The Routinization of Charisma

the_better_angels_coverNew Orleans          Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at the funeral.  Al Sharpton says he’s on his way to visit.  The Mayor, an African-American woman commented about herself, the newly elected prosecutor for Baltimore, also an African-American woman, and the newly confirmed first-ever African-American Attorney-General in the United States, that in so many words if we can’t get justice and peace in a community from three black women at three different levels, then you simply can’t get justice and peace in any community in America.  Uh-oh!

I’m still struck by an expression repeated to me from a discussion of the events of Baltimore at the weekly meeting in New Orleans of the free-floating coalition and forum, Justice and Beyond, that spoke of the “routinization of charisma.”  The phrase was not a complement, nor should it have been, but it speaks to a huge vacuum.  The question as always at the street level is “who has a base?”

Steven Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, makes the point about violence globally that whether in ancient or modern times the absence of the state leads to a dispersion of power in groups defined by tribe, warlords, and of course gangs.  Reading about the late-in-the-day effort by some ministers to reach out to gangs in Baltimore to try to find common ground to stop the insurrection there, reminded me of that point.  Having the military in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not the same as having a government or state with the consent of the people.  The same can be said of too many cities use of the police as an occupying, militarized force, and it seems in too many places a power unto itself without the support of the community or the effective supervision by the political structure.

It was interesting being in North Carolina recently.  It is frankly surprising to hear of the NAACP as a leader of protests, rather than being part of the infrastructure of continued reform.  Rev. William Barber from Goldsboro, North Carolina, built a base through the Moral Mondays during the legislative sessions there in 2013.  Organizers and leaders were waiting for his call for the current session of the legislature.  Here is charisma that seems to work, starting with a clear base and expanding that base through action with his own and others.

Moving away from the base builds the dangers of the “routinization,” and therefore the dilution of leadership becomes acute.  The vacuum of widespread, membership-based organizations in lower income communities now with the dissolution of ACORN and other grassroots efforts also exacerbates the issues of voice and agency.

One thing we all know, you can’t solve a communities issues outside of the community.  As the mayor of Baltimore has noted, having African-Americans in power makes a difference, but having Obama as president didn’t solve intractable issues in low-and-moderate income urban communities, especially with federal austerity and anti-people Congressional policies and programs, and it won’t bring justice and peace in Baltimore or elsewhere.  It has to come from the bottom and the base has to propel and develop their own leaders, they can’t be grafted onto a community.


Mavis Staples “Eyes On The Prize”


Remembering Injustice in Indian Country

cp06003vRock Creek  While in the trailer last week, I had finished the recent volume by Timothy Egan, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:  The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, then by happenstance “my friends at BCGEU” in Canada had given me a copy of the recently published The Inconvenient Indian:  A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King at the Rock Creek Rendezvous, and by some magical coincidence that seems to lie somewhere between fate and destiny, my daughter, Dine’ gave me a commemorative photo album of Polaroid pictures of the rendezvous whose cover was the 1905 picture “Entering the Badlands” by of course Edward Curtis.   Not sure what that all means, but I’m smart enough to realize that at this point, it’s a sign of something, and I should go with it.

            Though the books were as different as night and day in many ways; Indian country might be seen as their common thread running between them.

Curtis for over a century has been recognized as one of the magisterial photographers of Indians across North America.   Egan’s framework was a riches-to-rags story of an obsession that consumed Curtis’ life and career as he sought to record in twenty volumes the past and sometimes the present of tribes and bands of Native Americans and first Canadians across North America.  His signal accomplishment over decades was the completion of this twenty volume photographic and anthropological tour de force on Indians throughout North America.   Egan paints a story of both success and lack of appreciation for the task from institutions throughout the country.   Much of Curtis’ field work was finally underwritten by the legendary cutthroat financier J.P. Morgan during a time of Morgan’s late career that Egan describes as largely consisting of collecting art and mistresses across several continents.   Before one can finally say that at least there is one good thing Morgan did in his life, it seems that as soon as he died though his family begrudgingly continued to fund Curtis’ field work they valued it so little that they sold all 20,000 original plates of his work to a dealer for $1000 in the Great Depression just to be rid of it all.   Each full set is now valued at between two and three million dollars.

            If Egan’s book is largely designed to resurrect the reputation of an a man unappreciated in his own time, King’s Inconvenient Indian is a book that reads like a clever, barbed, incisive and comprehensive indictment of an entire people unappreciated in all of the times since Europeans set foot on North American soil.   And, of course “unappreciated” does not remotely express the genocide, oppression, double-dealing, and downright hate and exploitation that has greeted the native population in the US and Canada for the last number of centuries.   You might think that you have heard all of this before and what new is there to be said, well, yes and no, but in King’s hands the skilled organization of the relatively short book and his cheeky, witty telling of horrible stories of injustice is devastatingly effective and a one-volume refresher course that would surely punctuate any impression that some booming casinos and benign neglect had somehow “solved” the problems of justice for the native peoples.  

            Reading the books together makes Egan’s book on Curtis pale by comparison.   In King’s hands Curtis is involved in “cowboy-and-Indian” or what he calls “Dead Indian” mythmaking, and though Egan briefly acknowledges that Curtis rarely lifted a finger in advocating for justice for native peoples other than telling and photographing their story or at least a version of their story, the Inconvenient Indian by contrast would essentially shrug at the fact that Curtis was not heralded for his epic work as “guilt by association” at worse and “par for the course” at best. 

            Curtis work simply as art might stand taller if it were not so clear from Egan’s book that art operates here as a plaything for the rich since any that would hold Curtis’ work as a public good would have to value the lives and aspirations of native peoples as a primary interest.   King reminds us that no one cares and justice is still something sought without success.   King ends with some high notes in looking at the deals to make for a separate Inuit area in Canada and the Alaskan Native Corporations, but that’s another trick up his sleeve, since there are scores of examples from our times that he offered earlier making it clear that these problems are evergreen and still waiting for justice.


Finally ACORN Video Scammer O’Keefe Has to Pay a Bit for His Crimes

New Orleans  As the news began to break that James O’Keefe, featured performer, video provocateur, and first story federal office break-in artist for the late Andrew Brietbart’s rightwing web operations and the New York Times magazine section, once again was brought to some small amount of justice in the court of law despite his cosseted protection from journalists since he is claiming their mantel as his normal disguise, comments came streaming in on my Facebook wall at the news broken by web reporters at Wonkette  that O’Keefe would be paying out $100,000 to Juan Carlos Vera, former ACORN employee or ACORN Housing Corporation employee in National City below San Diego for his inaccuracies leading to Vera’s wrongful termination.

  • Doug Young I love it!! !!!!!!
  • Christopher J. Herrera Excellent.
  • Marcy Chong oh I love this.
  • John Russo I can hear the pigs squeal.
  • Kathleen Fortin looks good on him.
  • Hetty Equality Rosenstein Not enough.
  • Katrina McKeown Magolan Justice!
  • Gary Butler Glad to hear it but it doesn’t seem equal.
  • Patrick Lazare Shorter hell yea! a sliver of justice hopefully not the last we’ll hear.
  • George Lee Reagan Too little…too late.

You get the picture.  People are happy to see some small justice coming, but are also very clear that this is nowhere near enough, even if not noting the irony of a federal court ruling in ACORN’s favor the day after it became public as well that the Republicans were seeking in their new budget resolution to bar ACORN and “its successors” from funding, yet again, trying to extend these injustices in perpetuity.

As Martin Luther King commented, “the arc of justice is long,” and that’s why ACORN fight must continue, under its own flag and so many others.

Neither of these stories has been available in what we once called the “regular” papers, so for the full Wonkette story:


Rough Justice in El Alto

the El Alto Barrios

La Paz    Not sure that we were doing the right thing since many of our Organizers’ Forum delegation were still shaky with the altitude transition, before 9 AM we embarked on a different kind of experience – a walking tour from El Alto down to La Paz with La Paz on Foot for four hours.  It actually worked out great, largely because we took cabs to the top and walked down, but hey, that’s not as easy as you think either when you are dropping a 1000 feet or more.

El Alto is an interesting city that 80 years ago essentially did not exist as little more than an airfield but now with almost 10% per year growth has surpassed a million people.  La Paz with a couple of million is below El Alton in the valleys built on what once were more than 30 rivers, originally where gold was found, a Sacramento of the Andes.

El Alto has an interesting tactical position vis a vis all of Bolivia and can cordon off La Paz.  We heard stories of various issues between the communities and that El Alto was able to win by blocking off all outside access to the country by bus or by air or highways.  When people hit the streets in El Alton the country knows about it.

We walked down long staircases and drainage tunnels which are huge public improvements.  ACORN Peru had fought for 5 years in San Juan Laragancho to win ones just like these.  El Alto had brought water, lights, and even gas to many of their barrio districts which was quite impressive.

stairs and drainage = a step up from Lima

So were the very stark notices of the rough justice that would await burglars who might be caught in these barrios.  From the hanging effigies it was clear there would be no waiting for the police!


Looking at Occupy and the Arab Spring

AADERT Conference

Springfield   Looking at the connections and contrasts between the revolutionary upheavals of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Occupy Movement was an irresistible topic for the 20th conference of AADERT (African and African-American Development, Education, Research, and Training) at Springfield College.  In fact anything that seeks to look deeply at social movements and learn from them counts as irresistible in my book, so I’m clearly not an unbiased guide.  Nonetheless 150 students, professors, activists, and men and women of the African diaspora assembled in the rain at the newish Flynn Union Center for the discussion all day on Saturday.

Listening to others from the diaspora, it did not seem to hold that distance had made hearts go fonder or certainly more secure.  Long time expatriates and exiles from Somolia, the civil wars of Liberia and Ethiopia, and elsewhere had to be judged from their remarks as highly skeptical of the real likelihood for reform and democracy arising from the Arab Spring.  Even less controversial issues like using the internet still reverberated with fears of security and surveillance 7000 miles away and in another world.

I had to heed the perspective since the Organizers’ Forum delegation’s visit to Cairo has been both inspiring and depressing as we both joined friends in hope for the future and the excitement of Tahrir Square and tried last fall to parse the views of mostly secular presidential candidates, none of whom have now survived to the runoff in recent Egyptian voting.  Were I talking to our friends on the Young Revolutionary Council now, I would imagine they are disaffected and uncertain whether to boycott the election completely with a choice between a member of the old Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, or hold their eyes and vote for the Brotherhood in hopes they can make a difference.

My own remarks focused on the elements of movements and how they could be identified in each of the movements by shining a light that revealed the hands behind the curtain.  I also tried to look at the contributions of each.  Interestingly, asking people to raise their hands less than a handful had any real knowledge or involvement with Occupy, further making my point about the somewhat elite nature of the movement attacking elites.  [See my remarks soon in Social Policy).  It was fun to be challenged to look at both of these major events together, even though the results are also still out in the jury on both of them.   The highlight for me was a woman at the end of the questions & answers, who said she just had to say something and then told a story of being doorknocked in Springfield by an ACORN organizer a couple of years ago, then getting together with her neighbors and winning – it was magical!

Almost as interesting to me was visiting with a class of Human Services graduate students and their professor, Dan Russell, in between sessions.  These were hardened veterans of real work in the trenches of the caregivers with experience  in unions from SEIU to Steel, and real cynicism and trepidation about whether their voices mattered and whether it was worth them speaking up and raising them when they saw injustice.  It goes without saying that I made my best, impassioned plea.  Their assignment had been to read some of my recent blogs, so it was fun to find some real traction with my remarks about the need for even the lonely voices in the jury box to speak truth to justice about the erosion of both mercy and justice in our criminal system.

Hope is not a plan, as I reminded the AADERT crowd, but persistent and committed work and events like these and the dialogues they produce still keep the heart light with expectation.   After my remarks a young man came up, stood in line to speak with me when it came to his turn, said he was from Monrovia, Liberia, and he wanted to know how he could join ACORN and help.  Now that’s a plan!


A Juror’s Duty to Acquit or Convict on a Lesser Charge to Reform Criminal Justice System

Prisoners in Louisiana

New Orleans   Jury service is a citizen’s obligation in the United States.  In the smaller City of New Orleans my fellow jurors and I are called to the jury pool every two years for a month of service in the criminal courts.  The pool is broken in half each month so each juror draws between eight and ten days and dutifully reports with badge and bar code in hand on the appointed mornings by 9 AM.  If not called on that day the release comes after three hours of reading, sleeping, conversation, or whatever tedium passes the time.  The process gives me a lot of time to think about the criminal justice system and our small, but critical role, as jurors and members of a jury.

If selected by a court, one goes through voir dire and the questions about your ability to render judgment on the matter from both prosecutors and the defense.   Sometimes I have served over the years on drug trials, minor matters, and in a rape case.  Other times I have been released for whatever reasons.  This month so far I have not been chosen, though it is no surprise, because I have been increasingly crystal clear in voir dire about what I have told them is the “evolution” of my thinking about our role in this increasingly unjust criminal justice system.

My service has coincided with an 8-part series in the former daily paper, The Times-Picayune, which finally assembled a lot of the horror where it was impossible to ignore.  Among the highlights:

  • From these very Orleans Parish Criminal Courts 5000 African-Americans are in Louisiana prisons from New Orleans and only 500 Caucasians are behind bars due to the criminalization of segments the community by the New Orleans Police Department.
  • Based on our population, Louisiana incarcerates more people than any other state in the USA and therefore Louisiana leads the world in incarceration.
  • Because of politics the Governor issues virtually zero pardons, the Legislature and the Governor’s office funds virtually no rehabilitation, the system has been privatized in such a way that local sheriffs must keep the incarceration rates up to stay alive financially, and there is no political will among elected officials in this increasingly “red” state to implement obvious and needed reform.
  • Putting a lie to every prosecutor’s statements to prospective jurors, because of mandatory sentencing judges have virtually no discretion in sentencing once the verdict is rendered, the Legislature is afraid to reform mandatory sentencing  in this political climate, so jurors even in relatively minor matters (drug possessions or minor amounts of drugs charged as distribution) voting to convict are imposing draconian sentences in both time and circumstance that are increasingly impossible for any juror with conscience to ignore.

In short it is impossible for me to rationalize that every part of the New Orleans and Louisiana criminal justice system is a travesty of injustice.  It is also impossible to pretend that when acting as a juror or potential juror that I can avoid taking personal responsibility for my role in aiding and abetting this injustice unless I act to resist and reform it.

Martin Luther King famously argued that it is our duty as American citizens to resist unjust laws and the systems that flow from them.

The United States Declaration of Independence, our founding document from 1776, is very clear about our responsibilities as citizens to resist and reform as a matter of both “right” and “duty:”

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Politically and ethically, as a juror or potential juror, I now believe – and I have stated these opinions clearly in voir dire – that I have an obligation as a citizen to both seek to serve on juries in order to collectively act with my fellow citizens to act to reform this unjust system.  In recent weeks I have now stated clearly that if selected for a jury, because of the injustice of this system I will seek to persuade my fellow citizens that certainly if guilt is not proven that we will vote to acquit, but even if guilt is proven, that it is our obligation to convict on lesser charges in order to mitigate the cruel and unusual punishment entailed in mandatory sentencing, the impossibility of rehabilitation, the improbability of pardon, and the forced incarceration of prisoners for economic circumstances unrelated to their situation.

Does this seem quixotic?  Perhaps, but that is different than asking whether or not I have been effective.  When I have raised my objections in two voir dire proceedings last week, I have then been joined by as many as 25% of the pool that has expressed agreement or altered their positions to align with my own.   Unfortunately our “reward” has been a release from the jury, rather than any sense of reform.

It would be romantic to imagine that jurors would rise inside the system and refuse to act in any other way than I have indicated by either acquitting or reducing charges to force there to be some mercy meted out with real justice in a system now wholly corrupted by politics and money.  June will come, and we will all be swept away for another several years while a new pool will begin reporting for their service in this cynical process.

Nonetheless, when called, how can any juror in Louisiana or most other states in the country today, have any choice in exercising their right and duty as a citizen, but to strenuously, stridently, and strongly oppose everything about the process until the changes we demand have to come?  The excuse of a community’s security cannot be allowed to act as a blanket rationalization for a system that becomes so compromised that it cannot render justice without prejudice.  Where we are now, we can no longer allow ourselves to be blind to the injustice inherent in every part of the process and seeing clearly we have to act and are forced to resist and join with others to demand reform, as is also our right.