By now, many of you have probably have read the open letter to Michael Brown’s family from Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s mother). It is heartbreaking to think about the deep loss, the deep injustice, that these families have had to bear.
Many of the smaller facts and even the bigger issues between the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin shootings are different. Brown was shot by a policeman, Martin was shot by a volunteer on neighborhood watch. In Ferguson, there are major secondary issues around the militarization of police; in Florida, big sideline issues were about stand your ground laws, gun control, gated communities. But at the simple core, both Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were murdered because they were young and black and male.
I lead with these two things—the parents’ grief and loss and the racist violence directed at young black men—because they should be front and center in our discussions about Michael and Trayvon.
All of us outside observers—pundits, bloggers, academics, advocates, organizers, arm chair (or laptop) quarterbacks—discuss these tragic shootings, through our own lenses and from our own contexts. We generate paragraphs of text, tables of statistics (percent of police who live in the communities in which they police; the increasing number of guns in the hands of private citizens), color-coded and time-sequenced maps (the increase of poverty in Ferguson over the past ten years; segregation by race in St. Louis) and mostly we talk and talk and talk.
And these conversations are important. These shootings are important touchstones. They expose deep and complicated tangles of issues around race, class, gender; about violence, fear, safety; about our country, about where we are going, about what we value; about justice; about the mythologies of the American Dream. These are important issues to discuss, to act upon. We need to have these hard conversations in order to better progress as a society.
But in our discussions about what has happened, in our calls to action, in our advocacy for new policies and practices, it is easy to lose sight of the simple, central reality of loss and of injustice.
So I wanted to call out these core realities before I jump into my own punditry.
All that being said, this blog post is about the demographics of Ferguson and Sanford (the places where Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were killed, respectively). I want to build off of Miriam Axel-Lute’s recent post about the dangerous rhetoric of labeling poor neighborhoods in terms of deficits and borrow some of her points about the fact that how we talk/think about issues often undermines our ability to change things for the better.
Sports Illustrated writer Robert Klemko wrote a story about the Florissant, Missouri, McCluer Senior High School football team—the team from the public high school that Ferguson residents attend—and their reaction to the events unfolding around them. It’s a good read and I want to pull a quote from Randall Ceasar, the team’s senior quarterback: “You go online and you have people saying Ferguson is a ghetto. . . . This is not a ghetto.” In an interview on NPR, Klemko emphasized that the players on the (all black) football team largely saw themselves as suburban residents and not from “the ghetto.”
Similarly, where Trayvon Martin was shot, “The Retreat at Twin Lakes,” the mixed-race gated community in Sanford, Florida, where a three-bed, two-bath, 1,200 sq. ft. town home costs $140k, is not what we typically think of as “the ghetto,” at least in terms of demographics and urban form.
Both Sanford and Ferguson are smaller cities within a larger metro region (Orlando and St. Louis, respectively). Both Sanford and Ferguson are majority people of color, have a lower median household income than the national median household income, and have higher poverty rates than the national poverty rate. Both were places hit hard by the recent foreclosure crisis.
As Brookings Institution’s Elizabeth Kneebone writes, cities like Sanford and Ferguson are part of a growing number of places within larger urban regions that are becoming less white and less economically well off and “as concentrated poverty climbs in communities like Ferguson, they find themselves especially ill-equipped to deal with impacts such as poorer education and health outcomes, and higher crime rates.” Peter Dreier and Todd Swanstrom, in a similar vein, explicitly call Ferguson a “suburban ghetto.”
But I wonder if all this jibes with how residents of these communities see themselves. Like the players on McCluer’s football team, I wonder if they see themselves as living in “the ghetto.” Of course, there’s likely a broad range of opinions, but I suspect that many would be uncomfortable with characterizations that rest upon negative impacts and that talk about their communities in terms of what they are ill-equipped to do.
Many families likely feel that they moved from neighborhoods that they viewed as worse off to get to places like Ferguson and Sanford, that they are doing what they are supposed to do to chase the American dream, to do what is best for their families.
We’ve built a big narrative about “the ghetto” being a place that needs to be escaped from and about the pathway that individuals and families need to take to work themselves out of the ghetto. It’s something about hard work and education and saving money and moving out to a better neighborhood.
But this story ignores the fact that, for some people, all the world is a ghetto.
In HUD’s “Moving to Opportunity,” a 15-year longitudinal study of over 4,600 households with children living in public housing, HUD researchers tracked the economic, health, and social outcomes of families that were given the opportunity/support to move out of public housing against a control group that stayed behind.
The study showed significant, generally improved outcomes for the families that left public housing for lower-poverty neighborhoods, particularly around housing conditions, neighborhood conditions, and health issues for adults and girls (e.g., reduced asthma, hypertension, diabetes).
However, the results were not positive across the board (e.g., income/employment and educational outcomes were not significantly improved for families who moved).
And one set of negative outcomes associated with moving is particularly germane to the current conversation. Young males (aged 10–20, predominantly black) generally had worse physical and mental health outcomes and felt less safe during the day, despite reported reduced exposure to criminal activities. Also, in qualitative analysis associated with the study, many boys who moved reported increased police harassment and reported such harassment at a higher rate than boys in the control group. That is, a so-called better neighborhood was more dangerous, more unhealthy, and exposed these boys and young men to increased levels of harassment and racialized mortal peril, even as statistical indicators for their parents and sisters improved.
Young black and brown men, where ever they go, have a target painted on their backs. This is the result of institutionalized racism, pure and simple. And in order for programs like Moving to Opportunity to be more effective to improve people’s lives, we need to address this racism head on.
By making the frame exclusively about concentrated poverty and about environmental exposures/influences of bad neighborhoods, we ignore the structural racism at the core. I’ll take it a step further. By talking about poverty and “bad” neighborhoods and not directly confronting racism and not directly advocating for racial justice, we inadvertently create narratives that blame victims or that blame some victim proxy such as their culture or their environment. Inadvertently, we enable violent racism to continue and undermine our ability to enact even the very solutions that we propose.
— Marcie Cohen, Chair, WNDC Social and Economic Justice task force

Violence and chaos may not be going out of fashion in the world we live in, but unilateral military action from the old super powers almost certainly is. As of this writing the situation in Ukraine is confusing but events over the weekend are likely to mark out lines that will hold.

The first big line is that president President Viktor Yanukovych has left town and is somewhere in eastern Ukraine, having been relieved of office through a vote in Parliament, not violent overthrow. Parliament has set May 25 for elections – Yanukovych had accepted the call for new elections, but not before the end of the year. Putin’s description of events as a “coup” sound very old fashioned.

The Ukrainian people are drawing their own lines. Guards from the State Protection Service at Yanukovych’s private residence handed over key to leaders of the opposition, who are not allowing looting. The people who are opening up the gates are exposing Yanukovych’s extraordinarily plutocratic life style. Even the plutocratic class is deserting the regime, suggesting that Ukraine’s excessive corruption has become politically unsupportable.

In another move that cannot realistically be rescinded, Parliament released Yanukovych’s imprisoned rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who immediately came to address crowds in Kiev’s Independence Square. Popular outrage over the killing of some 70 protestors, is another line that will hold against any Yanukovych restoration.

Cold war spheres of influence no longer can be summoned from history. One outcome for Ukraine is the likelihood it will be in both the Russian and western orbits. Ukraine can sign the trade agreement with the EU that Yanukovych rejected in November, adding financial support from the EU and IMF, and at the same time structure ties with Russia. What seems frankly inconceivable is that Putin would restore Yanukovych by force, with “boots on the ground.” One should remember that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late eighties started with President Gorbachev’s refusal to use military intervention to keep embattled communist regimes in Eastern Europe in power. No “boots on the ground” this time.

The US may be a super power in terms of global weight on many scales, but post Iraq it also is being forced to turn away decisively from unilateral military action. Forging multilateral coalitions is a different matter. The UN has passed a “responsibility to protect” policy and there will be many terrible human rights crisis that will make a claim for multilateral action on those grounds. President Obama understands this new world we are moving into very well. We can hope Putin will come to understand it too.

Elizabeth Spiro Clark

It might have been out of a dream, but it really happened. I can’t put a precise date on it, but Ronald Reagan was President, and he was constantly reminding us that “government is the problem” and then turning that idiotic proposition into a self fulfilling prophesy.

I was living in Silver Spring not far from the house that I grew up in near the former Xaverian College, which had since become the George Meany Center for Labor Studies. I had received a call from the Center’s Director inviting me to attend a day long songfest of Labor Union songs and poetry. I cleared my calendar and went directly to the event, which was attended by labor troubadours from all over the country, and even some from Latin America.

Well into the morning we were all shocked to see the legendary Pete Seeger stroll unexpectedly onto the stage with his famous 5 string banjo. The place went wild when he launched into the famous ballad “Joe Hill”, and after he finished the Director brought the Great Man over to meet me. Apparently Pete’s unexpected appearance at the event had forced a complete revision of the evenings events, and the organisers were going to have to spend most of the afternoon reorganising the agenda around a living legend’s participation. Since I had always “lived in the neighborhood” I was being asked by the director if I would give Pete Seeger a tour of the area, get him something to eat, and essentially use up some time until he would join the other artists in rehearsing for the evening concert. I had to pinch myself. This had all happened so fast…

We took a walk around the beautiful campus, and I told him of the magnificent role the young Catholic monks from the Brotherhood Order of Francis Xavier played in my development as a student and an athlete on these very grounds. I pointed out the zinc strips that were nailed to the trunks of all of the beautiful old trees lining the roads of the campus, which identified both in latin and english the exact name of each tree. I had been paid 25 cents each as a young boy by the Brother Superior to nail a strip on each one.

My impression of this man remains with me in vivid terms even today. He was, of course, tall and thin. He was wearing Lee jeans which had been carefully patched in several places, and a long sleeve shirt rolled up to the elbows, and ordinary canvas high top shoes. He sported a goatee and an odd little knitted hat which sat high on his head. He listened to everything I told him, and, to my surprise, he seemed interested and engaged in everything we discussed. He spoke very little about himself, and seemed intrigued when I told him about my parents, and especially about my mother, when I told him some stories about her growing up poor on a farm in Kansas. “If we have time, I would like to meet her” he said.

We climbed into my pickup truck and drove the short distance to 9722 Dilston Road, where my mom was in the kitchen, cooking soup. She knew who our visitor was immediately, and told him that she had worked in a children’s store in Glover Park called Young Playways where she had actually sold some of his children’s records. Pete Seeger was now eating my Mom’s soup, and he put down his spoon, his face lighting up as he said with great excitement “I didn’t think those records were still around, and I had completely lost track of them. As if in a dream, my mother produced two disks, and the three of us listened to Pete Seeger sing “This Old Man” and a couple of others that I can no longer remember.

We had more time to kill, and we drove the ten minute drive to the main campus of the University of Maryland where I had graduated. While strolling around the beautiful campus I was amazed by the number of people who approached him to offer their good wishes, and the humble and gentle way that he responded to recognized celebrity. I asked him if he liked pizza, and he responded “Yes, but it is hard to find really good pizza outside New York City, unless you are in Chicago, where pizza is a different thing altogether.” I suggested to him that there might be a song hidden in that proposition, which made him chuckle and say “There is a song in just about everything we do and see.”

Hoping to change the Great Man’s opinion on pizza outside New York City, I drove him to the original Ledo’s Pizza Parlor on University Boulevard in College Park. We shared a large plain pizza and endured the table visits of admirers and autograph seekers until it was finally time to deliver him back to the concert preparation at the Meany Center. On the drive back he thanked me for the time I had spent “baby sitting” him, and found it necessary to admit that Ledo’s Pizza was as good as any he had ever had in New York City.

That night I brought my Mom back to the Center and we saw a first rate production of Labor union songs with the legendary Pete Seeger the star of the show. I went to sleep that night trying to sort out everything that had happened on that extraordinary day, and I awoke the following morning wondering if it had all been a dream.

Pete Seeger died on January 27th at age 94. Earlier this year Bob Dylan had referred to him as “a saint”, to which Pete replied “Oh God!” There will be many many words of praise and adulation written about this genuine American icon in the aftermath of his passing. I had the rare blessing of spending one part of one day with Pete Seeger, and truly believe that Dylan’s characterization may be right on the mark.
Dan Rupli

The terrible water contamination disaster in West Virginia is not over yet. Even when all the faucets are on, the lessons learned are likely to be modest, given the grip of the coal industry on the state. One can hope, however, that the crisis might make a dent in the Republican “small government” ideology, with its war on regulations and regulators. The President of the West Virginia Senate said in a Washington Post interview January 14, “People always beat the drum about too much government regulation… My goodness, there are 300,000 people I guarantee wish they had a little more regulation.”

No one can still get their head around the fact the containers holding the MCHM chemical and arrayed along a bluff on the Elk River just upstream from the water intake pipe for Charlestown were last inspected in 1991, or the fact that an employee of the company that owned the facility tried to stop the leak with a concrete block. It was residents, smelling the distinctive licorice smell of the MCHM chemical, who raised the alarm, not the company. It does not take a Saturday Night Live comedian to wonder if the take away message here for the companies involved is that they need to work on making coal washing chemicals odorless, not safe.

However strong the crisis driven wish to regulate the safety of the water, finding out who to regulate or who to hold accountable isn’t so easy. The tank farm in question is owned by the company Etowah River Terminal, in turn owned by the Orwellian named Freedom Industries. The chief executive of Freedom Industries is being criticized for not communicating with authorities and has not been available for public comment beyond issuing a quick apology. In addition, the makers of the chemical, Eastman Chemical Company of Kingsport, Tennessee, declined to make studies of the chemical available, on the grounds that it was proprietary information.

It has been largely the Feds to the rescue. President Obama declared an emergency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent 370,000 gallons of potable water to Charleston. The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are testing the waters for safe levels of the contaminant. The US attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia is opening an investigation.

On the other hand, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection underestimated the 7,500 gallon spill by 2,500 gallons. The governor is “developing” plans to guide people in cleaning their plumbing systems and is giving residents a credit on their water bills! To be fair, at the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency has apparently based its standard for a safe level of MCHM on one study that is challenged by the Environmental Defense Fund.

I am reminded of another crisis – Hurricane Irene. In that case Connecticut Light and Power fell down on its job, leaving 600,000 people without light or power for 10 days. But the state authorities in Connecticut had no address to send directives or information requests. Connecticut Light and Power was a subsidiary of another company, Northeast Utilities, incorporated in Maine. But how was state government of Connecticut to demand improved performance? There is no Northeast government to hold Northeast Utilities accountable.

In terms of confronting small government ideology it is relatively easy to point out how the confusion of jurisdictions works to the benefit of corporations wanting to evade oversight. But there is another factor and that is to look at our economy from the perspective of individual workers. Republican ideologues assume that tax money used to implement regulations somehow reduces employment, by presenting disincentives to business to employ more workers. They also mange to add the assumption that people working for the private sector are automatically better that people working for the public sector, even morally better, despite the word “service” in the phrase “public service.” On the contrary, employing individuals in the public sector – the inspectors and regulators – adds employment, adds consumer demand in the economy and provides public services, such as public safety, that are essential to economic growth. In addition, unlike these mysterious “Freedom Industries”, they are accountable to the people who are paying for them.

— Elizabeth Spiro Clark

Our Moral Imperative
by Dan Rupli

Neckties have never made any sense to me. They serve no practical purpose whatsoever, and over the years, a good quality silk necktie can now cost about as much as I used to pay for my suits at J.C. Penny’s. That is why I have gotten into the habit of shopping for these hated neck chokers at the Goodwill Store, where, for a couple of bucks I can buy almost new looking all silk ties that would cost $75 bucks at Macy’s.

Last Friday I had picked out three really nice looking ties at the Goodwill Store, all with prestigious labels, and one made from no ordinary silk, but actual “Imported Italian Silk.” Nothing but the best for $6.97!

While waiting to pay, I was preceded in line by a middle aged lady who had purchased all of her family members’ Christmas presents (consisting of used clothing) at Goodwill, and she was fumbling through her purse to pay for her purchases. She brought forth carefully wrapped rolls of nickels, dimes, and pennies, and shook other loose change from her purse, coming up $3 dollars short of her total bill of $47 dollars. While she was rummaging through the clothing to decide which items not to buy, I quietly slipped the sales lady the extra 3 dollars. The lady making the purchase expressed her sincere gratitude, explaining to us that her husband was quite sick, and that her family was having a very hard time getting through this holiday season.

I have always considered myself blessed to have been born when I was, and where I was, with all of the advantages of being white, and growing up “suburban” in America. I have had the additional advantage of having traveled extensively in our magnificent Country, and throughout the far reaches of the world. I have witnessed both the extraordinary beauty and richness of our tiny planet, and the unspeakable pain and sadness of the impoverished people I met along the way.

All this has shaped my political ethic and beliefs. I am a man “of the left” who is completely devoted in his seventh decade of life to resetting the human table so there is a place at that table for every breathing child of God on this earth. I have concluded that we live in a kind of glorious global cornucopia, where there is plenty enough of everything-food, fuel, fiber, shelter, basic services and facilities so that there is no longer any valid excuse whatsoever for poverty. Anywhere! Especially here! Period!

I am finished making political arguments against the completely selfish and self absorbed corporate cretins of the right and their pimp-like lobbyists. You can never win an argument for equitable redistribution of resources when the deck is so stacked against ordinary citizens, and where the national media is owned and controlled by the very same people who are snuffing the life out of the middle class, and standing on the necks of the poor. My own mother was a child of poverty in rural Kansas in the 1920’s. My young Filipino wife held her 12 year old sister in her arms as she died of starvation in 2000, and her father failed by 90 days in 2002 to fulfill his goal of living to be 50 because of tuberculosis, so poverty is a very personal thing with me.

The only arguments that can win the day are completely moral in nature, and the profound impact of recent positions forcefully advanced by Pope Francis regarding the twin evils of trickle down economics and income inequality is rapidly gaining traction throughout the World. And none too soon.

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, and others in the Senate are leading the political argument against the “one percent” who own and control such a hideously disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth. And our President is coming out stronger on this issue as well, enjoying the moral “cover” that the Pope is providing.

Now it is time for our Country’s clergy, philosophers, poets, historians, artists, students, and teachers (and lawyers, even)to weigh in loudly and forcefully on the leading moral outrage of our time-the corporate elitist takeover of capital, wealth, and the very institutions that were intended to protect us from all of this. They need to confront on moral, ethical, and religious grounds in the pulpits, in the class rooms, in the courts, and in the streets those issues of social and economic justice that are tearing us asunder. The so called “Christian right” needs to be smoked out regarding their religious hypocrisy, and confronted directly regarding their perversion of Christian dogma, whose basic underpinnings revolve around caring for the poor and the powerless.

If we can approach the New Year making the issue of economic justice a powerful moral cause like we did with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the political solutions will naturally follow, and, as my early hero and inspiration, Martin Luther King, Jr. taught me and my generation “Justice will roll down like a mighty stream.”

My best to all of you in the coming year, and especially to that lady in the Goodwill Store with the rolled up coins and the sick husband.

Dan Rupli
Member, Board of Governors, WNDC

The eulogies, commentaries and historical reflections on former South African President Nelson Mandela all cast him as a unique figure that belongs to the whole world as an inspiration. Indeed former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly said, ”President Mandela’s life is the closest thing we have to proof of God.”

One of his unique attributes was his generosity of spirit, always at pains to deflect praise from the one – himself – for defeating the evil of apartheid so that praise would flow to the many. Mandela did not want to claim for himself even the signal accomplishment of his presidency – victory over apartheid without retribution against the white government that had imposed this vicious system. That government, to speak only of its impact on Mandela’s personal life, had imprisoned him for 27 years and persecuted his family. However, he bent all his extraordinary political gifts towards reconciliation. He told a journalist in Johannesburg in 2000, that it was the “leadership of the ANC”, “who spent 30 years in exile or went underground or were in prison (and who) have no time for revenge. They know they pass through life only once and want to use (their time) to solve the problems of their country. That is why we avoided bloodshed and confounded the prophets of doom.”

Nelson Mandela was a great leader and a good man and unassailably heroic. The circumstances and key events of his life were indeed unique. Apartheid was a unique as well as unjust political system, riveting the world’s attention. His assent to power was also unique and riveting. Once in power he guided South Africa almost miraculously to a peaceful transition to democracy.

But what if Mandela is right to insist that we not see him as unique? We can still see him as an extraordinary human being, but it is for us to follow him in seeing greatness in many. It is almost as if we don’t want to say that there are others among us who are wise and good, and smart innovators and actors who can change the direction of history to benefit mankind. To be truly the inspiration he should be to us, we must feed the Mandela in others (and ourselves) instead of denying that force. Mandela should not sit at a safe distance from us. We need to get to work and follow him.

Elizabeth Spiro Clark
December 6, 2013

On October 21 the Washington Post carried two side by side front page headlines: “A quiet effort to move GOP to the middle on gay rights” and “How would McAuliffe or Cuccinelli govern? Both candidates must overcome reputations, legislative partisanship.” Clunky English but comfortable ideas: “partisanship” indeed political parties, are dirty things; the middle is whatever the middle is between equal Republican and Democratic party extremes.

As scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein from the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute told us a year ago in their book “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks,” America’s problem isn’t political polarization, it is the takeover of one party, the Republicans, by extremists. Noted journalists have weighed in. Eric Alterman has denounced false objectivity as driven by a false ideology of “balanced” reporting and equivalence of extremes, in what Paul Krugman has called “post–truth politics”. The shut down/debt limit crisis took the Ornstein and Mann conclusion to high decibel levels. That conclusion has been conveyed, however, almost exclusively though endless reporting on opinion polls, grass roots interviews and analysis of party leaders’ calculations and tactics (equal time to both sides).

The media is washing its hands of any responsibility to look at the messages they convey, and not just on the op-ed pages. They need to come out of their safety mode and whack this “balanced polarization” mole back underground. Just describing the positions of Republican’s and Democrat’s supposedly balanced “extremes” gives the game away. Some or all Republican politicians want to get rid of Social Security, abolish the Federal Reserve and Environmental Protection Agency, renege on the US sovereign debt, deny the legitimacy of laws passed by Congress and declared constitutional by the Supreme Court, suppress the vote and rig electoral districts, require an anti abortion pledge from appointed officials in the federal Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, ban not only abortion but contraception in the United States. This side – the Republican side – has demonstrated indifference to hunger in America by rejecting reauthorization of food stamp programs and urging states to reject federal financing for Medicaid. The other side – hold on! – wants to let tax rates return to pre Bush 43 levels and, along with the rest of the industrialized world, prefers a single payer system of healthcare. No Balanced polarization of extremes exists.

The idea that all reporting must be balanced goes back a long ways. I remember that after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing the PBS news hour “balanced” a report on extremist groups by offering equal time to a man who described his conviction that the UN was sending out “black helicopters” to attack America. No factual statement rejecting his “take” on the situation was offered. In 2013, of course, Washington is the black helicopter.

The balance mantra distorts everything. The brainwashed and fed up public demands that Washington compromise and work together. Finding the “center” between the two parties is said to be the solution. Even better is pushing bipartisanship and nonpartisanship. But what exactly is the “center” on gay rights; what exactly is legislative bipartisanship in the Virginia legislature? A flip of the coin to decide which Virginia women are forced to have ultrasound if they are seeking abortions?

Flowing from the balance distortion is the idea that political parties are dirty. A pejorative slush flows over not just political parties but all democratic institutions. At the same time, politicians are rock stars, especially those who want to destroy government and with it, presumably, the politicians who have a calling to respond to citizens with actions that improve their lives.

The extremist Republicans win unless we change the story line.

— Elizabeth Spiro Clark