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Day 518 – “As Long as the Oppressed Tell Their True Story, It Will Carry the Edge of Protest.” – Amiri Baraka

Day 518 – “As Long as the Oppressed Tell Their True Story, It Will Carry the Edge of Protest.” – Amiri Baraka

Image from Whistler Writers Festival

Mr. President,

Protest is one of the cornerstones of this great nation. Did you know that’s what the American Revolution was all about? A protest and uprising of people against injustice by their government. Protest is what this nation is founded on, and those people who signed the Declaration of Independence are revered today. They were rebels in their times.

If you read letter number 514 this week, you read another response to your denigration of people who protest during the national anthem. You say they’re disrespecting the flag. I looked carefully at flags last week. There is a can of Miller Light dressed in a flag on a billboard near my home. There were beach towels, replicas of the American flag, full of sand, hanging out the back of a car at the beach. How about the stars and stripes swimwear, speedos with the flag. I saw a bandana of the American flag on a motorcyclist’s head, where a helmet probably should have been. Are these displays and products respecting the flag? Not in my opinion. And yet no one is complaining about wearing the American flag in your crotch as being disrespectful or anti-American.

Let me recommend a poetry book I found at my local public library that addresses protest in many unique and heartfelt ways: Of Poetry and Protest: from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, edited and compiled by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr. W.W. Norton, Co, 2016.

What a magnificent book in content and presentation. It is dedicated “To all those who have died because of the color of their skin.” This book is a rich collection of history and poetry, expressed in the words of some great American poets. Take a look at “History Lessons” by Yusef Komunyakaa and learn about lynchings.

Rita Dove, former U.S. Poet Laureate and winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, writes of Rosa Parks in her poem, “The Enactment.”

In “The Identity Repairman,” Thomas Sayers Ellis follows the words African American 

“Before I was born

I absorbed struggle

Just looking

at history hurts.”

There are poems by Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Tracy Smith, Patricia Smith, Terrance Hayes. Poems about Fannie Lou Hamer, the Detroit riots of 1967, Malcolm X.

We can learn a lot from this book, including some things we might wish not to know, like “The Talk: How Parents Raising Black Boys Try to Keep Their Sons Safe” by Jeannine Amber.  In “New Rules of the Road,” Reginal Harris writes about racial profiling and how to behave when stopped by the police.

I encourage you to read this book, cover to cover. Perhaps you will notice a theme. Perhaps you will be moved to tears by the words, the emotion. Maybe you will understand why athletes of color may feel compelled to take a knee during the national anthem. Perhaps their voices are not so dissimilar from those of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine.

In the words of poet Amiri Baraka, “As long as the oppressed tell their true story it will carry the edge of protest.”

Let’s listen.

Sincerely,

Letters2Trump

Day 472: Letter to Comfortable Americans: Just Because Someone Doesn’t Match Your Cookie Cutter Perceptions of What a Prospective College Student Should Look Like Doesn’t Mean They Don’t Belong on a College Campus.

Day 472: Letter to Comfortable Americans: Just Because Someone Doesn’t Match Your Cookie Cutter Perceptions of What a Prospective College Student Should Look Like Doesn’t Mean They Don’t Belong on a College Campus.

Image from KNBA

Dear Comfortable Americans,

The most recent in a spate of news regarding unjustified emergency calls to police happened during a campus tour for prospective college students. Two Native American brothers saved up their money and drove the family car seven hours from their home in New Mexico to visit Colorado State University (“CSU”). They arrived a bit behind schedule and joined the tour late. Because the parent of another prospective student on the tour was frightened by the young men’s dark clothing and felt they didn’t belong, she called campus police.

This is troubling on many levels. But the one that hits closest to home is that these young men were made to feel excluded from an institution of higher learning. My family was not in a position to guide me through the college application process. Like the Gray brothers, I have been in the position of visiting a school in a different state without the benefit of a parent to accompany me, and I have a small understanding of how scary and foreign that can feel.

Now, I don’t want to discourage people from the “if you see something, say something” mantra, but folks need to start using some judgment. But while we want people to report suspicious activity, “different from my experience” does not equate with “suspicious”.

In the U.S., we tend to think highly of ourselves and our possibilities as individuals. We have long believed that we are exceptional. While the idea of American exceptionalism originated with the Communist Party as a derisive explanation for the lack of a popular socialist movement in the U.S., the phrase has become a kind of shorthand endorsement for the concept of America as the land of opportunity. Indeed, the “most lasting theory” of American exceptionalism comes from historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” describing the western frontier as “a great leveler where pioneers shed all semblance of status and heritage and worked together to tame a fierce wilderness. It was a cauldron of democracy—the ‘gate of escape from the bondage of the past.’”

Similarly, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has credited his personal success story to “the unique opportunities of the United States,” which he described this way:  “America … is the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from. You can be anything you are willing to work hard to be. The result is the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed against rich people in the marketplace and competition.”

Education is generally recognized as the current leveler of the great American playing field. But in practice, we are reluctant to extend the branch of opportunity to people who don’t fit a narrow definition of American. And anyone who doesn’t outwardly conform to this select group is not welcomed into institutions of higher learning. Thus, the reality of American exceptionalism has been turned on its head. The ideal of access to opportunity, essentially of inclusivism, has been distorted into the practice of exclusion from opportunity. And I believe this is why a parent on a campus tour decided to call the police because two kids “just really stand out” and “made me feel, like, sick.” Most disturbing to me is the way this parent seems to have colluded with other like-minded parents. According to the transcript, the caller’s husband claimed “another dad, also, another man that was on the tour also believes they don’t belong.”

Just because someone doesn’t match your cookie cutter perception of a teenager or a prospective student doesn’t mean they don’t belong on a college campus. So it’s time for an honest reckoning with “American exceptionalism”. As it turns out, “[w]ho your parents were and where you came from matters probably more in the United States than in most other advanced economies, at least if statistics on upward mobility are to be believed.”

And we shouldn’t be surprised at such micro-level collusion when it’s happening higher up on the chain of influence. We now know that donor sway extends as far as suggesting students for admission and even handpicking faculty.

On a large scale, this is incredibly disconcerting. But individually, the “discomfort” of privileged white Americans has life-or-death consequences for people of color. When you call the police, you are putting other people’s lives on the line. The Gray family was justifiably scared by the unwarranted confrontation from police. Ms. Gray feared the worst: “I was concerned for my sons’ safety and advised them to return home immediately,” and “I am lucky my sons are both still alive.”

All of us need to get out of our comfort zones.  As noted by CSU President Tony Frank, “[W]e can all examine our conscience[s] about the times in our own lives when we’ve crossed the street, avoided eye contact, or walked a little faster because we were concerned about the appearance of someone we didn’t know but who was different from us.”

It may sound trite, but we are actually stronger because of our differences. Former President Barack Obama got it right when he “paid tribute to a group of newly naturalized citizens, celebrating their diversity and service to country as ‘one of the reasons that America is exceptional.’”

The responsibility for ensuring that American exceptionalism is inclusive, not exclusive, falls to each of us. Let’s start by getting uncomfortable.

Sincerely,

Christine Trinh

And Letters2Trump

 

Day 472 – Letter to Voters: The Proposed Changes to SNAP Will Take Food Resources Away From Those Who Need It Most.

Day 472 – Letter to Voters: The Proposed Changes to SNAP Will Take Food Resources Away From Those Who Need It Most.

Image from USDA

Dear voters,

I am writing to express my concern about the effects of the changes to SNAP (the food stamp program) contained in the 2018 Agriculture and Nutrition Act (2018 Farm Bill) recently approved by the House of Representatives’ Agriculture Committee. Although its supporters tout as benefits of the changes to SNAP increased self-sufficiency resulting from harsher work requirements and a decrease in fraud and abuse, this overlooks the serious repercussions for food-insecure individuals and families.

As noted by the Food Research & Action Center, the proposed SNAP changes remove states’ current ability to adjust SNAP assets tests so that income levels are determined after expenses for basic expenses like shelter and childcare. It is projected that without this flexibility, not only will states’ administrative costs increase, but low-income working people with children will lose SNAP benefits, including their children’s direct access to free school meals. The proposed SNAP changes would also eliminate the current exemption from work requirements for college-student parents of young children without access to adequate childcare.

So, while some in Congress would have their constituents believe that a goal of the Farm Bill’s tightened SNAP requirements is to help food-insecure citizens achieve independence, it seems that the impact of some of the proposed changes will have the opposite effect and will do tremendous harm to low income people, including the working poor and their children.

Sincerely,

Amy Rothstein, New York Congressional District 19

And Letters2Trump

Day 448 – Letter to Fellow Citizens: “We Are Tied Together in a Single Garment of Destiny.”

Day 448 – Letter to Fellow Citizens: “We Are Tied Together in a Single Garment of Destiny.”

Art by Thien Bui

Dear fellow citizens,

This month I conclude my focus on the words of Martin Luther King in my letters.

I’m inspired to write today on the following quote taken, like the others, from “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community”:

“The segregationist goal is the total reversal of all reforms, with the reestablishment of naked oppression and if need be a native fascism.  America had a master race in the antebellum South.  Reestablishing it with a resurgent Klan and a totally disenfranchised lower class would realize the dream of many extremists today.”

But for the resurgence of the Klan as a cohesive entity, the above words are as applicable today as they were when written in the late 1960s.  Fear and ignorance drive racism and nativism now as they did then.  The fear is many pronged, but it all stems from a fear of economic, cultural and political loss.  I would say of supremacy, but that assumes those fearing loss hold dominant positions, but they often don’t.  The ignorance stems from lack of familiarity, which is itself a result of segregation, including voluntary segregation.  It also stems from an ignorance of facts and belief in unproven “truths” about blacks and other minorities.  These fallacies are passed on from generation to generation.

Martin Luther King understood the connection between poor whites and the black community.  He noted that a substantial group of whites had “common needs with the Negro” and would “benefit equally with him in the achievement of social progress.”  He noted, however, that poor whites in the South had “been deluded by race prejudice, and largely remained aloof from common action.”

The same fractures existed outside the South as well and came to the forefront during the mass exodus of blacks from the South in the early to mid-twentieth century as they sought to get out from under the oppression and naked violence of Jim Crow and because there were economic opportunities in the North.  The Michigan KKK reportedly had over 100,000 members in the early 1920s and various off-shoots and similar organizations existed alongside them – e.g., the Black Legion, the John Birch Society and, most recently (and arguably), the Michigan Militia.

From the early 1970s until 9/11, this uglier side of the body politic was largely dormant and/or operated underground.  When bigotry and violence based on bigotry surfaced, the public and political reaction was generally swift in condemnation.  Unfortunately, we mistook the shrunken public presence of these attitudes to be a reflection of the actual numbers of people holding those views, or at least supportive of them.

The 9/11 attacks; the subsequent wars and security concerns; the economic crash of 2008; the emergence of a younger and more diverse generation; and the election of America’s first black President provided the jolt needed for the ugly underside of America to reawaken and, importantly, operate more publicly.  This came to a head with Trump’s election and was on full display during his campaign and remains, sadly, a feature of his governing style.

“Make America Great Again” echoes an earlier political slogan “America First” used by the KKK and national politicians advocating isolationism.  While not completely linked with the emphasis on racial purity, Make America Great Again spoke to those shadow riders.

I’m not saying that all Trump backers are racists or nativists, but I do think a substantial number are to one degree or another.  How else to explain the hardcore base of support he keeps pandering to?  It’s a cult of personality with Trump.  He demands complete personal loyalty.  His words – and actions for that matter – might as well be coming from Jehovah himself.  The evangelicals certainly seem to think so.  Trump and his team of unrepentant sycophants and believers are the new segregationists whose goals include the reversal of all reforms, and “the reestablishment of naked oppression and if need be a native fascism.”  The dream of many extremists is embodied in the hateful, divisive and misguided words and actions of Trump.  He tapped into a latent part of the American psyche that had been stirring since 9/11.  He intuitively understood the forming wave and road its crest into the White House.

And so, the sins of the father are once again visited upon the son.  The failure to completely confront and stamp out the ignorance has allowed fear to sow its seeds of discord.  It remains for the rest of us to see that Martin Luther King’s words “free at last, free at last, Great God A-mighty, we are free at last” reflect a national truth, rather than a hope.  That we become free of ignorance and hate such that all Americans realize that that we are not singular strands of thread within a fraying nation, but that “we are tied together in a single garment of destiny.”   It is for all of us to take upon ourselves the burden of history.  No one person or group can prevail; we must fight side by side for justice.  Our mission is two-fold:  to beat back the enemies of justice and to help the ignorant see the commonality they have with those they vilify.  I believe there is a difference between willful ignorance and plain ignorance.  We must cleave the willful from the plain and convert the plain to the just. Dr. King said:

“The failure to pursue justice is not only a moral default.  Without it social tensions will grow and the turbulence of the streets will persist despite disapproval or repressive action.”

We have to realize we are responsible for the well-being of our fellows, for, ignoring evil makes us an accomplice to it.

It is not “their” problem.  It is “our” problem.  We must confront.  We must educate.  We must listen.  We must march.  We must demand action.  We must act.  We must speak out.  And, above all, we must not stop until the job is done.  We owe Dr. King the reality he dreamed of.

Sincerely,

Scot A. Reynolds

And Letters2Trump

Day 419 – Letter to Fellow Citizens: Social Justice is the Path to a Stronger, More United Nation.

Day 419 – Letter to Fellow Citizens: Social Justice is the Path to a Stronger, More United Nation.

Image from Project Snap

Dear fellow citizens,

Continuing my pledge to focus on the words of Martin Luther King in my letters, at least through April, I offer the following.

Once again, I take from “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community”:

“Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.  There is no other answer. Constructive social change will bring about certain tranquility; evasions will merely encourage turmoil.”

Despite the shortness, there is much to unpack from those words.  The allusion to riot prevention reflects the times in which these words were written, the late sixties, when riots had erupted in Black communities across America, from Watts to Detroit.  But, Martin Luther King was also speaking in a broader way.

By the time of King’s assassination, he had come to see the corrosive evil of militarization and economic imbalance, and the corresponding power disparity (economic and political).  He observed the commonality of interests between poor Whites and Blacks with poor being the operative word (although really, just about any current middle to low income American could identify with his sentiment).  His words also foreshadowed the rise of other movements for civil rights (migrant workers, feminists, the LGBT community, economic justice and environmental preservation and restoration).

Out of the turmoil of the sixties arose cultural, political and environmental changes, often won in the streets and on campuses, but also in the media, at least from those that saw merit in what was being fought for.  To an extent, the concessions were survival reaction from the powers that be – i.e., there was just enough change to release the growing pressure and potential complete overthrow of “The System.”  However, the latent power structure laid on the ropes Ali style and waited for its opportunity to set things right as they saw it.

It started in the 1970s and was revealed in the infamous Lewis Powell Jr. Memo of 1971, in which Powell, who went on to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, laid out for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce his view of the broad attack on the American economic system and what could be done about it.  He characterized “the chorus of criticism” from “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians” as the “most disquieting” (dangerous).  If that sounds familiar, it should, as the same things are said now about: the liberal elites; the main stream media and other “fake news” sources; science and reason, which are being attacked on all sides – e.g., denial of climate change; the false equivalency of many things, not the least of which is creationism with evolution; the false currency of “alternative facts,” etc.

In the memo, Powell laid out the blueprint for how to blunt the forces demanding change and take back the momentum, because for him, the “business and enterprise system” were “in deep trouble” and the hour was late.  And so, the die was cast and America’s powerful went to work to save themselves and the system that provided their figurative and literal lifeblood.

These efforts included coordinated attacks on all the institutions mentioned as well as on unions and anyone else posing a threat.  The counterattacks often went on behind the scenes, quietly but always with purpose and, importantly, an overall singular thrust.  As Powell pointed out, independent and uncoordinated activity would be insufficient.  “Careful long range planning and implementation” was needed as well as a “consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in political power available only through united action and national organizations.”  Think of the Koch brothers, the various conservative think tanks and PACs as well as ALEC.

By the time of Reagan’s election, the Fat Boys were riding high and could sense the shift.  Blood was in the water.  Reagan broke the air traffic controller union and then deregulation took off.  Thatcher came to power in Britain and suddenly it was sunrise in America once again.  No more of Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence”; America was back.

It’s also no surprise that The System’s reemergence was paralleled, in no small part, by a growing military.  The lingering stench of Vietnam was washed from the national fabric by a refurbished military machine armed with new toys and in pursuit of new enemies to slay.

The funny thing is that for the American worker and, in particular the working poor, which included many Whites, the economic situation began to stagnate and then get worse as jobs were shipped overseas, hostile takeovers wiped out companies and jobs, wages dropped (due in large part to declines in union membership), and right to work states proliferated.

Fast forward through the first Iraqi War (which simply set the stage) to 9/11 and the godsend of the terrorist attacks and the fear those set off and the comeback nears completion.  The cherry on top was the 2008 meltdown and subsequent bailout and the Supreme Court put the official stamp on what was long a fact: that corporations are people and money free speech.

So here we are, fear predominates; the military is massive and in more countries than ever before (and the military and black ops budgets suffer no shortfall); economic disparity has reached near all-time highs; and ordinary Americans are having to do more with less.  Social programs are being rolled back and/or privatized; the media, science and intellectual “elites” are vilified; and Big Brother is everywhere – as are guns.  The saddest thing is that such a great number of Americans are buying into their own destruction.  They believe the narrative being spun, which started way back in 1971:  Government can do no good; White lives are threatened (Make America Great Again); Immigrants are evil (our American values are being buried); and, above all fear.  These are all symptoms of the disease that’s gripped this country since industrialization began, but took its most virulent form since the 1970s.  Powell’s vision played out better than he could have hoped.  Not only did The System regain an iron fisted control of the country, it managed to turn the American people against one another.  So long as we are divided, we cannot unite.

As Martin Luther King said, we have a choice as a society:  practice constructive social change, or continue the evasions and continue to suffer turmoil.  We have been pitted against one another.  It’s time to re-discover our common causes and recognize the true enemy of the people.

Sincerely,

Scot A. Reynolds

And Letters2Trump

Day 399 – Letter to Everyone: Black Lives Should Always Matter.

Day 399 – Letter to Everyone: Black Lives Should Always Matter.

Image from Politico

Dear…everyone,

Right now, all of our eyes, minds, and hearts are turned towards those school children who have been murdered senselessly by individuals with a vengeance, who had access to all-too-powerful weapons. As we battle to get these weapons off the streets and to tighten gun laws, and as we say #NeverAgain; we must also remember another population where #EnoughIsEnough counts. Our Black Americans.

Every day, too many children – many of them Black – still live in fear. In tough cities like Baltimore and Chicago, poverty and gang culture still pervade the community. We know that making it harder to get guns won’t stop every potential killer, but we hope that maybe those laws can act as a deterrent. Maybe, just maybe, it will be harder for kids to buy guns off the streets. But we need to continue finding other solutions to support kids and their families – providing safe spaces, support for their parents, and education and opportunities that provide doorways to new paths.

We need to continue to fight for those innocent Black Americans who were killed by police, thanks to the continued racism that flows through our veins. We may be trying to change – but we have a lot farther to go. Treyvon Martin. Amadou Diallo. Manuel Loggins Jr. Ronald Madison. Kendra James. Sean Bell. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Alton Sterling. Terence Crutcher. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray.

And while we wrest with these incredibly difficult and heart-breaking issues, we can also take some time to reflect on some of the good that is happening. The #BlackLivesMatter movement, devastatingly rooted in these unjust deaths, is reaching Americans and other individuals across the U.S. and the world. Started in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, the leaders of the mission are fierce and focused in their mission:

  • We are working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.
  • We affirm our humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.
  • The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation.

Fueled by the continuing senseless murders of innocent Black people, #BlackLivesMatter developed throughout 2013 and 2014 as a platform and organizing tool. Today, other groups, organizations, and individuals twist the movement and its message to amplify anti-Black racism across the country, in all the ways it showed up.

We are having meaningful conversations – and more than that, taking actions. Remember the intense stirring caused by those football players who took a knee during the National Anthem? More people are alert to their own innate racism, and are trying to better understand and change themselves…and hopefully create a world for our kids where they won’t even think twice about a color.

And now, in time for Black History month, the movie “Black Panther” has blasted through expectations and smashed box office records with a $218M opening. Why? Because finally, mainstream media introduced a real-life, real Black, superhero. Because finally, people are ready to watch. This isn’t just for Blacks. It’s for all of us. We are ready for all colors. We are ready for all heroes.

As I open my eyes to the continued injustices faced by my fellow Americans, I know I can’t pretend to have any inkling of an idea of those little and big moments that Black Americans still face every day. I do know this. It is our job to look out for each other. It is our job to find the good in each other, to lift each other up, and help each other reach our highest potential. So maybe I am a white lady living in the burbs of DC. But I can say it with my whole heart: #BlackLivesMatter.

Sincerely,

Kate Viggiano Janich, Together We Will Northern Virginia

And Letters2Trump

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