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Looking at Lynching – posted 9/17/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 9/24/2017

September 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Probably like many readers, I was shocked by the Claremont, New Hampshire incident where an 8 year old bi-racial boy was nearly lynched by a group of teenage boys. You have to ask: how could that be happening?

The boy’s grandmother told local press that he and others were playing in a yard in their neighborhood when the teenagers who are white started calling racial epithets and threw sticks and rocks at his legs. Then the teens decided to hang the little boy, putting a rope around his neck and pushing him off a picnic table. According to published accounts, the boy swung back and forth by his neck three times before he was able to remove the rope. None of the teens came to his aid.

The story is beyond disquieting. It is impossible to see it as “boys will be boys” or as simple teen mischief. Somehow it connects to the larger racial zeitgeist reflected by events in Charlottesville and the growth of the alt-right. Hate seems to have a green light.

When was the last time there was a lynching in New Hampshire? Never.

Lynching is an act with deep historical roots in America. The act dredges up a history that is ignored, minimized, and buried. In my own school experience, lynching barely rated a mention. I do recall, from my own outside reading, seeing pictures of large crowds of white people surrounding the body of a black man hanging from a tree or a makeshift gallows.

In 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization based in Montgomery Alabama and started by the lawyer Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, produced a report on the history of lynching in America. Equal Justice Initiative staff had spent 6 years researching and documenting terror lynchings in America.

They documented 4,084 racial terror lynchings in twelve Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. They also documented 300 racial terror lynchings in other states during the same period. This was significantly more lynchings than had previously been recognized.

They define a terror lynching as a horrific act of violence (not just a hanging) where perpetrators were never held accountable. The murders were carried out with impunity, often on a courthouse lawn. These acts were tolerated by both state and federal officials who allowed a bypass of the existing criminal justice system. The terror lynchings were designed to create a fearful environment where racial subordination and segregation were controlling.

Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas had the highest number of lynchings. Right behind were Alabama, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia. Outside the Deep South, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, West Virginia, Maryland, Kansas, Indiana, and Ohio also had lynchings.

Equal Justice Initiative analyzed the pattern of these lynchings. They found nearly 25% of lynchings of African Americans in the South came from wildly distorted fear of interracial sex; more than 50% were killed under accusation of committing murder or rape; many others were based on minor social transgressions such as speaking disrespectfully, refusing to step off a sidewalk, using an improper title for a white person or bumping into a white woman.

From 1915 to 1940, lynch mobs targeted African Americans who protested being treated as second-class citizens.

Particularly horrifying were public spectacle lynchings in which large crowds of white people gathered to witness murders that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment and burning of victims. Equal Justice Initiative says these events had a carnival-like atmosphere with vendors selling food, printers producing postcards for sale featuring photographs of lynching and corpses, and body parts being collected as souvenirs.

It was not unusual for public spectacle lynchings to have large crowds numbering in the thousands. The killings were not conducted by Klansmen hiding in a swamp. They were typically very public, advertised events implicating entire communities.

Equal Justice Initiative documents numerous terrifying stories. In one story, in Paris Texas in 1893, a 17 year old black man named Henry Smith was accused of killing a 3 year old white girl. About a week after the child’s death, a posse located Smith in Arkansas and returned him to Paris by train. Two thousand men had combed the countryside looking for Smith. When they found Smith’s stepson and he failed to reveal Smith’s location, the stepson was lynched.

When Smith was returned to Paris on February 1, 1893, a mob of over 10,000 white people from all over Texas met the train. Smith was placed on a carnival float where he was paraded through town to the county fairgrounds. A parade of citizens followed the float, including children who had been dismissed from school for the event.

When Smith made it to the fairgrounds, the mob leaders forced him to mount a ten-foot-high scaffold to allow maximum visibility. The mob ripped Smith’s clothes off and proceeded to torture him for the next hour. Red-hot iron brands were placed against Smith’s feet, then up his body until they reached his face where his eyes were burned out. The mob then poured kerosene on Smith and set him afire. Smith was burned alive.

It must be noted that Smith pleaded his innocence until the end according to the great anti-lynching crusader, Ida B. Wells. After these events, Wells hired Pinkerton detectives to investigate what happened. While Wells did not find evidence that exonerated Smith, she did discover that Smith was mentally imbalanced

Twenty-seven years later, Paris, Texas hosted a second lynching. Two brothers, Irving and Herman Arthur, decided to leave their jobs on a white-owned farm. They wanted better working conditions. The farm owner tried to stop them. The conflict resulted in the arrest of the brothers. Shortly after the arrests, local whites posted signs advertising an impending lynching.

On July 6, 1920, 3,000 people watched as both men were tied to a flagpole at the county fairgrounds, tortured and burned to death. After the lynching, the Arthurs’ corpses were chained to a car and driven through Paris’s black community.

Today there is no historical marker to document either lynching. However, there is a large Confederate memorial on the courthouse lawn in Paris. Equal Justice Initiative reports that of the 4,084 Southern lynchings they document, the overwhelming majority took place on sites that remain unmarked and unrecognized.

I do think the absence of a prominent public memorial acknowledging the brutal lynchings is a public statement that America does not think black lives matter. Equal Justice Initiative points out that the South is littered with statues, markers, and monuments celebrating Confederate leaders who perpetrated violent crimes against black citizens.

As a country, we still seem unable to face the dark side of our own history. There is a continuing culture of silence about our history with lynching. This is particularly true in the states where lynching occurred. There is an absence of acknowledgement.

While we cannot yet know exactly why the Claremont near-lynching happened, the context is concerning. The growth of white supremacist movements, the increase in vicious internet bullying by racists and anti-semites, and our past American history of lynching all situate it. We can only hope what happened in Claremont was a freakish aberration that could never happen again.

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Democrats Floundering – posted 9/3/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 9/10/2017

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Since their election defeat last November, the Democrats remain in a rudderless, traumatized state of disbelief. Losing to Trump was unthinkable but then the unthinkable happened.

At this point, the Democrats still show little sign that they grasp the reasons for their defeat. Being in the political wilderness can be confusing. Like being lost in the woods, it can be hard to know which way is the way out.

Early signs are not promising that Democrats will figure the best direction to go. In late July, after doing months of polling and after consulting focus groups and enlisting political consultants, Democrats came up with a new slogan: “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future.”

As was pointed out in the media, the slogan bore a strong resemblance to Papa John’s Pizza: “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza. Papa John’s”.

The slogan appeared to have its origins from a May 24 USA Today op-ed authored by Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Sen. Kaine had used the phrase “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages”.

The slogans are an embarrassment. They were rightfully mocked on social media. After a historic defeat, after no shortage of soul-searching, the Democrats came up with something so uninspiring. Is a faux pizza ad the best that can be offered up?

The truth is that since the Bill Clinton era the Democrats have run on what I would call a minimalist change agenda. They want to make clear they are not Republicans but all too often, they look like Republican-lite. They have a history of feeding at the same corporate trough as the Republicans.

It has been very hard to know what Democrats stand for. The Hillary Clinton campaign was the absolute embodiment of this approach. The belief was that it was enough to be anti-Trump because he was so uniquely disgusting.

The Hillary campaign slogan was “Stronger Together”. That has to be the apogee of meaninglessness.

Let me offer a suggestion: the Democrats must be the party of progressive change – not a status quo party. We already have one conservative party, the Republicans. Democrats need to provide a stark contrast to the Republicans. Clintonian triangulation is not a progressive vision of the future.

One of the most maddening aspects of the last election was Trump’s ability to seize the mantle of being a change agent. The Democrats mistakenly ceded that territory because they were caught up in defending the progress made under President Obama. In touting the status quo, the Democrats utterly misread the public and its anxieties.

Even though Trump is a fraud and a pathological liar, he had the political horse sense to know people were hurting badly. Siding with “forgotten” Americans was smart politics. The Clinton campaign lost touch with the public mood at the same time as it played it safe.

While he did not win, Bernie Sanders had a much more accurate read on the public. His populist message attacking Big Money did strike a nerve. He showed the possibility of running without reliance on millionaires and billionaires. His millenial support grew, in part, because of his awareness of crushing student loan debt and the need to address that.

Democrats need to learn from what was positive about the Sanders campaign. The America Sanders described was much closer to the mark than Clinton’s take. The Democrats’ continuing cluelessness about the reasons for Sanders’ popularity is sad. Maybe they should not be so ready to dismiss the candidate who has the highest approval rating of any politician in the country.

I know this will be unpopular to say but, along with Hillary Clinton, I blame President Obama for the Democratic defeat. Obama bailed out banks more than working people. His justice department never prosecuted the white collar criminals who crashed the economy. Nor did he do much to help the five million people who lost their home to foreclosure.

During the 2016 election campaign, President Obama and Secretary Clinton emphasized all the economic progress made. They praised the recovery made from the recession, saying 15 million jobs had been created.

The problem is this narrative did not ring true to millions of working people across America because it wasn’t true. Much of Middle America remains a post-industrial wasteland. Many worry their jobs will be automated or shipped to the Third World. The jobs created are typically a far cry from the jobs lost. A college degree now guarantees nothing and people are legitimately anxious about the future. They have been screwed by the system and the future hardly looks rosy.

Too many jobs do not pay enough. And they lack good benefits. Twenty-somethings cannot make enough to move out of their parent’s homes and fifty-somethings are put out to pasture early. Health insurance is too expensive (if people have it) and now looks even more tenuous. Student loans are a killer, like carrying a second mortgage payment. Contrary to Clinton and Obama’s assertions, it is not a pretty picture.

The Democrats need to look at where in America they have done poorly. This includes small cities, towns and rural America. The Democrats need a respectful and compelling message that can appeal nationally. Too often, to the rest of America, the Democrats look like an economically ascendant coastal elite, disconnected from working class people.

Message to the Democrats: not everybody went to Harvard and Yale.

If they want to win, the Democrats need to totally overturn their present leadership. It needs to be said: that leadership failed. It does not denigrate past leaders like the Clintons and Pelosi to acknowledge that they are the past. It is time for a new generation of Democratic leaders who can make a fresh start. Whatever the merits of past leaders, they all have too much baggage and they are heavily implicated in the wave of Democratic defeats leading to the Trump debacle.

The Democrats need to stop pretending they can simply repackage their failed timid policies. Those policies never seriously challenged income inequality.

The scope of Democratic defeat requires a new humility. Considering all the defeats, there may be nothing more ridiculous and obnoxious than self righteous posturing by progressives. I hope the party advances in a far more progressive direction but the party must have no litmus tests and it should be welcoming to a wide range of divergent views.

I believe the Democrats can turn it around. But, without self-critical evaluation of their mistakes, they could very well repeat them.

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