“Oppressive Lethargy Of Choicelessness”: What Is The Kerner Commission And Why It Should Be Revisited In Light of Ferguson
What we must remember always — and something I have told many juries in the past — is that the most powerful person in the world, on a day-to-day basis, is not the president of the United States. No, it is a police officer. Your local police officer can engage you — one-on-one, every day of the week, anywhere and any place. Your local police officer has the authority and power to take your life; and more often than not, get away with it; particularly if you happen to be a black or brown male in our society.
And how does it, all too often occur, that a police officer — most often a white police office — happens to shoot and kill or otherwise brutalize a black or brown male? Because by doing nothing when our local police officers engage in everyday minor, but insidious wrongdoing — most often directed at black and brown community residents, we enable and embolden all law enforcement personnel to believe that any wrongful conduct is acceptable simply because they wear a badge. They assume and too many in our society accept that, because they are police officers, our Constitutional constraints, under which they are sworn to perform, do not also apply to them even though they apply to each and every other American citizen.
So when I discuss the civil rights issues we tackled yesterday and the civil rights issues we confront today, including those that focus on law enforcement, I constantly advance the position that, while everything has changed, nothing has changed.
When the race riots of the 1960s occurred in communities across the nation, President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed a commission, chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. My mentor, the Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones, served as an Assistant Counsel on the staff of this commission before he assumed the position of General Counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and then was appointed by former President Jimmy Carter to the federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The Kerner Commission Report concluded that the trigger for the riots — throughout the country — invariably derived from confrontations between the local police and members of local African-American communities. It also concluded that the residents’ held an often justified perception of the largely white police as an occupying force which was in the community to serve and protect the interests of the privileged white communities rather than to serve and protect the legitimate interests of the local minority residents and that the police inherently harbored racist attitudes toward residents of minority communities that they were also charged to serve.
Moreover, the Commission found that the underlying conditions in the making over decades — in fact, over centuries — in African-American communities provided the context for the precipitating trigger incidents of the unrest in the 1960s: racially segregated communities, inferior schools, high unemployment, and insufficient or inadequate governmental responses and attention to community needs leading those who resided in minority communities to suffer from a societal-imposed color “cast” status. They became victims of what the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her award-winning novel, Americanah, more recently described as the “oppressive lethargy of choicelessness” — a choicelessness growing out of government sanctioned inequality and second-class citizenship and a choicelessness that was waiting to explode.
Do these findings of the 1968 Kerner Commission sound familiar in 2014?
So, I urge President Barack Obama to revisit the Kerner Commission, some 50 years later; and to ascertain where — if anywhere — we have come since the founding of our nation with its original sin (slavery and its ongoing legacy); and where we have yet to go, since we are far, far from having arrived at a “more perfect union.”
What to do?
I propose that President Obama appoint a Commission, chaired by not one governor, but by two former presidents — Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, under the auspices of the Carter Center and the George W. Bush Library; and comprised of distinguished and diverse members such as Governor Deval Patrick, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Cisneros, Retired Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, former Attorney General Janet Reno, to be supported by a staff of highly respected and renown professionals from all walks of life to address and to courageously face our past and our present in order to plot our course forward.
While everything changes, the one constant that has not changed is the deeply embedded institutional and individual attitudinal racism that pervades our country. The fact remains that the impetus for local community explosions — racism — almost always is triggered by a confrontation between police officers (most often white) and black and brown males — youth and men, alike.
In 1852, at the Friends House in Rochester, NY, Fredrick Douglass stated in his historic address entitled, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, that “We must do with the past only as we make it useful to the present and the future.” Such is as true today as it was in 1852. And it is as true today as it was in the 1960s.
By: James I. Meyerson, Assistant General Counsel in the Office of the NAACP General Counsel, 1970-1981; The Huffington Post Blog, August 18, 2014
“The Right To Peaceably Assemble”: Antonio French Said It Best, ‘Our Civil Rights Don’t Stop At 9PM’
When Antonio French, the St. Louis Alderman who has given us an incredible first-hand account of what is happening in Ferguson through his twitter feed, was released from jail this morning, he told the media, “Our civil rights don’t stop at 9PM.” After Antonio being arrested last night for “unlawful assembly,” I felt compelled to share these thoughts;
To the men and women who are responsible for firing tear gas canisters. To the ones who pull the trigger of the guns that shoot rubber bullets. To those who are the drivers of armored vehicles. To the operators of the machine that makes loud noises. To those arresting politicians and members of the press. To SWAT Teams. Tactical Teams. Riot Police. Mayors. Police Chiefs. City Council Members. State Assembly Men and Women. State Senators. Governors. And More. I urge you to re-read the United States Constitution. Specifically the First Amendment. In case you weren’t given that at your training or your elementary school education, here is how it reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Our forefathers, hundreds of years ago, decided to write this amendment and place it at the top of the Bill of Rights. They made a decision that this amendment, the First Amendment, would be the most important amendment to the foundation of our nation’s principles. Throughout history, we have fought wars, carried out secret missions, economically embargoed other countries to protect the rights of citizens around the world to enjoy the same basic freedoms we have here in America. Now, we are blatantly ignoring those rights of our very own.
Over the past five days in Ferguson, Missouri, after the tragic killing of unarmed teenager, Mike Brown, the police and local government have shown a lack of understanding of this protection. Your job is to PROTECT those who have grievances with our government. To give them space to protest and petition their local elected leaders. The only thing you have been good at protecting thus far is the name of the officer who leveled bullets into Mike Brown’s body (but anonymous may have beat you at that too).
An overwhelming majority of the protesters in Ferguson have been peaceful. Yes, they are angry. Yes, they are pissed off. Yes, they are frustrated. But, they have been peaceful. Of course I recognize that there have been a few who have not. A few who looted, burned and threatened violence. And I would never, ever condone that behavior. But, to all those who have been gathering at the police station everyday, and to all those who have been at the QT from dawn to dawn, why antagonize them? Why shoot upon them? Why tear gas them? Why arrest them?
To the public officials of Ferguson, it is your job to listen to those who ELECTED you. And many of those who put you in office are now protesting outside the buildings that hold your power. If you continue to attempt to silence their protest, their anger will only grow and this could get even worse. The demands of the protesters are simple. Read them. Yet, the demands of this nation are even simpler. Respect the First Amendment. The Constitution is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It never takes a holiday or vacation. It never takes a day off. Unless you order a curfew or invoke martial law, the citizens of Ferguson have every right to peaceably assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances at ANY hour of the day.
As for us, we will continue to show our solidarity with the fight for justice for another unarmed, black teenager killed in America. Our prayers are constantly with the family and friends of Mike Brown, and our hearts are with those keeping their hands up and telling the police officers not to shoot.
By: Michael Skolnik, Editor-In-Chief of GlobalGrind.com; The Huffington Post Blog, August 14, 2014
On Tuesday, the Center for Media and Democracy released documents showing that mega-donor Charles Koch was a member of the far-right John Birch Society from 1961 to 1968, when the organization’s work opposing the civil rights movement was reaching a fever pitch.
From publishing materials calling the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King the “biggest” “liar in the country” and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery a “sham and farce” to promoting pieces railing against the racial integration of schools, the 1960s saw the John Birch Society leading abhorrent attacks on the civil rights movement. According to The Progressive, Charles Koch was not simply a member of the society in name. He funded the organization’s campaigns, helped it promote right-wing radio programs, and supported its bookstore in Wichita.
Sound familiar? Though Charles resigned from the John Birch Society in 1968, he and his brother David are still using their wealth to support right-wing efforts — now through a complicated and secretive web of conservative groups. Put together, the groups in the Koch-backed network raised over $400 million in 2012 and have dumped heaps of cash into campaigns and projects to promote an anti-government and anti-worker agenda.
Unfortunately, today’s campaign finance landscape makes it easy for billionaires, corporations, and special interests to try and bend our political system to their will. In 2010, the Supreme Court infamously ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations can give unlimited sums of money to independently influence elections. This year, the High Court made things even worse when they ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC that wealthy individuals can give significantly more money directly to candidates, parties, and committees than they could before, upwards of $3.5 million per election cycle.
It’s a sad state of affairs. But as the leader of a national network of progressive African American ministers, many of whom are working hard to raise awareness about the dangers of money in politics, I often remind people: Democracy is for all of us. Though it can feel like democracy in America today is only for the few — the elite donor class who can bankroll the candidates of their choice — I have faith that this is not how things will always be.
There’s an important proposal moving forward across the country and in Congress that would help shift the power in our political system away from people like the Koch brothers and towards everyday Americans. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is voting on a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizen United. Introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, the 28th Amendment would restore legislators’ ability to set commonsense limits on money in elections. While amending our nation’s guiding text is a weighty proposal, our country has a proud history of amending the Constitution, when necessary, to expand democracy and fix damaging Supreme Court decisions.
With the voices of everyday Americans increasingly being drowned out by the likes of the Koch brothers, fixing our democracy can’t wait.
By:Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, The Huffington Post Blog, July 9, 2014
“Fundamentalist Constitutionalism”: Punctuation Marks, Antonin Scalia, And The Farce Of “Originalism”
I have no idea whether Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is heading to the beach this summer now that he has made America safe for religious employers to discriminate against their female employees. Nor do I have any idea whether Danielle Allen’s new book “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality” is on his beach-reading list. But it should be.
You have probably heard about the book and its assertion that there is a significant typo smack in the middle of the Declaration’s most famous part. We read the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with a “.” at the end. It’s not there in the original, according to Prof. Allen. It was added in later versions, as a mistake or perhaps even as a small spot of errant ink. The result, Allen asserts, is a dramatically different meaning to the entire document.
Historians will debate the conclusions Allen has drawn from her detective work, but those conclusions aren’t the reason Scalia ought to read the book. Rather, it is that starting premise about the punctuation that should give him pause (I know, it won’t) because it succinctly puts the lie to the entire enterprise of Constitutional “originalism” upon which Scalia has built his career.
Originalism, briefly put, is a jurisprudence resting on the following wobbly assumptions: the Constitution only has one meaning; that meaning can be known without ambiguity (by those smart enough to read it); all laws ought to be judged against that singular, unchanging meaning. Not too long ago originalism resided on the lunatic fringe of legal thinking, sort of like Ayn Randian economics. Over the last generation it has entered the mainstream, sort of like Ayn Randian economics, and no one has been more responsible for that than Antonin Scalia.
Opponents of originalism have often argued instead that the Constitution needs to be a “living” document, adaptable to a changing society. That view became prominent a century ago as legal thinkers, among them Woodrow Wilson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, tried to reckon with a rapidly changing industrial society. And to these Scalia and his comrades have said that the Constitution is resolutely dead and should be read historically, not in light of contemporary society.
But as the business of the pesky punctuation in the Declaration of Independence reminds us, words can mean different things and can be read in different ways. and even small changes in a sentence can yield different ideas. We know what Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy says, but any high school junior can tell you that it might have any of several meanings. Or all of them. Or none of them.
Pretending that reading a document like the Constitution is a simple, transparent and an entirely objective and neutral task is naïve at best, intellectually dishonest at worst. All acts of reading are necessarily acts of interpretation, and as a consequence there are no objective truths nor single meanings. The most we can do is achieve a best consensus, recognizing that it might change in the future.
Scalia knows all of this, I suspect. I don’t think even in his extraordinary arrogance and self-regard he believes he can know exactly and perfectly what was in the minds of all the delegates who wrote the Constitution. And indeed, whatever one thinks of Scalia as a jurist, his track-record as a historian is shoddy, filled with cherry-picked examples, incomplete understandings and downright risible conclusions. The history Scalia presented as part of his majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller wouldn’t pass muster in my undergraduate seminar.
Scalia’s real goal in promoting “originalism” is to remove Constitutional issues from the realm of political debate altogether and treat them instead as theological dogma.
“Originalists” like Scalia read the Constitution in much the same way that fundamentalist Christians read the Bible. In the world of those conservative Christians, the Bible says what it says, there is no room for any interpretation of it, and the Bible is inerrant. In fact, we might coin a new term, “fundamentalist Constitutionalists,” since there is now a small but growing number of people convinced that the Constitution, like the Bible, may have been written by men but was actually inspired by God.
While this kind of reading may be intellectually indefensible – or downright silly – it does have the advantage of bestowing extraordinary power on those who can claim to possess The Truth, whether huckstering evangelical, tyrannical bishop, or snarky Supreme Court justice.
Ironically, of course, we will look back on “originalism,” or “fundamentalist Constitutionalism,” as being entirely of its political and cultural moment. One hundred years from now, we will see it as engineered by revanchists like Scalia who recoiled at the dramatic social changes of the recent past – civil rights, feminism, gay rights, and more – and thought they could use the Constitution to retreat into a past largely of their own invention. Future scholars might even debate what, exactly, Antonin Scalia meant as they parse his body of writing, and might find that his very words could be subject to multiple readings. That would be the final, most delicious and fitting irony for “originalism.”
By: Steven Conn, Author/Professor, Ohio State; The Huffington Post Blog, July 7, 2014
“It Will Be Ugly, And It Will Escalate”: Buffer Zones, Clinic Escorting, And The Myth Of The Quiet Sidewalk Counselors
The Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts “buffer zone” law — which barred antiabortion protests immediately outside clinics. Justice Scalia portrayed the law as hindering ‘sidewalk counselors’ who lovingly entreated women to consider alternatives. This portrayal, embodied by the grandmotherly petitioner, allowed some to view the decision as protecting gentle civility. Referencing one particular Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston, this “quiet counseling” was seen as well-intentioned, and, more importantly, constitutional.
It is also a myth — or at least a dramatic euphemism that applies to very few at the Boston site. I should know. I was there.
For four years, I volunteered as an escort on Saturday mornings. The scene described in the court — like a delusional game of telephone — was drastically different from reality.
Our mornings were mostly spent scanning the streets, attempting to spot patients before they approached the zealous spectacle. We’d tactfully ask if they were looking for the clinic, and walk them through the crowd.
Saturdays were favored by protesters, so escorts arrived in the early morning. Wearing identifying vests, we flanked the entrance and greeted patients outside the zone. Two would rotate to the back to watch the garage entrance, where only the more tenacious protestors wandered. We’d accompany patients up the long walk to the front, usually trailed by someone asking if Satan sent us. (He didn’t.)
During the freezing New England winters, we would briefly warm up inside, but were mostly left to stomp our feet and count how many toes we could feel. Once a month, a Christian band would show up, surreally, and hold a concert.
We knew the “quiet counseling” well. “Just like Auschwitz,” one would say, “you’re delivering them right into the furnace.” This particular protester would speak right into her ear — until he approached the painted line on the ground.
Sometimes, a male accompanying a patient would lose his cool. He could have been her boyfriend or brother. We didn’t know and never asked. Once they entered, the doors could burst back open and he would charge whichever protestor called his companion a whore. We would intervene.
Justice Alito felt the law represented “viewpoint discrimination” — constitutionally, one message can’t be favored over another. But as an escort, I never talked about abortion, even outside the zone. When guiding patients, I would detail what they could expect. I didn’t offer my perspective, or even criticize the protestors. My goal was to provide a calming presence seconds before what would be one of the more trying moments of their lives. I explained how to access the clinic, and maintained a low patter to distract them from strangers calling them beasts and murderers. If they were confused by the protestors’ Boston Police hats, we cleared that up too.
If the patient was African-American, the protestors said they were “lynching” their child. If the protestor was crying, they said the tears would never stop, even in hell. If a patient was with her mother, they thanked the mother — for not killing her own baby.
Surprisingly, those Saturdays were not without their lighter moments. For a group dedicated to attacking Planned Parenthood — a multi-purpose clinic — they seemed stunned when someone wasn’t seeking an abortion. “You’ll never be the same. You’ll always be a dirty killer,” one would say. A startled patient would respond, “Why would a Pap smear make me a dirty killer?” Many others sought birth control — though they didn’t approve of that either.
This is not to paint all protesters as unhinged. I still remember one young priest who didn’t condemn me and chose instead to make small talk — which we continued periodically. Another time, upon news of the Columbia shuttle deteriorating upon reentry, we all shared a collective moment of humanity.
Being in a college area, there were counter-protestors (also kept out of the buffer zone) — who promoted pro-choice politics through direct and shocking slogans. Many of us didn’t care for them either. We just wanted calm in an atmosphere of invective and hysteria.
The desire for calm stemmed, in part, from the 1994 Brookline shootings. The victims were known by some of my fellow volunteers. This very real risk led the police to call for a buffer zone. One of the victims, a 25-year-old receptionist, was not just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The murder was premeditated; her killer focused on her.
Even when I was there, clinic staff driving up would be greeted with protestors filming them and, not so subtly, stating the staffer’s home address. Those were the more chilling moments.
It is difficult (though not impossible) to argue that a unanimous Supreme Court case was wrongly decided. After all, it is a broad law. But that is not my goal. Instead, I’m writing to dispel the myth painted of Good Samaritans softly offering a helping hand. In the public relations war over whether the affected individuals were compassionate counselors or marauding bullies, many justices seemed to accept the former characterization.
The law was overturned as an overreaching infringement on free speech. Is this a free speech issue? Yes, of course it is. But as others have pointed out, buffer zones exist elsewhere, including outside the Supreme Court. Favoring free speech, the Court famously allowed Nazis to march in Illinois and, more recently, the Phelps church to picket funerals (at a distance). But parades and funerals eventually end. Here, the Court risks turning clinic entrances into permanently hostile environments — inciting those who have spent weeks agonizing over their decision. They overturned the express wishes of an elected legislature — including pro-life lawmakers who supported the measure in the interest of public safety.
Similar zones were upheld by the court in 2000, a ruling which was not overturned. Clinic entrances still cannot be blocked, and injunctions are allowed against particularly worrisome parties. Chief Justice Roberts even suggested other mechanisms the state can use in lieu of the zone. But it’s an ever-changing landscape, and those remaining precautions have become the next targets of these quiet counselors. Because, to those that brought the case, speech alone is not the goal.
The grueling decision of whether to have an abortion should never be taken lightly, and there is no shortage of advocates for either side that fill our collective eardrums. But that debate stops a few feet outside the clinic. Just like politicking outside voting booths, these last ditch efforts lose the veneer of debate and become akin to intimidation — which can easily morph into confrontation or devastating anguish. Anyone who wants to stop and chat can do so. But once patients decide to cross the line, they should be left alone. The Court noted that the environment is currently more peaceful than it once was. There’s a reason for that.
None of this is to say that this isn’t a legitimate debate. It is. But those who favor stripping the buffer zone away — what small help it is — shouldn’t kid themselves into thinking that a flood of polite conversation will follow. It will be ugly, and it will escalate.
By: Brian Giacometti, Field-based NGO Program Manager for Governance and Rule of Law; The Huffington Post Blog, July 7, 2014