Category Archives: Politics

Felony Disenfranchisement

(This post is similar to the one that I originally wrote for this Web site)

Yesterday my colleague Amy Wysowski began an interesting and relevant conversation about this issue especially as we rapidly approach this year’s Election Day. Also, another colleague, Jackie Linge, drawing on her prior legal experience, added fascinating insight (as well as the human side of the story).

After reading the comments from Amy’s post, I thought maybe this issue needed its own post for ongoing discussion.

First, if you are interested in knowing what New York State felonies are, this site provides a list by offense level. Did you know there are A1 and A2 level felonies, B violent felonies, B non-violent felonies, C violent felonies, C non-violent felonies, D violent felonies, D non-violent felonies, and E felonies? Have a look at the lists. You may be surprised by what you see — and let’s not forget the broad discretion prosecutors have in deciding what charges should be brought in cases.

In New York State if you are convicted of any of the above, you will lose your right to vote (until you are on probation). It is also very hard to get a job (much less a good one) after a felony conviction.

FairVote2020 has some neat interactive charts and maps with loads of good information about felony disenfranchisement across the U.S. by state.

Dan Filler, blogging at the Faculty Lounge, writes:

Felon disenfranchisement has an intuitive appeal – we deny the right to vote to those who breach the fundamental social contract and violate the law.  But these laws have deeply racist roots and a dramatically disparate racial impact today.  There is also a deep democratic problem with the policy; as we criminalize and prosecute more and more conduct, we passively strip more and more citizens of voting rights.

Most states added felon disenfranchisement laws in the aftermath of the Civil War. It is no coincidence that more people gained the right to vote at that exact moment (at least in writing on the Federal level, via the 13th, 14th, 15th, and later the 19th amendments). Only two states allow everyone to vote (including those who are incarcerated): Vermont and Maine. Those two states are each almost 97% white (the highest white populations by state).

For more information and the latest news, see the Right To Vote Campaign, a collaboration between the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, and The Sentencing Project. The Right To Vote Campaign has led on this issue, but its own Web site has been down recently for some reason.

Late Update: See this New York Times article from Sunday’s edition, “States Restore Voting Rights for Ex-Convicts, but Issue Remains Politically Sensitive” and accompanying multimedia map from The Sentencing Project.

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Mocking Community Organizing Is Telling

The most consistent theme of last week’s Republican National Convention seemed to be Anti-Community Organizing. Speaker after speaker belittled Sen. Barack Obama’s community organizing experience — as if it wasn’t experience at all. This, however, was actually quite telling. It seems the apparently out-of-touch GOP does not understand what community organizing is. And, that is quite ironic. For, as Peter Dreier and John Atlas argue in their excellent piece in The Nation magazine:

At a convention whose theme was “service,” GOP leaders ridiculed organizing, a vital kind of public service that involves leadership, tough decisions, and taking responsibility for the well-being of people often ignored by government.

What Republicans do not seem to understand is that community organizing is what ordinary people do to try to make their community a better place in which to live. It is all about empowering people to become leaders themselves when politicians have failed them.

Craig Newmark, the founder of the web-site Craigslist (his own contribution to community organizing), said the attacks on community organizing seemed to reflect something bigger:

I’m personally more than a little disappointed by the attacks on grassroots democracy we heard at the Republican convention. As you see, it’s basically an attack on American values and democracy, and that’s not right.

So, could it be that when GOP Vice Presidential Candidate Gov. Sarah Palin dissed community organizing, she wasn’t putting “Country First,” but rather “Politics First”?

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Message in the Music

The United Nations’ 2001 World Conference Against Racism official report declares (on page 10) that (bold my emphasis):

13.    We acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that Africans and people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences;

The declaration that the transatlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity was a historic victory for the reparations movement — unfortunately, the tragic 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. came just a few days after the conference concluded in Durban, South Africa. The news from the conference was effectively buried.

Last week, a group of musicians, artists, and activists from the U.S. Virgin Islands released a roots reggae single that is sure to draw attention back to the issue of reparations in the months to come. The single, simply titled, “We Want Reparations,” will be the new anthem for the St. Croix based African-Caribbean Reparations and Resettlement Alliance (ACRRA). You can listen to the song here.

There are musicians and artists who just like making good music. Then there are musicians and artists who know that once they’ve been given the spotlight and the microphone, they have the responsibility to speak out on issues (and give their audiences information) that affect our communities and societies. This combination of music and activism is more powerful when the music (including the songs, rhythms, melodies, and vocals) and the activism (in lyrics, content, and activities outside of music) show that the musicians/artists are seeking true perfection in what they release to the public. Bottom line, the music has to be good, and the activism sincere. Put them together and you got something special.

These VI roots reggae artists fall into this latter group. Batch, Niyorah, & Danny I provide the lyrics. The music is a collaborative production of the “Zion I Kings”: a collective made up of Laurent “Tippy” Alfred of I Grade Records, “Jah David” Goldfine of Zion High Productions, and Andrew “Moon” Bain of Lustre Kings Productions. Excellent hornlines were provided by Celebrity Horns. Some choice lyrics:

“Look how dem profit from free African labor (African labor)/ Who built up dem cities and dem towns, laid down foundation without compensation (without compensation)/ Never giving nothing to the offsprings of the younger generation”

and:

“They make payment to the Jews, make payment to the Japanese/ Nazi Germany, Communist Soviet, and the Chinese/ Yet you don’t want to give what is due to we/ Haffi protest, petition constantly”

ACRRA says the song offers a unique merging of culture, information, and consciousness purposed to result in international awareness, community education, and activism in the territory.  ACRRA’s president, Shelley Moorhead (who is currently on a hunger strike and sit-in on the steps of St. Croix’s Government House seeking support on the issue) puts it best when he says:

“I am uncertain how many people in the world will pay a fee to come and hear me or any other leaders in the territory speak on a given subject. These young, talented local artists and musicians have crafted a ‘word + sound=power equation’ that regularly commands crowds of 10, 20, and 30,000 people in Europe, the United States, South America and the Caribbean who pay upwards of $20 USD to hear what Virgin Islanders are saying about the world’s issues. We are happy to now have them as ambassadors of the Virgin Islands Reparations Movement.”

Late Update: After two weeks, the Governor of U.S.V.I. asks Mr. Moorhead to end his protest on the steps of the Government House. Mr. Moorhead says he is not moving.

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It’s All About Narrative

So in my attempt to “understand” the American electorate and how we make decisions about who to vote for in political campaigns, I came across this article by Dr. Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Dr. Westen is the author of the book, The Political Brain: How We Make Up Our Minds Without Using Our Heads. In his article, “Why Voters Say they Don’t Really Know Barack Obama (and Why They Don’t Really Know Much about John McCain, Either)” Dr. Westen explains that while we think that political campaigns (well, at least presidential campaigns) turn on substantive debate about the issues, they are rather all about the narratives you weave about yourself and your opponent. He argues that a winning campaign focuses on four stories:

the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this “message grid” win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose.

I am personally intrigued by this idea due to my own focus on and fascination with media/communications, news, and how people get their information. Dr. Westen goes on:

Regardless of how detailed your policy positions, that isn’t enough. It isn’t memorable. It doesn’t capture the imagination of a brain wired over the long years of our species’ evolution for a particular kind of narrative structure, when the only way to pass knowledge and values down across generations prior to the rise of literacy–and when our children have not yet learned to read–was through stories.

Right now, John McCain is doing a better job than Barack Obama in telling these four stories in a compelling way. I believe Westen’s article is a must read for the Obama campaign and his supporters at this point in the summer campaign. I also think that if Obama can weave together “the four stories” in this current political climate, he will have a very high chance of winning in a landslide this November.

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Just One Additional Poll Question

A Rasmussen poll from yesterday finds that 53% of voters (including half of Democrats and 2/3 majority of Republicans) think Barack Obama’s “dollar bill” comment was racist, while 38% disagree. (In the same poll, only 22% of voters think that the McCain commercial with Obama and Brittney Spears/Paris Hilton was racist, while 63% say is was not.) Watch Obama making his “dollar bill” comment and judge for yourself, but keep the following in mind:

  1. This is something Obama has talked about consistently for the last year. He has been saying that “they” (any of his opponents) will be trying to make voters afraid of him — “and did I mention he’s black?” — at a fundraiser in Florida in mid-June. Not a word from the McCain campaign then. So timing (not even a full week after Obama arrived back from week on the world stage, on which he seemed to excel) is something to keep in mind here. Maybe something of a, “Quick, change the subject” type move.
  2. Obama never said that the McCain campaign (nor the candidate himself) was racist. He never used the word “racist” or the word “McCain” in the “dollar bill” comment.
  3. Excelscior1, blogging at DailyKos, says that perhaps Obama’s comment was in direct response to a McCain web ad where Obama’s face is placed on the $100 bill, as the voiceover asks, “what will he change next?” It is possible that he was indirectly referring to this web-ad (I believe the ad first ran in late June, but have not verified that yet).

Most importantly, in my opinion, the Rasmussen poll should have included one more question that directly addresses the substance — which I’ve been saying is sorely lacking from the discussion on all of this — of Obama’s “dollar bill” comment: “Is it racist that every one of the 43 presidents of the United States has been a white male?” I think the results of that question would add some context to Rasmussen’s poll numbers. Now, it is an incontrovertible fact that there have been 43 white male U.S. presidents (i.e. all of them). This is also obvious, and I think Obama’s “dollar bill” comment basically alluded to this fact. So I’m going to have to assume, based on common sense, that the Rasmussen poll results from above and from my additional question would correlate with one another. Regardless, the results, I think, would say something about Americans’ understanding of what is “racist” and what is not, as well as well as how we generally understand racism.

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When Race is Forced Front and Center

It’s the first week of August, and instead of talking about the enormous challenges (and crises) this country faces, the McCain campaign and its surrogates have driven the “Double-Talk Express” and the debate into the mud. The last week has been almost entirely about Barack Obama and his character. The constant chatter and shouting matches on cable news have been about race, Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton. Excellent political analysis of the last week can be found in this John Heilemann article.

So all this got me thinking: is this really where we’re at in this country? Why do we settle for such garbage? The McCain campaign is hitting every possible negative angle through, as Heilemann notes, “distortion, innuendo, and outright slander.” In one word, deliberate lies. The caricature of Barack Obama is, as we speak, being painted and hustled out to the American public in an extremely calculated fashion.

I think that Bob Herbert hit the nail right on the head today by discussing what I was writing about in my last post. Some choice excerpts from Herbert’s column:

You knew something was up back in March when, in his first ad of the general campaign, Mr. McCain had himself touted as “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”

There was nothing subtle about that attempt to position Senator Obama as the Other, a candidate who might technically be American but who remained in some sense foreign, not sufficiently patriotic and certainly not one of us — the “us” being the genuine red-white-and-blue Americans who the ad was aimed at.

and

Nevertheless, it’s frustrating to watch John McCain calling out Barack Obama on race. Senator Obama has spoken more honestly and thoughtfully about race than any other politician in many years. Senator McCain is the head of a party that has viciously exploited race for political gain for decades.

This week, what many earlier this year were worried would happen if Obama became the Democratic nominee, i.e. a presidential campaign with race being forced front and center, happened. Why? Because Republicans know that if the campaign is about Obama and his race (cleverly disguised in code language like “other” and “American”), they have their only real shot at winning the election.

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“Playing the Race Card”

I’m sure I’m not the only one who is annoyed by the phrase, “playing the race card.” Today, the McCain campaign is accusing Barack Obama of using — what conventional wisdom calls — one of the most vile cards in the politics deck.

The idea of playing the race card is just a silly catch-all phrase that is designed to elicit some sort of negative response about the cardholder. Really, what does playing the race card mean? First of all, race is something that will be in this campaign no matter what. There have been 43 white male presidents in U.S. history. Here we have the first black major-party candidate with a real shot of becoming president, do you think that white males will just sit back and let that happen without reminding voters, “uh, excuse me, but he’s black.”

Of course not. There is too much history here. The unfinished business of slavery and its legacy continues to this very day because it was never dealt with fully, and Americans like to pretend that “we have moved beyond that.” So, until we actually deal with our history, race will be a part of the conversation.

Second, what journalists should be doing — instead of hyperventilating over who is “playing the race card” — is having real discussion about the content, or substance, of what is being called “playing the race card.” Most importantly, journalists should ask, who is actually benefiting from the focus of race in the campaign?

In this case, it’s the McCain campaign that will benefit. Their narrative so far about Obama (and amplified by the series of viral smear emails going around) has been all about Obama not being American enough, not patriotic enough, not putting his country first (see McCain’s new tagline), being the quintessential “other” (read: too black, or a Muslim which he is not — not that either of these should preclude one from becoming president).

And one last thing: the notion that the Obama campaign is playing the race card is just ridiculous. Why? Because, when you look at Obama, he is clearly black, or at least not white (though he is half, yet identifies as black; but more on identity/race/perception in the U.S. at some other time). So in a way, I guess Obama is a “walking race card.” Please. Look at history. It does not benefit him to be black when running for the presidency, and even if it did, he would maybe only be on equal ground with a white male at that point.

Late Update: I just want to re-emphasize the new McCain tagline, “COUNTRY FIRST” (refer to why a few paragraphs above), because there is a big kick-off (and free) “Country First” Concert tonight 8/1/08 in Panama City, Florida. This, combined with the negative ads this week, combined with the viral smear emails, is clearly the new unified message strategy. Everyone, repeat after me. The new tagline says it all. Check the screenshot below of the campaign website with the tagline blazed across the top.

"Obama is not quite American enough"

"Country First" -- read: "Obama is not quite American enough"

Later Update: The “Country First” Concert with John McCain last night only draws several hundred people, which is only a fraction of what country music star John Rich normally gets at his concerts — usually in the thousands — and remember, this concert was free.

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McCain Far from Straight Talk on Iraq

The good folks over at TPM Election Central have put together what they are calling “The Definitive McCain Iraq Timeline.” The timeline finds many inconsistencies in Senator McCain’s public statements on Iraq.

No matter how many times I watch old video of TV interviews with political figures (largely culled from cable news channels and C-SPAN, edited by motivated citizen journalists and now available on YouTube), I am always amazed when I actually watch the footage. To see all the things people said publicly, edited in rapid montage, really blows my mind sometimes. It makes the inconsistencies stand out that much more.

Jed Lewison of Jedreport.com has edited one such piece on McCain’s Iraq inconsistent statements that really stands out. Check it out, particularly if you think that McCain is truly a straight-talker.

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A Picture Worth One-Thousand Words

The U.S. and the World after almost 8 years of the Bush Presidency?

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The Sanitized War Disconnect

The New York Times has a front-page article today by Michael Kamber and Tim Arango about the increasing difficulty photojournalists are having with an American military that is attempting to control graphic images from the war in Iraq. One of the photojournalists featured in the Times’ article is Zoriah Miller, who was recently interviewed on Democracy Now! after he was barred from the Marine Corps for publishing graphic photos showing Marines killed in a suicide attack last month. In the Times’ article, Miller says:

“The fact that the images I took of the suicide bombing — which are just photographs of something that happens every day all across the country — the fact that these photos have been so incredibly shocking to people, says that whatever they are doing to limit this type of photo getting out, it is working.”

The Times’ article says that “searches and interviews turned up fewer than a half-dozen graphic photographs of dead American soldiers,” and, by a recent count, only a handful of Western photographers are covering the war today.

One is forced to wonder, as Miller implies above, if the public saw more of these photos — which in reality show the true nature of war and the consequences of violence — would there be the same amount of passivity regarding the ongoing unpopular war?

Very Late Update: The New York Times’ Public Editor weighs in on the details of the Times’ decisions to publish war photographs.

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