‘Two dimensions of otherness’ – the Syrian refugee crisis migrates to America

“Each new American citizen brings a unique set of skills and experiences which they can use to improve our communities and our nation. And each of them can help renew our shared hope that unlimited possibilities are available to everyone who embraces the opportunities that this country offers under its Constitution.”
– León Rodríguez, Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, column on U.S. Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, 2015

“We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims… when can we get rid of them?”
– Question posed to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, in New Hampshire, September 17, 2015

It should come as no surprise that President Obama’s promise to welcome 10,000 refugees fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, is causing some in our nation to flex their nationalist, racist muscle. Never mind that many are only a couple of generations removed from their refugee ancestors. Never mind that this latest batch of refugees can be linked directly to the mistakes we made invading Iraq, part of the Bush Doctrine’s sad, flawed legacy, and because of that we bear some responsibility.

“When we talk about Iraq and Afghanistan refugees,” says Ted Terry, the mayor of “the most ethnically diverse square mile in America,” Clarkston, Georgia, “we’re talking mainly about people who helped out American and coalition forces during the war, people who risked their lives to help our soldiers in those wars, and who, if they stayed there, would be killed.”

“These resettlement programs,” Terry added, “are making up for the turmoil and the war and the strife that, quite frankly, America caused by inserting ourselves into those parts of the world.”

But humanity and empathy are set aside as too complex for simple minds that react more easily to hatred and fear.The immigrant is hated because he is different, and feared because of her olive skin and stigmatized culture. Take a look what is happening in Europe, right now, as hundreds of thousands of displaced people flee war to seek a better life in the West.

“Certainly the fact that the majority of the refugees are Muslims is a problem,” Dr. Luca Mavelli, a professor of Politics and International Relations at he University of Kent, in England, told National Public Radio, Monday. “There is an issue in Europe, which is a longstanding conflation between migrants and Muslims, so two dimensions of otherness that, somehow, are now coming together, and are well represented by Eastern European countries, like Hungary or The Czech Republic who have been very clearly stating that they would only take Christian refugees.”

And despite the fact that these brave souls are undertaking dangerous and harrowing journeys to reach Germany, France and England, their tiny children washed up on the beach like driftwood, the entire throng is demonized because most of them are Muslim. The hand wringing over solutions to the crisis has brought out some of the worst on our shores, as well.

“The rhetoric has been really awful,” James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, told Newsweek, recently. “The difficulty of doing it is met by this Islamophobia and conflation of Syrians and Iraqis with terrorists.”

“Every person has their own story. They are human beings, here,” explained Ted Terry. “The term refugee is not a monolith. When we say refugee, we are talking about people from Eritrea who are Coptic Christians. When we’re talking about Syrians, we’re talking about people who are both Muslims and Christians.”

Back in January, when it was apparent there would be new migrants from the war weary Near East coming to America, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) sent a letter to the White House warning that inviting thousands of Syrian refugees to our country would be offering “a backdoor for jihadists” who would take advantage of the melee to blend in with other immigrants.

“We… know that ISIS wants to use refugee routes as cover to sneak operatives into the West,” he wrote in a statement, after the White House announcement, last week.

But State Department officials insist there is already a rigorous and deliberate screening protocol for refugees. “We have a very slow process of moving refugees through our pipeline, and part of it is because of the security vetting component,” Larry Bartlett, the Director of Refugee Admission for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, told ABC in February.

Scenes from Clarkston, Georgia, "the most ethnically diverse square mile in America.". (Click to enlarge.)
Scenes from Clarkston, Georgia, “the most ethnically diverse square mile in America.” (Click to enlarge.)

That one to two year vetting process, combined with “good community policing, good community relations with the Muslim leaders in these communities,” said Mayor Terry, make him feel his town is as safe as any in America.

“For Clarkston,” he added, “we’ve had 35 years of refugee resettlement. We’ve had them from many different Muslim countries. We’ve had them from Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, certainly, and we haven’t had a terrorist come over in those 35 years. I don’t expect that to change.”

That’s important to Terry because even Georgia Governor Nathan Deal (R) acknowledges that most of the new refugees are likely to end up there. Like other Republican run states, Georgia’s leaders have asked Washington not to increase their share of refugees. Deal explained his state’s position to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week:

“Deal’s administration confirmed Tuesday it has asked the State Department to keep the number of refugees resettling in the Peach State ‘static’ going into the next fiscal year.

“‘We will be welcoming,’ Deal told the AJC. ‘But we want to make sure we’re not taking a disproportionately large share of them compared to other parts of the country.'”

Deal is supported by some of his party’s hardliners, like pundit and political consultant Phil Kent, who recently published a piece titled, “Gov. Deal Seeks to Limit Muslim Refugee Influx.” Like its headline, the post unsparingly criticizes Obama’s decision based on the faith of the migrants and reiterates the aforementioned “conflation” that equates them with terrorism.

“I don’t recall ever voting in the United States for bringing in masses of Muslims,” Kent said, this week, on a local news and current events television panel where he appears as a regular guest.

Terry finds that attitude counterproductive, and insists that the promise of America demands we take in the refugees:

“We can invite them to come to America as a gesture of good will and compassion, lead by example in that regard, and when they get here, they find out, ‘Oh, my goodness! Americans aren’t the evil Satan. Maybe they’re not as bad as people in my country said they were. I’ve been welcomed with open arms. They helped save me from this terrible position I was in, helped me to save my children, and here I am in a place that’s not only free, but also safer and has a lot more opportunity than I ever could have dreamed of.’

“That’s the only way we’re ever going to win this war of ideas between radical Islam and what is not a religious argument, but more of an argument over liberty and freedom. That’s what we say in the pledge of allegiance every single school day and every City Council meeting in Clarkston. We talk about ‘…with liberty and justice for all.’ That’s exactly what we’re doing for these refugees. We’re providing liberty and justice for all of them.”


Will the power of impassioned politicians work down-ticket?

Curiouser and curiouser. It’s like Alice herself is guiding us through the United States of Wonderland’s early primary season going into the 2016 presidential elections. Showmanship and passionate authenticity seem to be ruling the day, while establishment electoral politics sits bemused on a mushroom. Just how long can this go on?

With the angry Republican up by double digits and the fiery Democrat surging in the early primary states, it might be time to stop asking when the campaigns of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders are going to collapse and start figuring out a way to put the magic in a bottle labeled “Drink Me” for the down-ticket House and Senate races in 2016.Alice_drink_me-bottle

But will it work? Beth Cope, a Democratic political consultant who has worked on several campaigns, doesn’t think so. Referring to a popular 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a dangerously honest presidential candidate, she said, “I don’t think the ‘Bulworth Principle’ applies down-ticket. Down ballot voters are hardcore voters who aren’t turned on by theatrics.”

Still, Republicans have been rather good at theatrics the last three or four election cycles, especially in the House. They have been providing the most entertainingly twisted, Mad Hatter’s tea party kind of candidates to take on politics in a couple of generations. Where Reagan may have been extreme in his time, they are unapologetically extremer. Where Goldwater gave no quarter, they give not even a penny.

The Washington Post published an article over Labor Day about Republican contrarian, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina), calling him the “Trump of the House.”

Like the presidential candidate, Meadows questions the leadership of the Republican Party. One may remember that he launched a campaign, before the summer recess, to unseat Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as Speaker of the House, a move some at the time described as “unhelpful.” Boehner himself dismissed the move as coming from “a member here and a member there who are off the reservation.”

But that boldness that has been coming for some time, according to Cope, and one needs to look no farther than The Donald as an exemplar of why Republicans thinks it’s okay to go “off the reservation.”

“Donald Trump isn’t doing anything that Fox News wouldn’t ordinarily do,” she said. “When [Republican National Committee Chairman] Reince Priebus and Fox News and all of these folks say, ‘Oh, they’re damaging the Republican brand,’ every time they did not stand up against [the litany of misogynistic and degrading] things said on Fox News or elsewhere, every time the leadership said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to offend our base. We’re not going to weigh in,’ they gave up a little piece of their party.

“If Donald Trump is the type of person who is unacceptable to them, it’s their own fault.”

Yet WaPo points out that Trump’s bravado has bolstered the spirits of those who disagree with the establishment GOP brand:

“Trump’s anti-establishment message, gleefully mocking not only Democrats but also a hapless Republican establishment, has emboldened congressional conservatives ahead of their return to Washington Tuesday.”

What people like Meadows and his allies like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Rep. Jody Hice (R-Georgia), Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Arizona) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) brought to their respective campaigns was a way to draw out those who sought validation and acceptance for their poignantly out of the mainstream, wackadoodle, arch-conservative views.

As we have heard many times in the “Summer of Trump,” these views touch a nerve. It is, for them, a righteous anger they show toward immigrants and the milquetoast establishment. Republican base voters don’t see it as being a negative. They see it as it’s-about-time-someone-took-these-pussies-on kind of anger, and as psychologist Drew Westen points out in his book, The Political Brain, the Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation:

“…subjectively, anger can feel either pleasant or unpleasant, as anyone knows who has fantasized about revenge…And although anger can lead to avoidance or withdrawal, it can just as easily be an approach-oriented emotion, causing people to approach someone or something they intend to attack.” (p.79)

And what is Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” except a call for revenge against those who “destroyed” it in the first place? At the national level, the personalities at Fox News have been beating this drum loudly for decades. Assisting in fomenting the anger of the “silent majority” at the local level have been the folks in the “vengeance is mine” business, the Evangelical churches that helped forward their message of exclusion and exceptionalism.

What both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been able to do with their campaigns, although with noticeably different messages, is be angry voices for change in their respective parties. To some extent, the same could be said for other party base drivers like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts).

“If you’re trying to convince people to change course,” Westen points out, “you generally have to elicit emotions such as anxiety or anger, along with enthusiasm for your cause, particularly when your point is that an incumbent has behaved in ways that are incompetent or unethical.” (p. 318)

Remember, these campaigns are not just trying to replace an incumbent; they’re aiming to change the way Washington, D.C., and the parties that run our government, work.

But what good is anger, one might ask, if there is no policy plan to back it up, and offer solutions? Trump just talks about actions that will be “terrific” and “huge,” without a specific plan. Well, the fact is people vote based on what they feel about the candidates personality first, and policy is the last thing they care about. That’s why attack ads work. They give voters a reason to dislike a candidate.

Westen breaks it down to four questions a voter asks when considering who he or she will choose, what he calls “a hierarchy of influence.”

“‘How do I feel about a candidate’s party and its principles?’ ‘How does this candidate make me feel?’ ‘How do I feel about a candidate’s personal characteristics, particularly his or her integrity, leadership, and compassion?’ and ‘How do I feel about this candidate’s stands on issues that matter to me?'” (p.418)

“Candidates who focus their campaigns toward the top of the hierarchy and work their way down generally win,” Westen concludes, adding, “Candidates who start at the bottom of the hierarchy and work their way up generally lose.”

Democrats seem to think that middle America is constantly voting against its own interests, that if people had a better understanding of how their policies are better that the Republicans, then they would be compelled to vote Democrat. But it doesn’t work that way. Every time a Democrat goes back to explain policy to voters, he loses them.

In some ways, it seems like Sen. Sanders is campaigning starting at the second or even the third level of Westen’s hierarchy. He is running as someone outside the mainstream, and he is in the Senate as an independent. People like Bernie because they admire his consistency. “This is a man who is authentic,” one Sanders supporter said at a July rally in Phoenix, “he’s held his convictions for decades.”

Still, his speeches are usually a litany of populist policy changes, something Westen warns against.

He advises “abandoning traditional Democratic laundry lists…and instead telling and retelling compelling narratives of what progressives stand for and what they won’t stand for.” It could be argued that Sanders is doing that, but will his passion, exciting as it is for the crowd, ignite a sustainable movement?

“Trump’s supporters are angrier than he is,” Politico’s Ben Schreckinger wrote in a brilliant piece comparing the two surprise contenders, last month. But, he points out, “Sanders is angrier than his supporters. When the Vermont senator, hoarse of voice, bellowed out for a ‘political revolution,’ the [Reno, Nevada,] crowd cheered. But minutes before they had milled about amiably on the lawn. A game of Frisbee seemed more likely to break out than a revolution.”

So it seems that for a while, at least, the often talked about enthusiasm gap has yet to make an appearance this cycle. As far as carrying the spectacle into down-ticket, House and Senate races, as a way to get people interested in checking the boxes below the presidential candidates, one can hope there’s enough in the Drink Me bottle to go around. It will make 2016 so much more fun.


The evil that police do – Darren Wilson and the family of Michael Brown

Ferguson Protest, NYC 25th Nov 2014
Ferguson protests in New York City, Novemeber, 2014.
By The All-Nite Images from NY, NY, USA (Ferguson Protest, NYC 25th Nov 2014) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“He’s evil.”
– Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, speaking to Al Jazeera America about former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, Darren Wilson

When I went to Germany, eight years ago, my friend in Hanover was less than enthused when she found out we had been to visit the museum at the Dachau concentration camp, near Munich. She wasn’t angry. She just expressed herself in what might be described as a very resigned, German way.

“It’s a shame,” she said with a shrug, “that whenever people think of Germany, they think of Nazis.” Maybe, but murder leaves a mark. Racist hate leaves resentment and anger. Evil leaves a stain.

Evil is blind, too. It draws conclusions in shallowness because it lacks the vision, or the compulsion, to look deeper.

It’s quite callous, the way former police officer Darren Wilson recently described his feelings about Michael Brown, one year out from their fatal encounter on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. In an article in the New Yorker, Wilson tells writer Jake Halpern that he dismisses claims of historical, cultural abuse at the hands of whites as an excuse that Brown and other young people of color use to justify resenting authority and behaving badly.

“People who experienced that, and were mistreated, have a legitimate claim,” he told Halpern, referring to those he calls the “elders,” who lived through Jim Crow. “Other people [meaning young people, who grew up post-civil rights era] don’t.”

Don’t justify and call it justice; confront truth and discover justice

Wilson goes on to claim that, despite what the article describes as a difficult childhood, he has been able to persevere and build a life, but it comes across as an “I did it, why can’t they” attitude. “What happened to my great-grandfather is not happening to me,” he said, “I can’t base my actions off what happened to him.”

His obvious lack of understanding doesn’t bother him in the least. He thinks he doesn’t have to understand more than what’s going on in the moment. “We can’t fix in thirty minutes what happened thirty years ago,” he told Halpern. “We have to fix what’s happening now. That’s my job as a police officer. I’m not going to delve into people’s life-long history and figure out why they’re feeling a certain way, in a certain moment.”

But doesn’t community policing require more of an effort at understanding the community you’re policing, rather than making assumptions about who they are and what they are capable of? Not according to Wilson. To him, they are as free to make the same, sound choices he has.

“They’re so wrapped up in a different culture than — what I’m trying to say is, the right culture, the better one to pick from.”

Halpern didn’t let that statement go unchallenged:

“This sounded like racial code language. I pressed him: what did he mean by ‘a different culture’? Wilson struggled to respond. He said that he meant ‘pre-gang culture, where you are just running in the streets—not worried about working in the morning, just worried about your immediate gratification.’ He added, ‘It is the same younger culture that is everywhere in the inner cities.’”

Wilson says he is certain that families in the community are to blame, and definitely in the case of Michael Brown’s family. “Do I think he had the best upbringing,” he asked Halpern rhetorically, in a tone the writer describes as “striking.”

“No,” Wilson concluded, answering his own question, “Not at all.”

Given that his own mother was a “compulsive” thief, who Wilson warned his own friends against, who left his father, then put his stepfather $20,000 in debt the first year they were together, it makes one question his frame of reference for what is and is not “the best upbringing.”

“His acts were devilish,” Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden told Al Jazeera, Wednesday morning, “and we definitely know he didn’t have the right upbringing, because those are words that you just don’t use, especially after you took somebody’s life and you know you had no reason to.”

Wilson has looked at Michael Brown’s life and just doesn’t care anymore, if he ever did, except that he is being sued by Brown’s family. “Do I think about who he was as a person? Not really, because it doesn’t matter at this point,” he explained to Halpern.

“He can’t hurt me with his words,” responded McSpadden. “What he did hurt me really bad, so his words mean nothing to me.”

Racism and Ferguson: a systemic problem requires a systemic solution

It’s a shame. It’s a shame that in communities of color – in Ferguson, in Staten Island, in North Charleston, in Baltimore, in Cincinnati – that when people think of white police officers working in those communities, they think of careless, frightened, hair-trigger murderers.

This need not be the case.

Many law officers have been caught escalating too quickly to violence, asserting superiority over unarmed men and women, too quick to draw their weapon, shoot a fleeing suspect in the back or physically abuse a prisoner already in custody.

Dying in custody – a necessary conversation

There is a problem with training that says, “You have a gun. You’re in charge.” If that’s your philosophy, go join the army, if they’ll have you. They need people who will shoot to kill.

But police should be working with communities, not against them. Cops need to be evaluated not by how many tickets they write and how many arrests they make, but on how they get along with the communities they are sworn to protect and serve.

Ferguson fallout – justice dancing on the head of a pin

Asked whether she could ever forgive Darren Wilson, Michael Brown’s mother answered simply, “Never. Never.”

It’s a matter of respect – the kind that police expect and the citizens deserve. Killing officers only reinforces this us vs. them attitude. As long as one lives in fearful resentment of the other, people will be as uncomfortable in their own neighborhoods as the cops who patrol them.

Unless full, mutual respect is achieved, citizens will die, families will be torn apart and police who kill will remain the face of evil for entire communities.


Huckabee’s monolithic view will get him shoved to the exit door

Auschwitz oven door
The oven doors in a crematorium in Auschwitz. Poland, 1989

For Christian evangelicals like Mike Huckabee, support for Israel is, and has always been, of a single purpose: to bring all the Jews to the tiny Mediterranean country so that they can make them convert or die, and prepare the world for the Second Coming.

Pundits are calling the former Arkansas governor’s remark about the Iran nuclear deal, saying Obama is taking Israelis and “basically march[ing] them to the door of the oven,” the “Trumpification” of the 2016 Republican presidential campaign. Outrageous does buy you news cycles, and the media is all too happy to cover a practiced politician like Huckabee instead of a blowhard buffoon like Trump. They’re likely relieved. The asshat with the comb-over is exhausting.

The main difference between Huckabee and Trump is that what the Donald’s minions mistake for authenticity is actually salesmanship, flim-flam, telling them what they want to hear. The Huckster, on the other hand is actually being sincere. Earnestly sincere.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t Huckabee trying to be like Trump, as much as it is him trying to rally his evangelical base, to save Israel, so the Jews can go out according to their prophecy, and not the Ayatollah’s. We can’t have “a mushroom cloud over Israel,” he warned Hillary Clinton after her condemnation of his words. Certainly not one generated by Iran.

Despite the objection of many notable Jewish organizations and individuals, like the Anti-Defamation League – who he dismisses as “leftist” and “pro-Democrat” – and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, Huckabee thinks he knows he’s on the right track with the Jewish community. After all, he was at an event, Monday night, where, he told Matt Lauer on the Today Show, Tuesday, “I was probably one of four gentiles in the entire event — it was a Jewish event. People were overwhelmingly supportive.”

I’d hate to burst his bubble, but if he was invited to an event like that, chances are he wasn’t going to find a valid cross-section of American Jewry. It’s like going to a strip club and thinking the women there are representative of their entire gender. We are monotheistic, not monolithic. That may be where he’s confused.

In defending his offensive remarks to Lauer, the governor used his association with the Holy Land and his personal experience at Auschwitz in a “some of my best friends are Jews and Holocaust survivors” kind of way. “I’ve been to Auschwitz three times,” he said, “I have been to Israel dozens of times.” He said he gets the Survivor slogan “Never Again,” because he stood “in front of those very ovens.”

I’m not saying he couldn’t have had some kind of spiritual epiphany in that horrid place where I too have stood. But even as a child of Holocaust Survivors, I understand that you cannot ever know what it was like to stand in front of those ovens, unless you stood in front of them when they trickled with flame and smelled of burned hair and roasted human flesh.

What’s grotesque here is not the extremes to which the Huckster has gone to get noticed. It’s the ease and assurety with which he thinks it’s okay to use a tragedy of epic scale in his quest for personal glory. This is not Europe in the 1930s. He’s ringing the alarm, using dog whistles like “appeasement,” because he thinks it works for him, and because he believes it. It may get him the evangelical vote, if he makes it to the Iowa Caucuses in January. But his methods are desperate and sad, beyond ridiculous, and we definitely don’t need him running our country – the United States, I mean, not Israel.


Bernie Sanders heats up record crowd in Phoenix

crowd-compress 1
Bernie Sanders drew 11,000 people to a convention center floor, Saturday night. You know, one of those cavernous spaces you could put a passenger jet in. It was the largest campaign event of any candidate this season, and it broke his record crowd of 10,000 in Madison, Wisconsin, a couple of weeks ago. But this event was not in some liberal bastion like Madison. This was Phoenix, Arizona. This was Maricopa County, half-a-mile from where the anti-immigrant birther, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, has his jail. This is McCain country.

“We’re feelin’ the Bern,” exclaimed Mara Prato, of Phoenix, using the unofficial hashtag slogan of Sanders’ campaign.FeeltheBernAZ

Why would so many come from across the southwest on a triple digit desert day to hear this man? Because people all over the United States know the truth about the growing wealth disparity and the shrinking middle class.

“What this campaign is about,” Bernie told the crowd, “is saying that our great country and our government belong to all the people, and not just the billionaires.”

“I wanted to see someone who is more for the people,” Joan Besonen, who moved to Tempe, Arizona, from Michigan less than two weeks ago, told me.

“It saddens me how many politicians are there for themselves and not for the people,” said Richard Gibson, who drove in from El Paso, Texas, to hear the populist candidate. “Bernie’s the only one who stands up for America, the way thinking Americans want it to be.”

Liz Leith, who is married to Gibson, agreed. “I like that he’s ‘of the people, by the people, for the people,'” she said.

Indeed, most of the people we spoke with are gravitating to Sanders’ longstanding commitment to what he called the “moral issue” of “grotesque” wealth inequality, and “putting money in the hands of working people.”

BernieGesture 1-med“Are we content to see a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires when we have the highest rates of childhood poverty of any major country in the world?

“Our economy cannot do well when so few have so much, and so many have so little.”

Says Leith, “He’s standing up and saying all the things we want to hear from a politician, and he means it.”

“He says what he means,” echoed Mark S., also from Phoenix.

“He talks just simple, plain, common sense, concrete solutions, that used to be things that were taken for granted in this country, pre-1980,” said Prato.

In stark contrast to those on the other side of the political spectrum, not surprisingly, this group is not nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, but for a different time, that almost all of them remember well.

BernieMakesPoint“For the last forty years, the great middle class of this country, once the envy of the entire world, has been disappearing.”

“This is a man who is authentic,” Prato added, “he’s held his convictions for decades.” Her yearning for a pre-Reagan social safety net, and her belief that Sanders has always been working to restore that, was not unusual.

“He seems like someone I went to high school with, but stayed the course,” asserted Mike Harris, from Glendale, Arizona, who says he grew up protesting the Vietnam War in the 1970s. “Some people, along the way, meander off into little tangents. He doesn’t strike me as a meanderer, and I like that.”

“He has stayed the course,” agreed Mark S., “He doesn’t waiver.”

Prato said she specifically admires Sanders’ stated policies on “raising the marginal tax rate on the rich, Wall Street transaction taxes, things that were commonplace back in the Fifties and Sixties, things that built the middle class.”

BernieStageSign2“We have a message to the millionaire class tonight. You cannot have it all.

“You cannot hide your billions in profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, when we have unmet needs in America that must be addressed.”

Despite the nostalgia, it isn’t this country’s past that concerned these Sandernistas. It is the nation’s future, our people’s future.

“It’s not for me. It’s more for my grandchildren,” said Julian Acosta, of Phoenix, when asked why he attended the event. “I want them to have a good education, free college, good, inexpensive healthcare. I want them to have everything they need.”

That is exactly what Bernie said he wants to make happen. During his speech, that night, he called for free college in public universities, refinancing student loan debt, and a medicare for all, single-payer public health system.

But the biggest issue, in the minds of many, was campaign finance reform, and overturning the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision.

BernieProfileSerious“What the Supreme Court said to the wealthiest people in our country, they said, ‘Okay guys. You already own much of the economy. We’re now going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government,’ and that is what they are trying to do.”

“I think the number one thing is getting money out of politics and getting our democracy back,” said Fara Pastorius, who had come in from Buffalo, New York, to visit family, and was attending the event. “You shouldn’t be able to buy a [political] seat for anything. It’s not what this country was founded on; it’s not what it’s for; it’s very sad that it’s happening.”

Earlier in the day, when addressing the Netroots Nation convention in Phoenix, Sanders promised a “litmus test” for any prospective Supreme Court justice and their stand on Citizens United. He also called for public financing of campaigns.

But Bernie wanted to make one thing clear. All the changes he’s calling for can happen, but not without us. He calls it a revolution, but it’s really a call to be engaged in the system we already have to “bring about the changes we need.”

Bernie w placards“What political revolution means, is that people all over America have got to stand up and become involved in the political process in a way they’ve never done before.”

Sanders went on to clarify that by “people all over America,” he meant all Americans, and he urged the crowd to get out of their “zone of comfort” and talk to their Republican family, friends and neighbors. Why?

BernieFlag3“It is one thing for the billionaire class to be voting Republican, but there are many Republicans out there – you know them – these people are working at two or three jobs, they have no healthcare, their kids can’t afford to go to college, and yet they are voting [for] people who are voting against their best interests, everyday.”

Mobilizing the working class is not just the only way someone like Bernie can get elected. It’s the only way we can elect a truly representative Congress, that is more beholden to our interests than they are to lobbyists and corporate interests.

As Bernie said, in one of his opening lines to the overwhelming Phoenix crowd:

BerniPlacards“When we come together in meetings like this, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish in transforming America.



Dying in custody – a most necessary conversation

Oh freedom,
Oh freedom,
Oh freedom over me
And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my lord and be free

Lulled and complacent among a couple of thousand righteous liberals and progressives, what should be seen is often easily hidden. The obvious remains obscured behind conversations about Congressional districts, campaign finance and the buzz surrounding the Left’s favorite 2016 candidate.

Then, in the darkness of a large exhibition hall, where only the two people sitting on the stage are lit, a rumbling begins. A chant goes up…

“What side are you on, my people? What side are you on?”

…and about fifty conference attendees move up the aisles to the front of the room…

“What side are you on, my people? What side are you on?”

…and the veil lifts, revealing something every good liberal should already know:

Black people don’t have a voice.

Even in a progressive gathering,

Black people don’t have a voice.

There’s a mixture of applause and grumbling aimed at the disruptors. Some are joining in the chanting. What are they saying? Why are they interrupting the presidential candidate town hall that was billed as the highlight event of this year’s Netroots Nation gathering in Phoenix? Aren’t they disrespecting the candidates?

truth to power
Truth to power – Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors addresses the crowd in front of Democratic presidential candidate, Gov. Martin O’Malley (far right), Tia Oso of the Arizona Black Alliance for Just Immigration and journalist/activist Juan Antonio Vargas. Phoenix, July 18, 2015

But respect must be mutual, and one candidate, at least, appears to be tone deaf. “All lives matter,” he says, and thinks he’s being understanding in his emphasis. Even after the crowd reacts angrily, he says it again, even more emphatically. Oh my god.

If I die in police custody…

The chanting doesn’t end. The shouting never ebbs. It shouldn’t.

If I die in police custody…

It takes me about three minutes of hearing them to shut the gremlins in my mind and listen to what they’re saying. Black lives matter. Black voices matter. Two young Black women died in police custody, last week.

People are dying and the one audience that should be fighting for that cause, existentially, is giving it short shrift – a panel here, a speaker there. If they cannot be heard here, then where? If not now, then when?

Americans of color are losing their sons and daughters to police and vigilante violence, and people forget their names. They splash across news sites and TV networks and are gone. “Say my name,” they shout. Beyond Trayvon Martin. Beyond Eric Garner. Beyond Michael Brown. Beyond the lives of those Black men, and too many others, are the names of the Black women who you never hear, because they don’t fit the American narrative of threat that society forces on men of color.

Say my name.

Sandra BlandGabriella NaverezTanisha Anderson

Say my name.

Kindra ChapmanAnna BrownKyam Livingston

Say my name.

Sheneque ProctorShereese FrancisNatasha McKennaKimberlee Randall KingAlesia Thomas

At Netroots Nation, the annual convention of progressive bloggers and activists where the demonstration took place, many were angry at the disruption, and felt the event was “hijacked,” as one attendee told me. It’s easy to give in to the anger, to be hooked by it like fish, but we’re progressives. We’re supposed to listen, and then make judgement. Thank goodness, it seems as if the event’s organizers did just that.

In a statement released shortly after the Candidate Town Hall, they wrote:

“Netroots Nation stands in solidarity with all people seeking human rights.

“With today’s Town Hall, our aim was to give presidential candidates a chance to respond to the issues facing the many diverse communities represented here.

“Although we wish the candidates had more time to respond to the issues, what happened today is reflective of an urgent moment that America is facing today.

“In 2016, we’re heading to St. Louis. We plan to work with activists there just as we did in Phoenix with local leaders, including the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to amplify issues like racial profiling and police brutality in a major way.

“It is necessary and vital to continue this conversation. We look forward to doing so in the coming year.”

In solidarity, because even within our liberal echo chamber, there are places we don’t go to, together. This time, we must. Lives depend on it.

No more weeping,
No more weeping,
No more weeping over me.
And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my lord and be free


Yes, losing the Confederate flag really means something to South Carolina

RebFlagDownWhen I posted on Facebook last Thursday, that I was thinking about going to Columbia, South Carolina, Friday, to watch them finally furl the Confederate flag, I got a little pushback from some of my conservative friends. They cynically insisted that the historic event I was going to witness was no big deal and its impact way over-hyped.

They said, on my post and others, that the media frenzy over moving “a square piece of cloth” was at worst a distraction for the world’s problems and at best a panacea that would lull people into thinking that we’ve finally turned a cultural corner in the Old South.

“It’s a manufactured event, ” one critic wrote. “I don’t expect the air to smell like lilacs, don’t expect 300 million people to hold hands and sing kume by ya.”

“Just smoke and diversion” from the “real issues,” wrote another.

I thought they were misreading people’s expectations, that there can be no question there is still much work left to do. Was it mostly symbolic? Sure, but it was an important step. As it turns out, for the people of South Carolina, it was hugely important, much closer to an awakening than I thought, and so much more of the optimism the event’s critics sardonically predicted.

After witnessing that anachronistic flag, despised by many and revered by few, being lowered, folded up and driven away from the capitol grounds, Friday, I have to admit that the people we spoke to indeed saw only sunny days ahead for the Palmetto State, and their joy was rarely expressed in measured declarations.

Artist Bernard Jackson was genuinely enthusiastic about the flag coming down.
Artist Bernard Jackson was genuinely enthusiastic about the flag coming down.

Bernard Jackson, a local artist, set up an easel across from the flag post depicting a Buffalo Soldier looming large, with the flag behind him, “because it’s behind us now,” he explained.

“This isn’t a black victory, or a white victory,” he went on, excitedly, “This is an American victory. This is a world victory. Everybody across the world is rejoicing right now. It’s a ripple effect. You changed the tides of the world.”

His optimism was jarring, because I expected there to be much more tension. There wasn’t.

FightingTerrorTshirtTrue, among some, like Myron Murrow, who said his family had been in South Carolina since at least the Eighteenth Century, there was some indignancy and resignation. After all, he showed up, grandchildren in tow, wearing the Confederate emblem on the back of his t-shirt, surrounded by the words “Stopping Terrorism Since 1861.” This, of course, follows the euphemistic Southern description of the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

“When they try to erase it from our history,” he told me, “that’s when I proudly wear my flag.”

But as long as that flag flew on public, state-owned property, at “the people’s house,” as someone put it, then it seemed like nothing more than an ironic attempt to hide South Carolina’s history of racism in its own shadow.
Watch the video of the Confederate Flag coming down.
“We can’t say that slavery didn’t happen, that segregation didn’t happen, that people weren’t lynched and murdered and harassed and oppressed. It happened.” Brittani Williams, a young woman who had driven up from Charleston, explained.

Murrow decried the consequences of the state legislature’s actions, lamenting, “It makes a lot of people feel like, if they have ancestors who fought, it makes it feel like they lost the war all over again.”

Yet among almost everyone else we spoke to, the conversation was enthusiastic, characterizing the event as a time for love, forgiveness and moving on.

“This is going to bring everybody closer and bring America hope, tighter knit,” Reginald Epps, a facilitator for a S.T.E.M. program in Greenville, S.C., said. “That’s why I think it’s important, what’s happened here.”

Williams couldn’t hold back the tears. “I cried the whole way here. I’ll probably cry the whole way home,” she said, using her hand as a fan to help regain her composure. “Being from Charleston, this is a victory for us, because we lost nine beautiful people,” she continued, adding, “It’s a step forward. It’s a victory for our nation, because now we can start to heal.”

So maybe it wasn’t an entire nation coming together in a group hug, but it wasn’t a small thing, a diversion, either. It was a long time coming. I think I approached it as an outsider, albeit not an unbiased one, and I just did not anticipate how profound it was to have a burden lifted from the shoulders of those who had been squirming uncomfortably beneath it for 150 years.

Jackson, the artist, painted a brightly colored picture of the state he loves and the place he calls home. “South Carolina is about to turn the corner, enormously,” he said, “and I can’t wait.”


Related Stories:

  • Confederate Flag Wavers Greet President Obama in Oklahoma (ABC)
  • Charleston Church Shooter Dylann Roof Expected in Court (NBC)
  • Love, Tolerance and Redemption in South Carolina [video]

    Rightfully suppressing the toys and the tantrums of the unreasonable

    Photo credit: Janice McDonald
    South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) signs bill that permanently removes the Confederate Battle Flag from a pole on the grounds of the state capitol in Columbia, July 9, 2015. She is surrounded by former governors and families of those killed in Charleston’s June attack. Photo credit: Janice McDonald. Used here with permission

    Call it the unraveling of the Republicans’ over forty-year-old “Southern Strategy.” Driven by a party that finally sees the dangers of perception that come with aligning itself with racists and secessionists, the GOP is letting go of the Confederate flag as a means of reaching a segment of the voting population. Like an obese diabetic swearing off corn syrup, they are looking for other ways to get their sugar that are more easily digested by the public.

    Just to be clear, I’m not saying all Americans who live in the South are racists. Neither are all Southern Republicans, but when you feast at the trough of intolerance, one is bound to adapt at least some of the affectations of one’s dining partners. The need for votes and money and more money and even more money means that even if your find the racial and social attitudes of the pigs abhorrent, you can’t be seen without a snout mask, lest you reveal an upturned nose behind it.

    The Democrats had to exorcise that demon back in the 1970s, and it cost them the 1980s, but this is a different time in racial politics. The flag furor is a distraction, and it helps Republicans look less intransigent on social issues, at a time when the culture wars are really heating up.

    The causes of the culture clash remain the faith-based rationales for intolerance, discrimination and militarism. The problem is not with the faiths. It is with the way they are implemented by some adherents, meaning their inability to keep their dogma in perspective, as part of a pluralistic society. Those in public service who swing to God to justify their manifestos are all too happy to provide the kindling for righteous indignation and bogeyman politics. It is a maneuver worthy of a ten-year-old boy, for whom every challenge is stridently answered, “Uh-uhhh,” or, “Your mama.”

    Aware of humanity’s inconsistencies in abiding by the principles of freedom and tolerance that are necessary to preserve our republic, Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, issued several cautionary advisements. More than a few point to the stubborn divisions which even now grip our country and freeze our government with an intolerant zeal usually relegated religious fanaticism.

    After expressing his expectation that all would rally around the young Constitution, “and unite in common efforts for the common good,” he added:

    “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle: that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable.”

    After the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, where a young bigot walked into a historic black church and gunned down nine people during Bible study, some on the Right were quick to cast it as an attack on faith in general, and the Christian faith in particular. Such speech feeds the monster of intolerance they count on to get elected, and rallies their political base to show up at the polls. But is their “will to be rightful” at all reasonable? More importantly, is using the faith community, fallacious argument that it is, consistent with our nation’s founding principles?

    It was Jefferson who said, citing mankind’s long history of wars and killing for the cause of religious superiority, “that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance [just] as despotic, [just] as wicked, and capable of [just] as bitter and bloody persecutions.”

    Instead, he said, we are a nation “enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”

    Those who are quick to wield the sword of some maleficent deity, clinging to a single truth against coexistence, cleave all Americans from our heritage as a free country. Fanatics and zealots of all stripes are corruptions of “a benign religion,” and their extremism is an anathema to a belief in the “happiness of man.”

    Their dogma distorts.

    Perhaps it is the fanatic’s belief in exclusivity that drives his myopic zeal, a deeply seeded understanding that his race and religion make him part of a group that is destined to inherit the keys to the kingdom and rule over others. For a soul so possessed, there can be no “common good,” only the distorted fulfillment of their distorted perceptions of God.

    Children are also often told they are special, that they make their parents proud. This is a perception most grow to understand as coming from the unfettered love a parent has for for their child. Very few carry it into adulthood. That is, unless they find the world so daunting and unwelcoming that they hasten back to the warmth and comfort of memory and seek a way to prove to the world what their parents convinced them was true.

    The rambling letter the confessed killer in Charleston, posted online, is rife with the delusion of superiority and entitlement he thinks are due Americans of European ancestry. According to D.R. (I’m not going to empower him by using his name), Whites in America “are in fact superior,” and because they are superior beings, they are also victims of “lies, exaggerations and myths.” And, he adds lamentingly, “I have tried endlessly to think of reasons we deserve this.”

    Poor Whites. And it’s all the fault of “Jewish agitation of the black race.” Jews, he says, operate secretly under a cloak of Whiteness. “If we could somehow turn every jew [sic] blue for 24 hours,” he suggests, “I think there would be a mass awakening, because people would be able to see plainly what is going on.”

    It’s so simply juvenile, this racist rant by a man incapable of taking responsibility for his own shortcomings. Jews are an “enigma.” Blacks “are stupid and violent.” Hispanics may have European blood, but “are still our enemies.” He and the people he sources never stopped blaming others for a country growing and changing. We accept. We consent. We grow. We put away childish things like the Confederate flag and hopefully, someday, the pointy white hoods of the racists. We put away the fear of losing wealth for the joys of clean air, a sound education and healthcare for all.

    This is not our country changing in some foreign way. It is, instead, precisely the way our Founding Fathers envisioned our republic evolving.

    “E pluribus unum – out of many, one,” is the motto of our nation, a true declaration for pluralism and tolerance, so that we can thrive, Jefferson said, “possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.”

    Welcome to the “golden door.”


    PS. Truly principled freedom rings out from the Virginian’s speech, and it is at the very least regretful that he polluted the consistency of his principles by owning slaves. That is a fact that cannot be easily washed away by high minded thoughts and words. Nevertheless, I urge you to embrace the message, if not the messenger.

    Of heroes and liars – from Atticus Finch to Rachel Dolezal

    When Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, the concept of the White, Southern country lawyer defending a Negro accused of touching a White woman was inspirational. It showed how commitment to a moral cause could overcome social norms and bring justice to a community hungry for it.

    It also showed something else about our nation’s social structure, that was, perhaps, more complex. If African Americans were to throw off the White oppression of generations, they would need the help of the ruling class, namely, Caucasian Catholics, Protestants and Jews, who were willing to stand up for every American’s fundamental human and civil rights to their neighbors, police, legislators and judges.

    Some of those groups, namely the Catholics and the Jews, had also suffered the stigma of difference-ness, though, admittedly, not to the same extent. It was intolerance in different context. But those communities all understood there was a conscious decision by the bully class to forgo any effort at understanding, unwilling to share their economic and social superiority. Or their schools, bathrooms, water fountains and lunch counters.

    The way to get past this willful ignorance, according to the hero of Lee’s story, Atticus Finch, was, as he told his daughter, “a simple trick:”

    “[I]f you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things form his point of view-”


    “-Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
    To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 3, by Harper Lee

    DolezalFinchRachel Dolezal, the Spokane, Washington, civil rights advocate who pretended to be the progeny of a mixed-race marriage, has gotten into a lot of trouble for taking Atticus’ advice literally. No one doubts her level of commitment. In fact, the N.A.A.C.P. issued a statement shortly after the story broke, remarking on how they “stand behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record.”

    In the statement, the group emphasizes that the organization “has held a long and proud tradition of receiving support from people of all faiths, races, colors and creeds.” They go on to say, “One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership,” and they urge all to “respect her privacy in this matter.”

    That does not mean we are unable to draw our own conclusions from her choice to be inauthentic about her background, despite her ability to fight for a cause. She obviously strongly identifies with African American culture and history. One can choose their religious identity. One can choose their gender identity. Her misrepresentations not withstanding, Dolezal has chosen a cultural identity.

    The lies mean she is no hero. Neither, according to some, was Atticus Finch. Some believe that because the case was thrust upon him, he had no choice. Twenty-three years ago, the New York Times ran a story about the controversial law professor, Monroe Freedman, who penned an article saying that any lawyer who considers regarding Lee’s protagonist “as someone to emulate…would be making a terrible mistake.”

    The Times goes on to describe Freedman’s stand:

    “Mr. Freedman asked, what had Finch done up to that point to combat the forces that brought [Tom] Robinson down?

    “Far from attacking racism at its root, Mr. Freedman charges, Finch was complicit in it. For all his gentlemanliness, he does not complain that blacks attending court are relegated to the balcony. He eats in segregated restaurants; he walks in parks where signs say ‘No Dogs or Colored Allowed.'”

    But it was the response to Freedman’s words by Tim Hall, a law professor at the University of Mississippi at the time, that one can envision a young Rachel Dolezal reading and taking to heart.

    “What Monroe really wants,” he told the Times, perhaps presciently, “is for Atticus to be working on the front lines for the N.A.A.C.P. in the 1930’s, and if he’s not, he’s disqualified from being any kind of hero.”

    What’s a hero? Someone who walks the talk? Then Dolezal qualifies. Her lie makes her imperfect. It’s certainly a lesson about integrity. But it doesn’t mean she cannot lead.

    I’ve been close with people who have made cultural choices similar to the one that Dolezal made. Very close. Significant relationship close. The difference of course, is they did not deny their background, but they immersed themselves into the culture they chose very authentically, so there is no question about who they now are. They’re not pretending. They simply are their adopted culture. A bold choice, to be sure, but I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to declare whether or not it is a heroic one.