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Yes, Arresting Subway Dancers Is Still a Way of Criminalizing Black Youth

subway dancer

(CC 2.0/Dan Nguyen)

Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize–winning history about what amounted to re-enslavement of many black people from the end of the Civil War up until World War II, locates the roots of the modern prison-industrial complex in America’s post-Reconstruction era, the convict leasing program and the Black Codes. The Black Codes were laws—criminalizing acts ranging from vagrancy to speaking too loudly in front of white women—passed with the sole purpose of arresting black men and forcing them back in unpaid labor. Blackmon writes:

Vagrancy, the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men.

Early in the twentieth century, Southern states passed laws that further criminalized the behaviors and very existence of black people in public spaces, establishing Jim Crow segregation. In 1984’s Race, Reform, and Rebellion, Manning Marable writes, “South Carolina insisted that black and white textile workers could not use the same doorways, pay windows, bathrooms or even the same water buckets. Many cities passed ordinances which kept blacks out of public parks and white residential districts. Atlanta outlawed black barbers from clipping the hair of white children and women in 1926.”

“At the dawn of the twentieth century, in a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and demographically shifting America, blackness was refashioned through crime statistics,” writes Khalil Gibran Muhammad in The Condemnation of Blackness (2010). “It became a more stable racial category in opposition to whiteness through racial criminalization.”

I cite these sources because it’s important to understand the history of criminalizing black bodies for seemingly mundane actions.

Back in May, I wrote about how the crackdown on New York City subway dancers, mostly adolescent black boys, was another way of criminalizing black youth even as the number of people stopped and frisked by the NYPD plummeted. In a column for the New York Daily News, Harry Siegel responds:

Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in The Nation that the 46 reckless endangerment arrests in the first four months of this year [for subway dancing] amounted to “criminalizing black youth.” Smith, putting words in Bratton’s mouth, went on: “Those scary, disorderly, dancing young black bodies. Always causing fear.”

That seems to be more Smith’s obsession than Bratton’s, reducing these teenagers from people to totemic symbols and ideological props, as though dancing on the trains is some sacred ritual and any attempt to move it to parks or other places people are free to leave proves the NYPD’s secret role as the racist art police.

There’s no bigger conspiracy of race, class or culture here. The issue is simply about how shared, confined common spaces can be used. Hearing progressives who adore public transportation and disdain cars insist subways must double as performance spaces makes my brain hurt.

My argument has never been that subways “must double as performance spaces.” I haven’t made a public art argument with regards to the subway dancers, though I’m not opposed to doing so. (I’m also not sure how I put words in Commissioner Bratton’s mouth, as what Siegel quotes I didn’t attribute to Bratton.) What I’ve said is that arresting these mostly black teenage boys is further criminalization of black youth and black bodies, an assertion I continue to stand behind. However one feels about subway dancers’ high-flying antics, we should be able to agree they shouldn’t be arrested.

If there are real complaints about subway dancers’ posing a threat to people’s safety, then that’s something the city has to deal with. But the answer can not and should not be to arrest these kids. We can not making dancing a crime (look how that turned out in Footloose).

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Siegel goes on. “[F]or anyone serious about social justice, there’s no shortage of pressing work. The NYPD continues to arrest an excessive number of young black and Latino men and burden them with criminal records for marijuana even though they’re no more likely to use it than their rarely hassled white and Asian peers—and even though New York State actually decriminalized personal possession decades ago.” I agree. Saddling young men of color with criminal records for possession of marijuana is abhorrent. But their being arrested for dancing isn’t somehow better. We are a nation addicated to solving social problems through punitive measures that serve no one, least of all those already burdened with a history of second-class citizenship.

We should be limiting the contact between our youth and police. The way to do that is not to criminalize a harmless behavior—and after all, even Siegel concedes that “the dancers haven’t actually injured any riders.” They’re not simply being asked to move elsewhere. They are being arrested and charged with misdemeanors. Does that seem “light”? Well, the stakes are always higher when black people interact with the police—on any level. Ask Nubia Bowe from Oakland.

Siegel concludes: “With so much worth fighting for, why are so many fixated instead on the unhindered right of young men to dance on trains and then ask riders for change or a buck or two? Is that really all they think these talented, entrepreneurial teenagers are capable of?” Sounds like “soft bigotry of low expectations” argument, but Siegel misses the point. Whether or not dancing on the subway continues isn’t my biggest concern. These kids are unequivocally talented, and I would love to see them be able to practice their art with the full support of their community and their city, in whatever space that may be. My issue is that we’re arresting them. We are continuing to police black bodies under the guise of public safety, but all we do is criminalize otherwise benign behaviors and punish black youth.

That’s a historical arc that hasn’t bent anywhere.

 

Read Next: Melissa Harris Perry on how Moral Mondays has gone beyond the colorline

Protests, Fraud and Violence Follow Announcement of the Preliminary Afghan Vote Count

Supporters Abdullah Abdullah

Supporters of Afghanistan's presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah chant slogans during a protest against election fraud in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, June 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

By any measure, the preliminary results of Afghanistan’s runoff vote in the 2014 presidential election, released yesterday, were a shock and a surprise. In the first round, held April 4 among a plethora of candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani emerged to face a runoff on June 14, and in that vote Abdullah led Ghani by nearly 900,000 votes, winning 2.97 million votes to Ghani’s 2.08 million. But the results announced yesterday turned everything on its head, with Ghani credited with 4.86 million to Abdullah’s 3.46 million. Surprisingly, too, turnout in the second round, 7.95 million, surpassed the turnout in the first round, 6.60 million, by well over a million additional votes. Needless to say, Abdullah isn’t pleased, charging fraud and threatening to declare himself the winner anyway and lead a parallel state.

Virtually everyone involved from the outside, including the United States and the United Nations, is urging calm and patience, noting that the results declared on July 7 are only preliminary, and that final results will be released on July 22. Maybe. But massive protests have erupted. And, in the meantime, anything and everything can happen: hundreds of thousands of votes, or even millions, could be thrown out in the course of an investigation, and it’s anyone’s guess who’ll be the ultimate winner—but right now Abdullah is facing a steep uphill climb. The nice, neat and tidy results that Washington was hoping for, leading smoothly to a new government and the implementation of the strategic accord between the United States and Afghanistan that was worked out earlier this year, is up in the air. Parallel with the ugly civil war in Iraq, it’s increasingly likely that Afghanistan, too, could face fragmentation and civil war later this year or in 2015, with the Taliban-led insurgency only one factor.

Even a cursory look at the second-round election results, sorted by province, reveal the deep divide in Afghanistan politics, in which Ghani, a Pashtun, with strength in Afghanistan’s south and east, and Abdullah, a Tajik, with strength in the north and west, won drastically skewed results. In Paktia province, in the southeast, Ghani won 92 percent of the vote to Abdullah’s 8 percent, while in Panjshir province, a chief base of the anti-Taliban (and anti-Pashtun) Northern Alliance, Abdullah won 94 percent to Ghani’s 6 percent. Not exactly a sign of national unity! (You can find all of the results, province by province, at the website of Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission.)

A warlord from the north, Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh province—where Abdullah won 63 percent of the vote—has already declared that he’ll help lead a government opposed to whatever government Ghani might set up. “From this moment on we announce our own legitimate government led by Abdullah Abdullah,” he said, though it isn’t clear whether he had Abdullah’s support. The United States warned Abdullah’s supporters, and everyone else, to stay away from any such action. Said Secretary of State John Kerry:

I have noted reports of protests in Afghanistan and of suggestions of a “parallel government” with the gravest concern. The United States expects Afghan electoral institutions to conduct a full and thorough review of all reasonable allegations of irregularities. At the same time, there is no justifiable recourse to violence or threats of violence, or for resort to extra-constitutional measures or threats of the same. The apolitical role of the security forces must be respected by all parties. We call on all Afghan leaders to maintain calm in order to preserve the gains of the last decade and maintain the trust of the Afghan people. Any action to take power by extra-legal means will cost Afghanistan the financial and security support of the United States and the international community.

Despite its waning influence, the United States has a lot of muscle because it, and the rest of the international community, provide virtually every dollar of Afghanistan’s budget, including cash to keep its military afloat. But that may not be enough to keep Afghanistan together if the various factions, and the warlords, can’t agree on who’ll get the biggest slice of the pie when the final (adjusted) election results are announced.

Last time around, when President Hamid Karzai was re-elected, there were widespread reports of massive fraud, intimidation and ballot stuffing, and Abdullah is making the same charges in 2014. And, as Ioannis Koskinas wrote last week for Foreign Policy, it isn’t exactly a surprise that fraud was in the offing:

As late as December 2013, the international community knew that there were over 19 million voter registration cards in circulation even though there were only 11 million registered voters, but did not feel compelled to act. It is important to highlight, however, the fact that there has been fraud in this election is no surprise to most credible analysts. But the level of fraud is so significant and surprisingly efficient, that it has surprised even the most cynical pundits, pointing to perhaps a widespread use of the Afghan election instruments (i.e. the Independent Election Commission, or IEC, and the ECC) to facilitate this fraud.

Is it possible that turnout increased by 1.3 million votes in the second round, even though dozens of candidates who’d run in the first round—and who might have attracted constituent votes—had been eliminated? And that nearly all of those additional votes would go to Ghani, and almost none to Abdullah? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem likely. Over at Foreign Policy’s South Asia Channel, Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili suggests that Ghani “learned to play the tribal game.” She writes:

There is little doubt that Ghani was able to mobilize Pashtuns in the East. Ghani claims he was able to do so by calling upon tribal leaders and mullahs to mobilize voters in their communities. For weeks before the second round of the presidential election, Ghani proudly touted the support of tribes. His twitter feed produced an endless stream of tribal “leaders” promising to deliver the votes of entire lineages.

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But it isn’t at all clear that such bloc voting could have generated such a stunning turnaround in just weeks. To get a flavor of the cacophony of the just-concluded runoff, consider the following from Nishank Motwani, an Australian researcher on Afghanistan:

A…development which tarnished the legitimacy of the IEC transpired when its Secretariat Chief, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail was stopped by the police chief of Kabul for attempting to transport unused ballot material out of the IEC headquarters after polling had ended. His attempt was broadcast live on Afghan television and the incident sharpened widely held fears of electoral fraud. In the aftermath of this development, neither the IEC nor Amarkhail could offer a reasonable explanation to clarify his actions thereby generating suspicion that the unused ballots were intended for fraudulent use.

The IEC’s initial refusal to suspend or investigate its head of secretariat resulted in Abdullah’s team to cease its cooperation with the IEC and called for U.N.-led mediation. Furthermore, Abdullah’s team appears to have devoted its resources to unveiling Amarkhail’s (and by extension the IEC’s) role in electoral fraud. The latter came to light on 22 June during a press conference from the Abdullah camp where they played intercepted mobile phone conversations that allegedly implicated the Secretariat Chief discussing ways and means to trip the electoral process in favor of the rival presidential candidate. While the audio recordings have not been verified for their authenticity, their release has intensified the political crisis and has cast a fear that tensions might escalate and lead to violence. Since this incident unfolded, Amarkhail stepped down from his position and “strongly rejected” the accusations made against him. Making matters worse, new reports indicate that Amarkhail quietly left Kabul on a flight bound for Dubai. It is unsurprising that such precarious events have failed to inspire confidence or rebuild trust for the IEC in the public’s viewpoint.

In any case, poor, battered Afghanistan will have to negotiate once again a bitter, contested and perhaps violent battle over election results and then hope that it’s corrupt and venal politicians and warlords can come to an accommodation about what the next government will look like. And the man who’s been in the middle of it all for the United States, James Dobbins, the special envoy for Afghanistan, will soon be leaving his post, to be replaced by Daniel Feldman.

 

Read Next: Haaretz, commenting on murder in Israel, says extremists are ‘“vermin”.

145 Nominees Still Can’t Do Their Jobs Because Republicans Won’t Do Theirs

Harry Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

With all due respect to Michael Hoza, his nomination to be US ambassador to Cameroon isn’t exactly a thrilling political development. Few people outside his professional circle likely even know who he is, and no US senators have raised substantive objections to his nomination.

Nor should they—he’s a career foreign service officer with a stellar résumé, and has worked extensively in Africa.

Yet Hoza has been awaiting a Senate confirmation vote since mid-January, one of 145 nominees languishing on the Senate calendar. He is waiting alongside nominees to a wide variety of offices and positions, from the associate director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to assistant secretaries at the departments of Energy and Defense.

Perhaps if these nominees were wildly controversial or had long records demanding extensive examination, the Senate would be properly exercising its constitutional duty to advise and consent on appointments. But many of these nominees are almost laughably benign, and if recent history is a guide, will eventually receive a bipartisan confirmation vote.

So why are these nominees waiting so long? Routine obstruction by Republican senators who are deliberately stretching out the confirmation process for virtually every nominee to come through the Senate. And now Senate majority leader Harry Reid is threatening to once again enact rules reform that would neutralize the GOP’s slow-down tactics.

“If they’re going to continue this, maybe we’ll have to take another look at that. It’s outrageous what they’ve done,” Reid said on the Senate floor Monday when he returned from the July 4 holiday. “There’s no other way to look at what they’re doing. This is obstruction for obstruction’s sake.”

Though Democrats did enact the so-called “nuclear option” eliminating filibusters on executive and judicial nominations (Supreme Court excepted), the cloture process is still in place—and it allows for as much as thirty hours of debate per nominee. Republicans have been regularly using all of the time they can, which dramatically slows the Senate down.

Reid has options for changing the Senate rules to combat the slow-down, which he has said wouldn’t happen until next year (and, of course, if Democrats retain the majority). One possibility is “use it or lose it” reform, which has been advocated by several good government groups, like Fix the Senate Now. Basically, senators would have to use that debate time to actually debate the nominee in question, or they would forfeit it.

So if Senator John Cornyn wants to spend ten hours on the Senate floor talking about the nominee for US smbassador to the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (waiting nearly six months for a vote), he’s welcome to do so, but he almost surely wouldn’t.

This is a particularly effective way of speeding up the Senate because Republicans can’t argue they are losing any means to exercise minority rights—they can still actually use the thirty hours on any nominee they choose. They would just have to explain why they object, which is a tall order since Republicans apparently approve of many of the nominees they are nonetheless slowing down.

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A report by Common Cause in May found nineteen examples of Republican senators chewing up cloture time on judicial nominees who were later confirmed unanimously by the Senate. Many executive branch nominees go through the same process. Republicans draw out the process and then end up voting for the nominee, as this chart from the report notes:

The level of obstruction is unprecedented. The average wait time for an executive branch or independent agency nominee is now nine months, according to Common Cause. There are around 110 executive branch or independent agency nominees awaiting action—and at this time in the George W. Bush presidency, there were only thirty-two. The number of cloture votes being forced for executive branch nominees are at record highs:

This obstruction is taking place largely out of the public eye—nobody particularly cares who is the assistant undersecretary to some alphabet-soup agency. But these are crucial posts in the everyday machinations of the federal government.

Take Hoza, for example, awaiting confirmation to be US ambassador to Cameroon. That country has been plagued by violence from the extremist Boko Haram group for months, and has been widely criticized, including by neighboring Nigeria, for being slow to respond to the threat.

Would having a US ambassador in the capital city of Yaounde have helped speed the response? We won’t ever know. Hoza has been on the Senate calendar since January 15, waiting for a vote.

 

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel, “Economic Inequality Is Not an Act of God

If Christian Corporations Have Religious Rights, What About Muslim Prisoners?

Guantánamo Bay

A detainee walks past a cell block at Camp 4 detention facility at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

If corporations have religious rights that warrant protection under the law, why don’t men imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay?

A federal judge has given the US government until Tuesday evening to answer that question, which was posed by lawyers representing two Guantánamo detainees, Emad Hassan and Ahmed Rabbani, who have been held without charge or trial. Authorities at the prison have barred the two men from communal prayers during the holy month of Ramadan because they are on hunger strike. Two courts ruled previously that Hassan and Rabbani are not people, at least “within the scope” of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prevents the government from substantially burdening a person’s freedom to exercise religion.

In last week’s Hobby Lobby v. Burwell decision, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court ruled that the chain of craft stores, along with other closely held corporations, are within the scope of the RFRA. Three days later, lawyers representing the detainees filed new lawsuits calling on a DC circuit court to restore the detainees’ right to communal prayers in light of the High Court’s interpretation.

“The Guantánamo Bay detainees, as flesh-and-blood human beings, are surely ‘individuals,’ and thus they are no less ‘person[s]’ than are for-profit corporations in Hobby Lobby,” reads the motion. “The fact that the detainees are at Guantánamo Bay changes nothing, for Hobby Lobby makes clear that a ‘person’ whose religious free exercise is burdened under color of law need not be a US citizen or resident in order to enjoy the RFRA’s protections.”

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The government has until 6 pm to explain why Hassan and Rabbani have fewer religious rights than corporations. A hearing is set for July 10. If the Court ultimately finds that the RFRA does apply to the detainees, the government could still argue that the burden on the detainees’ freedom to exercise religion is justified by a “compelling government interest,” such as maintaining security at the prison. But it’s not clear how communal prayers actually threaten such an interest, or that preventing the two detainees from participating is “the least restrictive means” of satisfying the interest. “Least restrictive” is the standard required by the RFRA.

The application of the Hobby Lobby decision to Guantánamo detainees is another indicator that the supposed “limits” of that decision are undetermined. Recent court cases expanding religious rights have largely done so for Christian denominations, including the Supreme Court’s most recent endorsement of Catholic objections to birth control, and another recent decision permitting officials to open town council meetings in Greece, New York, with Christian prayers. If courts interpret the Hobby Lobby ruling as broadly as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned in her dissent, perhaps one positive outcome will be that the religious right will be forced to be more transparent about what it means when it talks about freedom of worship. For whom?

 

Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on the Supreme Court’s “narrow” Hobby Lobby ruling

Teachers to Education Secretary Arne Duncan: Please Quit

Arne Duncan

Education Secretary Arne Duncan (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Given the choice between Republicans who are explicitly committed to doing away with collective bargaining rights and Democrats, public-sector labor unions tend to back Democrats at election time.

But that does not mean that unions are always satisfied with Democratic Party policies—or with Democratic policymakers.

This is especially true with regard to education debates. There are certainly Democrats who have been strong advocates for public schools. But there are also Democratic mayors, governors, members of Congress and cabinet members such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who have embraced and advanced “reforms” that supporters of public schools identify as destructive.

Duncan’s policies were so appealing to 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney—who explicitly praised the “good things” the education secretary was doing—that education writer Dave Murray wrote a 2012 article headlined, “Could a Romney Administration include Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary?”

Former US Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, who has emerged as a leading champion of public education, refers to Duncan as “one of the worst Secretaries of Education”— arguing that “Duncan’s policies demean the teaching profession by treating student test scores as a proxy for teacher quality.

Teachers are pushing back against Duncan and those policies.

When 9,000 National Education Association members from across the country gathered in Denver last week, they endorsed a resolution that declares:

The NEA Representative Assembly joins other educators and parents in calling for the resignation of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the Department’s failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.

Duncan is not about to resign. Instead, he dismisses the resolution with a typically glib DC-insider dig about how he is “trying to stay out of local union politics.”

But the NEA statement is not a “local” resolution.

This is a call for the resignation of a Democratic secretary of education from the nation’s largest professional employee organization—a union with 3 million members working from the pre-school to university graduate program levels of public education in 14,000 communities across the United States.

Past resolutions urging Duncan’s resignation failed to gain traction with NEA representative assemblies. But this year, the delegates determined that it was time for the education secretary to go.

Even if Duncan does not seem to take the call seriously, the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress should.

For a number of years now, teachers, parents and students have expressed mounting frustration—and appropriate anger—with the focus of Duncan and other education policymakers on standardized testing that they say makes evaluation a bigger priority than actual education.

“For us, one thing is clear: before anything is going to get better: It’s the Testing, Stupid,” the incoming president of the NEA, Utah teacher Lily Eskelsen García, told delegates to the representative assembly. “Better yet, it’s the stupid testing.”

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In her speech, Eskelsen García decried what she referred to as a “phony” accountability system that she said hurts students and demeans the teaching profession.

Members of the California Teachers Association, who submitted the resolution urging Duncan to quit, have been especially blunt in their calls for Duncan to exit the cabinet.

Upset both with the education secretary’s emphasis on standardized testing and with Duncan’s response to a recent court ruling that eliminated workplaces protections for teachers, the CTA says:

Authentic education change only comes when all stakeholders— teachers, parents, administrators and the community—work together to best meet the needs of the students in their school or college. Teachers are not the problem. Teachers are part of the solution. And it’s time we have a Secretary of Education who understands and believes that.

 

 

Read Next: Ari Berman on the challenges to North Carolina’s voting law

North Carolina’s ‘Monster’ Voting Law Challenged in Federal Court

North Carolina NAACP Moral Monday

Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP speaks at a “Moral March to the Polls” rally in downtown Winston-Salem. Photo by Rob Stephens.

Winston-SalemIn March 1965, Carolyn Coleman, a young activist with the Alabama NAACP, marched to Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act.

After the passage of the VRA, Coleman spent a year registering voters in Mississippi, where her friend Wharlest Jackson, an NAACP leader in Natchez, was killed in early February 1967 by a car bomb after receiving a promotion at the local tire plant. A year later, Coleman was in Memphis organizing striking sanitation workers when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Coleman devoted her life to expanding the franchise for the previously disenfranchised, serving as president of the North Carolina NAACP and Southern voter education director for the national NAACP. For the past twelve years, she’s been a county commissioner in Greensboro’s Guilford County.

Nearly fifty years after marching for voting rights in Alabama, Coleman testified in federal court today in Winston-Salem against North Carolina’s new voting restrictions, which have been described as the most onerous in the nation. The law mandates strict voter ID, cuts early voting by a week and eliminates same-day registration, among many other things. After the bill’s passage, “I was devastated,” Coleman testified. “I felt like I was living life over again. Everything that I worked for for the last fifty years was being lost.”

The federal government and civil rights groups, including the ACLU and the North Carolina NAACP, asked Judge Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee for the Middle District of North Carolina, to enjoin key provisions of the law before the 2014 midterms under Section 2 of the VRA. They’re specifically targeting the cuts to early voting, the elimination of same-day registration during the early voting period and the prohibition on counting provisional ballots accidentally cast in the wrong precinct. (The new voter ID law, unlike the above provisions, doesn’t go into effect until 2016, although the state is doing a “test run” in 2014 where poll workers can ask for photo ID although voters don’t have to provide it.) The hearing is expected to last until later in the week, with a decision in the next month or so.

“These provisions have the purpose and result of denying and abridging the right to vote for African-Americans,” argued DOJ attorney Catherine Meza. The plaintiffs say the new restrictions disadvantage minority voters at a greater rate than white voters, in violation of Section 2’s ban on racial discrimination in voting.

Consider this data, via the DOJ’s brief:

Seventy percent of African-Americans voted early in 2012, compared to 51 percent of whites. African-Americans were also more likely to vote early during the now-eliminated first week of early voting, when 900,000 North Carolinians cast their ballots—35 percent of the total vote in 2012.

Black voters were over 35 percent more likely than white voters to register using same-day registration.

And black voters were twice as likely to cast an out-of-precinct provisional ballot as white voters.

According to expert witness Charles Stewart, a political scientist at MIT, if the law had been in effect in 2012, “over 30,000 African-Americans who registered during the same-day registration period would have been unable to register during that period, almost 300,000 [black] early voters would have been shoehorned into more congested early voting and Election Day voting sites, and at least 2,000 African-American voters would have had their out-of-precinct votes left uncounted.”

North Carolina officials responded that the voting changes weren’t a big deal. The new law “puts North Carolina in the mainstream of other states with regard to election laws,” argued Butch Bowers, a South Carolina—based lawyer representing North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory. Bowers’s statement implicitly suggested that there was something extreme about adopting election procedures that lead to higher voter turnout.

Indeed, the new voting law repealed or curtailed nearly every reform passed by the state in the past two decades that encouraged more people to vote. In 1996, North Carolina ranked forty-third nationally in voter turnout. By 2012, thanks to measures like same-day registration and expanded early voting, North Carolina ranked eleventh.

In March 1965, when LBJ introduced the VRA, 46.8 percent of black North Carolinians were registered to vote compared to 96.8 percent of whites. But in 2008 and 2012, for the first time in state history, black turnout exceeded white turnout. The legislature “targeted the very reforms that expanded voting opportunities for African-Americans,” argued DOJ attorney Meza.

North Carolina is the perfect case study for what happened after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act.

In April 2013, the North Carolina House passed a sixteen-page voter ID bill that required a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot, but also accepted student IDs from state universities and public employee IDs. The bill languished in the North Carolina Senate until the Supreme Court overturned Section 4 of the VRA, freeing states like North Carolina from having to clear their voting changes with the federal government.

Within a month of the Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Senate introduced a fifty-seven-page “monster” (so dubbed by Democracy NC) that required strict voter ID (no student IDs, no public employees IDs allowed), cut early voting, eliminated same-day registration, repealed out-of-precinct voting, axed pre-registration for high school students, ended public financing of judicial elections, increased the number of poll challengers and even got rid of Citizen Awareness Month, which encouraged North Carolinians to register to vote. The bill passed in two days, with no public input. Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, calls it “the greatest attack on voting rights since Jim Crow.”

The law likely would’ve never been introduced by the legislature—let alone cleared by the federal government, since the burden of proof would have been on the state to show an absence of voting discrimination—if the Supreme Court had preserved Section 4.

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Instead, under Section 2, the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs and the law is in effect unless Judge Schroeder grants a preliminary injunction. (There will be a full trial on the constitutionality of the law in July 2015.) We’re in uncharted territory. Section 2 has heretofore been used mainly to challenge discriminatory election systems or redistricting plans, not block recent vote denial efforts like cutting early voting or eliminating same-day registration.

After the hearing, eight hundred North Carolinians gathered in downtown Winston-Salem for a “Moral March to the Polls” event protesting the law. “I know it’s hot out here,” Barber told the crowd. “But it’s going to be hotter if you let them take our vote away.”

 

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on why economic inequality is not an act of God. 

How the Obama Administration Is Keeping Big Coal Alive

Coal Spill

The aftermath of a retention pond wall collapse at the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

There’s been much to-do in the past month about the “war on coal,” the latest front of which is, supposedly, the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule to cut carbon emissions from power plants. This “war” has already been invoked in midterm election campaigns, not just by Republicans but also by coal-state Democrats who protest that the industry is being singled out for euthanasia.

They’re half right. It’s important to distinguish between coal mining communities and Big Coal corporations; technology and geology doomed the former, not government policy. Coal mining jobs have been disappearing for decades as strip mines and advanced machinery made the work less dependent on human labor. In Appalachia, coal itself has run out, at least in reserves that are economically feasible to mine. Still, Big Coal’s investors and political supporters are right to notice that in a carbon-constrained world, their product has to be phased out even further. Burning carbon rocks is just irreconcilable with climate action.

What all this “war on coal” talk is missing is the fact that while the Obama administration is taking steps to discourage coal consumption at home, it is tacitly promoting coal exports overseas. Last week the Bureau of Land Management announced plans to lease more than 8 million tons of coal on public lands in Colorado’s Delta County—a continuation of a decades-long debacle known as the federal coal leasing program, which has cost taxpayers billions and effectively acted as a subsidy for Big Coal.

The primary benefit of the Delta County sale, according to the BLM’s environmental impact statement, is that it will be a “contribution to the supply of coal to meet the nation’s energy demands.” This is a fishy statement considering that demand for coal in the United States is at a twenty-four-year low. It looks particularly ludicrous in light of the fact that the prospective buyer, Bowie Resources, has been aggressively trying to develop new pathways to get its landlocked Western reserves to Asia—in other words, is actively looking for ways to avoid contributing to the domestic coal supply.

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Bowie’s financial incentives are simple: demand for coal is still growing overseas, particularly in China, and it makes sense to go in search of higher price outside the United States. But things get more complicated when the coal Bowie and other producers are selling is taxpayer-owned, as most Western coal stocks are. Among the many problems with the leasing program is that the BLM “does not fully account for export potential” when it prices publicly owned coal, according to a 2013 report by the Interior Department’s inspector general. While giving producers access to below-market coal was originally intended to ensure a cheap supply of domestic energy, the leasing program now looks more like an arrangement benefitting Big Coal alone. As Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey wrote in a February letter calling for a moratorium on new federal coal leases, “Taxpayers are likely losing out so that coal companies can reap a windfall and export that coal overseas where it is burned, worsening climate change. This is a bad deal all around.”

So far the Obama administration has failed to address the climate implications of subsidizing coal exports with below-market prices (or, for that matter, the contradictions between the president’s climate agenda and his “all of the above” energy strategy more generally). It looks like the courts may beat the administration to the punch. Days before the Delta County sale was announced, a US District judge ruled that the BLM and the US Forest Service violated federal law by failing to consider the social cost of carbon before approving an expansion of a coal lease in Colorado’s Gunnison County. “While the agencies provided an adequate disclosure of effects on adjacent lands, their treatment of the costs associated with [greenhouse gas] emissions from the mine was arbitrary and capricious,” wrote Judge R. Brooke Jackson.

So far Big Coal’s export-expansion dreams have been kept at bay by local opposition to new port facilities in California and the Pacific Northwest. But that doesn’t resolve the incoherence between Obama’s regulatory agenda at home, which is intended to cut carbon emissions, and the administration’s resistance to considering the global warming implications of the leasing program, which continues largely unreformed despite successive reports of poor management. If Big Coal is dying, it’s going out with a bang; according to the BLM, leases are pending for 3.5 billion tons.

 

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Dear Democrats: Economic Inequality Is Not an Act of God

Americans

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

“Inequality” is out as a White House talking point, The Washington Post reported on July 4. “Opportunity” is in. This is a problem. It’s just wrongheaded to believe that we face a binary choice: reform an unequal system or help the middle class.

By implying that there is a disconnect between inequality and opportunity, (many, not all) Democrats ignore the fact that opportunity cannot be provided as long as the economic and financial system is so unequal. Some, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, intuitively understand this. After all, she first came to Washington to battle a system that has long been rigged against the middle class, where working families’ voices get overpowered by well-funded lobbyists who hold elected officials by the pocket. By creating an artificial division between inequality and opportunity, we turn a blind eye to this rampant unfairness that helped the 1 percent ascend to their economic perches in the first place.

We also accept the built-in unfairness of the system as, simply, the way things are. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, labels this flawed way of thinking “passive-voice populism.” We assume that the ups and downs of the American middle class are as natural and as out-of-our-hands as the ebb and flow of the tides: economic inequality as an act of god. But, Borosage writes, “inequality didn’t just happen to us. It wasn’t inevitable. Just as the broad middle class was constructed brick by brick after World War II, the decline of that middle class was constructed policy-by-policy, step-by-step over the last three decades.” Or, as Warren Buffett famously said in 2011, “[T]here’s been class warfare going on for the last twenty years, and my class has won. We’re the ones that have gotten our tax rates reduced dramatically.”

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If we want to really create “opportunity” within our system, then we need to change the system. We need more than, as Borosage wrote today, “rhetorical pablum about lifting the middle class.” A solution, he continues, “will involve taking on the rigged game and changing the rules. And that inevitably will require curbing Wall Street, taxing the wealthy and making vital public investments, closing the tax havens and dodges of the multinationals, requiring the Federal Reserve to favor a full employment economy for workers rather than an austerity regime for bankers, and much more.”

On May 1, Senator Warren (D-MA) wrote in a prescriptive CNN op-ed, “We can repair the cracks in the middle class. We can strengthen our foundations and make sure that all of our children have a fighting chance. But it means changing who Washington works for—and doesn’t.”

It means providing opportunity by addressing inequality—at the same time.

 

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Christie’s Gun Control Veto Sparks Anger in NJ, but May Not Win Over the Tea Party

Governor Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reacts to a question during a news conference in Trenton, New Jersey. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

Since the Democrats have pretty much avoided mentioning gun control since 1994, when the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives was largely (though mistakenly) credited to the National Rifle Association, the party can’t complain too much about Chris Christie’s veto last week of legislation that would have cut the number of bullets allowed in a magazine from fifteen to ten. Hardly a radical goal, but one calculated to win Christie support from Republican voters in 2016 primaries.

In New Jersey at least, the Democrats and local opinion makers are letting Christie know that they’re unhappy, including the Newark Star-Ledger, which in an editorial called the veto a “self-serving political stunt.”

But when Christie gets his questionnaire in the mail from Mike Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, he can safely answer it in such a way that warms the hearts of NRA supporters and their government-hating, gun-totin’ friends in the Tea Party.

That doesn’t mean that the Tea Party is ready, just yet, to endorse Christie in 2016. As the Tea Party News Network says, they’re happy that Christie vetoed the bill from New Jersey “gun-grabbing tyrants,” but they urge the governor to stay right where he is:

As America geared up for celebrating our Independence Day, New Jersey governor Chris Christie did something very American: he stood up to gun-grabbing tyrants. While the Tea Party has soured on Chris Christie (for some very good and obvious reasons), let’s give credit where credit is due: this was the right call from Christie. Of course, this is not enough to earn him any true Tea Party support for a presidential bid (not by a long shot), but Christie’s actions prove what many Tea Partiers have long contended: that Chris Christie is the right Republican for New Jersey…and he should stay there.

In New Jersey, state legislative leaders are blasting Christie, needless to say. A lead sponsor of the legislation, Assembly majority leader Louis Greenwald, released a statement noting that Christie’s veto “came only minutes after the families of children who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School visited the New Jersey Statehouse to deliver petitions urging the governor to support the measure.” Greenwald’s statement said:

The governor’s action today can best be described with the words used in his own veto statement, “difficult choices are brushed aside [and] uncomfortable topics are left unexplored.” I would imagine this is a very uncomfortable topic to [discuss] with conservative voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Added Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg:

High-capacity magazines have no purpose other than to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. They do not belong on our streets. The governor’s veto is an insult to the families of gun violence victims who have fought to make sure that others did not have to suffer as they have. His veto is an insult to our residents who deserve additional protections.

The Star-Ledger reported that in New Hampshire, whose electorate is essential to Christie’s presidential hopes—the New Jersey governor is heading to Iowa next week, but he isn’t strong in the state, which is dominated by conservative Christians—gun control opponents warned Christie last year that they are watching him closely:

“I think it’s a step in the right direction for Governor Christie,” said Sam Cohen, vice president and CEO of Pro-Gun New Hampshire, whose state holds the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Cohen’s group last year warned Christie that it was watching him closely, and advised him to veto four gun control bills Democrats sent him. Ultimately, Christie vetoed the two most strongly opposed by gun rights groups, and signed the other two.

There don’t appear to be any Republicans willing to challenge the NRA, at least not among the possible candidates in 2016. Christie, as a governor from the blue state where support for gun control is strong, may have once thought fleetingly about being the odd man out on gun control, but clearly no longer—if ever. So he’s decided to cash in on his pro-NRA stand as something courageous, and the same can’t be said for candidates from Kentucky, Texas or, well, Florida, where Jeb Bush hasn’t crossed the NRA. In Florida, of course, it isn’t often that anti-gun measures get to the governor’s desk, so it will be hard to find evidence of Bush vetoing a bill that the NRA didn’t like during his term as governor there. As On the Issues reports, Bush supports Florida’s pro-gun Stand Your Ground law, and while he supports the idea of instant background checks Bush favored Florida’s NRA-backed “concealed carry” laws. (The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reports that a new Quinnipiac Poll found “that 92 percent of American voters, including 92 percent of gun owners, support requiring background checks on all gun purchases,” including 86 percent of Republicans. So that’s hardly a courageous stand by ex-Governor Bush.)

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Fox News, reporting on the Bloomberg Everytown campaign, quotes an NRA leader saying that Bloomberg is “just the latest incarnation of a long line of anti-freedom billionaires who’ve tried to take on the National Rifle Association.” Actually, there haven’t been that many billionaires, anti-freedom or not, who’ve done anything at all about guns, so Bloomberg deserves credit for what he’s doing. Sadly, if the Everytown effort has any success at all, it may come in the form of eliminating a few Democratic incumbents here and there, in rural, pro-gun states and districts, who decide to challenge the NRA and create an opening for their Republican challenger.

 

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