Minnesota, Politics, USA

Why I’m voting for Joe Biden

For people who know me, it might surprise them to learn that in the four presidential elections in which I’ve participated, I’ve never voted for the Democratic candidate.  I’ve voted for a lot of Democrats for other political offices, but when it comes to the presidency, I’ve always had a reason to cast my vote differently.

In 2004, my reason was that I was an idiot.  I was less than one month removed from celebrating my eighteenth year on this planet, and was equipped with a set of provincial attitudes that characterize the worldviews (or lack thereof) of a lot of teenage boys from outer-ring suburbs.  I cast my inaugural ballot that year by filling in the bubble next to the name of Republican incumbent George W. Bush.

By 2008, I had been thoroughly liberalized by my college education, and even though I was very much hoping for a Barack Obama victory in both that year and his subsequent reelection campaign in 2012, I never voted for him.  Accompanying my dramatic swing to the political left was another quintessential ideological development for a college-aged kid—a growing disillusionment with the establishment.  I decided to use my voice to cast a vote of dissent towards the two-party system, voting for Ralph Nader and the Green Party in 2008, and some guy from the Socialist Workers Party in 2012.  I obviously knew these candidates had no shot at winning, but hoped that a vote for a progressive candidate could signal to the Democratic Party that, if they wanted my vote in the future, they would need to embrace a more progressive agenda.

I used a similar rationale in 2016 when I cast my vote for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.  Once again, this vote was less of an expression of my desire of who I actually wanted to win the presidency, and more of an effort to use my voice to help influence a political shift.  To be clear, my politics had not swung back to the right.  The emergence of Donald Trump had me more convinced than ever that right wing politics in America had gone off the deep end.  I was, however, convinced that Donald Trump was going to lose the election, and thought that as the Republican Party sought to rebuild after such a train wreck of a presidential candidate, I’d prefer that party to move in the direction of libertarianism rather than further in the direction of whatever the fuck they had come to stand for under Trump.

But Trump didn’t lose. 

And while Trump’s electoral college victory shook me as a person, it’s not what shook me as a voter.  What shook me as a voter was how close Trump came to winning the electoral votes from my home state of Minnesota.

Minnesota has the longest running streak in the nation when it comes to electoral votes cast for the Democratic candidate for president.  There’s a bit of an asterisk next to that streak, as Minnesota was the ONLY state to send its votes to the Democrat in the 1984 Reagan landslide, undoubtedly because the Democratic candidate was Minnesota’s own, Walter Mondale, and voting for someone simply because they’re from our home state is the most Minnesota thing ever.  Nevertheless, the Republican Party has not won the electoral votes in this state since Richard Nixon did it in 1972.

But Trump came damn close.  He lost Minnesota by 1.5 percentage points, or just over 40,000 votes in 2016.  And if a few more Minnesota voters would have played with electoral fire like I did, he might have won the state.

Which is why I won’t be playing with fire in 2020.

Part of my rationale for the third-party vote has always been that, regardless of how I vote, Minnesota is a safe blue state.  I could use my vote to influence other changes that I want to see in politics and still feel confident that my state would be sending all ten of its electoral votes to my preferred candidate.  That’s not the case anymore.

President Trump’s frequent visits to Minnesota this election season have not been for the hotdish.  Minnesota is now a certified swing state, and that should change how we Minnesotans approach the polls.  Our votes are now objectively more important than those of voters from safe blue states like New York and California, or safe red states like South Dakota and Arkansas, and with that added importance comes increased responsibility.

And I’m feeling the weight of that responsibility. 

In a different scenario, Joe Biden would be EXACTLY the kind of candidate that would push me towards a third-party vote.  He’s too moderate, too old, too establishment, and has a political history that includes too many offensive comments and just enough disturbing allegations. 

But in this election, the stakes are too high.  Minnesota is in play and the alternative isn’t John McCain or Mitt Romney.  It’s a person that, I believe, is far and away the most hateful, incompetent, and dangerous person to occupy the Oval Office in modern U.S. history.  And even if that guy manages to squeak out another electoral victory, I won’t be one of the voters that lets him win my state on my watch.

So, I’m voting for Joe Biden.  I don’t even view it as a choice between the lesser of two evils.  I view it as a choice between one guy that’s evil and one guy that’s not.  Joe Biden is a flawed and frustrating candidate for a lot of reasons, but deep down, I really do believe that he’s a good person.  A person with morals and integrity and compassion.  A person who meets the standards of #MinnesotaNice.  A person who’s said and done bad things, but should not be defined by them.  I hardly feel the same about Donald Trump. 

To those who have similar feelings towards Trump but will vote third-party anyway, I did not write this piece to shame you.  Voting is a deeply complicated and personal thing, and as a regular third-party voter myself, I fully understand the reasons one might hesitate to lend their support to the Democratic Party or the candidate they’ve nominated.  But I also know that if Trump were to win Minnesota and I had not done everything in my power to prevent that from happening, I’d feel regretfully complicit.  If you think you might feel the same, then perhaps a vote for Joe Biden is worth your consideration, too. 

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Minnesota, Race, USA

Reacting to the Riots

I’m not sure of anything I’m about to say.  I struggled with the decision to even write about the riots.  I’m not sure that I should be writing about the riots, or if “riots” is the term I should even be using.  As sad and distressed and disheartened as I feel, I don’t know if a guy that occupies the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic spaces that I do can offer helpful and meaningful contributions to this conversation.

I obviously don’t condone the riots.  How could you?  How can anyone look at the videos and images of our cities reduced to robbery, rubble, and flames and say that that is something that they condone?  The ugliness unfolding across my social media platforms literally has me sick to my stomach.

But is that something that I really need to say?  Is that the kind of commentary that we need right now from Minnesota’s white community?  It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to fire-up my social media and launch a series of disparaging tweets condemning the senseless and counterproductive violence taking place across the Twin Cities.  And I would mean it, too.  That is how I feel.  But everything felt is not worth saying.

I haven’t lived a life of experiences that would ever lead me to participate in this kind of destruction.  That’s not because I’m better.  It’s because I’m lucky.  It’s because I was born with a skin color that statistically made me more likely to experience economic prosperity and less likely to fall victim to state-sanctioned violence.  It’s also the reason that I’m ill-equipped to pass judgment or condemnation on those who aren’t as lucky as me.

Which is why I don’t have a lot I want to say.  Instead, I want to listen.

I want to listen to the people of color who have a more intimate knowledge of the experiences that lead us to today.  People of color who have grown up in these neglected communities and been victims of poverty and profiling and police brutality.  People of color who have grown up with more privilege, but still sense the dangers that their black skin can bring them in the United States of America. People of color who are leading movements that call for peace, justice, action, equity, and systemic change.  People of color who are decrying the craziness of the last two days and have suffered the most from the devastation.  And, yes, people of color who are encouraging and perpetrating it.

The radical historian, Howard Zinn, once wrote that “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”

The voices of the unheard are roaring today.  There’s nothing just about what’s happening right now, but there’s nothing just about what got us here, either.  I hope with all my heart that state and community leaders will make the right decisions to quell these threats to human life and property, but I’m also skeptical that a “right” decision even exists.  But when the dust eventually settles and the smoke eventually clears, if we haven’t listened to these cries and learned from these injustices, we’re doomed to repeat them, and all the madness that comes with.  I hope to god we don’t make that mistake.

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Thoughts on George Floyd, 24 hours later

It’s been 24 hours since I first watched the video of the events that lead to the death of George Floyd in southeast Minneapolis.  It’s one of the most distressing videos that I’ve ever seen.  About five minutes in, shortly after Floyd appeared to lose consciousness, I remember thinking that the video had to be over soon—that the aggressor-officer had to be ready to let up.  As I moved my cursor downward, I was shocked to discover that the video was barely half-over, with another full five minutes to go.  Throughout most of those minutes, the aforementioned officer continued to kneel on George Floyd’s neck.  We all know the end result.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first video I’ve seen documenting the slaying of a black man at the hands of my local police.  Twin Cities folks no doubt remember the dashboard cam footage of four years back when Philando Castile was gunned down during a routine traffic stop in Falcon Heights, as well as the harrowing footage of the aftermath filmed by his girlfriend from inside of the car.  I wrote about this tragedy at the time, highlighting the injustice that seemed to be implied from the various angles that we had of the killing.  But as incriminating as that footage was, I think that the video from this most recent tragedy ascends to a different level of incrimination of the law enforcement officials involved in a few distinct ways.

One difference is the factor of the unknown, or in the case of George Floyd, what might have went down before the filming began.  While I will still contend that the killing of Philando Castile was grossly unjustified and criminally reprehensible, I will admit that I cannot know for sure what took place inside of that car prior to the officer discharging his weapon.  I know what I think happened (nothing!), but I have no definitive proof that Castile did not appear to be reaching for his weapon, or that the aggressor-officer did not have good reason to fear for his life.

George Floyd is different.  In the video I watched early yesterday morning, the events that transpired before the witness began recording on their cellphone have little-to-no bearing on what took place afterwards.  Invent any scenario that you like—”George Floyd was resisting arrest!”  “He was aggressive!”  “He was dangerously violent!”  No matter what took place prior, at the time the now infamous video began, George Floyd was clearly no longer a threat, and he only became less threatening as the video carried on.  He was handcuffed, lying on his stomach, and sufficiently disenabled.  In the case of Philando Castile, we can at least imagine a scenario (albeit unlikely) in which lethal force could be justified.  In the case of George Floyd, that scenario does not exist, no matter how creative your imagination.

Another distinction worth noting is the behavior of the aggressor-officers.  The officer who killed Philando Castile knew he fucked up.  You could hear it in his voice.  He was well aware that pulling that trigger may have been the gravest mistake of his life.  I’m not sure if that necessarily transforms him into a sympathetic figure, but at the very least, it lends him a little humanity.

I cannot say the same about the behavior of the aggressor-officer in the case of George Floyd.  His demeanor is calm and cold.  As the onlookers grow increasingly urgent in their desperate pleas for him to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck, the officer almost seems to grow more defiant, as if he continues to apply the possibly lethal pressure just to prove a point.

I’ll still refrain from passing judgment on these cops as people.  I’m a firm believer that good people can do terrible things in moments of anger or weakness.  That includes the bystander cop who, despite his concerned and conflicted expressions, fails to make a potentially life-saving intervention. These cops may not be monsters, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they participated in a monstrous thing.  Assuming they are criminally charged, the prosecution should reflect that.

I attended the early stages of yesterday’s protest.  It was the first protest I’ve ever been to of this kind.  Several things stood out.

First and foremost is my admiration for the protest’s organizers and leaders.  In the past, I’ve been critical of some members of groups like Black Lives Matter for what I believe to be their overzealous inflation of injustices that need no hyperbole, and the adverse effect that those exaggerations can have on the group’s goals and credibility.

I heard none of that last night. The leaders of the protest were impressively nuanced.  They called for resistance, but explicitly denounced violence and destruction of property.  They called for the prosecution of the offending officers, but refrained from demonizing the entire police force.  That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some protestors blaring “Fuck Tha Police” waiting for any excuse to launch whatever projectiles might be in range, but based on my unofficial observations, the vast, vast majority of protestors who were gathered at that intersection came ready to resist responsibly, and that is in large part due to the protest’s leadership.

Another personal takeaway was my dramatic realization of the courage that it takes to attend protests like these.  Over the time I spent on 38th and Chicago, I witnessed the removal of a man who was later reported to be an armed, Neo-Nazi counter-protester.  I saw the beginnings of what could have exploded into a mass-panic when revving engines suddenly approached the protest’s epicenter, evoking a short-lived but intense terror that we were about to experience a repeat of Charlottesville (the engines turned out to be those of a black motorcycle gang arriving in support of the protest, but god was it scary).

Both these anecdotes are representative of the kind of knowledge that only comes from experience.  From my studies and teaching of events from Selma to Ferguson, I’ve learned a great deal about the inherent dangers of protest, but there is no knowledge that can be acquired from a book that can ever supersede the experiential knowledge gained in those few fleeting moments when I thought that the consequences of that danger might be experienced by me.

I was moved by the solidarity exhibited between different groups of color.  Despite a very different history, there were first, second, and probably third generation African immigrants, many Somali, out in full force at this protest.  Native peoples were well-represented, including a quasi-drum circle on the southeast corner explicitly expressing its solidarity with the black community as a group with a comparable history of systemic mistreatment.

That diversity also included a lot of white people, and the protest’s leaders made us feel validated.  That validation, however, did not come without a challenge.  I was deeply impacted by the words of one of the speakers who, after proclaiming his appreciation of our presence, insisted that we remain with them on the front lines, because, as he so eloquently put it, “we [black people] can’t go home.”

I left the protest about 90 minutes after those words were uttered, and as I watched the chaos and destruction unfold from the safety of my suburban neighborhood, the speaker’s words could not have rang more true.  It is hard to find a more powerful representation of white privilege than the ability to attend the easy part of a protest and leave before the shit gets real.   I should have been a better white ally, but I’ve learned to live with my shortcomings.

Not that I would have participated in the violence and destruction of property with the select few who perpetrated it.  I believe those actions to be profoundly misguided and undermining of everything the protest is meant to achieve.  However, I also subscribe to the Kingsian view that “riot is the language of the unheard.”  That doesn’t mean I agree with the riots, but it does mean that I think I understand where they come from and why they happen.

One last point I’d like to address: the courage of the confronters.  I’ve got a semi-personal connection with one of the people who confronted the team of police officers called upon to restrain George Floyd, and I couldn’t be prouder to be vaguely associated with him.  He’s a fellow aspiring martial artist who happens to train at the same institution as me.  The mix of persistence and composure displayed by him and other confronters at the scene—including the firefighter chick and the woman behind the cellphone cam—is unbelievably admiral.  “He’s human, bro…He’s not responsive right now…Check his pulse!!!…You gonna let him kill that man in front of you, bro?…Thao, you know that’s bogus…”.  The level of courage that it takes for a black man to challenge police officers ENGAGED IN ASSAULT is a level of courage that I very much aspire to.

This is 24 hours in.  I’m a big believer in allowing the facts of a case to manifest before arriving at final conclusions, and that no previous injustices by white cops against black men should weigh in on our decisions on how to evaluate the specific details of this case.  That said, I also find it hard to imagine the emergence of any evidence that could substantially sway my general sentiment about this particular tragedy.

A gross injustice was committed yesterday. An injustice that was both unnecessary and preventable.  An injustice that certainly would not have taken place with a little more empathy and a lot less hate.  I’m sad for my city, my state, and my country, and while I’m encouraged by the level of turnout at the protest and the swift action taken by the city of Minneapolis and its police department to try to right an irrevocable wrong, I’m also convinced more than ever that, in spite of centuries of progress, we still have a lot of work to do.

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Thoughts on COVID-19: Where we’re at and where we’re headed

I was as happy about Tim Walz’s lifting of the stay-at-home order as anybody.  Okay, maybe not as happy as the owner of a non-essential retail store or a self-employed hairdresser, but I was pretty happy.  The lifting of the SAHO means that I can finally get together with friends and family that I haven’t seen in months, and maybe soon after, return to the gyms and restaurants and breweries that I used to frequent weekly several moons ago.

But part of me wonders if I should be happy.  Is Minnesota really ready for this step?  Have we really bought ourselves enough time to prepare for the worst that this virus has to offer?  Is Walz really doing what’s smart and right, or just what’s politically palatable to a restless population?

I think most medical experts would say the latter.  I’m not even going to pretend to understand all the data and curves, but those who do seem to agree that the worst is yet to come.  I’ve been on the listen-to-the-experts bus since it left the station, and if the medical experts were calling the shots, I don’t think I would have done my first set of push-ups in over two months today in preparation for some early-June bench press.

However, when I say listen to the experts, I’ve always meant ALL the experts, and that includes economic ones.  The economic damage inflicted by these societal shutdowns is already calamitous on a macro-scale, and the worst kind of life-altering for some on the micro.  Every extension of the SAHO means that damage will only become graver, with innumerable (I’m sure there is a number, I just don’t know it) more layoffs and small business failures, leading to a lengthier and more strenuous recovery.

So, where do we draw the line?  At what point does the economic damage wrought by stay-at-home orders outweigh the potential lives that are being protected?  Anyone who says “never” just isn’t being honest, but that doesn’t make the question easy to answer. It’s one of the reasons that I have a lot of empathy for our elected leaders during this crisis.  Of course, everyone’s got an opinion, but it’s easy to have an opinion that doesn’t carry the weight of consequence.  I just know that I’m glad that I’m not forced to choose between destroying the livelihoods of young entrepreneurs or the lives of old folks in assisted living.

And I also don’t think it’s as easy as telling those old folks to stay home while the rest of us go about our lives.  As a relatively young guy in relatively good health, I need to keep reminding myself that the SAHO isn’t necessarily about protecting ME, it’s about trying to prevent me from becoming a link in a chain that could contribute to the spreading of the virus to the most vulnerable.

And the most vulnerable aren’t just old people.  There are plenty of unancients with underlying health problems that could be headed for long and happy lives, but for whom COVID-19 could be a death sentence, especially if we overwhelm the healthcare system.  My wife works at a chemotherapy clinic where folks of all ages come in for treatment, but due to the chemo, also have weakened immune systems.  Just the thought of me bringing a case into my home that my wife could bring into her work fills me with a level of guilt and dread that I’m not sure I could handle if it were to become a reality.

This is one of the reasons that I have been a supporter of Walz’s actions thus far.  I’ve been nowhere near perfect. Like most people, I’ve found ways to bend the rules to make my life more tolerable and convenient during this boring-ass time.  But I’ve also based my bending off the rules as they are written, which has led me to being more well-behaved than I would be if the rules were different. And as a fellow teacher of high school students, I think Walz understands this.  Give kids an inch and they’ll take a mile, so if you don’t want them to have a mile, give them half-an-inch instead. Us adults are no different.

So, I guess we’ll see where this goes.  I’m excited to regain some semblance of normalcy in my life and reestablish some of my pre-COVID routines.  I’ll be ready to turn back the dials again if my trusted leaders tell me that’s what’s necessary.  And I’m also ready to embrace some of the “new normal”—the aspects of our post-COVID world that will be forever different than the world we knew before.  Hooray for Zoom meetings, good riddance to hand-shaking, and please Western Union, complete my money transfer to Hijo del Soberano so he can get my lucha-style cubrebocas on their way to Minnesota.  Virus or no virus, I’m wearing these fucking things.

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Why I’m voting for Bernie Sanders in the Super Tuesday Minnesota Primary

I like Bernie Sanders the candidate.  I really like Bernie Sanders the person.  I really, REALLY like Bernie Sanders the cranky, disheveled, old man hellbent on carrying out a revolution even if he dies trying (and he might!).  However, despite his irresistible likeability and his front-runner status, I’ve been unconvinced that he represents the best option for Democrats in their efforts to unseat Donald Trump in 2020.

And I’m still not convinced.  This write-up is way less about convincing others to think like I do and way more about figuring out what it is that I actually think.  And at the moment, I think that I think, despite his obvious weaknesses, Bernie Sanders has as good of a chance as anybody to take back the presidency for the Democratic Party.

Common sense suggests otherwise.  If, like me, you agree that the most important quality in any potential Democratic nominee should be that candidate’s ability to defeat Donald Trump in a general election, then a self-described “democratic-socialist” hardly seems like the best fit.  When I cast my vote for Bernie on Tuesday, I will do so with this reservation very much weighing on my political conscience.  However, while it’s not enough to quell my worries completely, deeper consideration of this concern has me questioning if it’s really as common sense as it seems.

The prevailing thinking goes as follows: Donald Trump is an extreme right-wing candidate who has alienated many moderate Republican supporters.  Therefore, the Democratic strategy should be to nominate somebody left-of-center—a candidate who can turn out the Democratic base, united in its opposition to Trump, and perhaps also attract some more moderate conservatives who are fed up with the chaos of the Trump presidency.  To nominate a progressive candidate, particularly one as radical as Bernie Sanders, is to forgo that potential moderate support, and by consequence, lose the election. Moderate Republicans may be able to hold their nose for a Joe Biden vote, but they will NOT vote for a socialist.

This all makes sense, and undoubtedly describes many individuals in the electorate who would view Bernie as a deal-breaker when it comes to casting a Democratic vote.  However, it is also based on a questionable assumption: that this is how the majority of the American electorate actually makes its decisions.

People plugged into American politics know where they lie on the political spectrum.  So do people who write about American politics and say things like I said two paragraphs above.  But for a lot of American voters, the political spectrum doesn’t always seem to be the best indicator in determining how they might vote.  Bernie Sanders has much more in common ideologically with Hillary Clinton than he does with Donald Trump, yet the numbers suggest that at least 1 in 10 voters that supported Bernie in the 2016 primaries went on to vote for Trump in the general election. Different numbers also suggest that the key voter group that cost Clinton that election might have been former Obama voters who also opted for Trump.  And while surely these voters each have their unique reasons to explain why they voted the way that they did, on a macro level, it doesn’t make a whole lot of ideological sense.

Which leads us to another fact that we know about American voters: while some vote with their mind, many others vote with their gut.  They vote less based on what a candidate believes, and more on how that candidate makes them feel.  Anyone that has ever seen a Trump rally should know that this is true about Trump voters, and the rabidity of the Bernie Bros suggests that its true for many of those voters, as well.  Not all Bernie supporters are radical socialists.  Many are just people who perceive him to be an authentic truth-teller that represents a refreshing departure from the status quo.  And they’re not wrong.

Bernie’s crossover appeal also extends to his message.  I’m not sure how it plays in Florida, but his appeal to working class people resonates loudly in states vital to Trump’s 2016 victory.  Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin—all states won by Donald Trump in 2016, and all states in which Bernie Sanders could fare well in 2020.  And while his policies are very different, the populist undertones of Bernie’s campaign are not that dissimilar from some parts of the promise to Make America Great Again (just not the racist and xenophobic parts).

Once again, I am not even convinced of my own position.  Part of me still very much feels that I should cast the “safe” vote for a more moderate candidate.  But I’m also reminded of what happened around this time in 2016.  Bernie Sanders was surging in Democratic primaries, but ultimately came up short of securing the nomination.  His failure to do so resulted from many of the same preoccupations that surround his candidacy today—concerns that his democratic socialism made him unelectable, and that it was safer to go with the more moderate, establishment choice.  After Trump secured the Republican nomination, the “safe” choice seemed like an even bigger no-brainer.  Surely the relatively moderate Clinton would defeat the radical, right-wing demagogue in the general election.  And we all know what happened next.

Come November, I will vote for the candidate that receives the Democratic nomination, no matter who that happens to be.  For the most part, I like all of the candidates on the Democratic side, which is a lot more than I can say about the buffoon that will once again represent the Republicans.  The big question continues to be which Democratic candidate has the best shot at an electoral victory.  My mind tells me one thing, my gut tells me another, and on Super Tuesday, I’m going with the latter.  Feel the Bern.

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Weighing in on Ilhan Omar v. Donald Trump

I voted for Ilhan Omar in 2018.  I have mixed feelings regarding her House tenure thus far.  I’m very proud of what she represents, but sometimes unsure about how she’s representing.  But while she certainly has her flaws, and is still self-admittedly learning and growing, Ilhan Omar and her three “Squad” colleagues deserve every American’s defense against the recent verbal attacks that they’ve suffered from the Twitter-fingers of the president.

To rehash: In a recent tweet regarding these four Congresswomen, Donald Trump said, “So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally come from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world…now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.  Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”

Before moving forward, it is worth noting that only one of these four women (Omar) is foreign-born, and all of them are American citizens.

And that was just the beginning.  As the Twitter war ensued, and expanded into other mediums, Trump proceeded to call these four women, and Ilhan Omar in particular, “disgraceful,” “disgusting”, “Radical Leftists”, “Communists”, “Anti-Semitic”, “Anti-America”, “pro-terrorist”, “racist”, mislabelers of racism in others, and perhaps most prominently, people who “HATE our country.”

Specifically in regards to Omar, there are shreds of sentiments that I agree with in these otherwise intolerant statements.  I agree that Omar is “radical”, in the sense that her views oftentimes fail to reflect the recognition of complexity and nuance that I believe is necessary to describe our reality.  I agree that certain comments from Omar indeed fall under the category of “anti-Semitic”, or at the very least, unknowingly rhyme with anti-Semitic tropes.  I agree that “racist” is a word that is thrown around far too loosely by many on the progressive left, and that more nuanced language is needed to describe the differing perceptions of racial reality possessed by the modern American public.

That last sentiment is why I will once again stop short of labeling Trump as a racist.  I still do not believe that Trump harbors real hatred in his heart for Somalis, Latinos, or any other “race” of people.  Instead, I prefer to call Trump “racially ignorant”.  I really do think that he is almost completely unaware of the racially charged language that he uses.  That or he purposefully uses that language as a tool to try to rile up the real racists in his base. It’s not textbook “racism”, but it is still hugely troubling.

As noted, Ilhan Omar has made some ignorant and discriminatory statements herself, specifically in regards to Jewish people.  The big difference between her and Trump is in their reactions.  Omar unknowingly played on anti-Semitic tropes in statements that she made regarding pro-Israeli lobbyists.  She was officially disavowed by her Democratic colleagues in Congress for those statements, and in return, offered a seemingly genuine apology in which she claimed to be “listening and learning,” and thanked her “Jewish allies and colleagues” for “educating [her] on the painful history” of anti-Semitism.

Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t see a need for listening or learning.  Trump is constantly offering up coded language about blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and other historically marginalized groups, and when confronted about it, does not apologize, but instead chooses to double-down.  In this most recent case against Omar and her women of color colleagues, Dems are again proposing an official disavowal of Trump’s hateful language, much like they did with Omar.  Most Republicans are conspicuously silent.

And this seems to validate one of Trump’s primary defenses: “People agree with me”—the idea that since many Americans agree with Trump’s less-than enlightened reflections, that that makes those reflections okay.  There is no sentiment that gives me less faith in our democracy than this one.

I have been a consistent opponent of the calls for President Trump’s impeachment on the grounds that, 1) The Mueller Report found insufficient evidence regarding the initial crimes that is was called upon to investigate, and 2) Despite potential obstructions of justice, I’d rather see Trump defeated democratically via our election process.   That said, this particular Trump statement, as well as myriad other statements that I have heard personally and impersonally from Trump supporters, makes me worry that we still live in country in which a significant amount of people will vote for Donald Trump not IN SPITE OF the racist things he says, but BECAUSE of them.  I don’t think that represents the majority of our country, but as the 2016 election proved, Trump doesn’t need a majority to win a second term.

Ironically, Trump won that 2016 election on a four-word slogan, “Make America Great Again”—a slogan that suggests that 2016 Donald Trump was dissatisfied with the state of affairs of his country at that time.  Over the last few days, many have pointed out the inconsistency and hypocrisy between this slogan and the accusations of anti-Americanism that Trump has hurled towards the four Congresswomen.  “Make America Great Again” doesn’t seem to suggest a love for our country as it is, nor a patriotism towards the diverse, multicultural nation that the United States has become, an element of our country that many people love.  Instead, much like many of the comments of Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib, “Make America Great Again” represents a criticism of certain aspects of our country.  “Make America Great Again” is an expression of dissent.

But I’m not here to condemn dissent.  On the contrary, I firmly subscribe to the belief that dissent is one of the highest forms of patriotism that one can express—that if you truly love your country, but are unsatisfied or displeased with certain characteristics that it holds or actions that it performs, you do not passively accept those flaws, but instead, challenge your country to be better.  Ilhan Omar seems to understand this.  As she said yesterday, the provocative statements that she has made do not come from a place of hate, they come from “a place of extreme love.”

That is why Ilhan Omar and her allies are so valuable in our Congress.  It is not because their dissent is always righteous or always right, but because it gives us a perspective that our democracy has so often lacked.  From women.  From people of color.  From the sons and daughters of the foreign born, or those born abroad themselves.  For groups that this country has historically failed, and in some ways, continues to fail today.  These are perspectives that are always worth considering. Trump is not evil for lacking these perspectives, but he might be for his refusal to understand them.

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Economics, Minnesota, Politics, USA

Single-payer healthcare in the state of Minnesota

Constitutionally speaking, Americans do not have a right to healthcare.  We have a right to free speech, a right to bear arms, a right to freely practice religion or to be free from religious practice, but we do not have a constitutional right to be cared for when we are sick. Supporters of a single-payer system, myself being one of them, are hoping to change that.

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Legislation creating a single-payer healthcare system, aka “universal healthcare”, aka “Medicare for all”, would not change the Constitution, but it would guarantee all Americans publicly funded access to core medical services.  Obamacare is not an example of this system, but it is perhaps a move in that direction, in the sense that it uses the federal government as a tool to get healthcare in the hands of people that the private market had previously left behind.

Unfortunately, the American Healthcare Act, supported by Trump and currently being considered by the Republican-controlled Congress, threatens to undo a lot of that progress.  Needless to say, this is a pretty disheartening development for single-payer advocates who had viewed Obamacare as a significant step towards their ultimate goal.  That’s why Minnesotan supporters of a single-payer system should turn their attention away from Washington and towards creating a single-payer system here in Minnesota.

In the United States, our federalist system of government grants significant leeway to its semi-sovereign states in controlling their own affairs.  In terms of power, state governments may be inferior to the federal government, but they are not necessarily subordinate to it.  This means that, in the case of healthcare, even though conservative legislators in Washington are fighting for further privatization, progressive state legislators can still fight to enact something more public within their borders.  Even though the American Healthcare Act may have dire consequences for the poor, old, unlucky and underprivileged in other U.S. states, that doesn’t have to be the case for anyone in the state of Minnesota.

Trying to pass single-payer legislation at the state level would be an enormous challenge.  Aside from the politics, the practicality of such a system is pretty daunting.  First and foremost is the cost.  In California, the most recent state to seriously consider a single-payer system, a legislative analysis estimated a $400 billion per year price tag.  That is more than double the entire state budget proposed for next year.

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And what about the system that we already have in place?  As one write-up put it, a single-payer system “may be what any sane and progressive community would adopt if it was creating a health-care system from scratch,” but that is obviously not the case here in the U.S.  The massive systemic overhaul that it would take to transition from the entangled clusterfuck of deductibles and co-pays to a system in which the state government replaces insurance companies, employers, out-of-pocket patients, and the federal government as the “single payer” is head-spinning to say the least.

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And then there are the criticisms that we always hear of single-payer systems—the longer lines, the lower quality, and the lack of responsibility shown by citizens once they start to get something for “free”.  Some of the criticisms may be exaggerated, but in spite of whatever benefits a single-payer system might bring, I don’t think that there is any doubt that, at least for some patients, these problems would become a reality.

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But in order to be a success, a single-payer system doesn’t need to be perfect.  It just needs to be better than what we currently got.

A single-payer system would be expensive, but the U.S. already pays more for healthcare than any other country in the world, including the myriad of countries that have already adopted single-payer systems.  Even though the California proposal has a price tag of $400 billion, Californians already paid $367 billion for healthcare in 2016, and that doesn’t include the nearly 3 million uninsured residents that didn’t receive coverage, but would under the state plan.  The real difference would be that, rather than paying a for-profit middleman like the private insurance and pharmaceutical companies that currently rake in all those dollars, Californians would be paying the government via taxes.  And while those estimated costs still leave the price tag of single-payer significantly higher ($33 billion according to the estimates), it would also provide core medical services to EVERYONE.

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With everyone being eligible to receive government-sponsored medical care, it would not be surprising to find lines that are a little longer or care that is of slightly lower quality for those accustomed to having the most prestigious of plans.  But if this is the case, then the only reason that those lines were so short in the first place is because some people were not allowed to wait in them, and I’m not okay with that.  Plus, one would imagine that, even under a single-payer system, the economically empowered would still be able to use their financial wherewithal to purchase goods and services not accessible to most.

Implementing a single-payer system of healthcare in Minnesota would not be easy.  Even if the political will were there, inevitable setbacks and complications would surely make the transition process a frustrating one for many.  I don’t know if it would be best to try to implement that system in one fell swoop or in a series of steps, but I do know that these are the types of discussions that should be taking place in the halls of the Minnesota State Capitol.

States are the laboratories of democracy, and Minnesota should be the first to experiment with single-payer healthcare at the state level.  Minnesota may not be the economic powerhouse that California is, but smaller populations than us have made single-payer work, so there’s no reason that we can’t too.  If we can be successful in this endeavor—successful in building a workable, government-funded system that provides quality healthcare to all its citizens—then perhaps Minnesota can serve as a model to other states, and eventually, the federal government.  Healthcare is not a right in the United States, but in Minnesota, it can be and it should be.  We just need to make it happen.

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Minnesota, Race, USA

The killing of Philando Castile and the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez

Jeronimo Yanez and I attended the same university at the same time.  I don’t recall ever meeting him, but we ran with a similar group of friends.  They tell me that Yanez was a good guy—nice, friendly, hardly the monster that many have made him out to be following his deadly encounter with Philando Castile last July.

Nothing I’ve seen over the past year has done anything to make me think otherwise.  Even after watching that horrifying dashcam video in which Yanez pumps seven fatal rounds into the front seat of Castile’s car, I still find him to be a sympathetic figure.  The video hardly portrays a vicious executioner.  The guy’s nervous, he panics, and in the process, he makes the gravest mistake of his life.  It’s obvious that he feels terrible, both then and now, and I feel sorry for him.  But that sympathy isn’t enough to prevent me from adding my voice to the overwhelming chorus who feel that, in the case of State of Minnesota v. Jeronimo Yanez, justice was not served.

I think it’s worth highlighting that Yanez was not being charged with murder.  He was being charged with manslaughter—second degree manslaughter to be exact.  This reflects the notion that we as a society lend police officers a certain amount of leeway not provided to ordinary citizens when it comes to the use of lethal force.  We recognize that police officers perform a difficult and dangerous job in which snap decisions are often necessary, and can make the difference between whether or not an officer lives or dies.

However, when I watch that dashcam video, the definition of second degree manslaughter is exactly what I see. Words like “negligence,” “unreasonable,” and “endangerment,” seem to perfectly describe Yanez’s actions.  He may not have murdered Castile in cold blood, but based on what I’m reading, he still appears criminally culpable for Castile’s death.

But the video admittedly does not provide the whole story.  Despite all the disturbing images that we can see through the lenses of the squad car and Diamond Reynold’s cell phone, we still can’t see exactly what’s happening inside of the car prior to the shooting.  Perhaps this is the primary reason that the jury chose not to convict.  In our justice system, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution, not the defense.  Even though it seems unlikely, there is no hard proof that Castile was not reaching for his gun rather than his license.  There is no hard proof that Officer Yanez did not fear for his life (and if you’ve seen the video, it seems quite likely that he did).  In the United States, the defendant is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and in spite of all the incriminating evidence that the prosecution presented, the jurors still obviously possessed the proverbial reasonable doubt.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that they believed Yanez to be “innocent,” it just means they didn’t feel that they had enough to send him to prison.

This case is unique, and should be treated as such.  What we think about the case should be influenced by the details of this case and this case alone, not by what has or has not happened in similar cases in the recent past.  That said, this case is also so emblematic of the systemic issues inherent in the way that we do criminal justice in this country, that it’s easy to see why people are so quick to make that jump.   From the fact that a black man was pulled over for his resemblance of a suspect in another crime (a.k.a. “driving while black”), to the careful compliance exhibited by the black occupants of the car as they talked to the police (in Reynolds case, even AFTER her boyfriend was shot), to the ultimate acquittal of the officer (are black people innocent until proven guilty?), this case just seems to be such an example of the experience of black people when they come into contact with the criminal justice system and those who administer it.  As one write-up put it, “the system worked as it was designed, it was not built to protect black lives.”  I’m not sure if I agree with everything that that statement implies, but I understand why a black person might.

Even if Yanez had been convicted, that verdict would have given me no pleasure.  This is a disgusting situation in which even “justice” is no real remedy.  As one juror put it, “nobody was ok with it”—nobody was ok with the pain and suffering that will plague each member of the Castile family for the rest of their lives, nor the guilt and regret that Yanez will carry with him for the rest of his.  Yet that juror still chose not to convict. I was not in that court room.  Maybe, legally speaking, acquittal was the right call.  But if this case is not an example of injustice perpetrated by a police officer against a black man, then what in the hell is?

 

 

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History, Minnesota, Politics, Race, USA

The Walker Art Center and the “Scaffold” Controversy

Social justice-centered censorship is sweeping the nation, and this past week, Minneapolis became the temporary epicenter.  The controversy stems from a piece of art that was set to debut at the grand reopening of the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden later this month.  The piece known as Scaffold is intended to represent a commentary on the use and abuse of capital punishment throughout the history of the United States.  Part of that commentary includes a reconstruction of the gallows used in Mankato, Minnesota, during the 1862 hanging of the Dakota 38—the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

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The Scaffold structure has been met with massive resistance from both Native and non-Native peoples alike. That resistance came to a dramatic culmination on Wednesday afternoon with the joint decision to dismantle and burn the structure in a ceremony led by Dakota Spiritual Leaders and Elders. But while Scaffold’s run has ended before it ever really began, the conversation that is taking place in the Twin Cities and around the country is just getting started, and I personally am still trying to figure out where on these issues I stand.

Although artist Sam Durant intended Scaffold to be an awareness generating piece about the historic plight of Native populations, I understand the concerns about the unintended messages that the piece may also convey.  Chief amongst these is the structure’s location in the Walker Sculpture Garden—a less than solemn place with frolicking couples and children, mini golf, and a giant rooster and a cherry.  As one write-up puts it, “context matters,” and the context of the Walker Sculpture Garden may contribute to the trivialization of one of our State’s gravest injustices.

Another concern is the neglect of Native voices in the retelling of a story that is particularly impactful to indigenous people in this part of the country.  Sam Durant is a white guy from L.A., and while he has collaborated with Native groups in the past, this project was completed without any attempts at outreach to the Dakota peoples who the project is about. What is more, while in negotiations to obtain Scaffold, the Walker Art Center never reached out to Dakota groups in the community, which in hindsight, should have been a no-brainer considering the gruesome nature of the project and its intimate ties to that tribe’s history.

But all that said, I also understand a lot of the resistance to the resistance of the soon-to-be-burned structure.  Scaffold is a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s an example of genocide opportunism. A reading of Sam Durant’s near instant apology can quickly punch holes in that accusation.  The project’s actual intention was “to speak against the continued marginalization of these stories and people, and to build awareness around their significance.”  Misguided methods? Perhaps. But after reading the letter in full, Durant hardly seems like the kind of a guy seeking to exploit tragedy for personal gain.  Even the highly criticized “jungle gym” component of the project stems from a thoughtful albeit questionable attempt to comment on the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon so prevalent in communities of color today.

I also have to say that I got some respect for a fellow white guy doing his darndest to challenge oppression and privilege in the world, especially when he doesn’t have to.  As a member of the most dominant group in almost every major demographic category, guys like Durant don’t need to tackle injustice, because on a systemic level, they probably don’t often face it.  I’m not trying to paint Durant as a hero, and that kind of observation may sound tone deaf considering the gravity of the issue at hand, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  Perhaps it’s also that ignorance to experienced oppression that leads to the blundering nature in which guys like Durant (and myself) try to address said oppression, no matter how pure his (my) intentions might be.  But while it’s not always the thought that counts, the thought still counts for something, and what Durant is doing is exactly what us white guys are supposed to do in fighting oppression and dismantling our own privilege—starting conversations in our communities, with our people, and trying to create change.

Cultural appropriation is often a term that gets tossed around to describe artists like Durant who try to tell stories that aren’t theirs to tell. But while misappropriation is certainly a thing, and perhaps applicable here, there also seems to have been a societal shift in what we define as tasteless or insensitive appropriation of someone else’s culture. Bob Dylan sang songs about both Emmett Till and Rubin Carter in the 60s and 70s, and I’ve yet to find an article that condemns him as a “racism opportunist.” On the contrary, Dylan is constantly recognized as an American civil rights hero who used his art to draw attention to repressed and silenced voices, even if the experiences of those voices were a far cry from his own.

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Sam Durant is no Bob Dylan. Even if he thought that he was, he knows differently now:

“I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists …However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.”

Hopefully Durant has learned from this experience as much as his statement seems to suggest.  Hopefully he remains encouraged, and continues to try use his position of power and influence to do good in the world. If there is any solace he can take from this catastrophe, it’s that his project still accomplished its intended goal—it started a conversation. It’s not exactly the conversation that he intended, but it’s an important conversation nonetheless, and no matter what side of the issue you’re on, or what your ethnic background is, or what your beliefs are regarding the myriad of –isms at play, there is understanding to be gained for those willing to listen and learn, especially considering the fact that no one in this conversation seems to disagree that injustice is something that we need to address.  If nothing else, Sam, thanks for that.

 

Recommended viewing to learn about the Dakota 38:

 

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Education, Minnesota

The Disbandment of the Forest Lake Police Department and Student Resistance

I’m home sick from school today.  It is the first sick day that I have taken on a school day in my three-year career as a secondary teacher with Forest Lake Area Schools.  I threw up in a garbage can after 5th hour yesterday, so you know it’s legit!  But even in my sickly, sofa-ridden state, I cannot help but feel moved and inspired by what is taking place in the school and community in which I teach.

The events I refer to started back in January, when Forest Lake Mayor, Ben Winnick, first floated the idea of disbanding the Forest Lake Police Department.  To take its place, Winnick proposed a cost-saving measure that would switch the city’s law enforcement services to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, potentially saving the city more than $300,000 annually.  The switch would also cost 23 Forest Lake police officers their jobs.

The idea was met with strong resistance from the community—resistance that last week culminated in a flurry of emergency meetings in which dozens of Forest Lake community members (high school students included) aired their grievances about the proposal.  The final meeting took place Monday night, when the Forest Lake City Council voted 3-2 to approve the contract with Washington County Sheriff’s Office, effectively disbanding the police department of the city of Forest Lake.

 Resistance only escalated from there.  At 1:15 on Tuesday afternoon, as many as 1,000 students walked out of Forest Lake High School, and went on to march all the way to City Hall in a show of support for their police officers.  While Monday’s vote was an ominous one for FLPD supporters, the decision ultimately needs to be approved by Washington Country, lending the protesters hope that further action can still halt this unpopular decision from taking root in their community.

Forest Lake High School did not sanction the students’ actions.  Students who chose to walkout should have been marked with unexcused absences and will be responsible to make up whatever learning they missed.  In my opinion, that’s what gave this protest teeth. Student willingness to stand up for what they believe to be right, in spite of whatever consequences they might face from their school and/or parents, provides a powerful undercurrent to Tuesday’s actions.  Cancelled classes and signed parental permission forms would have turned Tuesday into less of a walkout and more of a field trip, and field trips usually don’t create social change.

What is more, it is not the school’s place to take a stance on this issue.  The school expressed its support for the free speech rights of its student body, and that was all that it should have done. Certainly every one of us educators has an opinion on the issue at hand, but as one of my students put it, regardless of what our own personal opinions may be, we live in a democracy, and on this issue, it appears that the people have spoken.

As a teacher, I could not feel more proud of the student leaders who are so effectively using their voices to stand up for what they believe in.  Even if their quest proves to be unsuccessful, I hope that this experience leaves them feeling empowered, and that it encourages them to continue to act as the agents of change that they are proving to be, in Forest Lake, in Minnesota, in Washington, and in the world.

Tomorrow I will return to work and rejoin the student body who, during a difficult stretch of the year, have reminded me how special it can be to teach high school students—guiding them as they find their voice and identity in the world.  More than anything else, that is what us teachers are hoping to cultivate, and in the case of many of yesterday’s class-ditchers, it appears that, to at least a certain degree, our school is succeeding.

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Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Forest Lake Area Schools or anyone else associated with the district.

we love our cops

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