Diary of a Friendly Neighborhood Public Servant

folded flag

17 years ago, I had my first exposure to how political decisions can have an effect on the lives of Americans.  My brother served in the U.S. Navy on board the U.S.S. Cole.  While in port, off the coast of Yemen, a smaller vessel sped towards the hull of the ship and detonated an explosive in an attack that claimed my brother’s life as well as the lives of 16 others.  Naturally, I was devastated, as was my family.  We’ve never lost anyone this close this suddenly or violently.  At that time in American history, such a terrorist attack was unheard of and the attention of the nation was focused on our family, as was most of our political leaders.  My family received calls of condolences from senators, congressmen, former, current and future candidates for President, and most notably the President of the United States at the time, Bill Clinton.

Wanting to meet with our families and those injured during the attack, President Clinton had all of us gathered at one location prior to our memorial service.  It was an interesting feeling, knowing we were going to be meeting and speaking with the President of the United States of America.  On one hand, we were angry and wanted desperately to have an outlet for that anger and he was a convenient target coming to us.    We were certain to give him an earful for the decisions he made that lead to my brother’s death.  However, he was still the President of the United States of America, the Leader of the Free World, effectively the most powerful and most important person on Earth.  And that was Bill Clinton.  It’s one thing to be an influential, charismatically-gifted man, but to be that AND President of the United States of America was awe-inspiring to say the least.  Yet, STILL responsible for the depth of sorrow my mother, father and brothers and I were feeling then.  These were two divergent emotions going on in my head as he made his way through the building where we were.  There were many of us gathered in attendance, nearly 40 injured and family members of 17 sailors along with other naval personnel, so I had time to gather myself and focus on what I had to tell him, what I wanted him to hear.  But the longer we waited, the more we begin to realize there was a LOT of time passing by as the President made his way through.  We begin to wonder what was taking him so long to get through a room, to shake hands and nod and do what politicians do.  When he finally made his way to our family we found out why.  President Clinton’s eyes were red, welled up with tears.  He had been crying the entire time.  He forced himself to apologize to each and every one of us, to hear each and every one of us and to own what his own actions caused.  Needless to say, it was the last thing we expected.  Afterall, it was MY brother that had died.  Yes, my emotions were frayed and all over the place.  I was excited to meet the President but wanted to tell him about the impact that his decision to have my brother’s ship dock at an unsafe port had on my life, but it was clear he felt it as well.  Not just the impact it had on my life, but what it did to all of our lives.  And to see us all at once, one after one, of the lives he was responsible for shattering, it was understandably overwhelming.  At a time where I expected the leader of our nation to comfort me in my time of mourning, as it turned out I almost felt it incumbent upon me to actually comfort him instead.

That was where human empathy meets political implications.

It wasn’t long after (and to a large part because of) my brother’s death, I began a career in politics.  Not as a prototypical politician.  But working in the field of politics and government, most people have very little conception of the “bells and whistles” that goes on within any elected body.  That’s where I found my niche.  Since it was the decision-making of our elected leadership that lead to tragedies like the one I experienced, I felt a responsibility to not just to make sure we have the right leaders to make the right decisions, but to also hold them accountable to those decisions.  I filled the role as a legislative staffer and political campaign organizer.  In each of these roles, I assisted those in office and those seeking to be elected in a variety of capacities.  And if in case you cannot conceive, let me scope it out.  Any elected official has the duty to represent thousands, if not millions of people.  It is near-impossible for any one person, no matter how talented to know the individual desires and hopes of each person they represent.  This is where the machinery behind the scenes come in.  Information about the constituencies are funneled in, ordered and addressed as prioritized.

I explain this because as a staffer of such an elected official, there is an expectation to have the elected official fully informed and briefed about every detail of what they are being asked to do.  They are briefed on laws they’re voting on.  They’re briefed on events that affect their constituents.  They are also briefed on what they do on a day-to-day basis and who they meet with.  They know who they’re meeting.  Why they are meeting this person.  What this person wants.  What they may need to obtain from this person.  They are given background information about the person or persons they meet.  This is all in an effort to give the idea that they are as fully informed and of the utility we expect them to be to hold such positions of power.

Of course this is not always the case.

Earlier this month, 12 soldiers from the United States 3rd Special Forces Group were ambushed by a group of insurgents linked to the Islamic State(ISIS). Four of those soldiers were killed in the attack, which initially went unnoticed by the American public for several days. However, once brought to the nation’s attention, the President of the United States was encouraged to give a call and offer condolences to the families of those who were killed in the attack. Very similarly to what President Clinton did with my family. But upon placing a call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, it was leaked by a family friend and member of Congress that the President’s call to Mrs. Johnson was extremely unpleasant, off-putting and disturbing. The President of course combated these assertions. I don’t know exactly how he can tell how someone else feels about something he said, but according to him, he and Mrs. Johnson had a pleasant conversation and that the Congresswoman was flat-out wrong and that she lied to the press. The President’s Chief of Staff backed up his claim.

There’s a truth within this matter. And although that truth really should have been kept between the President and Mrs. Johnson, it hasn’t. Mrs. Johnson firmly believes that not only the President wrongly pronounced her husband’s name, but was dismissive of what she was going through. That was confirmed by the congresswoman who was there. Of course the President’s version of events differs. But there is no doubt about a couple of things. The President of the United States, like President Clinton before him, is a public servant. He serves the public that elected him. The President’s Chief of Staff claims that he, like I, fully briefed the elected official that he serves, about who he was speaking with, telling him the correct pronunciation of Sgt. Johnson’s name, perhaps some additional details about his life and career in service. Whether the President was correctly briefed, as his Chief of Staff claims remains to be seen. He should have been, but given a consistent pattern of disregard of information and counsel of greater judgement, it’s likely immaterial whether he was properly briefed or not. The president has proven to not be the most attentive to detail. However, what should take over from there is human emotion and reaction to the pain another is experiencing. Human empathy would tell most of us to not exacerbate the pain another is feeling. And if you unintentionally do, you take responsibility for that mistake as to not cause more pain. Getting into a VERY public disagreement with a widow of a man that was just killed that you were responsible for absolutely qualifies as exacerbating the pain of another, intentionally or otherwise. And if you are insisting of exacerbating that pain or negligent of what they are going through and more concerned about your own public perception, then it’s fully probable that you lack the ability to empathize with another. And as an elected leader, if you lack the ability to connect with the human emotions of another in any way, particular one as essential and intrinsic as empathy then how could you possibly be expected to be the public servant they need?

 

 

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Those Who Can Do, Those Who Can’t Run

john adams

This is John Adams.  Not Founding Father and second President of the United States, John Adams, but Richmond, Virginia lawyer and 2017 Republican candidate for Attorney General, John Adams.  John Adams is not a politician, as his ads will repeatedly tell you.  He’s never held political office.  Never sought a political office.  He is running as a outsider.  And he’s not alone.  Two years ago, Donald Trump began his campaign for president with a similar theme.  A non-politician that will “drain the swamp” and run government “like a business”, pointing to all the actual politicians and blaming them for the ills of the state of government.  This is a common theme with Republicans running for office, to tote their inexperience in and with politics and governing as a good thing.  And it doesn’t just stop with candidates.  It extends to those in office, appointed or otherwise.  The President has filled his cabinet with those who not just lack experience with government but insist that it makes them more capable for their job.  Earlier this month, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson was confronted with a news story of some “criticism” of the president that he was to have reportedly said.  Of course when one administration official verbally insults another, that’s definitely newsworthy.  Particularly when it’s a president who has made “insult” synonymous with “presidential”.  Yet, when asked about it, Tillerson dodged, saying he “doesn’t understand Washington” and “not from here” as if his being an outsider inoculates himself from the inside politics that they all are subjected to.  Betsy DeVos, Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross and Ben Carson, along with Tillerson, have no significant experience in government and that isn’t just okay, but it was a positive quality of benefit to being selected as cabinet offiicials.

But in what Bizzaroworld Back Assward Universe is this ever a good thing?

When has not having experience or familiarity with what you’re dealing with not a bright red flag?  This weekend millions of Americans will watch football and there have been some pretty significant injuries on field.  Try to imagine a back up quarterback coming in the game and say “I’m not a football player, so I’m not tainted by all the back-breaking, body-aching running and hitting the football players do.”  Or one day, you or a loved one is hurt, you go to the E.R. and doctor tells you “I’m not really a doctor, but I know better than all of those nurses and orderlies and I’ll just get rid of them.”  Does this sound reasonable?  How about this; We’re still pretty early in the school year, so it isn’t hard to imagine going to school for your kid’s parent-teacher conference and you walk in the classroom and you hear the teacher say “I’m not a teacher but my experience putting up the dry wall at the new Arby’s qualifies me to get your child to pay attention, while managing an entire classroom.”

That is not how the real world works.  In no sector or institution of life or society where your well-being is dependent on another would you ever be, not only okay with their ignorance of the institution you need them to be knowledgeable about, but you prefer their inexperience over someone that actually KNOWS their profession and what they’re doing.  But for some reason Republicans think this is a badge of honor.

Granted, the entire idea of a Democracy is a government of the people.  It is not an aristocracy or a monarchy, where there’s a specific class or sect of persons that are groomed to lead or expected to govern.  We select our representatives and leaders of those among us.  That’s why this strategy is so appealing to their party.  They are supposed to be everyday people that share the same hopes and fears as the rest of us, which gives them the knowledge to be better stewards of our lives.  Of course that’s the idea in theory.  In practice, almost EVERYONE have had some elected or political experience with government in some fashion.  All but one of our Presidents have had at least some direct or indirect relationship with government.  That one is our current one. (Yes, four others have not held political office, but those four also just won wars in which they served and answered directly to the governing bodies.)  Moreover, for anyone attempting to achieve higher office whether it be governor or senator or even congressman, more often than not, they’ve held office before on a lower state or city level.

However, what’s more important than holding elected office is the institutional knowledge that comes with that office.  The knowledge of what works, who to work with, how it works, why does it work.  A lot of that comes with time, but it also comes with those around you.  If a teacher needs help in a classroom, they can ask another teacher.  If a doctor needs help with a patient, the doctor has a nurse.  A quarterback as a whole team that helps win the game.  If you do not have the experience, you bank on those that do.  Aaron Rogers didn’t win the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers did.  When I had my surgery, the O.R. doctor wasn’t alone.  I know because there was an anesthesiologist that put me under.  I was not educated by just my 2nd grade teacher.  I am a product of an entire school system of over 50 teachers and a half dozen schools.

And it is here is where the Republican “But I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night” Philosophy falls apart.  Attorney General Candidate John Adams isn’t the neophyte he claims to be.  He’s been involved in Republican politics, donating to Republican candidates for years.  He’s hired a campaign staff that has run not just a capable and credible statewide campaign, but are political veterans of multiple Virginia campaigns.  His ads attacking Attorney General Mark Herring are your standard “liberal” attacks, blaming him for not doing his job or using his job for political gain.  If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it definitely did not stay in the Holiday Inn Express.

Likewise, the president is no different either.  Quite frankly he’s taken it to a pathetic new level.  Despite the belief that he’s the everyman that is beyond petty politics, he’s the worst kind.  In a institution where money interest often dominate the narrative, he has been the literal “Middle Man” between both Democrats and Republicans and the interest of those that are not of the people.  That is beyond his insistence on inserting his unrelenting ignorance on foreign matters, social and domestic matters and his predecessor’s every decision.  Which doesn’t even begin to describe his association with the movement he lead with every authority on questioning the right, ability and education of President Barack Obama.  Yet, I’m supposed to believe he’s not a politician.

And this is a the cycle repeats itself.  And the people are duped into believing this bullshit.  In a vain attempt to pretend they’re something new and different, they’re actually just another cog in the political machine.  But if you choose to believe them, do.  Just realize you would never want a player that’s never played the game before.  Or a doctor that’s never practiced.  Or a teacher who has never taught.  So why would you want one to govern who’s never governed?  Who takes pride in his unfamiliarity with governing?  You do because you know it’s bullshit just as well as they do.  And with that, you can call yourself blind or you can call yourself dumb.  Not really a middle ground.

You know who they are.

So when you hear them say “I’m not a politician,” ignore them.  They are.  What they’re really telling you is that they’re shit at being one.

 

Re-Fighting History

trump monument

You know there is a very specific reason why you will never see any monuments to Adolf Hitler in Germany.

No monuments to Hitler.  No monuments to Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess, Erwin Rommel or any leader or prominent member of the Third Reich.  That said, earlier this week a drunken American tourist was beaten and is currently being investigated for raising his arm in a Nazi salute in Dresden, Germany.  The week before, two Chinese tourist were arrested for doing similar, while taking photographs of each other in Berlin.  Their crime: “Using Symbols of Illegal Organization.”    To honor or memorialize that part of Germany history is not only illegal, but will undoubtedly get you fucked up by your typical German.  And despite this absence of reverence, every child learns in vivid and personal detail of the Third Reich.  They learn of it’s horrors, the racism, the anti-semitism and intolerance so that it is never repeated.

Over here in the United States of America, we have our own sorted history that our children learn about in school.  Even though our Declaration of Independence was written with the words “All men are created equal,” we found that truth not to as “self-evident” as it was written.  From our Declaration to the formation of our government and beyond, not only were Black Americans unequal in the eyes of the law, they weren’t even American.  They were property.  Slaves.  And despite the efforts or inefforts of our Founding Fathers to redress the issue, slavery was an immoral American institution for America’s first 90 years.  And for those first four and a half score, debate raged on the legality and morality of slavery.  That debate was quietest in the Southern States of America.  So when America elected a Northern politician, as President of the United States, with the promise to end slavery, the southern states decided succession was their only option.  In forming the Confederate States of America, the south took up arms against the United States, they fought to defend slavery, a practice that was endemic to the core of what the Confederacy was about.  In no uncertain terms, the Confederacy brutalized and subjugated a race of human beings, promoting white supremacy and fought and killed Americans by the thousands, which is exactly what the Hitler and Nazi Germany did 80 years later.  And last week, tragically enough they both have found a partner and defender in the President of the United States of America.

On August 12th, a driver attending a Alt-Right protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, took his car and viciously ran through a crowd of people, killing one and severely injuring nearly two dozen more.  Meanwhile the President of the United States issued a statement lamenting violence on both side.  He would later back up that statement insisting that those protesting the removal of the statue were “very fine people” and that removing a statue honoring a Confederate general would lead to a desire to remove commemorations to the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they too were slave owners.  This was his cause to defend the actions of those who went to Charolottesville with the specific intent to spread hate, intolerance and fear.

In Germany, there is no doubt about the evils of the Nazi regime.  However, inexplicably, despite how much we know of the brutality of slavery, we continue to honor and memorialize those who fought to defend it.  Actually, it’s even worse.  Because, as horrible as Nazi Germany was, it was the actual government of Germany.  The Confederacy betrayed and took up arms against the United States.  They wanted to leave.  They fought to killed Americans for the right to leave.  Not to mention, there’s also that part about them fighting to defend their right to enslave human beings too.  Yet we continue honor the likes of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, their names emblazoned on our schools and roadways.  Their visages etched into stone and metal of monuments.

Now, here in 2017, these memorials are protected by those who the President of the United States described as “very fine people.”  These “very fine people” wave Confederate flags.  They brandish Nazi paraphernalia and recited hateful demagoguery.  Anyone who saw that wretched display of humanity and did not IMMEDIATELY resist or shun it are NOT “very fine people” at all.   But this is what the President saw, and his stated desire to protect not only the legacy of the Confederacy, but the a desire to protect the legacy of America’s Founding Slave Owners such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  And while fierce and vibrant debate will continue of the duality of those individuals(and should), there’s no doubt they fought FOR the United States of America, not against.  George Washington fought to make America, while Robert E. Lee abandoned and fought to kill Americans.  That, by definition, is treason.  There is NO. WAY. that should be honored.  The fact that they did such to preserve the enslavement and inhumane brutalization of an race doubles their shame.  There is no doubt that what the President did, by any credible metric, was reprehensible, embarrassing and atrociously pathetic for anyone, let alone the leader of a nation with the history we have.  Try to imagine if a German Chancellor would dare say some Nazi’s were “very fine people.”  Do you really think the entire would would react kindly?  Do you think the world would not be appalled if Angela Merkel stated a defense of a statue memorializing Adolf Hitler?  That’s exactly what happened in America.

What Germans do honor and remember is the victims of the Third Reich.  Memorials have been built or are on display across Germany to be a vivid reminder of what the Third Reich did.  In January of every year, Germany has a federal holiday, Holocaust Memorial Day to further commemorate the victims of Nazism.  Less than two weeks before, over here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, we continue to commemorate Lee-Jackson Day, a day where state offices are closed in remembrance of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Confederates that betrayed their country.  Virginia does not have a Booker T. Washington Day or a Nat Turner Day.  Germans have forcefully purged any and all references to the Third Reich.  However, they will never forget what they did because they CHOOSE to remember their victims.  Yet, what has been rejected in Germany is acceptable in America.  And it isn’t enough to simply memorialize the Confederacy, according to the events unfolding in this day and age, Americans are STILL fighting for the Confederacy.

A Tale of Two Countries

trump marcon

This weekend, the French celebrated their national holiday, la Fête nationale or “Bastille Day” as it is known in the English-speaking world.  Bastille Day is the commemoration of the culmination of events that lead to the storming of the medieval fortress and prison, the Bastille Saint-Antoine by what would later be the French Revolution’s National Guard.  As providence would have it, the events that lead to the storming of the Bastille has it’s origins within the American Colonies and what would become the United States of America.

Back in the early 1750s, France controlled much of territory in North America from the Ohio Valley to the Mississippi River and beyond.  When Native American traders refused to respect French sovereignty and traded with the English, it lead to military enforcement by the French, which caused Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie to send a regiment, led by 22-year old Major George Washington, to attack a French scouting party.  This was the first battle of what is known nationally as the French and Indian War and internationally as the Seven Years’ War.  Several skirmishes later and a French response lead to a series of alliances in Europe that caused the out-break of a full scale war with all world powers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Eventually, the French lost the war and much of it’s territory east of the Mississippi to the British.  However, the French would exact its revenge upon the British over a decade later when their American Colonies declared their independence.  The new French King, Louis XVI formally recognized American independence and aligned with the United States against Great Britain.  However, due to the losses of land and heavy military expenditures, the French was deeply in debt.  And while King Louis XVI originally sought to be a good king by abolishing serfdom and removing a land tax on the peasantry and non-nobles, this did not go over well with French nobility that resisted these changes causing French problems to persist.

Meanwhile, back in the United States of America, it should be noted that for generations the British Crown allowed the American Colonies to operate rather independently due to it’s distance from the King and parliament.  This independence became what Americans came to expect from the British.  However, that changed due to the French and Indian War and an overbearance of authority and rule from London against the long learned American independence lead to the American Revolution.  And it is that very streak of independence, individual liberty and self-governing that has grounded our republic and every American within.  And the first American to feel the brunt of American independence is none other than the former Major from the French and Indian War, former Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army and our first President, George Washington.

George Washington was a military man, through and through.  Being use to a chain of command and structure, Washington favored a stronger centralized authority.  This is much do the the lack of authority and often chaotic control he had over the Continental Army in the Revolution, which was often dictated by the Continental Congress during the war.  For most of history, those who have assumed power have rather been born into it or have taken it with the full command of force.  This was not Washington.  That was not the America.  So when George Washington was elected President of the United States, he shaped America and what our presidency would be, however this was only possible due to how he, himself, was shaped by Colonial America.  George Washington served as President for two terms and left probably the most definitive stamp in American, if not world history, when he decided not to run for a third term.  In 1796, there was no 22nd Amendment limiting the length a president may serve.  Not before in history has a leader ceded power willingly.  Washington’s decision to do just that not only forced our nation to live to our principles of freedom and liberty by the people, but it also molded each successive leader to follow Washington’s example to not hold on to power, even if they craved it, which many famously did not.

This, however, was not the case across the Atlantic, with America’s first ally, France.  Within months of Washington assuming office, Louis XVI was going the opposite way.  The debts from the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution, along with their inability to pay it down put the King in a terrible position.  The French nobility, comfortable with lower taxes and exemptions, resisted any change and the French commoners bearing the brunt of taxes they could not pay poured their anger into the French Monarchy, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  When the Parlement of Paris refused to enact any reforms and the French government came to a standstill, the King tried to bypass Parlement with the “Estates General of 1789”.  An archaic national assembly of the three “estates” in France(Cleargy, Nobility and Commoners), which had not met in nearly 200 years, it was meant to force the reforms France needed to pay its debt, but it only empowered the “Third Estate”, the Commoners, to usurp power from the King.  The Third Estate, which had more delegates than both the First and Second Estates combined, named itself the National Assembly cutting power from the King for the duration of his reign.

On July 14th, 1789, the National Guard of the Third Estate, entered the Hôtel des Invalides with the intent on taking the muskets and cannons held within.  However, the gunpowder and ammunition for these arms were moved to the Bastille, which had been nearly empty save for a half dozen prisoners.  After the arms were liberated, the National Guard turned their attention to the Bastille, which had come to represent a symbol of royalty in France.  As a crowd gathered, representatives were sent in to negotiate a surrender.  Within hours, the crowd entered the courtyard, tore apart the drawbridge and the storming of the Bastille had begun.  When the King was informed of what happened the next morning, he asked if it was a revolt.  “No, sire,” he was told.  “It’s not a revolt.  It’s a revolution.”

The stark differences between France and the United States could not be made any clearer than seen in these few years.  A tale of our two nations, born out of two days in the month of July, separated by just ten days, is a tale of two separate revolutions that spun two separate destinies.  The United States of America and all of its people were not made to serve or construct a single autocratic authority.  And when we won our independence, all we knew was individual liberty and freedom of being ruled by the people.  After the French rebelled, deposed and executed the French Monarchy, the French Revolution produced their nation’s and one of the world’s most autocratic despots, Napoleon Bonaparte.  He was able to capitalize off the chaos and failure of both the monarchy and revolution.  And although he was different in name only from the autocratic rule of the Bourbon Dynasty, he was able to convince the people that he could restore the order they did not have.  But it was still an autocratic rule they knew.  They just wanted one that they were convinced was from the people.  Unlike the Americans who they helped liberate, they knew very little of the responsibility of liberty.  However, that was a responsibility the United States knew all too well.

Sixty years after the death of George Washington and the end of the French Revolution, Charles Dickens wrote the classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities.  The book, which begins the year of the American Revolution and last through the French Revolution, it tells the story of a French noble that was arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to death and his eventual extrication.  Throughout the novel, Dickens often drew comparisons of the social imbalance between the nobles of privilege and the poor who are often left at the whim of those in power.  It was a theme that existed in during the revolutions of 18th Century, in Dickens’ 19th Century and present throughout the 20th Century grounding the challenges we see in the 21st Century.  The social strife that existed in Colonial America and Revolutionary France all began with the will of the people and what they thought to be intolerable.  However, where the American Colonist were able to divorce themselves from tyranny and trend to a rule by the people in form of a republic, the French Revolution turned to a republic which ceded power to an tyrannical autocracy.  These stories and these two countries remind us of not just the power of the people, but their will to dictate their own destiny.  Only the people can empower the absolutism of autocracy. But they also hold the key to the freedom and liberty promised in a rule by the people.  The desire for self-rule is easy to have, but the responsibility of it often overlooked by the very people who crave it.  Abdicating that responsibility only helps those to take advantage, whether they are actually of the people or only pretend to be.  It is something that can’t be ignored or abdicated or taken for granted.  Because… with great power comes even greater responsibility.

Land of the Feared. Home of the Terrorized.

Philando Castile shooting

It was July of 2016 when Jeronimo Yanez pulled over 32-year old Philando Castile, the 52nd time being pulled over as a licensed driver, along with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds and her child.  The infraction was a broken tail-light.  However, the sentence he received was death.  For Philando Castile had the audacity to voluntarily inform Yanez that he was (legally) carrying a firearm with him on his person.  Within five seconds of this notification, Yanez knew all he needed to know to diagnose Castile as a threat to his own life so his only option was to end Castile’s.

Almost a full year later, Jeronimo Yanez was put on trial for Manslaughter and after five days of deliberation, a jury of his peers(meaning 10 white and 2 black) found him not guilty.  How the decision was reached was due to a strict interpretation of the law.  How the jury can live with themselves and their decision, particularly after the police dash camera was released, is utterly baffling.  But it’s their ability to live with themselves and Jeronimo Yanez and others like Betty Shelby, Darren Wilson and Timothy Loehmann, law enforcement officers that have murdered black males over the last several years without facing justice, have done nothing but send a vivid message to the rest of us black men in America who have to live with lack of accountability for killing us.  Particularly for the rather benign and otherwise common actions which has brought about our death.  Timothy Loehmann shot Tamir Rice while he was playing.  Playing with a toy.  Others like Alton Sterling and John Crawford were shot to death for shopping.

However, in this particular case, the consequences are much more alarming.  Philando Castile was a legally licensed owner of a firearm with full rights and privileges to carry that firearm, a right that we’re often reminded of by the Gun Lobby and it’s allies like the National Rifle Association.  Of course these parties are fairly silent about Castile’s rights.  Now, despite my proclivities and aberration, Philando Castile should have the right to have a firearm and that right should be protected, in all pathetic irony, by the same law enforcement that took his life.  The sad fact of the matter is that Philando Castile would be alive today if he did not own a gun.  But we, as Americans, are allowed to own guns.  How can those two dualities exist in one singularity?

Trust me, I get it. I do.  I’ve been black for nearly 40 years.  And while I have been just as friendly for just as long, we are raised to learn lessons unique to who we are to better navigate society.  It’s like women being told to not dress a certain way or act a certain way to not incur any unwanted advances and attention.  Black men are also told to keep our distance, moderate our vocals, keep our hands visible, stand with our feet together(yeah, I know), etc.  All in an attempt to be less threatening.  Now, like with women, we are told to do these things for our own safety.  And fair or unfair, it’s what it is.  But this is not that.  Walking down a dark street or riding an elevator with a female are not CONSTITUTIONALLY guaranteed rights.  Philando Castile’s right to keep and bear arms absolutely is.  Which means, the consequences of allowing his murder to go without the justice it deserves doesn’t simply violate his rights, but when we continue to see instances like this take place, none of us can assume those same rights or assume those right will be protected.  Particularly when it’s being taken away by those who are supposed to protect those rights for us.  And no matter how much certain rights and freedoms are guaranteed, some of us are not able to take full advantage of them out of the vivid fear of losing our own lives for it.

The sad reality for black men in America is that this no longer shocking.  Not only are we killed for benign reasons, but our killers routinely go unpunished.  And that lack of punishment would cause any of us to question our very actions to avoid those same circumstances.  Philando Castile was not a criminal.  He worked with children at a school.  By all accounts, he was no more a threat to Jeronimo Yanez as he was to the kids around him on a daily basis.  That did not prevent him from losing his life.  Tamir Rice was a kid, playing outside.  Something we’ve ALL done.  John Crawford was shopping, while talking on a cellphone.  That is normal human behavior.  These men and dozens more like them were doing nothing more than any of us could be doing.  And if they can be shot and killed without consequence, doing anything I could be doing, what reason could I have to believe the same won’t happen to me?

This is not the America we were promised.  This is not how we should be judged.  I should not have to have in my mind that my actions can dictate whether I live or die when I am approached by law enforcement.  I should not have to fear for my life.  My mother and mothers of black children should not be afraid that their child’s next encounter with the police will be their last.  But that is what has become of being a black man in America.  And no matter how friendly or compliant I may be, at the end of the day I am still black.  Because even at my best, the worst will be assumed.  And while many Americans gloriously sing the virtues of being proud to be an American,  I do not have such a luxury.  Increasingly, I cannot be proud to be an American because I simply don’t know if I can be free.  However, what I actually am starting to accept is our new reality.

I am not proud to be an American, but I am afraid of be an American.

Lost in Memorial

This weekend, families across America will gather with more family and friends and celebrate the unofficial beginning of Summer.  Americans nationwide mark our yearly Memorial Day traditions with shimmering swimming pools, colorful parades, grilled foods, inconspicously donned American flags and to my nightful wonder, fireworks.  Yes the crackling and popping of fireworks.  Our year of cold weather, biting winds and even the torrents of rain this week all seem to be a distant memory with the first day free of school and work where the weather is all but guaranteed to be at its best.

Yet, it was on one of these sunny Summer nights two years ago that a 21-year old South Carolinian walked into Emanuel AME Church, seemingly for prayer services, but instead pulled a gun and shot to death nine members of the all-black congregation.  Dylann Roof would later state that his intent was to start a race war, a war to divide the nation on racial lines.  However, the actual effect of Roof’s heartless masaacre was much more profound and the complete opposite of what he intended.  Roof’s shooting caused the South Carolinian community to further examine the idols of his ideology and what grounds his hate.  Within days, the attention of the state turned to South Carolina’s Confederate memorial in front of the Capitol building.  And within weeks, Governor Nikki Haley lead the state legislature in voting to remove the Confederate battle flag at the State House grounds.

What Dylann Roof set in motion was to turn society’s attention to face it’s past and connection to a history that as much as we’ve tried to forget, others in our society saw fit to have memorialized for remembrance.  Thus, over the last two years the fight to remove monuments and memorials to the leaders of the Confederacy has spread across the South and to the nation as a whole.

And believe it or not, it’s on this premise that America initially began its observance of Memorial Day.

History hardly remembers precisely how Memorial Day started in America.  The stories vary.  Some attribute it to former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, the very city where Emanuel AME is located, who began memorializing those who died fighting for America.  Some point to a gathering of Civil War veterans in Waterloo, New York.  And then there are those who highlight stories of those decorating flowers on the graves of the Civil War dead in states like Virginia, Illinois, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia along with over another dozen locations, which mirrored a familiar practice of those desiring to honor the dead dating back hundreds if not thousands of years.

What is actually known to history is that Memorial Day was the responsibility of Civil War general, John A. Logan, who issued a proclamation calling for what was initially called “Decoration Day” to remember and honor those who fought and died in the Civil War.  Logan chose May 30th, as a day to decorate the graves of the fallen because it was free from any direct link to any particular battle or conflict.  Eventually, as states begin to recognize “Decoration Day” as an official holiday, it would become known nationally as Memorial Day.

What is also known is that this was not the first Memorial Day celebrated by Americans.  John Logan actually found out about a day where Confederate veterans and families also decorated the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers.  Logan adopted the idea to honor the Union dead and when he did, those who honored the Confederate dead decided to demark their Memorial Day as Confederate Memorial Day to make sure it is not confused with the one Logan started in 1868.

The Confederate Memorial Day, which is still observed to this day by several states in the south, is but one of the few ways many have chosen to honor the “Confederate Cause” from the Civil War.  Initially, southerners observed their Memorial Day as a day to remember their loved ones who died in the war.  But as the years passed and the leaders of the Confederacy begin to pass with them, the closer it got to anniversaries, the more the south begin to remember the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy and memorialize it in other ways.

The Lost Cause was the south’s attempt to rewrite the origins of the Confederacy and why the Civil War was fought.  It sought to heroically canonize those who fought against the North and what they saw as unjust aggression.  It was a critical belief to help those in the south, as well as the north, to instill a sense of righteousness and absolution in who they were.  Northerners begin to slowly believe their efforts to push for the Civil Rights of Black Americans had be sufficient.  Southerners desperately wanted to go back to their way of life prior to the Civil War.  The Lost Cause set forth the mentality the south wanted to be remembered and not lost to history. Slavery was a benevolent practice mutually beneficial to slave and slave master and not the central cause of the Civil War.  Jim Crow laws were the natural extention of what society should be the only workable solution for southern whites who had to live beside southern blacks.  And, of course the heroes of the Confederacy were to be honored and remembered as patriots, to be memorialized throughout the south on monuments, in schools and on other sacred grounds.  That was the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy and those like Dylann Roof celebrate the relics of their failed past.  That is the template with which we observe Memorial Day.

In America, we celebrate Memorial Day in different ways.  Some extremely curious and derth of any connection to why we are given the day to begin with.  It is, afterall a federal holiday.  Like most holidays, the meaning and significance of why we celebrate the day is often remembered in the background while most take their day off to spend with friends and family.  However, there are those who do remember that Memorial Day is not a holiday to be celebrated, but to be observed.  We honor and remember the men and women who fought and died serving the United States of America.  Concurrently, the fight to honor and remember the men who took up arms against the United States, who fought and died under a different flag of a separate nation do not deserve the observance of Memorial Day.  They do not deserve the honor and dignity of any memorial.  Those memorials are the antithesis of what days like Memorial Day are all about.  They should be remembered for exactly what they fought for.  Just as the tenants of the Lost Cause dictates, the soldiers emblazoned on statues and monuments across America, did fight to preserve their way of life.  Their way of life is endemically linked to the substature of the Black American.  And that is not who we are on this day or any other day of the year.  It’s time we remember the “Lost Cause” for what it was: a lost cause.

How The Press Was Won

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16 months ago, the animal rights organization, PETA found out about an operation undertaken by a military contractor to intentionally maim and kill live animals for military training purposes.  Mike Mather, a local reporter in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, where PETA is headquartered, found out about the program and broke the story that the locality of Suffolk, Virginia was attempting to cover up the operation.  Eventually, as the story broke and complaints from the public were received, Suffolk ordered the military to cease it’s training operation.  However, the military persisted and over the last year, a bipartisan bill has been introduced in congress to permanently stop the program once and for all.

That is what a free press is able to do.  That is what a free press is supposed to do.

Last month, the President of the United States launched an assault on journalism referring to them on social media and in speeches as “fake news” and ultimately an “enemy of the American people”, a comment echoed by his chief adviser, Steve Bannon.  This has come in the light of a trail of reports and near-daily breaking news stories of leaks from the administration that has besieged the president since he’s taken office.  Their hostility towards most reputable media sources like CNN, New York Times, Washington Post as well as the major television networks NBC, ABC and CBS began early in his campaign and has lasted effectively due to the president’s unethical, amoral and objectionable comments and behavior that would cause most to question what they see and what they hear from him and his administration.

The media’s role in politics is necessary.  Some may consider it a necessary evil.  But political leaders have dedicated communications staff, specifically not just for the sake of transparency, but to use the press to show the public the good their office is doing on their behalf, generating good press and positive feedback from voters.  Naturally, any elected official would have a problem when something being reported is not complimentary of them or their office and that’s to be expected.  What is not expected, is for those in power to call the press an enemy, not just of them, but of the “American people”.  Particularly, when the purpose of the “News Media” is to be just that: be a medium or distributor for news and dissemination of information.  The actions and conduct of our government is news and because it has an affect on our living, it needs to be known.  That is the purpose of the news media and journalism, to give us knowledge.  But it’s important to know why they have that purpose, especially when it’s our political leadership that wants to tell us otherwise.

The relationship of journalism and governing in America goes back to the death of the first King George, the grandfather of the monarch we fought against in the American Revolution.  When George I died, all royal commissions had to be renewed under his son, George II.  These commissions included gubernatorial appointments in the English Colonies.  George II would appoint John Montgomerie as the governor of New York and New Jersey who himself would die after only four years in that position.  And his eventual replacement was British Colonel, William Cosby.  Now the position of “Captain General and Governor in Chief” was a coveted position in the Colonies, which came with an increased salary.  However, Cosby was initially denied this salary and decided to go to court to recoup what he felt he was rightfully owed.  This decision and the way it was conducted was extremely unpopular with colonist because it was seen as another decision removed from their power of self-governing.  The chief justice agreed and initially dismissed the case.  However, Governor Cosby persisted and, in response, he removed the chief justice from office and also refused to have elections for the state Assembly in an effort to secure himself the salary he wanted as governor.

It were these actions, among others, that caused newspaper printer and journalist John Peter Zenger to become fiercely critical of the governor and his overtly tyrannical actions.  He published a series of editorials deriding Governor Cosby and all he did in his own interest.  This did not go unnoticed by the Governor and eventually he issued a proclamation condemning the newspaper and when that did not stop Zenger from attacking the governor, the governor proceeded to take him to court as well, charging him with libel.  Eventually, Zenger would be found not guilty and the reason stated that “even if defamatory, it is not libelous if it can be proven.”  Needless to say, Zenger’s charges were all true.

John Peter Zenger’s case set the stage for the need of colonial journalist to inform all American colonist on the actions of what the English monarchy was doing in America.  It was the template set by Zenger and Cosby that gave the founders of our Republic the reason to include the 1st Amendment to the Constitution.  Zenger was one of the first to outwardly use the power of the press to criticize those in power.  However, the practice is much older, dating back with James Franklin’s own newspaper publishing, his brother and Founding Father, Ben Franklin when he wanted to be critical of his governor.  He created the identity, Silence Dogood, to protect himself from any retribution from the government he criticized after James was arrested and imprisoned for publishing unflattering material himself years earlier.  He stated, “without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom and there can be no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”

Zenger and Franklin defined the role of journalism in early America.  This was crystallized by Thomas Paine and his printing of “Common Sense”, which was widely published and universally read by virtually all colonist.  That was the genesis of our revolution and what spurred our own government.  Simply put, it is BECAUSE we have a free press that we have a United States of America.  But the power of the press was not just used by those opposing the government.  It was used by those in power as well.  Throughout the 19th Century, newspapers were primarily used as extensions of political parties themselves to viciously attack their opponents and to promote their own ideology.  This was evident in several of our national elections dating as far back as the election of 1796.  That was the first competitive election when a northern liberal, John Adams, ran against a southern conservative, Thomas Jefferson, to succeed George Washington who decided to not run for a third term.  Since neither Adams or Jefferson actively campaigned for the presidency, it was the power of the press that was chiefly responsible for forming the candidate’s message.

But as the nation expanded, so did the need for news information across the country with it.  And as newspaper readerships swelled, the number of publishers grew and eventually, competition for readers became commonplace.  Publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Putlizer had intense rivalries, which caused them to embrace new ways to gain readers, which in turn lead to sensationalism or “Yellow Journalism” as it was called.  Eye-catching headlines, exaggerated stories of scandal and corruption using taboo subjects to gain attention in a crowded market.  Publishers would hire writers who were not afraid to write stories to grab that sort of attention and, as proven endemic through our history, it is the doings of those in power that generates the attention publishers wanted.  Eventually, a term was coined for publishers and writers that went out their way to avoid virtuous stories that elected leaders wanted the public to see to instead write about the hard-hitting “filth” or “muck” that shined a light on what they would rather keep hidden.  President Theodore Roosevelt, who is responsible for creating the cabinet position of Press Secretary, specifically to avoid these sensationalized stories, referred to such writers as “men with the muck rakes” or “Muckrakers” that can damage the well being of a society.

And that they did.  When police reporter and photojournalist Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, documenting the dangerous, dirty and decrepit tenement life in New York City slums, the upper and middle classes could no longer willfully turn a blind eye to living conditions across America, which were only getting worse.  He was joined by journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair, who spent nearly two months undercover, of the six spent investigating, in Chicago’s meat packing industry when he wrote The Jungle, not just exposing the meat and food service industry, but also the deplorable factory conditions of the American worker.  Famed civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP, Ida B. Wells wrote extensively about the corrupt Jim Crow laws and how lynching was used as a tactic of terrorism and not the punitive actions against criminals it was assumed to be.  Her efforts helped awaken the minds of northern whites that often ignored what Black Americans were going through in the deep south.

Whether it was called “Muckraking” or what we now refer to it as “Investigative Jounralism”, these were the trailblazers responsible for shaping what our nation would look like for years and decades to come.  It is specifically because of their actions that our government responded.  This has been a pattern repeated throughout our history as well.  When 14-year old Emmett Till was brutally beaten and lynched in 1955, Black journalist with the Chicago Defender and Jet Magazine published pictures of his badly beaten face that shocked the entire nation, launching the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1964 when Civil Rights activist Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney went missing and later found dead, their disappearance lead nightly news broadcast and captured national attention.  That spurred the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  A year later, when future congressman and statesman John Lewis and 600 others tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, they were beaten and brutalized in their attempt and the images of the savage attack was televised live for national and international audiences.  A few months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in Congress.

Outside of Civil Rights, journalist have had an impact elsewhere as well.  Peter Buxton, a social worker and epidemiologist filed a complaint to the Public Health Service and Center for Disease Control when he found out about a program that injected and tested the effects of syphilis on Black men in rural Alabama.  For nearly six years his complaints went ignored or deemed irrelevant until he relayed this information to Washington Star reporter Jean Heller who broke the story of the Tuskegee Experiments.  Then and only then did the program stop.  The role of journalism continued to impact American life.  Embedded journalist in Vietnam reporting or the daily American loss of life during that conflict changed American opinion of what was thought to be a just-cause war.  When Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigated a link of a burglar to the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon, it eventually lead to his impeachment and resignation from office.  CNN was filming live when a gunman shot President ronald reagan and coincidentally, his press Secretary James Brady.  This lead eventually to 1993’s Brady Handgun Prevention Act, which since it’s passage, has seen our homicide rate cut in half.  Time after time, our history has vindicated our right and need for a free press.  That is not antithetical to who we are.  It made us who we are.

Chicago humorist and writer, Finley Peter Dunne, who was a favorite read of Theodore Roosevelt during his time in office, satirically wrote about the power and influence of the American media that it “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”  America is a large and extremely diverse nation and we’ve been that way since our inception.  Throughout our history, the press has been responsible for telling ALL of our stories, from the most comforted to the most afflicted.  When Sir Francis Bacon said “knowledge is power,” it never meant as much as it does to a democracy with a free and responsible press.  What the president fails to understand is that the press is not the “enemy of the people.”  It empowers the people.  The kind of power the press has given to the people is the ultimate check and balance to the power given to our democracy.  It holds them accountable and forces them to be responsive.  That is what they do.  And for the sake of our democracy and for all of those it serve, that is what they have to do.  There is nothing fake about that.