We turn now to a powerful new book, released today [Tuesday], that tells the story of one woman as she fights back against the impacts of social and racial injustice in America on her family. That woman is Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. The book, titled “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir,” is both an account of survival, strength and resilience, and a call to action to change the culture that declares innocent black life expendable. Patrisse’s story follows her childhood in Los Angeles in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as her mother worked three jobs, struggling to earn a living wage. And it puts a human face on the way mass incarceration and the war on drugs hurt young black men, including her relatives and friends. Patrisse’s father was a victim of the drug war. He died at the age of 50. Her brother spent years in prison for nonviolent crimes stemming from his battles against mental illness. He was once even charged with terrorism after being involved in a car accident. The police would target Patrisse, too—raiding her house without just cause. In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Patrisse co-founded Black Lives Matter along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. The movement began online but soon spread across the country. We speak to Patrisse and her co-author, asha bandele. ashaisauthorof five books, including the best-seller “The Prisoner’s Wife.” She is a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a powerful new book, released today, that tells the story of one woman as she fights back against the impacts of social and racial injustice in America on her family. That woman is Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. The book, titled When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, is both an account of survival, strength and resilience, and a call to action to change the culture that declares innocent black life expendable. Patrisse’s story follows her childhood in Los Angeles in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as her mother worked three jobs, struggling to earn a living wage. And it puts a human face on the way mass incarceration and the war on drugs hurts young black men, including her relatives and friends.
AMY GOODMAN: Patrisse’s father was a victim of the drug war. He died at the age of 50. Her brother spent years in prison for nonviolent crimes stemming from his battles against mental illness. He was once even charged with terrorism after being involved in a car accident. The police would target Patrisse, too, raiding her house without just cause.
In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Patrisse co-founded Black Lives Matter along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. The movement began online but soon spread across the country. “Black Lives Matter” became the rallying cry at protests decrying the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in Staten Island, and many others, including Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail after a traffic stop.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors joins us in the studio today, on the day of the publication of her new book, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. She wrote the book with the award-winning journalist asha bandele, who also joins us. asha is the author of five books, including the best-seller The Prisoner’s Wife. She’s a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance. Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele will join us after this break to talk about Patrisse’s remarkable life story. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a survivor. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Music recorded last spring at Judson Memorial Church at a gathering for Ravi Ragbir ahead of one of his check-ins with ICE. Last week, he was detained, and he is now in deportation proceedings in a jail in Florida. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Our guests are Patrisse Khan-Cullors, talking about her new book, released today, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, written with the award-winning journalist asha bandele.
Patrisse, congratulations. This is an astounding book.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: This weekend, I flew to Colorado and then came back yesterday through Chicago’s snowstorm, and everyone on the plane knew I had misplaced my book, because I said, “I must finish reading this book,” until asha kindly sent me the manuscript on the plane, right? And then I said, “OK,” to the pilot, “we can now take off.” And I read aloud on the—no, not exactly—on the loudspeaker. But the story you have told of growing up against all the odds—
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us where you were born and place us in Los Angeles, in your community, one—next to one of the richest and whitest in the United States.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes. I was born in Van Nuys, California, which is not known, but it’s a suburb outside of Los Angeles inner city. And it was literally in between multiple white neighborhoods, including Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Northridge. And I witnessed consistent policing, militarized policing. I witnessed the impact mass incarceration had on my family members. And the most early memories for me were my home being raided by LAPD and LAPD lighting up my siblings and their friends, at 11, 13 years old, stopping and frisking them. And this became our normal in our neighborhood, even though I knew it was not normal.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you know?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Because I could feel the humiliation in every stop, in every moment LAPD was around. I could feel the impact it had on my mother. I could feel it in our community. And I knew that we shouldn’t be living this way. I knew that there was more for us. And then I ended up going to a mostly white school, and I got to see the very real difference between how they were treated, and never actually witnessing police in their neighborhoods, and then how my family and my community was treated.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. You write so eloquently about the differences. This was in the middle school that you went there. And the—talk about some of the examples of the difference in treatment between that mostly upper- and middle-class white community, so close to yours, and the way your own neighborhood was being dealt with.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: I mean, it was just in the school itself. It was not policed. There were no cops on campus, compared to the middle school that I went to for summer school, which was the first time I was arrested, at 12 years old.
AMY GOODMAN: You can name your schools.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Millikan Middle School was in Sherman Oaks, which was the upper-middle-class middle school with mostly white folks. And Van Nuys Middle School was mostly working-class, poor, immigrant communities and black folks. And it was just literal. I mean, one looks like a prison, and one looks like a university.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And one had metal detectors. And could you talk about the experience of one time you were arrested in the—in that summer school?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes. I was arrested because I was—had been smoking weed in the bathroom. And at Millikan, you could do that, and no one was checking for you, worried about you.
AMY GOODMAN: You mean the white school.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: At Millikan, the white school in Sherman Oaks, yes. It just sounds like a white school: Millikan. And at Van Nuys—
AMY GOODMAN: And lots of girls did it.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah. I mean, all the white girls did it. I mean, that’s actually who introduced weed to me, was the white girls. And Van Nuys Middle School was mostly, like I said, working-class, communities of color. And I was—a cop came into my classroom. It was my science class. And when I—as a younger person, when I saw law enforcement, I feared them. There was already sort of that emotional response. The entire classroom got kind of tight. And the science—you know, the cop whispered in the science teacher’s ear, and the science teacher called me up to the class. He handcuffed me in front of my classroom and then walked me down a hallway.
AMY GOODMAN: You were 12 years old.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: I was 12 years old. And all I can think about—because when you’re 12, I wasn’t thinking about the political, you know, analysis of the moment. I was thinking about: What is my mother going to say? What am I going to tell my mother? Which I lied through my teeth. But it wasn’t until I got older that I realized the impact of that moment and the impact that would have on me for the rest of my life.
AMY GOODMAN: You also describe your brothers and the places you all had to hang out, very limited—you didn’t have the playgrounds of Sherman Oaks, rec centers, arts programs—and the police moving in on them when they were kids. You were right nearby. You were like what? Nine?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah, 9 years old. I was 9 years old, yeah. And once again, when you’re a child, you just pick the places that are most convenient. That was alleyways. That was the front of our building. Sometimes it was in our homes. But it was—you know, when you’re a child, you’re playing. You want to play outside.
And because of the war on gangs, because of gang injunctions, the boys, specifically, in my neighborhood, were labeled as gang members. And my brother will tell the story, which is, they never considered themselves a gang, until the police called them a gang, that that’s not how they related to themselves. They were a bunch of boys hanging out. And those—and at 9 years old, bearing witness to that type of humiliation has an impact on you.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, asha bandele, what made you decide that you thought this was an important story to tell, if you could talk about that, as well, and how you first came together?
ASHA BANDELE: So, Patrisse and I had known each other for a good number of years as organizers. And I thought it was monumentally important to go behind the statistics and unpack the real-world story of the impact of the drug war and mass incarceration on people’s lives. It’s sort of what I’ve dedicated my life to, as, you know, someone who had family members in prison and as somebody who has seen the human cost of mass incarceration. I wanted Patrisse to tell her story in a full, complete way.
And I was especially enraged that Black Lives Matter and the leaders of Black Lives Matter had been called terrorists, when I knew that these were people dedicated deeply to peace in our communities, peace for our children. I knew the impact Patrisse had on my own daughter, of love and of peace. And I wanted people to see that. I don’t think that you get to misname people. And I think that the history of who we are needs to be told and needs to be documented. And that’s my dedication as a writer and as an organizer.
AMY GOODMAN: Patrisse, I want people to meet your family the way you introduce them to us, because that’s really the point of this book, is people speaking for themselves, your unique experiences and the difference in how you grow up in this country from other communities. Can you introduce us to your mothers, your fathers, your brothers, your sister?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes. Cherice Foley, who is my mother, a brilliant woman who literally raised four children on her own in the middle of the '80s, ’90s, she is powerful. I mean, she's literally powerful.
Monte Cullors, who was my first best friend, who was criminalized very early on—Monte’s first time in juvenile hall was 13 years old, and he would spend from 13 ’til 36 in and out of juvenile hall, prisons and lockdown facilities, simply because of his mental illness and the war on drugs.
My brother Paul Cullors, who was a parent to us, as my mother worked three, sometimes four, jobs, and also has become my security—he’s a security guard, so he does my security in Los Angeles. He’s pretty much my first protector.
My sister Jasmine Cullors, who—in a lot of ways, we kind of kept her from so much of what we witnessed and experienced. We protected her.
And my two fathers—my biological father, Gabriel Brignac, who I met when I was 11 years old, that I detail in the story and always kind of knew someone else was out there, always asked questions of my mother, but got to meet his brilliance at 11 and learned so much about myself because of him and my family. And Alton Cullors, the father who raised me, who is—used to work at the GM Van Nuys plant, and was shut down and was forced into taking jobs that were not so meaningful, and now owns a mechanic shop in Las Vegas.
AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about Monte and your experience—well, first, he’s—after he’s arrested, before he’s diagnosed, what this all means, and then this unbelievable moment where you decide to call in the police, after he’s back from jail?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah. Monte—we didn’t know Monte was suffering from mental illness. Unfortunate reality is many communities of color, working-class poor communities, we don’t have people coming in and educating us about the crisis of mental health. And so, we just thought some—we didn’t know what was wrong. We didn’t. And when Monte was arrested for a robbery and when he was 18 years old, broke someone’s window, he said the voices told him to do it, and ended up going to prison for three years. In his stay in prison, he was tortured by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, brutally beaten. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Your mother first seeing him—she couldn’t even find where he was.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: No, no, they disappeared him. And this is actually—was a common practice of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. It’s disappearing prisoners. And when she finally saw him, two months later, he was emaciated. My brother is 6’2”, almost 300 pounds. They had completely overmedicated him. And we would learn, later on, years later, just what he endured in that jail cell.
When he was released, when he was 23 years old, it was one of the most exciting days of my life. I get to see my brother. I hadn’t seen him in years. We didn’t know that we could visit people. You know, they don’t give you sort of what are the steps when your loved one is incarcerated. We didn’t realize that we could go visit him, so we didn’t see him for four years. We just wrote a lot of letters. And the first thing that I noticed when I picked him up from the bus stop is they let him out in flip-flops, an undershirt and boxers. And I just—I was—I was so disturbed, like I couldn’t—
AMY GOODMAN: He was at the bus station in boxer shorts?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: He was in boxer shorts and a white T-shirt and flip-flops, which—shower shoes, essentially. And I ushered him in the car. And he was acting very different. It was not the brother that went inside and that I knew. And the minute he got into the house, my mother said, “This is—something’s wrong with my son.” And, you know, as every child, I was like, “Mom, be quiet. He just got out of prison. Like just give him some time.”
And over a week, he slowly—he quickly deteriorated. And I didn’t know who to call. And eventually I called the ambulance, and I made the unfortunate choice to tell them that my brother had just been released from jail. They said, “Well, that’s not our problem; you have to call the police.” And I said, “I can’t call the police on my brother. You have no”—you know, this is before Black Lives Matter, before we’ve seen, you know, black people be killed at the hands of law enforcement, especially black people with mental illness. But I just knew that that was not the right choice.
But I didn’t have anybody else to call, and I did call the police. And I talked them through, and I let them know what was happening. And the first thing they said to me—I said, “What happens if my brother happens to get violent?” And they said, “We’ll just taser him.” I mean, just like flat-faced—
AMY GOODMAN: These are two young cops who came.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Two young rookie cops, clearly scared out of their minds. And I said, “You cannot taser him. Like, that’s not—that’s unacceptable.” They walked into my house, and the minute they walked in, my brother just put his hands up and went on his knees and just started begging them. You know, he just started begging them. And I just knew I made a mistake. I just knew I made a mistake. And I, you know, held my brother. I said, “It’s OK.” And I told them to leave. And it was in that moment that I realized that we’re on our own, that we are literally on our own, and there is no infrastructure for black poor families when dealing with mental illness. There’s just none. And we had to piece the infrastructure together.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the—talk about the time that he was charged with terrorism.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah, it was in those years, as he was off and on his medication. He was in a fender bender. And he was in the middle of a manic episode. And he might have cursed at the woman, might have not. We don’t know. We weren’t there. But the woman claimed that he had cursed at her. And because my brother was a second striker, then because they said that the cursing was threatening, they—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by “second striker.”
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: He has had two strikes on his record, which is part of the three strikes law, and was—
AMY GOODMAN: In California.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: In California—and could end up getting—if he were to receive his third strike, end up in jail for life. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Even if that third strike is stealing a candy bar.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Stealing a candy bar, getting in a fender bender. So, we went to court, when we finally found where my brother was. We went to that first court date, and the lawyer said, “You know, your brother is being charged with terrorist threats, and that is a felony. And they will probably be putting him away for the rest of his life.” And he was 24, 24 years old. And I said, “That’s not—not on my watch.”
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re a kid.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re a kid through all of this.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You describe a scene where you’re in the white school, and so you’re making some white girlfriends, who you really cared about. And you describe going to one of their homes and the lovely, unbelievable scene that unfolds at dinner and the way they respected you. Describe what happened. Describe the dad of the family and how he treated you.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes, this is—was one of my closest friends, growing up, in middle school. And you become friends with the people that are in proximity to you. So, it was a significantly white program, significantly white school. Those are my friends. And I went back to this friend’s house and what looked like a mansion to me. It’s probably not that big of a house, but compared to our neighborhood and tiny apartment, this house looked like a mansion.
And we were all at dinner. And the father is jolly. I mean, honestly, like probably—he looked like the original Santa Claus, like big, jolly white man with a beard and super sweet and a smile on his face all the time. And we’re talking, you know, and I’ve never been in a scenario like this, where you sit around and have dinner, and people pass things and ask questions of you. And he’s, you know—and we get to a point in the conversation where he—I don’t know how. Maybe he asked me, because oftentimes, you know, middle-class parents ask what your family does. And I’m talking about my mother, and he says—you know, repeats my mother’s name, “Cherice. Where do you live?” And I tell him my address. He says, “Oh, I own those apartments.”
And my heart dropped, because it was the apartment that I lived in that we didn’t have a refrigerator for a year, that sometimes appliances didn’t work, that we—I realized very quickly that that was our slumlord. And the contradiction in that moment, it was hard to settle, and a tension in that moment started to develop.
AMY GOODMAN: Because he was the first person who said to you, “Patrisse”—before you learned he was your slumlord—”what do you want to do with your life?”
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: “What are your plans?”
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: “How are you going to execute them?”
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Exactly, exactly. And yeah, what do you do with those moments, when the person who clearly has investment in you doesn’t actually have investment in your entire family and an infrastructure that your family is living in? It’s hard to manage.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also described, at a point, inviting a friend from that other world to your house, and him coming into your house, and the ambulance in the background—
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that you just took for granted.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And he suddenly remarks, “I didn’t know you live like this,” or something like that.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about that?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: That’s exactly what happened. And, you know, I think what’s interesting about growing up black and poor is you don’t actually realize how bad it is until you see what else someone else has. And my mother was very particular about who we let over. And I begged her. I begged her to let my friend over. He was my best friend. You know, I didn’t think there would be any judgment. I didn’t assume there would be any judgment. And there definitely was.
And he walked in my home. And I remember that day so vividly, because there was the ambulance in the background. I was like, “Why does the ambulance have to be here today? Why the sirens today?” And I was nervous about him coming in. And he walked into my living room, and I was sitting on the couch. And he said—kind of looked around. He was like, “I didn’t know you live like this.”
And I got that—I got that a lot from other middle-class children, because they only know their world, and they don’t have to actually enter the world of communities of color and of poor communities, in particular.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you also describe that Van Nuys was a racially mixed neighborhood, a large Mexican-American community.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: There were Korean Americans. There were even a few white folks who lived in the neighborhood. Talk about that experience, as well.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah, I grew up mostly around Latinos. And my community—my experience with both law enforcement and witnessing what was then INS, Immigration National Security, was really prominent. And I think it was important, you know, to grow up in such a multiracial environment. Many of us, our family members were getting, you know, social welfare. Many of our family members were getting food stamps, when they actually looked like stamps and they looked colored. And like, we grew up in this environment, and we really raised each other, and we really took care of each other. And it colored—I think it really colors how I am in this movement. We have to take care of each other. We didn’t have local government taking care of us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, what it meant to come out in your community, with your family, with your friends; your response to Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman being acquitted; how you came up with that hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter. And we want to talk with asha about how this story shows us the stories about the effects of drug policy and mass incarceration. Today is the day that a remarkable book has just come out, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. It’s by our guests today, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele. This is Democracy Now! Back with them in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: “Forgive Them, Father” by Lauryn Hill. Our guests today are Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and asha bandele. Together, they have written the book, the memoir of Patrisse’ life; it’s called When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Patrisse, why don’t you just read from your book? Aside from the astonishing story you tell, it is so beautifully written.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Chapter 11, Black Lives Matter.
This was a teenager just trying to get home. Sybrina Fulton.
“It is July 13, 2013, and I have stepped away from monitoring events at the trial of the man who killed Trayvon Martin, 17, a year and a half before. I had learned about Trayvon one day while I was at the Strategy Center in 2012 and going through Facebook. I came across a small article from a local paper. Was it Sanford’s? I read that a white man—that’s how the killer was identified and self-identified until we raised the issue of race—had killed a Black boy and was not going to be charged.
“I start cursing. I am outraged. In what … world does this make sense? I put a call out: have people heard about 17-year-old Trayvon Martin? I have loved so many young men who look just like this boy. I feel immediate grief, and as my friends begin to respond, they, too, are grief stricken. We meet at my home. We circle up. A multiracial group of roughly 15 people dedicated to ending white supremacy and creating a world in which all of our children can thrive. We process. We talk about what we’ve seen and experienced in our lives. We cry.”
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Patrisse Khan-Cullors, reading from her book, released today, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering, Patrisse: Were you surprised by the enormous reaction, as you began to develop the Black Lives Matter theme? And also, talk about the Strategy—you mention you had come out of the Strategy Center. What was the Strategy Center?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Well, I’m a trained organizer. And so, I think sometimes people think that because Black Lives Matter is the biggest thing, that that’s the first thing I ever did. And it’s not. I was trained knocking on doors, you know, getting on buses and passing out flyers and getting people to join organizations. The Labor Community Strategy Center is my first political home. It’s where I would be a part of what it’s famous for, which is the Bus Riders Union.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Started by an old friend of mine, Eric Mann.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes, Eric Mann. That’s my mentor.
AMY GOODMAN: And that hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, explain how it came to you, your relationship with Alicia Garza and how the three of you—I mean, I remember when we had you on our show, the three of you, these towers of strength—Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi—
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —right when you were just going into a major conference that weekend.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: But this was before.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: How did it come to you? Why were you talking to Alicia? Did you know her before?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: I did. I had known Alicia for at least six years by the time we started Black Lives Matter. And George Zimmerman had just been acquitted of Trayvon Martin’s murder, and I was furious, and I was grief-stricken. And I went onto social media, as many of folks in our generation do, to go commiserate with the people that I love and know. And I found Alicia Garza’s post, and she wrote a love note to black folks. And she closed that post off with “Black Lives Matter.” And I put a hashtag on it. And I said, “We’ve got to make this go viral, that those are the three words.”
And literally, within the next 24 hours, her and I would be talking about a project that we wanted to create, and we were going to call it Black Lives Matter. Opal Tometi called Alicia a few days later, saying, “I want in. I want to be a part of this. I want to help develop it. I want to build up the communications infrastructure so that it can go viral.” And that’s the very beginning of Black Lives Matter. And it would become a phrase, into a hashtag, evolve into a political platform and evolve into what’s now a global network and an organization with over 40 chapters worldwide.
AMY GOODMAN: And before this, coming out, coming out, because so much of the power is this—it’s the personal story you tell.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course, there are the global political implications. But it starts with a kid. It starts with Patrisse.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah, Patrisse, the—I was very weird and a self-proclaimed weirdo, just super excited about life. You know, I’m an artist, and so I had been to a lot of art schools and performance schools. And at 14 years old, my cousin actually came out first. And she was the brave one. She was the trailblazer. And she got—she got a lot of backlash from her mother, in particular, so much so that they got in a physical fight on our high school campus, and she—
AMY GOODMAN: Your mother—her mother came to school and beat her up.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes, her mother came to school and physically fought her and then pulled her out of the school, that was so nurturing to her and where really all our family was, and put her in a totally different program. But it was that—it was my cousin’s courage that really shaped me being clear about why I needed to come out. And I would come out the very next year. And—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your family’s reaction?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: It was very hard for my mother. We never talked about it, but—
AMY GOODMAN: She was a Jehovah’s Witness?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: She is a Jehovah’s Witness. My whole family on my mother’s side is Jehovah’s Witness. But I knew that it was a “sin.” And we—by that last year of high school, my senior year of high school, many of us had come out. And we were houseless. We roamed people’s homes. We went to the families who were accepting of us. We stayed in cars.
AMY GOODMAN: You lived with a teacher who saved—helped to save your life? There are so many.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Donna Hill. Yes, Donna Hill. The day I graduated, I moved in with her. And I propositioned her, you know, early on. I said, “I’d like to live with you.” She said, “I can’t legally have you live with me. You’re a student.” But she said, “The moment you graduate, you’re welcome to come live with me.” And myself and my close friend, Carla Gonzalez, who’s still one of my best friends, moved in with her and lived with her for a couple years, while we got ourselves on our feet.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, asha, I’d like to ask you—you’ve been active in the movement against American drug policy. Can you talk about that involvement and how that shaped your decision to get involved in writing this book?
ASHA BANDELE: Well, first, in terms of doing the book, it was to support Patrisse in telling her story. And I think that as a journalist and being trained to sort of deeply listen, it was clear that what Patrisse was actually telling was a story of someone who grew up at the epicenter of the drug war in Southern California. And I thought that was particularly important to unpack, because even many of us who oppose mass incarceration don’t feel comfortable challenging drug policies. Drugs, you know, we understand them—U.S. drug policy has been—we’ve used it against ourselves. We’ve been embarrassed, ashamed. Black people haven’t stood up. You know, we can say Killer Mike and embrace Killer Mike as a great rapper, but we would never do that with Crackhead Mike, right?
And so, we’ve participated in a stigma that was directly created at a moment when black people were at the top of the moral mountain, the civil rights movement, but you could no longer use race as a reason to exclude people from society. Nixon’s administration uses drugs as a proxy for race and goes after them. We know that now. We know what John Ehrlichman has said. Did they know they were lying? He says of course they knew they were lying about black people and drug involvement. But they’ve so demonized it that we don’t even want to talk about it.
And whole communities, meanwhile, are targeted under the guise of keeping children safe, when they’re actually making children less safe. It’s been the reason for—in any case you look at, in Trayvon Martin’s case—right?—the first thing the lawyer said was, “Oh, he had marijuana in his system,” as though that was some justification. They said the same thing about Sandra Bland. Eric Garner is selling loose cigarettes, they claim—and the family disputes that, by the way, but they claim he’s selling loose cigarettes. So, all of these drug products are used as a justification to kill people, to roll tanks into Ferguson. That comes from drug war dollars. And when they don’t—what they talk about are people dying of drug use, but what’s actually more harmful is the drug war.
AMY GOODMAN: It is clear in this book that nothing in Patrisse’s life would indicate who she would become. I’m saying “she,” but she is right here, but I’m talking to you, asha. Your life now—I mean, you wrote, in a remarkable book, The Prisoner’s Wife, about your husband, who was imprisoned, then deported to Guyana in 2009—
ASHA BANDELE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —instead of coming out and being able to live in this country. And then you meet Patrisse, whose life story so intertwined with the drug war, yet if people were to look at Patrisse’s story, they wouldn’t necessarily know that, how it’s U.S. policy that is shaping this young woman’s life.
ASHA BANDELE: Right. And I think that’s true for many of us. We see the immediate action in front of us, right? The immediate police officer who has a gun in your face. But we don’t think about: How is that police officer empowered to do this? And how can we disempower them? We don’t think about the fact that moneys are set aside in every police department for us to be able to sue them when they do harm us. I wonder, if all the money police departments pay out to people who are harmed by law enforcement came out of their pension funds, how much we might reduce police violence. We don’t think about what it means to have civil asset forfeiture, that takes away primarily poor people’s homes and minimal assets—right?—that disrupts incomes and makes people homeless. And then they take that money and buy tanks and buy other kinds of militarized equipment that harm our communities.
So, there’s a direct line, and I want people to see that and no longer feel the shame and stigma of either drug use, drug involvement or oppression, because oppression is embarrassing. It shames us. It humiliates us to say, “This happened to me,” rather than, “I was the arbiter of my own destiny.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It’s interesting you mention especially the racial character of the war on drugs, because we’re now through a new drug epidemic in America, the opioid epidemic.
ASHA BANDELE: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But no one’s calling for a crackdown—
ASHA BANDELE: Exactly.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —on the rural communities and locking them up and throwing the key away, for the victims of the opioid epidemic, like they did over the crack epidemic or they did over the heroin epidemic in the '60s and ’70s. It's a whole different approach now to helping people.
AMY GOODMAN: Of understanding and mental health help.
ASHA BANDELE: You know, it is, and it isn’t, right? So, we have this very public face, with Chris Christie on East Coast saying a lot of things about it. But in truth, if we look at the cocaine use in the '80s and ’90s, first of all, white people used and sold more crack and used more powder cocaine—they're pharmaceutically the same drug, right? So, they used it more than we did. And the response to them was employee assistance programs. It was “We’re going to take care of you.” It was Betty Ford Center. It was any number of things to ensure their communities didn’t fall apart.
And the response to our communities was incarceration and demonization. In very many ways, that’s the same thing that’s happening. It’s just more public. So, white people, embraced, and black people, 80 to 90 percent of those now going to prison for heroin involvement.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, this is the story of your life. You coined the term, with two of your sisters, “Black Lives Matter.” Black Lives Matter under Trump, your comment?
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: I think we are living under a really grave administration that is really challenging our moral compass in America. I think Black Lives Matter is in a moment where we get to stand up to Trump, but also the white nationalists that he’s powered. And it’s in this moment that Black Lives Matter gets to forge a new path for this country, where we can honestly see and live in a democratic America.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us and recommend, everyone, your next book should be this one. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and asha bandele, award-winning journalist and author, have written a new book—it’s out today—When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.
In this tumultuous world, one thing seems certain: today’s dire threats to our democracy did not arise out of nowhere. Every culture thrives, or not, on whether its core narrative—the causation story we tell ourselves—enhances mutual gain or spurs division. And, the narrative driving today’s unfolding catastrophe feeds the latter.
It begins with a deep distrust of human nature.
Way back in 1651, philosopher Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan summed up our nature with the Latin proverb Homohominilupus, “Man is a wolf to his fellow man.” From this thought tradition, now reinforced through much of media and advertising, we absorb the notion that humans are essentially selfish, competitive, and materialistic. Yet, with this dim view of our nature, how can we possibly make society work? The dominant narrative has the answer: Just put self-interest to work.
So, by the end of the 1980s, the notion of a “free market” driven by calculated self-interest had risen to economic gospel. Influenced by 20th-century economists—led, for example, by F.A. Hayek and then Milton Friedman and his “Chicago School”—we’ve come to see the “free market” untethered from human meddling as an almost infallible law. It’s what Ronald Reagan called the “magic” of the “marketplace,” efficiently sorting out winners and losers for the benefit of all.
With help from a handful of billionaire families, this free-market ideology took hold. Since the 1970s, their funding has spread the idea of government-as-problem and market-as-solution through policy think tanks, the media, higher education, and far-right political organizing. The mindset steadily drove into private hands what had long been public goods—from the airwaves to schools to prisons—while simultaneously decimating government’s role in protecting public welfare.
Not surprisingly, trust in government has dropped to historic lows. Only one in five of us now feels such trust, down from roughly three-quarters in the late 50s.
Taking a step back, however, we can see that no market is “free.” While all markets have rules, ours has been increasingly whittled down to just one: Do what brings highest and most immediate return to existing wealth. Following Friedman’s mantra, the sole purpose of business must be maximizing profit.
With this simple logic, wealth inexorably accrues to wealth, making quickening economic inequality a given. Since 1980, the top 1 percent of U.S. earners has doubled its share of total income. And the top one-tenth of that 1 percent did even better. Its total pre-tax income quadrupled between 1980 and 2010. Compared to Europe, America now takes the economic inequality cake.
But Americans acquiesce, since market doctrine has convinced us to view the success of the few as deserved, or at least an inevitable side-effect of what’s conveyed to us as virtually a law of nature.
Two huge problems follow.
First, once trapped in the myth of the free market, Americans tie their own and their compatriots’ worth to their wealth. And, once accepting the notion of an unerring market rewarding those who work like the devil to succeed, it follows that those who fail to attain the “American dream” are at fault, and therefore undeserving. Representative Paul Ryan captured the outcome of this mindset when in 2012 he described our country as divided between the “makers” and the “takers.”
Plus, the aura of infallibility surrounding the market convinces many that assisting the “laggards” throws the market out of kilter, harming us all.
Then, once accepting, even unconsciously, that a market unerringly picks winners and you yourself are struggling to get by, it’s hard not to feel shame. To shield ourselves against shame, understandably many turn to blame. Especially when primed.
In Strangers in Their Own Land, professor Arlie Hochschild offers a helpful metaphor with which to understand the rush to blame. She describes the economically decimated, white working-class mindset this way: You’ve been waiting in line for the American dream, all the while playing by the rules and working hard. But the line isn’t moving. (In fact, workers’ real income has hardly budged since the 1970s.) Then, in coded and not-so-coded terms you’re told those others—people of color, immigrants, refugees—have cut ahead of you thanks to government favors and affirmative action policies.
Of course, you’re angry, and the blaming frame sticks even though whites have been the main beneficiaries by far of government rules and programs.
Into this flammable mix of suffering and confusion, Donald Trump’s hate speech throws a torch. White nationalists behind the Charlottesville tragedy acknowledged that they’d felt encouraged by the president. Tapping into the anger of those primed for shame and blame, Trump distracts Americans from the core, system problem—a one-rule market inexorably concentrating wealth—undermining democracy and thus our power to come together to shape solutions.
The second huge downside of a narrative making tightly held economic power inevitable is that almost universally it translates into tightly held political power. The 2016 federal election cost $6.4 billion, two-thirds of it coming from well less than 1 percent of donors. Those elected are thus set up to serve the donor class, not all Americans.
In 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned Congress of the dire consequence: “[I]f the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself,” he told us, “that, in its essence, is fascism.”
And the cycle is self-reinforcing.
The more money drives our political choices, the more policies favor the better off, bringing still more impoverishment, suffering, and blame. Today, half of babies born in America are so poor they rely on public aid for sustenance, and poverty robs Americans of years of life as the gap in lifespan between rich and poor widens. Homelessness is another measure. Not widespread until the Reagan years, it exploded during his presidency. In 2016, more than half a million Americans were without homes.
Such outcomes are one reason we call this variant of a market economy “brutal capitalism.” So, what is to be done?
We start by nurturing an evidence-grounded causation story—one aligned with the rich complexity of human nature and with the three essentials we need to thrive. They are a sense of personal power, meaning in our lives, and connection with community, and only inclusive, accountable democracy has a chance of making them possible.
The only way to create this new story of possibility is through our action, and it’s happening. In this dark time, a vigorous and unprecedented democracy movement is emerging. Led by citizens of all backgrounds—inspiring our new book, Daring Democracy—it is uniting groups long focused on specific issues, from the environment to racial justice to labor, who are now joining forces with veteran democracy-reform groups to tackle big money’s grip on our elections and to ensure voting rights. Step by bold step, citizens joining in this never-more-needed movement are gaining confidence in their capacities to shape an accountable, inclusive democracy in which all voices are heard.
Because the democracy movement holds the inherent dignity of all as a core value, this rising movement can be a key in freeing us from our blaming and shaming culture and moving us toward one in which we’re all responsible and thus able to experience the thrill of democracy.
In advance of a legislative battle over reforming California’s cash bail system, a new report shines light on which Los Angeles communities pay the most bail and by how much. The Price for Freedom, published by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, analyzed arrest data from 2012 through 2016. The authors concluded that the money bail system takes a “multi-billion dollar toll that demands tens of millions of dollars annually in cash and assets from some of L.A.’s most economically vulnerable persons, families and communities.”
Using the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s misdemeanor and felony bail schedules, researchers discovered that bail set for more than 374,000 people arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for misdemeanors and felonies over that five-year period was $19.4 billion.
Bail agents typically charge seven to 10 percent of the total bail; money going to bail bondsmen, whether upfront or through installments, is nonrefundable, even if defendants are found not guilty or have their charges dropped by the prosecutor.
The Bunche Center study also found that the cash bail system disproportionately affects lower income Angelenos and communities of color. During the period covered by the study, black Angelenos paid bond agents $40.7 million in non-refundable fees — 21 percent of total fees paid to bond agents in a population that represents only nine percent of the population. Latinos paid just over $92 million, and whites just under $38 million over the same period. Figures for Asian Americans were unavailable to researchers.
The Bunche Center study is the first comprehensive look into the size and impact of the bail system in the city of Los Angeles. Researchers plan to release a similar report for Los Angeles County in 2018, saying that the numbers they compiled should show lawmakers what’s at stake in the escalating debate over cash bail reform.
Comprehensive legislation to eliminate California’s bail systemfailed in the Legislature this year. Twin bills, Senate Bill 10 authored by Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), and Assembly Bill 42, authored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), would throw out the California bail schedules and mandate counties to conduct pretrial assessments to determine whether a defendant poses a safety threat to the community or a flight risk. The bills would also mandate counties to develop plans to ensure low-risk defendants show up for their court dates. Bonta and Hertzberg have vowed to bring back bail reform legislation early in 2018. And their efforts have the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has said “inequities exist” in the system, and of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who cited the state’s bail system as “unsafe and unfair,” and created a working group to recommend changes.
UCLA Professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez, one of the authors of The Price of Freedom, told Capital & Main that her study showed 70 percent of the bail amount levied went unpaid, and as a result 223,366 people remained behind bars until their arraignment.
“Many of these people don’t even have $100 in the bank, so paying 10 percent to a bond agent means that money won’t be going toward rent or food. If the breadwinner stays behind bars, the family suffers from lack of income.”
And it is most often female family members who, when they are able, engage bail agents. A 2015 study led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that incarceration takes a toll on all family members through debt, mental and physical ailments, and severed family ties.
For Isaac Bryan, a graduate researcher in the UCLA Department of Public Policy and a co-author of The Price of Freedom, the issue of cash bail is personal. Eight months ago he received a call from a bond agent saying that a family member had been arrested for alleged property crime and drug possession. The bail was set at $25,000, and would he be able to cover it? As a struggling student, Bryan didn’t have the 10 percent upfront fee.
Supporters of cash bail say it ensures defendants will show up to court. If they fail to appear, they forfeit their bail money. Critics answer that only works when an arrestee puts up the entire bail amount. If they pay a bail agent, they lose their down payment regardless of whether they show up. The agent is on the hook for the rest of the bail.
Bail reform advocates also point to a 2017 report, Selling Off Our Freedom, published by the ACLU and the nonprofit Color of Change, which showed that much of the money collected by bail agents goes to big underwriters, including Japan-based Tokio Marine and Toronto-based Fairfax Financial, and that insurers offload most of the risk to bond agents.
Efforts to reform the cash bail system have met strong resistance from law enforcement, prosecutors and, not surprisingly, the bail industry, whose representatives say that eliminating cash bail would pose considerable harm to the public.
“Bail bond is of no expense to the taxpayer,” said Zeke Unger, owner of Lil’ Zeke’s Bail Bonds in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. “But if you let defendants out, not only do they have no motivation to go to court, you’ll have to invest in manpower to keep track of them while they’re out.”
Cash-bail advocates also point out that agents help defendants, who otherwise could not afford to do so, exercise their constitutional right to bail. But the question reformers ask, and what’s at the heart of the reform debate is: Why should freedom be determined by a person’s bank account?
Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior campaign strategist for the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice and a contributor to both Selling Off Our Freedom and The Price for Freedom reports, said that cash bail is supposed to make sure people return to court, but because of the high bail, in many cases, “it’s a way of keeping people in jail. Bail is not supposed to be a punishment. Right now the bail system is wealth-based detention.”
“We know that people of color are over-policed and over-represented in jails,” she added. “These reports show one more piece of the scale of economic drain of the criminal justice system on those communities.”
Across the U.S., states and courts are starting to rethink their cash bail systems. Earlier this year, New Jersey implemented an overhaul in its bail structure, and New Mexico is deciding how to address a voter-backed bail reform measure. In July, an Illinois judge ordered the reform of the bail system in Cook County, which includes Chicago. Now defendants who cannot pay bail and pose no flight risk or danger to the public do not remain behind bars before trial.
At the federal level, Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a bill to encourage states to reform the practice of using money bail as a condition of pretrial release in criminal cases.
Supporters of cash bail may see the reform writing on the wall, at least in California. Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, told Capital & Main that, although his organization will continue lobbying to fight the abolition of cash bail in Sacramento, it might acquiesce to some reforms.
“Bail is set way too high in California right now, and without the bail industry hardly anyone in the state would get out,” Clayton said. “Even bail on misdemeanors is higher than for felonies in Colorado. This market imbalance needs to be corrected and doing so wouldn’t have a big impact on us.”
Bail in California is set by a schedule for each crime, but varies county by county, though judges have the discretion to alter the bail amount. The Selling Off Our Freedom report found that bail amounts as late as the 1980s were much lower than today, and many people arrested for felonies were released without paying bail. That report also showed that, nationally, between 1990 and 2009, the share of arrestees required to post money bail grew from 37 to 61 percent, and the share of releases depending on bail bond companies doubled in that same period. The report said bail bondsmen and the insurance industry used high crime rates to bolster their argument for laws requiring bail, and lawmakers bought that argument.
Clayton added that sensible reforms could simply do away with bail for minor crimes that don’t present a public danger, like loitering, which often impact homeless and low-income people. “We shouldn’t detain a person who can’t make bail for longer than [what] the actual sentence might be. A 60-day sentence on a fine-eligible offense doesn’t make any sense.”
There are about 19 million veterans in the United States. Yet, after their service, many experience a myriad of crippling mental and physiological afflictions, with few resources available to help.
Yearly, a staggering 30 veterans per 100,000 commit suicide. Though that number may seem on the lower end at first glance, when compared to the civilian rate of 14 in 100,000, it paints a disheartening picture of the post-war reality many veterans face.
If you wish to speak to somebody immediately, please call your local crisis line, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).
On any given night, approximately 39,471 veterans are homeless. While this number demonstrates a decrease in veteran homelessness, veterans still comprise 8.6% of the homeless population, a disproportionate amount.
The reason for this may be that as of 2014, 3.8 million veterans have a service-related disability. Veterans suffer from ailments both physical and mental—often both—including anxiety, depression, PTSD, other mental health issues, damaged nerves due to exposure to chemical agents, damaged hearing due to exposure to elevated noise and vibrations, traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, amputations, and more.
The Federal Government’s Gold Standard of Treatment for Wounded Veterans…
…is not cannabis. At the end of the day, disabled veterans are experiencing some sort of pain be it physical or mental. To remedy that, Veterans Affairs (VA) medical professionals prescribe synthetic drugs, usually a combination of those drugs, and often a cocktail that creates new and potentially lethal problems for the veterans taking them including addiction, overdose, adverse reactions, or complications for drug interaction.
This “gold standard” of treatment is especially troubling given the very vulnerable position in which injured veterans find themselves. Having a disability can make it difficult to sustain work, relationships, and a sense of normalcy. These conditions make veterans particularly susceptible to mental illness, and that certainly explains the extraordinarily high veteran suicide rates. It also makes veterans vulnerable to addiction, and according to the National Veterans Foundation, veteran substance abuse is on the rise with alcohol being the primary substance of choice and prescription drugs a growing source, especially since it is handed out to them like candy.
These prescription drugs are federally legal—they’ve been approved by the FDA. However, that does not mean that they aren’t dangerous, deadly and addictive. Veterans know this since many of them experience the adverse reactions these synthetic medications cause. But there is an alternative drug therapy that could (and has) improve their lives and manage their symptoms.
This alternative drug contains chemical compounds that have a symbiotic relationship with our endocannabinoids systems (ECS), the combination of chemicals, enzymes, and receptors that regulate day to day activities and promote homeostasis. Research shows that the ECS regulates sleep, digestion, memory, mood, pain, pleasure and reward (addiction), motor control, immunity, and reproduction. In short, a healthy ECS makes a healthy mind and body.
In addition to its powerful interaction with the ECS, this alternative therapy is organic in the sense that it is not synthesized. It is a natural product from the earth. In fact, depending on where they live, some patients can grow it themselves, significantly reducing the cost of medical treatment.
Users cannot overdose from it. Negative symptoms go away once it leaves the system, but those symptoms are mild compared to synthetic drugs: increased appetite (which is often desired by patients dealing with nausea or decreased appetite), temporary paranoia, dry mouth, and the sensation of euphoria. It is also significantly less addictive than opioids and alcohol; in fact, research suggests that this drug can help addicts overcome their substance abuse.
So what is it? What is this drug that has been found to treat mental illness, brain injury, chronic pain, and inflammation (the root cause for an array of medical conditions)? It’s cannabis. And it’s federally illegal.
Because of its status as a Schedule 1 drug, veterans cannot use VA benefits to access it, and that can make things very complicated and expensive for this country’s heroes. According to the VA, veterans who participate in state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs cannot be denied access to VA healthcare, but the use or possession of cannabis is prohibited at all VA medical centers, VA medical professionals cannot prescribe cannabis or complete paperwork required for veterans to participate in legal medical marijuana programs, VA money cannot cover cannabis related expenses, and veterans who are also employees of the VA are subject to drug testing and will be penalized if they test positive for cannabis use.
Veteran Organizations Advocating for Veteran Access to Cannabis
The troubling state of cannabis’ legal status and veteran well-being has motivated some to take up the cause of cannabis access for vets. Here are some of those organizations.
Weed for Warriors Project—Founded by a Marine Corps veteran who found relief from marijuana, this organization provides veterans with a safe environment to learn about cannabis, socialize with other veterans, and free medicine with proof of military service and a current recommendation from a health care provider.
Veterans Cannabis Group—In addition to helping cannabis businesses improve relations with their local governments, this organization’s mission is to “provide education, safe access, information on VA resources and benefits, and an opportunity for veterans to work with other veterans within the cannabis industry.”
Grow for Vets—This organization is deeply concerned with veterans’ vulnerability to drug overdose. Its mission is to “help save the more than 50 veterans who die each day from suicide and prescription drug overdose” by providing them with cannabis as an alternative medication.
Veterans Cannabis Project—The VCP envisions in a country where medical marijuana is a legal, socially acceptable, and affordable treatment for veterans. To bring that vision into fruition, they “foster an environment that is politically and legally favorable to US military veterans using medical marijuana to address service-related health challenges that prevent them from living the high quality of life that they have earned.”
In the sleepy town of Nazareth, Kentucky, a revolution is brewing. And it's being led by a tough band of women in their 80s.
Nazareth is the headquarters of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Their mission has spread from Kentucky to Belize, Nepal, Botswana and India where the Sisters of Charity have established missions, schools and hospitals.
It will come as no surprise, especially to Catholics, that these sisters have dedicated themselves to the betterment of the poor. What came as a surprise to me was that they now consider planet Earth to be one of the poor.
You heard right. The sisters—whose average age is 82—realize the Earth is about as desperate as a homeless drug addict. Cataclysmic floods, loss of crops and loss of endangered species are all predicted outcomes of climate change. They know climate change is real, and now they're taking action.
That's why they have declared their intent to make all their residences, schools, hospitals and other services across the globe carbon-neutral in the years to come. Their goals for sustainability put most multinational corporations to shame.
"They’re pretty badass," says Carolyn Cromer, the woman hired by the sisters to be their director of ecological sustainability.
At a recent meeting of the Louisville Sustainability Forum, Cromer explained how the sisters became environmental activists.
It started in 1995 when they got together to create a mission statement. Part of that statement was "care for the Earth."
In time, that commitment manifested as solar panels on the Nazareth campus, energy efficient windows on their historic buildings and on-demand water heaters. Having done their research, they're buying electric zero-turn motor lawn mowers, basically the lawnmower equivalents of a Tesla.
They're also in the process of converting all their lighting, both inside and out, to LED lighting, which is up to 80 percent more efficient than traditional fluorescent or incandescent lights.
In India, they practice water capture and sequester cow manure for conversion to biogas, which they use to cook their meals.
They also harvest and use rainwater. One of their hospitals in India is 70 percent powered by solar energy, captured in batteries.
Last July, the sisters got together again, and decided that caring for the Earth meant they had to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2037 in the United States and Belize and 2047 in the other countries. Cromer notes that this goal is aligned both with United Nations recommendations on addressing climate change and with the Paris Agreement.
In addition to that ambitious goal, the sisters are also going zero-waste. That required an assessment of their trash. "We opened up trash cans and weighed things," said Cromer.
They have established recycling stations for eight categories of waste, and they’re brainstorming how to establish composting in individual sisters' apartments.
One of the order’s resources is its many acres of land, located in missions across five countries. They are sowing native plants, which benefit wildlife, birds and bees. They are restoring vegetative buffers on their lakes and streams. And they are looking into creating conservation easements to protect natural resources on their land for perpetuity.
"They walk the talk in a way that is really humbling," says Cromer.
The Sisters of Charity's "green team" is a subgroup of nuns particularly passionate about fulfilling their zero-emissionn goals. They engaged the University of Kentucky to teach them how to conduct their own energy audits. Once the audits are complete, the goal is to look at the order’s energy consumption and ask "How can we...winnow that down?” Cromer says.
None of this is pie in the sky. The sisters are well aware that transportation, the leading contributor to climate change, poses an obstacle. They drive an average of 6,000 miles a year, each. That’s not a lot of mileage, comparatively, but "there are a lot of them," Cromer observes. They've bought one all-electric vehicle and one plug-in hybrid, and they're learning to drive them.
"Really, this is where everyone needs to be," says Cromer.
The nuns' revolution, however, depends on a revolution in airplane technology. These are, after all, flying nuns, but not the Sally Field kind. They fly in fossil fuel-consuming jets. They can’t realize their goals for mitigating climate change until there is a radical new technology for travel.
I guess this is where the faith comes in. I'm not the only one praying for new technology that will let us travel from coast to coast without sacrificing our morality. I know Ed Begley, Jr. prays for that. So, I assume, do the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
Science will need to step up to the plate, too. We can't let 80-year-old nuns do all the work of saving the world.
Democrats and Republicans who are desperate to end Donald Trump’s presidency are looking with renewed interest at the U.S. Constitution’s 25th Amendment, which provides a path for the vice president, Cabinet and Congress to remove a president if he is deemed “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
“The 25th Amendment is back on the table,” blared Politico.com. “D.C. pundits are contemplating it. Cable news shows are talking about it. And in a recent television interview, Michael Wolff…has much of the free world agonizing over the possibility that President Donald Trump is mentally unfit to be chief executive.”
“If we’re being specific, what we’re talking about is Article 4 of the 25th Amendment,” echoed CBSNews.com. “Thanks to author Michael Wolff, whose recently published Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House has rocketed to the top of bestseller lists, we’re talking about Article 4 once again.”
Is this a serious possibility or an escapist fantasy? Beyond a rash of articles that recite histories of incapacitated presidents, medically and mentally, what would it look like today if we acted on the 25th Amendment? What likelihood exists that the executive branch and Congress would seize the chance?
In short, it's a tantalizing but legally unfounded and politically impractical remedy, constitutional scholars say. But it is understandably appealing as Trump's second year begins.
“Who’s to say where our political melodrama will end?” author Jon Meacham asked in Time. “It’s highly unlikely, but this unprecedented presidency could lead to unprecedented constitutional ground: the invocation of the boring-sounding yet world-shaking Section 4 of the 25th Amendment—a provision that enables the Vice President, with a majority of members of the Cabinet, to declare the President unable to discharge his duties, thus installing the Vice President as acting President pending a presidential appeal to, and vote by, the Congress.”
Meacham’s report is filled with tidbits that attest to the appeal of a silver bullet solution. He begins with prescient quotes from the debate on the U.S. House floor on April 13, 1965, when Congress drafted and approved the amendment, which was ratified in 1967.
“He couldn’t have put it more plainly,” Meacham opened. “In the midst of a congressional debate over the proposed 25th Amendment to the Constitution dealing with presidential succession and incapacity, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Emanuel Celler of New York, dispensed with high-minded legal arguments. They were there, Celler said, to figure out what might be done if the unthinkable—a deranged American President with nuclear weapons—became thinkable. ‘The President may be as nutty as a fruitcake,’ Celler declared on the House floor. ‘He may be utterly insane.’ And for this reason, America needed a plan.”
As relevant as that sounds, the Congressional Record of that debate also contains a personal speech by Rep. John McCormack, D-MA, who was Speaker of the House and third in line for the presidency following President Kennedy’s assassination. McCormack offered equally telling hints about why a sitting vice president and the Cabinet would almost never invoke it, which also resounds today. This part of the story wasn’t included in Meacham’s tantalizing tome. But before hearing those words, let's pause to understand what the amendment’s fourth paragraph says.
The first three paragraphs concern presidential succession and filling the vice presidency if a president dies or resigns. This also includes transferring power to the vice president if the president undergoes surgery, which happened under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
“Section 4 is where things really get interesting,” Meacham continues. “That provision, wrote John D. Feerick, a legal scholar and a key architect of the amendment, ‘covers the most difficult cases of inability—when the President cannot or refuses to declare his own inability.’ The modern framers contemplated nightmare scenarios as they drafted the amendment, including, Feerick recalled, ‘situations where the President might be kidnapped or captured, under an oxygen tent at the time of enemy attack, or bereft of speech or sight.’ One Section 4 scenario: an emergency medical situation during which the President was unconscious or disabled for a period of time (a coma, for instance). It was clear from the debates at the time of adoption and ratification, according to Feerick, that ‘unpopularity, incompetence, impeachable conduct, poor judgment and laziness do not constitute an ‘inability’ within the meaning of the amendment.’”
One can begin to see where the clear-cut conclusion that the president is nuts and must go gets foggy. Then comes the actual procedure, in which the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet must agree and tell the leaders of the House and Senate in a letter that the president cannot carry out his duties. Such a declaration triggers what would be a monumental national crisis and political fight.
“If this happens, the Vice President becomes acting President,” Meacham explained. “If the President in question disagrees about his incapacity, he can, in writing, immediately reassume office. In this constitutional tennis match, the Vice President and the Cabinet majority then have four days to decide whether to reassert the claim of incapacity. If they do so, the Vice President again becomes acting President. Congress then takes up the issue, where a two-thirds vote in each house, within 21 days, would be necessary to sustain the acting President."
In today’s political world, one learns never to say never. Even so, academics like Cornell Law School's Michael Dorf, writing on TakeCareBlog (which is named after the Constitution’s Article Two, in which the president swears to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed”), said the votes are not there, though the blog supports Trump’s ouster.
“There is virtually no chance that Donald Trump will be removed from the presidency via the 25th Amendment,” he wrote, “based on his past conduct or his inevitable future conduct of a similar sort; and (2) absent irrefutable evidence of crimes on the order of cannibalistic murder personally committed by Trump, there is also virtually no chance that Trump will be removed from the presidency via impeachment, even assuming a strong midterm wave election in which Democrats take the House and the Senate, because Republicans will still have enough votes in the Senate to block removal.”
“That is the reality, because it is now clear that there are very few Republicans willing to stand up to Trump when it really matters,” Dorf continued. “I suppose that it is possible that a sufficient drubbing in the midterm elections could change that—which is why I hedged a bit by saying ‘virtually’ twice in the prior paragraph. For practical purposes at least for now, both impeachment and invocation of the 25th Amendment—no matter how justified—are a mirage.”
Indeed, there may be no greater example of a political party that’s eager to put partisan gain before country than today’s Republicans. In the executive branch, Vice President Mike Pence constantly fawns over Trump, and Cabinet meetings frequently begin with recitations by Trump’s appointees telling the president how wonderful he is. Would these sycophants somehow secretly conspire to fire the boss?
Moreover, Burt Neuborne, one of the nation's foremost civil liberties experts and founding legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, said the populist notion that the 25th Amendment could spare the country the rest of Trump’s term is mistaken.
“As a matter of theory and practice, the 25th Amendment is—and should be—a blind alley for dealing with the 45th President,” he wrote in an e-mail from UC Berkeley Law School, where he’s teaching a seminar on Trump and the U.S. Constitution.
“It is not intended to displace an elected president for eccentricity or bizarre behavior,” he continued. “Real democracies do not label disfavored political activity as crazy, and then move against it legally. That’s how totalitarian regimes deal with ‘aberrational’ political behavior. The people elected Trump knowing that he is a narcissistic, ignorant, short-tempered bully with the attention span of a gerbil. The 25th Amendment is not a vehicle for buyer’s remorse.”
And practically speaking, Neuborne concurred that the congressional votes aren’t there to make it stick.
“In any event, as a practical matter, the 25th Amendment is unavailable,” he wrote. “It requires a majority vote of the Cabinet, backed up by a two-thirds vote of the House if the president objects. I attribute the current vogue for the 25th Amendment as a particularly intense way to channel arguments that Trump is unfit to be president. That’s a fair political argument as long as people don’t confuse it with a real avenue for removing him.”
Finally, there’s former Speaker of the House John McCormack’s words from the April 13, 1965, debate before that chamber passed the proposed amendment. Beyond its intent and the large majority needed in the Cabinet and Congress to oust a president was something else: what those high officials would be thinking before doing this.
“I can assure you, as the one who for 14 months was next in line for the presidency, that I know I could never have made the decision” to invoke the Amendment, he said, referring to the period following Kennedy’s assassination.
“There are so many human considerations involved," McCormack continued. "For example, my motives might be impugned. Also there could be the feeling that I might be involved in a quest for personal power. As a result of those considerations, and others, I would have great difficulty in making the decision myself, because I could appreciate the fact, and picture the fact that the whole legitimacy of government, if I were in the White House, would be clouded and could be affected very seriously.”
Trump's minions don't appear to have the guts to cross this line. And Congress is unlikely to sustain it if they did.
This is how quickly it happened. One moment we were passing sumptuous kebob platters around the table making polite introductions, and the next we were swapping trauma stories that we—all people of color, many LGBTQ—had experienced in what were essentially white Christian spaces.*
There was the black nonprofit worker who attended a Christian conference in the rural Southeast, where she had to walk past white men staring her down from pickup trucks draped in confederate flags; there was the Indo-Latinx therapist who saw white Christians co-opt practices from other cultures, such as drumming or yoga, while erasing and demonizing the people they came from; and then there was me, the Chinese-American journalist who spoke at a Virginia Christian college where a white man verbally attacked and followed me prompting the provost to hide me in a secured room.
Among my dinner companions there was no need to explain the specter of racial violence and erasure lurking in our lives. Understanding came immediately, as did suggestions for coping in such a hostile climate: essential oils for anxiety, Valerian root for insomnia, comedy for the rage—the list went on, stretching into the night. Here, in this brightly lit restaurant on Chicago’s South side, the dinner party turned group therapy.
Fewer than a dozen of us were gathered to begin a weekend spiritual retreat hosted by the Mystic Soul Project, a new Chicago-based organization working to create spiritual spaces that center people of color, including their trauma, gifts, experiences, ancestral traditions, and activism.
Mystic Soul is part of a broader movement of people of color moving beyond dominant Christianity, which largely reflects white culture, to chart their own spiritual initiatives, ones that increasingly incorporate the faith traditions of their ancestors. For the departing, simply put, white Christianity is no longer enough. More precisely put, it was never enough.
This movement isn’t new, but after a solid majority of white Christians across traditions voted for a president who courted white nationalists, the chorus of people of color seeking refuge has only grown louder, its reach wider, and its work to decentralize white theology more deliberate.
For some, that means decolonizing their Christian faith from white patriarchy and capitalism. For others, that means connecting to ancestral faith practices, such as Yoruba, Buddhism, ancestor veneration or particular tribal traditions. For others, it’s an amalgam, a synthesis of severed history, personal heritage and truths from other traditions. For most, it means imagining a spiritual wholeness that has been denied for so long, and chasing it with abandon.
The point is the return
I received an invitation to the Mystic Soul retreat from one of its founders, Teresa Pasquale Mateus, a trauma therapist and author of Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma. My book, Rescuing Jesus, came out a month after hers, and after running into her frequently on the Christian conference speaking circuit, I learned about the origins of Mystic Soul and how it echoes the larger chorus of Christians of color cultivating spiritual communities.
An adoptee from Bogotá, Colombia, named after the Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila and raised by a white Catholic family in New Jersey, Pasquale Mateus has always felt drawn to mystical spirituality. In her twenties, yoga and meditation became a lifeline as she healed from sexual trauma. But because these traditions didn’t speak her religious language, she turned to the Christian contemplative movement. There she experienced “this deep connection to God in the faith that I learned, in the dialect that I knew best.” But one problem remained. The movement’s white leadership, white theological framework and expensive retreats largely excluded people of color and their concerns, says Pasquale Mateus. “It still didn’t speak to the wholeness of me,” she says, particularly “my brownness.”
The modern American Christian contemplative movement sprung out of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when globalization exposed Americans to eastern traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism. In turn, Christian monastics and lay leaders, like Trappist monk Thomas Keating, began to offer Christian contemplative exercises like centering prayer—a silent, meditative practice. Pasquale Mateus explains that the movement filtered through predominantly white communities and erased a crucial detail from Christian mysticism’s history: that its forebears were men and women of color. She points to “the Desert Fathers and Mothers,” the third-century North African mystics who formed monastic communities, practiced meditative prayer, and lived their lives in service.
Not only did the contemplative movement whitewash these roots, but it offered practices notably stripped of activism. This, she says, ignores the model of Jesus, whom she calls, “the original mystic.” “You go into the desert for forty days and then you come back and do some shit with it,” she says. “You create radical justice and revolution in the world—that’s the point. The point is the return.”
Frustrated, she looked for others who could relate. She found Ra Mendoza, a third-generation Mexican American from both the mainline and evangelical Protestant traditions. In college, the contemplative movement brought Mendoza’s spirituality to life, but as a post-college social justice activist involved in movements like immigration reform, Black Lives Matter and racial justice, she realized that it ignored the struggles of communities of color. “So I threw it away,” she says. Still, she missed it.
These sentiments resonated with Jade Perry who, after growing up in the black evangelical church and experiencing white evangelicalism in college, had left these traditions for a “Christian-based hybrid spirituality” that connects to mystical traditions. Like Pasquale Mateus and Mendoza, Perry often found herself the lone person of color in white Christian spaces, searching for a place that allowed her spirituality and activism to work in tandem.
When the three finally met at a bustling Chicago pizzeria in 2016 it was clear they had found their people: other black and brown women whose activism was vital to their spirituality. A few pizza slices later, the Mystic Soul Project was born.
Trauma travels with you
When I showed up to the retreat, I didn’t know what to expect. I left formal Christianity in my twenties, and as a female journalist of color who covers the tradition, I find myself entering Christian spaces prepared for both inspired moments and, quite honestly, aggression.
My body had been on guard since the election. I’d been following the barrage of racial hate crimes with spiking anxiety, and memories of racially-motivated violence I’d experienced kept resurfacing. Then, weeks after the inauguration, I traveled to Virginia and narrowly evaded a belligerent white man at a speaking gig. I remember how my biology took over: adrenaline surged, my stomach twisted, my heart raced. Later that night I barely slept thinking about my response to the man; I had tried to quell his anger by reminding him of our shared humanity, and when that didn’t work, I firmly stopped him from hijacking the conversation. It had been justified but risky in retrospect. What if he had turned violent?
I thought about the self-proclaimed white progressive Christians in the audience, silent and deferential as the man hurled hostility my way.
But when I shared this story over kebob platters at the retreat, my dinner companions got it and I was struck by how the knot in my stomach unclenched just a little. The first activity the next morning was caring for the body, a theme throughout the retreat, which consisted of breathing, stretching, energy work, and other exercises.
Mid-morning, Pasquale Mateus sat in the lotus position as the rest of us sprawled out on green yoga mats and listened to her speak on a subject seldom discussed in white churches, but one she believes is crucial to healing communities of color: intergenerational trauma.
For Pasquale Mateus, understanding the genetic passage of trauma over generations can explain community afflictions and help in the path to recovery.
Some findings in the growing field of epigenetics, which studies changes in gene expression, suggest that the genetic transfer of trauma helps prepare descendants for similar scenarios. For example, experiments with mice report that when trauma is associated with a specific smell, the next two generations of their offspring inherit that olfactory trigger. For pregnant women during 9/11 who developed PTSD, their offspring mirrored their stress hormone profile. A 2015 study out of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York found similar altered genetic profiles among descendants of Holocaust survivors, predisposing them to a litany of mental health risks, including obesity, hypertension and post traumatic stress disorder, among many other ailments.
Communities that have experienced colonization, slavery, genocide, war, and racial violence are especially primed for the consequences of intergenerational trauma, Pasquale Mateus noted. “You already have this encoding that says that trauma travels with you; it’s just waiting for something to ignite it.” She calls that ignition the “light switch” turning on. It can come in a variety of forms: “early childhood trauma like racism, emotional violence, the impact of mass incarceration on family systems, on communities—light switch, light switch, light switch.”
Pasquale Mateus explains that the pattern affects whole communities, generation after generation, compounding social blight until the narrative sticks: “Violence, domestic violence, suicidality, depression, obesity—these things are seen as some kind of disposition of people of color.” Society blames these miseries on communities of color, when in fact, she argues, the impact comes not only from ongoing forms of abuse, but from those who inflicted the original injuries.
But Pasquale Mateus remains hopeful. As a trauma therapist and scholar who has worked with a wide range of trauma victims—including combat veterans, refugees and survivors of sexual assault—she believes the afflicted can rewrite the narrative and stop the cycle.
Though she draws from a diverse toolbox, the retreat I attended focused on harnessing the spiritual traditions of our ancestors.
Erasure, displacement, drumming
I hear this refrain everywhere: so many Christians of color across the country long to reconnect with the spirituality of their ancestors. I’ve been reporting on Christianity for a decade, but in the past year, far beyond Mystic Soul, I’ve routinely heard Christians of color from mainstream evangelical institutions, white Christian communities, and multiethnic churches voice this desire for many reasons. For some, there is power in seeing people who look like them represented as the originators of a tradition. There’s freedom in connecting to traditions available to everybody, in honoring ancestors erased from history, in letting that wisdom fortify their existing faith.
Also, the activism articulated in teachings of ancestral traditions offer strength and purpose. And while this return to roots is not entirely unique to Christians of color (strains of white Christians have been harnessing the mysticism of Celtic traditions), for many minorities ancestral traditions offer them a way to reconnect with a history that’s been severed and erased. In interviews, I’ve heard how expanding their spiritual lens helps them see how Christianity actually does offer so many of these things—a tradition founded by people of color, scriptural guidance for activism, and a retethering to history—despite their experiences with the colonized version often stripped of these crucial elements.
Since meeting at a conference in 2016, I’ve been following the work of Bianca Louie, an Oakland-based researcher who writes about how queer Asian American Christian identity interacts with conservative white evangelicalism. When I called her for this article, Louie, who is Cantonese American, revealed that she herself is on a personal journey toward connecting with her mother’s spiritual tradition. Growing up, she heard evangelical Christians call Buddhism “demonic,” so she internalized this condemnation and distanced herself from her mother’s faith.
As she seeks to unlearn and relearn messages about her mother’s Buddhism, she’s trying to let go of the fear that once held her back. “I just don’t want to be so afraid,” she says.
The more people I spoke to, the more I realized the depth of the rift people of color felt with their own ancestral traditions. And it’s not for lack of trying. AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez, whose job is to address and educate others on issues of race, ethnicity and identity, has sought details of her ancestors, indigenous people in Venezuela, but has struggled against the erasure that has resulted from colonization, the passage of time, and her own displacement as a child adopted and raised in the United States.
I’ve spoken beside Velasco-Sanchez on a panel about intersectional justice and I follow her work as a director at The Reformation Project, where she advocates for racial justice and LGBTQ inclusion in the church. It’s clear that she has devoted her life to unpacking the complexities of identity in church, society and in her personal life; but even so, at times some ruptures seem too gaping to mend.
“I don’t have access [to] or even secondhand knowledge of what the traditions of my ancestors are,” says Velasco-Sanchez. “I have this really sad diluted recognition that I am a woman of indigenous heritage. I don’t know what tribe I belong to. I don’t know what language they speak or spoke before they were colonized.”
Across the wide sweep of colonial history, the systematic demonization and erasure of local religion served as a key strategy to empire building. The consequences can still be seen today across the globe.
“The erasure of belief systems and practices was intentional and almost complete,” Barbara Holmes, President of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and professor of ethics and African American religious studies, wrote in an email. “All over Africa you find people dressed as Quakers of a past era, wearing formal Presbyterian robes in the middle of the desert, singing ‘Amazing Grace’ instead of their own drummed invocations. It’s weird and sad.”
Across these desecrated geographies, colonizers forbade traditional practices, drumming in particular, because it was a form of communication and they feared it would incite rebellion.
At the Mystic Soul retreat, Pasquale Mateus explained how eradicating and demonizing drumming, a tradition in tribal lineages globally, stripped people of a practice vital to their health and community. Today, some researchers report that group drumming reduces anxiety and depression, increases social resilience and boosts the immune system, along with other physical and mental health benefits. “So this thing that was inherently happening in all tribal lineages was healing the very things that were hurting people,” says Pasquale Mateus, adding that they didn’t need science to motivate them. “They just did it.”
But with today’s scientific backing of drumming’s health benefits, clinical practices like neurotherapy or neurobiofeedback can achieve similar results. “So you erase out of history the very thing that not only heals indigenous people but heals everyone, and then you sell it back,” said Pasquale Mateus, as groans of disappointment rippled across the room.
Sure, some in the room felt vindicated by these studies, but they didn’t need them to affirm what they already knew, they said. Attendee Chantelle Todman Moore, an Afro-Caribbean life coach, was trained in classical music from an early age. But as an adult, she claimed the djembe as her “spirit instrument” and has sensed how its “rhythm and movement feel like homecoming and healing.” When Jade Perry was growing up, her family came together regularly to play the congas, which her mother called “the heartbeat of God.”
“When we would end,” she said, “people would just be weeping.”
From dogma to dream time
The movement of people of color reclaiming traditional practices is anything but formulaic. The approaches are as diverse as the multiplicity of ethnicities, experiences and perspectives that fall under that umbrella. But some recent scholarship suggests a common thread: where Western Christianity has relied historically on doctrine and dogma aimed at the individual, many non-European spiritualities can lean toward prioritizing experience, context, and values that connect with the entire community.
Barbara Holmes explained African American spirituality as springing from a shared cultural understanding, even though “that cultural history does not reach back to the continent of Africa.” She writes:
We do not know tribe or location, and Africa is a very diverse continent. So, if we are trying to reclaim practices, we are grounding that reclamation in what I call ‘geo-spiritual’ spaces: historical memory, spiritual amalgamations of dream time. We are putting together the pieces of what is left and what we imagine. That which was lost is recreated artistically and spiritually.
Syncretism, or the layering and combining of distinct belief systems, has always been embraced by many African Americans, she adds. “More are exploring Buddhism, Sufism, and African Traditional Religions in adaptive waves.”
Russel Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, describes the hybridized practices adopted by some Asian Americans. He sees how Vietnamese Americans create home shrines that blend the traditional—a single photo of an ancestor beside assorted fruits—with a touch of “Americanization,” such as adding significant ornaments or a photo montage that personalizes the shrine.
Meanwhile, second generation Korean American churches practice a distinct form of simultaneous spoken prayer, which “stems from a shamanistic practice that has been adopted by Christians.”
Chinese Americans tend to eschew binary definitions of what it means to be religious. They’re considered the least religious ethnic group in America, but they don’t fit neatly into the labels of “atheist,” “agnostic” or “spiritual but not religious,” says Jeung. They subscribe to a “familism that can be seen through the concept of li yi,” a Confucian term that emphasizes values and rituals that lead to good relationships with others, he says.
This emphasis on relationships over doctrine is echoed often in the Native American religious reality as well, says Randy Woodley, Director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at Portland Seminary. In his book, Shalom and the Community of Creation, he describes how, in many Native American tribal traditions, truth is revealed in lived experiences. And it’s correct actions and practices—not correct words—that reveal true beliefs. Woodley argues that belief is over-emphasized in the Euro-American religious reality, where doctrine supersedes correct action or practice.
It’s through this framework that dominant Christianity, especially conservative strands of it, has often condemned syncretism: anything outside the bounds of certain doctrine can be called out as heresy. For Christians of color embarking on reclaiming ancestral traditions, letting go of the dogmatic elements of any particular tradition—whether Catholic or evangelical—is often a difficult first step. From there, their journeys take varying paths.
Bianca Louie says she’s just at the start of her journey. White evangelicalism instilled in her so many “toxic messages,” she says, and this is just one of many that she’s detoxing from. On top of unlearning anti-LGBTQ and binary theologies, Louie has shifted away from the perspective that her Cantonese-American Buddhist family needs to be “saved.” With each step, Louie is beginning to see how her mom’s Buddhism is something lived out in her life—in the way she cares for people and in the way “she sees the interconnectedness of people in a way that feels counter-cultural to the individualist capitalist” American way.
Even though AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez feels cut off from her ancestral faith heritage and at times “not native enough,” she hasn’t stopped seeking that connection. In 2016, she joined the protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock reservation. She spent her time in the kitchen in the Hoopa camp where a small band of volunteers stood over gas stoves and served thousands. The native women she cooked alongside of saw her as their own, even if their geographic origins differed. At one point, a pair of donated boots with a native aesthetic arrived on the camp. They wanted to give the boots to a native woman, so the kitchen staff had a Cinderella moment, all taking turns trying them on. When Velasco-Sanchez tried them on, they fit perfectly. The moment meant everything to Velasco-Sanchez. “It was being invited into that very feminine, sisterly circle. You belong here. Of course you should try these on.”
To Velasco-Sanchez her time in Standing Rock strengthened both her Christian faith and her tie to sacred Native traditions. When people question her ability to reconcile the two seemingly opposing world views, she reminds them that “Christianity is not a religion of white European men; stories in scripture are of people of color challenging systems and winning.”
She also highlights the power of Native spirituality, and how it strengthens her own faith. For example, at Standing Rock, prayer cloaked every moment of the day. “It transformed the way we approached everything,” she says. It quelled anger, softened tough moments and surrounded interactions with grace. The cooks even prepared meals with the cloak of prayer. “Make sure you’re in the right mindset,” the others told Velasco-Sanchez. “You want good medicine going into the food because the food you’re making is meant to nourish people who are trying to stand in resistance.”
Though the Mystic Soul weekend was spent grappling with trauma, appropriation, uncertainty and infighting, we were also encouraged to remember that people of color are more than their trauma, and that our stories are rich and full of joy. During one group activity, Jade Perry invited us into a moment of silent contemplation as we thought about all the things from our culture that bring us joy.
Pasquale Mateus, Perry and Mendoza say they deliberately planned these moments of full expression. For Perry, this exercise sprouts from what she calls “one of my favorite contemplative activism scenes” in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. “Baby Suggs is talking to the slaves that are in the clearing and just telling them to laugh and to weep and to dance and to give full expression to all of your emotions, because you’re a human being and you need that and you’re worthy.”
Anita Little contributed reporting.
* Though I attended this event as a journalist, I had agreed to the condition that I step outside my role of observer and participate in the conversations. As background, I’ve covered the intersection of Christianity and race for a decade, and used to personally be a part of white, multiethnic and monoethnic evangelical circles. –DJL
Despite the post-2016 surge of activism—the protests and the calls to Congress that have been the only silver lining in this cesspool of a presidency—the reaction to Oprah Winfrey's acceptance speech at the Golden Globes suggests liberals have yet to give up on their dream of an avenging angel. It was not a campaign announcement; it was a call to arms.
Unfortunately, in this Trumpian age of lowered expectations, when a sane adult gives a rousing speech at an awards ceremony, most people are not inspired to lace up their shoes and do some organizing, as Oprah’s friend President Obama said in his farewell address. Instead of doing the work ourselves, we are inspired to tell a celebrity to run for office.
Oprah is not running, at least according to her best friend Gayle King, who should know, more so than the news anchors, pundits and perhaps even Oprah’s longtime partner Stedman Graham. She was not declaring her own presidential run, nor even a foray into politics. Oprah was doing exactly what she has been doing for the last 30 years: giving her seal of approval, this time for activism.
With the same determined enthusiasm she has used for lavishing her audience with free cars and her book club recipients with massive sales, she recounted seeing Sidney Poitier win a Best Actor award at the 1964 Oscars: "I'd never seen a black man being celebrated like that. I tried many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone-tired from cleaning other people's houses."
She also praised the press, which she “values more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times,” before highlighting the eight activists actresses brought as their dates, including Tarana Burke, the original founder of the #MeToo movement; Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; Rosa Clemente, a former Green Party vice-presidential candidate and community organizer fighting for political prisoners, voter engagement and Puerto Rican independence; and Mónica Ramírez, focusing on sexual violence against farmworkers and empowerment for Latinas.
Oprah said she was "proud and inspired,” by these women, “who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story.” She told the story of Recy Taylor, a critical yet forgotten figure in the civil rights movement who was abducted and raped by white men, before having her case taken to the NAACP where the lead investigator was Rosa Parks. And she expressed deep gratitude for “all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue.”
Inspired by Oprah’s words, by her admonishment to sexual abusers that “your time is up,” Americans, starved for competency in the White House, decided that instead of joining any number of ongoing causes, including organizations started by the aforementioned activists, someone else should get to work—namely Oprah. It’s especially troubling, given white America’s penchant for relying on black women to solve our political and social problems.
As Ira Madison III wrote in the Daily Beast:
When I hear Meryl Streep speak of Oprah’s speech, as she told the Washington Post’s Steven Zeitchick, “She launched a rocket tonight. I want her to run for president. I don’t think she had any intention [of declaring]. But now she doesn’t have a choice,” it seems to miss Oprah’s message about inspiring young black girls to realize their full potential in America in order to force a political narrative she hasn’t asked for. To paraphrase Jessica Williams: Oprah is a black woman and so many things. But she is not yours.
Also, let’s be honest, if you were Oprah, the billionaire owner of a home that has a tea house specifically for drinking tea and reading the New York Times, owner of a magazine in which you appear on every cover, would you want to ruin that by running for president?
It’s not that she’s unqualified. She’s the self-made billionaire Donald Trump wishes he could be; the winner of countless Emmys and a 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom; an Oscar nominee with a 30-year career in television. She has the first-name-only recognition many other famous people, and certainly other potential 2020 candidates, can only dream of. As Jefferson Morley notes, her early support of Barack Obama was politically shrewd:
“Her endorsement of a rookie senator named Barack Obama in December 2007 was a key moment in his rise to power. At a time when black and feminist politicos were gathering around the supposedly inevitable candidacy of Hillary Clinton, she understood that there was a stronger candidate in the race. And she was right.”
But there is a lot of work to do to shore up our democracy before the 2020 election. And do we really want another politically inexperienced celebrity to save us from the politically inexperienced celebrity currently occupying the White House?
The Democratic agenda is long: The 2018 midterm elections, for one. The fight to protect the Dreamers, the Children's Health Insurance Plan, the Affordable Care Act. There are already countless organizations dedicated to fighting back against the Trump administration.
Even among the left, there is every conceivable flavor of progressivism, ranging from former congressional staffers who started Indivisible to the Democratic Socialists of America to Our Revolution, which came out of the Bernie Sanders campaign; to organizations specifically dedicated to the midterms like Swing Left; to millennials running for office like Run for Something; and others like Collective PAC and Higher Heights that aim to elect more black candidates (and for Higher Heights, black women specifically). That just scratches the surface of the advocacy landscape for 2018. AlterNet’s activism vertical has a few other suggestions.
2020 speculation is fun, and like indulging in palace intrigue stories of the Trump administration in the New York Times and Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, it’s a way to let off steam. But we can take care of ourselves, and even take a break, without throwing up our hands and waiting for a savior.
Don’t wait for a hero to swoop in and save us. Oprah wasn’t announcing her candidacy; if anything, she was encouraging us to announce ours.
A Montana prosecutor called this week for an "immediate crackdown" on women who use drugs or alcohol while pregnant, urging friends, family members, health care providers, and even strangers to turn in women they suspect to authorities. The prosecutor also warned drug- or alcohol-using pregnant women to "immediately self-report" to state health authorities to avoid criminal prosecution.
Even though there is zero scientific evidence supporting policies of coercion and punishment directed to pregnant women, some jurisdictions, mainly in the South, have taken to prosecuting women who give birth to children with drugs in their system. That's not good enough for Big Horn County Attorney Gerald Harris, who has concocted a toxic brew of right-wing, anti-choice, so-called fetal rights policies, and war on drugs ideology, along with a nice dollop of real-world racial disparity, to call for prosecuting pregnant women—and to go after them if they seek abortions to avoid prosecution.
In a Thursday press release, County Attorney Harris announced the crackdown, saying he will seek protection orders restraining pregnant women from any non-medically prescribed use of illicit drugs or alcohol, and those who violate the orders will be jailed to "incapacitate" them.
"It is simply not satisfactory to our community that the protection of innocent, unborn children victimized in this manner and subject to a potential lifetime of disability and hardship relies exclusively on social workers removing the child from the custody of the mother at birth," Harris said. "This approach is not timely and has not proven to be a sufficient deterrent to this dangerous, unacceptable behavior and will no longer be the state’s policy in Big Horn County."
Big Horn County, home to the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Native American reservations, is 60% Native American and 33% white.
Harris called on both the reservations and other prosecutors in Montana to join him in his crusade, which National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) described as a "reckless call to hunt down pregnant women." The advocacy group said it was "shocked by this attack on the health, liberty, and basic human rights of women in Big Horn County."
Harris' statement "irresponsibly promotes medical and scientific misinformation, promotes an environment of fear and reflects a shocking disregard for the rights and well-being of women and families," NAPW charged.
NAPW warned that Harris has no legal authority to carry out such a policy, saying enforcement would violate state and federal law. It also had a heads-up for potential busy-bodies: "People who heed the prosecutor's call to report pregnant women and violate patient privacy and confidentiality may themselves be subject to legal action," the group advised.
As NAPW noted, policies of coercion and punishment directed at pregnant women are actually counterproductive. Such policies discourage women from seeking prenatal health care and may even drive some to seek abortions to avoid arrest. This is where Harris' anti-choice politics and view of women as essentially little more than incubators rears its head.
"In the event an expecting mother chooses to abort an unborn child instead of refraining from drug or alcohol use and litigation extends beyond our local courts, we trust Attorney General Fox will make the right decision on behalf of all Montanans and continue this fight to the extent necessary to ensure justice is afforded to the most vulnerable of our society," he warned.
The NAPW, for its part, cautions women against "self reporting" to government agencies that could incarcerate them and is urging "every medical and public health provider in Big Horn County to immediately oppose this dangerous, unethical, and counterproductive policy." The group also encourages everyone who supports the health, dignity, and human rights of pregnant women to contact Harris "to let him know you oppose this outrageous action."
Harris thoughtfully provided his office phone number on his press release: (406) 665-9721.
Across the globe, 2017 brought us to new lows. Yet, even as crisis after crisis shook us to the ground, they also inspired many to rise up and take to the streets and other venues of popular power. Donald Trump as president awakened millions, sparked new cross-sectoral coalitions, and galvanized people to creative and effective action.
Across the world, those who never had the luxury of complacency continued their struggles for participatory democracy; economic justice; an end to wars and violence; protection of the global commons; the rights and security of women, LGBTQ folk, and other excluded populations; and an end to theft and plunder of indigenous and small-farmer lands.
Here, nine movement leaders share their hopes for the new year. From the head of Greenpeace USA to an opponent of patriarchal capitalism in Zimbabwe, these thinkers, strategists, and organizers have made significant contributions to different sectors and continents. And cutting across all their aspirations is a common theme: that solutions to some of the most intractable challenges on the planet will come from people uniting and organizing into powerful movements.
Oakland, Calif.-based organizer and co-founder of Black Lives Matter
Photo from KK Ottesen.
My hope for 2018 is that Black people are joined by the rest of the nation in solidly rejecting the new regime that has taken power. From suffrage to voting rights, from anti-Apartheid, emancipation, and #BlackLivesMatter to UndocuBlack and #MeToo, Black people have kept our eyes on freedom. Though we are not mules on whose backs freedom depends, the innovation and vision of Black people is critical, along with the activation of millions who understand that our futures are tied to one another. Let this be the year that sexual harassment and violence is seen through the eyes of Black women, the year that Congress is reorganized, and the year that progressive movements nurture and support Black communities by decisively taking on the fight against anti-Black racism as a fight for all of us. I hope that not another mother loses her child to police violence or the violence of government neglect. I hope a new movement emerges, committed to the fight against anti-Black racism in all its forms and united in pursuit of a future for all of us. I hope this is the year that the current administration is soundly rejected in favor of an interdependent, mutually beneficial global community.
Executive director of Greenpeace USA
Photo from Marcus Donner.
I have high hopes for the new year, hopes based on the very real momentum building across the country. In 2017, millions of people who have long felt concern about climate change, increasing inequity, the deterioration of our democracy, and more went from being isolated and angry to united and active. That gives me hope since an inclusive peoples’ movement is the best line of defense against those who want to plunder the planet and its people. And that movement is growing more powerful by the day.
Closer to home, I hope that Greenpeace and allies win the lawsuit attempting to shut us up or shut us down. In 2017, Energy Transfer Partners, the company that built the Dakota Access pipeline (the focus of the Standing Rock protest), filed a $900 million SLAPP suit against Greenpeace. This is an attempt to silence and intimidate critics of pipelines and defenders of indigenous rights. I hope 2018 brings a resounding dismissal of this lawsuit, sending a strong message to corporations everywhere that they can’t silence constitutionally protected advocacy. Dissent, nonviolent protest, and activism are crucial parts of our democracy, and are needed now more than ever.
Co-coordinator of Friends of the Earth Mexico/Otros Mundos; co-coordinator, Mesoamerican Movement against the Mining Extractive Model (M4)
Photo from Beverly Bell.
Responding to advanced capitalism with its savage extractivism in Latin America, organized peoples are resisting with more force, giving hope to the planet and me for the coming year. Electoral, military, and corporate coups d’état have encountered stronger fight-back from the Left, regardless of the cost to life and liberty; so too have free trade and investment agreements, the vehicles for making gigantic corporate investments in the territories of indigenous people and rural farmers (for everything from drilling and fracking of oil and gas; mining; monocultural production of African palm and other crops; and shrimp and factory cattle farming). Left movements are also fighting the theft and pillage of lands, waters, and other commons of nature, as well as the infrastructure needed to make huge profits from them, like oil pipelines and dry canals.
If the criminalization of social movements has grown, it is because the resistance continues to grow too, more than ever. In Latin America, people organized into organizations, and movements are defending their human rights, territories, and life.
Palestinian American educator in the San Francisco Bay Area
Photo from Samia Shoman.
On Dec. 21, when 128 member countries of the United Nations voted with Palestine against the U.S. president’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, my hope for Palestine was renewed. This hope grew when popular singer Lorde cancelled, on moral grounds, her upcoming concert in Tel Aviv on Christmas Day. Her announcement revalidated that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which seeks to end international support for Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine, is growing and working. The action and resilience of Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teen activist who stood up to Israeli soldiers’ aggression, has filled Palestinians with hope that there is a new generation leading the resistance.
My hope is that one day soon the American populace will catch up to the international community, which seems more aware of the growing violence and oppression against Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government and military forces, and more willing to speak out about it. And when the streets of America are filled with people supporting Palestinians’ right to self-determination and liberation, this hope will be fulfilled.
Michelle L. Cook
Diné (Navajo) human rights lawyer focused on protecting indigenous rights and territories
Photo from Michelle L. Cook.
The indigenous human rights movement was infused with new energy by the mass mobilization on the ancestral territories of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota, against the Dakota Access pipeline.
There is no tidy ending to that tale. The safety and future of indigenous people, lands, and waters still hang in the balance, and still need the world’s full support.
At the same time, Standing Rock sparked a movement to stop international capital from flowing to the Dakota Access pipeline via banks, cities, and pension funds. In 2018 and beyond, indigenous people wielding the divestment tool—with women in the forefront—will be working to stop more financing of harmful projects and corporations.
This promises to be another year of indigenous mobilization to protect ancestral lands from plunder, such as Bears Ears in Utah from uranium mining and Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin from the Bayou Bridge oil pipeline.
We are hopefully at a turning point in human rights in America, for indigenous self-determination and treaty rights, and for remedy by state and non-state actors. Moving forward from Standing Rock, as after the 1965 civil rights activity in Selma, Alabama, we are in a societal shift that will continue to inspire more just alternatives.
Feminist activist and climate justice campaigner who was part of the Zimbabwean uprising that toppled Robert Mugabe
Photo from Melania Chiponda.
The march of millions across Zimbabwe on Nov. 18 for our democracy, peace, and economic salvation succeeded in bringing down Mugabe. It was a revolution.
As an African feminist, I marched for something deeper, as well: for the liberation of women, for equality for people from all races, religions, genders, ethnic groups, and classes.
But from a feminist perspective, the real revolution has not yet happened. My dream for 2018 and beyond is for true change, not just for a changing of the guard, from Mugabe to his former henchman, the vicious Emmerson Mnangagwa. If we want to correct the political and economic system, then we should get rid of patriarchal capitalism. I feel trapped where every avenue to power is overwhelmingly male-dominated. A more cooperative and egalitarian economic system cannot be based on male supremacy.
In a world where women are viewed as mothers and caregivers before anything else, and have to overcome strong ideological and political resistance from men to participate in political and economic systems, my hope is that we start a real revolution against patriarchal capitalism.
Cofounder of the farmworker-driven human rights and economic justice group the Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Photo from Greg Asbed.
There were real glimmers of hope in 2017 that, when seen together, just might be the light at the end of one of the darkest years in this country’s history. No glimmer shone brighter here in Immokalee, Florida, where some of this country’s poorest, least powerful, most exploited workers found a way by building common cause with consumers, to turn what had been called “ground zero for modern-day slavery” into what is today known as “the best working environment in U.S. agriculture.” Through the Fair Food Program, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is eliminating longstanding abuses from sexual assault to forced labor and, in the process, giving farmworkers a real voice in the decisions that shape their lives.
If transformational, worker-led change can happen in Southern agriculture, it can happen anywhere. And that is my hope: that we come together in 2018 and start building the new day in the new year.
Erika Guevara Rosas
Americas director at Amnesty International
Photo from Erika Guevara Rosas.
Across the Americas throughout 2017, a growing social discontent inspired people to take to the streets and raise their voices for an end to repression, marginalization, and injustice. My inspiration to continue fighting for a better world in 2018 comes from countless small, brave acts by individuals and campaigns and resistance from movements that have and can make a real difference as we stand up to defend human rights.
Inspiration in 2017 came from the massive social movement of Ni Una Menos, or Not One Fewer, denouncing femicide and other violence against women and girls across Latin America. The long struggle of Peruvian activist Maxima Acuña had stopped a mining company that wanted to take over her land; recently, the Peruvian Supreme Court ruled in her favor. The decriminalization of abortion in Chile was a testament to the work of millions of women across the continent. And these are just a few of last year’s stories of courage that have profoundly impacted people’s lives.
In spite of the repressive response from governments, massive mobilizations in every corner in the region demanding state accountability and respect for human dignity will continue this year to transform the paradigms of power.
Director of Kebetkache Women Development & Resource Centre, a Nigerian eco-feminist organization battling oil companies
Photo from Emem Okon.
As women in the Niger Delta, we hope for this for 2018: Nothing about us without us! Throughout this new year, we will be aiming for greater power for the eco-feminist movement as we battle the oil companies who have stolen our lands, degraded the environment and biodiversity, and increased violence. I expect more visibility of women as we take action for the protection, remediation, and restoration of our environment. I anticipate ever-larger women’s mobilizations and look forward to deep consultations with women pushing oil companies to conduct Environmental Impact Assessments before commencing activities on their communities’ land. I envision the aspirations of community people being recognized and respected by oil corporations. Finally, I take hope from knowing we will push for a women’s rights perspective as we engage with and monitor the Sustainable Development Goals, to ensure that no one is left behind and to ensure that government and the oil companies do the right thing.
Last year at this time, a giant women’s march was in the planning stages. It turned out to be among the largest in U.S. history, according to the Washington Post. Four to 5 million people turned out in over 650 marches across the U.S. on Jan. 21, 2017, ranging from 200 in Abilene, Texas, to five who bravely marched in their hospital cancer ward, to between half a million and a million each in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New York. In spite of Trump administration sputtering, the D.C. women’s march alone dwarfed the size of the official inauguration.
The pink-hatted marchers conveyed an unmistakable message of fury at the prospect of a Trump presidency. But they did so much more: They rebuilt spirits crushed by the 2016 election and energized the resistance. Many came home from the march realizing that they could no longer outsource their activism to political parties or centralized advocacy groups. They realized they needed to bring their activism home, and organizations like Indivisible and MoveOn blossomed.
Fast-forward one disastrous year, and another women’s march is in the works, this one to be centered in Las Vegas.
Marches, and elections, are important. But as we mobilize, we also need to create new, powerful local infrastructure, or strengthen groups that are already on the ground. Sustained local power means we can stand up year-round for people who are targeted, resist policies that will harm our communities, reimagine the world we want together with others in our communities, and then make that reimagined world a reality.
Marches are powerful organizing tools, especially when people are angry. And today there are many reasons to be angry:
So march we must! But mobilizing marches around the country will have much more impact if we also build sustained, local movements. The work of resisting Trumpism and the rogue Republican state will last for years, and building a different sort of world—beyond corporate power and beyond white supremacy and patriarchy—will take years and generations. Big mobilizations are important, but just one tactic. We can only win if we build sustainable networks and increase organization, from the bottom up.
The organizers of the women’s march are looking ahead to the midterm elections, as they should be. With Trump’s historically low approval ratings, this could be the year when the new breed of Republican extremists loses big. Progressive candidates did extremely well at the polls in 2017; according to The Nation, there are now 100 elected officials who took office supported by Our Revolution, the political movement that emerged from the Bernie Sanders campaign.
All the work that goes into mobilizing young and old voters, people of color, women, and others to go to the polls will have much more impact, though, if it also builds sustained, local power.
Every four years, the big national parties raise millions of dollars, buy ads, and sweep into communities with outside organizers. But rarely does all this spending and mobilizing build the long-term power base that supports real change. Instead, two or four years later, they start all over again with their big lists, corporate money, and top-down mobilization.
It’s time for a different approach. Instead of organizing for a one-off event—like a march or an election—we need to organize sustained, locally rooted, empowered, and connected groups.
Members of these independent, locally rooted groups may choose to leap into the midterm elections—there are good reasons to do so! But the groups that build local infrastructure at the same time can do so much more. They can build a pipeline to recruit and encourage truly progressive candidates of all races and backgrounds, men, women, LGBTQ. They can distinguish between those with an authentic concern for the common good and opportunists. They can hold their representatives accountable.
And local groups can build power beyond elections. Because we have a lot of work to do to reinvent our broken systems and reweave the fabric of our communities. Local groups are our best hope for undoing the damage and building anew.
Rev. William Barber talks about the Poor People’s Campaign, the Republican Party’s embrace of President Trump’s racist policies, threats to voting rights and the GOP’s remaking of the federal courts. Rev. William Barber is president of Repairers of the Breach and the author of “Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. As the nation prepares to honor Martin Luther King on Dr. Martin Luther King Day, on Monday, modern day civil rights leaders have launched a new Poor People’s Campaign, inspired by King’s historic 1968 action, led by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We’re speaking to the Reverend Dr. William Barber of Repairers of the Breach and evangelical minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who once was a page for Strom Thurmond. Now, the man who replaced Senator Strom Thurmond from South Carolina is Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. This is what Lindsey Graham had to say when he appeared on ABC’s The View on Monday.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: He beat me like a drum. He ran against 17 Republicans and crushed us all. He ran against the Clinton machine and won.
JOY BEHAR: Yeah.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: So, all I can say is, you can say anything you want to say about the guy. I said he was a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot. I ran out of things to say. He won. Guess what. He’s our president.
JOY BEHAR: You’re calling him xenophobic, religious bigot?
MEGHAN McCAIN: He did.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I did that during the campaign.
JOY BEHAR: Yeah, you did.
ANA NAVARRO: Has he done anything to change?
MEGHAN McCAIN: By the way, I think—
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Yeah.
ANA NAVARRO: Is he still all those things?
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: In my view, he is my president, and he’s doing a really good job.
AMY GOODMAN: Ah, very interesting, what Senator Lindsey Graham had to say. We’re joined again by Dr. William Barber and minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Your thoughts?
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Yeah. And I’m sitting here thinking—I want to just mention first, Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, who’s the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, she’s probably looking at that and, like me, saying, “What in the world?” So, you say that’s during the campaign, and you laugh about it. And now the person is in office, and you say they’re doing a good job. And they’ve neither repented in word or in deed. And, in fact, their policies are fine, and you’re supporting the policies.
So here’s the question: If you’re supporting the policies of a racist xenophobe, what does that make you? And that’s why we have to have a policy focus. Remember, it was Lindsey Graham, I believe, and others who came out quickly—Tim Scott—against what happened in Charlottesville. And most politicians will be shrewd enough to do that. That doesn’t mean they aren’t white supremacists and white nationalists. The question is: Mr. Graham, Mr. Scott, who is black—because you can be black and be a white supremacist. At least you can be one who encourages it. And I think you can be, in politics. Where do you stand on restoring the Voting Rights Act? You’ve had four years to do that. You do know that undermining the Voting Rights Act is white nationalism, white supremacy. Where do you stand on healthcare? Because you do know that when you cut healthcare, you hurt a large percentage of African Americans, particularly in your state. Where do you stand on living wages, since 52 percent of African Americans make less than a living wage, and there’s 64 million people that make less than a living wage in this country, less than $15 an hour? Where do you stand on immigration reform? Because, you know, Richard Spencer declares that immigration is the first battle of white supremacists and white nationalists in the modern era. That’s what he has actually said.
So, the question becomes not are you loud like Trump, and are you—do you carry on the antics of Trump. It’s the policies. It’s the policies of white nationalism and white supremacy. And with Mr. Graham, where do you stand on appointing Jeff Sessions, who has a history of standing against voting rights and trying to prosecute people fighting for voting rights? Where do you stand? Your committee, Mr. Graham, the committee you’re on, allowed Thomas Farr to come through, out of North Carolina, to be—to almost make it to the federal bench, who is a known Nazi sympathizer and also a white supremacist, who carried the work of Jesse Helms and who has been behind every voter suppression act in North Carolina.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about Thomas Alvin Farr.
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Yeah, well, sure.
AMY GOODMAN: You also wrote about him in your New York Times op-ed piece, one of Trump’s, what you called, worrisome nominees to the judiciary.
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, and I want to step back from Trump, because I’m trying to work on that—I think we’re too Trumpy. So, yes, in the article, I did say Trump, but I also pointed out—and some people missed this—Thomas Farr would have never gotten to the judiciary if it wasn’t for Senator Richard Burr and Senator Tillis from our state—by the way, Senator Tillis was the architect of the voter suppression when he was speaker of the House—who denied two black women, a former Supreme Court justice in North Carolina and a federal prosecutor in North Carolina—they denied them even getting a hearing. They didn’t even allow them to get a hearing. And then, once Trump gets in, they push forward Farr’s name.
So we can’t just lay this reality of what we’re seeing at the feet of Trump. Trump is a symptom of a deeper moral malady. And if he was gone tomorrow or impeached tomorrow, the senators and the House of Representatives and Ryan and McConnell and Graham and all them would still be there. And what we have found, Amy, when we look at them, no matter how crazy they call him or names they call him or anger they get with him, it’s all a front, because at the end of the day, they might disagree with his antics, but they support his agenda.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to something that happened that might have surprised a number of people last week, and that was President Trump abruptly shutting down the Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, after it failed to prove any—after it failed to provide any evidence of voter fraud. The commission’s chair, Kris Kobach, blamed a, quote, “barrage of meritless lawsuits” for the investigation’s closure, after most U.S. states and the District of Columbia refused to share data with the commission. Can you talk about the—I mean, is this a victory?
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: No, no. Well, no. It is, and it isn’t. And it shouldn’t—the claim of fraud is fraudulent in itself. I mean, the first thing that the Trump administration did, with Jeff Sessions, is pull out supporting a case out of North Carolina that the Supreme Court unanimously said was surgical racism. Now think about that. The first thing his AG appointee does is say, “I’m no longer going to protect voting rights.” So he’s turned the attorney general’s office away from protecting voting rights. Then we have this fraudulent—
AMY GOODMAN: We have 60 seconds.
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: OK. We have this fraudulent committee, and they now shut it down, but it’s done its job. They are playing to a certain base. They have sown the theory of voter fraud, and now they’re saying they couldn’t prove it because the lawsuits blocked them. It’s all a game, and we have to unpack it. And we need a movement to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, how are you moving that movement forward, Minister Hartgrove?
JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: I think what’s really important with this Poor People’s Campaign is that it’s local groups all over the country who are coming together, people who are impacted by these issues realizing that the folks in Washington are not serving them. And so, what we can learn from Dr. King and from that whole movement 50 years ago is that a diverse fusion coalition of people coming together and insisting on changing the priorities is what changes the country. We can’t look for moral leadership from Washington. We’ve got to get it from the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: And the first action? Ten seconds.
BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: First action will be on the Monday after Mother’s Day. We’re going after 25,000 people engaging in civil disobedience over six weeks, to launch a movement. I want to say that: to launch the movement, not end the movement. We’ll come back and talk more about it in days to come.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Dr. William Barber of Repairers of the Breach and evangelical minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, School for Conversion in North Carolina, organizing a new Poor People’s campaign.
And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! welcomes back Mike Burke from paternity leave. Thank you so much to Renée Feltz, who filled in so well.
Champions of democracy scored a major victory on Jan. 3 when President Trump disbanded his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Voting rights advocates had brought numerous legal challenges against the highly controversial commission, and the press release announcing the commission’s dissolution cited the deluge of litigation as a reason for the president’s decision.
The seeds of the commission were planted after the 2016 election, when President-elect Donald Trump claimed for the first time that millions of votes were cast illegally. And since then, despite zero evidence, the president has repeated the claim ad nauseam.
Trump formed the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity on May 11, 2017, to gather “evidence” of this alleged voter fraud. The commission drew immediate skepticism, not only for its goal of finding that which does not exist, but also because the commission’s appointed vice chairman was Kansas Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach. In Kansas, Kobach championed a law requiring citizenship papers to register to vote, effectively disenfranchising thousands of eligible voters.
Ultimately the commission was doomed to fail, and not just because it had a shaky rollout and stumbled repeatedly, or even because state officials resisted the commission’s requests for personal voter data. By building its case on 3 million non-existent illegal votes, the commission was always going to falter; it was just unclear how quickly. A house built on lies cannot stand. Alongside the voting rights advocates who brought legal challenges, countless citizens protested outside commission meetings, shining a needed light on the nefarious gatherings and contributing to its downfall.
The presidential commission may be gone now, but we should not begin celebrating just yet. The fight against voter suppression is not over. Even as Trump disbanded the commission, Kobach implied that its investigation into voter fraud would continue and this decision merely represents a “tactical change.”
According to the White House, the Department of Homeland Security will now apparently continue the commission’s work, despite warnings from voting rights advocates that the database DHS might use to crosscheck citizenship status could wrongly accuse naturalized citizens of illegally voting. As the Associated Press reports, “Kobach said he intends to work closely with DHS and the White House, and expects the bulk of the DHS investigation to be done by midsummer.” Kobach indicated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (which operates within DHS) will likely play a role in the continued investigation.
There still is conflicting information about Kobach’s continued role in any DHS investigation. DHS has refuted future involvement by Kobach and has downplayed its commitment to continuing the investigation, and a lawyer representing the committee said collected voter information would not be sent to DHS.
Voting rights advocates remain worried. Michael McDonald of the United States Elections Project tells us, “Kobach has made it clear he intends to run a secret voter fraud investigation within Department of Homeland Security.” McDonald predicts, however, that a DHS investigation would likely prompt more lawsuits—a phenomenon that Kobach knows all too well at this point.
It was evident that Kobach was using the commission to attempt to set up a national system much like his deeply flawed—and nonsecure—Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, a data-sharing agreement among 30 states to compare voter rolls and flag anyone registered in multiple states who might be voting illegally. The commission’s disbanding might have averted a national program, but the current state-level Interstate Crosscheck remains problematic. While the Crosscheck program might seem innocuous and logical, a statistical analysis done in 2017 found that for every double vote that the program would successfully catch, 300 valid voters would be purged from the voter rolls.
Other threats to voting rights also demand our attention. For one, the effects of state legislation that suppresses voting are still being felt. Voter ID laws across the country, for example, are preventing countless eligible voters from going to the polls.
In addition, previous voting rights successes must be protected. Early on, elections expert and University of California Irvine law professor Richard Hasen said the commission was likely a pretense for gutting the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, more popularly known as the “Motor Voter” law, which—when properly enforced—has been successful at registering voters. Even with the disbanding of the commission, post-commission attempts to undermine the Motor Voter law could be on the horizon.
Regardless of what happens next, all this lying about voter fraud has already caused real damage. A recent poll shows that 59 percent of registered voters are concerned about voter fraud having taken place in the 2016 election, despite there being no evidence of the sort. And while the commission was shut down prematurely, it was successful in scaring parts of the American electorate into disengaging from politics. Thousands of people deregistered to vote after Kobach requested sensitive voter information, likely nervous that their registration data would be improperly used.
To combat whatever Kobach and his voter suppression allies do next, therefore, it is incumbent upon voting rights advocates that we make clear that claims of voter fraud are nothing but lies to provoke distrust of the integrity of our elections. Most importantly, we need to fight for pro-democracy policies, such as automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, and early voting.
The failure of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity teaches us that when citizens step up and fight for democracy, they win. This victory should embolden us to be ever braver and more courageous when we encounter the next sham effort to undermine American democracy.
This month’s Golden Globes were the first awards ceremony held since #MeToo went viral. To commemorate it, celebrities brought social justice activists along as their plus-ones, and many more wore black to show support with the Time’s Up movement, a new Hollywood initiative to purge the industry of predators.
While I’m sure they mean well, repairing the damage is going to take more than wearing black.
After all, Hollywood has collectively spent years perpetuating a rape culture, a sexist culture that did absolutely nothing for women of color, working women, women in the gay and trans communities, women of diverse religious backgrounds, and others. In fact, it often did the absolute opposite.
Elite men accused of abusing women have not only repeatedly gotten away with it — they’ve been praised for their work, given awards, and offered new jobs. Men such as Woody Allen, Casey Affleck, Johnny Depp, Bill Cosby, and Harvey Weinstein. Only recently have some faced some sort of consequences.
But then there was Oprah.
Oprah Winfrey won this year’s Cecil B. Demille award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” The first black woman to get the prize, she accepted her award to a standing ovation — and gave a rousing speech that inspired people only as Oprah can.
Photo by Guian Bolisay, Flickr
She talked about the women who aren’t talked about: the domestic workers, the women working for minimum wage, women who have no choice but to be silent about their abuse because they have a family to feed. “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up,” she said.
Oprah gave a voice to the voiceless, who don’t have the luxury of being the famous, rich, mostly white women with more power to speak.
No longer will women have to remain silent and endure because “this is what men do” or believe these are experiences that come with being a woman. No longer will women have to be shamed into silence because they aren’t believed, because they’re not rich enough, white enough, pretty enough, whatever enough to be believed.
The solution isn’t, as some are already demanding, for Oprah to run for president. The solution is to listen to women everywhere, and empower female activists in their work.
Women like Aniqa Raihan and Leilani Ganser, young activists I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with. They were brave and courageous enough to publicly fight back against their abusers after receiving little to no help from their university campuses where the assaults took place. Despite stigma, backlash, and struggle, Raihan and Ganser continue to fight every day for justice, for themselves and for women everywhere.
The solution is to support organizations that give voice to women of color and other marginalized groups – organizations such as Know Your IX, National Domestic Workers Alliance, INCITE!, and Mending the Sacred Hope.
Even Hollywood’s getting wise, the New York Times reports. Time’s Up set aside a $13 million legal fund “to help less privileged women — like janitors, nurses, and workers at farms, factories, restaurants, and hotels — protect themselves from sexual misconduct and the fallout from reporting it.”
“Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” Oprah said. Until “nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.” A new day is indeed on the horizon.
When a federal appeals court threw out North Carolina’s congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander this week, it didn’t just boost Democrats’ chances of winning in 2018’s midterm elections.
It served as the latest example of what the state’s GOP has done to hijack the voting process by nothing less than a political coup—or a deliberate effort to turn a once-purple state with the South’s most progressive voting laws into a red-run vote-suppressing bastion.
“It’s hard to imagine a more egregious gerrymander,” Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a University of Chicago Law School professor who has been leading the legal battle to overturn extreme redistricting at the Supreme Court, wrote on ElectionLawblog. The ruling by Judge James A. Wynn Jr. was the first time a federal appeals court struck down a congressional map as an illegal partisan gerrymander.
“The authors of the [now-overturned] North Carolina plan gleefully boasted of their partisan motives, achieved some of the worst partisan asymmetries of the last half-century, and ensured that their handiwork would be immune to all but the biggest wave—all in a state whose political geography, according to the computer simulations, mildly favors Democrats,” Stephanopoulos said.
The lengthy ruling is the third major court decision that declares North Carolina’s Republicans have broken the law when carving up the state’s electoral districts after the 2011 Census. The focus of Wynn’s ruling are the state’s 13 U.S. House seats, 10 of which are held by Republicans. That decision follows two prior federal court rulings that two House seats and 28 state legislative seats were illegal racial gerrymanders, because they drew districts using the voters' racial identities.
The congressional maps that were thrown out this week were drafted in a special legislative session in 2016 after the state lost the racial gerrymander cases. In other words, the GOP ignored those rulings and found another way to keep its House majority.
The Republican gerrymanders were the starting line of war on blue voters this decade. After the 2010 election where a Tea Party wave elected a GOP state legislative majority, Republicans controlled the redistricting process. Two years later in 2013, the Supreme Court threw out the enforcement formula in the Voting Rights Act in 2013, which required changes in voting rules in covered states be cleared by the Justice Department.
That ruling prompted North Carolina’s gerrymander-created red majority to pass a series of laws to undermine Democratic chances of winning elections. The Legislature quickly repealed Election Day voter registration. It imposed stricter voter ID laws to get a ballot at polling places. It ended early voting on weekends, which was popular with black clergy and congregations. It also ended a program where high school students could register to vote before they turned 18.
Of course, voting rights groups sued. In July 2016, a federal appeals court threw out these anti-voter laws saying they “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” That decision, like this week's ruling over the illegal partisan gerrymander, cited boasts by leading North Carolina Republicans about hijacking the process.
However, losing in court didn’t stop the state’s GOP from again targeting Democrats in 2016. It redrew its U.S. House district map to keep a red lock on its congressional delegation—which was struck down this week. It took other anti-voter steps. For example, there were 158 fewer polling places in 40 counties across the state, which reduced Black turnout 16 percent compared to 2012. Pro-GOP groups also made extensive efforts to purge thousands of legal but inactive voters in blue epicenters.
When Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost his re-election that fall—a statewide race, so there was no gerrymander—he quickly accused the Democrats of voter fraud, but offered no proof, as Democracy North Carolina documented in an extensive report.
Judge Wynn ordered the North Carolina Legislature to create a new landscape of U.S. House districts by January 29, or his court would oversee a process in which an independent expert would do so. The state Republican Party chair accused him of “waging a personal, partisan war” on them, and tweeted this was a “hostile takeover.”
That’s rich—accusing a federal appeals court of exactly what the GOP has done this decade. But the latest North Carolina voting rights victory is a cautionary tale. It’s taken years for federal courts to redress the structural imbalances the state’s Republicans intentionally created in their voting system.
Moreover, there’s no guarantee that Judge Wynn’s decision will be the last word. The U.S. Supreme Court last fall heard a case where another federal court ruled Wisconsin’s 2011 drawing of its state legislative districts was another unconstitutionally partisan gerrymander. It has yet to issue a ruling in that case. It also agreed to hear a Maryland gerrymander case this year involving a gerrymander favoring Democrats.
Stephanopoulos, who led the anti-gerrymander legal team in the Wisconsin litigation that ended up before the Supreme Court, noted that the stakes in these cases are bigger than the fortunes of either party. The core issue, he said, is whether elected government is going to represent the citizenry and not a minority party seizing power.
“The court clearly understood the core harm of partisan gerrymandering: that it entrenches the gerrymandering party in office, awarding it more legislative power than it deserves given its actual appeal to the electorate,” he wrote about the North Carolina ruling. “The court repeatedly defined gerrymandering as ‘the drawing of legislative district lines to subordinate adherents of one political party and entrench a rival party in power.’ The court also observed that gerrymandering ‘constitutes a structural [constitutional] violation because it insulates Representatives from having to respond to the popular will.’”
Stephanopoulos also noted that the ruling emphasized the judicial branch must step in when political power is abused.
“And warming the heart of constitutional law professors everywhere, the court twice cited John Hart Ely, the progenitor of the argument that judicial intervention is most necessary (and most appropriate in a democracy) when there has been a malfunction of the political process,” he continued. “Gerrymandering, of course, is the quintessential political malfunction.”