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Mayoral race exposes lack of leadership

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Published in St. Louis American, Thursday February 16, 2017

 

I’ve come to accept the “social” in social media, especially Facebook, rather than see the media as an effective political tool. Sharing photos of newborns, family gatherings and what people ate for lunch. Periodically there’s some political gems in between the social stuff. I stumbled across an example of this with a posting from local activist attorney Jerryl Christmas.

 

Christmas’ posting on January 26 was both poignant and sarcastic.

“Today is the last day to withdraw from the mayor’s race,” Christmas posted. “I’m supporting Lewis Reed for mayor but I wish we had black leadership in St. Louis that understood consolidation of power. Tishaura Jones belongs in Congress, Antonio French should be the next president of the Board of Alderman, Jeffrey Boyd should run Veterans Affairs for the city and we can support Jimmie Matthews in his spiritual growth.”

About the same time as this posting, mayoral candidate and 28th ward alderman Lyda Krewson released some polling results. Not surprising, the poll show Krewson leading the pack with almost 30 percent of the vote. Running 10 percentage points behind her was Lewis Reed, followed by Antonio French and Tishaura Jones.

There’s conjecture that the white mayoral candidates came to a meeting of the minds. Police Chief Sam Dotson would step down if he was guaranteed the chief position after the election. Gregory F.X. Daly can keep his job as Collector of Revenue. What we do know is that there is now only one viable white candidate running for mayor. And if you’ve been paying attention, race matters in this town.

Christmas’ posting produced a flurry of responses that I believe should’ve been part of a more robust discussion planned prior to the filing date for mayor.

Who has the moral or political authority to call for such a consensus meeting? Does anyone have the right to tell a citizen that they can’t run for office regardless of their ability to win? Should the community be looking at platforms/plans rather than personalities? Are the candidates’ history in the offices they currently hold evidence that they can produce the kind of transformation this divided and declining city is begging for.

These are age-old questions that emerge every time the African-American community comes to this juncture.

There have been consensus sessions before, some more public than others. The democratic process says anyone can run for office who is eligible. The democratic process also allows for organized efforts to suggest to people who to vote for. At the end of the day – or, in this case, the election – it’s about who out-organizes the competition. And we’ve seen in past elections, including state and national ones, that money is not always the decisive factor. It’s organization and strategy.

All the top black candidates currently hold public office. It’s a starting point to determine their vision, imagination and competency. They all are or have been lawmakers. What kind of legislation did they propose to move the city forward?

Antonio French and Jeffrey Boyd are alders. Would a look at their respective wards serve as microcosms of their vision for the city be insightful and compelling?

Tishaura Jones is city treasurer and before that she was a state rep. What does her history reveal about her important role as a change agent?

Lewis Reed is one-third of the powerful Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the city body that makes the important financial decisions about how our tax dollars get spent. Has he effectively wielded his power and influence as president of the Board of Aldermen to chart a new direction for the city?

After the election on March 7, we can count on endless chatter about who was right and what went wrong. But in a “Trump” world, enlightened and empowered citizens don’t have the luxury of promoting egotism and pipedreams. We can’t squander valuable time and resources.

More importantly, we absolutely shouldn’t be dashing the hopes of our people with the notion that we don’t have the committed leadership to not only resist the avalanche of right-wing populism and policies but to build the people-power to aggressively advance our human rights to live with dignity and without fear.

Children need champions not bouncers

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Published St. Louis American, January 19, 2017

School fights are nothing new, they’ve been around as long as there have been kids. This writer was suspended once for fighting. I’ve always resented the fact that there was no attempt to look at mitigating circumstances – that I was an honor student, that I had no previous incidents, that I acted in self-defense. Two students fighting? Automatic suspensions for both students. End of story.

At the pre-school level, even little ones are bound to tangle. They are territorial and impulsive. These are not criminal acts; they are part of child development. They are teachable moments that allow adults to show how conflicts can be resolved fairly and non-violently.

Recently, four local school districts decided to ban the suspension of preschoolers and primary grades. It’s mind-blowing that school officials had to be forced to change this policy. St. Louis Public Schools, Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Normandy and Ladue all reached a point of enlightenment, thanks to community pressure by groups working to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

A 2015 study by the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies put Missouri at the top of the heap for its disproportionate rate of suspensions between black and white students. This is happening at all levels – elementary, middle and high school. In true Show Me No Shame Missouri, instead of addressing this critical disparity, the state goes a step farther and criminalizes student fights.

We live in a violent society. Discipline in schools, especially in high schools, has been mirroring the broader society for the last several years. Many offenses that should be dealt with as juvenile code violations are now viewed as adult crimes. Add actual police officers to the equation to enforce school codes and arrest students, you have another effective tool to keep the prisons full.

Now is the time for parents, teachers, civic leaders and concerned citizens to put pressure on local school boards and principals as to how state law on criminal assaults should be interpreted. It can’t stop there.

Schools must come up with creative and humane ways to deal with classroom discipline. Currently, teachers are bearing the burden for dealing with students, and many have psychological issues. Teacher performance reviews are being impacted by their inability to simultaneously be teachers, counselors, therapists and law enforcers. It’s not surprising (but unacceptable) that we hear teachers calling for stricter discipline measures and supporting suspensions to quickly rid themselves of problem students.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long condemned suspensions and expulsions that are key part of most districts so-called zero tolerance policy. It affirms that students who are put out of school are 10 times more likely to drop out of school. It also points out that not getting to the root of the problem may be putting the child back into an environment that may be resulting in misbehavior.

The academy recommends a more pro-active approach, and that is screenings at the early childhood stage for high-risk behaviors. Suspensions may be quick fixes but they are temporary, ineffective and can cause long-term problems for a child, the family and our community.

Trauma – sexual, physical and psychological – is a real factor in the lives of impoverished families. We need welcoming and prepared schools to deal with the contemporary issues that impact the learning of our children. A social worker at each school is a legitimate demand.

Our children are worthy of getting all that they need to reach their full potential as human beings. It’s up to empowered and committed adults to be the champions of children and the institutions that serve them

Human rights under a Donald Trump

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Published St. Louis American, December 20, 2016

On December 10, there was a global celebration of human rights. Locally, the St. Louis Coalition for Human Rights recognized its 20th anniversary. This is the day that the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. We have a president charging into the White House who already has an established record of human rights abuses. And if we are to believe some of his campaign promises, there are more violations to come.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, commonly referred to as the UDHR, consists of 30 articles affecting our quality of life. It is arguably the most important document of the 20th Century in that, for the first time, a standard was set for all peoples and all nations of the world. You are eligible for human rights the second you come into the world, no matter where you are in the world. Nobody can take them from you or pick and choose which ones you get.

In my travels over the years, citizens in other countries often refer to human rights rather than to laws. That’s because laws can change at any time because of political winds. In the U.S., African Americans are very familiar with this phenomenon as we are still waging the fight for voting rights.

Governments are responsible for protecting human rights, regardless of whether it’s a citizen of their own country or another. Like most documents of this nature, protection of these rights is a challenge. A country referring to itself as a democracy (like the U.S.) is just as capable of abusing human rights as authoritarian government.

Let’s look at where the big violations by a President Trump are likely to occur.

Article 23 is the “Right to Desirable Work and to Join Trade Unions.” I interpret “desirable” to be safe jobs with livable wages which dovetails into Article 25, the “Right to Adequate Standard of Living.” Trump has brought a heavy hand down on union organizing. In Las Vegas, where most casinos and hotels are unionized as a routine matter, he fought the Culinary Workers Union (CWU) and the Bartenders Union tooth-and-nail at the Trump International Hotel. The CWU is the Nevada’s largest union with 57,000 members; you don’t wanna mess with them. Ultimately, the workers triumphed and won their contract. Trump drug out a lawsuit for 20 years before admitting that undocumented Polish immigrants were used in his New York demolition project. Contractors have claimed to have a rough time getting paid by the billionaire. Trump’s trade agreements and hostile views towards workers are likely to have damaging impacts in other countries.

Article 20 is the “Right of Peaceful Assembly and Association,” which is also reflected in our First Amendment rights. We saw how Trump and his campaign dealt with dissent and assembly at his events. He created a hostile environment during his campaign events, often encouraging his supporters to get physical and vowing to pay their legal costs if they sucker-punched a protestor. Trump even stated that during an event that he’d like to “punch a protestor in the face.” The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded over 1,000 hate-motivated crimes in the month since Trump was elected. Hate against women, Muslim, people of color, members of the LGBT community – making America “great” again apparently doesn’t include these constituencies. We can expect to see vicious crackdowns on peaceful assemblies, including on the impending alternative demonstration to the Women’s March on Washington next month. If Jeff Sessions is confirmed as U.S. attorney general, we should anticipate plenty of attacks on civil liberties and human rights.

Article 13 is the “Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country” and has already received a verbal blow as Trump talks about building a wall along the Mexican border. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto emphatically says no pesos will go towards building Trump’s wall. During the campaign, Trump promised a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims coming to the U.S. His get-tough policy on radical Islam also criminalizes Muslims, treating them all as terrorists which makes them susceptible to torture (which Trump favors). Freedom for torture and degrading treatment is Article 5 but it’s also a violation of international law.

The United Nations has expressed its uneasiness about the Trump presidency. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein summed up Trump’s right-wing rhetoric and proclaimed that he would be “dangerous from an international point of view.“ Zeid, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, also took note of the countries with human rights abuses who welcomed the election of Trump, countries like Russian, Syria and Turkey.

Freedom-loving people in the U.S. must be ready to confront the inhumane policies and vile rhetoric of the new president. We know there are allies around the world to join with us. We must be ready to disrupt the flow of business that will assuredly lead to the rich getting richer and the rest of us getting a proverbial foot on our necks. Stopping the steamroller of demagoguery and white supremacy resolutely begins here on these shores.