Category Archives: Politics

A New Era of Hope

President Obama

President Obama

I’m still pinching myself every time I hear a news anchor refer to President Obama, or when I see a picture of the president with a caption that describes him as such. In some ways I feel as if I woke up in a dream. I watched history be made last Tuesday along with millions of others. Then as Barack and Michelle Obama made their way along the post-inauguration parade route, it seemed so surreal. Yet I am filled with hope for this country’s future despite the overwhelming nature of problems the U.S. (and the world) faces. But to be optimistic is the only wise course at this time. If there is a chance that we all get through these next few years or decades, we have to be optimistic that true change will come. I just hope it all translates into reality.

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Election Reflections

Two days later, the reality has started to really sink in. Senator Barack Obama is now President-elect Obama. I have to say that I really predict a few months ago that he was going to win in a landslide — I just felt like he was — and he’s mighty close at 364-173.

On Election Day night, I went to 125th Street in Harlem to take photographs, some of which I will link to soon. It was a pretty special place to be. Hundreds, probably thousands of people were in the streets, all ages, all backgrounds (but many many young people) filled with a sense of euphoria, like the weight of eight long Bush years was finally lifted off their backs. Even the police, who were there to maintain order and keep traffic moving — although, it was not easy, there were traffic jams, people were honking their horns for at least an hour straight and hanging out of car windows — hell, the police were celebrating too, or at least quite sympathetic those who filled the streets in a half state of shock, half state of euphoria.

That night and the next day I talked to many people, many strangers I had never met, but inhibitions were lost because there was a certain sense of a shared humanity. It was truly beautiful. Tragically, New Yorkers hadn’t come together in this way since after September 11th, the day the city and its residents bore the brunt of extremists’ death and destruction.

Two of the people I spoke to stand out in my mind and I will never forget the conversations I had.

One, on Election Day night, on 125th Street was with a man named Charlie, who was probably in his early 50s and had grown up in Harlem. I was recording audio and was holding a mic in my hand — Charlie, who wore slightly past the shoulder-length locks, walked up to me and began talking. Amidst all the celebration, he was so calm and soft-spoken yet so reflective regarding the true challenges Obama will face. But he was also reflective on what it meant to him that the U.S. had elected its first black president.

Charlie told me that when he was a kid in the 1960s, he loved to watch the TV show Perry Mason. He loved watching the main character dissect witness testimony on the stand and argue so persuasively in front of the jury and judge. He learned how to argue and reason himself in that way. Yet Charlie looked at Mason and thought to himself, he doesn’t look like me, I can’t do that. The storybooks Charlie read didn’t feature any characters that looked like him, so he ended up reading books on dog breeds. He told me he memorized every type of dog breed — that he could tell me about every type of dog he saw — that is what he did because he couldn’t see himself in storybooks.

The next day, the New York Times sold out, as early as around 8 a.m., according to some press reports. Everyone wanted a copy, a piece of history. Then we found out the Times would be selling copies outside its building at 3:30pm. So I went. And there was a line. There was a line that stretched around the entire building. Waiting in line, I met and older fellow, a man in his 60s or 70s who was quiet and keeping to himself when I walked up to get behind him. There he was, waiting patiently. Then we started talking. We passed the entire time talking about Obama’s election, about people, and about life. He had grown up in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s in the Deep South, in Birmingham, Alabama. Obama’s election had special significance to him. He was just happy to be able to be alive to see the day. There we stood, together in line under the awning of the Times building, appreciating the moment, as the rain fell. A cleanse, we said to each other. We both agreed that the only thing constant in life is change and that the future was upon us, moment by moment, so we’d better appreciate this one. As we neared the front of the line, he stuck out his hand. “My name is Ocie,” he said. I told him, I’m Kieran. A woman selling the papers yelled, “How many do you want?” Ocie and I said farewell and parted ways.

I feel very blessed to have spent those 40 minutes in line with a good spirit like Ocie’s. I hope he felt the same about me. I will never forget those moments.

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Election Eve

Well, I have been super busy at graduate school; the many stories, reporting outings and multimedia projects have taken up an immense amount of my time. So my apologies to anyone that I have neglected since school got rolling.

I wanted to link to a story, “Final Curtain for Old Voting Booths,” which I wrote with my colleague Sandra Roa — it just went live on the NYCity News Service, the multimedia Web site produced by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Be sure to check out the NYCity News Service all day tomorrow for Election Day coverage that focuses on New York City.

Tomorrow is the big day. Don’t forget to vote. People in this country died to exercise that right.

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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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