Angry Men

Years ago I was leaving the supermarket with my daughter, then in kindergarten. I breezed past someone asking for money for a dog rescue — and she looked up at me, shocked and incensed: “Daddy, you’re mean!”

It really made me think. In short order I also stopped worrying about all the ways a panhandler could misuse the money I gave him. I stopped offering to buy him lunch when what he really wanted from me was cash. I had a pretty good idea where the money was going. But patronizing charity never seemed like a completely human gesture. Finally I took a page from the Talmud: when someone asks you for money, reach into your pocket and don’t even ask.

Of course, this makes you a compassionate chump. But it’s pretty liberating to give out of habit and not have to run through all the permutations like a tightly-wound investor. The reason for this, as I learned, is to avoid having your heart grow hard — to not permit yourself to become cruel.

And isn’t this what a human society and its justice system should be founded on? Compassion that errs on the side of — yes — even foolishness? We congratulate ourselves on our high standards for prosecution — beyond the shadow of a doubt. Our Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishments, even for savage crimes. And once upon a time generosity and benefit of the doubt were even intended to be part of the justice system. But compassion has long dried up as we become increasingly the severe, judgmental Puritans who founded this country.

Justice tempered with compassion was also a feature of ancient Jewish halakha. A violent crime had to have two witnesses who saw it committed with their own eyes. Even when there was absolutely no doubt of guilt, if all twenty-three judges of the sanhedrin voted to convict the accused it was assumed that something had gone terribly wrong with the ruling — that some measure of compassion had been overlooked — and the man was acquitted.

But truth be told, we angry citizens are little more today than a mob hiding behind the respectable but vengeful face of the courts. We as individuals easily pronounce harsh online sentences on each other after taking only a moment to read a post. Lumped together as a jury, we vote to convict after obscenely short deliberations. The judges we appoint follow minimum sentencing guidelines to explicitly eliminate human compassion. For all our moral posturing, the mechanized justice we dispense is no wiser or kinder than a Taliban stoning or a Puritan witch burning. We have, in fact, perfected cruelty by putting it on an assembly line.

Ninety-five percent of violent crimes are never heard in court because most defendants in America today are pressured into plea deals by terrifying, inflated charges and poverty that eliminates any chance of an adequate defense. Prosecutors will convict on the basis of faulty evidence or bias, or community anger, or suppressed exculpatory evidence. In prison inmates can spend years behind bars for nonviolent crimes, or serve sentences largely in solitary. Our prison system is the largest in the world and it has become just another piece of a corrosive and exploitative capitalist economy.

Once a prisoner completes his sentence, society marks him with a scarlet “F” for felon and he becomes unemployable, disenfranchised, and a pariah for life. He is turned out onto the street with little more than cab fare, years of probation ahead, and few skills to feed himself or his family — once back in the world of upright, moral, angry men.

And when a death is involved the angry men demand blood that can only be appeased by the state’s own murder of the guilty. It sounds almost like the sick satanic ritual it is: the condemned is injected with concoctions of poisonous drugs, whose provenance and composition are kept secret, while onlookers peer through curtains as the man gasps and chokes and suffers on a gurney overseen by a physician who has renounced his promise to, first, do no harm.

Without reforms long recognized but never implemented because they might make us all compassionate chumps, the judicial system continues to tilt toward injustice, the twisted, and the cruel. The very notion of mercy has been completely excised from the courts. Rehabilitation may have once been a fleeting ideal, but it can no longer be found in prisons operated increasingly by get-tough political grandstanders.

All that remains of the justice system today is the angry, vengeful state doing the work of its angry, vengeful citizens, demanding blood and usually getting it.


Original Sin

American history is not simply the tales of presidents, generals and explorers — or of the many wars to which the U.S. has sent its children. History is not some abstract account of other people. Our own families and communities have created traces that demand to be viewed in the mirror of history. American history, then — our history — is both a personal story and a personal reckoning.

Almost twenty years ago I became interested in genealogy. My mother’s ancestors lived in the United States long before it became a republic. They can be traced back five or six centuries to little Welsh and English villages, and somebody somewhere has a book with all the dry details of begats, property transfers, and manumissions of slaves. Slave ownership among white families, even by Northerners, is a dirty little secret some would rather forget.

In among all the yellowing photo albums is a picture of my mother as a two month old, cradled in the arms of an old black woman. Below the photo, in my mother’s scrawl: Louisa was born a slave.

“Louisa was born a slave”

Of course, this was 1930, it was the South, and much has changed since then.

But, as Charlottesville reminded us not that long ago, a lot has not changed. Slavery may be gone, but it ended recently enough that we still find reminders in our family albums. For Louisa, the Jim Crow South kept her living in poverty, taking care of someone else’s children, her sons farming for someone else, and it placed incalculable obstacles before her grandchildren. For all the recent talk of flags and monuments and legacy, it is not so much Confederate (or Union) symbols but racist institutions that represent our true heritage. And like our family albums, these institutions persist to this day.

Many view white supremacy as dead and cold as Confederate statues. Yet the white supremacy on which slavery was based is hot and pulsing, alive and malign. White supremacy is such a major part of the national DNA that it has shaped our justice and economic systems, healthcare, immigration, foreign policy, policing, the prison system — every aspect of American life, North and South. It is the source of America’s great wealth, our expeditionary militarism, and a daily contributor to income inequality. White supremacy lies behind the doctrines of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism. White supremacy has justified most of our wars of choice, not just the Civil War. And just like actual DNA, white supremacy seems to be transmitted across generations like a deadly gene.

My mother once told me an unflattering story about her own mother. It was 1940 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been president for eight years. Like Obama, Roosevelt was despised throughout the South and was accused of being a race traitor and a Communist. For all the epithets hurled at FDR by my grandmother and those like her, the New Deal had improved the lives of poor people of every race and America was changing — and for the better. On one particular day in April that year, a black census lady came to my grandmother’s front door. My grandmother told her crisply to go to the back. The census worker replied, “I can do it here, or not at all.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but my grandmother’s world had already changed — into something she would never accept. A genteel Sunday school teacher with Southern breeding, my grandmother would have despised today’s racists as so much “white trash” for mixing Southern “heritage” with the Nazism America was then fighting. But on matters of race my grandmother held exactly the same views as today’s white supremacists.

Tea Party Republicans now own the party and the presidency — and they warn us the gloves are off and the bare knuckles out. But so too are the white satin sheets and coarse brown shirts out of the closet. We now know exactly what these men and women are — and we shouldn’t hesitate to use the proper terms: fascists and white supremacists. A frighteningly large segment of white America no longer feels any shame about public expressions of their hate. Racism without consequence has become re-enshrined in law and Jim Crow is making a comeback. Worse, “mere” racism seems to be making the transition to fascism.

Adolf Hitler may never have been a member of the Confederacy but today’s white supremacists just as easily sieg Heil to a Nazi Hakenkreuz as they salute a Confederate flag or monument. Today it’s almost impossible to distinguish racism from fascism because, in the end, what’s the difference when dehumanization, deportation, ethnic cleansing and murder are shared objectives?

But the silver lining — if there is one — is that Charlottesville released a flood of essays, meditations and documentaries on our Original Sin, on the magnitude of our problem with white supremacy — and I must agree with Jamelle Bouie and others who identify it as a white problem.

Among the best pieces I read immediately after Charlottesville, in no particular order:

If all this is overwhelming and heartbreaking, it should be. We should be overwhelmed with shame and remorse and anger. We should be crying and we should be screaming. We can never fix what’s wrong with this country without acknowledging the deepest foundational injustice that almost every other injustice is based on.

And we can never change society without changing ourselves. It is not enough for Liberals to champion civil rights at home and deny them to others abroad. It is not enough for Liberals to ask for a minimum wage and family leave domestically, while ensuring that workers overseas work in horrific sweat shops to build iPhones and sew designer jeans. Besides white supremacy, liberal white America must firmly reject colonialism and militarism. Justice must be universal, equality must know no borders. No deity confers special blessings on the United States. We are simply one nation among two hundred and some others.

The baby in the picture was born into a narrow, racist world. Things she’d say would provoke tears and winces. Until the day she died it was obvious where she had grown up, and in what kind of world. But like all of us my mother was a work in progress and she ended up a kinder and more compassionate person than the generations that preceded her.

I must believe we all are works in progress — and so is the country each of us loves and hates with alternating passion and despondency. But if we really mean to repair it in earnest — it means not fearing to look squarely into that mirror of history.

Immigration Forum

If you didn’t see the article, hats off to Tanner Harding and Sippican Week for a very informative piece on problems facing the immigrant community in the SouthCoast.

On November 8th the League of Women Voters sponsored a talk at the Marion Town Music Hall on immigration that mercifully did not include a white supremacist sheriff. Moderated by the League’s Susan Grosart, two remarkable women — Helena DaSilva Hughes of the Immigrants Assistance Center and Corinn Williams of the Community Economic Development Center — talked about challenges facing their organizations which serve local immigrant communities. In addition, two people representing immigrant groups whose protections are now threatened — DACA and TPS — had a chance to share their stories. Priscilla Gamboa, a “Dreamer” currently protected under a DACA program (“Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”) that Trump is threatening to scrap, and David Oliva, whose TPS program (“Temporary Protected Status”) will also likely be terminated, gave attendees a sense of what is is like to live in uncertainty and dread.

Those of you who know me may also know that I am an ESL volunteer at the CEDC. My handouts are partially responsible for depleting the CEDC’s paper and toner supply, so I appeal to you to donate. If you’d like to give to an extremely worthy organization and have a great meal too, buy a ticket to the CEDC’s fundraiser and community dinner celebrating their 20th year:

Friday, November 17th 5pm – 9pm

TICKETS: $15 Adults & $5 Children under 16
Portuguese American Club
57 Holly St. New Bedford, MA 02746

To purchase a ticket, call 508-979-4684 or stop by the office. You can also give the CEDC a donation, earmarking a portion for the dinner.

Download the flyer in English or in Spanish.

CEDC Community Dinner

Please join the Community Economic Development Center of Southeastern Massachusetts in a celebration of 20 years of community building for economic and social justice.

The CEDC is hosting a Latin dinner and celebration. Come have some delicious food, bid on gift baskets and support the great work of the CEDC.

Friday, November 17th 5pm – 9pm

TICKETS: $15 Adults & $5 Children under 16
Portuguese American Club
57 Holly St. New Bedford, MA 02746

To purchase a ticket, call 508-979-4684 or stop by the office. You can also give the CEDC a donation, earmarking a portion for the dinner.

Download the flyer in English or in Spanish.

About the CEDC

The Community Economic Development Center of Southeastern Massachusetts, Inc. (CEDC) was established in 1997 as a Community Development Corporation. CEDC focuses on people-centered development and CEDC’s programs reach out to hundreds of poor and working people of the New Bedford area left out the mainstream of the economy. This includes people who speak English, Portuguese and Spanish; many are immigrants, working poor families, seniors, disabled and self-employed. Our core strength as an organization is our ability to create dynamic partnerships to help achieve our goal of “building bridges to a more just local economy”.

Current work the CEDC is focused on:

  • VITA- free tax preparation and Earned Income Credit Campaign
  • Immigrant Support Network
  • English classes /After School Arts and English
  • Immigrant Microenterprise Development/Neighborhood Revitalization
  • Bus Riders United organizing for expanded bus service

What Happened this week

While the 45th president of the United States has been busy trying to wreck the country, you probably missed what happened this week in the Democratic Party.

This week Donna Brazile published an explosive piece in POLITICO titled “Inside Hillary Clinton’s Secret Takeover of the DNC.” In her article Brazile recounts how the DNC, sinking under $24 million of debt bequeathed by the Obama campaign, was bailed out by the Clinton machine’s financial backers. Not only that, but the party was literally turned over to Clinton to a degree that DNC officers like Brazile didn’t even know what was going on. The deal with the devil was this — the DNC would receive an “allowance” from Clinton’s Wall Street cronies and in return Clinton would control the party.

Speaking of Wall Street and Clinton, Douglas Schoen, a former Clinton advisor, penned a piece in the New York Times recently, arguing that the Democrats need Wall Street. And while it may be true that Clinton and her billionaire friends on Wall Street need each other, others would beg to differ.

Robert Borosage writes in the Nation that “the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party will always be with us. Its policies—on financial deregulation, trade, fiscal austerity, mass incarceration, and military intervention—have been ruinous. Its political aversion to populist appeals has been self-defeating. But Wall Street has the money, so it will always enjoy upholstered think tanks, perches on op-ed pages, and gaggles of politicians eager to peddle its proposals.” Borosage points to centrist Democrats’ latest project — New Democracy — as an effort designed to convince Americans that Wall Street’s interests are their own.

And if you’ve been wondering which way the Democratic Party is headed, look no further than our own state. Seth Moulton has apparently been identified as its new face. As a Slate article points out, “the Massachusetts congressman is a white, centrist, Harvard-educated war hero who wants to remake the Democratic Party. Too bad no one wants that.” The Democrats and their “Better Deal” are intended to appeal to white, monied voters. To hell with everyone else.

While Clinton — to this day — still blames everyone but herself for her 2016 loss, this week a group of progressive Democrats issued their own report discussing what happened and what needs to change: AUTOPSY: The Democratic Party in Crisis. If you want to skip to the bottom line, read the executive summary. But several important important takeaways must be mentioned:

  • The Democratic National Committee and the party’s congressional leadership remain bent on prioritizing the chase for elusive Republican voters over the Democratic base: especially people of color, young people and working-class voters overall.
  • After suffering from a falloff of turnout among people of color in the 2016 general election, the party appears to be losing ground with its most reliable voting bloc, African-American women. “The Democratic Party has experienced an 11 percent drop in support from black women according to one survey, while the percentage of black women who said neither party represents them went from 13 percent in 2016 to 21 percent in 2017.”
  • One of the large groups with a voter-turnout issue is young people, “who encounter a toxic combination of a depressed economic reality, GOP efforts at voter suppression, and anemic messaging on the part of Democrats.”
  • “Emerging sectors of the electorate are compelling the Democratic Party to come to terms with adamant grassroots rejection of economic injustice, institutionalized racism, gender inequality, environmental destruction and corporate domination. Siding with the people who constitute the base isn’t truly possible when party leaders seem to be afraid of them.”

Finally, if you are a progressive and still harbor the delusional hope that the Democratic “big tent” is big and broad enough to accommodate you, think again.

Last week the DNC purged Sanders surrogates from the party leadership. Only Keith Ellison remains but he is isolated and it’s anyone’s guess how long he will maintain the pretense of party unity.

Somebody needs to be fighting for the interests of struggling and working people. But it’s obviously not going to be the Democrats.

MA Senate votes on Criminal Reform today

Today the Massachusetts state Senate considers a Criminal Justice Reform package filed by a group of senators including Will Brownsberger and Claire Cronin:

Progressive Massachusetts has done an analysis of amendments to the package. Call your state senator:

and ask them to support or vote against specific amendments to the package:

or use the EMAIL link to email them.

Two additional bills in the Senate preserve visitation for families of prisoners, which Bristol County residents, especially, should support:

Mainstreaming white supremacy

On Thursday morning the SouthCoast Chamber of Commerce had Bristol County sheriff Tom Hodgson and Helena DaSilva Hughes to breakfast at the Wamsutta Club to discuss immigration. During his presentation the sheriff cited questionable statistics from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), claiming that illegal immigration costs taxpayers $116 billion a year. The CATO Institute calls FAIR’s new study “fatally flawed” and “even more sloppy” than their previous one.

It would have more appropriate for Hodgson to speak about opioids, recidivism, or suicides. He actually knows something about the latter since his own jail accounts for a quarter of all county prison suicides. But there he was – again – acting as a spokesman for FAIR’s white supremacist immigration policies and conveniently avoiding trouble in his own backyard.

In 2015 Tom Hodgson appeared with Dennis Michael Lynch at an Islamophobic venue in Stoughton which had previously hosted Dutch neo-fascist Geert Wilders. Lynch is an Islamophobe, a white supremacist, a supporter of the Constitutional Sheriff Movement and of sovereign citizen Cliven Bundy, about whom he made a film.

That same year Hodgson appeared with a representative of the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR) at the Fisherman’s Club in New Bedford. Despite the name, FAIR has little to do with reform. Instead, its goal is assuring White Anglo-Saxon dominance. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, FAIR has links to white supremacists and eugenicists. Its founder, John Tanton, wrote to one eugenicist: “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”

In 2016 the Sheriff was one of three speakers at a “Patriots Unity Day” rally in Randolph. The second speaker was Jessica Vaughan, of the nativist organization Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Like FAIR, CIS was founded by John Tanton and publishes dubious statistics on immigration. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, CIS also maintains links to white supremacist and anti-semitic groups. CIS executive director Mark Krikorian quipped after the deadly 2010 Haitian earthquake: “My guess is that Haiti’s so screwed up because it wasn’t colonized long enough.” The third speaker was Raymond Hanna with the anti-Muslim hate group ACT for America, which also has white supremacist ties. In Arkansas ACT’s “March Against Shariah” events were organized by a Nazi and publicized on Stormfront.

In June this year the Sheriff appeared with Dan Stein and Michelle Malkin at an annual “Hold their feet to the fire” broadcast with anti-gay bigot Sandy Rios. Stein is executive director of FAIR, and characterizes America’s immigration laws as an effort “to retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance.” Stein describes Central American immigrants as engaged in “competitive breeding” and asks: “Should we be subsidizing people with low IQs to have as many children as possible, and not subsidizing those with high ones?” Malkin too has links to white supremacist groups, including VDARE, and to Islamophobic groups. Malkin opposes the 14th Amendment, which gave citizenship to slaves.

According to FAIR’s 2011 annual report, that was the year the organization began cultivating sheriffs like Hodgson. “In 2011, we identified sheriffs who expressed concerns about illegal immigration.” FAIR staff “met with these sheriffs and their deputies, supplied them with a steady stream of information, established regular conference calls so they could share information and experiences, and invited them to come to Washington to meet with FAIR’s senior staff.” Since roughly that time Hodgson’s main job has been as a FAIR spokesman.

It’s hard to believe that the avuncular fellow who sends Thanksgiving turkeys to deportees in the Azores could really have such horrific views. But when the sheriff keeps consorting with white supremacists, singing and quoting their lyrics in the original German – well – it’s hard to reach any other conclusion. Tom Hodgson is a white supremacist.

It was disappointing that the Chamber of Commerce gave this hater a mainstream platform, and worse, an opportunity to skip another day of work – taking care of the business Bristol County voters actually elected him to do.