You can hear Cliff on WRFG 89.3 FM on the Just Peace show, Monday's at 6pm:
You can also listen and/or call into Cliff's Blog Talk Radio show at

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Supreme Court and Voting Rights: Deja Vu?

Today, the Supreme Court will hear a case challenging a key aspect of the 1965 Voting Rights Act--Section 5. Section 5 is generally thought of as the section that gives the Act some teeth—it gives the federal government the tools necessary to enforce the spirit of the Act. Among other things, the section requires states with a history of racial discrimination to “pre-clear” any voting policy changes with the U.S. Justice Department. Section 5 claims involve everything from the location of polling places within a congressional district, to the redrawing of congressional district lines, in order to prevent racial gerrymandering the Supreme Court has said is unconstitutional.

Now, let’s put aside that fact that, depending on who the president is at any given time, getting changes pre-cleared is not always as difficult as it sounds. For example, under George W. Bush, Mississippi probably could have tried to reinstate literacy tests and the poll tax and Bush’s Justice Department surely would have pre-cleared it. In fact, that essentially what they did by pre-clearing new Voter ID requirements that added an extra financial burden to voter registration. But let’s put that aside for now.

And let’s also put aside the fact that while there has been a boom in Black elected officials since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, progress on racial disparities in poverty, employment, housing, health and other areas has been inconsistent at best. And in some areas, such as the criminal justice system, disparities have actually gotten worse. But let’s put that aside for now.

If we put aside the long-term benefits that we expect to come from voting, and just focus on the objective reality of using the vote, it’s clear that the Voting Rights Act has been one of the most effective pieces of legislation ever. That success is largely due to Section 5, but if you listen to the nine states that are subject to the pre-clearance requirements, they’ll tell you that they are now a more kinder, gentler South—a “new” South if you will—and that pre-clearance is no longer necessary. A conservative leaning Supreme Court may find their argument convincing.

Perhaps you’re thinking that this will be the case where Clarence Thomas finally decides to protect the kinds of rights that allowed him to become only the second Black person to serve on the Supreme Court. Don’t hold your breath. A few weeks ago, at an awards banquet with high school students, Thomas seemed to minimize the Bill of Rights when he made the following remarks:

It seems to me that more and more people are celebrated for their litany of grievances about this or that… Shouldn’t there at least be equal time for our bill of obligations and our bill of responsibilities?

As you reflect on Clarence’s remarks consider this. Inside the Supreme Court, directly above where the Justice’s sit, is a mural that includes an image symbolizing the Bill of Rights. The image was included because evidently someone felt that the Bill of Rights was central to the work of the Court. Apparently, Clarence never got that memo.

More importantly, Thomas and the other conservatives on the Court have already shown their thinking on these matters. In addition to approving Voter ID laws, just a few weeks ago the Court narrowed the circumstances where a majority Black district could be protected during redistricting. The decision could have a major impact during the next round of redistricting in 2010.

It’s been said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. So perhaps we shouldn’t be too critical of the Court. Perhaps they’re just playing their part in a historical cycle that’s beyond their control. Let us not forget that after the Civil War, the United States went through a period of Reconstruction, a period that saw the passage of civil rights laws and the election of Black Senators and at least one Governor. As an unfinished Reconstruction came to an end, one of the critical factors was a Supreme Court that eliminated the legislative gains that had been made.

More than 100 years later, the country experienced a Civil Rights Movement that some referred to as the second Reconstruction. In recent years that movement has led to the elections of Black Senators, a Black Governor and yes, even a Black President. And here we are, right back at the Supreme Court.

While the question of whether the Supreme Court will eliminate Section 5 is important, perhaps there are some deeper questions we need to ask. For example, if the 15th Amendment guarantees the right to vote, why is Section 5, and the rest of the Voting Rights Act, even needed at all. Seems to me that if we can answer that question—really answer that question--and then deal with the answer, we may stop being condemned to repeat the past.

On that “note”, i’m outta here!


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Richard Pryor - 40th President of the U.S.

Even though i've embedded the youtube video below, i must give credit to the Black Business Builders Club for featuring it. As mentioned on the Black Business Builders page, look for Robin Williams, John Witherspoon, Marsha Warfield, Tim Reid, and Sandra Bernhard in this classic sketch.

On that "note", i'm outta here!


Sunday, April 26, 2009

My First Podcast! Religion and Poverty

This is the first of a feature i plan to use once a week--audio clips to supplement some of my written commentaries. The clip below was chosen partially because i was reflecting on how often many of us use religion to justify and rationalize things that just don't need to be justified. Whether it's racists who rely on the so-called "curse of Ham" (which doesn't even exist) or sexists who rely on some shaky interpretations and examples like Paul advising that women should be quiet in the church, folks who wanna do wrong can usually find a good verse to hide behind.

The same applies to the matter of poverty. While doing my radio show in Selma i had some heated exchanges with White callers trying to justify the vast disparities in wealth between Blacks and Whites. The clip below isn't from one of those heated exchanges, but the caller (who happened to be a regular who i like) cites one of the verses that folks on Wall Street probably love the most--Jesus saying that "the poor will be with you always". Listen to the clip and let me know what you think.

To see what other podcasts are available, please visit my Gabcast channel by clicking here.

On that "note", i'm outta here!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Things You Can Do in Atlanta to Support Justice!

Support Political Prisoner Kamau Sadiki (Freddie Hilton)

Last month i did a post talking about the case of the San Francisco 8 and how the police/FBI war continues against former Black Panthers continues today.

Former Black Panther Party member and political prisoner Kamau Sadiki (Freddie Hilton) will appear in Judge Stephanie Manis courtroom on Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 9:30 am. Sadiki is seeking a re-trial on a murder conviction in 2003. Atlanta Police had closed a case of the 1971 killing of an Atlanta police officer. In 1999, the FBI in pursuit of collaboration in their attempts to recapture Assata Shakur, a political exile in Cuba, threatened Sadiki with life in prison if he did not assist them. When Sadiki did not comply the FBI convinced Atlanta police to re-open the case and charge Sadiki. The FBI assisted the Atlanta police and prosecutors in manufacturing witnesses (none who actually saw the shooting) against Sadiki. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison 32 years after the incident.

Please come to court and show Brother Sadiki moral support. Judge Manis court is at the Fulton County Superior Court Building, 136 Pryor Street, SW Fulton County Courthouse / Courtroom 5c Atlanta, Georgia (30303).

To learn more about the life, activism and case of Kamau Sadiki, please click here.

See the Film "American Violet"

The info below is from the e-mail that was sent out by Color of Change, but i'll just add my two cents. I saw the movie yesterday, and it was great! Powerful story, good acting, and as someone who has lived in a small town like the one in the movie, it does a good job of depicting how the power of the so-called "justice" system is intertwined all throughout everyday life. Go see it. Then talk about it. And then let's ORGANIZE around it!

Too often, police drug raids in low-income communities across the county sweep up innocent people. Once in the system, it can become nearly impossible for these folks to prove their innocence. They lose their freedom; their families are broken; and the true story is rarely told.

American Violet is a new award-winning film that's playing for a limited run in Atlanta that can help shine a light on the problem. By going to see the movie, you can help it get more exposure--it will run longer in theaters if it does well at first.

American Violet tells the amazing story of a young, single mother swept up in an unjust, out-of-control drug raid that targets the Black community in a small town in Texas. The film is based on true events and it examines how our country's drug laws and enforcement practices target African-Americans, and how the justice system uses threats and intimidation to steer people towards guilty pleas, regardless of their innocence or the evidence against them.

You can watch the trailer below:

The film is inspired by the real life story of Regina Kelly, an African-American, single mother of four girls who was arrested in 2000 in a military-style drug raid. The raid resulted in the arrest of nearly 15% of the town's young Black male population for felony cocaine distribution. Kelly was innocent. Her name, along with the names of many others arrested (nearly all African-American), were given to police by a single, highly unreliable informant with personal reasons to antagonize her. Despite Kelly's innocence, she was urged to plead guilty by her family and even her public defender so that she could return to her children and receive a minimal sentence. A felony conviction, however, would have resulted in the loss of her right to vote and the public assistance programs on which her family depended, not to mention the tainting of her personal reputation and her ability to obtain employment. She chose to maintain her plea of not guilty. American Violet tells the story of her fight for justice.

Click here to find showtimes and buy tickets:

Please consider supporting this film, and please forward this email to friends and family to spread the word!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

NOTEworthy News, 4/13/09

Georgia AG Thurbert Baker entering race for Georgia governor (February 9, AP)
Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker is entering the 2010 race for governor in Georgia, jumping into a crowded field to replace Sonny Perdue when his second term expires. If he wins Baker, a Democrat, would be Georgia’s first black governor… When [former Gov. Zell] Miller appointed Baker attorney general in 1997, he made history as the first black to hold the post. In 2006 he was elected to his third four-year term.

Cliff Note: Looks like Thurbert Baker is just the latest of Black candidates around the country who have caught that contagious disease known as “Yes We Can” fever. I’m pretty sure Mr. Baker must be aware that President Obama got blown out in Georgia, so i sure hope he’s not planning to ride those coattails.

Like many of the new generation, post-racial Negro leaders, Baker tries to downplay race. In fact, it was Baker who, during the Genarlow Wilson case, played party pooper after Wilson received a favorable decision from the county court, which resulted in his sentence being reduced. As Attorney General, Baker promised to appeal the decision and tried to keep Genarlow in jail. If that’s the kind of thing we can expect from Georgia’s first Black Governor, we might as well stick with the white ones.

But i will say this much for him, at least he’s already won statewide elections—three to be exact. That’s more than i can say about some other pretenders, i mean contenders, seeking to become governors in Dixie. I won’t mention any names…

[Cough. Cough] Artur.

[Cough. Cough] Harold.

(Tennessee) African-Americans Go Courting County Votes as Political Doors Open Wider (April 2, 2009, Tri-State Defender)
The political doors of Shelby County government have opened wider for African Americans. Otis Jackson won election as Shelby County General Sessions Court clerk. Cheyenne Johnson won election as Shelby County Assessor of Property on the first try. And A C Wharton is the Shelby County mayor. Before Jackson, Johnson and Wharton, African Americans running for countywide offices often found themselves on the losing end against non-black candidates – sometimes by small percentages. But race is not as reliable a predictor of election outcomes as it has been in the past. Full article.

Cliff Note: When i first read this article, it challenged my theories about this post-racial America mythology, particularly my belief that at the local level we are nowhere near a post-racial America. I was going to post it anyway, just to show i’m not afraid of stories that conflict with my analysis, but then i decided to dig a little deeper into Shelby County, Tennesse, the county discussed above, which includes the city of Memphis.

It turns out that Shelby County has been undergoing an out-migration of white residents for some time now, thereby increasing the Black percentage of the population (from around 43% in 1990 to more than 52% in 2008). So the ability of three Black candidates to win county-wide offices is NOT evidence of a post-racial America. To the contrary, it’s evidence that most of the white population fleeing the county were likely the ones who refused to vote for Black candidates previously.

Georgia Assembly Okays Death Penalty Alternative, Denies Spilt Jury Measure (April 5, 2009, Atlanta Progressive News)
A bill, SB 13, passed the Georgia Assembly this year, which will allow district attorneys to seek life without parole for individuals convicted of murder, without first having to ask for the death penalty in order to obtain such a ruling…

At the same time, the Georgia legislature fought back bills which would possibly have increased death penalty sentences, including HB 32, which would allow split, or non-unanimous, juries in Georgia to issue death penalty verdicts…

Yet, a bill by State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) to end the death penalty in Georgia, SB 175, did not receive consideration in committee.
Full article.

Cliff Note: It’s nice that SB 13 passed, but Senator Fort’s bill (which i believe was actually for a moratorium, not to abolish) would have been better. Just a couple of months ago, New Mexico became the third state in two years to abolish the death penalty, and there are currently eleven other states considering similar bans.

There are a lot of reasons why I’m against the death penalty. The probability of killing an innocent person and the sheer hypocrisy of trying to decrease murder by allowing the government to murder are just two reasons. But at the top of my list of reasons is this simple fact: the death penalty is nothing more than a legal lynching. It’s no coincidence that 1) is has always been used disproportionately, and in some states almost exclusively, against Black defendants, 2) it is used primarily when the victims of a crime have been white, sending the clear message that taking a white life is somehow more unacceptable than taking a Black life, and 3) it is used most often in southern states—states that have always sought to control their Black residents.

I could bore you with a whole lot of stats regarding the death penalty, but instead i’ll just give a small sample. Since 1976, 235 executions have been of Black defendants with White victims, while only 15 executions have been for the reverse. And how ‘bout this little tidbit: 20% of Blacks who were executed were convicted by all-white juries. For more stats, you can go to the Death Penalty Information Center. They’ve got some great info.

In a 1987 case, the U.S. Supreme Court was forced to admit that race has an impact on death penalty sentencing. The only problem is, after recognizing that fact, they failed to require or even suggest anything to deal with that inconvenient truth. The video below features Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative talking about that case and racism in death penalty sentencing.

By the way, i started writing this on Friday—Good Friday—a day on which we commemorate the most important death penalty sentence of all time. And go figure, He was Black too!

So, yes, while the Georgia Assembly’s move to provide the option of life without parole is a step forward, we should not be confused about the facts that 1) it still needs to be signed by the Governor, and 2) much of the Assembly is still attempting to make it easier to sentence people to death. In fact, you have some legislators in Georgia who would love to make Georgia more like its neighbor, Alabama, where a judge can override a jury that sentences a defendant to jail time and impose the death sentence over the jury’s wishes. Now that’s democracy!

And let’s not forget that the state of Georgia is still trying to execute Troy Davis in spite of the fact that 7 of the 9 witnesses in his original trial, witnesses who were probably coerced into testifying, have since recanted their testimony. Perhaps if Troy had been accused of killing a Black single mom instead of a white police officer he wouldn’t be on death row right now.

On that “note”, i’m outta here!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bernard Monroe Shot by Police in Homer, Louisiana

For 73 years before his killing by a white police officer, Bernard Monroe’s life in this little town was as quiet as they come… Rendered mute after losing his larynx to cancer, the 73-year-old retired power company lineman was in his usual spot on the mild February day: a chair by the gate that led to his Adams Street home. A barbecue cooker smoked beside a picnic table in the yard as a dozen or so family members talked and played nearby.

In a report to state authorities, Homer police said Officer Tim Cox and another officer they have refused to identify chased Monroe’s son, Shaun, from a suspected drug deal blocks away to his father’s house... Seeing the commotion, Bernard Monroe confronted the officer. Police said that he advanced on them with a pistol and that Cox, who was still inside the house, shot at him through a screen door. Monroe fell dead along a walkway. How many shots were fired isn’t clear; the coroner has refused to release an autopsy report, citing the active investigation.

Police said Monroe was shot after he pointed a gun at them, though no one claims Monroe fired shots. But friends and family said he was holding a bottle of sports water. They accuse police of planting a gun he owned next to his body. “Mr. Ben didn’t have a gun,” said 32-year-old neighbor Marcus Frazier, who was there that day. “I saw that other officer pick up the gun from out of a chair on the porch and put it by him.”
Full article (April 10, 2009, AP).

Cliff Note: The sad reality is that when it comes to police brutality, little has changed since the mid 1960s when beatings and murders by the police, combined with worsening economic conditions, led to rebellions in cities like Detroit, Newark and many others. Little has changed since the Black Panthers saw the need to include the following as point # 7 of their Ten Point Program: “We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people”. By the way, if you’ve never actually read the Ten Point Program, you really should click on the link; you may be surprised to learn that the Panthers also dealt with the issues of employment, housing, education, health care and wars of aggression. Sound familiar?

Most of the officers who get caught beating or killing folks usually get a slap on the wrist. They rarely face criminal charges (thanks to police friendly district attorneys), and when they do they’re usually found not guilty due to manipulation of the jury selection process combined with police friendly laws.

As bad as that is, it’s even worse in situations where the police brutality doesn’t make it to the national media. In those situations, not only do the offending officers avoid criminal charges, they usually get a promotion. This is especially the case in smaller towns throughout this country. The ability of smaller towns like Homer and Jena to get national attention is the exception to the rule. The sad reality is that you could probably find a Bernard Monroe every week in some town in the United States.

During my nine years in Selma, Alabama I saw my fair share of such cases, including situations where prisoners have died mysteriously while in police custody. In spite of our efforts, you never got to see those stories on CNN.

If having a Black President and Black Attorney General is to mean anything beyond a symbolic source of pride, it must mean that these types of incidents end, and the only way for that to happen is if the perpetrators are dealt with more seriously.

But Black President or not, at some point we’re going to have to realize that there’s but so much justice we can get as long as we continue to define our struggle in terms of civil rights instead of human rights. That’s one of the lessons Brother Malcolm tried to teach us years ago, and that’s one of the reasons the Panthers ended their Ten Point Program by quoting not from the Constitution, but from the Declaration of Independence.

So what can we do right here and right now?

1) You can call the District Attorney’s office in Homer at (318) 927-4862 and demand that they file charges against the officers in the Bernard Monroe shooting.

2) You can sign an online petition to end racial profiling that will be sent to the Obama administration. In addition to calling for action on racial profiling in general, the petition calls for specific action on the policie shootings of Oscar Grant, Adolph Grimes and Robbie Tolan.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. What's your demand?

On that "note", i'm outta here!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I'm Back/Open Letter to Bill Maher

In the words of the classic poet, Rakim, “it’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you”. But I’ve been focusing on finishing my book proposal so I can get an agent and/or publisher. I hope to have an update on that in a month or two. As for my blogging hiatus, “time’s up, sorry I kept you”!

I’ll be back to two or three blogs a week, but for now I’m just posting a little letter I wrote to Bill Maher (you know, Real Time on HBO) about his movie, Religulous. It’s a little off my usual topic of race and politics, but then again, maybe not…

On that “note”, I’m outta here!


Dear Bill,

Last week I watched Religulous, and enjoyed it, for the most part. I actually agree with many of the points that you were raising, particularly about 1) the need to challenge some elements of religious orthodoxy, particularly those that aren’t even supported by scripture, and 2) the dangerous and disastrous role that organized religion has played in world history. To be fair, I think that a balanced discussion of point two would have to include examples of the positive role that religion has played in world history, whether through the Hinduism of a Gandhi or the Christianity of a Dr. King, but I’ll readily admit that, at least in practice, the negative has outweighed the positive.

Nevertheless, I was deeply dismayed by one of the segments—the one where you interviewed the Jewish activist (rabbi ?) who was against Zionism. Although it was surprising to me that you felt the need to end the interview and walk away from the camera, that act is not what I found troubling. What bothered me is that the position you seemed to be taking on Zionism and the state of Israel was the result of the same kind of religious tunnel vision that you spent the whole movie criticizing.

Most people who support the establishment of the state of Israel do so based on one of two reasons, either 1) because they feel that its establishment fulfills a promise made by God to Abraham, or 2) because they feel that it is deserved and necessary based on historic Jewish persecution, particularly, and most recently at the time Israel was established, the Holocaust.

In your case, the support you show for Israel, and the frustration you displayed with the Jewish activist, could not have been based on the first reason. After all, you had just spent more than an hour of the documentary criticizing the “fairy tale” known as the Bible, and ridiculing those who believe in stories such as a virgin birth. Given this, it would be incredibly hypocritical for you to support 60 years of foreign policy, billions of dollars spent, and millions of live impacted based on what you obviously believe was a mythical promise between God and some guy in the desert.

For the record, although I do not believe in absolute literal interpretations of all biblical writings, I do NOT believe that the bible is a fairy tale. However, since that is the position you took in your movie, I am simply using that as a starting point to follow your train of thought.

So with that in mind, I was glad that you did not make reference to “the promise” in your debate with the Jewish activist. Instead you focused on reason #2 above, that Jewish people deserved the state of Israel because of what had been done to them. But to me, taking this position is even more curious than the promise position, because if reparations is your justification, you’ve got to answer one simple question. What’s that got to do with the Palestinians (and their land).

Don’t get me wrong. I support reparations. I support it for the indigenous peoples who were displaced, robbed and killed by European settlers. I support if for Japanese Americans who were imprisoned during World War II, and you better believe that I support it for people of African descent (on the continent, in the United States and throughout the African diaspora) who were decimated not only by the European slave trade but by colonialism and a legacy of official, governmental racism even after official slavery ended. And yes, I support it for victims of the Holocaust as well. But the funny thing about reparations is this: they are usually given to the folks who have been wronged by the folks that wronged them. So when it comes to the European Jews who suffered horrifically during the Holocaust, I again ask the question—what’s that got to do with the Palestinians?

If reparations is the rationale, why wasn’t part of Germany’s land cut up and given to Jewish people? If Great Britain and the United States were complicit by ignoring the warning signs, why isn’t the state of Israel located a few miles from London, or perhaps somewhere in Oklahoma next to one of the reservations that the proud Cherokee were sent to. In fact, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, once proposed establishing the Jewish state in Uganda, which at the time was a British colony. Herzl argued that Zionism was a political issue, not a religious one. Which do you think it is?

And while you’re answering that question, perhaps you can tell me why you even included the interview with the anti-Zionist Jewish activist to begin with. At first glance, I would have thought you included it because the argument he was making was actually the same as the one you expressed throughout your documentary—namely that the failure to question religious orthodoxy creates serious problems. In other words, you should have been agreeing with him. But instead you got upset and walked away.

It’s a shame that in a movie where you asked so many interesting and important questions, that you could not bring yourself to question your own presumptions on such a critically important issue.