What about those demonstrations?

August 31, 2020

The Black Lives Matter movement is being waylaid by provocateurs and others who want to use the opportunity to loot stores or, as one hoodlum did, shoot people on camera and then, apparently craving notoriety, tried to give himself up to police who ignored him because he’s white and they were convinced all bad things are black.[1]

That’s part of the reason Martin Luther King was so determined that his people be completely nonviolent. People like John Lewis had their heads cracked. Four little Black girls were blown up in their church. Emmet Til and lots of others were murdered, including white people working in solidarity with the African-American population struggling for freedom. How many murders, how many lynchings does it take to convince people that the African-Americans were innocent victims, not perpetrators.

Thousands of people were killed and lynched. Do we have to go through that again. We’re taught the police are brave. How brave do you have to be to shoot people in the back? How brave do you have to be to shoot a woman asleep in her bed, or a man putting his key in his door, or keep a knee on a man’s throat as he dies? None of them were armed. But seven shots paralyzed Jacob Blake. 41 shots killed Amadou Diallo – who never had a chance or a weapon. Abner Louima was attacked and sexually brutalized by police. When will it be enough? When will it ever stop?

We’re told there are good cops, that most cops are good cops. I’d be delighted if they’d act the part, if they’d stop the bad ones from committing murder, if they’d participate in drumming people like that out of the force. One former policeman in our area came here to live because he had exposed massive corruption in the New York City Police Department and, regardless of those supposedly good cops, cops drove him out of town, initially by attempted murder. Where are those good cops when we need them?

Where people aren’t allowed to protest in peace, they may have to find a different way to protect themselves while making their point. Perhaps they’d do better putting Black Lives Matter t-shirts on everyone and circulating on busy streets without congregating or waving signs. Perhaps they’d do better using the time working on the election. Do Trump, and other bigots, with and without guns, have to be driven out of power, before it’s possible to deal with the real violence? There’s what’s called a ground game to be fought to win this election – letters, calls, information, rides – lots of organizations are working on it and lots of people are trying to help out. People of color need friends in high places to get what they deserve. Martin Luther King was in league with President Johnson – King was the greater man but Johnson had the power. Perhaps the demonstrators would do better to skip the streets and take the White House. Perhaps that would deny Trump and the hoodlums who support him anything to scare people with. Perhaps going for votes would outfox them and put the truly violent elements in our society in their cages.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on September 1, 2020.

[1] CBSN, Chicago, reported: “As for Rittenhouse showing up with his hands in the air, appearing to turn himself in, the sheriff said officers did not realize what he was trying to do.”


To prevent a coup – strengthen the military spine

August 4, 2020

Two weeks ago, I commented about Jefferson’s fear of a presidential coup. Last week I spoke about using nonviolent methods to prevent a takeover by the incumbent president, who told Chris Wallace on Fox that he might not leave the White House if he loses the coming election. Afterward, I expressed my concerns and showed a copy to Ian Shapiro, a friend and polymath who’s done brilliant work on both foreign and domestic policy. He sent me back a portion of his new book on economic insecurity, The Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It. I quickly realized we were approaching the same problem from different angles. Insecurity makes people want to believe that Trump is leading them to better days. And getting Ian’s message across will help protect us against a presidential takeover.

The Army is a crucial player in any takeover. American military tradition is stanchly against political activity and devoted to defending the Constitution. There would be great resistance at all levels to using the military politically, especially to end politics by takeover. And because the military contains a large cross-section of America, we all influence it. Military diversity makes it harder to unite on unauthorized, unpopular activities in conflict with American military tradition, especially if they depend on secret planning.

But presidential takeovers in other countries force us to the sobering realization that a perverted commander-in-chief can pervert the military, given enough time. That makes all the work we’re doing to prepare for this election crucial to prevent White House treason – even though he’s talked about it openly. Concerted opposition to Trump and to takeovers, expressed in a vigorous campaign, make it less likely that the military will participate in a coup.

But outside the military, Trump has been constructing other forces which respond to him – using or threatening to use the National Guard, border guards and other armed federal agents in Portland[1] and elsewhere to stir up trouble where peace had reigned. Even more serious are the private militias that conduct their own training with their own arsenals. The great bulk of domestic terrorism has come from those groups. Instead of fidelity to the Constitution, they aim at violently defeating American government in order to achieve undemocratic aims in conflict with the Constitution and the law. Some American elections have been overturned by force of arms.

Unreconstructed admirers of Civil War secessionists would gladly reverse the results of the Civil War. Guns and racism have become closely entwined. Gun shows and private militias confront us with a plethora of racist and conspiracy theories making the point.[2] Their treasonous impulses fuel my strongest objections to gun rights today – guns are not being used for self-defense but for calculated murder, intimidation and political takeover.[3]

Trump’s outrageous racism and complements to racist killers are obvious efforts to get those armed but irresponsible groups behind him, ready to function as a palace guard to keep him in office regardless of the election. Private militias, like gangs and criminal cartels are dangerous because they oppose democracy, are divorced from national values, and expect to gain from violence. Instead of respecting peaceful demonstrations, they’ve spawned provocateurs in places like Portland, to give Trump an excuse for shutting democracy down. They and their standard-bearer in the White House must be stopped. And we have to keep up the fight for government of, by, and for the people.

[1] Washington Post Blogs, A violent send-off on feds’ final night at Portland courthouse, July 31, 2020 Friday 12:07 AM EST

[2] John A. Wood, THE PANTHERS AND THE MILITIAS (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002); Kenneth S. Stern, A FORCE UPON THE PLAIN: THE AMERICAN MILITIA MOVEMENT AND THE POLITICS OF HATE (Norman: U. Okla. Press, 1997); Southern Poverty Law Center, “Terror From the Right: Plots, Conspiracies and Racist Rampages Since Oklahoma City,” http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/terror-from-the-right (visited Jan. 23, 2014).

[3] Stephen E. Gottlieb, Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 173-77 (NYU Press, 2016).


How Can Trump Be Stopped?

July 27, 2020

I wonder what Germans could have done to stop Hitler in 1932, before or after he had the keys to power.

One option was to fight back. Some believe we have to. Actually, some Germans fought back well before the takeover, but the German government was much harder on leftist fighters than on Hitler’s Brown Shirts. Leftist violence, justifications aside, became an authoritarian excuse, the way Trump wants to use any defense of democracy here.

The major alternative is the Mahatma Gandhi/Martin Luther King nonviolent response. Leaders of protests – against Trump, abuse of our Black and Brown fellow citizens, and against the violence, racism and murders by the Alt-screwy – overwhelming choose nonviolence.

That got India free of Britain but Muslim Pakistan left largely Hindu India anyway. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach ended formal legal segregation and won new Civil Rights Laws but left too many African-Americans out of the education, jobs, homes and opportunities they deserved, another partial victory. Maybe that’s all we get in life.

And we can vote. We must vote. Whatever we do on the streets will be backed or undercut by what we do at the polls. It may be an act of faith, but it will prove the most important prayer we’ll ever voice.

Why? I think violence is doomed and we must stay clear of it. Actually, King wasn’t nonviolent. That’s a hard truth, but King’s success depended on his own supporters getting their heads cracked in front of cameras for national television – not unlike what Trump’s troops are doing to people in Portland. There were many, Black and White, who, like John Lewis, had the courage to board busses for the Freedom Rides toward violent racists waiting with firebombs to force them out of the busses and with clubs to bludgeon and bloody them when they came out. I never had that courage, but have enormous respect for those who did. I played a bit part in the Civil Rights Movement, from the safety of legal offices and demonstrations where I didn’t expect trouble – I Marched on Washington to hear King describe his dream, and I joined demonstrations in places like New York City. The movement needed more bravery than I had.

Why? Because some people are moved by changes in national sentiment and by the bravery and decency they see on television news. Let’s be clear, we need institutions of power to back off, like Marco’s Army did in 1986, when confronted with “streets gradually teeming with people to quietly face off … armored tanks …[with] linked arms and prayers and flowers and songs.” But if it’s Duarte’s violence in today’s Philippines, Tiananmen Square in 1989 where peaceful pro-democracy protestors were crushed under relentless tanks, instead of Manila with flowers in 1986, if it’s either bloodthirsty repression or a sense of humanity that stops the armies short, it matters what the soldiers do and what the generals do. Trump is shaping a force under his command and preparing troops with practice maneuvers against demonstrators. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that the public will recognize nonviolence or who’s attacking whom when Trump creates violent incidents, or how the regular Army will respond.

If those in command of the guns, tanks and other weapons, say to each other this is not what we do in a democracy, then Trump better leave fast, maybe to visit his dear friend Vladimir Putin. But if they react that it’s a sadistic joy to mow the unarmed down, no arms could stop them.

There’s another issue. Recent events eroded respect for some police departments. But, depending how events go, there could be significant confrontations between the Alt-Screwy and pro-democracy protestors. In that case the police may be all we have. Yes there must be ways to reform the way they operate, but it’s not just that they have to learn community policing, it’s also us who have to invite the police in, break bread with them, so that we get to know each other. We do need them.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast  on WAMC Northeast Report, on July 28, 2020.


Jefferson on Trump

July 20, 2020

I was weeding some of my papers last Saturday and found a copy of a letter sent by Thomas Jefferson from Paris, where he was representing this country, on December 20, 1787, to James Madison here in America. As a slave-holder, Jefferson committed grievous wrongs, but Thomas Jefferson wasn’t stupid and what he wrote struck me because he was precisely describing what we most fear today. Jefferson’s letter was about the Constitution. He played no part in writing it, stationed in Paris as he was. But having gotten a look, he wrote his friend about what he did and didn’t like.

He wrote Madison “I like much the general idea of framing a government which should go on of itself peaceably.” He also wrote:

The second feature I dislike, and greatly dislike, is the abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President.

That has now been limited to two terms by an amendment, but listen to Jefferson’s reasoning. The president [quote]:

becomes of so much consequence to certain nations to have a friend or a foe at the head of our affairs that they will interfere with money and with arms. A Galloman [Frenchman] or an Angloman [Englishman] will be supported by the nation he befriends. If once elected, and at a second or third election outvoted by one or two votes, he will pretend false votes, foul play, hold possession of the reins of government, be supported by the states voting for him, especially if they are the central ones lying in a compact body themselves and separating their opponents: and they will be aided by one nation of Europe, while the majority are aided by another. The election of  President of America some years hence will be much more interesting to certain nations of Europe, than ever the election of a King of Poland was. Reflect on all the instances in history, antient and modern, of elective monarchies, and say if they do not give foundation for my fears, the Roman emporers, the popes … [from their alliances], the German emporers til they became hereditary in practice, the Kings of Poland, the Deys of the Ottoman dependencies.

The timeliness of Jefferson’s fears stunned me.

Many Americans tend to be romantic about our presidents – if they like one thing about a president they think they’re all good. A star on a popular TV show must know how to govern America, protect it from disease, and foreign powers, and raise the people’s income and welfare by bellowing about whom they hate. Please forgive my sarcasm.

The same afternoon, my wife tuned into a town meeting run by the National Peace Corps Association, with the current head of the Peace Corps among the speakers. My mind drifted back. John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps. Many people liked him because he was young, vigorous and handsome. But the gifts most valued by the people where we served were John F. Kennedy half dollars. They valued Kennedy because he showed respect for people all over the globe – not necessarily the leaders of their countries, but always the people. It was a nonpartisan tradition, followed by presidents of both parties ‘til it was up-ended by a man who thought all a president has to do is talk tough and tell people who’s fired.

But he has no right to fire voters. In the same letter, Jefferson remarked that it is crucial to protect

the fundamental principle that the people are not to be taxed [and I would add or otherwise governed] but by representatives chosen immediately by themselves.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast  on WAMC Northeast Report, on July 21, 2020.


Time to Fight Fire With Fire

November 19, 2019

We’re in the middle of a campaign about whether Democrats should nominate a centrist and reject people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who understand who and what is hurting most people in America – citizens, middle class and struggling, guests, refugees, union members, farmers, and consumers – most of us. Elizabeth and Bernie are the reasonable ones while most others avert their eyes or hold their noses. Three cheers for reasonable, straight talking, clear-eyed candidates.

What should Congress do? Compromise isn’t possible. Republicans can’t even accept surrender if Democrats’ names are on it. Negotiation isn’t possible no matter how much Republicans blame their own intransigence on the Democrats.

Congressional Democrats need to take a page out of the Republican playbook to copy Gingrich, fight fire with fire and refuse to pass essential legislation, including the budget, unless it has everything Democrats stand for and need for the welfare of all of us. I’d insist on language that eliminates any and all judicial seats from the moment the holder dies or leaves – no more appointments for Trump no matter when the election, no more judges who refuse to deal with the unconscionable ways that corporations eviscerate the lives of honest, hard-working people. Unconscionable, by the way, is a legal term that judges refuse to use when ordinary people are being shafted.

What will it do in the presidential campaign? Energize the party. It’s time Democrats stopped gagging themselves to stay closer to the middle, allowing the so-called “middle of the road” to drift further to the wrong, further away from what reasonable, real people need.

We need to stand up for each other, for our friends and our neighbors, for people who care for America, who actually believe in the Declaration of Independence and in the ideology of America, not the weakened and destroyed America that Republicans at the racist, billionaire and Tea Party tables happily let crumble. It’s time to show we really care about the harm that Trump and his lackeys are doing and stop it. No compromise with hatred, racism and the corruption of a selfish official with an ego so weak that he can’t stand truth and resorts to calling everyone else fakers, from scientists to journalists.

Tax cuts for the wealthy are obscene – their tax rates are already a fraction of what they were in America’s most productive times. So-called entrepreneurs don’t stand on each other’s shoulders – they stand on the shoulders of a government that created or financed the most important advances of modern life, from medical discoveries to the internet and the GPS system before making it available to private firms. No, we cannot have a decent or fair country if wealthy egotists can’t stand the idea of paying for decent public education. Yes, we can provide health care for everyone like most of the free world. Yes, we can rebuild our country’s infrastructure before it crumbles and takes America down. No need to worry about the billionaires and their crocodile tears about misnamed “entrepreneurs” who don’t need the rest of us to take care of them and don’t use their tax breaks to create jobs.

It’s time to stand on principle. And let’s be clear – principle is attractive and inspiring. We can help everyone from farmers and miners to doctors, teachers, nurses, truckdrivers and food service workers. It’s time for all of us to stand up for each other and show the selfish rich and their enablers what decency and principle really look like, while we show them the door out of Washington and the state capitals and send them to places where they can live the lives of refugees.


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