Music and politics (1st covid): Who’s not gonna take it?

Florida man–and others–march maskless through a Target to protest wearing masks, urging byshoppers to drop their own masks and join the pandemic. In the background, you can hear another shopper taping and commenting. (Yes, there’s a curse.)

In the background, you’ll also hear Twisted Sister”s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” an appropriated anthem for the cause.

Twisted Sister’s frontman, Dee Snider, who wrote the song decades ago, was appalled and scatalogical, tweetingNo…these selfish assholes do not have my permission or blessing to use my song for their moronic cause. #cuttheshit.”

Nothing so new here; once art of any kind goes public, people attach their own purposes, and the creator often has little influence on how something is used. Copyright law provides some protection for songwriters–and the list of musicians who’ve demanded that Trump stop using their stuff at his rallies is long, including The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Adele, Aerosmith, and R.E.M.

Sometimes, though, the artists are pretty intentional. It’s hard to find any ambiguity in the new songs Van Morrison is releasing to protest restrictions on public life in the UK. He sees public health efforts aimed at reducing the Covid carnage as infringements on his freedom.

Sigh.

Truth: My appreciation for Morrison as a musician and composer has only grown over the decades, and I’ll pull out old songs and find new things to like. I think I can separate the politics and the art.

But I may also give Twister Sister’s stuff another listen.

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Labor Day, 2020

(2020) Here’s a repost and re-edit of the Labor Day thinking here. In a the COVID-19 crisis, inequality is more stark than ever. The president of the United States trumpets the recovery of the stock market, which has done precious little for people who have to work to earn a living. Between the Republican Senate and the White House, it’s been virtually impossible to extend necessary help to unemployed people, and to the states–which means more lay-offs on the horizon. It’s critical to think about the way in which the organized engagement of working people could make this all different…and better.

Successful politicians exploit, buy off, and sell out the movements that sometimes buoy their campaigns.  This American story is an old one, and it’s one that leaves activists disappointed, wary, and cynical, often especially about the politicians who do the most for them.

Emancipation statue in Boston patiently waiting for removal

[Recall that candidate Abraham Lincoln promised to put the preservation of the union higher on his list of priorities than ending slavery, and that abolitionists criticized President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (issued after two years of war), which ended slavery only in the territories that had seceded.]  Most do far less.

So, why is the American day to commemorate Labor held at the end of the summer, months after May Day, the workers’ celebration day virtually everywhere else in the world? How do you respond to a movement by creating an occasion for a cook-out?

President Grover Cleveland, a hard-money Democrat, and generally no friend to organized labor, signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday at the end of June in 1894, at the height of the Populist movement, and just after the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, had launched a boycott and strike, starting in Pullman, crwyIllinois. Protesting the Pullman Palace Car Company’s treatment of its workers, including harsh wage cuts, railway workers across the country refused to handle any train hauling a Pullman car.

The Federal government used an injunction, then troops, to battle the union and get the trains moving.  In July, just after announcing a national day to celebrate the contributions of American workers, President Cleveland ordered federal marshals–along with 12,000 Army troops, into Chicago to break up the strike.  Workers fought back, and 13 workers were killed, and at least several dozen injured.  Debs was tried for violating an injunction, and went to prison, where he discovered the writings of Karl Marx.  Clarence Darrow provided a vigorous, but unsuccessful, defense.

Debs would go to prison again, for his opposition to US entry into World War I, and would run for president five times as a Socialist.

But I digress.  President Cleveland created a distinctly American Labor Day, emphatically not on May 1, which had already been the occasion for vigorous and disruptive workers’ activism.  (Read about the Haymarket affair.)

May Day remains the day for international workers mobilization.  Instead, our Labor Day is a time to mark the end of summer by cooking outdoors and shopping for school supplies.

The  US Department of Labor’s website gives credit for Labor Day to the American worker, but makes no mention of the Pullman Strike or the Haymarket demonstrations.

So, commemoration can actually be a way to neuter the historical memory.  See our discussions of commemorative days for Martin Luther KingCesar Chavez, and Fred Korematsu, all significantly more difficult characters than what they’ve come to represent.

P.S. Organized labor’s cumulative difficulties and declines have begun to lead to new strategies. One involves organizing workers that unions in the past had largely overlooked. Established unions have tried to expand their reach by organizing in retail stores and in fast food outlets, working to unite less skilled workers. Most recently, as example, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate teaching assistants at private colleges could organize unions and bargain collectively. But I’m not quite convinced that graduate students are the new vanguard for the working class.

Likely more promising are efforts to use politics to improve the fortunes of American workers. Collective bargaining is one way to raise wages. Another is to mandate higher minimum wages for everyone. The Fight for $15 has had claimed some important successes in new ordinances in generally liberal cities, and has shifted the debate elsewhere. Bernie Sanders campaigned for the Democratic nomination by endorsing the proposal for a new minimum wage, and Hillary Clinton, competing for his voters, Members of the Wisconsin Jobs Now group, representing Fight For 15, which favors a $15 an hour minimum wage, march down E. Chicago St. shortly before entering the Summerfest grounds for Labor Fest in 2015.essentially endorsed the effort.

This past year, all of the Democratic hopefuls endorsed dramatically increasing wages. One future for labor is through Democratic Party politics.

2019: Reading over something I initially posted in 2011, I fear that the big story is basically the same: 1. Economic and political equality has generally increased, with the fate of less educated workers substantially worse; 2. government has done more to slant the slope of the political battlefield against workers generally and organized labor in particular…esp. see Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; 3. the current political battle pits conservative politicians against government workers.

But,

When well-honed routines of organizing are no longer working, organizers have to innovate. The Fight for $15 has made substantial inroads, particularly in the Democratic Party, and organizers now see immigrants as allies rather than competition, mostly. Family Leave campaigns provide a route to build bridges between different classes of workers which, ultimately, could have large payoff. Most generally, the campaign for workers welfare is transforming to a larger concern with political and economic inequality: it’s what’s left as viable strategy.

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An athletes’ boycott is a strike for racial justice.

It’s not like the racial justice protests stopped; they just stopped getting as much attention, particularly if activists were disciplined and not destructive. And racialized police violence certainly didn’t stop, as the taped police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin,The Associated Press tragically demonstrates. But national attention shifts, back to Covid-19, to the Democratic and Republican conventions, to the economy, or just to managing daily life.

Citizens have been thoroughly primed to respond to the next tragedy that comes to light and, alas, they keep coming. After the video of police officers shooting Blake in the back seven times circulated across social media, angry residents occupied the streets, marching, chanting, and demanding something better. And, particularly late at night, a few demonstrators have started fires, and Kenosha’s police overreacted in kind, unleashing tear gas and rubber bullets. This is how a demonstration now looks like a riot.

It wasn’t just police and protesters for very long. Well-armed white men showed up announcing that they would defend property against the protesters. Semi-automatic weapons are prominent in all the pictures, making a makeshift militia that is neither disciplined or well-organized; people who agreed showed up. And Kenosha police welcomed them, expressing thanks and providing water.

Black Lives Matter supporters march through Kenosha Tuesday during unrest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake.A teenager from a neighboring state fired his AR-15 at demonstrators, killing two men, and critically wounding a third, and then walked away as police stood by. So much is wrong here: police deference to armed gunmen; a seventeen year old illegally transporting and sporting a semi-automatic weapon in public; stories of that murderous boy posting racist tropes on social media, attending a Trump rally, effectively encouraged by national politicians and local law enforcement; harsh policing and a stark divide between the police and the citizens they’re supposed to protect.

And it all keeps happening.

Then professional basketball stepped in. The first piece I saw was Los Angeles Clippers coach, Doc Rivers, give a press conference after a playoff game in which he reacted against the fear promoted at the Republican convention when, after all, it’s Black people who are being hurt. He said:

It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We got to do better. But we got to demand better. It’s funny, we protest. They send riot guards. They send people in riot outfits. They go up to Michigan with guns. They’re spitting on cops. Nothing happens.

Rivers isn’t the first coach to speak out on racial violence: Steve Kerr and Greg Popovich have also been forthright and public about racism, the current president, and the moment. (I’m struck that both Kerr and Rivers played for Popovich toward the end of their athletic careers, and imagine that conversations went beyond how to handle an opposing team’s pick-and-rolls.)

Then the Milwaukee Bucks, who were leading in the playoff series against the Orlando Magic, decided it was no time for games. In a powerful statement, the team announced that they had to do something more.

Bucks guards George Hill and Sterling Brown spoke for the team, demanding that the Wisconsin legislature return and take meaningful action against police violence. (That may not happen so quickly.) The team didn’t take questions, and left asking viewers to educate themselves and the problem, and promising to do the same.

Orlando refused to accept the Bucks’ forfeit, announcing their own boycott. Then all the other teams scheduled to play playoff games joined the action off the court. When workers refuse to do their jobs for a political cause, it’s properly called a strike. But these players had the support of management.

Almost immediately, the vice president of the Bucks, Alex Lasry, tweeted his own statement, supporting the players, “Some things are bigger than basketball. The stand taken today by the players and org shows that we’re fed up. Enough is enough. Change needs to happen. I’m incredibly proud of our guys and we stand 100% behind our players ready to assist and bring about real change.” The team’s owners supported Lasry and the players.

It’s not so surprising that the National Basketball Association supported the players and the cause. Remember, the Miami Heat wore hoodies in 2012 to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin by an overly eager neighborhood watch volunteer.  NBA  superstars  like  Stephen  Curry  and  LeBron  James  have  been politically outspoken, particularly on racial violence, for a long time. I don’t know whether the owners and the league supported them because the leaders agreed or because it was good business, but the message has been clear–and very different–until recently–from the other professional sports leagues.

Then, the strike spread to baseball, starting with the Milwaukee Brewers and the Cincinnati Reds and beyond. Then soccer, then tennis. In the polarized politics of the moment, athletes don’t want to sit on the political sidelines and committed to using their platforms. Like everything else, it took years of political organizing, and often risky action by individuals. (It’s easier than ever to remember Colin Kaepernick!)

Athletes can draw the spotlight, and at this moment, it’s on racial justice.

And note: always edging a little bit ahead of the NBA on politics has been the WNBA. The WNBA Players Wear Shirts With 'Bullet Holes'; Games Canceled In Protest | HuffPostWashington Mystics knelt before their scheduled game, and refused to play. They were wearing tee shirts with Jacob Blake’s name spelled on the front, and seven holes torn in the back of each one.

The world pauses and we get to think about things as they are–and maybe change them.

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We were warned about the post office…..

Today, a coalition of groups is staging a national campaign of protests in support of the United States Post Office.  (At right, see a demonstration in Royal Oak, Michigan.)Postal service supporters rally outside the Royal Oak Post Office on Saturday, August 22, 2020.
You can find your neighborhood event at this convenient website which, as of this morning, lists more than 800 of them.
At first glance, it seems odd that a basic government function appears at the center of a brewing political conflict about partisanship, democracy, rural America, and particularly elections, but here we are. And we’ve been here before.
The United States Postal Service provides vital public services that are used by businesses, individuals, and government, and has always enjoyed public subsidy. Private companies provide some of the same services, sometimes cheaper and faster, by avoiding responsibilities for the difficult and less profitable ones. The political challenge, for Republicans in particular, is that those less profitable areas include last mile delivery and post offices in rural America, which usually provides political support for conservative candidates for office.
Now, election services are at the center of the conflict. The new Postmaster General doesn’t come from the ranks of the service, but from the private sector and from the USPS supporters in West Roxburywell of big Republican donors. In addition to the longstanding goal of hollowing out government services, Louis DeJoy is serving a president who vehemently opposes absentee or mail-in voting for people who won’t vote for him.
It’s not surprising that the president is willing to lie about all of this; what’s a little surprising is that rural Republicans are at least a little willing to stand up for services to their constituents
The global pandemic makes voting in person a little scary and dangerous, particularly in areas where the number of polling places has been cut and lines are long. Mail-in voting, long in use across the United States, is an obvious partial remedy. Trump, probably mistakenly, sees only a personal threat. (In real life, Republicans also vote by mail, and the voting method  doesn’t offer consistent advantage to either party.)
Now, defending the post office, and public services more generally, has become Louis DeJoy Protestanother way to attack Trump–probably a bad battle for the president to choose.
As soon as whistle blowers starting alerting the rest of us to cuts in services and removal of sorting machines, people started protesting–first at DeJoy’s homes. Today, the move was to post offices across the country.
But it’s important to recognize that the attack on the post office–and on public services more generally–has been festering for years, and activists have been trying to alert the rest of us all that time.
I posted this 8 years ago, on June 26, 2012. Neither the Obama administration nor the Congress has delivered for the post office in the past.

Ten current and former postal employees stopped eating yesterday in Washington, DC, starting a hunger strike to protest continuing cutbacks at the United States Postal Service.  Organized by Community and Postal Workers United, they do not plan to starve themselves to death; they are, however, desperate to get public attention for their cause.

So far, this effort has worked–a little: Representative Dennis Kucinich appeared at their protest and endorsed the cause, and there’s been some coverage in local and national media.  But they’re fighting an uphill battle.

Fasting is never an easy route to political influence.  (We’ve discussed the strategy of hunger strikes here, as well as fasting campaigns by DREAM activists and prisoners.)  If postal workers thought they could depend upon allies in Congress or their union to stave off very large cuts in post offices and sorting stations (and jobs), they certainly wouldn’t be standing outside, hungry, in the summer in Washington, DC.

They have grievances about jobs and pensions, but their cause represents a much larger conflict in contemporary American political life.  Article I Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads.”  The idea was that a reliable communication infrastructure was essential to building a nation.  Even before the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin ran the post office in Philadelphia, which was located in the offices of his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette; both he and the city prospered.  Franklin served as the first Postmaster General of the United States.

Postmaster General was a Cabinet position for nearly 150 years, between 1829 and 1971, when the United States Postal Service moved from being a department to become a (somewhat) independent agency.  Somewhat?  Political figures wanted the Post Office to operate more efficiently and to cease operating as a haven for patronage.  They also wanted the postal service to cover its own expenses. At the same time, politicians didn’t want to allow the post office to operate just like a business and close unprofitable offices.  Ironically, the least profitable offices tend to be located in rural areas, often represented by Republicans in Congress, representatives who are generally reluctant to see their local post offices closed.  So, the USPS is supposed to support itself, to compete with corporations for the most profitable services, like overnight mail, and to enjoy a monopoly on the services that lose money, like 6 day a week delivery of circulars in rural areas.

With email and electronic banking, most customers are able to reorganize most of their communications to bypass the post office anyway.  Once Grandma figures out how to slide a $5 bill into an email….

The postal workers are focusing on one particular Congressional restriction, the requirement that the USPS pre-fund its pension liabilities 75 years in advance; neither Fedex or UPS are similarly encumbered.  So, the government agency is supposed to compete against the private sector, but also operate within special restrictions in that competition.  Does that sound like anything else in contemporary politics?  Does that sound like everything else in contemporary politics?

A leaner more business-like USPS would focus on profitable services and areas, leaving sparsely populated areas to pay more and/or enjoy less service–or to support a new business that somehow finds a way to survive by serving such areas.  (Hint: it hasn’t happened yet.)  It’s a somewhat different America than imagined by Ben Franklin.

Whether the four day hunger strike, in conjunction with sympathy events, can succeed in putting the future of the USPS on the political agenda remains to be seen.  The hunger strike got my attention; you?

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Good Trouble and school openings

John Lewis always encouraged young activists. He routinely recounted his parents warning him to stay out of trouble when he left home for Imagecollege and a leading role in the civil rights movement. Explaining the protests, the beatings he endured, the arrests and time in jail, he offered that he only got into “good trouble.”

He was a teen when he got involved in the civil rights movement, and the youngest speaker at the March on Washington at 23. The Parkland kids were even younger when they launched a new campaign within the gun safety movement. Although they avoided arrest and imprisonment, they suffered fierce harassment and threats. Good trouble.

Georgia opened public schools this week, despite a surge in Covid-19 infections (running about 3,000 infections and roughly 50 deaths each day last week). Donald Trump and Governor Brian Kemp are enthusiastic about returning to normal, and suggest that young people aren’t really threatened by the novel coronavirus.

When high schools opened, a few photos and videos appeared on social media showing teens bustling in crowded hallways, with only a smattering of masks visible. It looked like a normal suburban high school–a ripe site for spreading infections.

At least two students were suspended for posting the pictures and violating school policy about using phones in the hallways and posting on social media during school hours. The kids who posted were classic whistleblowers, bringing public attention to otherwise neglected threats.

The principal explained that the school was still figuring out how to manage passing between classes. It looks bad, he said, but masks are optional–and how could teachers police a mandatory mask policy anyway?

It’s hard to believe that policing social media is easier, or that high school students nation-wide really adhere to a very sensible policy about staying offline during school hours.

Fifteen year old Hannah Watters, suspended for five days for her violation of school rules, went public. Apparently, she hadn’t been in trouble before. In a charming interview on CNN, she explained that she was okay with this, because it was “good trouble.”

Maybe the best part is watching Laura Coates smile at Hannah’s hat-tip to John Lewis.

After the interview, Hannah announced on Twitter that the suspension had been lifted.

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March for Our Lives (rightly!) claims credit for NY’s lawsuit against NRA

Political activists don’t get credit unless they claim it.

Minutes after New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that she was filing a lawsuit calling for the National Rifle Association to be disbanded, March for Our Lives sent out an announcement applauding the decision, and noting that it had called for such action even before it was founded.

One of the very smart and strategic decisions the Parkland kids made was to target the NRA as the chief obstacle to meaningful reform of gun laws, deploring its money and its corrupt political influence.

Students Are Wearing $1.05 Price Tags at the March for Our Lives ...

Sarah Chadwick displays the price tag depicting NRA’s campaign contributions to Marco Rubio, divided by every high school student in Florida.

More than any specific reform proposals, at the first rallies in Florida, the lobbying trips to Tallahassee and Washington, DC, the national demonstration, the CNN town hall, the pre-election bus tour, and the recurrent attacks on Marco Rubio, March for Our Lives would not let the NRA escape attention or responsibility. Not the first to take on the gun lobby group, they were certainly the most visible and persistent, charming and annoying critics.

“Why do you take so much money from the NRA?” they asked every Republican legislator within earshot.

Of course, they didn’t decide to spend charitable donations on trips to Bermuda, yacht and plane rentals, lavish parties, or shady business deals. The NRA did that on its own.

March for Our Lives made it harder for the NRA to avoid scrutiny and responsibility, working to hang every mass shooting death and every politician resistant to reform on the group and its leader, Wayne LaPierre.

There was plenty of good reporting on the NRA’s corrupt spending before and after the first March for Our Lives; the audience helped create an audience for it. See, for example (a very partial list):

Mike Spies, at The Trace, The New Yorker, and everywhere,

Frank Smyth‘s unauthorized history,

Beth Reinhard, Katie Zezima, Tom Hamburger, and Carol D. Leonnig at The Washington Post, 

Jane Coaston at Vox,

Gangster Capitalism‘s season 2 podcast series,

and all over The Trace

Because the NRA was chartered in New York as a non-profit nearly 150 years ago, the state retained responsibility for regulating it. Its job was to make sure the money went to the purposes donors intended and the organization promised. When Letitia James first ran for Attorney General in 2018, while the Parkland kids were touring America, she promised to investigate the NRA. It was good politics; it also turned out to be a very attractive target.

Donors who made contributions to promote gun rights and firearm safety should be angry that their money paid for hotel suites and private jets. Remember, conservative activists, including NRA board members and one-time NRA President Oliver North, had tried to launch an investigation of the group’s spending from the inside, but they were outmaneuvered and ousted by LaPierre.

Young activists, working in a growing gun safety movement, put the pressure on the NRA, making it harder for the group to raise money or to avoid scrutiny. They made it good politics for AG James to launch the investigation, and they’ve made it harder for the NRA to dig its way out.

Parkland activists David Hogg and Lauren Hogg posted a video of themselves celebrating:

The action now will be in the courts, and you could tell a story that edits out the activism. That’s why it’s important and appropriate that the young activists remind themselves and the rest of us that they helped make it happen.

It’s hardly surprising, by the way, that Representative John Lewis (below) marched at the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC in 2018, or that he was a strong supporter of the cause and the kids. Please read the remembrance by Nurah Abdulhaqq and Jaclyn Corin in Teen Vogue.

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Wall of Moms; Lawn of Dads

Protest polarizes.Fifty fourth day of protest in Portland, Oregon

So does repression.

The battle in the streets at a demonstration is far less important than the battle in the stands, as those watching decide who to root for and, sometimes, to try to help. This means that even as protesters and authorities strategize for tactical advantage in a confrontation, they should also be thinking about how those watching are likely to respond.

Remember, police in Selma in 1965 were able to turn back peaceful civil rights marchers using tear gas, dogs, and clubs. It didn’t look like a win. Local authorities decisively cleared the bridge, but–because lots of other people saw it–lost the larger struggle for public opinion.

Onto Portland:

The Trump administration’s decision to send federal forces to police the streets at night, purportedly to protect federal property, has turned out–as anyone could have predicted–to be a strategic disaster. It’s not going so well for the feds in the streets either.

When young unidentifiable heavily armed men in camouflage, sporting helmets and masks, violently repress mostly peaceful protesters against police violence, other Portlanders are likely to take sides.

They chose the protesters. Every night, there are more protesters out in the streets, and the feds are working more aggressively to contain them, with gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and sticks.

But the protesters are developing their own innovations to try to stay in the streets.

Bev Barnum, a Portland mom who saw videos of confrontations in the streets, posted about her frustration on Facebook:

As most of you have read and seen on the news,protesters are being hurt (without cause). And as of late, protesters are being stripped of their rights by being placed in unmarked cars by unidentifiable law enforcement. We moms are often underestimated. But we’re stronger than we’re given credit for.

She called for other moms to turn out in the streets to stand between the mostly young protesters and the police. Maybe it would deter the feds. If not, it would send a message to the rest of the world about what was going on.

The Wall of Moms didn’t stop federal law enforcement at all; the women in the protective wall were gassed and beaten too. But the pictures were powerful.

Norma Lewis holds a flower while forming a "wall of moms" during a Black Lives Matter protest on Monday, July 20, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (Noah Berger/AP)Each night, more Moms have been turning out, generally wearing yellow, with goggles, masks, and bicycle helmets. They chanted:

Feds stay clear. Moms are here.

Hands up. Don’t shoot.

Social media made it easier to get the word out and turn the moms out. In the following days, protesters have formed new Wall of Moms groups in at least a half-dozen other American cities. They make it harder for the police to clear the streets, and much harder for Trump to dismiss the protesters as anarchists, antifa, or other sorts of radicals.

It’s not just moms. Dads have also turned up in Portland, organizing online and wearing orange. So far, they’re called PDX Dad Pod or DadBloc, and they’ve been brandishing the suburban terror device, a Imageleaf blower. Reports on social media suggest the blowers provide some defense against tear gas, allowing the protesters to stay in the streets a little longer. They’re also wearing masks and googles and bicycle helmets.

I think everyone in Portland wears a bicycle helmet.

By sending federal police into Portland, Trump has raised the stakes and brought passive supporters off the sidelines. He’s made it harder Imagefor authorities to control the streets, and provided larger audiences to his opponents. And the harsher treatment the decidedly non-militia Portland parents in the streets receive, the more public support they’ll gain.

Meanwhile, the almost spontaneous strategic action of the Moms and then the dads has created a seed for new organizations and new commitments. Take a look at a brand new website, in which the activists commit to the cause and to Black leadership.

Civil rights strategists in the 1960s actively sought out sites for protests where local police were likely to overreact, where police chiefs and commissioners of public safety were not necessarily so smart or strategic.

The Trump response has imposed its own poor political judgment on local authorities everywhere.

Someone in the White House should be thinking about this.

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Trump and the battle of Portland

The president of the United States is ready to sacrifice Portland, Oregon–to say nothing of the US Constitution–to buy into a longshot strategy for winning reelection.

Portland, like virtually every city in the United States, has seen large and somewhat Federal law enforcement officers have been deployed under the Trump administration's new executive order to protect federal monuments and buildings.disruptive protests for racial justice and against police violence over the past seven weeks, but Mayor Ted Wheeler was confident that they were fading and would shortly end.

Donald Trump, facing bad poll numbers and worse news (increasing infections and deaths from COVID-19; no administration reaction to Russia’s offer of bounties for the lives of American military personnel in Afghanistan–for starters), would not wait.

Trump ordered the deployment of federal police forces.  [Note: It’s likely–and very important–that the military has been rightly resistant to deploy against American citizens, leaving Trump to look elsewhere for men with guns to fight for him.]

Dressed in camouflage, with no Protesters at the Multnomah County Justice Center on Friday night.name tags visible, it’s hard to see just who they are and where they’re from. Some are from the Department of Homeland Security and from Customs and Border Patrol, but there’s dispute about whether the units are trained for the jobs they’re performing: riot control.

In Portland, however, there’s little doubt that the overwhelming majority of the protests are peaceful. In Portland, and in at least many parts of the United States, people remember that the first amendment to the Constitution guarantees a right to protest. Here’s the text:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

But forget the Constitution for a little bit–the White House certainly has–and just consider whether deploying well-armed militia to an American city is an effective way to deal with a protest movement.

It’s not.

The federal forces have been recorded beating protesters, using tear gas, and firing flash bangs and rubber bullets. They’ve also pulled people off the streets and into unmarked rental vans for questioning. They’ve not coordinated with local police–another problem.

So, state and local officials have complained, demanding answers–and the withdrawal of the militia. The State of Oregon filed a lawsuit. So did the American Civil Liberties Union. There will be more.

Trump and the Department of Homeland Security have refused to consult, much less to leave.

The protesters also refused to leave. Instead, their numbers are growing, their tactics diversifying, and their anger growing. The nightly confrontations have made for powerful and disturbing images:

ImageChris David, a 53 year old Navy veteran, showed up one night after the feds arrived, to ask the men in camouflage what they were doing and why?

He stood through repeated baton blows, but turned away and retreated when he was pepper-sprayed.

A “Wall of Moms” took to the streets, standing between the feds and the protesters, hoping to prevent violence–or, failing that, to generate powerful pictures to spread across the country.

They couldn’t stop the tear gas or the charges, but they inspired many others to join them. Now, each night, there are more moms, many  wearing yellow t-shirts, and often bicycle helmets, and sometimes gas masks, are taking to the streets.

The  Portland  Wall  of Moms inspired other women to organize groups in a few other cities–so far. There will be more.

And more protesters are turning out, and they’re trying to come prepared to claim their space from the feds. And they’re coming with makeshift protection and provocation: helmets, football pads, masks, pool noodles, umbrellas, and makeshift shields made from plywood or sleds.

Protesters gathered by the hundreds late Friday and into Saturday morning — the largest crowd in weeks.Some of the protesters are committed to nonviolence, but not all, and there have been attacks on the feds.

There is no question that the immediate reaction to uninvited federalized policing has been more disruption, more property damage, more grafitti, more danger, and far more local support for the protests. The cause of Black Lives Matter was now grafted onto rights for free assembly and local government control.

This was all predictable.

It’s possible that no one in the Trump White House was clever or curious enough to realize that harsh policing of the protests was likely to generate exactly this response.

It’s also possible that the Trump advisers just wanted to produce the pictures of confrontation and violence, creating the American carnage Trump predicted, and offering a distraction from worse news (COVID-19; economic decline; Russian bounties; corruption corruption corruption) to show the president as some kind of fighter to the credulous. Republicans were never going to carry Oregon anyway, and the pictures of federal forces confronting citizens–even white ones–might inspire Trump’s base.

In short: Trump is willing to destroy Portland to save himself.

In the slightly longer run, I can’t imagine that well-armed federal police won’t be able, finally, to inflict enough damage to send the protesters home. The horrible question is how many casualties this will take.

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Mourning heroes

John Lewis, lion of civil rights and Congress, dies at 80 ...

John Lewis and Mayor Muriel Bowser at Black Lives Matter Plaza

John Lewis is dead.

So is C. T. Vivian.

Our heroes are mortal, and their passing hurts, particularly now when moral courage and civic action seem more important than ever.

There is some consolation in knowing that Rep. Lewis and Rev. Vivian got to live full rich lives, maintaining their engagement, raising families, and seeing some progress on the issues they pressed.

C.T. Vivian, integration leader, left, leads a prayer on the courthouse steps in Selma, Ala., February 5, 1965, after Sheriff James Clark, background with helmet, stopped him at the door with a court order. Vivian led hundreds of demonstrators armed with petitions asking longer voter registration hours. Clark arrested them when they refused to disperse. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)

C.T. Vivian confronts Sheriff Jim Clark.

More than a few of the many heroes of the Civil Rights movement were not so fortunate.

We must remember that the movement was far bigger than the famous few names that students commit to memory.

There were many heroes, and they’re not otherworldly, magical, or even saintly. They were people, like the rest of us, who had a clear moral vision and the willingness to take risks and even to suffer for it…at least for a moment.

In recognizing their humanity, we can strip the mystical element out of our stories of social change, and realize that the rest of us can step into history as well.

Rep. Lewis and Rev. Vivian stood out for their moral commitments and for their bravery. Both suffered violence in the service of their goals, and1965 photo of marchers on the Edmund-Pettus bridge during the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march refused even to try to respond in kind. Both held onto their courage and their commitments.

I don’t think moral clarity or bravery come easily to most of us, and I don’t assume they came easily to Rep. Lewis or Rev. Vivian. They were willing to work at it. Through prayer or study or meditation and civic engagement, we can too.

In the next days, people will talk about statues, monuments, and renaming things, like the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. This is all well and good. We commemorate people and moments from the past to help guide our future.

But their lives are best honored by keeping our heroes out of the glass case, memorialized by trapped in history. Rather, their examples should help us remember to look for our own moments of moral clarity and courage, and to develop the temerity to try to make the world better.

 

Note: I’ve written about John Lewis here before. Below are links to some of the appearances he’s made here.

Donald Trump tangles with John Lewis

John Lewis is a comic book hero

lunch counter sit-ins

A sit-in on the House floor for gun regulation

#Selma at 50 years

Bloody Sunday and the uses of history.

Activists become politicians.

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Who organized the racial justice demonstrations?

I want to know who’s put together these demonstrations against racialized police violence all across the United States.  The  police  killing  of  George  Floyd  was  a provocation,  but  protests  don’t  automatically  follow  from  injustice.In Camden, police and protesters take a different path after George Floyd’s killing

Organizers make demonstrations happen.

Those large events that dot our memories are usually put together by coalitions of established groups who argue about slogans and speakers, cooperate on outreach and publicity, and divide up the routine work of raising money, getting permits, and renting portapotties. The people and groups doing have done it before.

The ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country, striking in the speed of emergence and historic in their scope and spread, are different. Rather than a single national site, they’ve been popping up around the country in smaller cities and neighborhoods.

They’re united by some common causes, but the focus is often much closer, with remembered names of local victims of police violence prominently featured, and announcing specific grievances with their own police and political leaders.

Early reporting suggests that it’s new activists, sometimes just freed from daily routines by the COVID-19 crisis, who’ve been organizing. They don’t need portapotties, and often skip permits. Sound systems are often just what you can get at a discount store. But they do have to set a time and a place and get people to show up.

So, a demonstration in Camden, New Jersey, was initiated by Yolanda Deaver, whose beauty shop was shut down by the virus. She put the word out on Instagram with a post, “the racist Police are killing our Black men.” The Camden police reached out and asked if they could participate in support.

There’s a great story on This American Life about the organization of a demonstration in Red Hook, Brooklyn, reported by Dana Chivvis. 
Protesters gathered at a rally for George Floyd in Houston. Floyd, a former Houston resident, was killed by a white police...
According to Chivvis (transcript), the prime mover was 22-year old Na Dortch, who’d never done anything like it before:

“He’d been to a few protests over the years. When he was 17, he joined a Black Lives Matter group for a few days. But he felt like he was too young to make a difference, to be heard. Everyone else in the group was ancient, in their 30s.

“He texted his friend Crystal. She agreed to be his secretary. Made a flyer with the date and time for the protest. Na pulled in his friends, Mo Pringle– like the chimp, she told me– Naseem Stevenson, who plans to go to law school, and a few others. They came up with a name– the New BLQK Leaders, black spelled BLQK, because the other version was taken.”

Novice organizers put together the marches across Texas and in towns throughout New Jersey, and in neighborhoods all through New York City.

Partly, it’s the work that organizers had done over the past years in making the issue of police violence broadly salient, and in publicizing organizing efforts, suggesting a sense of possibility. Partly, it’s COVID-19, which gave people the space to see those horrific videos and the freedom from daily responsibilities to think about how to fight injustice. Partly, it’s the sophistication that younger people constantly demonstrate in getting the word out on social media–although all of the reports include a large component of old-fashioned person-to-person recruiting.

Unlike say the 1960s civil rights movement, there are no older guys in suits who can be called into the president’s office to negotiate goals, tactics, and strategies. This is good and bad. More like Occupy or the first rounds of Black Lives Matter protests, lots of people are responsible for what’s happening, but no one is in position to direct large factions to intensify or moderate their efforts.

The upside of this decentralized model is that many people learn the issues and take Image: Black Lives Matter demonstrationcharge in starting things; the downside is that no one can really speak for the broader movement, or agree on pieces of an agenda, rather than only a grievance.

Remember, President Barack Obama, who expressed broad sympathy with the aims and actions of Black Lives Matter, organized a summit meeting with young leaders; some activists refused to attend on principle. Days later, still supportive, Obama issued a sort of challenge:

Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.

And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position. The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved.

Thus far, the decentralized approach has produced a tremendous outpouring of activism, drawing attention to the issue. The question is about how to continue when the new organizers go back to work or school, and it’s a little harder to get people out in the streets.

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