Convictions test convictions (2)

The sentences for the January 6 insurrectionists are getting far more harsh. Partly, it’s because the first sentences reflected plea bargains, and then prosecutors worked up to the trials of the worst offenders–and they’re not done yet.

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, was just sentenced to 18 years in prison after being found guilty of seditious conspiracy–among other charges. Unrepentant on the stand during his criminal trial months ago, Rhodes expressed regret only that his forces weren’t better armed in the onslaught on the Capitol. Up to the moment of sentencing, he reiterated his belief that the 2020 election was “stolen,” and his commitment to work for regime change–and not through electoral politics. Another half-dozen insurgent leaders await sentencing on similar charges.

In another courtroom on the same day, Richard “Bigo” Barnett was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for a clutch of crimes that included posing for the cameras in then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. He said he got distracted while looking for a stun gun he misplaced, and acknowledged remorse that he’d gotten so angry. A retired fire fighter, Barnett got caught up in the Trump-induced frenzy about the election, and then in the madness of the day.

Rhodes, in contrast, had been working up to the invasion for years, orchestrating the Oath Keepers’ invasion without setting foot in the Capitol himself. A graduate of Yale Law School, Rhodes offered a more developed plan to keep Trump in office and suppress any forces that might want to honor the results of the election. He says he’s going to keep working on such plans.

Rhodes’s estranged wife, who’s been seeking divorce for years, used the term “sociopath” to describe her husband, and says she prayed for a sentence long enough to keep the man out of her life and the lives of their children.

They’re different offenders with very different stories, but they present the same set of dilemmas to regular Republicans. The test is one of separating political beliefs from criminal action. Candidate Donald Trump has promised to pardon many of the January 6 insurgents if he gets back into the Oval Office, citing the legitimacy of their grievance–that Trump was being forced to leave office.

Not to be outdone, newly declared presidential hopeful, Ron DeSantis announced that he too would aggressively consider pardons for the insurgents if he makes it to the White House. DeSantis, however, is running a campaign based on Donald Trump’s record as a loser, so he needs another rationale for the pardon, and blames the Justice Department for political enforcement of the criminal code, and promising a reversal.

Broad protection of a free society is premised on encouraging free expression of diverse ideas, but punishing criminal conduct regardless of political motivation. When Republican regulars are forced to choose between the law and putative supporters who may be criminal or just crazy, the choice should be easy. The fact that it’s not is an ominous threat to American democracy.

I hope that enterprising reporters will keep asking about pardons, but not about a diverse group like the Capitol rioters. They should ask about Bigo and the stun gun. And about Rhodes and the Oath Keepers. And certainly about the series of prison sentences sure to follow.

Watching Rhodes, by the way, other Oath Keeper and Proud Boy convicts may decide that testifying against others is a better bet for a shorter sentence than hoping for a favorable election and a pardon. Be sure that those who spent January 6 down the street from the Capitol, strategizing in the White House, are well-aware of that possibility.

Note that it’s not just criminal verdicts that pose the test. When Trump was judged responsible for sexual abuse and libel of writer E. Jean Carroll in a civil trial, regular Republicans got another reason to pause and consider on the road to nominating Trump for a third run at the presidency.

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Convictions test convictions: Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and the Republican Party (1)

Seditious conspiracy is a heavy criminal charge in the United States, hard to prove, rarely used, and harshly punished. But this week a jury convicted four members of the Proud Boys–a far right group–of the charge, along with a range of other crimes. They were the third set of defendants convicted of seditious conspiracy as a result of the attempted insurrection of January 6, 2021, all liable for decades in prison.

It’s a big deal.

Over the past few years, the Department of Justice has processed hundreds of criminal charges against people involved in storming the Capitol and trying to stop Congress from certifying the electoral defeat of Donald Trump.

The first set of actions were plea deals, where protesters pled guilty to charges like vandalism or trespass. The sentences varied, depending upon the provable actions of the defendant, and ranged from probation to several years in prison.

Those who chose not to take plea deals then faced trials, and somewhat harsher sentences. Defendants claimed they were confused or misled or doing their Constitutional duty. More than a few blamed Donald Trump, then president of the United States (ulp!) for inviting the insurrection. Attorneys went further, blaming Trump for intentionally misleading and exploiting confused and troubled individuals.

From early on, it was clear that while some of the Capitol invaders were people who had come to protest peacefully and just got caught up in the moments. But others were part of organized groups that came with access to arms and allies, and saw themselves as executing a coordinated strategy. They planned their actions and left an electronic trail of communications. They also left frustrated allies who cooperated with the Department of Justice and testified against their former colleagues.

Several Oath Keepers were convicted of seditious conspiracy–and other felony charges, in November, and then another group was convicted in January. They await sentencing. Stewart Rhodes, among the convicted, founded the group as a mission and a business in 2009, and has led it since. Absent Rhodes, resources, or direction, its prospects of continuing seem bleak.

The Proud Boys, convicted just this week, may be another matter. Founded in 2016, the group has already been through several leadership changes, and maintains a more decentralized structure, with local groups plotting out their own efforts. Since January 6, local Proud Boys groups have staged actions against LGBT events and drag queen story hours, starting fights and getting attention. The locals can continue even without their national leaders, people who are likely to be in federal prisons for a long time.

The criminal convictions are a challenge to the groups, and a bigger challenge to their allies operating more or less in the mainstream of the Republican Party. Most national Republicans have been silent on the legal processing of the January 6 defendants. But a few far right performers, including members of Congress Matt Gaetz (Florida) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Georgia) have valorized the insurgents, visiting them in prison and complaining about the conditions of incarceration.

Trump has gone further, kicking off his third campaign for the presidency in Waco Texas, with a song of sorts, featuring the “J6 choir” singing the national anthem while the candidate recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Trump promised pardons for the insurgents, a promise he could only deliver on if elected.

Democratic governance works by separating belief from conduct, allowing debate of contentious ideas, and making policy through established institutions. Everyone’s supposed to follow the same rules, and enjoy equality under the law.

Fascism works another way, by identifying worthy individuals and groups and giving them wide berth in advancing their interests at the expense of anyone else.

You can tell the difference.

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May Day 2023

Same as it ever was, May Day is an international day of protest for workers rights.  Below is a picture of a march in France, where people are protesting against raising the national retirement age to 64.

In France, protests against Prime Minister Macron’s reform plans, have stretched on for months–with no signs of influence on anything yet, except encouraging more protest.

In the United States, where by design we have a different day for workers (Labor Day)May Day always seems like an opportunity to organize and demonstrate around a somewhat related cause, with or without the support of organized labor.

Workers, organized and otherwise, have plenty of issues in the United States these days. Hollywood screenwriters are about to go on strike in response to their worsening prospects in a stream-centric entertainment world. Campaigns for raising the minimum wage at the state level have met with some success in some states. Unionization campaigns have succeeded at a couple of Starbucks and Amazon sites, but every subsequent site is a battle. Graduate student researchers and teaching assistants have launched unionization campaigns and strikes for better contracts with some success–including at the University of California. Here at UC-Irvine, the unions won substantial raises, and the University is responding by cutting the number of graduate students admitted and teaching assistants assigned. There are no easy battles.

Successful campaigns have increased the number of unionized workers in the United States, bucking the trend of the past 70 years or so, but the percentage of American workers in unions continues to decline.

The graph below charts the rate of union membership since 1983. It’s hard to miss the trend line–and it’s worse for private sector workers.

May Day is an obvious time to take stock. Journalists look for labor stories that are normally undercovered on May Day (and even on Labor Day), and organizers work hard to fill the space.

May Day is an opportunity to organize and say something, reminding the rest of the world that constituencies and concerns remain vital and potentially volatile.

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The Tennessee Three and what a win looks like (2)

Now that Justin Pearson has (again) taken the oath of office, the Tennessee Three is reunited in the state House of Representatives. On Wednesday, the Shelby County Council voted on appointing an interim representative to replace the one who was expelled last week (Pearson). Seven of thirteen members showed up to a special session and voted unanimously to put Pearson back in office.

Like his colleague, Justin Jones, Pearson wasn’t just waiting for the vote. He and his supporters staged a demonstration at the Civil Rights Museum located in the former Lorraine Motel–where Martin Luther King spent the last evening of his life–and then a large march to the Memphis Council, where Pearson gave a stemwinder of a speech. My favorite sign: “No Justin, No Peace.” The next day, he returned to Nashville and the state legislature, expressing determination to continue the fight for sensible gun regulation.

The modest disruption the Three (Jones, Pearson, and Rep. Gloria Johnson) caused by bringing a megaphone to the podium turned into a tactical tour de force, aided by a significant and unwitting boost provided by the Republican majority.

But they didn’t get all that much closer to their expressed goal, pushing for sensible gun regulation in Tennessee. The Republicans still enjoy a massive advantage in the House, holding 75 of 99 seats, with legislators still elected in heavily gerrymandered districts. Upon reaching the age of 21, any Tennessean can carry a gun, open or concealed, without having to get any kind of permit. The governor and the majorities in each house of the legislature are quite clear that they have no interest in making it much more difficult to get any kind of weapon. Although the Three and their supporters were masterful organizers and tacticians, the road to reform lies ahead, and it looks like a long haul.

We always want shorter stories about movement influence, in which the heroes win meaningful battles quickly enough that we can connect policy changes to protest. But that’s not the way the world works. Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery makes for a shorter simpler story if we edit out more than a decade of organizing she did beforehand, and a decade of organizing afterward to get to Voting Rights legislation. That story isn’t over either.

In addition to the road ahead, there’s a long backstory that’s worth telling. Before fixing on the confrontation in the well of the Tennessee House of Representatives, take a glance at how much time the Three spent getting ready for that moment.

Gloria Johnson had a career as a teacher in Knoxville, before first running for the state house in 2012. She organized in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and worked at the grassroots for educational funding and health care reform. She first clashed with House Speaker Cameron Sexton a couple of years ago, when she was the lone representative who refused to vote for him as speaker. He gave her an office in a windowless conference room, and she moved her desk into the hallway.

Justin Jones had mixed it up with the state legislature long before he ran for office. In 2019, as a Divinity student at Vanderbilt, he was banned from the building after staging a disruptive protest against the presence of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate war hero and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The bust was placed in the Capitol as a sign of resistance during a much earlier round of civil rights activism. In 2021, it was removed from the State House.

Jones been arrested before for political protests, including efforts for health care, against Senator Marcia Blackburn, and a 62 day vigil against police violence after the murder of George Floyd.

Jason Pearson had organized a campaign against the siting of the Byhailia oil pipeline that was to be routed through poorer Black neighborhoods in South Memphis. The pipeline, opposed by a broad coalition of interests, was cancelled. Pearson’s parents (dad a preacher, mom a teacher) say he’s been a powerful orator and committed crusader forever–he’s still not thirty. He got to make his case for activism and politics in an op-ed at the New York Times.

The first point is that it took a long time to become the Tennessee Three; the protest about guns and democracy built on long histories of advocacy and organizing, and a couple of identifiable wins.

To win even a modest policy reform like limiting access to assault-style weapons will take a lot more work, which will include many meetings, protests, lobbying, and electoral campaigns. Alas, it will probably take more horrific shootings as well.

In the meantime, Governor Bill Lee has announced his support for “red flag” legislation, strengthening background checks for gun purchasers, and spending $140 million to “harden” schools and funding armed guards stationed at schools. Of course, these aren’t the remedies gun safety advocates were demanding, but there’s no reason to believe Gov. Lee would have gone even that far without the pressure and the national exposure. Lee didn’t acknowledge the influence of the protesters, also of course.

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The Tennessee Three show what a win looks like

A few days after suffering expulsion from the Tennessee House of Representatives, Justin Jones (again)

took the oath of office and reentered the legislative chamber. Rep. Gloria Johnson, the unexpelled member of the Three, enthusiastically accompanied him on his return to the floor, but many colleagues appeared less enthusiastic.

The Republican majority was certainly far less joyful than the cheering throngs of activists crowded into the gallery.

Just days ago, almost all of the Republican legislators had signed onto Speaker Cameron Sexton’s decision to execute an expedited expulsion of the Three for speaking out of turn. And now Rep. Jones was back, and Representative Justin Pearson was likely to return well before the end of the week.

Tennessee law allows local officials to fill a vacancy with a temporary appointment, and the Nashville’s Metro Council, in very short order, voted to appoint Jones to temporarily fill the vacancy his expulsion had created. The vote was 36-0. Later, Jones will have to run for the full term, with Nashville’s voters more committed than ever. The Memphis council is scheduled to vote on who will fill Pearson’s vacancy. (The smart bet is Pearson.)

It’s not just that efforts to purge the chamber of two young Black men were so clearly unsuccessful; even more important was the attention the Three generated nationally, and the solidarity and enthusiasm they tapped into in parts of Tennessee. Everyone in the state house will be back in the same seats they had a week ago, but it really won’t be the same.

Prior to the protest, the Three were part of a small and easily marginalized Democratic minority in a heavily gerrymandered state moving further to the right. They could not speak about guns on the floor (mics cut off when they tried), much less pass legislation.

Protest works when it alters the scope of a conflict and maybe even the balance of power, and it’s the losers in any battle who have an interest in bringing others into the fight (thanks, E.E. Schattschneider.)

When Tennesseans, especially young Tennesseans in the cities reacted to yet another horrible school shooting–this time at a Christian school in Nashville, the Three decided to amplify the calls from the marchers outdoors and take them indoors. Brandishing a megaphone, they came to the podium, and chanted for less than a minute until the Speaker ended the session. That’s not much of a win.

But the Republican majority overreacted, spotlighting its opposition and displaying its own, mostly unpopular, politics. The extremely unusual decision to expel members guilty of a breach in protocol won the Three national exposure, speaking invitations, and far more vigorous local support. Johnson, Jones, and Pearson proved to be more than ready for prime time, focusing on democracy, children, and public safety. The Justins, in particular, were adept at dropping in bits of Scripture at the just the right time. (Pearson’s father is a Christian minister, and Jones has started a divinity degree.) And they all kept coming back to gun violence, the issue they were silenced on.

The Republicans in the House made a tactical mistake, one bred of overconfidence that may come from living in an apparently safe and relatively homogenous supermajority. Sometimes effective advocacy is all about giving the opposition a chance to show itself–and make mistakes. The GOP rose to the bait and the Three mastered the moment. After years of trying a range of strategies to get attention, suddenly each enjoyed a national audience. They filled broadcast and social media, and engaged and mobilized political allies far from Tennessee. Coupled with an Easter break and news from yet another horrific mass shooting, this time in neighboring Kentucky, the Three had more support, and more attention to their issues and their efforts.

At the Nashville Newark* airport, Jones and Johnson even ran into–of all people–Joan Baez, who started singing for civil rights more than a half century ago. She sang with Justin Jones, and the videos went viral.

Meanwhile, the offended House majority was on the defensive. They’d hoped to teach insurgent legislators a lesson, and instead they were schooled.

Hundreds of Jones’s supporters surrounded the Nashville Metro Council when it met to decide to send him back to the House. And more supporters joined Rep. Jones as he walked to the state capitol and took the oath of office on its steps.

Now, think about the message clever and committed activists will take from the travails of the Tennessee Three. Standing up against what they saw as the arbitrary exercise of authority and the blatant neglect of an urgent public safety issue, they broke some rules, and irritated members of the party that controlled the legislative agenda. They returned with allies and attention.

Representative Jones showed that he’d learned his lesson. Upon his return, he took the mic and announced, “I want to thank you all. Not for what you did, but for awakening the people of this state, particularly the young people.” He then called upon the Speaker to resign.


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Expelling the Tennessee 3: Bad for democracy, bad politics. And not so good for “decorum.”

The Republican Party had nothing to gain by voting to expel two Democratic state reps (Justin Jones and Justin Pearson), and just barely deciding not to expel a third (Gloria Johnson).

The expulsions were about the dumbest thing the Republicans could have done, and they did it about as badly as possible.

Remember, democratic politics works when most people believe their beliefs can be represented, and might ultimately convince a majority and carry the day. Political losers accept defeats because they can imagine that they might one day be victors. Political winners have a strong interest in nurturing their opponents’ dream of influence through mainstream politics.

The Republican Party enjoyed a massive majority, 75-24, in the state house, partly a result of political preference, but also a reflection of residential sorting and aggressive gerrymandering. They could pass anything they wanted, while the Democrats were left to complain…ineffectually. Not only couldn’t the Democrats pass legislation, they couldn’t even get their proposals considered on the House floor. The Republicans gained no new advantages by cutting the Democratic caucus to 22. But they were able to deprive 2 districts of their representatives in government, effectively telling large parts of Memphis and Nashville that they would get no hearing in the House…at least for the moment. Both districts are overwhelmingly Democratic and Jones and Pearson won their seats handily–and they are certainly more visible and more popular now.

Expulsion put the Tennessee 3 on a much larger map. In the days leading up to the event, they were all interviewed everywhere, and proved themselves to be effective communicators and pretty charming as well. They’ll get more practice, and they’ll all get better, and surely win fans and followers across the country. In every interview, they talk about government inaction on gun violence, the issue that got them expelled. Each is now well-positioned to raise more money for an electoral campaign than any candidate for the state house has ever raised before. (By the way, that job pays just over $24,000 a year, plus a per diem.)

On the eve of the expulsion, young people in Nashville and across the state were already outraged about legislative inaction after a school shooting, and were protesting at the capitol and even staging walk-outs at their schools. None of this is likely to stop. Indeed, the expulsion creates more issues and opportunities, as Jones and Pearson seek to regain office, stage campaigns, and remind their constituents that they were thrown out for protesting about gun violence. Both in their twenties, they look like they could have long political careers.

Clearly frustrated by the Tennessee 3’s protest, the majority had many options for punishment, but buoyed by a supermajority, went right for the extremely rare remedy of expulsion. And they tried to do it as quickly as possible, bypassing any kind of committee process, fact-finding, or considering a formal defense. Instead, in a jury-rigged quick fry, each targeted member got to answer questions before a final vote. Discussion was high stakes and high stress, and–appropriately–none of the 3 demonstrated a bit of contrition. Video highlights are circulating all over the internet.

Then, having decided to go after three members, the majority expelled two Black men in their twenties, and spared an older white woman, repeatedly announcing that it wasn’t about race–almost always a sign that it’s about race. On the interview circuit, Rep. Gloria Johnson was asked everywhere why she alone was allowed to keep her seat, and was quick to praise Pearson and Jones, adding that it “might  have to do with the color of our skin.”

She explained (quote from Snopes), “I’m a 60-year-old white woman and they are two young Black men. In listening to the questions, and the way they were questioned, and the way they were talked to… I was talked down to as a woman, mansplained to, but it was completely different from the questioning they got. And this whole idea that […] you have to almost assimilate into this body to be like us.”

She added that she felt the two Black men were spoken to in a “demeaning way” and told “if you’re going to come into this body, you’re going to have to act like this body.” 

That majority looks mostly like older white men.

So, the Republican majority created new heroes of their opponents, drew attention to their largely unpopular position, and invited a spotlight that the other side was better prepared to use. They also sent a signal to young Tennesseans that their capitol was no place for debate about the issues they cared about.


And the kicker: The leadership said it wasn’t about the issues or politics, but about House rules and decorum. It’s hard to believe that even the foot soldiers in Donald Trump’s Republican Party see any gains in preserving decorum.

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Pushing protest outdoors in Tennessee

Tennessee state representatives Tennessee State Representatives Justin Pearson, Justin Jones, and Gloria Johnson (l-r above) broke the rules. In the wake of the most a recent mass shooting at a Christian school in Nashville, protesters filled the chamber’s galleries and surrounded the state capitol. Unarmed and nonviolent, they were nonetheless vigorous, demanding legislative action on gun safety, and yelling at the legislators who were determined not to give them what they wanted. The Tennessee 3 amplified the protesters, moving to the well of the chamber and chanting through a megaphone. They didn’t wait to be recognized.

The protesters outdoors included many young people, students from local high schools and universities, and they were well aware that a large majority of the House was far more likely to make it easier for Tennesseans to get guns rather than impose any restrictions. Just two years ago, Tennessee passed a law allowing anyone over 21 to carry a handgun (openly or concealed) without a license; the legislators are due to consider a reform that would lower the age of permitless carry to 18, and include more weapons.

The protesters said they were scared, but they looked angry.

The Tennessee 3 weren’t in the well for very long before the House leadership gaveled in a recess, ending the session. The Republican Speaker of the state house first blamed the protesters, comparing them to the January 6 insurgents at the US Capitol. Some of the Republicans said they were scared–but they looked angry.

They were particularly angry at their three Democratic colleagues who, absolutely, violated rules of procedure and decorum. Members of the Republican majority were determined to respond to protect their vision of the legislature. It’s important to remember that the Republicans enjoy a huge advantage in the House, with 75 Republicans and 23 Democrats. The majority in any legislative body has many options for punishing members who offend:

Individuals can talk with their colleagues privately, and express their opinions.

A majority can pass a resolution of disapproval or censure and formally rebuke a member.

The House leadership can strip a member of committee membership, staff, or office space.

Or the majority can kick a member out, although it’s difficult. It takes a 2/3 majority to expel a member, and it doesn’t happen much. The New York Times reports:

“Six lawmakers were expelled from the Tennessee House in 1866, immediately after the Civil War, for seeking to prevent the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people. Since then, the House of Representatives in Tennessee has voted only twice to oust a lawmaker. Both votes were bipartisan: in 1980, after a sitting lawmaker was convicted of soliciting a bribe, and in 2016, after the House majority whip faced allegations of sexual misconduct while in office.”

On April 6, after a long and contentious debate, the majority voted to expel Reps. Pearson and Jones, but came one vote short of kicking Rep. Johnson out. It is lost on absolutely no one that, unlike Johnson, Pearson and Jones are young Black men.

I don’t know if the Republican majority meant to send a message, but they surely did. If they didn’t realize it at the time, they will certainly be schooled and reminded–again and again.

All of this matters, not just for school safety or gun regulation or racial politics in America. Democracy depends upon the losers continuing to participate in the system, albeit not necessarily happily or with optimism, and certainly not politely. But they must stay engaged. The system depends upon minorities keeping faith that they might someday win.

Reps. Pearson and Jones may well be back in the legislature soon, appointed by county committees or reelected by constituents who value the passion and commitment they displayed.

Or they, or some of their supporters, may decide that the institutions of their state government are so inaccessible and unresponsive that stronger measures must be taken.

That’s what the January 6 insurgents thought.

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Protests against Trump’s indictment?

New Yorkers laughed at Donald Trump when he came to vote in 2016. (Okay, some booed.) Trump had the next laugh, who gets the last one is still up in the air.

The next episode is Trump’s return to New York City, this time to surrender himself to police for arraignment. He has repeatedly proclaimed that criminal charges against him are a plot to destroy America, and has called on his supporters to protest. And he’s warned of violence and general mayhem if prosecution proceeds. Someone will listen and respond, but just who, how many, and how will matter a great deal.

Social movement power comes from connections with the political mainstream. Organizers and activists can get played and exploited by regular politicians, but sometimes they can win significant victories. This is a common American story. Ambitious politicians calling on their supporters to take to the streets is a far less common story in American politics–but it’s certainly not the first time.

So, along with national media, Trump supporters have recorded the long trek from Palm Beach to Manhattan–a 1,200 mile perp walk. Trumpians frame the shots to emphasize their passionate supporters. But wider angle shots show sparse attendance.

Larger sustained protests take organization, not just an appeal from leaders, and organization is not Trump’s strong suit. But, as with January 6, others may be organizing to create disruption and make local and federal prosecutors pay for doing their jobs.

Mainstream media will cover the minutia of Trump’s arraignment in excruciating details. Expect a report detailing modern fingerprinting techniques that don’t leave ink on those tiny hands.

And the next day, Trump has promised to deliver a speech that frames his prosecution as persecution that somehow translates to an existential threat to *real* Americans. It’s worked so far largely because only a smattering of institutional Republicans have been willing to stand up against it–against Trump and now, for the rule of law.

At some point, maybe soon, someone will realize the mileage to be gained out of actually speaking to the material concerns of those Trump claims to represent.

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Israeli protest continues, along with challenges to democracy

The massive extended protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued, even as protesters claimed credit for a victory. Netanyahu postponed consideration a plan to severely limit the independence of the judiciary, frustrating hard right allies within his coalition and, for the moment at least, emboldening the opposition, as seen above in the streets of Tel-Aviv.

Why the protesters in the street won at all, when large persistent protests elsewhere (for example, France–against raising the retirement age; Kentucky–against a bill criminalizing gender affirming care; Tennessee–for modest gun safety measures) have yet to make an impact on policy, is the first issue. Why the protests continue after an apparent win is the second.

The size and number of protests matters, of course, but it’s not enough. In any kind of democratic system, protesters need allies in government willing to listen to them. Protesting Israelis had to mount a political threat to the Netanyahu government, which means signaling the capacity to disrupt the governing coalition. On the surface, this shouldn’t have been so difficult: Netanyahu’s far-right government was supported by 64 of 120 members of the Knesset–oddly, the largest majority a government had enjoyed in years. But the people protesting didn’t appear to include anyone the governing parties needed.

Netanyahu’s proposed reform would have allowed the government to appoint judges and to ignore their rulings–an essential demand for some of the far right and religious parties–and a massive provocation to their opponents, who viewed it as a threat to democratic governance altogether. The scope of this threat, coupled with longstanding antipathy to Netanyahu, helped sustain large protests.

But there was more: Military service in Israel is extremely common, if not quite universal, with exemptions for Arabs and ultra-orthodox Israelis. Broad conscription means that the Israeli Defense Force includes men and women from across the political spectrum who are prepared to participate in campaigns they might oppose as matters of policy (for example, harsh policing of Palestinians; relocating resistant religious settlers). For better and worse, democratic legitimacy makes this possible.

As the campaign against the government grew, it touched the military. Hundreds of reservists who served in exclusive units, including special forces and intelligence, announced that they would not show up for service. Fighter pilots demanded an end to the reform, threatening to refuse calls to service as well. And the tremendous disruption within Israel gave US President Joe Biden the incentive and political space to weigh in as well, announcing that decades of US military and political support was a response to Israel’s commitment to democracy.

Netanyahu was prepared to push ahead regardless, but his Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant, was not. Netanyahu fired Gallant immediately, but furtive negotiations within his coalition suggested that Gallant was not the only one prepared to leave the government to preserve an independent judiciary. Remember the narrow margins–it would take just a few defectors to bring the government down. Political unrest within the government made the street protests possible, and the prime minister announced that he would return to judicial reform later.

Stalling on judicial reform, while making additional concessions to the far right he disappointed, allowed Netanyahu to survive the moment, but he’d announced a postponement, not an end. Netanyahu plans to bring it back when, he hopes, political circumstances will be more favorable. The opposition’s victory could be short-lived. It wouldn’t be the first time. Surely, some protesters remembered that Hong Kong’s leadership suspended an unpopular law to stop a protest movement in 2019, only to institute far harsher reforms months later.

So, thus far, the protests continue, as a broad opposition evaluates broader goals, perhaps ousting Netanyahu, or adopting some kind of Constitution. It’s not over.

Meanwhile, on the outside, activists want to take inspiration from the successes of the moment. But we need to remember that the opposition didn’t succeed because they waved Israeli flags at the demonstrations, nor just because of their numbers, the tactics, or commitment. Tunnel vision on the actions in the streets leads to missing the importance of connecting protest to politics.

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Cesar Chavez Day, 2023

Commemoration of Cesar Chavez Day is an annual ritual in California–and in Politics Outdoors.

The day is a chance to reflect on Chavez, the movement he led, which continues, and the issues he and that movement addressed. (It also seems to be a good opportunity to return to writing here, with the chance to repost, reconsider, and update writing from past years.

Image result for edna chavez speech, stephon clark

In 2018, less than a week after Edna Chavez, the charismatic then-seventeen year old high schooler from South Los Angeles, electrified a national crowd with a demand to end gun violence, Californians celebrated the legacy of another Chavez.

On my campus, we commemorated Cesar Chavez Day today, rather than March 31 (his birthday), by closing.  (This year, of course, the campus is barren. Once a week, I walk in to collect mail and remember that I have an office, routinely seeing just a couple of people in passing. It looks like it’s always closed.) The state established the holiday in 2000, and six other states have followed suit.  In California, the legislature calls upon public schools to develop appropriate curricula to teach about the farm labor movement in the United States, and particularly Chavez’s role in it.

A campaign to establish a national holiday has stalled so far (The Cesar Chavez National holiday website seems to have last been updated in 2008), but last year President Obama issued a proclamation announcing a day of commemoration, and calling upon all Americans “to observe this day with appropriate service, community, and education programs to honor Cesar Chavez’s enduring legacy.”

Political figures have many reasons for creating holidays, including remembering the past; identifying heroic models for the future; recognizing and cultivating a political constituency; and providing an occasion to appreciate a set of values. Regardless of the original meaning, the holidays take on new meanings over time.  Columbus Day, for example, is celebrated as an occasion for pride in Italian Americans (e.g.), and commemorated and mourned as a symbol of genocide  and empire (e.g.).

Cesar Chavez’s life and work is well worth remembering and considering, particularly now.  His career as a crusader was far longer than that of Martin Luther King discussed (here and here) and he was far more of an organizer than Fred Korematsu (discussed here). Chavez’s Medal of Freedom was awarded shortly after his death in 1993, by President Clinton, but many of his accomplishments were apparent well before then.

Dolores Huerta, 2009

As a young man, Chavez was an agricultural worker; by his mid-twenties, he became a civil rights organizer, working for the Community Service Organization in California.  With Dolores Huerta, in 1962 Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers.  Focusing on poor, mostly Mexican-American workers, Chavez’s vision for activism was right at the cornerstone of racial and economic justice.  Establishing an organization, however, is a long way from winning recognition and bargaining rights as a union.

Chavez was a tactician, a public figure, a charismatic, and something of a mystic.  Modeling his efforts after Gandhi’s successful campaigns, Chavez was an emphatic practitioner of active nonviolence.  He employed boycotts, strikes, long fasts, demonstrations, long marches, and religious rhetoric in the service of his cause.  He also registered voters, lobbied, and worked in political campaigns.  He was a tireless and very effective organizer for most of his life.

But holidays are best celebrated with an eye to the future, rather than the past.

On Cesar Chavez Day this year, we can think about the large and growing Latino community in the United States.  The 2010 Census reports that Latinos now comprise roughly 1/6 of the American population, and more than 1/3 of the population in California. Of course, this number grew: The 2020 Census reports that Latinos now comprise 18.7% of the population nationally. This is the youngest and fastest-growing population in America today, and they are severely underrepresented in the top levels of politics, education, and the economy.  The civil rights map is at least as complicated as at any time in American history, but not less important or urgent.  (The struggle about the DREAM Act is reminiscent of the debate about Voting Rights 45 years ago. And the DREAM Act is still not done. This, of course, has yet to change years later.)  The future of American Latinos is very much the future of America.

[2020: Through ill-advised, provocative, and racist policies, Donald Trump has done a great deal to make it easier to mobilize Latinos, and to forge a broader unity among the whole range of minority groups (racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, etc.). This organizing IS happening.]

[2021: The protests against racialized violence, particularly from police, which took off last summer, offered a promise of political unity among a vast range of Americans. But common cause among Asian Americans, Blacks, and Latinx people and allies require constant work.]

And Chavez saw the civil rights struggle as a labor issue.  When Chavez and Huerta started

The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,' by Miriam Pawel - The New York Times

their campaign, nearly one third of Americans were represented by unions.  The percentage now is now just about 10 percent, and less in the private sector.

And public sector workers, even if represented by unions aren’t doing so well.  The ongoing conflict in Wisconsin is all about weakening unions that are already making very large concessions on wages and pensions.  The campaign in Wisconsin is part of a larger national effort, which is playing out in Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere.  Even in states where anti-union forces are weaker, state employees face lay-offs, wage cuts, and increased health and pension costs.

[The previous Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, was largely effective at hobbling organized labor in his state. Aided by an extensive organizing effort and backlash to many Walker policies, Tony Evers eked out a narrow victory in 2018. Wisconsin may now be a highly contested true swing state, but one without many swing voters.]

[2023: Wisconsin’s political polarization and possibilities are again in the news; next week’s election for a swing seat on the state’s supreme court figures to determine access to abortion and the vote, as well as the future of its heavily gerrymandered legislative districts.]

This year, the Supreme Court will rule in Janus vs. AFSCME, and court watchers expect the Wisconsin model to be immediately exported across the country. [The wildcat teachers strikes in West Virginia, and now Kentucky, with credible threats in Oklahoma and Arizona, offer the hint of a new resurgent labor… more later.]

[Janus turned out exactly as union organizers fear, and continues to haunt the national landscape. But in 2023, labor organizers have found reason for optimism in ongoing unionization campaigns in the service sector, most notably at Starbucks and Amazon.]

[The longer term fallout from organized teachers demanding better salaries and treatment hasn’t hit yet. The conflicts about opening schools safely and vaccinating teachers have opened all kinds of political rifts, and there’s some evidence more teachers are leaving the field–while states have yet to step up and make the job more attractive.]

But, we need to remember that you can’t attack teachers, nurses, police officers, and firefighters without hurting the people they serve: us.

Or should I say, US?

We commemorate the past to help guide the future. Edna Chavez, working in an urban setting far from Cesar Chavez’s organizing, carries the legacy forward, and adds more.

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