Author Archives: PB Goodfriend

Racism and Ferguson: a systemic problem requires a systemic solution

Ferguson, Day 4, Photo 26

Ferguson, Missouri, protest, August 15, 2014.
Photo by Loavesofbread, via Wikimedia Commons

“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Merriam-Webster defines the adjective systemic as “of, relating to, or affecting the entire body.” That medical definition refers to the system of a specific body or organism, including, of course, the human body. The Ebola epidemic sweeping West Africa is a systemic assault on the organs until the victim bleeds to death from the inside. But some systems are larger than those contained within the vulnerable body of a single individual. We have railway systems and highway systems, judicial systems and weapons systems, accounting systems and computer systems, and the most important system of all, our social system.

A social system outlines how a group relates to and supports the members of a society, in order to create a community that gives its people the best chance of survival, with the ideal goal being to create a successful paradigm for sustainability. As our bodies have had to adapt to a changing environment, so too our social systems have evolved into what we hope are better and better ways of dealing with friends and neighbors, and even with those whom we have chosen to label enemies.

Yet despite good intention, a social system planned by human beings will always have disastrous moments, even fatal flaws, because of the fallibility of the premises on which they are built. The systemic assault on the body of American society is evident these days in the continuing epidemic of cop-on-black intimidation, threat and murder brought to light most recently with the choke-hold killing of Eric Garner, in New York, and the shooting of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (The subsequent violence is not part of that illness. It is a predictable side effect, though.)

Our laws, and those who represent them, are supposed to be the anti-bodies to this type of viral infection. “We all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority,” President Obama said in a statement last Thursday, after police in military vehicles and camouflage appeared to violate the First and Fourth Amendment rights of journalists and protesters in Ferguson.

Human decency isn’t regulated by law, but by a sense that we actually are all part of the same body. The anti-bodies are obviously corrupted when police officers refer to the protesters as “fucking animals,” and a faulty judicial system puts its own money-driven survival ahead of the welfare of the citizens it is meant to protect.

Even the United States Supreme Court, which is supposed to be the most inoculated from the distractions of a dysfunctional society, finds itself refusing to acknowledge the pervasiveness of racism in favor of some mythical, Euro-centric sense that the pendulum of discrimination has swung too far the other direction. Laws protecting the rights of disadvantaged minorities to receive the same educational opportunities of their wealthier, White counterparts don’t work, Chief Justice John Roberts said, because, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, 2007)

As’s Dahlia Lithwick pointed out after the anti-affirmative action decision in Schuette, earlier this year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent “poke[s] at Roberts [Seattle decision] with a sharp stick.”

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” wrote the justice, “is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

Justice Sotomayor was describing racism as the systemic disease that has been a blight on American society, since even before the days our slave-holding Founding Fathers declared that “all men are created equal.”

It was only fifteen months ago that a St. Louis County, Missouri, police lieutenant was fired for allegedly telling his squad, one morning, “Let’s have a black day,” and “Let’s make the jail cells more colorful.”

“Now is the time for healing,” intoned President Obama, last week. That won’t be easy, but there is a way.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Let’s look at another definition for systemic one can find at Merriam-Webster, that is precisely about healing a corrupted system:

“of, relating to, or being a pesticide that as used is harmless to the plant or higher animal but when absorbed into its sap or bloodstream makes the entire organism toxic to pests (as an insect or fungus).”

With Ebola, though no cure exists, scientists say the best chance at a cure is to strengthen the body’s own defense system, so it can fight off the infection and the patient can heal. That treatment, in its own way, is a systemic.

What systemic, then, must be applied to American society to rid itself of the racist scourge?

One idea to solve the issues in Ferguson is to diversify the police force. “There’s a deep undercurrent of racial frustration,” Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery told MSNBC‘s Jose Diaz Balart last Thursday, after he was arrested and released by local law enforcement. “In places where residents do not believe the police understand them or look like them, you are always going to start at a disadvantage in terms of these relationships.”

Experts agree that diversity of government officials and a community’s police force is laudable, “But at the same time, you can’t expect that to be a panacea,” University of Pittsburgh political science professor, Jon Hurwitz, told the CBC.

The CBC’s Mark Gollom writes:

“The problem, says Hurwitz, is that stereotypes against blacks that associate them with violence continue to persist. Hurwitz said these stereotypes are ingrained across the political spectrum, and that many blacks in the U.S. are just as susceptible​ to stereotypes of blacks as whites.”

So as a systemic solution, there’s just as much a chance that a more diverse police force would not solve the problem. It’s possible the problem is not in the racial make-up of the enforcers, but rather the way they relate to the community they serve. As Gollom put it:

“Generally, whites also perceive their experiences with police officers different than blacks, Hurwitz said, with most whites reporting they have been treated fairly and politely during their encounters.

“But blacks talk about being treated rudely and disrespectfully, Hurwitz said, even if their encounters with police were for similar reasons as whites.”

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Tuesday, one former Los Angeles cop says it’s not just the officer’s responsibility to keep tensions minimized. The “bottom line,” writes Sunil Dutta, who is now a homeland security professor at Colorado State University:

“…if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?”

So we have a huge group of citizens who feel the cops treat them “rudely and disrespectfully,” and cops who say, “Don’t threaten me,” and if we follow those rules everything will be okay. The problem is, those aren’t rules for a community to get along. They’re rules for a community cold war. It’s only a matter of time before the effort it takes to keep up the facade of a peaceful town shatters into chaos.

During the protests, there’s been looting and tear gas and arrests, Molotov cocktails and noise cannons and more arrests. Smoke, screams, blood and broken glass spread across the streets of Ferguson, as they have in so many poor and neglected neighborhoods before. Asked for calm, they shout, “No justice! No peace!”

“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his CBC article, Gollom refers to a program in Boston as a “success story,” where the Boston PD reached out to community stakeholders, including Black clergy, “to forge better relationships with blacks.” But according to at least one recent study by three Harvard professors, that program, called Operation Ceasefire or the “Boston Miracle,” while successful during its nascent period in the 1990s, slipped away from the community in the 2000s. The reason for the inability of the city to maintain its “success story” was not the model, but the commitment of the city to the program.

“Our basic conclusion,” the study’s authors write, “is not that the Boston model of the 1990s has failed, but rather that the City of Boston and the Boston Police failed to pursue the policies and practices that had been so successful during the late 1990s.”

In January, after a string of homicides in Boston, the police once again reached out to the Black clergy for help, and to present “a united front against the violence that’s occurring in our streets,” according to the police superintendent in chief.

The lessons from Boston may apply in Ferguson, and other towns where there is not a concerted effort by the police to reach out to leaders in the community, and “forge better relationships.” These relationships cannot be seen as some kind of quick fix to the problem. Concentrating on ending the violence, on both sides, without addressing the underlying causes of the problems will only result in the virus of racist intolerance reestablishing itself, and destroying the community from the inside.

Like a treatment that gets the body’s own defenses to destroy a virus, the problems in our social system need to be addressed by getting an entire society to fight against a common, corrosive enemy.

Here’s the tricky part. You are our society. Your own conscience is the anti-body. Your commitment cannot flag, for our entire republic depends on you. Vote. March. Act. Love.

“Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.


MLK quotes pulled from BrainyQuote.

War in Israel on the Ninth of Av

“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept and remembered Zion.”

Tuesday morning, August 5, when the 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Hamas went into effect, was the Ninth of Av. Things are quiet in modern Israel on the Ninth of Av. Jewish tradition holds that it was on the ninth day of the month of Av that the first temple, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed in 587 BC(E), and the burning of Herod’s Temple, on the same day six centuries later, in the year 70. In commemoration, observant Jews fast, many refrain from working, and they read the Biblical Book of Lamentations, bemoaning the fall. Wikipedia calls it “a day destined for tragedy.”

peace-israelSo far, this war has not threatened the existence of the Jewish homeland in the same way the historic tragedy of the sacking of Jerusalem led to centuries of exile. Hamas, at least for now, does not have the capability to pursue such an attack on its own, and they have yet to find an international partner willing to go to war for them. Even if they wanted to, and many of the Arab countries and Iran would probably love to, they’re busy fighting their own existential enemies.

Yet in its overzealous response to Hamas shelling in which it killed a thousand civilians in Gaza, Israel has created a vacuum into which stronger enemies will be drawn, like lichen on the bones of the dead. It is also a mess which the Jewish state’s closest ally, the United States, has found disconcerting, as Israel seems more interested in annihilating an enemy than pursuing peace.

An article on, published Wednesday, cites several news stories that demonstrate the enmity Israel’s actions have bred among Gazans:
From the BBC: A mother who lost her young son declared, “I never supported Hamas a day in my life. My family had problems with them. They killed my nephew. But after what happened, I support them.”
From the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz: Another woman in Rafah, the town shelled to bits after Israel thought its soldier had been kidnapped, last weekend, warned, “You have raised here a generation full of anger and hate. Do you think this generation will be afraid after this war?”

Those reactions, it could be argued, don’t really burden the leaders of the Jewish state, who cannot be bothered by the fight of a hypothetical future enemy. They fight one war at a time, and see the next one as a “when,” not an “if.”

But the reaction that perhaps should bother Israeli leaders is that of the Jews in what could anachronistically be called the Diaspora, who consider themselves supportive of a Jewish state based on Zionist principles, but not of a homeland with a stubborn commitment to expansionism, like a Jewish Manifest Destiny.

Roger Cohen, a professed Zionist, is one of those who finds the current political situation in Israel intolerable, and inconsistent with the ideals of the state’s founders. He wrote in the New York Times, last week:

“What I cannot accept is the perversion of Zionism that has seen the inexorable growth of a Messianic Israeli nationalism claiming all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; that has, for almost a half-century now, produced the systematic oppression of another people in the West Bank; that has led to the steady expansion of Israeli settlements on the very West Bank land of any Palestinian state; that isolates moderate Palestinians like Salam Fayyad in the name of divide-and-rule; that pursues policies that will make it impossible to remain a Jewish and democratic state; that seeks tactical advantage rather than the strategic breakthrough of a two-state peace; that blockades Gaza with 1.8 million people locked in its prison and is then surprised by the periodic eruptions of the inmates; and that responds disproportionately to attack in a way that kills hundreds of children.

“This,as a Zionist, I cannot accept.”

When a United Nations school in Gaza, being used as a shelter, was shelled by Israel a few days ago, the U.S. chose to admonish their friend for not using more discretion in the attack. While recognizing that “UN facilities, especially those sheltering civilians, must be protected, and must not be used as bases from which to launch attacks” by Hamas, the U.S. State Department insisted, “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.”

It was the strongest condemnation yet from the U.S. for Israel’s part in the aggression.

To be clear, the United States has not backed off its position that Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas rockets. The statement, and others like it, call for Netanyahu’s generals to consider who they are killing in the name of self-defense.

“I have said from the beginning that no country would tolerate rockets being launched into their cities,” President Obama reiterated, answering reporters’ questions at a White House event, Wednesday. But, he added:

“We’re going to have to see a shift in opportunity for the people of Gaza. I have no sympathy for Hamas. I have great sympathy for ordinary people who are struggling within Gaza. And the question then becomes, can we find a formula in which Israel has greater assurance that Gaza will not be a launching pad for further attacks, perhaps more dangerous attacks as technology develops into their country. But at the same time, ordinary Palestinians have some prospects for an opening of Gaza so that they do not feel walled off and incapable of pursuing basic prosperity.”

The United States is a bystander in the current ceasefire negotiations, taking place in Cairo, Egypt, and it is hard to gauge just how much influence the Obama administration really has on Netanyahu, who continues to claim that the Israeli response has been appropriate and proportional.

Given that, and the disaffection of American Zionists like Cohen, the only answer that Israelis and Diaspora Jews can agree to, on the perennial question, “Is it good for the Jews,” is that yes, peace is good for the Jews, and the Palestinians. The disagreement is over what that looks like.
IDF logo
The crown may be heavy on the head who wears it, but the IDF sword it holds in its clenched fist is heaviest. Peace. Now.


Real crisis at border is one of American conscience

From Flickr/Public Domain

From Flickr/Public Domain

Angry White people screaming at busloads of minority children should frighten any American with a knowledge of our own recent history. Voices of fear and bigotry have risen like an oily mess on the tides that have brought waves of young immigrant children across our borders.

The boys and girls are buoyed ashore by a 2008, George W. Bush signed law – the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act – that is supposed to protect them from the rampant dangers of murder and sex trafficking in their home countries. You have likely heard, by now, that the GOP has wrongly hung this on Obama, citing his executive action that delayed deportation of minors that were brought here by their parents, as children, as the reason for the sudden influx. But the law and the president’s order are distinct issues.

That law says we cannot turn them directly around, without detention and a deportation hearing, unless they are citizens of Mexico or Canada. Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans (as well as the rest of the world) all have the opportunity for due process, allowing them to stay in this country until they have their day in court. In a small number of cases, the administration has said, they will be allowed to stay.

Republicans in Congress have fought against giving President Obama the nearly $4 billion he asked for to help expedite hearing the cases. Instead, they are looking at a much smaller bill, that includes rescinding the human rights exemption in the 2008 law for non-contiguous, near border states, so that the refugee children can be returned to their home countries as if they were refugees from Mexico (or Canada). The Senate bill, which was endorsed by the administration Monday, also cuts the amount of money by about a third, but does nothing to reverse the policy of treating the children like the asylum seekers they are.

Here’s the insidious part, though. The “humanitarian crisis” (perhaps an overly appropriated diagnosis of a plethora of refugee issues) the act was meant to address is now being framed by Republicans as the children risking their lives to cross our borders, and what to do with them once they get here.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sunday, insisted that the Bush law, which he voted for, must be amended. “Otherwise,” he said, “the humanitarian crisis will continue. Otherwise families far away, on the other side of Mexico, will be giving thousands of dollars to traffickers to take their children over the border.”

While it’s true the children’s journey is very dangerous and, too often, deadly, Congressional Republicans are purposefully taking the very real crisis of rape, torture, murder and slavery which the children are escaping in their own countries, and muddling it with a crisis manufactured by xenophobes and ignorant hayseeds who are easily ginned up by radio personalities pushing an anti-immigrant agenda. In other words, Republicans like Ryan are playing to their base.

House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-California) says changing the law is something Democrats will not agree to do, and the Senate’s bill bears that out. The act, she said, Friday, “relates not just to Central America, it relates to the American position on refugees and asylum seekers from around the world. Do we want to check out of that and say to other countries, ‘You take them’?”

Amazingly, she is getting some support in this from conservative commentators. Columnist George Will, on Fox News Sunday, said he thinks allowing the children to stay is not only the right thing to do, it is a traditionally American thing to do. “We ought to say to these children, ‘Welcome to America, you’re going to go to school and get a job and become Americans,'” he told the show’s moderator, Chris Wallace. “We have 3,141 counties in this country. That would be 20 per county.”

When warned what he was saying could bring a negative response from Fox News’ regular viewers, Will didn’t flinch. “We can handle this problem, is what I’m saying,” he explained. “We’ve handled what Emma Lazarus famously called ‘the wretched refuse of your teeming shores’ a long time ago and a lot more people than this.”

Even the New York Daily News, which often criticizes Obama’s policies, published an op-ed, Monday, where they call those in Congress who want to change the law to make it easier to deport the children “cruelly wrong.”

Let your Senators and Congressional representative know that there is nothing un-American about creating new Americans. Nothing, in fact, could be more American. You can also let your governor know that you want them to welcome some of these children into your state and your community.

As a child of immigrants myself, who left Europe only a few years after boatloads of Jews fleeing Hitler were turned away by the United States, I believe we have no choice but to maintain the intent of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and keep letting these children in. This is not only our problem, it is our reason for being, our mission, and one this country, as a nation of immigrants, is uniquely qualified to solve.


Detroit and you – where progressive change happens

“We will fight, and we will win!”
– Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), July 18, 2014

Turn On the Water march, Detroit, MI, July 18, 2014

Turn On the Water march, Detroit, MI, July 18, 2014



Fighting the tyranny of an oligarchy that withholds the existential needs of its people in an effort to subjugate them is the act of a rebel. Fighting for the change that leaves the members of a society empowered and self determined is the act of a revolutionary. Both rebel and revolutionary are heroically selfless in their sacrifice, but it is the revolutionary who makes it possible for the changes sought by the rebel to become an unshakeable part of the social psyche.

The need to create change, to keep trying to get this experiment that is the United States right, is an essential part of being an American. “Stamped into the DNA of every American citizen, is a healthy skepticism for orthodoxy,” Vice President Joe Biden told the annual gathering of progressive activists and bloggers, Netroots Nation, in Detroit, Thursday, as he related the story of a conversation he had with Malaysian leader Lee Kwan Yew about what makes our country so resilient. We are not only willing to change; we are constantly finding new ways to affect change, so we can grow.

After all, our Constitution was laid out “in order to form a more perfect union,” which means, to me, that we will never have the “perfect” union, just one we will always be striving to make better.

VP Joe Biden, Netroots 2014

Detroit is an appropriate town for the vice president to continue the conversation for change because it’s a city where hope is what people scratch and claw for, and have for a century. Detroit, you see, is a city of fighters. It’s the birthplace of the American labor movement, and also the city of heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, fiery civil rights activist, Malcolm X, and socio-political philosopher and activist, Grace Lee Boggs.

Boggs showed up at Netroots early Thursday, for a screening of the documentary about her life, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. At 98 years old, she is still an ideas driven firebrand, committed to a cultural shift. “We are on the verge of a change as big as when humans stopped being hunter/gatherers and moved to agriculture,” she told those gathered to watch the movie. “We are moving into a post industrial epoch.”

Joe Biden agrees. “We are at an inflection point, where things change in a significant way,” he said. “We are at an inflection point of national and world history.”

This is a time when we can control the direction of human destiny, if only for a little bit of time. This is what a life is for. This is our purpose, and, as Americans, Biden said, “We hold the wheel,” adding “This is one of those moments, the few times in our history, that people can bend history just a little bit.”

Grace Lee Boggs, 98 yrs old, Netroots 2014

Activist Grace Lee Boggs addresses Netroots attendees

What this is, if Biden and Boggs are to be believed, is a rare opportunity for self-determination to control our own evolution. That has been Grace Lee Boggs’ philosophy for decades – before you have revolution, you must have evolution.

In her book, The Next American Revolution, Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, she wrote:

“All over the world, local groups are struggling, as we are in Detroit, to keep our communities, our environment and our humanity from being destroyed by corporate globalization…

“[Those who are part of this movement] are joined at the heart by their commitment to achieving social justice, establishing new forms of democratic governance, and creating new ways of living at the local level that will reconnect us with the Earth, and with one another…

“Millions of people in the United States are part of this organically evolving cultural revolution.”

For Boggs, the greatness of her city is not the unlikely reassertion of the automotive industry that built it. That’s gone, she said, and therein lies the possibility of something great and new. “A place where justice and fairness reign supreme,” is how one of the Netroots participants, Diane Matsumoto, a Detroit native who now lives in North Carolina, put it.

Diane Matsumoto

Diane Matsumoto

Matsumoto sees the squeeze Governor Snyder’s emergency manager is putting on the town’s citizens, particularly regarding the inhumane withholding of water in the summertime, as creating a space where activism creates opportunity, which creates more activism. “The roots of Detroit is getting its legs back,” she said, “and maybe it takes us all being taken to our knees to remember where we came from.”

She said having awareness raised about the issues in Detroit will, like a car coming off the assembly line, roll out to the rest of the country. The city is, she said, “the canary in the coal mine” of the American middle class, and while she was heartened by the attention the Netroots crowd was bringing to the water issue, she said it’s only the beginning. “It doesn’t matter if there’s more of us [than there are of them], if we sit our ass on the couch eating bonbons. Now is the time,” she said, “we join the fight.”

Maybe this time, the cultural evolution we seek will finally lead to a permanent, stable and sustainable revolution.

AROMA – creating sustainable activism across Atlanta movements

“I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do.”
- I’d Love to Change the World, Ten Years After, 1971, by Alvin Lee

Affecting change is hard. Screaming for social justice can be frustrating. As anyone who has ever been involved in social and political activism can tell you, making sure that you have a consistent pool of people to continually put the pressure on politicians and society is the most difficult part of creating and maintaining a sustainable movement. This is especially true for liberals and progressives working in red states, where you have to pick yourself up off the ground, lick your wounds and start again, more times than you’d like.

A new movement in one Deep South state is trying to change that. It’s called Activist Recruitment, Organizing and Mentoring in Atlanta, or AROMA.

“Recruiting, organizing and mentoring, that’s something each organization does on its own,” explained Misty Novitch, a long time Atlanta activist and co-founder of AROMA. “You do your own outreach. You get your own people. You mentor them, you pull them in. You make them into leaders. But we have so few activists, and so much work to do, especially in Georgia, that people don’t necessarily have time to do that.”

What AROMA seeks to do, she said, is “to build community and solidarity across existing groups, and across the entire social justice movement.” AROMA will “recruit for all of our organizations, all of our movements, and help new activists get involved more easily and comfortably, and really invest in their growth and their development as leaders.”

That has the potential for a huge effect on the changing political climate in Georgia, and has local activists very excited. “I think it’s really going to help people be able to see their power,” declared AROMA member Troya Ole’badd, an activist who works against economic disparity in Atlanta. She believes that, if successful, the group will “expand the base of people who are activists” and help create “a paradigm shift and a social construct shift in the state.”

AROMA is the brainchild of Novitch and fellow activist Guled Abdilahi, who leads the group’s website development team.

The idea is for the group to be a resource for Atlanta area activists by providing a directory of hundreds of organizations to whom they may want to lend their time and talents. But it’s also a resource for the organizations themselves, by being a place where they can find trained, committed activists who have been through AROMA’s mentoring program, and where, eventually, they can send their own budding activists for training.

“What AROMA does is almost like a business-to-business service for non-profits,” explained Munir Meghjani, a veteran organizer, and one of the “leader-y people” Novitch tapped to help get the group started, around the beginning of the year. “You’ve got all these non-profits in the world that, unfortunately, have trouble working together,” he said, “At the same time, you’ve got all these volunteers in the world who have passion and knowledge, but may not necessarily be able to link up with the non-profit of their choice. They need a spark to get that fire cracking. That’s what AROMA does.”

AROMA exists for the organizations, Novitch says, as much as it does for the activists. “We want to support existing activist groups and show them we support them by recruiting for them, and say, ‘Hey, we have mad solidarity with you. Here’s what we want to do for you. Do you want to support us to do this for you? Either way, we love you and we love what you’re doing, so here are some new people. Can you welcome them when they come to your group for your meeting?'”

The mentoring program, the group believes, will provide a sustainable, regenerating pool of activists for the social justice movement. According to a recent draft of the document outlining AROMA’s plan:

“We want to mentor people to provide a supportive, friendly environment for newcomers, guide them in finding their place, train them to develop their skills and understanding, and help them walk in their own power, so they can become leaders.”

AROMA meeting, Java Monkey, Decatur, Georgia, May 18, 2014AROMA activists at a planning meeting near Atlanta, May 18, 2014

Meghjani says the group’s mentoring focus comes from an understanding of how difficult activism is. “It’s hard to volunteer. It’s not something that comes easily,” he admitted, but “if you have someone standing with you, especially a mentor, what we’ve seen is you’re more likely to stay, you’re more likely to be involved.”

Novitch agreed. “Activism is very come-and-go, because you’re livelihood does not depend on you being a consistently reliable activist. People come and get a taste and then leave,” she said. “The way we can support the frustration of dealing with activists and activism, is that new activists, or existing activists, can have mentors or just friends, authentic relationships, people to talk to about the kinds of things they’re experiencing, and noticing, and vent their frustrations to.”

That’s something that drew one young activist, Iesha Akyempong, to AROMA. “I am really passionate about the recruitment and the mentoring process,” she said. “I’m really into it because I think it’s important.”

A graduate of Spelman College, where “there’s a big emphasis” on community service, Akyempong said that she likes the way AROMA can help make the activist experience less daunting to a new recruit. “If you’re somebody who wants to be involved in fighting drug abuse, or working for Jobs for Justice, some of those larger causes, you need someone there to help you get involved in it, show you how to do it,” she said, “because you don’t just want to walk into things blind. It’s scary.

“Activists are strong minded, strong willed people. You don’t want to go into a meeting and feel lost, or say the wrong thing, and what could have been a whole group of new friends, are like, ‘Who are you?’”

Even if that does happen, Meghjani says, a mentor can help pull you through. “When people make mistakes and get down, if they have a mentor who is going to be there to support them through it, they’re more likely to get over it, and get over it in such a way that they make a comeback, and they’re going to come back stronger than they did before.”

Ole’badd agrees. When you invest your time in helping people through a difficult situation, she said, it can be personally and emotionally draining for the activist. “Sometimes people just completely fall apart and they don’t even know why. But [it's important to have] someone who has done it for a while, who is able to come in, talk to you about it and make sure that you, as an activist, get the help that you need, so [your] activism can continue.”

Patricio Cambias, a twenty-one-year-old airport fast food worker and union activist of barely a year, recognizes the value of AROMA because of his own experience. “I was trained by an organizer who taught me what I know. If I had to do it alone, I wouldn’t be near where I am now,” he said.

Cambias, who sees AROMA’s mentoring program as “sowing the seeds of a movement,” said he looks forward to helping others. “I think I could contribute to someone’s growth,” he said, “it brings the movement alive to me.”

And Novitch admits that even an experienced activist like herself could use some further guidance. “We want to recruit a lot of much older activists, from the Civil Rights movement in the Sixties to mentor the middle age activists,” she said. “We want people to be mentors and mentees at the same time, if possible.”

One activist Novitch might look to as a mentor is Milton Tambor, a septuagenarian union organizer who had his first foray into activism in the early 1960s, protesting the Vietnam War. “As a veteran activist,” he advised, “I would say that you have to take a look at each struggle, each fight within a larger perspective. The only way you’re going to be able to make any headway is to think in terms of long range goals. You want to fight and win the immediate goals, but you also want to bring together all the progressive forces so that you can present some kind of a united front.”

After attending some of the AROMA planning meetings, he is cautiously optimistic. “For me,” he admitted, “it’s too early to make an evaluation about AROMA, [but] at this stage of my life, to have young people stepping forward is critical. Going to meetings and seeing twenty, twenty-five people there, talking about their interests in activism, I think that’s great. In all of my activist work, there was never that kind of framework laid out where you could learn from someone and deepen your activism.”

That point is not lost on the young Cambias, who said that without being able to source the activists who came before you, “You lose the collective memory of the struggle.”

Organizers say that is the most important point of AROMA’s goal of recruiting and mentoring new activists. Meghjani points to Novitch’s experience as an example. “The things that Misty learned from organizing in the past,” he said, “the things that worked and the things that don’t work, if she doesn’t pass that knowledge on, then the next person who comes to organize us will make the same mistakes and we’re going to be at the same spot that we were five years ago.”

As for Novitch, creating new activists is akin to raising an army – “a nonviolent army,” she is quick to point out. “We need to recruit them, and we need to make sure that they are able to do anything that any other activists can do,” she said, “so that if one of us burns out and has to take a break, or gets injured or killed or is put in jail, they can take over.”

Picking up the flag and continuing the charge, she believes, is the only way for liberals and progressives to succeed in reaching their goals. We can’t just be reacting to the latest assault on civil and human rights, because that won’t move the cause forward. “Strategically,” she said, “if you’re always on the defense, you’re always going to lose ground.”

Akyempong is motivated. “We cannot just sit back and wait for laws to be passed to get things done in our communities,” she said, “because nothing’s going to happen. If we want something done, let’s get ourselves together, galvanize, and let’s do it.”

AROMA, like any other new activist group, has needs. They of course need people willing to mentor, at any level, and they need a solid leadership program. According to Novitch, “We need help figuring out how to move people through a process of leadership development, and we need people who are willing to help make that happen in a consistent way, over a long period of time.”

She is positively passionate about AROMA’s success. “We have to be the transition team, that helps the world transition between the way it is and the way it could be,” she concluded. “I really believe this group can help do that.”


If you are interested in participating in AROMA’s mentoring program, either as a mentor or a mentee, or think you can help with leadership development, please contact the group through the website – – or the Facebook page –

What’s missing from Congress saves a Senator

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS)

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS)

It is now becoming apparent that Senator Thad Cochran and his supporters used political savvy to rally some Democratic voters to come out and vote for him, last Tuesday. We like to think our politics are pure, that any movement for a candidate is grassroots, driven by a concerned citizenry wanting to ensure they are represented by someone who will listen to their requests and act, someone who will take care of their needs.

We know the reality is more complex, that the most successful campaigns employ algorithm-driven get-out-the-vote tools and techniques (Obama), that they use reverse psychology to face a beatable candidate (McCaskill), and now, that they use direct appeal through operatives with whom they may have nothing in common to save them from certain defeat (Cochran).

According to Jim Galloway, a political columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

“Late campaign disclosure documents filed in the race show that Mississippi Conservatives, a political action committee run by the son of that state’s former governor, Haley Barbour, paid tens of thousands of dollars to get-out-the-vote artist Mitzi Bickers, an African-American pastor and former president of the Atlanta school board.”

Because it was a PAC that hired Bickers’ consulting firm, the Bickers Group, there is no direct connection to the Cochran campaign, so if her actions, which are believed to be two robo-calls, are the “irregularities” Cochran’s opponent, Chris McDaniel, was referring to in his defiant, non-concession speech, then he has no case against the six-term incumbent.

What the Barbours did, in support of Cochran, was recognize that Republican idealists would vote for McDaniel, but pragmatists would vote for Cochran, and Haley, Henry, et al., are nothing if not political pragmatists.

That hyper-awareness of the facts on the ground is also something red state Democrats might want to consider in particularly tight races, where they actually stand a chance. Tacking to the political center might help you get votes from the center, but it will not help with siphoning votes from the right. You may not necessarily want to be their voice, but you probably need their vote. This opens the campaign on three fronts: assure the partisans that you are with them; assure the middle that you are not an extremist, and; inform the right that it’s better for them and their community if they vote for you. Of course getting all your targeted voters to actually vote is the biggest stumbling block, one that researchers say, if successful, would have resulted in a very different political dynamic in red states, and in Washington, DC.

If Republicans and Democrats have no problem reaching across party lines to campaign, perhaps, then, they would be willing to reach across the aisle more in Congress. Thad Cochran is as socially conservative a senator as they come, but if he gives back to the Mississippi Democrats who helped him hold his seat, by helping where the people in the poorest state in the country need it most, then we may have a new recipe for leadership, from a very old politician.


Triage for a bleeding lame duck

“We conclude that the Recess Appointments Clause does not give the President the constitutional authority to make the appointments here at issue.” – Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority opinion in the unanimous finding of N.L.R.B. v Canning, issued 26 June, 2014

“The Constitution makes it clear that a president’s job is to faithfully execute the laws. In my view, the president has not faithfully executed the laws.” – Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-Ohio) announcing to the press his intention to get Congress to sue President Obama for not following his oath of office

There’s blood in the water fountain on the North Lawn of the White House. Phrases like “constitutional authority” and “not faithfully executed” cast a shadow of doubt in the minds of the undiscerning, over the integrity of the president they elected to office, twice. The question is whether the Supreme Court and House Speaker John Boehner are inflicting a thousand tiny cuts or whether it’s a self inflicted mortal wound cut by the knife of good intention.


Wikimedia Commons

How the administration responds to these slings and arrows of misfortune is important, not only for President Obama, but also for the Democrats who hope to succeed him. With his popularity numbers hovering around 40 percent, and a public perception of disregard for the rules of power, the meme that asks “Do you want another four years of the kind of governing we saw under Obama,” is going to make any Democratic candidate’s push to the 2016 election difficult, especially those who have no buffer from the actions of the administration, like Vice President Joe Biden and the favored, former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

The irony is obvious, since Obama argued, in 2008, that electing a Republican was tantamount to endorsing another four years of the horrid policies of Bush and Cheney. “Senator McCain likes to talk about judgment,” he said of his opponent on the night he accepted his party’s nomination in Denver, “but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush was right more than 90 percent of the time?” And he continued to refer to the failed foreign and domestic policies of George W. Bush as “Bush-McCain” policies.

It really won’t matter if Boehner’s lawsuit will likely not be resolved until after Obama is out of office. It really won’t matter that Biden and Clinton aren’t Obama, and neither are Martin O’Malley, Brian Schweitzer or Andrew Cuomo. The Republicans will hold up a thin allegation of abuse of power and call it a telephone book, and hang it on the neck of whoever the Democrats nominate.

How the president publicly responds to not only Boehner’s partisan gimmickry, but more importantly, to the Supreme Court setbacks (which include wounds from two of his own appointees), is critical. He has a little more room to be defensive with Boehner – “What I’ve told Speaker Boehner directly is, ‘If you’re really concerned about me taking too many executive actions, why don’t you try getting something done through Congress?'” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Friday – but cannot be dismissive, or even appear to be dismissive, of either one. If he doesn’t find some way to appear contrite but not chastened, his legacy will not just be the end of two wars and a health care bill. It will be facing the challenge of an intransigent Congress and finding workarounds so distasteful that it sours the public on the leadership style of the entire party.


But what do we fight for? How about idealism, fairness and equality?

“I think Washington in general is unpopular, the president and congress, because we seem dysfunctional and we are dysfunctional.” – Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sunday, June 22, 2014

In the American experience, our country’s forebearers have left us a legacy of knowing who and what we are against. From religious persecution to the British, from slavery to Jim Crow, we fight. That is our story. We find purpose in the fight, so we agree on very little and the few policies where we find consensus are devoured by the vermin that infect the political beast. Just ask deposed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) what it’s like to wake up with the fleas with whom you’ve gone to bed, crawling under your skin.

The Republicans like to draw a picture of Obama being the extreme, and then there’s everyone else, or as John Boehner likes to call them, “the American people.” (Someone should to a count of how many times the Speaker uses that phrase when he actually means the Republican base, but I guess they’re American people, too – just not all the American people.) Inside the current dynamics of his party, that may be true.

“We are now operating in the Obama Republican Party,” Jon Lerner, a Republican consultant, admitted to the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, recently. “Obama’s lurch to the left on size-of-government issues has created an aggressive Republican reaction…”

That is, of course, an oversimplification. Lerner makes it sound like there’s been some line in the sand that’s been crossed and the GOP are holding a united line, because Obama stands against everything they believe. But it may be less a matter of political conviction and more a matter of political fear. In reality, what it’s done is made it harder for more moderate, consensus capable Republicans from speaking out, lest they too be Cantor-ed. Republicans, especially in red states, say what they have to for their own political survival, sometimes in a not so subtle course reversal, like Louisiana Governor [and 2016 presidential hopeful] Bobby Jindal (R) using his executive authority to disengage his state from its commitment to Common Core educational standards.

The truth for the GOP is that they embraced the Tea Party appropriated Gadsden flag snake because they thought it would make them more powerful, that their establishment brand conservatism was enough to control it, like a faithful West Virginia snake handling preacher. Instead, it continues to bite them, and the party faithful label the poisoned politician a poser, and not a real conservative at all.

The serpent juggling disunity only makes the Republicans a more dangerous counter to the president, albeit a less cohesive one. Assuming that Lerner is correct in how united the GOP is against President Obama and the Democrats, it’s difficult to see a way this national disunity leaves our union strong.

President Obama recognized some of the pettiness in this obstructionism during his last election, in an interview with MSNBC. He said that while “there are a whole range of issues, I think, where we can actually bring the country together, with a non-ideological agenda, the question’s going to be: How do Republicans react in Congress post-election? Because there’s going to be a war going on inside that party. It just hasn’t broken out. It’s been unified, in opposition to me.”

We all know that despite the president’s pre-election optimism, that dynamic did not change.

Anti-war protest, March, 2009 Photo credit: Bill Hackwell (modified)

Anti-war protest, March, 2009
Photo credit: Bill Hackwell (modified)

Yet, there are fundamentals over which the hypocrisy of our history break to one side, when unity thrives and there is a clear understanding of what it means to be an American. That is when we demonstrate a consensus of tolerance and concern, of fairness and equal opportunity. After all, fifty years ago last week, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. I believe the river of idealism that brought us to that moment still runs below the ugly asphalt surface with which we have chosen to pave our politics and our personal relationships.

Our Twentieth Century successes, as a global partner in war and a global leader in business, standing (mostly) shoulder to shoulder against the injustices of racism and bigotry and poverty, have spoiled us with unsustainable expectations of inevitable American greatness. Now, with wagging fingers and tisk-tisking lips creating the perception of fading American glory, we blame those with whom we have profound disagreements, even about what made us great in the first place. Setting aside for a moment that the “glory” itself could be a pure Yankee Doodle, hubris infused, false reality, we have to examine whether we are truly fading into the upstage shadows, or growing, finding new ways to transform into a more robust, sustainable republic, a truly bright city on the hill.

It’s easy to poke at Dick Cheney’s chutzpah (or cojones, depending on which corner of the country you are from) when he says, regarding Obama’s loathing of military conflict, “Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”

But this is not just a nation of hawks and doves, or bullies and peons, or makers and takers. I don’t know anyone who self identifies as any of those. We describe our nation as great because we know how to fight and we know how to thrive in peace. We can lose – and have lost – wars, and still win as a country. When we lose, it’s when we abandon peaceful principles to pursue a vengeful agenda, like the Bush/Cheney decision to invade Iraq.

Simply coming up with justification of a cause does not make a cause just. A sixteen-year-old can tell you why he just had to answer a text and ended up crashing the car, but that doesn’t mean he was right to do it. Indeed, in our representative government, we should be the parents disciplining our petulant government as to what is and is not justifiable. Instead, we long ago abdicated our responsibility for shepherding fair and just government outcomes to greedy politicians and Wall Street bankers, with predictable results. Now they see us as the incorrigible children – ignorant, rebellious and bothersome.

We still are not through with this cycle of dysfunctional governance enabled by a contentious electorate. But in order
to remove the chocks from the wheels of government and let it fly, we have to work together. We can’t all be the pilot, but by letting go of absolutes, we can come to an agreement on the heading. Despite all our differences and what and who we are against, wise, patient folks can come together and be unified, even imperfectly, on what we stand for as a people. That is what made us great in the first place, in Philadelphia, in 1776, and everywhere since, when we have stood together as brothers and sisters, committed to a more tolerant world and a more perfect, fair and equal nation.

What do you have to let go of to make that happen?


Evolution: seeing without the lens of war

“[T]he United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come.”
-President Barack Obama, addressing the United States Military Academy commencement ceremony, May 28,2014

Just because we start seeing the world without looking at it through a lens of war doesn’t mean we have stopped loving it. Rather, our relationship has grown. Its nature has changed. It is time to let the world finish its rebellion against our authority, presumed or actual, and let it go, let it fly.

“But the world is changing with accelerating speed.”

Perhaps President Obama’s recent declarations about our changing military role is a correlation to having two growing daughters, getting closer to leaving the nest and living on their own. Maybe he’s just trying to get us all to see, it’s time to release our young, and, if we have raised them right, watch them soar.

“The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead — not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe.”

US Soldier in Afghanistan

US Army photo

We never asked to be the world’s parental nest. We never asked. But we had the most money, the most successful populace with a laissez faire attitude about world affairs, and the biggest fist, the strongest hammer. Yet, as President Obama said at the West Point graduation, last week, “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

“[T]o say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”

There is difficulty in letting go of power, but there is greater difficulty in using it in unwelcome ways, like missile firing drones and monitored cellphones. If we want to have a relationship with the world, we must allow that relationship to evolve. Once we have stopped being the heavy hand with the rest of the planet, we can be the tender touch to nurture, from the strength of knowing how to get things done, what a free world creates.

That won’t be easy, mostly because the time of the United States being trusted to get things done was pretty much relegated to myth, ever since Colin Powell wagged a vial of Saddam’s “imminent threat” (which was neither a threat, nor was it imminent) at the United Nations Security Council in 2003. It was the legend with which we boastfully imbued ourselves for half a century, coming out on the winning side of two world wars (the last of which resulted in veterans actually being taken care of), propped up by Hollywood and exploited by politicians. Whether it was ever true after the 1970s is arguable. The only thing that kept it alive that long was the legacy of a strong middle class, supported by good union jobs and high taxes.

When the basis of your vision for America as the “greatest country on Earth” is rooted in soil that’s been dead for decades, you have to find a plot on a nearby field and plant anew, before the drying, prideful stalk on which we now find ourselves turns to dust.

Not talking revolution. This is a progressive evolution.

And it won’t happen with the current DC dynamic – an intransigent Congress that views any military disengagement as weakness, any unilateral action taken by the executive branch to ease tensions between us and our enemies (and to rescue American soldiers) as an unconstitutional power grab, and a chief executive doing whatever the law allows to satisfy those of us who voted for him (twice), as he tries to reconcile his legacy with the Nobel Prize he won when his administration began.

But it will happen.

In spite of decades of screw-ups on the international stage, we know how to come together to build something. It’s in our DNA, part of the nature of our republic. We can step back without stepping aside, and bring compromise and consensus back to Washington. But it will require true democracy to prevail, rather than the one bought by billionaires and run by millionaires. For that to happen, we have to commit to sowing the real grassroots, so roll up your sleeves and bring your shovel. This is going to be hard work.


If you’re post racial and you know it, keep your mouth shut

Here’s the thing about being post racial. If you have to announce to the world that you are no longer a racist, then you almost certainly still are.

It brings to mind the essential catch in Joseph Heller’s amazing novel about the insanity of military discipline in a time of war, Catch 22 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961):

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22… Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.”

Indeed, it is. Granted, the army may give you less leeway with your thoughts than your own conscience does, but that just means the responsibility is yours. You are your own chain of command.

SterlingBallAs embattled NBA owner Donald Sterling will tell you, you can say you respect the players, you can say you respect one of the most beloved players in NBA history, Ervin “Magic” Johnson, but if you are saying it in an effort to disavow overtly racist statements, you’re still a racist. You’re just pretending you’re shocked by the charge. You may as well say, “Some of my best friends are n—–s,” because whether you think of them that way or not, the fact that you have to point out how tolerant you are shows you are as disconnected from your own honest feelings as you are from society’s.

Racism will die, as Haile Selassie said, in a 1963 speech to the United Nations, when “the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and totally discredited and abandoned.” It can be argued that, for a majority of Americans, it has at least been “discredited.” That goes for all races, one to another, all religions, one to another, all genders, one to another, all sexual orientations, one to another.

As for Sterling, rather than going to Barbara Walters and Anderson Cooper to plead for forgiveness and ask for a mulligan for an acute instance of chronically racist behavior, maybe he should have just apologized and declared he would do some introspecting, and try to get a better understanding of his own shortcomings. Instead, he blames others for misunderstanding him, and the way he really feels, and appears to be ready to refuse to follow the NBA commissioner’s edict, and take his case to the courts.

He could volunteer to undergo sensitivity training. The Miami Dolphins are sending Don Jones, one of their players, to sensitivity training for his unkind tweets following the intimate moment caught on camera between newly recruited, first openly gay NFL draftee Michael Sam and his boyfriend. Like drug rehab, sensitivity training requires acknowledging that one’s behavior is not just a “mistake.” It is wrong. Period.

Human rights require respect, but respect alone is not enough. America’s late night satirist-in-chief, Stephen Colbert, has an idiom about our country’s ethnic diversity. “I don’t see race,” he insists, and the audience laughs, because they don’t think that’s really possible, based on his rhetoric, and also because they understand how difficult a concept that can be, in this country.

The reason I like it is it implies that we can set aside our prejudices, and all the garbage we, as associating machines, ascribe to “the other.” It’s a great goal-post, one guaranteed not to move farther away as you gain on it, unless you let it. That really should be the commitment of the American experience. Out of many, one.



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