Truthout Stories Thu, 28 Jul 2016 14:13:55 -0400 en-gb Lessons in Activism: Middle School Students Advocate for Syrian Refugees

Nassim Zerriffi's activism campaign class introduces middle-schoolers to the complexities of history, the realities of ISIS and why Syrians are fleeing their country. An effective activism curriculum doesn't deny these types of realities. Rather, it helps students find ways to defy reality with actions and in the process, learn that even the smallest acts matter.

2016.7.28.Drake.MainManhattan Country School students hold a banner in front of the White House. (Photo: Ian Weill)

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On the last day before spring break at Manhattan Country School, a progressive school in New York City, the 7th and 8th graders were busy at work with their activism campaign, "Build Bridges, Not Borders." In one classroom, a group of students gathered near the phone, waiting for their turn to call Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office to encourage the resettlement of Syrian refugees in New York. In another room, students practiced their talking points and arguments in anticipation of their lobbying trip to Washington, DC, where they would ask congressional representatives to oppose bills that would block the refugee resettlement process and sign a resolution that would condemn hateful rhetoric against Muslims in the United States.

Groups of students rotated through the various classrooms until they arrived at a mock refugee screening process. Here, teachers pretended to be interrogators and security agents as they took the students through the nine steps asylum seekers have to go through before they even enter the United States, and explaining that there are more steps after that and that it takes an average of 18-24 months to complete the process. The idea was to refute the common argument that a "terrorist" or ISIS member may come into the country disguised as a Syrian refugee, and to help the students understand what refugees who are escaping war and violence have to go through as they attempt to resettle.

This is not a standard curriculum course, but it is part of what 7th and 8th graders learn in a school committed to activism and social justice.

Each year, the 7th and 8th graders at this sliding-scale tuition school in New York City, where I teach Spanish, vote on a topic for their class to take on with activism. This year, a group of 38 students decided to tackle Islamophobia and raise money to go to Washington, DC, to participate in the National Day of Action led by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and lobby to let more Syrian refugees into the United States. The students searched for answers to questions, such as: What is Islamophobia? What is Islam? Is ISIS representative of Islam? How did Muslim scholars and scientists contribute to the European Renaissance? What is the experience of a Syrian person who is trying to resettle in the United States? How can we speak out against hate speech and anti-Muslim bigotry? This inquiry was a central part of the education of these 13- and 14-year-olds as they created and carried out their activism campaign.

Teaching About Reality Without Giving Up Hope 

Teaching activism to middle school students matters. Years before high school and college, when the need to belong is at its strongest -- young teens want to be part of something that can help them feel more powerful -- that pull toward "belonging" is a source of untapped potential. "This could be done through a clique, a sports team, a rock band, or a school's activism program," Nassim Zerriffi, a 7th and 8th grade teacher at Manhattan Country School, told me in an email.

Knowing that we don't live in isolation and that separation is fundamental to oppression, Zerriffi tells his students that "activism is the only logical response to a thorough understanding of history." Teaching activism allows for positive risk-taking and group identity, conveys empathy and a sense of agency and uses ideas as instruments to solve social problems by acting on the world.

"I do encounter many skeptics." Zerriffi says. "Sometimes people initially look scornfully at children doing activism. That itself should be a sign that there's something there."

For the campaign around Syrian refugees, students learned about the complexities of history, the realities of ISIS and why Syrians are fleeing their country. An effective activism curriculum doesn't deny these types of realities. Rather, it helps students find ways to defy reality with actions and in the process, learn that even the smallest acts matter. Students learned that the US announced plans to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year, but that this isn't enough. After the Paris attacks last November, the House of Representatives immediately passed a bill that could severely limit the acceptance of people fleeing from Syria and Iraq. Students discussed the consequences of that legislation in activism class as they depicted and critiqued the SAFE Act bill. "We'd like the representative to oppose the SAFE Act, which lengthens the process for refugees to apply for asylum. We'd also like you to oppose the Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act (HR 4731), which gives the government the power to defund certain refugee resettlement agencies," wrote Carolina, 13, in one of the talking points she prepared for the class's lobbying trip to D.C. "We'd also like people in Congress to speak out against Islamophobia and bigotry against Muslims and refugees ... they already have a tough life fleeing terrorism and oppressive government," said Vidar, who is 14 years old.

2016.7.28.DrakeLobby Day in DCA group of 7th and 8th grade students sitting in a round table in Washington, DC, making their case for Syrian refugees. (Photo: Ian Weill)

The students' activism class also examined some of the myths around refugees. For example, some politicians insist ISIS agents could sneak in with refugees, implicitly linking ISIS with the Syrian refugee crisis. Before Donald Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination, both he and Marco Rubio agreed that the US should turn away Syrian refugees for now, and both bandied about the possibility of closing mosques in the wake of the Paris attacks -- being more explicit about connecting Islamophobia to those fleeing Syria. As these current events developed, the 7th and 8th graders learned that the process to enter the United States is anything but easy. They were taken through a refugee screening and background check simulation by teachers who wanted to help them understand the refugee experience. During an assembly, a group of students in the activism committee shared what they learned with 5th and 6th graders, and also took them through the simulated screening process to help explain how improbable it would be for a "terrorist" to filter through that process.

The Muslim faith of millions of Syrian refugees has become a flashpoint in the US, where anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise. To learn more about Islam, students explored Islamic art and culture through museum trips and hands-on activities. The school also invited guest speakers from the Arab American Association of New Yorkto talk about how Islamophobia affects their lives and communities, such as having NYPD spying on them. Linda Sarsour, executive director of the association, shared her own personal story with the students, about growing up Muslim in Brooklyn, seeing negative Muslim stereotypes in the media and experiencing surveillance as part of normal life.

To raise funds for this trip, the students filmed a short video expressing why the US should let in more refugees, how Islamophobia prevents that and what current US residents can do to help. Although the activism campaign was able to reach a broad audience and raise enough money to cover trip expenses, students also had to learn to defend their case with those who opposed their cause. The groups who met with representatives from more conservative states had to explain to them how some of their fears and reasoning were grounded in flawed beliefs. "It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to convince those who have illogical fears to accept more refugees," wrote Giacomo, 14, in his activism class reflections. "The best we can do is convince those in favor of saving lives to say so publically and change the broken narrative we have of these innocent people."

Before the students' trip to DC, New York City lawyers who belong to the AILA explained to the class the basics of immigration law, and gave talking point ideas to students, who had to write their own arguments supporting Syrian refugee resettlement and against Islamophobia as part of their homework assignments. "I was able to develop my public speaking skills as well as my ability to persuade," wrote Giacomo, who was straightforward when arguing with a Missouri representative staff member, saying "it makes no logical sense for a terrorist to come into the US through the refugee system."

"The AILA lawyers called me 'bad ass' afterwards," Giacomo added in his reflections.

2016.7.28.Drake.Karahmma Lawyer and KidsIn Washington, DC, 7th and 8th graders meet with KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. (Photo: Ian Weill)

Once in DC, students also met with Aisha Rahman, executive director of KARAMAH and head of the organization's Family Law Division, who gave the group a brief overview of the organization's work and engaged the students in a case study. She concluded by offering suggestions on how to counter some of the big misconceptions about Muslims, specifically Muslim women, circulating in the media. "At Karamah, I learned that children are forced to go to court without a lawyer, and that nine [out of] every 10 [undocumented] children get deported," wrote Jessica, 13, in her reflections. "The case study showed me how hard it is for an undocumented person to get a visa and taught me to think about the problems undocumented people face."

Assuming Responsibility for Younger Generations

Philosopher Hannah Arendt, who describes education as "the task of renewing a common world," argued that "education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." Teaching activism is central to this task. "If other people were to take one thing from our trip to D.C., it would be the difference between being activists and learning about activism," wrote Jack, 13, in his reflection. "Our day of lobbying was one of the first times I felt that I was having a positive impact on the world, which felt much better than brainstorming how I can convince Congress to help more Syrian refugees. If you want to make a change, do it; don't just think about it."

"Kids want to, and need to, take risks," said Zerriffi. "Talking to strangers on the street, public speaking, meeting elected officials and others in fancy offices with leather chairs, marching down the street chanting at the top of their lungs." In his teaching experience, Zerriffi says, "Just about every time, some kid is like, 'We get to do this? We're allowed to yell on the street like this?' It's exciting and feels disobedient and it's their right."

Ultimately, the experience of pushing for tangible change -- loudly -- makes a much deeper and more lasting impression than a textbook, Zerriffi added. "This is what democracy feels like, and it's a powerful thing for a group of young people to yell."

Getting the younger students in the school on board was also a learning process. After the DC trip, once they had grasped the issues as deeply as possible, 7th graders made their own lesson plans and were invited as guest speakers to teach activism to younger students.

"Does anyone know what Islamophobia is?" asked Osiris, 13, introducing the lesson to a class of 5th graders who gave him their complete attention. Two other students passed around a cartoon image with the text "Muslim Shooter = 1.3 billion people held accountable,"to show how some people are more prone to be categorized as "terrorists."

Anika, who is 11, raised her hand to say, "It's showing that all Muslims are held accountable for the actions of one person."

Interpreting another image -- of a white shooter classified as a Lone Wolf with emotional issues -- Gabi, 11, said: "For the white people, it shows them like they have emotional issues or were trying to do the right thing if they shot someone, but are not as 'bad' as a Black or Muslim person."

The 4th graders participated in several sessions on the foundations of Islam and the influence of Islamic culture on American music, taught by the activism coordinator. They also had 7th graders show profiles of Syrian refugees featured on the Humans of New York website. "It felt empowering to teach kids about it. Because you are passing it out to the next generation," said Osiris.

"I want you to imagine for a second every single child in the New York City school system, all 1.1 million or so," Zerriffi said. "Imagine them all walking out of school and refusing to go back until an agreed-upon set of demands are met. Think about how much potential political power there is in youth!"

Envisioning a scenario where hope is grounded in acts of defiance helps us see that no issue is truly hopeless.

News Thu, 28 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Michael Eric Dyson vs. Eddie Glaude on Race, Hillary Clinton and the Legacy of Obama's Presidency

On Wednesday night, President Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and implored the nation to vote for Hillary Clinton. As Obama seeks to pass the torch to his secretary of state, we host a debate on Hillary Clinton, her rival Donald Trump and President Obama's legacy between Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson. Glaude's most recent book is Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, and he recently wrote an article for Time magazine headlined "My Democratic Problem with Voting for Hillary Clinton." Dyson is the author of The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America and wrote a cover article for the New Republic titled, "Yes She Can: Why Hillary Clinton Will Do More for Black People Than Obama."

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Thu, 28 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400
"No More War": Protesters Disrupt Ex-CIA Director Leon Panetta's DNC Speech

Protests on the floor of the convention continued on Wednesday. They reached a peak when former CIA Director Leon Panetta took the stage. While Panetta was criticizing Donald Trump's appeal to the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's emails, many delegates started chanting "No more war!" We hear Panetta's remarks and speak to a Bernie Sanders delegate who took part in the protest.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Protests on the floor of the convention continued on Wednesday. They reached a peak when former CIA Director Leon Panetta took the stage. While Panetta was criticizing Donald Trump's appeal to the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's emails, many delegates started chanting "No more war!"

LEON PANETTA: Donald Trump asks our troops to commit war crimes; endorses torture; spurns our allies, from Europe to Asia; suggests that countries have nuclear weapons; and he praises dictators, from Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin.

DELEGATES: No more war! No more war! No more war! No more war! No more war!


DELEGATES: No more war! No more war! No more war! No more war!

AMY GOODMAN: Just after Leon Panetta stopped speaking, Democracy Now!'s Deena Guzder caught up with one of the delegates who took part in the protest.

ALEXIS EDELSTEIN: My name is Alexis Edelstein. I'm a delegate for California for the District 33. And I'm a Bernie delegate.

DEENA GUZDER: Who was speaking, and what happened here at the DNC right now?

ALEXIS EDELSTEIN: The former director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, was speaking. The Oregon delegation started to chant "No more war!" All the Bernie delegations, all 57 of them, states and territories, chanted "No more war!" with them. As soon as that kept going and going, the DNC shut off the lights to the Oregon delegation, almost as a way of showing that they want to silence them.

DEENA GUZDER: Why did this action happen when Panetta was speaking, in particular?

ALEXIS EDELSTEIN: The "No More War" action, plus, as you know, Leon Panetta is CIA. The CIA, you know, it's supporting foreign wars nonstop, continuously, also initiating drone wars. Hillary Clinton is a warmonger. Hillary Clinton wants to continue all the wars in the Middle East. Hillary Clinton is with Israel on the Palestinian issue. We are for a free Palestine. Hillary Clinton wants to continue all acts of foreign insurgency. And Hillary Clinton, as the secretary of state, was also responsible in supporting the coup in Honduras. Myself being from Argentina, I'm very sensitive to Latin and South American issues. I was born under a military dictatorship in Argentina that was supported by Henry Kissinger. And Hillary Clinton is a supporter of Henry Kissinger. So, that's why we're very antiwar, anti-Hillary Clinton. Half of the budget goes to the war budget, to the defense budget, and that really sacrifices what else we can invest in infrastructure, education, healthcare, all the things that this country is lacking and that -- what Bernie Sanders is fighting for.

AMY GOODMAN: That's Bernie Sanders delegate Alexis Edelstein. When we come back, we'll host a debate between professors Michael Eric Dyson and Eddie Glaude. Stay with us.

News Thu, 28 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Despite Clinton Endorsement, Bernie Lays Foundation to Carry on "Revolution"

2016.7.28.Bernie.mainBernie Sanders speaks at the Wells Fargo Center on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 25, 2016. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) may have officially endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after losing to the centrist in a bitterly-contested primary, but the senator is hoping to keep his "political revolution" alive.

Sanders has started a "social welfare" 501(c)(4) advocacy organization, to support progressive groups seeking to coach and vet those who want to run for office. He touted the group, called "Our Revolution," in an email sent to supporters earlier this week.

"The goal of this organization will be no different from the goal of our campaign: we must transform American politics to make our political and economic systems once again responsive to the needs of working families," Sanders said.

In turning his campaign into a 501(c)(4), Sanders would be following in the footsteps of Democrats before him. Most notably, President Obama, used his campaign apparatus to create Organizing for Action; a group that supported his agenda.

Earlier this month, Sanders said he was moved, in part, to launch Our Revolution by "Democrats' loss of about 900 state legislative seats in nearly eight years," as USA Today reported.

He told the paper the group would seek to support races ranging from school board contests to Congressional elections. Sanders also said that candidates needn't be Democrats, as long as they're progressive.

"If you have some strong independents who would like to run, it would be my inclination to support them," he said. The senator noted that he particularly wants to involve young people and the working class.

During the primary, Sanders demonstrated that his network already has impressive fundraising prowess, as CNBC has reported. Two weeks after sending out an email touting Chris Pearson, a Vermont state senate candidate, Sanders campaign' reported that Pearson received 10,000 donations and that his campaign was fully-funded for the rest of the year.

News Thu, 28 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400
RNC 2016 ]]> Art Thu, 28 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Leaks Show DNC Asked White House to Reward Donors With Slots on Boards and Commissions

Email exchanges involving top officials at the Democratic National Committee released along with private documents by WikiLeaks show that DNC officials hoped to reward top donors and insiders with appointments to federal boards and commissions in coordination with the White House.

The revelations give an inside look into how the Democratic Party attempted to leverage its access and influence with the White House to bring in cash.

In an April 20, 2016 email, DNC National Finance Director Jordan Kaplan canvassed what appears to be the committee's finance department -- its fundraising office -- for names of people (mainly donors) to reward with federal appointments on boards and commissions.

That email exchange yielded a list compiled by DNC Finance Chief of Staff Scott Comer and emailed to Kaplan on April 26 titled "Boards and Commissions Names_Final," which listed the names of twenty-three DNC donors and insiders.

Kaplan emailed the list to Amanda Moose, special assistant to the president for presidential personnel, later that day. In an email without a subject line, Kaplan wrote just one line: "For your review," seemingly referring to a previous conversation or exchange.

Then on April 28, Kaplan missed a call with Moose. He emailed Comer asking for Moose's number that afternoon, presumably to call her back. Comer sent Kaplan the number. It's unclear if Kaplan and Moose spoke.

But the two may have spoken several days later; a May 3 email from Comer to Kaplan shows that Moose wanted to set up a "20 minute conversation" with Kaplan.

None of the individuals on the list have been appointed to boards or commissions since the email exchanges took place almost three months ago. A few were named to slots in previous years.

The White House strongly denied any link between financial support for the party and appointments.

"Being a donor does not get you a role in this administration," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz in an email to OpenSecrets Blog, "nor does it preclude you from getting one. We've said this for many years now and there's nothing in the emails that have been released that contradicts that."

The people on the list weren't just hefty donors to the DNC; many also gave big money to Obama.

The practice of rewarding big donors with federal positions dates back to the times of the founding fathers.

Bob Biersack, who spent 30 years at the Federal Election Commission and is a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, said that "Big donors have always risen to the top of lists for appointment to plum ambassadorships and other boards and commissions around the federal landscape. This example shows that party fundraisers continue to see these appointments as an important tool in the donor maintenance process."

Most of the people on the list gave huge sums to the Democratic National Committee, as well as the party's primary fundraising arms for its congressional candidates: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Here is the full breakdown of donations made by individuals on the list from the beginning of the 2008 cycle through the end of June 2016. We included donations to candidate committees, PACs, super PACs and joint-fundraising committees.

As the table shows, the people whose names were on the list for possible federal appointments are big donors to the DNC, hold important positions there, and/or are big donors to Obama.

Many on the list bundled for the Obama campaign and are bundlers for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Notably, the individuals on the list gave significant sums to Clinton and none to Bernie Sanders.

Wade Randlett, also who formed the Democratic PAC, was appointed to the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations in 2014. Another on the list -- Shekar Narasimhan -- was appointed to Obama's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in 2014. David Shapira, CEO of supermarket company Giant Eagle, was nominated to be on the board of governors of USPS by Obama in 2014, but the nomination was blocked by Congress.

In the emails leaked by WikiLeaks, Kaplan wrote "this is the last call for boards and commissions; if you have someone, send to Comer -- full name, city, state, email and phone number."

"Send as many as you want, just don't know how many people will get to," Kaplan wrote in an email sent April 20 to what appears to be the DNC's finance department.

Comer clarified in a later email, "Any folks who you'd like to be considered to be on the board of (for example) USPS, NEA, NEH. Basically anyone who has a niche interest and might like to serve on the board of one of these orgs."

These emails appear to show that DNC finance staffers -- the DNC's fundraising staff, in other words -- could suggest people they felt should be rewarded with federal appointments.

Responding to another question, Comer wrote "I should say, though, that the likelihood of landing a spot on ones as prestigious as NEA/USPS is unlikely. It's much more likely they'll get something like 'President's Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History.' (no shade to women)." In that same email, sent on April 21, Comer also said "when you submit your names, we don't need specific designations."

Comer's statements imply that the DNC could neither guarantee any specific position nor ensure that a person suggested would receive an appointment at all from the Obama administration.

Reached at her office in the White House, Moose said she was not authorized to comment. OpenSecrets Blog did manage to contact Kaplan, but he hung up after realizing it was a reporter. Comer directed our request for comment to a political consultant, who forwarded it to the DNC, which did not respond by press time.

The list was first reported on by the Daily Caller, a conservative news organization. The Caller article implied that the documents and emails showed Clinton traded appointments for donations. But the publication did not note the direct coordination with the Obama administration shown in the emails. 

News Thu, 28 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Police Incitement Against Black Lives Matter Is Putting Protesters in Danger

From the floor of the Republican National Convention to the online pages of the Blue Lives Matter Facebook community, it is now commonplace for public officials, police and first responders to openly declare war on Black Lives Matter -- the civil rights movement of our times.

In some cases, this climate has given way to overt intimidation, with the captain of the Columbia, South Carolina fire department fired earlier this month for threatening to run over Black Lives Matter protesters, followed by the termination of three other first responders for related offenses. According to the count of Sarah Kaplan, reporting for The Washington Post, those South Carolina officials "are among at least a dozen public employees who have lashed out against protesters on social media and been punished for it." Yet, many more appear to have faced no consequences at all.

Coming from the very people ostensibly entrusted with protecting public safety, smears and threats are fostering real violence against a movement that arose to counter the disproportionate state-sanctioned killing of black people, including extrajudicial executions by police. Unfortunately, the metropolitan area of Minneapolis has emerged as a case study in how police incitement endangers and criminalizes First-Amendment-protected protests organized by residents who have already endured police killings of at least two black men in the last eight months: Jamar Clark in November 2015 and Philando Castile earlier this month.

Mass Shooting Attack on Black Lives Matter

Lt. Bob Kroll, the head of the Minneapolis Police Officer's Federation, has ties to a white-power-linked biker gang called City Heat and a track record marred by accusations of racist violence, including a racial discrimination lawsuit filed in 2007 by five of his fellow African-American police officers. When community members organized protests last year demanding "Justice for Jamar," Kroll was not shy about his virulent opposition to the demonstrations taking place at all.

In late November, Kroll told a local media outlet of a weeks-long protest occupation outside the fourth precinct, "The cops feel like it's the local version of Benghazi. They are under siege, the mayor has directed the police chief to not help, these people need to be cleared out. Arrests need to be made. They need to be given an order to disperse."

According to Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP and civil rights attorney, while Kroll was issuing these public smears, white supremacists were taking to online platforms to threaten violence against protesters. "We were looking at different websites and threads from white supremacist and hate groups and saw threats constantly being issued against protesters at the fourth precinct occupation," said Levy-Pounds. In light of this environment, Levy-Pounds explained that protesters "had to create our own security teams to protect ourselves and monitor social media."

These grassroots efforts ultimately were not enough to stop four alleged white supremacist gunmen from opening fire on the protest on November 23, wounding five people -- two of them seriously. According to Sam Richards, founder and editor-in-chief of the North Star Post, the gunmen yelled, "race war" and "Trump 2016" before shooting. David Neiwert, writing for the Southern Poverty Law Center, confirmed that the shooters "left behind a trail of emails, chat rooms, websites, reveling in the extremist right."

Sumaya Moallin, who is 19 years old, was at the occupation outside of the fourth precinct when the shooting took place. She told AlterNet that she witnessed police refuse to help the wounded. "I ran back to the precinct door where police officers were standing in front," she said. "I asked, why isn't there an ambulance, why isn't anyone doing anything? I asked them what's going on, in tears."

"One of them looked at me and said, 'This is what you guys wanted.' And then the police retreated back behind the precinct doors," said Moallin. "I was in complete shock. I had just witnessed someone gun us down because of our skin tone and because of the way we look."

The police department claimed in a press statement that it responded promptly to the mass shooting, stating: "Dozens of officers responded almost immediately attending to victims and secured the scene." But every Black Lives Matter protester that AlterNet spoke to confirmed Moallin's account, which was reported in the Nation by George Joseph. Eye witnesses interviewed in the immediate aftermath said that the individual shot in the stomach was left lying on the ground for at least ten minutes.

Such denial of assistance would not be unheard of. As AlterNet senior editor Max Blumenthal recently reported, the Blue Lives Matter Facebook page has been filled with threats by police and their supporters to deny services to the public.

Protesters say police then proceeded to escalate violence toward protesters who were trying to tend to the wounded.

Jie Wronski-Riley, a 19-year-old organizer with Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis, told AlterNet: "There were 30 to 40 people who came up to help the people who had been shot. The police came out in riot gear and started pushing the crowd back and saying we won't let ambulances through unless you all leave." Several witnesses say that police then proceeded to escalate the situation, including by spraying chemical agents.

"They Really Don't Care That Much About Protesters"

"After the shooting, when they [the police] talked about the protest, they talked about how violent protesters were," Mica Grimm, organizer with Black Lives Matter-Minneapolis, told AlterNet. "They never talked about how five people were shot. No one will ever bring that up. They really don't care that much about protesters."

Indeed, police officers' public smears against the protesters appears to have only escalated since the mass shooting, with Kroll proclaiming in June that Black Lives Matter is a "terrorist organization." In February, a St. Paul police officer Jeff Rothecker was forced to resign after he was caught encouraging drivers to run over Black Lives Matter protesters slated to gather for a Martin Luther King Day mobilization.

Earlier this month, four officers walked out of a Minnesota Lynx women's basketball game because players wore warmup jerseys with the words "Black Lives Matter" and the names of two African Americans, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, who were recently shot to death by police. The officers, who were off duty and assisting with private security, staged the walkout despite the fact that the shirts also included the image of the Dallas police shield in tribute to the five members of the department who were recently killed by a sniper.

As recently as July 20, the Twin Cities Police Federations denounced members of the American Federation of Teachers for participating in a Black Lives Matter rally, declaring: "Educators should demonstrate more common sense than rushing to judgment along with radical activists hell-bent on destabilizing our communities."

In contrast to the mounting criticisms of Black Lives Matter, AlterNet has been unable to locate a single public official willing to openly condemn -- or even comment on -- Kroll's white power ties. While Kroll has come under increasing fire from the Minneapolis police chief and mayor for his inflammatory comments, these officials have fallen short of raising public concerns about his racist history.

"There is a certain dehumanization and a lack of care or concern about what happens to us when we are engaging in nonviolent demonstrations," said Levy-Pounds.

The Minneapolis police department is already dogged by complaints. According to Randy Furst, writing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, between 2012 and 2013, 439 civilian complains were filed against police officers but none resulted in formal discipline. Between 2006 and 2012, the city paid out $14 million in settlements for police misconduct.

Inviting Violence

Even after coming under fire, protesters have continued to take to the streets in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, organizing a fresh resurgence of demonstrations after a St. Anthony police officer shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop.

Those exercising their right to protest are forced to endure repeated acts of violence. Wronski-Riley reports having seen six separate occasions when cars intentionally drive into the crowd at Black Lives Matter-themed rallies and demonstrations.

"A car will stop, see people and decide to keep moving with their vehicle," explained Wronski-Riley. "How do you think it is okay to run people over? You have seen the people and made conscious decision to run us over with your giant car. Most of the time when cars come at me, I have been able to jump on the hood or windshield or just roll off to avoid getting run over."

"There is no accountability that I've seen for people who have endangered protesters," Wronski-Riley continued. "Instead of protecting protesters, police actually are protecting the property of the people threatening them."

St. Paul man Jeffrey Patrick Rice was found guilty of a single misdemeanor charge after he was captured on video hitting a 16 year old girl with his car in the fall of 2014 at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. The driver claimed that he was "attempting to flee from the mob," employing fear-mongering rhetoric that appears to mimic that used by police. The harrowing incident provoked public outcry after it was captured on video.

And then there are direct police attacks on protesters.  Witnesses say that, earlier this month, police sprayed mace in the faces of children who were on board a pickup truck attempting to leave the site of a direct action on Interstate 94 to get to safety. A reporter for the Pioneer Press confirmed that he saw someone who appeared to be a teenager covered in a chemical agent and vomiting.

"It's at this point where officers are escalating situations and then blaming protesters for their response to whatever they escalated," said Grimm. "It's got to the point where I'm watching children in pain and have to decide whether or not to help them or film them in pain because nobody is going to believe me."

Meanwhile, organizers say that white supremacists are still issuing threats against Black Lives Matter protesters, and they do not trust police to protect them from this real danger. "We keep getting messages from Bob Kroll about how heinous we are," Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, a participant in the Twin Cities Black Lives Matter demonstrations, told AlterNet. "He is basically inviting them to do this to us."

News Thu, 28 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Black Lives, Blue Lives and the Fight Over the Criminal Legal System in the US

Two people from Milwaukee took to the national stage at the Republican National Convention (RNC) and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) to present two very different perspectives on one of the most divisive issues of our time, the shootings of unarmed African Americans by police and civilians.

The conventions took place against a backdrop of traumatic news stories. The shooting death of Philando Castile and its dramatic aftermath, live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend, sparked national protests. At one protest in Dallas, Texas, five police officers were shot and killed by an African American military veteran who had served in Afghanistan. This was followed by the shootings of police in Baton Rouge. The very next week, Charles Kinsey, an African American caregiver for an autistic adult, was shot by police while he was on the ground with his arms raised.

While the terrible events and constant media churn left many wondering if the nation was coming apart at the seams, some fanned the flames of division.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, an African American and right-wing commenter for Fox News, who has blamed several of the victims of police killings, took to the floor in full dress uniform: "Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to make something very clear: Blue Lives Matter!"

The message was echoed by Donald Trump days later. Trump declared himself the nation's "law and order candidate" and stated: "I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country!"

The victims of police violence were not mentioned on the RNC stage. This, in a city where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed in an incident that resulted in the US Department of Justice putting the Cleveland police under a consent decree. The Cleveland police, the Secret Service, and 7,000 other officers imported from multiple states, turned Cleveland's Quicken Arena into an armed fortress, made more complicated by the fact that Ohio is an open carry state. The minor protests that did break out were instantly suppressed.

In the City of Brotherly Love, SEPTA Transit security were far more prevalent than city police or Secret Service.

On Tuesday, the DNC chose a different path, featuring mothers who have lost children to police or civilian violence or abuse. The mothers of Milwaukee's Dontre Hamilton, Florida's Trayvon Martin, New York's Eric Garner, St. Louis' Michael Brown, and Texas's Sandra Bland walked onto the floor to a standing ovation.

Taking a Different Path, Lifting Up Mothers of the Movement

The mother of Sandra Bland, Geneva Reed-Veal, spoke first. "One year ago we lived the worst nightmare a woman can imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into a coffin, on permanent leave from this earth. She was found hanging in a jail cell after an unlawful traffic stop and an unlawful arrest. Six other women died in custody that same month," she said, naming each one. "So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten."

"You don't stop being a parent when your child dies. I am still Jordan Davis's mother," said Lucia McBath. "His life ended the day he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn't. I still wake up every day thinking about how to parent him. How to protect him and his legacy. How to ensure his death doesn't overshadow his life." Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old high school student, was fatally shot by a white man who invoked Florida's "Stand Your Ground" at trial.

"I am an unwilling participant in this movement," said a somber Sybrina Fulton, the mother of murdered teenager Trayvon Martin. "I would not have signed up for this. None of us would have….I did not want this spotlight, but I will do everything can to focus some of this light on a path out of the darkness. Hillary Clinton has the compassion and understanding to support grieving mothers and fight for common sense gun legislation."

In 2012, the killing of Trayvon Martin acutely focused attention on so-called "Stand Your Ground" laws, which give criminal and civil immunity to a person who claims they use deadly force because they allege a reasonable fear of harm. Because of the law, Sanford Police initially declined to arrest the shooter George Zimmerman because they apparently agreed it was "reasonable" to feel threatened after stalking an unarmed African-American teenager returning from a trip to buy Skittles and iced tea.

In 2012, CMD exposed that "Stand Your Ground" was developed by the NRA in Florida and taken to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as a "model" bill. From there it spread throughout the nation. After Color of Change, NAACP, and a coalition of groups came together to fight the legislation, ALEC cancelled its criminal justice task force and disavowed its bills. But ALEC has not worked to repeal the laws still on the books.

Milwaukee's Maria Hamilton was also on the stage. On April 30, 2015, Milwaukee police received a call that a man, Dontre Hamilton, was sleeping in Red Arrow Park. Two police checks found Hamilton was doing nothing wrong. Apparently unaware of the previous checks, Officer Christopher Manney woke Hamilton up and tried to pat him down. Hamilton had a history of mental illness and had been treated for schizophrenia, but had no record of violence.

Manney claimed to have felt hard objects in Hamilton's waistband and pocket (though no weapons were later found), and that Hamilton resisted him and seized his baton. Manney shot Hamilton 14 times. Manney was later fired for not following department rules, but prosecutors declined to file charges against him.

Hamilton spoke to CMD about what needed to be done. "Police need to be held accountable for making the decision to kill people. They need to go to court like any other citizen in the United States," said Hamilton. "It is not discipline to put them on paid leave then give them their jobs back," she said. 

And the problem is not just a few high-profile names. In battling for justice in his own hometown of Chicago, the Rev. Jessie Jackson Sr. told CMD that Chicago is a "killing field" with some of the highest number of shootings by police in the nation. "If these were white victims it would be front page news," said Jackson.

Demand for Reforms Reflected in Democratic Party Platform

The major party platforms respond to the push for increased police accountability in dramatically different ways. The Republican Party's platform rejects calls for oversight as "politicized second-guessing" that undermines police. The Democratic Party's platform points in very different direction, with standards geared toward rebuilding the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

A "unity" amendment to the Democratic National Platform was put forward by former NAACP leader Ben Jealous, representing the Sanders campaign, standing shoulder to shoulder with Ben Crump, the head of the National Bar Association, representing the Clinton's side. At the platform committee meeting in Orlando earlier this month, Crump sported a "Black Lawyers Matter" t-shirt and the two spoke emotionally about the moment the nation was in.

"Last time we were together here in Orlando, we were fighting for justice for Trayvon Benjamin Martin about 40 miles from here," said Crump, who represented the family in their lawsuit against Zimmerman. "And Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the spirit of this goes directly to what happened in your own town in Ferguson, Missouri, when they came in with these weapons of war in our communities, and Cornel West and I were there fighting for the value of another teenager named Michael Brown."

"This amendment is the beginning of the revisiting of a brand new justice system. We don't have a justice system right today. We have a crime and punishment system. One that protects the profits and property of the wealthy and divides and controls the rest of us. It will divide you from your family and your wealth, will divide you from your breath," said another delegate at the platform committee.

The Amendment to the platform reads:

"We will work with police chiefs to invest in training for officers on issues such as de-escalation and the creation of national guidelines for the appropriate use of force. We will encourage better police-community relations, require the use of body cameras, and stop the use of weapons of war that have no place in our communities. We will end racial profiling that targets individuals solely on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, which is un-American and counterproductive.

"We should report national data on policing strategies and provide greater transparency and accountability. We will require the Department of Justice to investigate all questionable or suspicious police-involved shootings, and we will support states and localities who help make those investigations and prosecutions more transparent, including through reforming the grand jury process.

"We will assist states in providing a system of public defense that is adequately resourced and which meets American Bar Association standards. And we will reform the civil asset forfeiture system to protect people and remove perverse incentives for law enforcement to "police for a profit."

Page 16 of the platform is the Criminal Justice section.

Activists Keep the Pressure on Clinton and the Democratic Party

Activists with the Black Lives Matter movement have continually pushed Democratic candidates to address police violence from the first days of the campaign.

Last summer, protesters at the progressive Netroots Nation conference disrupted speeches by then-presidential candidates Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders.

In February, an activist confronted Clinton at a fundraiser with a sign quoting a speech from 1996, at the height of the "War on Crime" era. In the speech, Clinton referred to "the kinds of kids that are called 'super-predators,'" a discredited and racist theory about the causes of urban crime that helped justify the mass incarceration of young people of color.

Activists are not taking anything for granted. Hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters marched in the streets of Philadelphia on Tuesday to keep the pressure on Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party. Their demand for justice in every city and every town could not be more timely. The very next day, in the liberal town of Baltimore, charges were dropped against three officers implicated in Freddie Gray's death; three others had been acquitted earlier. 

News Thu, 28 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Convention Dissent: There's Less Than Meets the Eye

2016.7.28.DNC.mainSupporters of Bernie Sanders silently protest at the Wells Fargo Center on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 25, 2016. (Photo: Josh Haner / The New York Times)

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Cast your memory back exactly eight years, to the opening night of the Democratic Convention in Denver: Aug. 25, 2008. The story that night was the threat of the "PUMA" which either stood for "People United Means Action" or Party Unity My Ass." According to Adam Nathaniel Peck writing in The New Republic, "PUMAs appeared dozens of times on cable news to defend Clinton and to promise mischief at the nominating convention and in the general election. Their anger epitomized a wider unrest that has been mostly forgotten as Obama went on to win two general elections."

Peck, writing in the spring of 2015, was seeking to make the point that even PUMAs are not that into Hillary Clinton anymore. But the real truth was, they were almost entirely a creation of a media desperate for a "Democratic disarray" narrative upon which to hang their quote-stringing, I mean reporting. Rebecca Traister did a long pre-convention bit of actual reporting for Salon on the alleged phenomenon and found approximately a dozen reasons some Clinton die-hards were reluctant to jump on the Obama bandwagon in June of that year. She followed up in Denver at the convention and found that their major event -- a protest made to order for MSNBC attracted maybe 50 people. I tried to report out the story in Denver by finding the people these protesters represented -- i.e., convention delegates who would refuse to vote for Barack Obama but would instead either stay home or support John McCain and Sarah Palin. Thing was, I couldn't find any. The PUMAs who Chris Matthews insisted were causing a "civil war" within the party were always all hat and no cattle.

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

Sure, some of them gave great quotes. There was Harriet Christian, who warned the DNC's rules committee that it was "throwing the election away" by awarding delegates to an "inadequate black male." And most famously, there was the incomparably named Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, who complained, "I got in trouble because I said in the newspaper I love my country more than my party." Poor thing. De Rothschild went on to become charmed by McCain's running mate that year. While she admitted that the two might "disagree on some issues," she announced: "I love Sarah Palin," adding, "I think she's pretty cool."

The numbers of people represented by die-hard Bernie Bros who booed their own hero yesterday and chanted "bulls–t" whenever the party's nominee was praised, might turn out to be more numerous than the PUMAs, whose existence soon came to manifest itself only as a metaphor for ridicule. But the signs are hardly encouraging. After all, going into the convention, polls showed that 90 percent of Sanders supporters were already on board with Clinton. One has to figure that the number will rise when:

  • They take a look at Donald Trump.
  • They ponder, even for a moment, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren's enormously eloquent speeches directed specifically at their particular complaints.
  • They realize, a la Sarah Silverman that they've become "ridiculous" even in the eyes of most enthusiastic Sanders supporters (like Silverman).
  • They get a few months older and more mature in time to actually vote in November.

In the meantime, thanks in part apparently to Russian hackers who may or may not have been trying to undermine our voting system on behalf of Putin Bro Trump, the media had its narrative going into the convention. It was all "party disunity" all the time. "Whatever you thought of Sanders, Warren or Obama, Day One was mostly a disaster. The heckling was loud and distracting for the party," explained the new PRAVDA, I mean Politico Playbook writers. It was a particularly delicious narrative because it came packaged as a counter-intuitive meme. "You thought the Republicans were mad at each other? Ha. Look that these darned Democrats."

In fact, all we learned yesterday was that extremists on the fringe of US political parties enjoy going to demonstrations where they can enthusiastically denounce those who hold some of their views but not all of them and without the requisite passion and focus that said extremists believe they deserve.

In Cleveland, this demonstration took place inside the hall and was led by the party's candidate: Trump. (I've been to a lot of demonstrations in my 56 years; I don't recall ever seeing an "Establishment Republican" at any of them. Golf courses, on the other hand….) In Philadelphia, they were mostly outside the hall, in front of the TV cameras and occasionally inside the hall, behaving rudely during excellent speeches by first lady Michelle Obama and America's two most important and potentially effective progressive politicians, Warren and Sanders. And as Silverman could not help but noting, while killing time before a Paul Simon performance, they were "ridiculous." By tomorrow they will be forgotten, save for the rudeness.

Now what about that Russian hack on behalf of Trump? Might there be a story in there somewhere? Maybe in between parties someone could look into that…

Opinion Thu, 28 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Who Would Trayvon Have Been? Becoming a Black Man in the United States

I tried to imagine who Trayvon would have been on February 26, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and beyond. The things he would have seen, the world he would have known, how he would have created himself. When you're introduced to a martyr as a result of their death, they aren't a whole person. They are a name and a story. They are a set of symbols.

2016.7.28.Trayvon.mainA Trayvon Martin protest at the Criminal Justice Building in Sanford, Florida, March 19, 2012. (Photo: Werth Media / Flickr)

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching is a chronicle of Mychal Denzel Smith's political and personal education in a country and era defined by both the presidency of Barack Obama and the state-sanctioned murders of so many Black people. In this compelling mix of memoir and analysis, Smith questions our assumptions about race, masculinity, mental health, feminism and LGBTQ rights. Order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!

The following is the introduction to Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching:

I don't remember what I was doing when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I'm sure I was watching the All-Star game, as I had done since I was a kid even younger than Trayvon. I may have even made a snack run to 7-11. I almost certainly was tweeting, or at the very least reading Twitter. I may have been on deadline and convincing myself that watching the game wasn't procrastinating but all a part of my writing process. I was probably stressing about money. I probably wasn't thinking about dead black boys.

I've had the opportunity to do a number of things Trayvon will never have the chance to, and the guilt of that weighs heavily on me. Everything Trayvon did that supposedly justified his death -- wear hoodies, walk to the store at night, buy Skittles, have tattoos, smoke weed, be suspended from school -- I did. I could have been Trayvon. So many of us black boys trying to become black men in America could have been. Knowing that made his death that much harder to stomach.

One of the more pernicious effects of racism on the psyche is the constant questioning of one's worth and purpose. It can be almost as debilitating as death. Almost. I don't wish to make these things seem equivalent. I have my life; Trayvon does not. But the source of my guilt is understanding that American racism will take some of our lives while holding others of us up as exemplars of success, providing the illusion that there is an escape. It places us in the unenviable position of wishing that our martyrs could have survived to become tokens.

2016.7.28.InvisibleMan(Image: Nation Books)I tried to imagine who Trayvon would have been on February 26, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and beyond. The things he would have seen, the world he would have known, how he would have created himself. When you're introduced to a martyr as a result of their death, they aren't a whole person. They are a name and a story. They are a set of symbols and projections. Their lives are flattened for our consumption, and whatever attempts we make to remind ourselves of their humanity are no substitute for the face-to-face interactions we'll never have with them.

There's a particular pain in that realization when the martyrs are as young as Trayvon. I didn't get to know who Trayvon was, but as a seventeen year old he probably hardly knew himself. He liked football, Lil' Wayne, airplanes, and taking things apart to put them back together, but he never got the opportunity to ask himself why. He never had his assumptions challenged, never had his worldview shattered, his heroes humanized, or his morals questioned. He never had to confront his own bigotry or his complicity in different systems of oppression. To ask who he would have been on February 26, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and beyond is try to fill in the gaps where only experience can be the guide, and George Zimmerman took the opportunity for experience away from Trayvon on February 26, 2012.

Trayvon Martin was a seventeen-year-old black boy in America. White supremacy tells a lot of lies about seventeen-year-old black boys who grow up in America, but we can't escape the fact that those black boys absorb a culture of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, class-based elitism, self-hatred, violence, untreated mental illness, and a host of other American problems that translate differently when experienced through the lens of American racism.

I don't want to appear to be tarnishing the image of Trayvon Martin, a black boy I never knew. There's an almost instinctual desire to protect our martyrs, so many of them being young black men viciously maligned in life and unable to escape the barbs of racism in death. If we don't rescue their narratives, they'll forever be remembered only to the extent that white supremacy lends them any humanity. But we do a disservice to our martyrs by imposing perfection upon them. We do a greater disservice to ourselves, the survivors and potential tokens, by not honestly reckoning with who our martyrs were and who they could have been.

We resist this conversation because black men and the culture they create so easily become scapegoats. Without nuance, it very quickly turns toward a blaming of black men for the existence of misogyny, homophobia, etc., not a careful examination of how black men can experience or contribute to these forms of oppression. And the more the image of black men is connected to everything wrong with the world, the easier it is to justify killing us. Racism comes to be seen as a natural reaction to the existence of black monsters.

Who would Trayvon Martin have been on February 26, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and beyond? The short answer: he would have been a black man in America. The long answer involves figuring out exactly what that entails.

I was twenty-five years old when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I hadn't prepared for life at twenty-five, having believed at different points of my life that I wouldn't make it that far. I could have been Trayvon, or any number of nameless, faceless black boys killed by police or vigilantes, by other black men or themselves. Twenty-five was a relief and a surprise and opportunity. I would be afforded the time to create myself that Trayvon wasn't.

I didn't know how to do that. Or, I didn't know how to do that and become a healthy and whole human being. It seemed that every black man I witnessed attempting to create himself came through to the other side broken. They walked through the culture of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, class-based elitism, self-hatred, violence, untreated mental illness, and other American problems and emerged as living proof of the lies white supremacy tells about black boys and men in America. I was doing the same, because I knew no other way.

Then George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I looked at the face of the boy who became a symbol and wanted more. I wanted more for him than the choice between martyr and token. I wanted more him than eulogies and praise songs. I wanted more for him than just an opportunity to create himself. I wanted for him, for all the Trayvons in waiting, a world where they didn't have to grow up broken or not grow up at all.

I wanted to figure out how to create that world. I looked at my own life and asked how I made it to twenty-five. I asked who influenced me to think the way I did, what events had been most important in shaping my worldview, who and what challenged me to see it all differently. I asked myself: How did you learn to be a black man?

Then I wrote down some answers, for the martyrs and the tokens, for the Trayvons that could have been and are still waiting.

Copyright (2016) by Mychal Denzel Smith. Not to be reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Nation Books.

Opinion Thu, 28 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400