Category Archives: 1ST LOOK | KAG 2009 Essays

The Novocaine Effect | Obama and Black America | By Kevin Alexander Gray

“It’s like when you go to the dentist, and the man’s going to take your tooth. You’re going to fight him when he starts pulling. So he squirts some stuff in your jaw called novocaine, to make you think they’re not doing anything to you. So you sit there and ’cause you’ve got all of that novocaine in your jaw, you suffer peacefully. Blood running all down your jaw, and you don’t know what’s happening. ’Cause someone has taught you to suffer – peacefully.”

Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X), Message to the Grassroots (1964).

There’s a picture of Barack Obama next to one of Jesus in the front window of the small, black art gallery that I drive past almost every­day. And I still see someone wearing an Obama t-shirt maybe once a week, but sometimes it’s the same guy. If you’re looking, you can a find a variety of shirts in just about every corner store where I live. They’re on the wall, next to the Bob Marley, Tupac, Biggie Smalls and Al Pacino “Scarface” t-shirts. You can get an Obama hat and a presidential calendar there too. There are still a few Obama yard signs in the neighborhood, usually in a window. A few people still have an Obama bumper sticker on their cars. Not as many as some might think. Certainly not as many as the number of Confederate flags on vehicles in this part of the country.

Racial solidarity is the mood that helped get Obama into the White House. The traditional source of power and sur­vival among blacks, it is also the novo­caine of the moment, a numbing agent as people suffer through what, despite the more hopeful official forecasts, feels like a full-blown depression where I live. The pride is real, but so is the pain, and it’s coming in sharp stabs despite the shot. The novocaine is still working, just not so well, and the result is a discomfiting confusion.

In late September I spoke at a ‘‘Black Male Summit” about 80 miles north­west of Columbia in Rock Hill, South Carolina, which is famous in civil rights’ lore as the first stop in the Deep South for the Freedom Riders testing the 1960 Supreme Court decision outlawing ra­cial segregation in all interstate public facilities. Rock Hill is where Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist John Lewis and another man stepped off the bus and were beaten by a white mob. The town is mentioned in Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” – only the “poor boy” on the Greyhound is lucky as his bus “bypassed Rock Hill” in the song. Things are still tough in the town just south of Charlotte. Since February of 2008 the number of jobs here has fallen by 15 per cent, and the average salary for people lucky enough to be employed is about $28,000. In June of this year, Yvette Williams, a 15 year-old black girl, was shot and killed by two police officers after she robbed a grocery store. The two of­ficers fired on Williams five times after she pointed a gun at them and refused to drop it, according to Rock Hill Police Chief John Gregory. He said he felt the police response was justified. A witness who lives across the street from where the shooting happened, told the local paper she was in bed when she heard shots and got up, looked out her window and saw the girl fall to the ground. She said she then saw an officer shoot again.

The theme I was asked to speak on in Rock Hill was “How do we restore dignity back to black communities?” My initial response was I didn’t know we’d lost it. But I knew the idea was a nod to Obama’s tough-love trick bag. “Post-racialism” is nonsense, but as an ideological concept it’s real, with real political consequences. On the right, it is license for white blow­hards to go on any racist tirade they like so long as they don’t actually broadcast the word “nigger.” In the black communi­ty it’s alive wherever blacks argue among themselves as to whether they are indi­vidually or collectively responsible for the conditions they face, or if they’re as criminal or immoral or lazy or violent or promiscuous or stupid as racists believe them to be. Sherman Porterfield, one of the organizers of the event, was quoted in the local paper, “Obama talked about it,” this claimed loss of dignity; “he has challenged us. The question now is, are we up to the challenge? Our young peo­ple are dropping out of school in record numbers, and it’s our fault. Nobody is shooting water hoses at us anymore. But we are allowing our young brothers to shoot each other. And that is not accept­able.” Continue reading

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Filed under 1ST LOOK | KAG 2009 Essays, American Politics, American Progressive Politics, Black Politics, Civil Rights, Congressional Black Caucus, Economics, Human Rights, Obama Administration, Pan Africanism | Afrocentrism | Africana Studies, Political Ideology, racism, The Bush Administration, The Obama Administration, Third Party Politics, white supremacy

Obama, Gates & Crowley | By Kevin Alexander Gray

The ProgressiveCitizens have the right to talk back to the police

President Barack Obama reached the wrong conclusion on the controversy between the police officer and the professor.

He said both people overreacted, and by bringing them to the White House for beers, he sought to make the controversy go away.

Instead, as someone who has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, he should have taken an unequivocal stand for free speech.

Citizens in this United States have the right to talk back to the police. The cops are not the Gestapo. We should not conclude from this incident that we need to be more servile. Instead, we should conclude that police abuse their authority when they slap a “disturbing the peace” or “disorderly conduct” charge on someone who is standing up for his rights.

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Take this! And that!

By Kevin Alexander Gray

It looks like former Illinois attorney general and comptroller Roland Burris will fill Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat, now that the president-elect has climbed down from his high horse and signaled to his Democratic colleagues that there’s nowhere to go with their widely touted plans for obstruction. There are several lessons in the drama that has swirled around Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Most obvious is that when you’re playing politics, don’t be crass. Not unless you want the law to come down on your head. After all, beyond style, what’s the difference between Hillary Clinton’s demand that Barack Obama help retire her $45 million campaign debt and Blagojevich wanting payback for giving Obama the senator he wanted to replace him?

Blago has given the nation a bracing demonstration that money is, indeed, the mother’s milk of politics. The longer his scandal has dragged on, the more foolish and hypocritical his critics in politics — every one of them, including Obama, owing his position to some form of “pay to play” — has looked. But more important than that, the governor has provided a refresher course in due process and the presumption of innocence.

No doubt, Blago wasn’t aiming to give civics lessons from the start, but then being hauled away in handcuffs in your pajamas has a way of concentrating the mind. If he could be presumed guilty based on a prosecutor’s complaint, if he could be hounded from his job and anyone connected with him tainted with guilt by association, why have a criminal justice system at all? Why have trials and juries, and any legal rights at all?

Due process isn’t “a prosecutor accuses you so you’re guilty.” Blagojevich has a criminal complaint against him. He has not been formally charged with a particular crime or crimes. No jury has been seated. No trial has taken place. No panel of peers have convicted him, and no judge has sentenced him for anything. So, until there is an indictment, a trial and a jury that decides differently, Blagojevich maintains the presumption of innocence.

Americans have got used to the presumption of guilt. From celebrity arrests splashed on the front pages to the kid on the corner spread-eagle against a car, shown on the nightly news transported in cuffs, or chased down in Cops, the message is the same: he did it. If Jay Leno asked passers-by “What is due process?” in his “Jay Walking” person-on-the-street interviews, it’s unlikely he’d find anyone who could tell him straight that, if you’re arrested, it involves being charged, having a bond hearing, going to trial, and being freed or convicted by a jury of your peers.

Media disdain for due process has only grown as standard criminal procedures have more and more ruled out trials in favor of plea deals. Almost from the beginning, reporters and pundits were asking, “What will Blagojevich want in return for his cooperation with prosecutors?” It was left to the cursing, big-haired Blago to demonstrate that the presumption of innocence and due process are basic human and civil rights; and that those rights should be protected for everybody, even for those whose views or values we may not share and for those we may not like.

Funny thing, you would think that those who are sworn to “uphold and defend the Constitution” – from the Illinois Legislature to Harry Reid and other members of the Senate, no matter the party — would promote rights and not play so much to cloakroom and pop politics and trial by media. If only to protect their own ass. It also ought to be troubling to State Executives across the country that they too could be disempowered and impeached on accusation.

So Blago has done everyone a favor. Resigning or not carrying out the duties of his job could ring as an admission of guilt of sorts, a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. Now, “pleading the Fifth” has too long been taken as an admission of guilt in the culture at large. But not being compelled to testify against one’s self made sense when the Framers put it in place, and it makes sense now.

Likewise, guilt by association was a scandal in the Fifties, and it still is today. Now comes Roland Burris to the Senate. Some have accused him of being used by the governor.Others have opined that “he’s not ready for prime time.” A few more, such as Chicago reporter Lynn Sweet, all but called Burris stupid. In a television interview she rambled on about Burris’s inability to operate his cell phone’s voice mail as a measure of intelligence. A friend of mine asked me had I heard that “Burris has a mausoleum to himself on the Southside of Chicago with an empty space on the wall for ‘future accomplishments.’” Hell, so did George Jefferson! For those unfamiliar with the 1970s sitcom Good Times, Jefferson, a Napoleonic dry cleaning operator who was “movin’ on up, from the Southside,” opened a museum to himself with space left for future deeds. He charged his own wife, Weezie, the $1 admission (though he paid for her ticket).

We can laugh all we like at the pretensions of the upwardly striving, but Burris is hardly the first politician to enjoy memorials to himself. Every day I drive by a bronze statue of House Whip Jim Clyburn holding a golf club at the city driving range funded by federal dollars. The statue sits close to a railroad track, and on more than one occasion I’ve fantasized about tying a rope to it and lassoing it to a southbound train. Clyburn has more things named after him in South Carolina than the law should allow. Burris should place his appointment documents on his museum wall if that’s what he wants to do, and he should not have to “agree not to run in 2010,” as a chorus of voices have suggested. Now that the law has been followed and the appointment made, who serves or continues to serve should be left up to the voters. They may want to overhaul the whole process that allows governors to fill open Senate seats, but for now Blago was fully within his rights and Burris is fully qualified. There’s another civics lesson: constitutionally, the only qualifications for the Senate are age, citizenship and residency. All the rest is politics.

That said, Blagojevich comes out ahead in the Burris selection for other reasons. By appointing “the deacon” to the post, blacks rally around both him and Burris. It’s a swipe against Obama and his crew in that they don’t get who they want. More subtley, and just as ironic, Blagojevich calls out Obama on his serial slights and dismissals of the old black political class, while at the same time revealing Harry Reid and the white Senate leadership’s hypocrisy on race. (As an aside, it’s also a back of the hand to Jesse Jackson Jr. and his opportunism. Junior was a team player for Obama ’08, flogging his father in public in the interest of Obama. Junior and many assumed he would be high on Obama’s list. That wasn’t the case, as the prosecutor’s transcripts and Jackson’s entreaties to Blagojevich bear out.)

Race and racism hung in the air around Obama’s former seat long before it was revealed that Reid didn’t back any of the blacks publicly interested in the seat. That public disclosure, although met with the predictable righteous indignation, is why Reid is hard-pressed to deny Burris entry into the Senate. Add the spectre of Burris being physically barred from entering the chamber, as the Senate’s sergeant at arms loudly promised to do, and it added up to a situation that Obama couldn’t politically tolerate. As the controversy brewed, I got an email from one of the lawyers who represented Adam Clayton Powell Jr. back in the day, who offered his services to Burris for free. That’s to say, the Democratic Senators (and Obama as leader of the party) faced a potential Supreme Court challenge where even if they won they would lose.

All in all, then, the Blagojevich brouhaha shines a clear, bright light on how politics is played. There’s corruption, but through the mess a lot of truth has been revealed.

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