Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Southern Discomfort & the Arrogance of the Presidency...

Tough questions will arise in the coming days concerning the Bush Administration response - or lack thereof - to the deteriorating situation in Southern states battered by the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, we are curious to know why it took such a long time (nearly 72 hours) for the President's "compassionate conservatism" to kick in upon realizing the devastation that took place. Certainly, the assessment should have been absolutely clear. It can't get any more worse than the complete destruction of an entire coastline and the loss of a major U.S. city. However, we suspect that this President has a habit of relying primarily on the irresponsibly filtered analyses of aides too afraid to give the full truth, hoping that a quick Air Force One fly-over will suffice: "Yes sir, the situation on the ground is very difficult ... but we have it under control." And so, news reports emphasize the Commander-in-Chief " ... cutting his vacation short" as if hundreds of thousands of American refugees planned Katrina and suddenly inconvenienced him.

Doesn't look too good if you ask us. And since all natural disasters bear some sort of political consequence, certain individuals should be feeling quite nervous about their prospects for 2006 mid-terms.

Another more pointed, political and more racially-charged question will also arise: Was the response of a sitting Republican President sufficient enough to address the needs of a heavily Democratic New Orleans with a population over 70 percent African American? Some may find this question irrelevant - perhaps, even absurd. Yet, at least we ask what is certainly on the minds of many as video feeds from adventurous journalists braving the flooded and "lawless" streets of New Orleans show scores of looting Black people breaking into stores and dashing off with anything needed to survive (although we cringe at reports of others looking for the latest pair of Nikes in their foot size). This doesn't look too good either, and accusations of media stereotyping and bias will soon follow: "Where were the looting White people?"

But, it's not as simple as that. Just weeks ago, this blog placed focus on the grueling level of poverty in New Orleans, LA ("Black Eye in the Big Easy," 8.5.05) while contemplating the political fate of Congressman Jefferson (D-LA) in the face of an FBI probe. It was clearly an issue few cared to discuss at that time, but here we are. Why be surprised? Prior to Katrina, New Orleans was just as devastated by entrenched poverty, racism, political corruption, burgeoning unemployment and environmental waste in disregarded urban communities. Is it any wonder we now find the Big Easy gripped by rampaging bands of that Bad Apple 10 percent of the population that just can't help itself? The collective patience of New Orleans was running thin long before Katrina. It just took a natural disaster to shed light on the enduring plight of the Deep South's poor. Today's New York Times Editorial aptly notes: "People who think of that graceful city and the rest of the Mississippi Delta as tourist destinations must have been reminded, watching the rescue operations, that the real residents of this area are in the main poor and black."

The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin also asks an important question: "Are National Guard troops and equipment required to restore order in this country many thousands of miles away?
Will he and his administration meet this disaster quickly and effective with the appropriate civilian and military resources and manpower?"

"Military resources" is the key phrase here. A disaster of this magnitude requires a massive, well coordinated and rapid military response. But, that isn't happening since hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops are thousands of miles away and bogged down in a war to build "democracy" in a country that, judging by its draft constitution, doesn't seem to want it. We find it rather difficult explaining that to a President brazen enough to compare our occupation in Iraq to our very necessary involvement in World War II. Again, it takes an Act of God to open eyes. Maybe that will translate into something tangible come next election cycle. In the meantime, more important than any federal, local or state response is a unified community response.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Cold Case Right Direction

50 years ago today a heinous murder shook the foundation of the civil rights movement. In a small town in Mississippi a 14 year old boy was shaken awake at 2 am as he slept in his Uncle's house. Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager, had allegedly whistled at a white women outside a small country store. The seemingly insignificant gesture was an act that in that south could and had lead to vigilante capital punishment.

In Money, Mississippi a half century ago that small act did lead to vigilante capital punishment. Young Mr. Till was beaten up, shot and cast in the nearby Tallahatchie River, where he sank to the bottom with the aid of a heavy fan from a cotton gin that was fashioned around his neck. His disfigured face was shown to the nation when Jet magazine published a paper once Mr. Till was recovered from the river.

Two men, Roy Bryant and his half brother J.W. Milam, where tried and acquitted of the murder after an all white jury deliberated for a whole entire hour. The next year both men, who have since died and are probably feeling the heat of eternal damnation, admitted to Life Magazine that they had indeed murder the young man. But, they couldn't be tried again because of double jeopardy rules.

However, there may have been other people involved and the federal government is re-investigating the case.

The Till murder is one of the many civil rights killings that have been re-opened or re-investigated in recent years; since 1989 authorities in 7 seven states have resurrected 29 cases, landed 27 arrests and have gained 21 convictions. Not a bad percentage in cases where some witnesses have died or become (remained) forgetful, where evidence has deteriorated, been destroyed or has disappeared and old bias' and bigotry have been rediscovered.

But those efforts need to be applauded and encouraged. Justice denied is justice waiting. No one can tell us that America is not a better place when:

Earlier this year Edgar Ray Killen was finally convicted of the vicious killing of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964; and

Bobby Frank Cherry was finally convicted (twice in 2001 and 2002) of the brutal bombing deaths of Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, four little girls, in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in the fall of 1963; and

In 1994 Byron De La Beckworth was finally convicted of the assassination of Mississippi's NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers in his driveway in June of 1963.

America can continue to exercise its considerable demons and persist in the pursuit of justice by reopening cold cases and passing a bill that would make that pursuing easier.

The "Cold Case" legislation, S-1369, is making its way through Congress and is sponsored by Senators Jim Talent (R-MO) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT). The bill would create a special unit, the Unsolved Crimes Section, in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to solely investigate civil rights era crimes. The legislation would deal with crimes committed before 1970 with a budget of $5 million. The bill would require the federal government to work with local and state officials to resurrect cases that were insufficiently investigated during the movement.

The prominent cases, like those mentioned above, have received the bulk of this new attention. But there are countless others that are awaiting justice. "In Alabama, the killing Jimmy Lee Jackson by a highway patrolman..."(1) is now being reconsidered as is the killing of four African American sharecroppers in Georgia in 1946 and the bombing deaths in 1951 in the state of Florida of NAACP head Harry Moore and spouse Herriette.

The souls of those waiting for justice can't rest in peace and America can't move forward and heal until justice has been dispensed and the perpetrators punished. America is currently trying to spread democracy, freedom and justice around the world, both legitimately and illegitimately, but that dispersion of democracy, freedom and justice will be easier to distribute if we finally and fully spread it in America, no matter how long it takes.

1. Kaminsky, Michelle, Re-opening cold cases from the Civil Rights Era,

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Playing Cowboy Amidst Death and Hunger

A certain amount of arrogrance comes with being President of the United States. Who wouldn't be a little full of themselves having climbed to the pinnacle of American politics and being "the most powerful man in the world?" But the current holder of that title has seemingly taken that arrogance to a new level.

George W. Bush, in the midst of his annual month long (plus) vacation in Crawford, Texas, is once again playing cowboy at his dude ranch. Dressed up like it's Halloween in summer the president plods around the ranch and pretends to be a real cowboy. Occasionally he will actually engage in the duties of the toughest job in the world and sign bills (like the light weight energy bill or the pork laden transportation bill) or make comments on world events (some of which he caused) but for five weeks he doesn't let the problems and the issues of the world, or the responsibilities or the duties of being "the leader of the free world" get in the way of his playing cowboy.

While the president plays, on a five week vacation that most working class families could only dream, millions are dying (many of them children) and nearing the end because of severe malnutrition in Africa.

In the west Africa nation of Niger one in five people are dying because the world has moved slowly to respond even though the threat, not the actually hunger, but the threat was predicated nine months ago. In November of 2004, the United Nations World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders warned of a deadly approaching food shortage, but by spring only a fraction of the needed food and money has been delivered. The world's slow response has left nearly a third of Niger's rural population on the doorstep of hunger and almost 900,000 inside the dark doorway in "urgent need...of food..."(1)

By the beginning of this month Doctors Without Borders had treated 14,000 children this year, more than double their total in 2004.(2) Despite this freighting number America, as it usually is on the issues of life and death in Africa, is silent. The president is too busily engaged in his personal Halloween to create a crisis plan for Niger, and certainly doesn't have time to leave his fantasy world to develop a long-term plan to assist the nation in dealing with the perennial issues of poor water quality (which may kill as many children as starvation), primitive farming, antiquated health care, stagnant economic development and oppressive social conditions.

While mothers cry, fathers mourn and children lie lifeless (sometimes literally) in their mother's arms, too weak to swat flies away from their face, the president of the United States of America plays cowboy. Full of arrogance, inattention and a horrific lack of caring that comes with the office.

1. Wines, Michael, Niger's Anguish is Reflected in its Dying Children, New York Times. August 5, 2005. page 1A

2. Ibid

Pay to Play

Typically, students of American political history like pointing to the character of specific locations, cities, states or quaint towns when referencing the phrase "pay to play." In Philadelphia, for example, it came as no surprise to find close aides, friends and trusted hacks of the city's Mayor (who claims complete ignorance) being investigated, indicted and then charged for having their sticky political fingers in the cooky jar. Or, everyone likes to poke fun or make hearty jest of hardball and corrupt style politics in places like Chicago, New York, or Louisiana.

The good ole' American past time is to apply political personalities to a region or location just like state mottoes or sports teams. Yet, this becomes problematic and creates a trend that shakes the very core of the representative democracy we live in since these assertions become so localized and trivialized to the point where we ignore the national ramifications.

Pay to play is the very essence of American politics. It's just that we are, as a society and body politic, very slick at making it seem as though this isn't the case. But, it shouldn't come as a surprise when we have arrived to a point where running for anything statewide or higher requires a million dollar purse, an inheritance or friends who access money for a living. The political world may be in a state of awe or shock at the recent indictment of Washington power lobbyist and Republican leadership money goat Jack Abramoff for fraud, but paying to play or stepping over others to get paid is something quintessentially Washington and inherently American. It's not rooted in pop culture, hip hop videos or Superbowl ads. How do you think it got there in the first place? Abramoff's troubles do not reflect some hushed Washington secret - and the fact that we treat it as such will gradually seal our political fate towards a very unkind and very Roman-inspired doom.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Black Eye in the Big Easy

The recent FBI house raids of eight-term Black Congressman William J. Jefferson (D-LA) not only puts a troubling blemish on the quiet, yet successful political career of Louisiana's first Black Congressional member since Reconstruction, but it sheds light on the state of the 2nd District he represents. Predictably, most political observers will point to the intrinsically corrupt and free-wheeling nature of Louisiana politics - but, few will talk about its chronic poverty rate, consistently ranked among the highest in the U.S., particularly in New Orleans where Jefferson's seat is located. Louisiana's poverty rate is 19.2% - the second highest in the nation and first in the South.

In Jefferson's heavily African American District 2 (64.1%), the poverty rate for all ages is 26.8% according to the last Census. Whereas 26% of Louisiana's children live in poverty, 38.2% of children under age 18 live below the poverty level. Ironically, Jefferson is a member of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee. Going to Jefferson's website, splendid with mentions of Mardi Gras, jazz and fortune tellers, you get little sense that many of the people living there are ridiculously poor.

We mention this because a pattern is identified. It is the irony of Black elected officials - from the Mayors of Philadelphia and Detroit; to members of the Tennessee House and Senate; to Members of Congress in Louisiana, California & Mississippi - being investigated for abuse of power and money while representing poverty stricken states, cities and Congressional districts where Black constituents suffer from serious economic deprivation.

Much is said about the fact that Black elected officials have always been under the heavy hand and watchful eye of law enforcement. It is sadly accepted that they suffer a scrutiny far greater than their White counterparts - and it's almost always dealing with money (which will lead us into another conversation on the myths and truths of Black financial habits). Federal investigators raid Jefferson's homes to pick apart the story of allegedly illegal fundraising activities for his State Rep. daughter - but how aggressive are homes, offices and colleagues raided in the cases of House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX) or the recently embattled Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA)? Jefferson is on the edge of political oblivion and personal turmoil for something relatively trivial compared to the criminal passage of the wasteful, pork-ridden, six-year $286.4 billion transportation bill. Perhaps the FBI should raid Capitol Hill ...

African American politicians - like Jefferson - are aware of the importance of minding their p's and q's while holding office. Which is why it's possible Jefferson or the Black political machine in Louisiana and beyond may claim racism. But, there is a painful discussion not taking place regarding constantly re-elected and many times investigated, embattled and controversial Black elected officials who have trouble addressing the poverty plaguing communities they represent.

Signs in Ohio?

CNN analyst Stuart Rothenberg dismissed notions that the hotly contested special election battle in southwestern Ohio's 2nd Congressional District had more to do with state Republican troubles than the overall national mood of the electorate. So did Chicago Tribune columnist and Plamegate Pimp Bob Novak before he abruptly whined and bounced off the set of CNN's "Inside Politics" because he couldn't take James Carville's heat. GOP operatives, slightly embarrassed that a Democrat came within only 4,000 votes of winning in a heavily Republican district, scoff with talking points at claims this is an omen of midterms to come. Let Rothenberg and the Republicans tell it, it's as if the current tempest of global and domestic troubles doesn't exist ... or that Americans are somehow numb to war, gas prices, White House corruption, Congressional pork plays, terrorism, etc.

But, clearly if Republicans are human like everybody else, they have got to be nervous, particularly as it relates to Iraq. We agree with former House Speaker and Republican Majority architect Newt Gingrich's very candid assessment in the Washington Post recently: "There is more energy today on the anti-Iraq, anti-gas-price, anti-changing-Social Security and I think anti-Washington [side] ... I think the combination of those four are all redounding to weaken Republicans and help Democrats. . . ."

Interesting that just last year, Ohio was looking like Florida in 2000 - for Republicans it was the celebrated bellweather state among all bellweather states, clearly defined as the ultimate mood of the national electorate to clinch a Bush win. Now, according to the RNC, all politics in Ohio isn't national anymore, it's just a state thang, displaying a selective ignorance of what's obviously got the rest of the nation - and, yes, Ohio, too - bugged.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Hip Hopped in Detroit?

Four years ago the City of Detroit found itself in the doldrums. The city, once one of the jewels of the Midwest, seemed to be rotting from the inside out. The population of Motown had shrunk from over 1.2 million citizens to just over 900,000. Blight and crime seemed to have a death grip on the city and the revenues for the town appeared to be shrinking faster than the receding population. The city needed a champion.

To the rescue, riding on bling bling and the unmistakable energy of youth, came the native son. Then just 31 years old, the former Democratic leader in the Michigan House, Kwame Kilpatrick implored his city to "rise up" and face the challenges with grace and passion and revitalize their city. Mr. Kilpatrick electrified the city and won the primary and then beat City Council President Gil Hill (who played the police chief in the Eddie Murphy Beverly Hills Cop movies) with 54% of the vote becoming the youngest Mayor of a major city.

The day after the election Mayor-elect Kilpatrick placed a diamond stud in his left ear and proclaimed himself the hip hop mayor ( a proclamation that could only be made in a city that is nearly 90% African American). Initially, the flashy clothes (the word "mayor" embroidered on his ever present French cuff shirts) the hip hop image and youthful exuberance attracted positive attention nationwide, seemed to give hope to a hopeless city and appeared to have paved the way for a new generation of African American leaders. One not ashamed to embrace the hip hop culture of its youth and use it to bring a new generation of voters; even while engendering skepticism among older voters ( who vote in larger numbers) and the press. The impact on African Americans young voters could have been tremendous. Finally one of their own was in a position to make their lives better and would do it with the flair and cool of a culture that was totally their own.

However, despite tremendous success in commercial and housing construction, massive road and infrastructure improvement and a $2 billion renovation of the Detroit's riverfront, the hip hop image began to wear thin. Scandals surrounding appointees, a $25,000 Lincoln Navigator for his wife (paid for with city funds), extravagant spending with the city's credit card, a horrendous relationship with City Council and a budget in disarray began to take the shine off the bling bling.

The total shine may have disappeared yesterday as Mayor Kilpatrick, now 35 years old, suffered a debilitating loss in the primary election for the office of Mayor. In a field of 12 the Mayor finished second with only 33% of the vote and trailed badly among voters 41 years old and older. Mayor Kilpatrick will face career bureaucrat and former Deputy Mayor Freeman Hendrix, 54, in the general election on November 8th.

The general election will be a microcosm on generational politics. Will the Hip Hop Mayor be able to convince older voters and the press, which has lined up behind Mr. Hendrix, that he has matured and is ready to continue to move the city forward without the poor decision-making and personal mistakes that plagued his first administration? And can he do it without losing the hip hop image? Certainly at 35 years old he ought to begin to lose it anyway, but he has staked his political future on the culture and has peaked the interest of a generation that will expect him to keep it real. A Kilpatrick win could usher in a new generation of leaders with a hip hop bent, but a Kilpatrick loss could be a set back for a generation that is ready to lead, but ready to lead in its own way and living in its own culture.

John G. Roberts: Friend or Foe?

As the Senate prepares for confirmation hearings regarding John G. Roberts's nomination to the Supreme Court, we are left wondering about the implications the nomination will have on African Americans. In a complete about face from their war-like attitude with John R. Bolton, Senate Democrats are actually a little too friendly with this recent nominee. We were somewhat taken aback when Democratic Leader Harry Reid smiled, posed for the cameras and told Roberts he was looking forward to learning more about him. This is not to say that Democrats should be combative, but this change in attitude is somewhat surprising.

Even more surprising is the fact that the nominee's true political beliefs are a mystery to many. It is safe to say that Roberts is clearly not liberal, but the words "staunch conservative" or "moderate" are up for grabs in terms of describing him. One thing does stand out, however, and that is his stance on Civil Rights. A report in Monday's Washington Post uncovered memos Roberts wrote during his time in the Reagan Administration. According to the Post, Roberts had views that were not too far removed from Reagan's approach to civil rights. Let's remember that Reagan and civil rights DO NOT go together.

As the confirmation hearings approach, Republican Senators are attempting to block questions about Roberts's views on civil rights. We sincerely hope that Democrats such as Ted Kennedy continue to pressure Roberts about his political beliefs. It is impossible to know the extent to which Roberts still holds some views, but we do know that feelings about issues such as civil rights simply do not fall by the wayside, either.