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


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

Media coverage of the South Carolina primary made it seem as if we were all ringside at a boxing match. What passed for reporting on “substance” was how much money was getting thrown in the ring. It’s impossible to get out of the box of media coverage. Gingrich’s aggressive slapping down of John King’s legitimate question about his second wife’s “open Marriage” interview and the resulting storm of applause seemed to do the trick for undecided voters. Gingrich identified himself with President Andrew Jackson, as a man who knew that what you do with your enemies: “you kill them.” The candidate said that he didn’t just want to bloody Obama’s nose, “I want to knock him out.” (Note: We guess Gingrich was speaking figuratively. The athletic Obama clearly wouldn’t have much trouble taking care of Gingrich.)

All primary reports commented on the Republicans’ deep dislike for Obama (why we are never told) and the desire for someone to “fight” him, no holds barred. That seemed to translate for many into an actual qualification for the presidency. “You have to be tenacious… and be very aggressive to get things done as president and I think he showed all of that,” one primary voter was quoted as saying (WP,1/22).

Is there something we should be seeing beyond “I like the aggressive guy on reality TV who is willing to eat live snakes to kill off a rival?” For voters who want to knock Obama out, aggressiveness is an obvious qualification, but what about the 63 percent who listed the economy as its top issue? Are they thinking their candidate is going to “aggressively” tell CEOs he has just released them from taxes and regulatory burdens and now they must create jobs in the US?!

In their rage-filled heart of hearts, Republicans do seem passionately convinced that if freed from taxes and regulatory restraints the rich will create jobs in the US, so that prosperity tickles down from the 1 percent to the rest. Not likely. Recent Commerce Department data show that “as a whole US multinational firms reduced their workforce here by 2.9 million between 1999 and 2009,” while at the same time they added 2.4 million jobs overseas.

Many Republican voters say the size of the deficit is a big issue for them. Reducing the deficit is indeed important. Reducing healthcare costs is important to that end. Just rolling back the Bush tax cuts would help reduce the deficit and also free up money for government to spend on education and infrastructure, bolstering the economy and creating new jobs and new revenue to further reduce the deficit. However, the Republican voters don’t want government doing anything, so it is unclear where they see economic improvement coming from and how that translates into their voter preferences.

This suggests we should look to some deeper underlying reason for voter rage. Gingrich’s hugely applauded racist comments were in no sense “thinly veiled.” It is tempting to say that hatred of the “Other” was the unifying factor for the Gingrich voters. Perhaps, though, the unifying factor is broader. The hollowing out of the American middle class is an enormous change in America. It is creating fear and a deep sense of insecurity. Obama’s promise was change. The voter may be demanding, paradoxically, that their leaders fix our economic problems with a return to the status quo and not with “change.” They feel the status quo is what has been taken away from them. They wrongly blame Obama and will back anyone who can take him out.

The Iowa caucus drama is likely hook press and media on their overload of horse race politics adrenalin. What excitement! Eight point spread for first place! Election night commentators were in a wonderful mood. It was all so entertaining.

The horse race political framework will continue to be hard wired in everything we see or read. Any discussion of the substance of issues will have to be relevant to that process framework. It goes without saying that analysis of the ideology that justifies journalists’ substance free coverage will be very rare. Among the rare exceptions, Eric Alterman has denounced false objectivity driven by false ideology of “balanced” reporting and equivalence of extremes, in what Paul Krugman has called “post–truth politics” and Katrina vanden Heuvel has listed as one of the three issues that could determine the outcome of the elections (WP, 1/3).

In addition, the mantra that Democrat extremes balances Republican extremes can’t be open for debate because just describing the positions on each of the supposedly “balanced” Republican and Democrat “extremes” gives the game away. One side wants to get rid of Social Security, abolish the Federal Reserve and Environmental Protection Agency, and bomb Iran and the other side – hold on! – wants to let tax rates return to pre Bush 43 levels?

Just how extreme the Republican positions are is not just an entertainment question. The genuinely extreme positions of the Republicans are important and consequential, especially when coupled with “pledges”. This policy wonk was unaware of the Republican “pledge” to appoint only anti-abortion officials to key health and justice agencies until I found it buried in a long unreadable side-by-side comparison of the positions of the “Iowa Seven” in a December 31 article in the New York Times (New Years Eve! Just the time to curl up and – finally – get briefed up on the issues!). You might think that the word “pledge” would ring a bell in some editor’s brain. Republicans signing on to the Grover Norquist no tax hike “pledge” almost – again – brought the US government to a halt in December. Republicans have proved they will stick with their pledges through whatever battering of storms of fact, reality and national interest. No reason to think the appointments pledge would be different.

Two of the top three Iowa caucus winners, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, have signed the appointments “pledge”, leaving Mitt Romney out in the cold liberal never, never land. Whatever their chances of making it to the White House many of their pledging persuasion will certainly be in Congress. It is worth spelling out exactly what this pledge means in terms of American democracy and values.

Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen in a recent talk at the WNDC sees the “fusion of religion and politics” as a problem. He urges citizens to “put the spotlight” on problems. Nothing could spotlight the problem of the fusion of religion and politics more than the religion driven qualification for public service and government employment that the Paul/Santorum pledge would institute. Who would play the non-democratically elected role of Norquist, passing perhaps on the sincerity of the applicants’ pledge? Would nameless religious fundamentalists behind non-accountable high spending PACs get another hold on wielding power in a grievously weakened American democracy? The framers of our constitution would be shocked. If only one set of religious beliefs qualifies you for government service and excludes others, then Americans are not “free and equal”.

This is an interesting subject. Our journalists may be too giddy with the fun of Iowa political entertainment to tell us anything about it.

Eric Cantor’s message on Hurricane Irene is basically “no helping hurricane victims without cutting some other federal expenditure that might help the poor”. To translate: America doesn’t exist as a community whose members feel obligations towards each other. Outrage is the appropriate reaction to Cantor. However, looking past the outrage there is much material to draw from the Hurricane Irene case to push back hard against the Republican small government crusade, according to some polls the one policy area where they have public support.

For Republicans, aside from the dictates of religious ideology, nothing but economic incentives count. The system punishes when people don’t buy your products or your stocks. That is the only idea of “accountability”. Where does this dogma leave customers of the private company, Connecticut Light and Power, or United Illuminating, when over 600,000 of them are left without power in the wake of Hurricane Irene. One town’s mayor was quoted as saying ”we did our job” and were now just waiting to CP&L crews to arrive to advise them where the live wires were. Widespread complaints about slow response from these private companies and lack of information finally produced liaison officials, called revealingly “account executives”. One such liaison in Stonington was a lawyer from CL&P’s parent company NorthEast Utilities (United Illuminating has a parent company also, UIL Holdings).

No wonder US Representative Joe Courtney is pressing for federal assistance. The federal government is a democratic institution structured for accountability to citizens. Is there a North East government to hold NorthEast Utilities accountable?

In San Bruno, California eight people died when a natural gas pipe line ruptured. It turned out the company Pacific Gas and Electric had installed a defective pipeline in 1956. A National Transportation Safety Board issued a report August 30 on the incident, blaming it on poor planning, resulting in the inability to realize that a pipe had ruptured. Crucial work to close the ruptured value was left to an off-duty mechanic who was “self-dispatched”. The California Public Utilities Commission was criticized for lax oversight and “trusting the company.”

Since the Republican drive for smaller government would, if successful, lead to fewer public boards, weak or strong, overseeing the private companies providing public services, why isn’t it fair to see the small government crusade as a way to let corporations do a better job ripping us off? Americans need to reverse the Republican mantra of “good private institutions, bad public institutions.”

If you are a citizen without the power to stop buying the product (power, light and natural gas) and no say on what the provider of the public service does, then you are put in a passive position. At some point democratic institutions are incompatible with a passive citizenry.

On the anniversaries of the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment and the 1963 March on Washington, which are this week, MomsRising joins our colleagues in working to mobilize women voters around preserving women’s Health and Economic Rights (HERrights) in order to build an even stronger nation that lives up to its full potential.
The current extremist attacks on women’s health and family economic security serve to weaken the United States and our families, not strengthen them. Frankly, when family economic and health security is threatened, we are all threatened.

To counter these threats, MomsRising has joined forces with the quickly expanding leadership of #HERvotes, which includes organizations that are on the very forefront of women’s equity issues, including those representing women of color, women’s faith groups, women labor leaders, along with a mixture of long-standing organizations like the 130 year old AAUW, to relatively new organizations like the five year old MomsRising, along with many more organizations, and many more to come.

We have all joined forces in order to bring the power of grassroots on-the-ground and online organizing to mobilize women voters.

As a start, this week, we are launching that effort with a cross organization #HERvotes blog carnival and social media effort.

Read more.

Not quite lost in the budget battles in the House of Representatives are what can be called Republican “war on women” bills: defining down rape, making it impossible for insurance companies to cover abortion, cutting budgets for maternal care and much more.

In fighting back, there is one strand of sanity to keep grasping:
We need to see this as one group of people imposing views they believe to be religiously sanctified on another group of people who don’t share the doctrines and/or don’t believe they should be imposed on others. Lloyd Stephan, Professor of Religious Studies at Lehigh University said of Pope John Paul’s belief in the “absolute innocence” of the fetus: “As an American, I do not believe “absolute innocence” should ever become an “established” view of fetal humanity sanctioned by the government. That is a religious belief that should not be imposed on me or any citizen and certainly not forced on any woman considering what to do after becoming pregnant from, say, rape or incest or who is facing possible death due to medical complications.” (www4.lehigh.edu/news/newsarticle)

The Republican congressmen behind the attack on women (among them, Joe Pitts, Mike Pence and Chris Smith) clearly think the “absolute innocence” of the fetus means the life of the fetus holds privilege over the life of the mother. The “Protect Life Act” (H.R. 358) they back would deny a woman in danger of her life an abortion, or even require a referral to a facility where that legal medical procedure is performed. In the case of a Catholic healthcare facility or provider this is most troubling. For example, in a recent case involving a Catholic medical facility in Phoenix, Arizona, the hospital administrator, a Catholic nun, allowed an abortion to take place to save the life of a woman. The administrator was excommunicated and reassigned to “other duties” within the hospital for violating ethical rules governing the Catholic health care system, as determined by the local bishop. Eventually, the case led to the hospital losing its Catholic designation.

The congressmen are not open about the reasons they privilege the unborn, but their actions demonstrate they that hold up the unborn as implicitly the more worthy life to save when there is a choice to be made.

Theirs is not a pro- life doctrine. It is an anti-life doctrine, against celebrating the life of the world around us, and caring for the humans within it.

Note: Links to information on Catholic Church teachings on moral decision-making and abortion and the latest data about American Catholics’ support for and use of legal abortion, contraception and other reproductive healthcare issues: http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/documents/TruthaboutCatholicsandAbortion.pdf