Category: News and Events

A Brief Thought from Today’s Resistance

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Today, Trump supporters in Michigan rallied at the state capital in Lansing, bringing with them cranes and trucks with professional Trump campaign signage – leading one to wonder, “Just which side is paying people to protest, precisely?”  Indications of professional political campaign financing to the conservatives notwithstanding, resistance organizers all around Michigan organized a counter-march, in effect protesting against the counter-protesters protesting against our protest.  Joe Montgomery of Ypsilanti was one such organizer, posting a page onto Facebook inviting people to march at the capital building, while other organizers created events at other Michigan cities as well.  My wife and I chose to join the capital protest.  Having several signs from previous protest actions, rallies, and marches, we found the signs we wanted, and drove to Lansing.

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While the Trump supporters, with their seemingly well-financed materials, gathered by the capital building, we of the Resistance rallied first at Wentworth Park, just a few blocks away.  We chanted as we gathered enough of a crowd to make an impact; then at noon, we marched to the capital building to launch our peaceful protest of the support rally.

Upon arriving at the capital building, we noticed people wearing and carrying Confederate battle-flag apparel and other materials; and contrarily flying the American flag as well (not apparently aware of the opposition of those two flags during the war in which both were flown, nor of the opposition of the ideas that those flags stood for).  Mr. Montgomery also noted that one of the leaders of the support rally offered a Nazi “heil” salute at one point.  While the regime’s speakers used megaphones from the side of the building to argue in favor of their doctrine of hatred and fear, we stood by the street and chanted the normal chants becoming ever more familiar to the Resistance.

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The Trump supporters hurled insults at our crowd; while our marchers for the most part resisted the temptation to engage the other side (I saw only one marcher attempt a conversation with a Trump supporter; Trump supporters’ insults were generally ignored or laughed off as not being worth the time to recognize or requiring any response).  Trump supporters called the marchers “snowflakes,” “losers,” and “cockroaches.”  One Trump supporter walking past me called the marcher next to me a “whore.”  This was a divide not just of politics; but of style of engagement and hostility.  The Republicans were openly aggressive, hostile, unfriendly, and they directed their opposition not towards our positions but toward a simple adolescent recourse to personal invective; while our side deployed maturity, relevance on specific issues, and overt friendliness and positivity.

Many of our resisters noted further that while many of our signs argued for policy positions, very few of the Trump supporters’ signs did (most of the supporters carrying signs held only the standard-issue Trump-Pence campaign signs left over from last year).  Another demonstrable difference between our two crowds was the expected ethnic difference; with our crowd’s great cultural diversity offsetting the depressingly homogeneous whiteness of the predominantly middle-aged and older supporters of Trump.  In short, then, our crowd had not just a language and issues advantage; and not just an advantage of positivism over negativism; we also had the ethnic advantage, and the advantage of diversity of ages participating, young and middle-aged and old alike.

After sharing the space to the side of the capital building for about 15 minutes or so, Mr. Montgomery suggested we rally right on the front steps of the capital (some of our marchers later claimed to have earlier chased off the Trump supporters from those front steps).  We marched around to the front steps, and there rallied where each marcher who wanted to speak to the crowd could.  There, we were rallied by the improvised remarks of representatives of Women’s March and Planned Parenthood supporters, activists from By Any Means Necessary, students fearful of the regime’s implications on their education, immigrants fearful for the safety of their families, gay and transgender and cisgender and other people of all sorts of cultural identities fearful of the whitewashing over of their society by the hatred of the new administration and its supporters.  Activists who had helped to fight against deportation sweeps and actions by state police and ICE agents spoke out about keeping our eyes open and actively standing in the way of the administration’s extremist agenda.

As with so many actions of the past two months, we of the Resistance showed each other great love and care for each other, regardless of our disjointed agenda of a thousand different issues.  We applauded each other, hugged each other, and promised each other to stay networked in as we continue to form our twenty-first century resistance, a resistance (like that of the Arab Spring and in so many other places) that is enabled by today’s technology to develop with a power and speed unimaginable to resistance efforts of previous centuries.  And the millennials who are even more plugged in to this technology are ever more the driving force of the Resistance.

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All photographs ©2017, Sparkpolitical.  With special thanks to Joe Montgomery.

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The DNC Election, and the Big Tent

Dems fear divisions will persist after DNC chair election

With Tom Perez’s narrow, second-ballot victory over progressive rival Keith Ellison for the chair of the Democratic National Committee this week, many on the left and center of American politics are revisiting last year’s primary win by Hillary Clinton over Democratic Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders.  The same hostility between certain factions of leftist and centrist politics in the United States is being repeated and expressed in similar terms as the continuing armchair quarterbacking of last year’s election.  This hostility means one thing only: a victory for the other side, for the Republicans under the guidance of Donald Trump, who want to destroy unions, fire workers, concentrate wealth, allow small businesses to be swallowed up by large corporations, and pursue an agenda of hatred and divisiveness not seen in this country since before the 1960s.

The United States is not a parliamentary democracy, but a presidential one; and while political parties are never mentioned in the Constitution, the methodologies devised for selecting national leaders, presidential and congressional, promote the existence of two large parties.  In some ways, some of the framers of the Constitution imagined not two but several or numerous “factions” (political parties); but this vision was intended to place the decision of the president’s election in the hands of the House of Representatives, rather than in the hands of the popular electorate.  And with the House controlled by a majority, that majority would be expected (the original framers imagined further) to elect a president friendly to that majority – the largest “faction,” or political party.

But the transformation of presidential elections into a popular vote at each state level, and the states’ collation into the Electoral College, puts power squarely into the hands of any political party that establishes itself as a “big tent,” as opposed to the multitude of smaller, competing parties found in modern European parliamentary democracies.  And ultimately, the only way to combat a “big tent” party is to form an opposing “big tent.” Hence the perpetuation of the domination of American politics by two parties.

Republicans and Democrats both, in order to win and to compete with each other, and especially in order specifically to get presidents elected, must be “big tents” that bring in a multitude of often disparate and competing interests.  These interests create a constant push and pull within both parties.  Both parties find themselves torn between, on the one hand, internal struggles for the helm of the “big tent,” and for the opportunity to set priorities for the rest of the occupants of the tent; and on the other hand, the external struggle with the other party and for those voters whose interests put them in the middle or are attracted by different positions to both parties simultaneously.

The Democratic Party’s “big tent” includes many gun-owners (roughly a third of self-identifying Democrats, according to a 2006 Gallup poll); the party includes religious conservatives who are opposed to abortion; the party includes fiscal conservatives unconvinced about the need to spend taxes on social supports.  A traditional demographic of the party during twentieth century was union voters; and these voters are hardly progressive in any real sense, often (even if quietly, and while denying that they do) expressing racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and other “traditional values.”  Many of these “traditional Democrats” voted for Trump and other Republican candidates last year, and many of them had, as former Democrats, voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.  The Democratic Party is losing elections ever more as it becomes less of a big tent, losing moderates and conservatives who have until now been suspicious of the Republicans to those very same Republicans.

During last year’s election, and again during this year’s battle for the DNC chair, the “Big Tent” saw continued struggles for partisan identity between those conservatives remaining (many frightened of the openly antidemocratic  – small “d” – promises and actions of the Trump Republicans), with the moderates and progressives wanting to push the right-centrist Democratic Party of the Obama era more to the left.  The struggle between Bernie and Hillary was one between those more hopeful of the Democratic Socialist vision, and others finding enough promise and realism for positive reform and governance from Hillary’s urge for the tent to be “Stronger Together.”  It was also a struggle between those who managed to buy from Republican detractors the message that Bernie’s promise was substantially contrary to that of Hillary’s, and those who had already followed both politicians long enough to know that there was in fact little sunlight between them – particularly when looking at their mutual voting records, in which they voted together roughly 97% of the time.  The battle for the primary ended with a newly energized Bernie “revolution,” shocked that a candidate almost identical to their own and who then embraced their very platform, had defeated their seemingly unconquerable hero – a hero who was losing the fight for the party’s popular vote long before the issue of superdelegates seemed to throw party contrivance and conspiracy into the light as the “reason” why Bernie lost.

In three key states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio – Green Party candidate Jill Stein captured key progressive votes.  In each of these states, progressives tossed their votes out on Stein as a protest of the Hillary campaign’s win in the primary, angrily rejecting both their own platform (embraced by both the DNC and by Hillary Clinton’s campaign specifically) and their former candidate, Bernie (who also endorsed Hillary and spent the general campaign fighting for her election).  Stein votes in each of these three states were greater than the Trump campaign’s minuscule margin of victory over Hillary.  Had these progressives voted for the candidate who had embraced their very platform, and who was endorsed by their previous candidate, Clinton would have won those states, and the general election as well – and we would today be having an existentially different conversation about American politics than the one we are having now.

The battle for the DNC has dug up all of the hostilities from last year’s battles, as progressives fought for Rep. Keith Ellison (MN5-D) to be the new chair.  Ellison promised a progressive reshaping of the Democratic Party, attracting the praise of Bernie Sanders and his “revolutionaries” of last year.  And that promise resonated with enough of the ranking members of the DNC (the people who get to vote for chair and vice-chairs, elections closed to the general voters of the Democratic Party) that it took two votes for the chair to be decided.  Tom Perez, the Latino Secretary of Labor under President Obama, was also able to form a large base of diverse Democrats, by urging greater activism among the youth and for social and racial justice; moving donation drives to small-money donors rather than large, corporate-friendly donors; working more with state parties to  develop a 50-states strategy; forming a permanent organizing campaign; and other DNC means of supporting local and state parties’ fights for the upcoming elections of the next two years.  This powerful program, hardly an embrace of party conservatism, won over the admittedly moderate heads of the DNC, an election that nonetheless felt to many “revolutionaries” as another spit in the face by a party that they see as being insufficiently progressive and insufficiently “Democratic.”  Mutterings that, “Democrats are going to keep losing elections,” were heard across the social media as progressives felt shut out and rejected.

Those expressing such mutterings chose to ignore, or to see as a token attempt to sweeten the defeat of progressives, the election of Ellison to the Deputy Chair position.  This slate gives the highest powers of the DNC to a Latino and to a black Muslim, an indicator of the ethnic diversity around which the Democratic Party hopes to rally its forces.  Yet however much a token that Ellison’s deputy chair position seems to appear to progressives, the fact remains that the DNC has inherited from the campaigns of last year an agenda comprised of unimpeachably progressive values and goals.  Furthermore, the DNC is ultimately not a grassroots organizing agency or an ideological demagogue; but instead is a means of supporting the state Democratic parties and is a strategic planner for national resources utilization.  Individual state parties, and their committees, candidates, and elected leaders, will determine how progressive (or not) the Democrats are going into this year’s local elections and next year’s state and congressional elections.  Progressives should be encouraged by the power emanating from such mechanisms as the Indivisible movement, the Women’s March movement (which continues to organize and conduct protests, rallies, and other events), and other grassroots forces.  These forces can, if they do not give up their power, drive the state Democratic parties to retain their new-found progressivism, and put progressive issues and positions on the ballots and into public debates this year and next.  The DNC’s seemingly progressive agenda suggests that, although the DNC will also probably protect those conservative Democrats fighting to keep their seats in the many states that went for Trump, the DNC will likely empower the progressives and moderates in some local and state campaigns.

Headline image, of Rep. Keith Ellison, and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, posted in The Hill, 2/24/27.

Scenes From The #ResistanceRecess

My latest pièce de résistance against the new administration has been work with NDAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) on a petition drive.  The Standing Rock Sioux tribal leaders are continuing their struggle against the construction of the DAPL, especially since the Trump administration has ordered that the pipeline construction be continued.  However, the vast plethora of attacks made by the administration upon our civil liberties, upon the free press, and upon constitutional norms of government, have diverted much of what little national attention had managed to trickle over to Standing Rock.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has posted a bill (S. 65, and HR 371), “To address financial conflicts of interest of the President and Vice President.”  In concert with this bill, Roxanne Saxton of Michigan put up a petition through MoveOn.org, calling on Congress to “Require President Trump to provide the audit trail of papers proving he is no longer involved in any way, shape, or form with the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

In very little time, the petition accumulated over 230,000 signatures nation-wide.  Then volunteers and organizers like myself who signed the petition began a drive to visit every single member of Congress, Senators and Representatives alike, and present them with a full list of their constituents who signed the petition, together with the petition language and a summary of the campaign (numbers and so forth).

Michigan has 16 members of Congress (MoC’s, as they are increasingly being called, as groups like Indivisible and others make resistance plans around contacting these key elected leaders).  Our Great Lakes State has 14 US Representatives (5 Democrats, and 9 Republicans); and both of our US Senators (Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters) are Democrats.  Recent events have put Republican MoC’s under considerable pressure to face their increasingly disgruntled consituents; and many have gone “missing,” ignoring invitations and pleas to hold town halls or public events at which they might have to explain their acquiescence to increasingly unpopular Trump administration initiatives.

This past week, (Sunday, February 19 through Sunday, February 26) was a scheduled recess for both houses, and MoC’s from both parties came home to hold public events or to visit key places in their states and districts.  Our petition campaign’s national leadership sought to exploit the opportunity, and to put copies of the petition, with constituents’ signatures and comments from the online petition, directly in the hands of all of the country’s MoC’s or their respective staffs by the end of the recess week.

Considering that 6 of Michigan’s 7 Democratic MoC’s are co-sponsors of the Warren bill, the Democrats were very friendly to this petition; while the Republicans are less comfortable with the implications of calling on investigations of their party’s president and vice-president.  Democratic officials have not been as eager to avoid public appearances during the recess as have the Republicans; and here in Michigan we were able to make direct contact with several Democratic MoC’s, such as Rep’s Sander Levin (MI09-D) and Brenda Lawrence (MI14-D), both of whom thanked our volunteers for our efforts and asked us to keep fighting.  While Republican staffers receiving the petition for their bosses have not generally been unfriendly in Michigan (and some have contacted our campaign with further questions and requesting electronic copies to back up their paper copies received in person), we were unable to make direct contact with any of the Republican Representatives of our state.

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A supportive crowd at Brenda Lawrence’s Town Hall at her Detroit office, 2/24/17, listens to a panel member discussing immigration law.  Rep. Lawrence is at the podium on the right. Photo ©Sparkpolitical, 2017.

Public rallies and town halls by Levin and Lawrence (some attended by other members of the Michigan Democratic delegation, such as Rep. John Conyers (MI13-D), Dean of the House of Representatives, who attended the Lawrence town hall) were scenes of public gratitude to their Democratic officials, in open contrast to the many angry crowds haunting the Republicans around the state and the nation.  At the Lawrence town hall, which I attended, for example, only one member of the audience showed visible (and relatively well-behaved) opposition as a Trump supporter; while applause was loud and energetic from the rest of the room for Lawrence’s support for immigrants fearing the new sweeps and deportation drives of ICE and the CBP, and for her presence at Detroit Metro Airport last month during the protest of the travel ban on Muslims.

On the other hand, Michigan Republicans like David Trott have become notorious for avoiding their own constituents.  While we were (optimistically) hoping to be able to catch at least one or two of them at their offices or during some public event or other, these officials have continued to avoid the public.  However, the Jackson office of Rep. Tim Walberg (MI07-R), whose constituents have created a “Where’s Walberg?” site for their missing representative, contacted our campaign and informed us that his office was going to address the questions raised in the comments column of the signatures print-out.  Other questions were asked of our volunteers by Republican staffers seeking more information about the petition, so they were not all immediately dismissive or unfriendly.

Now that Michigan’s petition effort is virtually complete (current projections are that all packets will have been delivered by Monday, Feb. 27), the Michigan volunteers are ready to move on to our next battle of resistance, either against the state administration of Governor Snyder, or against the national administration of President Trump.

Headline image, Danee Kaplan delivering our petition to Mitzi, Kalamazoo office staffer for Rep. Fred Upton (MI06-R).  With special thanks to Danee Kaplan for authorizing use of this photo.

Scenes From the Resistance in Michigan

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Yesterday, Women’s March On Washington – Michigan participated in a mass protest with other groups, at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW), against the recent Trump executive order banning Muslim entry into the US from Muslim nations which do not have Trump businesses operating there.  Having worked with WMW on the march on DC on January 21, 2017, the day after inauguration day, I have been following WMW’s chapter in Michigan and joined in the protest under their Facebook page for the protest. Many other groups not affiliated with WMW, in particular local Muslim groups and local resistance organs like MoveOn, Democracy For America, unions, etc., also participated.  By some estimates, participation was roughly 5,000, at the McNamara Terminal.  Protesters held positions on both the terminal’s upper (Departures) level, and on the lower (Arrivals) level.  Those pictures, video, and verbal descriptions of the lower level that I have encountered indicate that the majority of the protest was there.  Originally, WMW told its participants to go to Departures on the upper level, so that is where my party went.

The day before the protest, when the ban was announced, WMWM posted the protest almost immediately, and in no time at all a couple thousand people indicated interest or intent in going.  I used my personal contacts from the Hillary Clinton campaign, and my network of personal friends and family, to form a team of about 12 people to join the protest; and numerous other campaign staff and other associates also went.  Unlike my group, most of those who I know that went, and who did not come with me, went to the lower level protest.

On the day of the protest, my wife and I hosted a preparation party to make signs and to fortify ourselves for the Michigan cold with some of my wife’s awesome cupcakes, veggies, and snacks.  I met some great new friends who wanted to get more involved in the resistance, and who came with some of my other friends.  After making signs, we divided our group into two car-loads, and off we went.

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Then, we hustled off to the airport, only a few minutes away in normal traffic from my house.  Quickly, we found ourselves in a massive parking lot on the roads heading in, as so many other people were all heading to the airport to join the protest at the same time.  We could see signs in lots of the cars around us, WMW “pussy hats,” and other paraphernalia indicating that most of the jam was protesters, not people trying to catch a flight.  The normally 10-minutes’ drive to the airport from my house took roughly an hour; and about a mile from the terminal, people were walking past us on the sidewalk, some towing luggage, some carrying protest signs.  We did at least have lots of time to wave and exchange thumbs up with other cars of protesters, and to enjoy the many signs that we all just started hanging out of our cars or putting in the window.

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Once we got to the airport, the police were having a hell of a time keeping things from inhibiting airport operations, so we had to get out of the truck quickly while police were yelling for us to keep going.  Our two vehicles got divided, and our twelve people found different spots in which to protest. My carload (after my wife dropped us off to circle around and find parking) joined a long line of newly arriving protesters, all of whom got cheered and “high-fived” by those already there, as we walked past a fence acting as the outer perimeter of the protest area.  Sadly, my wife never was able to make it in; she found some other protesters who needed a ride back out, and helped them out; and then tried to circle back in.  By the time she made it to the parking lot, it was more than another hour later; and the police were no longer letting people park – they were trying to break things up, as the permit for the protest had expired (we had a two-hour protest permit).  She circled back one more time, and picked us up about an hour or so after the protest was supposed to have ended, although the protesters were still there in force.  My party, both cars, found their way out (much easier at least than coming in), and went back to my house to share pizza, stories of the resistance, and friendship.

Some of my pictures from the upper-level protest:

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All images ©2017, Sparkpolitical.

 

Utah’s Spencer Cox on the Pulse Massacre

On June 13, 2016, Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox spoke out about the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.  He uttered a strong message of love, using powerful words, especially for a Republican; and his stance defies the sheer hatred and fear of Donald Trump’s ignominious reaction to the shooting.

KSL.com of Utah posted the YouTube video together with a transcript of the address.

Replacing Scalia: the Basic Math of Progress

With hard-line conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia departed from the bench, President Obama has a rare opportunity – to appoint another liberal Justice to the bench, giving the Court a liberal majority.  There are four conservative justices left: Chief Justice John Roberts (appointed by George W. Bush), and Justices Anthony Kennedy (the last Reagan appointee; and at times a centrist rather than a true conservative), Clarence Thomas (appointed by George H.W. Bush), and Samuel Alito, Jr. (appointed by George W. Bush).  If the president were to get another liberal justice appointed, that justice would join Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer (both Clinton appointees), and Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (both Obama appointees).  With five liberal justices, it is not unlikely that moderate Justice Kennedy might steer more toward the conservative side of the bench (being as he has a force of balance between the two sides); but a numerical majority of liberal justices would still be able to push litigation and judicial review significantly to the left of the Court’s recent performance.

For the president to get his third appointee on the bench, he has to select and vet a candidate.  Then the Senate would subject his candidate to review in what is likely to be a more than thorough screening under the direction of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  If the candidate is passed by the committee, the vote goes to the floor of the Senate for final approval.  The first problem obviously is that the Republican majority of the Senate gives them the majority in each of the committees, including specifically the Judiciary Committee (which currently has 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats).  As recalcitrant as the current rank of Republican Senators has been (and as uncooperative and openly hostile to the president specifically), it is optimistic to presume that the committee would value the president’s right to appoint a justice over their political objective of disenfranchising the left.  It is more optimistic to presume the floor of the Senate would be any friendlier to the president.

In fact, the Republicans are getting ready simply to block the president’s selection of a new justice for the remainder of his term, keeping at least a balance of equals between the conservative and liberal sides of the bench.  Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), presidential candidate and a member of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, has been leading the Republicans’ pre-emptive assault on the president’s constitutional prerogative to appoint Supreme Court justices.  Leftist petitions have been flooding the internet in the vain hopes of pushing the Republican Senators to reverse course entirely and actually follow the exact kind of popular calls for action that they have studiously ignored since taking the majority in 2015.  However, the math, and senatorial procedure, simply allow the Senate to sit on its constitutional prerogative of approving appointees for the remainder of the president’s term.

While that seems like bad news, this can also be very good news to Democrats.  Current electoral math suggests (not irrevocably, of course) that the Democrats are going to get large masses of new voters to the polls in November, and are going to get the White House on Inauguration Day in 2017.  Those large masses of new voters are also going to vote for one third of the Senators.  There are some 24 Republican senators, and 10 Democrats, up for re-election in 2016 (serving six-year terms, one third of the Senators are elected every two years; “Class 3” is the current rank up in 2016).  With 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and two Democratic-allied independents currently sitting in the Senate, to get a bare majority in the Senate in 2017 the Democrats need to re-elect all ten of their current “Class 3” senators, plus five more to take over Republican seats.  To beat the filibuster threshold (60 senators from the same caucus), the Democrats would need to take 14 seats from the 24 Republican senators up for re-election.  Incidentally, should Senator Sanders (I-VT) win the general election, the Democrats would need to fill that seat as well through another election; Senator Sanders is not up for re-election in 2016, so if he loses the nomination he gets to stay in the Senate for now.  Also, should some Democratic senators lose their seats, the Democrats would obviously need to unseat even larger numbers of Republican senators elsewhere.  Either way, the Democrats need five more seats in the Senate to gain a bare majority, and 14 more seats to beat the filibuster threshold.

If the Democrats do, indeed, push many new voters to the polls and beat the Republicans in doing so, they will also have the opportunity not just to keep their current senators, but also to unseat some of the 24 Republican senators up for re-election, and to gain a majority (possibly, but unlikely to include beating the filibuster threshold).  With a majority, the new Senate Majority Leader (perhaps Harry Reid, who held the post from 2007-15) would put together a new Judiciary Committee with a Democratic majority.  Under a new Democratic White House backed by a Democratic majority in the Senate, the President could appoint a far more liberal Justice than President Obama would ever be able to get through the current Senate, pushing the Court even further to the left.  As so many of the Republican strategies in recent years have backfired disastrously for the GOP, Cruz’s pre-emptive attack may also be the harbinger of a greater, more progressive America to come.  A more progressive Supreme Court could overturn its own recent Citizens United ruling, could reverse Scalia’s opinion on gun rights not being seated upon militia responsibilities, could find ways to restore some of the recently disemboweled Voting Rights Act, and could back ever more progressive legislation and presidential policy.  Senator Cruz’s pre-emptive attack could, under certain not yet guaranteed conditions, prove to be the greatest thing Democrats could hope for, and could show the Republicans why some things are best not wished for, let alone sought.

Headline image from The Atlantic, “A Closer Look at Confirmed Federal Judges,” (August 12, 2001), via Google Search.

Helping Out in Flint

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On Friday, February 5, 2016, Spark! joined with the Michigan Democratic Party and other groups in supporting the relief drive in Flint, Michigan.  The Red Cross Blood Donation Center (1401 S Grand Traverse Street) has been dispatching volunteers to various local charities, churches, and other organizations to provide water and other supports to residents affected by the water crisis.  They provide water directly to houses, and also maintain drive-through water pick-up locations, where drivers can simply pull up and have cases of water, and/or gallon jugs, packed into their car.

I participated in one such activity for several hours at one of Flint’s Center of Hope locations (at 517 E 5th Avenue), along with various people volunteering from other organizations (in the picture above, for example, a couple of the volunteers are US Navy recruiters).  We unloaded pallets of water from a truck brought to the site; and packed cases into cars, vans, and trucks as they rolled up (four cases per adult in each vehicle).  We also received a large number of water donations (sort of a “take some water, leave some water” activity).  Many of the volunteers (myself included) also brought some of their own water donations as well.

The Red Cross in Flint can be reached at (810) 232-1401.  They operate volunteer support teams seven days a week, mostly from 9:00am – 4:00pm.  Please come and help them.

You can read more about how this crisis occurred in Part I of my “Special Report: Flint in Crisis”; and about what Flint needs (and how to help) in Part II.  You can also read a touching story about the human impact of these events that I re-blogged from another writer.

Headline image © 2016, Sparkpolitical.  All rights reserved.

Flint in Crisis, Part I: A Tale of Two Cities

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The following constitutes Part I of a multi-part Special Report on the current water crisis in Flint, Michigan.  Part II was published several days later.

The Flint water crisis begins with the decline of the manufacturing cities of Detroit and Flint; and with the “water war” between those cities over Flint’s water supply.  That “war” was escalated by the Republican administration of Governor Rick Snyder, whose entire tenure has been powered by corporate financiers.  Snyder’s administration has been a long, sordid tale of privatization of public goods such as education, municipal services, and utilities.  Taking advantage of poor cities like Detroit, Plymouth, and Flint, Snyder has appointed “emergency managers” empowered to overrun elected municipal governments across the state (some, like Flint and Detroit, with large Democratic majorities and therefore hostile to the governor), and to transfer public services to private profiteers.

Both Flint and Detroit have suffered from the loss of automotive and other manufacturing jobs to non-union southern states and to low-wage foreign markets.  The cities have therefore also lost their principal revenue source: middle-class manufacturing workers.  Snyder has pushed these cities and others into selling off their public services to the private sector that has backed his elections (including his re-election in 2014, with less than 21% of the voting-age public supporting Snyder).  In both 2014 and 2015, Detroit was plagued by its own water crises, which were financial problems involving tens of millions of dollars of unpaid water bills.  Detroit’s response was to cut off water to delinquent accounts.  However, with a major portion of delinquent accounts being owned by about 40 major businesses (including major Detroit sports arenas like Joe Louis Ice Arena and the Comerica Park baseball stadium), Detroit left intact its services to the major debt holders and instead targeted the small-debt holders, the poor families of Detroit.

Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) also sought to reduce its deficits by raising the price of water sold to other municipalities, such as Flint, whose water costs almost doubled between 2004 and 2013.  The DWSD had been the principal supplier of water to the city of Flint, a smaller city even harder hit by globalization.  In November 2011, Snyder began appointing “emergency managers” to run Flint’s financial affairs.  The managers often overruled the decisions of the elected city council.  Snyder’s managers in Detroit and Flint began working in parallel to privatize city services in both cities, with the DWSD a major target.  Too big to be sold outright, Snyder’s corporate appointees worked to parcel out the DWSD into more easily digestible portions.  After Flint ceased acquiring water through Detroit, Snyder’s administration and managers broke up the DWSD into a smaller version of itself (keeping its old name), and a new semi-private, autonomous corporate entity, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA).

The Republicans’ desire to break-up the DWSD, and the city of Flint’s need to cut their growing costs for water, pushed the two into a search for alternate means of supplying the city’s water needs.  A consortium of city and county water officials, the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), was created from drain and water authorities in Genessee and Lapeer counties.  The KWA proposed to build a pipeline to bring water from Lake Huron to Flint, with construction to be completed around the end of 2016.

With a major source of its revenue threatened, the DWSD and the city of Detroit argued that Flint was initiating its own “water war” against them.  They also argued that construction costs and risks would make the new pipeline water more expensive than the costs of Detroit’s water.  In several attempts by the two cities to come to terms, and with Snyder’s office running interference, the DWSD apparently offered to cut costs back.  Detroit proposed to cut prices by as much as half, which would have made Detroit water cost 20% less than the construction and operation of a new pipeline system; but Snyder’s office killed the deal.  Finally, in March 2013, the city council approved the plan for the KWA pipeline.  The DWSD retaliated, issuing a cut-off notice to take effect the following April.

With the cut-off to take place at least two years before the completion of Karegnondi pipeline, Snyder’s emergency manager for Flint, Ed Kurtz, pushed the city council into tapping the Flint River, according to reports by both Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.  Both the WSJ and Michigan blog Bridge MI deny that the city council were given any choice in the process.  Both organizations cite sources within Flint’s city council saying that the decision was made solely by the state (the emergency managers and the State Treasurer, Andy Dillon).

The Flint River, once contaminated by factory waste disposals into the 1950s, continues to suffer pollution problems from winter-time run-off of road salts and other ground contaminants.  Road salts themselves are heavily corrosive, containing chloride and other corrosive chemicals which have bled into the Flint River, the principal drainage system of the region.  In April, 2014, Flint disconnected its municipal water supply from the DWSD.  Almost immediately after the shut-off of Detroit water, in the spring of 2014, Flint residents noticed a change in the taste, odor, and color of their municipal water.  That summer, Flint doctors recorded unusually high incidences of rashes, hair loss, and other ailments.  In the fall, Flint schools began bulk purchases of bottled water.  In October the GM plant in Flint ceased using municipal water after corrosion damage was detected in parts exposed to water from the municipal system.

The corrosion at GM was caused by high levels of chloride in the municipal water (having some eight times that found in Detroit water).  While most municipalities add safe corrosion inhibitors, Flint water was not treated.  The chloride corroded the old lead pipes of the city’s water system, leaching lead into the water coming out of the pipes.  The lead quickly reached extremely hazardous levels.  While federal law considers 15 parts per billion (15 ppb) as a minimum “action level,” requiring responsive action, EPA tests of Flint residential water reached levels as high as 13,200 ppb, almost 900 times the minimum action level.

Further problems in the river water were detected by researchers called in to investigate increasing medical concerns.  The water had untreated biological issues, with both E. coli and Legionnaires’ virus detected shortly after the water switch.  While the city quickly recommended the boiling of water to combat E. coli, the Snyder administration still refuses to accept a connection between two independent medical reports of Legionnaires in the water, and some 87 recorded cases of Legionnaires in Flint after the water switch.  So far, ten of the Flint Legionnaires patients have died from their ailments.

While the EPA essentially kept quiet on the issue, instead pressuring the Michigan Department for Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and other state authorities to take action, the MDEQ refused to accept the validity of the increasing evidence of large-scale problems in the water supply.  Both city and state governments largely treated the greatest problem cases as isolated local incidents not demonstrating a greater problem. Meanwhile, medical institutions in the Flint area recorded the average level of lead in the blood of local children as doubling since 2013, and in some areas tripling.  In January, 2015, Genesee county declared a public health emergency, and urged Flint residents not to drink the water.

Almost a year later, in December, 2015, a Snyder-appointed task force to look into the problem finally criticized the MDEQ for failing to “properly interpret” federal guidelines on water lead levels, and for failing to require corrosion-control treatment for Flint river water.  Following this criticism, MDEQ director Dan Wyant resigned from his post.  His successor, Kevin Creagh admits to his agency’s “tone-deafness” to the problems.

With ten residents dead, numerous children showing cognitive and physical impairments indicative of excessive lead poisoning, and various rashes and infections plaguing many more residents, public activists attempted to reach the voters and motivate public officials of the state to take responsibility for their actions and fix the problems they caused.  Protesters from across the state marched in Flint on January 8; and then again in front of the governor’s condominium in downtown Ann Arbor on January 18.  The next day, hundreds more protesters poured into Lansing, marching to the steps of the capital building as Snyder delivered his annual “State of the State” address inside.  The United Auto Workers union (UAW) was there in force, representing the aggrieved auto workers whose loss of jobs and income has served as an economic trigger for these events.  Protesters from Flint and other Michigan towns called for justice; for the resignation, impeachment, or even arrest of the governor; as well as for a substantive solution to the Flint water crisis.

In his address on the 19th, Governor Snyder finally apologized for the crisis, saying, “I’m sorry and I will fix it… You did not create this crisis, and you do not deserve this.”  Two weeks before, the governor had declared a state of emergency in Flint and in Genesee County.  On January 12, he also mobilized small units of the Michigan Army National Guard, to provide water supplies and security.  On January 16, in response to the governor’s request for federal support, President Obama declared Flint to be a federal emergency area.  Although the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) requires that federal “states of emergencies” be for natural catastrophes, FEMA has funding for lesser “emergency areas” such as the Flint crisis.  The federal government allotted an initial relief package of $5 million, with FEMA coordinating relief with multiple agencies.  In his address on the 19th, Governor Snyder requested $28 million from Michigan’s state budget for emergency relief.

A full year after Genesee County declared an emergency and told residents not to drink the water, the governor’s office finally noticed and also declared an emergency.  That was almost a full year of tens of thousands of poor families knowing that their water was poisoning them and their children, but lacking the resources to buy enough bottled water for their daily household needs.  Only after a year of repeated complaints by dozens of residents at city council meetings and with bottles of poisoned, discolored, and foul-smelling water from their homes, did the governor finally declare an emergency.

For more information, come read Part II.  Also read our re-blog of “No Words“; our story on “Helping Out in Flint,” and our most widely read story, “Growing a Family With Water in Flint.”

Headline image © 2016, Sparkpolitical.  All rights reserved.

 

Traversing the Thin Line Between War and Peace

This week, in accordance with plans announced last year, the United States Army is deploying roughly 1,300 personnel from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) to Iraq, in what is characterized as a regular rotation.  The division headquarters is replacing the division headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division as the command component of a DMCU (Division Multi-Component Unit).  The DMCU is a joint coalition force responsible in part for training and supporting Iraqi military and security personnel, as part of the Operation Inherent Resolve mission to combat ISIS.  The 101st Airborne’s headquarters elements will include about 65 personnel from the Wisconsin National Guard.  The division headquarters has been home-deployed since February 2015, when it returned from a five-month deployment to Liberia as part of the relief effort to stop the spread of the Ebola virus.

In addition to the headquarters rotation, the division’s 2nd “Strike” Brigade will be replacing the 10th Mountain Division’s 1st Brigade as that formation returns to its home base in Ft. Drum, New York.  The combat elements of the 2nd Brigade trained recently at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Louisiana.  Major General Gary J. Volesky, commander of the 101st Airborne, expressed great confidence in the brigade’s ability to perform its mission.  The troop rotation is ultimately going to leave approximately the same US troop strength in Iraq (currently around 3,000) as before.

The USN and Iran Face Off in the Gulf? (Or Not)

Meanwhile, on January 12, two USN patrol boats with ten sailors aboard (nine men and one woman) were detained by naval elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGN) for “snooping around” (the Iranian accusation), or for “mechanical issues… leading to both boats inadvertently drifting into Iranian waters” (the American response, paraphrased from the Reuters feed on the incident).  The Iranian government assured the US State Department that the Americans would be returned to US custody very shortly.

Headline image of 101st Airborne helicopters via Google Image Search.

Image of USN riverine patrol boat released by Reuters, courtesy of the US Navy.

Fear and Anger, Live and On Stage: The CNN Republican Party Debate

On Tuesday, December 15, 2015, the nine leading presidential candidates of the Republican party met in Las Vegas to debate on stage, moderated by Wolf Blitzer, with the help of conservative Hugh Hewitt and CNN’s own Dana Bash.  The party’s final debate of the year was a simplified “Fear and Anger” debate, ignoring the vast array of substantive issues, and allowing Republican bloviators to puff themselves up on questions about national security.  The candidates (Rand Paul, Carli Fiorina, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump) argued that they possessed some key to defending the US; but their notions on national security were amateurish, uninformed, and outdated.  If any of these candidates gain power over Washington, their government will escalate crises, strengthen current enemies like ISIS and Al Qaeda, and provoke potential partners like Russia, China, and Iran; possibly even into open warfare.

As the candidates began their introductory remarks, Paul led by arguing that the fight against ISIS is an Arab fight, and needs to remain so.  He critiques sharply Trump’s and other candidates’ anti-Islamic rhetoric for losing us the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab street.  Bush and Kasich both led with vague notions about leadership and excellence, leaving behind neither any lasting impressions nor cohesive ideas on policy.  Christie and Fiorina both lathered the audience with their anger at Democrats.  Christie accused the Democrats for “betraying” the nation; while Fiorina claimed that her experiences in diminishing Hewlett-Packard’s stock values (while serving as the company’s CEO) and in being fired show that she has been “tested” as a leader – obviously ignoring the fact that she failed that test.  Rubio defended bigots following Trump and other conservatives for “holding onto traditional values,” and claimed that the Democrats want the US to be like the rest of the world.  Cruz simply stated that refugees from terror should be banned to keep out “jihadists,” while Carson opined that a Congressional declaration of war on ISIS might somehow make some strategic difference.  Finally, Trump congratulated himself for “open[ing] up a very big discussion [on Muslims] that needed to be opened up.”

With Trump’s remarks on Muslims up for discussion, Bush criticized Trump and called for concerted action with the Arab states against ISIS.  Bush argued that Trump’s rhetoric pushed potential Arab allies away, into the arms of extremists, and that Trump was a “chaos candidate, and would be a chaos president.”  Rubio and Cruz both posed as moderate bigots, attacking both Trump for going too far, and President Obama for not going far enough (for promoting the admission of Syrian refugees).  Christie repeated his tired claim that serving as a federal prosecutor gave him unique executive experience and proved his ability to tackle all imaginable problems (a claim he would reiterate continuously throughout the debate).  Finally, Kasich agreed with Paul that the US needs to work with European and Arab partners against ISIS; and then he actually criticized Obama’s administration for also managing to attend to other issues besides the war with ISIS, such as the Paris conference on climate change.

The conversation then moved to electronic surveillance and other matters, with Cruz and Rubio feuding over the USA Freedom Act.  Cruz had supported the measure, claiming that it increased the National Security Agency’s overall surveillance capability (while limiting the ability to spy on American citizens).  Rubio, who also argued for increased government intrusion (saying our security services need “more tools, not less tools”) argued that the law diminished security capabilities.  Paul, not surprisingly, argued his anti-federalist line that the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata makes us less safe, and is also ineffective in preventing domestic terror situations like the San Bernardino attack.  Carson continued his argument that the government needs to monitor places deemed “anti-American,” that the US needs a formal declaration of war, and that our society can no longer afford political correctness.  Bush waxed vaguely on “leadership” (his own campaign’s centerpiece theme), and talked about an American “military second to none” as if the US did not already possess by far the most well-trained and overwhelmingly equipped force in the world.  Fiorina completed this conversation by calling on the federal government to monitor social media sites for potential terror indicators.  Cruz, Rubio, Carson, and Fiorina therefore all push for a much larger and more intrusive federal government as a key to national security; while Bush hopes mostly for an expanded military budget.  Paul remained “the only fiscal conservative on the stage,” as he later noted in his final remarks.

As the conversation turned to ISIS, Cruz showed that he does not understand basic military terminology, confusing “carpet bombing” with surgical strikes (which he called for in response to moderators’ questioning about his calls for the former).  He does, however, argue more effectively for a need to work cohesively with the Kurds to build a successful state structure in the region.  Rubio wants an expanded US Air Force and air campaign, while working with some hypothetical (and unidentified) “Sunni ground force” as our “boots on the ground.”  He at least claims to understand (unlike many of his party comrades) that information and propaganda (and psychological warfare) are key to a political war with terror groups.  Trump, unable to form any cohesive thoughts on national defense or security strategy, merely calls on the US to begin targeting families and civilians in terrorist-controlled areas (especially the families of identified terrorists).  Trump’s complete lack of historical knowledge, particularly on the historical ineffectiveness of repression in reducing popular opposition, threatens to escalate the terror war to an unprecedented level of violence and barbarity.  Paul, meanwhile, recommends working with Assad’s regime in Syria, rather than against it, and argues that the last two decades of regime change (in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Syria) produced the very problems we face today.  Fiorina (knowing as little about military policy as she does about public policy) prefers, in place of a strategy, simply “bring[ing] back the warrior class” of generals (citing specifically Generals Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Keane, and Flynn).  She counterfactually blames Obama for their “political” retirements, and ignores the reality of at least three of the five retirements (not to mention that generals who retired voluntarily, some like Petraeus with significant medical problems, may not wish to return to duty under an obvious strategic amateur with no political experience).  Finally, Carson agrees with Trump’s proposal to target ISIS’s oil income capabilities, and to destroy “the caliphate” (without actually identifying what kind of campaign or results would be needed to achieve that).  Carson is ready to commit US ground forces for yet another major war in the Middle East.  However, following a commercial break, he also stated that the US cannot fix the problems in the Middle East with a “few little bombs, and a few declarations,” seemingly contradicting his own focus on a declaration of war as having some strategic significance.

As the conversation turned to other security problems, the candidates’ language became frighteningly apocalyptic.  Fiorina argued that the US should openly provoke Russia through an escalated crisis environment of increased military opposition to Russian movements and increased provocations near Russia’s borders.  Christie similarly earned Paul’s designation of him as the “World War Three candidate,” for stating that he would shoot down Russian planes in a no-fly zone in Syria.  Fiorina then expressed the incredible notion that to confront North Korea, we should first bully and provoke China; and then ask China for their help in containing Kim Jong-Un’s regime.  Bush and Christie both also want to up the ante with China, at least in pursuing a more vigorous cyberwar against them.  The GOP showed clearly a tug-of-war between Paul’s non-interventionism and the other candidates’ open wish for greater international tension and conflict (and their clear willingness to risk, or even fight, a global nuclear war in doing so).

We cannot really blame the Republican candidates for answering the questions asked of them (sparingly as they did).  No questions were asked about jobs or the economy; about infrastructure or education; or about climate change or social problems.  There was only the briefest dialogue between Cruz and Rubio on immigration reform (each effectively criticizing the other for seeking to ease the path to citizenship for undocumented aliens), with Bush blaming immigration for increasing rates of heroin addiction.  Rubio continues his war on fiscal conservatism by calling for more border controls, more laws and regulations, and more overall federal government.  The issue fit into the context of CNN’s overall moderation of the “Fear and Anger” debate focusing on threats to the US.  Of course, the GOP did not take (and the CNN did not ask) questions about increasing firearms safety and security in our communities, or about the security and safety of minorities in an overwhelmingly anti-minorities police culture and criminal detention system.  This was mostly a white man’s “Fear and Anger” debate.  Carson’s soporific mumblings, and Fiorina’s toneless obliviousness to her own irrelevance, helped to put a diversified face on the stage; and Cruz and Rubio were there to help bring Latino voters to the party.  But the focus remained on WASP-oriented fear and anger.  Furthermore, all the candidates demonstrated a simplistic, linear, zero-sum, nineteenth-century chess-game approach toward modern multidimensional and asymmetric warfare, and they showed their unpreparedness to lead in the twenty-first century wars that they wish to provoke, escalate, and fight.  They also wish to alienate and provoke some of the key players in these fights (such as Russia, China, and Iran), players which have not yet aligned on the other side, and which have great motivations to fight collectively against our current enemies.  The candidates proved to anyone watching that the GOP is able neither to protect our nation, nor to help the US participate constructively in the modern world.

Headline image via Google Image Search