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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Flint Water Charges Address the Symptom, But the Disease Grows

Earlier this week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced criminal charges related to the Flint water crisis.  Among those facing charges are two individuals who served as Emergency Manager over the city, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose.  These individuals participated in decisions that created the crisis to begin with (by switching the source of Flint’s water supply), and then deepened the crisis by ignoring all sorts of warning signs, including the outcry from the city’s residents.

While bringing charges against those who consciously prioritized finances over the health of Flint’s residents is a decent start, we should all be clear: the battle is not over.  The people of Flint are still fighting for clean water, battling for government funding necessary to solve long-term infrastructure need, and protesting ridiculously high water bills and threats that water services will be cut off if bills are not paid.

But as grossly unjust the specific situation in Flint is, there is a larger issue which must be addressed in order to prevent catastrophes like what we’ve seen in Flint from becoming the new normal.  There is an existing disease which, with the impending presidency of He Who Shall Not Be Named, threatens to metastasize into something far more dangerous and, quite literally, deadly.  It is a disease which attacks democratic institutions in much the same way that a biological disease might attack a human organ.  This disease is the trend of state takeovers of local control, and in the case of Flint and other Michigan cities, it shows itself in the form of “emergency management”.

The State of Michigan’s ability to take control of the city’s water supply stemmed from a law which allows the state to takeover cities and school districts that are facing financial trouble.  Michigan had allowed for such takeovers for years, but when Republican Governor Snyder and the state legislature expanded the takeover powers in a 2011 version of the law, voters in the state repealed the policy via referendum.  The governor and the legislature responded with a 2013 version of the law, which basically allowed for the same things but with different wording.

Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have emergency manager laws.  The map above can be found in a larger infographic provided by the Council of State Governments.  Many of these states have large cities with heavy populations of Blacks and/or Latinos.  The matter of removing local power and control from local residents is troubling enough at the theoretical level.  However, when the implementation of such policies generally involves taking power from Black and Brown communities and placing it in the hands of White lawmakers who are often Republicans, many view the policy as old school racial disenfranchisement.

Such takeovers have not been limited to financial crisis.  Several states without “fiscal emergency” laws have processes by which the state can take over a failing school district.  Georgia’s governor and legislature just attempted to pass such a law, but it was defeated in a statewide referendum. 

In addition to the potential spread of emergency management or state takeover policies, the country is now facing another potential form of coup—one spearheaded by the great state of North Carolina.  December 16, 2016 is likely to become a date that will live in infamy.  Some may remember this as the day of President Obama’s final press conference of the year, or the day that news chatter dominated by the FBI joining the rest of the intelligence community in concluding that not only did Russia interfere with the U.S. presidential election, but that it did so in an attempt to support He Who Shall Not Be Named.  Others will remember that date because of the extraordinary measures the overwhelmingly Republican North Carolina legislature used to weaken the powers of the incoming Democratic governor.

In an “emergency session” which was supposed to address disaster relief, the Republican legislature passed two bills (SB4 and HB17) which among other things:

  • Reduce the number of political appointments controlled by the governor from 1,500 to 425, and requires that the governor’s Cabinet appointments face approval by the state Senate
  • Modify the makeup of local and state boards of elections so that Republicans will control the boards in even years (i.e. years with presidential elections and/or other major offices up for election)
  • Limit access to the NC Supreme Court, which, in the recent election, became majority progressive.  So what better way to minimize the third branch of government than to limit the number and types of cases that can make it there?

These actions were taken by a legislature which is arguably illegitimate due to a court ruling which found that the legislative district lines resulting in the current legislature are illegal and which ordered new elections to take place in 2017.  Add on top of that the fact that the legislation was signed by a lame-duck governor who had just lost his re-election bid, and you essentially have what many have called a coup—not a military coup, and not a bloody coup, but a coup nonetheless.  More than 50 protesters were arrested at the North Carolina legislative building during the two days of debate and voting on the bills. 

And yet, while this was taking place—while a very much “not normal” usurpation of political power was taking place—the major news networks went about their business as if it were just another day.  As Media Matters reports:
None of these details, however, have been reported on any national broadcast news programs since Wednesday. A review of the December 14 and 15 editions of ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS’ Evening News, NBC’s Nightly News, and of the December 15 and 16 editions of ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’ CBS This Morning, and NBC’s Today found no mentions of the attempted power grab. Local affiliates of all three networks did cover the story.

In short, the very nature of democracy is being transformed right in front of our eyes.  Acknowledging this is not to say that American democracy has ever been perfect, or even close to it.  But what we are seeing now, as changing demographics are challenging the White majority’s ability to dominate an honest majority rule system, is an attempt to change the very nature of democratic institutions in ways that go beyond voter suppression of demographic groups (which is also on the rise with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act).  Much the way the Electoral College is a structural feature built to offset the unpredictability of the popular vote, conservatives are testing the waters with other structural mechanisms to offset gains by people of color and progressives, particularly at the local level.

And if we are not vigilant and proactive in regards to these efforts, our communities throughout this country can end up just like Flint’s water—poisoned and out of our control.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Radio Interview: Sameera Khan Reporting from Standing Rock

This week I had the pleasure of speaking with Sameera Khan, Miss New Jersey 2015 and political activist, who was in Standing Rock supporting Water Protector efforts to block the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Our interview took place just one day after the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would NOT be granting an easement necessary for construction on the pipeline to continue, a major victory for the Standing Rock Sioux and for all who believe in justice.

In addition to the potential disasterous effects the pipeline could have on the water supply, the Standing Rock Sioux also argued that the pipeline would pass through and likely destroy Native burial sites and sacred places. It's worth noting that an original proposal for the pipeline would have taken it north of Bismark, the capital of North Dakota and a city that is 90% White.

As I mention at the start of the interview, and as I have often said in the past, we cannot fully understand race and politics in America without understanding this country's TWO original sins:

  • the "peculiar institution" of slavery, which shaped America's constitutional principles--including the Electoral College which many people are currently seeking to change--and which has influenced American politics, either explicitly or implicitly, since that time; and
  • the theft of Native American lands, genocide (both in terms of lives lost and cultural attacks) against Native American nations, and violations of Native American sovereignty via treaty violations that continue to this very day.

The battle at Standing Rock is the most recent in a string of examples of disrespect toward Native American lives, land and culture.  However, in the context of the recent presidential election and attempts to understand "Trump voters", it is also a reminder that White "economic anxiety" has always taken precedence over the rights of "others".  This country was founded on White economic anxiety.

Although the recent decision by the Army Corps of Engineers is a victory for the movement, we should be clear that the battle is not over. Sameera addressed this issue during our interview.  First, Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, issued a statement clarifying their intentions to move forward with the project. Second, it's very clear that Trump fully supports the project and could pave the way for the project once he assumes office in January--that is, after he gets done with the other 50 things he said he would do on "day one" of his administration. So just as the Water Protectors are bracing for a protracted struggle, we who can't actually make it to Standing Rock should remain vigilant and continue to send whatever support we can (see my previous blog for some ideas).

Enjoy the interview, and please be sure to 1) share it with friends/colleagues and 2) click the follow button so you can receive updates of other upcoming shows. I'm lining up some GREAT interviews with community activists, elected officials and scholars, all of whom will share useful insights as we explore the intersection of race and politics and discuss concrete strategies for building power in communinities of color. Try to catch us live and JOIN THE CONVERSATION!

I'm Cliff, and on that note... I'm out!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rosa Parks, 61 Years Later: Trump Voters and Other Lessons

On this day in 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus.  Today, 61 years later, there are several relevant lessons we can pull from that event and the movement that followed.  The following is not an exhaustive list, but includes five lessons that are currently on my mind.

1.   Rosa Parks wasn’t just a random person who was tired on the bus.  She was an officer in the local NAACP.

Today’s Relevance: Organizations matter.  If you’re not in one, join one.  And if social media is the limit of your organizing, that’s not enough—helpful, but not enough.  Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael) spent his entire life speaking about the need to “organize, organize, organize,” and he emphasized the difference between mobilizing for short-term action and, organizing for sustained change.  We need to strengthen our organizations.

2.   It does us no good to try to Whitesplain away the bus driver who called the police by exploring his economic anxiety over possibly losing his job.  He was racist and his actions were in support of a racist policy and belief system.  Period. 

Today’s Relevance: figure it out on your own.  I’m tired of even talking about it.

Actually, I think I will elaborate a little.  There are no words for how tired I am of the media, Democratic politicians, or so called allies talking about how the White working class has been ignored and how they just want to be heard.  First, such an apologist approach fails to deal with the fact that college educated, upper income White voters also supported Trump, but let’s just ignore that inconvenient truth for a minute and address the “White working class wants to be heard” narrative.

Hell, the Black working class wants to be heard, and the Brown working class wants to be heard, and the rest of the working class wants to be heard.  But it was pretty much this one, specific, White portion of the working class that decided “being heard” meant voting for the racist, sexist, religiously intolerant, gay conversion supporting pathological liar who is now filling the swamp with the richest, most blatantly anti-working class cabinet ever.

It makes little difference to me whether they voted for Trump because they agree with his racism, or whether they disagree but didn’t find it important enough to vote against him.  Either way, you are not my ally.  To me, you are the same as the bus driver who tried to kick Rosa Parks out of her seat.

3.       The male leadership in Montgomery rejected the boycott idea, but Jo Ann Robinson refused to let that stand in her way.  She and three supporters (including two students) distributed more than 50,000 copies of the boycott flyer… overnight… with no high-powered copy machines. 

Today’s Relevance: A couple of points here—one dealing with sexism within our movements, which we must continue to be conscious and intentional about addressing today.  Secondly… Brothers, we've got to step the ____ up!  Although Black voters were pretty unified in our voting preference, there was a gap between Black women and Black men (no, NOT the deciding factor in results).  But it’s not just voting, it’s community meetings, school meetings, etc.  Please don’t get me wrong—I’m not riding the “all Black men are trifling” train, and I fully understand our unique challenges.  But it’s 2016, and sisters are still making 50,000 copies with not quite enough help.

4.       Contrary to popular belief, the original boycott was not meant to last indefinitely.  It was not meant to last for a year, or 6 months or even one week.  The goal for the original boycott was for it to last one day.  Just one day!  After the success of the first day, the community decided to keep it going, and the rest is history.
Today’s Relevance: Too often, we fail to start action—or we criticize the actions that others have started—because we’re not absolutely certain of where it will end or what impact it will have.  Sometimes we just need to move.  That’s not to say that we need to just be reckless, and the people of Montgomery certainly weren’t reckless in launching a one day boycott.  But it is to say that we need to stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and more importantly, stop letting fear rationalize our inaction.

Newton’s laws of motion (probably stolen from a Black grandma) state that a body at rest stays at rest until acted on by an outside force.  So, if the recent election has left you uncertain, afraid, paralyzed, etc. and you’re not yet moving, let this serve as your outside force.  MOVE!

5.       Technically speaking, bus segregation did not end because of the boycott.  The segregation actually ended because of a concurrent legal case, Browder vs. Gayle, which eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court declared the segregation laws unconstitutional, and only then did the community end the boycott. Today’s Relevance: We must remember that we have always used civil disobedience and legal strategies (as well as self-reliance strategies that try to bypass legal barriers).  These tactics and strategies are not polar opposites, and when effectively used to complement one another, we can and will make change.

A final note: Some feel that there’s little to be learned from previous movements—that tactics from 60, 30 or even 10 years ago are outdated.  But I argue that many of the keys to our future success are rooted in our previous victories (and defeats).