We also went to a nude beach, but many of us found that a little weird.

In addition to the camp, my elementary education took place in a so-called learning community, not in the public system.  The same ethic predominated: worldliness, caring for others, healthy relationships between males and females.  I decided to attend the public system in junior high and high school where I experienced an unfamiliar and disturbing world. I found myself in an environment of put-downs, academic competitiveness and rampant sexism where girls were objects of conquest.

Klonsky: Where did you find the courage to speak truth to power? Do you see yourself in a long line of Jewish progressives or is Judaism irrelevant to what you do?

Rovics:  I’m not sure if speaking out is so terribly courageous, at least not compared to those people who go out and put their bodies on the line. The Jewish influence was there. Certainly the message I took away from the Holocaust, and my grandmother’s very regular references to it, was that we couldn’t let this sort of thing happen again, that all people had a responsibility not to let that happen again.

Klonsky:  Who were your earliest musical influences? Where do you see yourself in terms of musical tradition?

Rovics: It’s been a long and circuitous process of discovery.  My parents are both accomplished classical musicians; I grew up playing the cello.  My mom introduced me to the music of Pete Seeger although I didn’t appreciate him until much later on. Someone gave me a Phil Ochs songbook and he became a huge influence.  Utah Phillips. At nineteen, I heard Jim Page (as opposed to Jimmie Page of Led Zeppelin) busking at Pike Place market in Seattle.  As a songwriter, he was the biggest influence beyond a doubt.

Klonsky:  When did you become involved in writing songs in support of justice for Palestinians?

Rovics: In 1999, I did a tour of Israel organized by members of the Israeli folk music society for entirely English speaking Jewish communities throughout the country.  As well as being lots of fun, it was very disturbing.  I met lots of nice people and saw great natural beauty (the Negev is incredible!) and the Dead Sea. Folks were receptive to all of my material that wasn’t about the Middle East. As soon as Arabs were mentioned in a sympathetic light, the reception was very bad.  At the time, Israel itself, because of suicide bombings and the legacy of Holocaust survivors, was a traumatized civilization; dialogue was difficult even then.

Ten months after the tour, at the beginning of the first Palestinian Intifada, I wrote a song, “Children of Jerusalem” about a massacre of Palestinian children that had taken place when Ariel Sharon visited the Al-Aqsa mosque. One of the lines in the song, They’re gunning down the children of Jerusalem, produced a predictable result. I received loads of angry e-mails from people in Israel and, to some extent, from their supporters in the Jewish diaspora. A few days after, I started receiving a much bigger flood of e-mails from the Palestinian diaspora and their supporters around the world.  I was hooked.

As a result of the song and the stance I was taking, my second tour of Israel was cancelled, ten concerts in all. Only one venue would have allowed me to play and that was going to be at the house of Moshe Lansman, a psychiatrist who worked with childhood trauma victims on both sides.

Klonsky: You have been asked why you don’t write songs about the victims of suicide bombings.  Your song “Jenin” tells the story of a young Arab boy whose family has been destroyed, who straps on a bomb and blows himself up to kill Israelis.  Aren’t the suicide bombings that victimize innocent civilians also a result of Islamic fundamentalism?

Rovics:  It’s not as if I don’t see both sides as victims of the conflict. The media does a good job of humanizing Israeli victims but fails to humanize Palestinians. Kids killed in pizzerias and at Bar Mitzvahs were also victims but I felt no need to publicize their plight.  The suicide bombers themselves were characterized in the media as religious fanatics who would go to heaven for blowing themselves up and taking Israeli lives.  I would not justify these acts under any circumstances but simply point out that the characterization of the bombers as fanatics is erroneous. A 2006 study of suicide bombers by Professor Robert Pape (Dying to Win, The strategic Logic of Suicide Bombers, University of Chicago) indicates that 95% were motivated by personal loss, secular and political grievances, and, most often, military occupation to strike back at their oppressors and only 5% were inspired by religious fanaticism. The mainstream media is not interested in such subtleties.

“Jenin” was based on the particular case of a 27-year-old Palestinian woman, a paralegal whose parents were murdered by the Israeli military.

Klonsky: How do you approach fanatical religious fundamentalism?

Fundamentalists delude themselves in every religion. The Catholic Church was responsible for European anti-Semitism and extreme forms of intolerance against Jews. They were persecutors in the same vein as Adolf Hitler.  Enlightened views about diversity in Europe are only decades old.

Evils have also been perpetrated by Islamic countries and individuals, the Armenian massacre by the Turks to name just one.  But Islamic tolerance is centuries old. Jews actually escaped to the Muslim world (the Ottoman Empire) to avoid reprisals from Europeans.  Ant-Semitism is a European problem that the Arab world, especially the Palestinian people, is paying for.  The Holocaust may have allowed Israel to become a state but the Holocaust is not a justification for acts of war and cruelty by the Israeli government and the military.   Ironically, Palestinians are sometimes branded as Nazis by right wing Israelis, but the victimization of the Palestinian people is a reflection of the treatment of Jewish people by the Nazis.  Humiliation, brutality, mass displacement, punishment of entire populations for the deeds of a few and mass incarceration without due process are commonplace. As I wrote in The Death of Rachel Corrie: Did her gaze remind you/That you’ve become what you despise?  Violent fundamentalism produces more violence and more recriminations. It’s a cycle that can and must be broken.

Klonsky: Phil Ochs, a Jewish songwriter who you’ve said was a profound influence, became extremely depressed about the state of the world before his tragic suicide.  What keeps you going in a positive direction?

Rovics: I think it’s very easy to get frustrated with things, especially having experienced a cultural and political renaissance like the 60’s and then seeing it crash and burn in the 70’s. I’m sure that emotional problems, a tendency to see his glass as half empty, also hindered Phil. I think that having a generally sunny disposition keeps me going in a positive direction. I think I have a really fun job. I get frustrated sometimes that I’m not rich and famous, but I try to let that go because it will eat me up otherwise.  I just try to be happy that I’m making a living as a musician. Similarly, I could just feel overwhelmed by the likely prospect of what climate change and unfettered capitalism are about to offer my daughter.  I’d much rather focus on whatever small chance we have to turn this whole beast around and focus on the little things I can do to be part of that process.

 

See www.davidrovics.com for a full discography, lyrics, ideas and performances by Rovics.  Full lyrics for his songs can be found on line (David Rovics songbook).

Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns, an American/Canadian tragedy

Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;/ Some shall be pardoned, and some punished;/ For never was a story of more woe


The sheer terror of a wrongful conviction is only possible to understand through imagination and empathy. Far easier to turn away and forget the suffering of the wrongly convicted, or, easier still, to accept the verdict of a misinformed jury. This need for closure is a powerful motivator for the victim’s family, the public and the legal officers of the court, police, lawyers, judges. But just, for a moment, think of what it must be like to have done no crime and hear the iron doors close behind you for ‘life without the possibility of parole’.

When speaking of the innocence of Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns, the first reaction of many people in the public, especially in Vancouver, was, until recently, hostile disbelief. These two, who at the time of the crime (1994) were teenagers, must be despicable murderers. Case closed. Much time, effort and resources went into the 2004 convictions in the state of Washington, including a long extradition battle in Canada to protect Sebastian and Atif from facing the death penalty. There is more than a hint of complicity amongst the press and the legal systems of two countries, especially the use of the often discredited RCMP sting operation, ‘Mr. Big’. Never mind that three innocence projects agree that no forensic evidence ties the pair to the crime. Never mind that the two were seen at a movie theater while the crime took place, alibi evidence that the prosecution went through gyrations to discredit. Never mind that the crime was the hideous bludgeoning of Rafay’s parents and sister and that the motive given for this savagery was the desire to make a film with the family inheritance. That such a motive could be applied to such a crime, when no hint of familial abuse or previous criminal activity can be found, is perverse in the extreme. And yet it was applied and was successful, if success can be measured by getting a wrongful conviction. Were Sebastian Burns to have carried through on such a thing, he would have been insane (not financially motivated), but clearly he was not. We strongly believe that this case was decided on extorted evidence and prejudice rather than concrete forensic evidence. The convictions of Burns and Rafay are a textbook example of tunnel vision; other suspects and theories to account for this hideous crime were never seriously investigated.

We make the following speculative assertion while recognizing that it also entails prejudice. The style or method of killing is more in keeping with either psychosis or religious fundamentalism. The fact that Tariq Rafay, Atif’s father, was the head of the Canadian Pakistani Association before he moved to Bellevue,Washington for employment, cannot be divorced from this crime, even though it was at the trial. The family had moved there in 1993 but had not been living at that address for even a year when the killing took place. Was Mr. Rafay considered an apostate Muslim when, as a civil engineer, he discovered that Canada’s mosques were not facing Mecca? Were there groups within Bellevue that did not want the Rafay family to live in that community? Five days following the Rafay murders, an FBI informant, Douglas Muhammad, gave information about the weapon used in the crime and the motivation mentioned above, i.e. Islamic fundamentalism. Another reliable informant in Canada told the RCMP about a possible hit on a Canadian-Pakistani family that had just moved to Bellevue, Washington. These possibilities are dealt with on the rafayburnsappeal.com website; I will not address them any further except to say that they were disallowed in the courtroom as prejudicial and that the failure to follow up on the leads was an example of tunnel vision.

The most recent (November 2012) amicus brief for this case was presented by the Innocence Network, a large and prestigious group of innocence projects both in the United States and Canada. The brief, sent to the Washington State Supreme Court, deals with the right of a defendant to use expert witnesses. Burns and Rafay sought to have Richard Leo and Michael Levine speak to the jury about the issue of false confessions (Leo) and the dangers of sting operations such as Mr. Big (Levine). Both were disallowed in the courtroom. Since the case hinged so strongly on the confessions, the two defendants were denied the ability to defend themselves fully.

The appeal court for the State of Washington ruled earlier this year against Rafay and Burns. Without question, their ruling was as perverse as the trial itself, although it would have been unusual for a lower appeal court to overturn a conviction in such a high profile case. Along with agreeing with the judge that the jury would be perfectly competent to decide between truth and lies while viewing confessions extracted through a sting operation, they also supported the contention that outside experts should not have been allowed to testify.  These two rulings are, in effect, Siamese twins. Since the methodology of obtaining the confessions could not be challenged or explained, the confessions had to be accepted at face value. The question then becomes: How does a juror know that a confession is true simply by the way the confessor is behaving?

Another aspect of the ruling was the use of the sting itself. The court held that the confession was not made to people “in authority” (i.e. police interrogators) but to police masquerading as gangsters. For some reason, it was believed that gangsters were less likely to produce false confessions, even if those RCMP gangsters made it clear that Burns would be in for physical harm and legal danger if he didn’t confess. In fact, Burns was under increasing pressure as the sting, which went on for three months, progressed. (A recent appeal ruling in Newfoundland (Nelson Hart) held that the Mr. Big sting produced more coercion and pressure to confess than a regular police interrogation. Mr. Hart was  therefore granted another trial.)

One ruse they used was to show him a fake news report from Washington that indicated hard evidence of his guilt. They told Burns that he was about to be charged with the killings unless he confessed to Mr. Big. If he told Mr. Big that he was responsible for killing the Rafay family, and thereby prove that he was ‘solid, they would make the charges go away. Using such methodology is actually illegal in the United States, and for very good reason. A confession cannot be valid if it is extorted or coerced in any way, because such coercion is a violation of the 5th Amendment, the guarantee against involuntary self-incrimination.

Finally, the appeal court agreed with the defendants that the prosecutor used legally unacceptable and clearly prejudicial language in describing the crime during his summation. They also agreed that the use of grisly photos taken from news reports on Muslim fundamentalists was completely improper. However, they said that the offensive statements and the grisly photos only constituted a small part of the entire summation and ‘it was arguable’ that they made no appreciable difference in the verdict. When we say the ruling was perverse, along with prejudicial, this particular aspect of the ruling best exemplifies those words. What Prosecutor Konat said and the photos he employed may have prejudiced the jury, they held, but only, we guess, if he had acted improperly for a longer time.

At some level, be it state or federal, we believe that Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay will be granted another trial. They should be granted another trial! They are innocent. Their incarceration is an unmitigated tragedy. Rafay has lost his entire family and his freedom for a lifetime. Burns, presupposed to be the one who actually bludgeoned the Rafay family,  has suffered a far worse fate. Living in solitary confinement for the past 8 years, one of tens of thousands of such prisoners in the USA, he has developed psychological problems that may be beyond cure. I ask any reader of this blog to use his/her imagination and, just for a moment, entertain the possibility that the two are wrongly convicted. It’s an inconvenient truth, no? No one wants to believe such a thing, especially when guilt has been presupposed by so many. But think of the suffering if innocence is the issue. Think of Rafay; think of Sebastian Burns; think of Sebastian’s family. And then, know that what I am saying here is TRUE! Three innocence projects (Innocence International, Idaho Innocence Project at Boise State University, and Pacific Northwest Innocence Project at the University of Washington) are 100% certain that the two of them are innocent. Now try to live with that as fact and see if you don’t feel like us; see if you don’t feel the pressing weight of injustice and the culpability of the RCMP who launched a sting without any hard evidence to back up the contention that Burns and Rafay killed the Rafay family. See if you still support a sting operation that can easily manufacture false confessions through inducement and coercion.

LATEST COURT DECISION ON OBNOXIOUS MR. BIG STING

Man acquitted in neighbour’s 1974 killing after judge throws out evidence from ‘Mr. Big’ sting

After 40 years, two murder cases, one failed undercover operation and now an acquittal thanks to Charter violations, Durham Region’s oldest murder case remains unresolved

By:Wendy GillisNews reporter, Published on Mon Jul 28 2014

After nearly 40 years, two murder trials, one elaborate undercover operation and now an acquittal, Durham Regional Police’s oldest murder case remains unsolved.

Dealing the final blow to the first-degree murder case, Justice Bruce Glass acquitted Alan Smith of the 1974 slaying of Beverly Smith in an Oshawa courtroom Monday.

Glass effectively undid the case last month, when he threw out all evidence gathered in an intricate, year-long police sting known as a “Mr. Big” operation.

The undercover investigation — which convinced Smith he was enmeshed in a murderous crime ring, and culminated with the dumping of a fake corpse off a cliff — had violated Smith’s Charter rights and was an abuse of process, Glass ruled in June.

Without the evidence gathered during the sting, namely two widely varying murder confessions, Crown Attorney Frederick Stephens conceded there was little prospect of conviction.

“There is no reasonable alternative but to discontinue the prosecution,” he told court Monday.