Monday, August 17, 2020

Voting Rights and Wrongs

One hundred years ago, on August 18, 1920, women won the right to vote with ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  A nation founded on the precept that “all men are created equal” (meaning property-holding white males) moved one step closer to enfranchising all its citizens, regardless of race or sex.

Women for three generations marched, agitated and went to prison to win the ballot.  They were heckled, manhandled and force-fed when they went on hunger strike to call attention to their cause.  Dorothy Day, who later founded the Catholic Worker movement, was slammed with arms twisted over the back of an iron bench at the Occoquan Workhouse, a prison in northern Virginia where she and other suffragists were jailed for protesting outside the White House.  One of her cell mates was manacled with hands above her head and forced to stand all night.  

Women were not given the right to vote.  They paid for it and took it.  

Yet democracy remained elusive.  Native Americans here in New Mexico could not vote until 1948, when Miguel Trujillo of the Isleta Pueblo returned from serving as a marine in World War II and was denied the ballot; the resulting lawsuit finally enfranchised this land's oldest inhabitants. African Americans were barred from polling places, especially in the South, until the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, after non-violent demonstrators marching from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery were beaten bloody by state police while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

Now all those hard won rights are under assault.  

Voter suppression takes many forms.  To take our neighbor Texas as an example, gerrymandered districts there mean that while non-Hispanic whites make up just 41% of the population, they comprise two-thirds of the state legislature and Congressional delegation. Reducing the number of polling places is another way to lower turnout, making it harder for wage-earners and low income individuals (primarily people of color) to cast their ballot, again citing Texas, which has closed 750 polling stations in recent years. “The fact of the matter is that Texas is not a red state,” according to  Antonio Arellano of Jolt, a progressive Latino political organization. “Texas is a nonvoting state.”   Rules there allow a concealed weapon permit to be used for access to the voting booth, but prohibit using a student or university ID for voting purposes, discriminating against young people.  Voter ID rules also disproportionately disenfranchise women, who because of marital name changes often have driver’s licenses or other documents that don’t match their birth certificates. Judge Sandra Watts of Texas’ 117th District was nearly denied the right to vote because her maiden name was listed as her middle name on her driver’s license, while her voter registration card listed her actual middle name.  If a Judge can be tagged as a fraudulent voter, imagine how others without so much legal savvy fare.  

The problems with our democracy can only be solved by more democracy: by empowering citizens at the grassroots to make the decisions that affect their own lives and livelihoods.  Though it cannot end there, civic engagement must begin by making sure that every American can vote. With so many inequities of power, wealth and privilege besetting our nation, the principle that each person gets one vote is the great equalizer between rich and poor.  Too many have sacrificed to let this fundamental cornerstone of popular government be chipped away.  

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

De-Fund the Police?

Years ago, I got an early morning call to come to church.  Quick.  A suicidal young man was threatening to walk out into traffic.

When I arrived the police had beaten me to the scene and I discovered the agitated young man was African American.  Two white officers in uniform wearing gun belts loaded with handcuffs, tasers, billy clubs and other tools of the trade were doing nothing to calm the situation.  I asked them politely to leave.  Obviously this stranger had walked into a church because it signified safety and sanctuary. He needed pastoring, not policing. I took him out for pancakes and coffee.  A good meal doesn’t cure an existential crisis, but it’s often a decent palliative.  

Current calls to “de-fund” the police are simply an acknowledgment that law enforcement isn’t the answer to every problem.  And the assertion that police departments suffer from “systemic racism” doesn’t mean that all cops are bigots.  Police and sheriffs come in all colors and races and most are undoubtedly doing their best in a very hard job.  

Systemic racism means that our judicial process produces tilted outcomes.  Blacks, latinos and native people wind up behind bars far more often than whites, and  it’s not just cops at fault.  It’s our under-funded Public Defender system.  It’s local prosecutors who get rewarded for producing convictions (some DAs actually offer cash bonuses for trials that end in a lock up).  It’s for-profit prisons that incentivize longer sentences.  There’s unconscious racism at every level.

My wife is a criminal attorney.  She used to defend juveniles. She’d watch surveillance videos from department stores introduced as evidence in court. Two teens would enter the mall, one white, one black.  Both were shoplifting but the security cameras always focused on the black girl, who would be charged and convicted.  Was she guilty?  Yes.  Was justice done?  You decide.

This past month,  Congress began bipartisan talks to shut down transfers of military-style gear to those patrolling our city streets.  I think our whole approach to crime needs an overhaul.  Why is it “looting” when a black youth steals a TV but “liquidation” when white collar crooks take a company into bankruptcy, giving themselves million dollar bonuses while leaving worker pensions high and dry?  

I’m glad the conversation has begun.  It’s just tragic that it took eight minutes and forty-six seconds to get it started.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Protests Are Patriotic

Our nation is reeling from the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, just one of many African Americans who have lost their lives in police violence in recent years.  The streets are filled with demonstrators venting pent up rage and frustration at the “system” (the justice system, the economic system, the political system) that has so often fallen short of endowing non-white America with full equality.

As protesters gather outside the White House, let us remember that slave labor built that White House.  Let us remember that an estimated 9,000 freedmen served in the Continental Armies that led to American Independence.  That roughly ten percent of Lincoln’s Union armies were black enlistees, tipping the balance against the Confederacy.  That a third of a million were on the Western Front in World War One.  That decorated but segregated units like the Tuskegee Airmen finally led to the desegregation of the armed forces after World War II.  That twenty-one African Americans were Medal of Honor recipients during Vietnam.  That today about forty-three percent of active duty forces in the U.S. military, serving across the world in Syria, Afghanistan and other far flung locales, are people of color.  

There can be no argument that black labor built our country and that African Americans have defended it against its enemies in its hours of greatest need.  Records from George Washington’s era show 395 payments for “Negro hire” (the euphemism for rented slaves) to construct the Capitol Building on the D.C. mall.  But no one in the President’s family, and very few in Congress, have ever had the guts or grit to put their own lives on the line when it matters.

My own belief is that the protests now shaking our streets in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C. and other cities are emanating from people willing to put their lives on the line, just as Congressman John Lewis of Georgia put his life on the line in Selma to dismantle Jim Crow in the 1960’s.  They are being doused with tear gas and shot with rubber bullets, like Congresswoman Joyce Beatty of Ohio who was pepper sprayed by security forces this past week.  They are risking health and safety to call attention to a broken pattern of criminal justice where more black men are behind bars in 2020 than lived in slavery in 1864.  

We pray for peace and tranquility.  But let us remember too that it was Thomas Jefferson (a slave owner) who called for a little revolution now and then.  Let us remember that democracy is a messy and often disorderly affair.  That Afro-American Crispus Attucks, the very first patriot killed in the American Revolution, was part of a pre-Antifa street mob throwing snowballs and wooden sticks at British soldiers who shot him dead at the Boston Massacre.   John Adams, who to his credit defended the King’s soldiers in court--believing that even fascists deserved a legal defense--denigrated  the insurgents as "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and mulattoes.”  

Protests are part of our nation’s history.  From abolition to suffrage to Civil Rights, the people have taken to the streets when necessary to win their freedom.  Who shall we stand with now?  Which side are you on?  My heart is with those who cry for equality under the law.  My heart is with those who, in the words of the prophet Micah, “seek justice and correct oppression.”  My heart is with the patriots, the protesters.

Reverend Gary Kowalski
Unitarian Congregation of Taos, NM