Reflection on the “2017 DFL Minneapolis Mayoral Candidate Forum” at the University of Minnesota Law School

On March 30, 2017, I had the great honor and fortune of moderating one of the few 2017 DFL Minneapolis mayoral candidate forums. When my fellow Law Democrats gave me this responsibility, I took it very seriously. Because this was my first time moderating a political forum, I spent weeks revising my opening remarks, researching the candidates, and thinking about how to distinguish our forum from what I derisively call “soft ball.” If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it right, and I’m going to make it count.

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As an historian, it’s hard to be hopeless

Like many people, I’m still wrapping my head around the 2016 election results. And while I’ve done my fair share of asking, “What happened?” I’ve (fortunately) moved on to the more-useful question of “Now what are we going to do about it?” To that I’m still working on an answer, but here is something I posted on Facebook a few days after the election, explaining why–even for as much as I worry about the next 4 years–it’s hard for me to be hopeless.

(As a side-note: Call me lucky or count me cursed, but this year my 26th birthday fell on Election Day 2016).


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Press photo of Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Herbert Gaston with Henry L. Morgenthau, Jr., following the latter’s appointment as Secretary of the Treasury. January 2, 1934.

Thank you for the birthday wishes, everyone. Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about this election, and while I, too, am still finding all the words, let me say this: As a student of history and political theory, it is hard for me to be hopeless. Here’s why.

For my birthday, I got two sets of gifts. The first was a collection of signed books (both published in 1920) about the insurgent, agrarian-based Nonpartisan League. Included with these was a 1934 press photograph of one of the authors, a former-NPL organizer, serving as FDR’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and shaking hands with Henry L. Morgenthau, Jr. This is proof to me that eventually the “outsiders” get their turn, and the proposals that were once “radical” become the programs we take for granted.

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Two books about the NPL: The Nonpartisan League (1920) by Herbert Gaston and The Story of the Nonpartisan League: A Chapter in American Evolution (1920) by Charles Edward Russell.

The second gift is something I bought for myself, via international auction. It’s a handwritten manuscript page by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, best-known for his work “On the Social Contract,” a cornerstone for democratic thought. Written sometime between 1748-1751, it includes a few notes Rousseau was taking for a planned work on the history of women (unfortunately, it was never finished). Holding the page in my hand, its edges brittle and the ink clearly visible through the other side, I feel I’ve gone back in time 260 years and am looking over Rousseau’s shoulder.

To engage with time in this way changes one’s whole relationship to the world, and without going too much into what I mean by this, let me focus on the following. There are few arrogances like declaring The End of Ideology or The End of History, both of which allegedly occurred the 1950s and 1990s, respectively, because as both people and economies change, so too must change our political institutions. The broader, timeless principles of liberty, justice, and republicanism must always be our cornerstones, but what we build upon them will necessarily vary. To have engaged with history as I have is to discover there have been many “End Ofs” in the last 260 years, and to declare the present The End must be categorically rejected, for where the principles I’ve listed are absent, there will always be tension, struggle, and eventually revolution.

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My personal copy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract and a manuscript page of Rousseau’s unpublished book on the history of women.

What I like the most about this manuscript page is that when Rousseau was writing it in the mid-18th century, there were a few unquestionable presumptions about the state and economy, these “End Ofs.” One was the divine right of kings. Another was the institution of slavery. Both of these abhorrent concepts were so deeply ingrained in western culture that even to most enlightened minds they were perceived as impenetrable.

But by the end of the next century, both belonged to the dustbin of history.

Similarly, there are institutions and ideas around us now that seem impenetrable – so much so that that one can barely imagine what a society would look like if it embraced true gender and racial equality, organized around economic principles of equity, and substituted citizenship with cosmopolitanism. But 260 years ago the same could be said about many things we take for granted – this is because, as with the Nonpartisan League, over the centuries the outsiders have gotten their turn, and what was once radical became conservative orthodoxy, again and again and again.

So, as a student of history and political theory, it is hard for me to be hopeless. Because regardless of how many thinkpieces come out proclaiming what happened another “End Of,” as long as we keep fighting, nativism and authoritarian populism will fall. Don’t worry, millennials, we’ll get our turn.

“American Dystopia”: Read My Review of Claire Sprague’s “It Can Happen Here.”

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It Can Happen Here by Claire Sprague

With the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there’s been a renewed interest in Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935). For those unfamiliar with it, it’s about the rise-to-power of a Depression-era demagogue named Sen. “Buzz” Windrip who becomes president with a campaign based on religious zeal, patriotic fervor, and economic distress. Once in office Windrip exercises broad executive authority, going so far as to create a paramilitary force a la the Nazi SS. This he uses to, among other things, terrorize and suppress the media. To put it briefly, It Can’t Happen Here is the story of how “when Fascism comes to America, it’ll come as a cross wrapped in the American flag.”

One wishes the circumstances were different, but I think it’s exciting to see more people engaging with Lewis’ novel. Several bookstores I’ve been to recently have it placed prominently in their “staff picks” sections, and, in Berkeley, a stage adaptation is gaining a lot of media attention. Hopefully all of this will lead readers to see that American fascism was just one of many things Lewis scrutinized–after all, he also addressed American provincialismcapitalism, and (my favorite) evangelism.

Although It Can’t Happen Here is one of the most-famous American dystopian novels, Lewis is not the only author (nor even the first) to have written about this topic. In fact, this is something I once discussed in a short review-essay published in the Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter (Spring 2015). The book I reviewed was titled It Can Happen Here, a literary study that compares and contrasts Lewis’ novel with the works of Jack London (The Iron Heel, 1908) and Philip Roth (The Plot Against America, 2004). I have included below an excerpt, though you can read the full essay here.

With Election Day approaching, I’m optimistic our country will make the right choice, but as Lewis argued (and which Sprague expands upon in her own book), we should never be so bold as to say “It can’t happen here.”

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John Carter of Minnesota: The “Convict Poet” Who Won His Freedom

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Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater (c. 1912)

“Only the first ten years matter,” a Minnesota State Prison inmate told John Carter, and “[w]hether or not the first ten years are all that matter, there is no doubt that the first six months are by no means six little drops of time.” It was 1905 and as the 19-year-old Carter listened, he settled into his ten year sentence–arrested for burglarizing the station in Karlstad, MN, while hopping trains westward. He’d taken $24 to buy food and shelter.

Not much is known about John Carter—in fact, that’s a penname and the public record’s silent about his personal life. All we know is that he was an Englishman from a well-to-do family, and when he’d failed the family business he was sent to Canada. After he was arrested, like so many who pass through the prison system, Carter was on his way to spending his sentence hidden from the public eye. But this changed as, trying to pass the time, Carter wrote essays and verse, publishing them in the nation’s major magazines. Through his art he won public support and, eventually, even his freedom, leaving the state prison hailed as a brilliant, creative mind.

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Welcome to the Promise Zone: Secretary Julian Castro Visits Minneapolis

On October 30, 2015, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro participated in a Minneapolis forum on affordable housing. With nothing better to do on a Friday morning, I picked up a notebook and decided to play journalist. Enjoy.


Secretary Castro at Mayflower Church in Minneapolis. From the Star Tribune.

I first saw Julian Castro as the nation did, the keynote speaker of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Young and charismatic, the San Antonio mayor shared the story of his childhood, the influence of his Chicana activist mother, and all the that carried him to that stage that night. Watching live on the small-screen of my iPad, eating leftovers in a Houston apartment I couldn’t afford, like many around the country I wondered if this was his “Audacity of Hope” moment. Like that state senator of Illinois, he stressed the importance of the one thing that makes all the difference for those who find all the world pointed at them: Opportunity. It’s this that allows us the chance to rise above our circumstances—and the more we have, the freer we are to live the life we seek.

I was so enamored with Castro’s message that, afterward, I texted a friend of mine who was a delegate to the convention and asked she bring back one of the placards with the word on it. Hanging on the wall right above my desk, I’d often rest my eyes on it, reminding myself that you can’t fault a man for not trying if he’s never had the chance to. That’s something we forget about—because it’s so much easier to judge a man for staying on the ground than offering a hand.

The next year I saw Castro in person at the 2013 Young Democrats of America convention in San Antonio, though truthfully I can’t recall a word of what was said—either of his speech or at the convention as a whole. All I’ll say of those nights is that the rumors are untrue, I’ve already apologized to the state of Delaware, and yes, I’m also surprised I could fit a whole bottle of wine in my coat pocket. (See you in 2017, young liberals). Continue reading

“Words were powerless”: A Minnesota newspaper’s response to the Lincoln assassination

To recognize the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination, this article is a follow-up to my last post,The Funeral of President Lincoln.” If you enjoyed this, you may also like my short piece on Minnesota newspapers’ reaction to the death of Charles Darwin.

"President Lincoln Assassinated!", The St. Cloud Democrat, April 20, 1865.

“President Lincoln Assassinated!”, The St. Cloud Democrat, April 20, 1865.

On April 15, 1865, lying in a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theater, President Abraham Lincoln died, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. What was a week celebrating an end to four years of bloodshed was capstoned by one last tragedy. Though not everyone felt the same way, tens of millions mourned their fallen hero, and in Minnesota as well as elsewhere, this sorrow turned into disbelief, into anger.

Lincoln has a special importance in the history of Minnesota not only because of his political legacy but also the fact that 1860 was the first presidential election the state could vote in. Although a few counties went for the Democratic candidate, the state overwhelmingly handed its four electoral votes to Lincoln. Months later when the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was one of the first to commit troops to the Union cause, and while the state and administration did not agree on every issue, the two were undoubtedly close. This made it all the more traumatic when news of the assassination reached the state.

One of the first Minnesota newspapers to report on the it was The St. Cloud Democrat, based out of the central part of the state. “He is Dead!” its editor, W. B. Mitchell, frantically announced, adding that God had struck “the light from our eyes” by taking “our great, good and mighty ruler.” He continued:

On Sabbath morning [April 15th] the terrible news fell upon us—crushing, stupefying, sickening. Men heard with blanched cheeks, and the blood cold—frozen—in their veins. To believe seemed impossible, and yet there was no room for hope—the truth was only too well established. Words were powerless. In the formation of language no such deed as this—the assassination of Liberty’s chosen son in a land that boasted to breathe only the air of freedom—had never been contemplated, and the brain of man had framed nothing for the tongue to express that was not weak and impotent. (April 20, 1865)

As the newspaper sorted through the details of the assassination — that John Wilkes Booth was the perpetrator and Secretary Seward a second victim — it worried about what was next. As Mitchell noted, the nation had lost a part of itself: “The heart of the nation had twined around that great body and taken it to themselves, and the great soul it contained had become a part of their soul.” For many, including Mitchell, Lincoln was an American Moses leading the country toward the Promised Land but never reaching it himself. Yet with the prophet gone, visions of this land became dubious and for some stained red.

"Letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm," The St. Cloud Democrat. April 27, 1865.

“Letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm,” The St. Cloud Democrat. April 27, 1865.

A week later The St. Cloud Democrat published a two-part letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm, an early supporter of Lincoln and one of the state’s most vocal abolitionists. Recording what she saw while in Washington, D.C., her correspondence is fascinating in that, written days apart, the two-halves capture the emotional shift that must have shaken so many. For example, the first is dated April 14, only hours before the assassination, and in it she observes the raised flags and “virtual peace” taking hold in the country: “[O]n this favored day the sun shines gloriously, after a long season of clouds and rain.” But three days later the storm returned:

It is sickening to pass the White House … so recently all gorgeous with flags and all manner of festive devices blazing with many colored lights, and reverberating with triumphant music, and witness the change to the sable emblems of woe. What made these garments even worse was the knowledge that just behind that draped wall lies the mangled body of our sainted, martyred President, and this visible presence adds greatly to the sorrow and gloom.

Finally, she seethed, the true character of the South had revealed itself by murdering the one person who would show them mercy:

The world at large—the masses of the Northern people—had no more just idea than had Mr. Lincoln of the animus of this most fiendish Rebellion[.] He was the one to test generosity, magnanimity, Christian charity and all that class of virtues to the utmost limit, and we have the result. As Christ was murdered by those He came to save, so has President Lincoln been sacrificed by the wretches he would have shielded from the just punishment of their crimes.

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Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815-1884)

With the president gone, “Who now will stand between them and the reward of their two centuries’ of crimes against our common humanity, the thought of which makes the blood curdle in one’s veins?” She demanded that Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, not steady his hand in retaliation: “Nations have no hereafter, and National sins must meet their punishment in this life.” This was a position she maintained in successive letters to the newspaper, recanting any benevolence she may have once shown, insisting that “The nation can never be safe while these, her implacable and wily foes, are above the grounds” (May 6, 1865).

In the months following, Swisshelm was not alone in her bloodlust. As the “Radical Republicans” in Congress sought to punish the South and ensure the rights of free blacks, President Johnson advocated a more moderate approach. Trying to reunite the country as quickly as possible, his policies alienated individuals like Swisshelm, who feared weakness would validate treason. The new president’s efforts backfired when, in 1866, the Radicals swept the midterm elections.

Although Reconstruction may not have affected Minnesota in the same way it did the South and New England, it did ignite a debate over how to reach the “Promised Land” Lincoln prophesied. While Minnesota sent several of these Radicals to Washington (including former Governor Alexander Ramsey), on the state-level, Republicans pushed for a black suffrage amendment to the state constitution. This, though, was voted down twice (1865, 1867) before passing in 1868 and was the first step on a path the state would take nearly a century to travel.

There really is no modern parallel to the anguish many Americans felt when President Lincoln was assassinated. Right when the nation’s bloodiest war was drawing to a close, it lost something greater than a man: it lost a symbol. As the “Great Emancipator,” Lincoln represented a vision of what the United States could be, and as that “great soul … had become a part of [the people’s] soul,” for many it must have felt as if much more than just the president had died that day. Upon hearing the news, how many asked, What now?

The racial breakdown of police involved shootings in Dallas, TX

Map of Police Involved Shootings in Dallas, TX (2013-2014). Source.

Following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, there was renewed focus on the prevalence of police shootings in the United States. Yet, as was discovered by The Washington Post and scholars everywhere: No federal agency keeps track of this information, and everything the FBI does maintain is limited to raw numbers on “justifiable homicides.” In addition to being self-reported by police (red flag!), this purposely excludes instances when suspects were non-fatally injured or simply shot at and missed. This severely undercounts all instances of police involved shootings (PIS).

Yet, in a highly commendable move, the Dallas Police Department (DPD) released its self-monitored spreadsheets on all PIS incidents from 2003 to 2014 as part of an effort to improve police-community relations. Amazingly, the data includes demographics not only on the victim but also the officer(s) involved. Rightfully so, it was picked up by local and national media with calls that more departments follow the DPD’s lead.

When this release was brought to my attention, the first thing I noticed is that for as rare and rich the DPD’s dataset is, few journalists have actually played with it. The three visuals that exist, which have been copied and shared widely, were made by the DPD themselves — and they’re each pretty similar. Here’s the one that tracks the disposition/outcome of all PIS.

Dallas Police Department - Officer involved Shootings - DIsposition of Suspects

Disposition of Suspects in Police Involved Shootings (Dallas, TX: 2003-2014). Source.

By itself, this is a step forward in that it highlights the deficiencies of monitoring only those instances when the suspect is killed (via “justifiable homicide”). In Dallas, ignoring all cases of injury or shoot and misses would eliminate nearly 2/3 of the data. The fact that this is done elsewhere is egregious and unacceptable.

For as much as I’d like to praise the DPD, though, there was something else that stood out to me. You’ll note in the above that race appears nowhere, even though for researchers interested in this topic, it’s a key component. This is also the case for the DPD’s other visuals (not published here). To simply say that X suspects were involved in police shootings obscures patterns important to policy makers. So, to fix this, I’ve taken the disposition information and broken each down by race. (Note: In my own analyses I’ve removed all females and Asians because they are practically nonexistent in the data).

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Suspects Killed in Dallas PIS.

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Suspects Injured in Dallas PIS.

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Suspects Shot At and Missed in Dallas PIS.

Identifying the race of the suspects presents a whole different picture. For each year in each disposition, black males nearly constitute a majority. This is despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Census, blacks make up only 25% of the city’s population. Next, because the data also includes whether the suspect had a weapon (and what type), we can pull out the race and dispositions of those who were unarmed.

Police involved shootings of unarmed suspects in Dallas, TX (2003-2014).

Police involved shootings of unarmed suspects in Dallas, TX (2003-2014).

From 2003 to 2014, nearly half of all unarmed men killed by Dallas police were black. Blacks also formed nearly two-thirds of all unarmed shoot-and-misses and injuries. This clearly is not a coincidence. (And no, I’m not the first person to suggest that police shootings have a disproportionate effect on the black community).

I want to encourage more journalists and scholars to use this data because until the FBI’s reporting system changes and more police departments release PIS data, we have to squeeze as much as possible out of what’s available. As a researcher at the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, I know there are plenty of interesting questions to be asked and answered: What’s the relationship between the disposition and weapon and race of the suspect? What effect does the officer’s race have on the disposition? And lastly, What crimes were these suspects allegedly committing?

So come on, grad students, get moving.


The full DPD dataset can be downloaded from Github (here), though it lacks 2013 data, which will need to be entered manually (or scraped) from the DPD website.