Readers’ Forum–Tiani Coleman

 

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My Thoughts on Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman

A Novel about Margaret Sanger

Raised in a conservative religious family, I still remember the first time I heard of Margaret Sanger.  I don’t recall my age, but I was young, in elementary school.  My sister was doing a research paper, and was showing my mother (and me) horrific photos of aborted fetuses, and how Margaret Sanger was the woman who had started Planned Parenthood, with a eugenics motive, to purify a race — evil like Hitler.  It left a deep impression on me.

Without doing my own research on Margaret Sanger, I continued to hear negative things about her here and there throughout my life.  So when I heard that the book selection was Terrible Virtue, about Margaret Sanger, I hesitated briefly, despite being an independent now, who does not politically identify as a social conservative.  But I decided I would give it a shot, and I genuinely looked forward to being exposed to more information, ready to gain a more enlightened, positive view of Margaret Sanger.

The beginning of the book grabbed my attention quickly.  Margaret Sanger was a keen, fiercely independent girl, raised in a poor, large family (11 living children, with a mother who had also experienced 2 infant deaths and five miscarriages).  Margaret had been scarred by the religious, wealthy members of her community who had shunned and taunted her family.  She was fighting to not repeat her mother’s life, which seemed to consist of nothing but pregnancy, birth, child survival, bare-necessity household chores, and early death, and while Margaret loved her father’s free-thinking spirit, his alcoholism and taboo atheism made things harder – describing a chaotic, unhappy life for her family.  My large family while growing up had been happy, but I felt sympathy for Margaret Sanger.

I could appreciate Margaret’s need to solve a difficult conflict she saw in people’s lives.  On page 59, where Margaret struggled with the desperate, hellish family life in the tenements where she was a nurse, her character said, “Surely a world so vicious and bereft of love could not give birth to new life, but it teemed with it.”  She shuttered at the abject poverty and abhorred the domestic violence and the scenes of people attempting abortions; she wanted to make abortion unnecessary and provide a way for all people to legally access birth control so that children would only enter the world if they were wanted and loved.

But as I continued reading, my discomfort grew.  “I could not give up the fight for all children, even if it meant losing my own,” Sanger’s character says.  What?  By the middle of the book, I was quite upset, thinking, “Is this what it’s supposed to mean to be an enlightened, revered feminist by the progressive movement?”  The rampant promiscuity, the elevation of cause over family — what she did to Bill (and other men), her three children and others showed little appreciation or concern for their happiness, or their pain.  I was shouting “No!” inside, thinking, “I refuse to adopt this type of morality; the people in our lives should supersede any cause, and motherhood has deep value.  Besides . . . selfish, impulsive promiscuity, at the expense of family, isn’t freedom.”

I took a short break from the book, and then returned to finish it.  By the end, my heart had softened towards Margaret Sanger.  I think the turning point for me started to sink in at page 207, where after much struggle, she lost her court appeal, but still “won,” in that the judge broadened the law to allow birth control clinics to be legal as long as they were staffed by doctors.  The book indicates that she felt Peggy’s presence that night (her daughter who had died at age 5) — an allusion, perhaps, to “redemption.”  I decided to allow for Margaret Sanger’s redemption and not view her only by her follies, but see her as a complicated, real human being, with beauty and tragedy – not a perfect model to follow, but someone who took what she had, what she was, and what she believed, and made a valuable offering to the world.

I hadn’t meant to harshly judge Margaret Sanger, but I felt threatened, and perhaps fell into the trap Margaret’s character described, “Sometimes I think my sex is less than generous to its own.”  As an activist who often gets immersed in my causes, I’m cautious about getting carried away.  As the mother of 5 children who love and beg for my full attention, including a 5-year-old daughter who is a joy of my life, and a husband who can feel resentment when his hard work and commitment to our family feels isolated, it has been a difficult challenge to strike the right balance, without feeling a failure on all fronts.  I already have voices telling me to drop my causes; I didn’t need my independent cause, through the book club, whispering that my sense of duty to family is weak and outdated.

Certainly, I had taken it too personally.  Perhaps because I relate too well, “Why can’t you be like other women?  Why can’t you be satisfied . . . [and] stop trying to save the world . . . Give up.”  Or the poignant description on page 151, where a successful speech with 150 – 200 people only yielded 6 signatures of women demanding the dissemination of birth control information, and only 3 admitting they used it – “Every time I start to think I’m making progress, there’s another setback. . . .  Giving me a dinner is the easy part. . . . Putting themselves on the line is another story.”

In closing, the book was a short, quick read.  It held one’s interest, being a novel instead of a biography.  If its intention was to convince antagonists that Margaret Sanger was really a heroine, I think it failed.  Being a novel, there was no documentation, and the character development reinforced the types of criticisms leveled at the movement by conservatives; the eugenics criticisms were addressed superficially as out of context, without providing strong, specific examples.  If the intention was to provide a quick, captivating novel for those who are already convinced, or likely to be convinced, of Margaret Sanger’s heroic influence, it probably accomplishes that.  And for people like me, the book was successful in personalizing Margaret Sanger enough to get me to start doing more in depth research.  I’ve already read some of her actual pamphlets and writings in her Public Writings and Speeches and in the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, sponsored by NYU.  I found what she wrote about Havelock Ellis, for example, to be an insightful treat into who she was.  And it’s so interesting to read how tasteful and noncontroversial by today’s standards her pamphlets that landed her in jail in the early 20th century were.  Today, largely because of Margaret Sanger, more than 99% of women between the ages of 15-44, who have ever had sex, have used at least one birth control method.  I can see how Margaret Sanger felt so compelled to her cause, like she was the only one who cared enough to make it happen.  But with the advent of the Internet, I think we become more aware that there are many competent people who share our concerns and who want to make a difference.  We don’t have to carry the burden by ourselves.  We just have to find better ways to collaborate.

Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Highlights from P4P Conversation with Matthew Desmond

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On Sunday, October 23rd, the Politics for the People book club spent an hour talking with Matthew Desmond about his book, EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  I am sharing a few highlights below and you can listen to the entire conversation at the end of this post.

(Note: if the audio links do not appear in the email version of this post, just click on the email to come to the blog.)

Our first audio clip includes my introduction of Matthew and an exploration of his process, his examination of poverty as a relationship between rich and poor, and how that framework brought him to look at and study the eviction crisis. I also talked with Matthew about the destabilization of New York City’s public housing taking place under the NextGeneration plan. This section ends with some of Matthews most surprising discoveries meeting people living in poverty across the country and the ways in which they refused to be defined by their hardships.  Have a listen:

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Ramon Pena shared his personal experience being evicted in New York City after “20 years of having never missed a rent payment.” He goes on to share his journey through homelessness, the shelter system and finally to a home out of state. Ramon and Matthew explore what our elected officials should be held accountable for. Hear their interaction below.

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Sarah Bayer found out she is a Cambridge, Massachusetts neighbor of Matthew’s as she delved into a fascinating exchange on her 25 years of work within the family shelter system, what she describes as our nations’ own “internal refugees”, and the unique financial constraints placed on a city like Boston. How does Matthew see the role that the shelter system plays in the eviction crisis?

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Tiani Coleman, president of New Hampshire Independent Voters talked about her days of working in the court system in Salt Lake City,

“I did pro-bono work for my church community and was able to see first hand the impact of lack of representation for families that were facing eviction. I had to handle some evictions, and even had opposing council get rather annoyed with me and tell me I was unnecessarily complicating things… What do you think is the biggest impediment to getting the eviction crisis and the representation issue in housing court addressed?”

Matthew began his answer by acknowledging the important kind of community investment Tiani spoke of, “Thank you so much for your work, you were slugging it out in housing court… When folks have a lawyer by their side their chances of keeping their home go up dramatically irrespective of the case.” Hear their interaction below:

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Attorney and Independent activist Harry Kresky shared his observations since moving to New York city to attend Columbia in 1962. Throughout his time here and through his work on the NYCHA housing crisis he’s seen that increasingly “so much of the face of New York is now for the wealthy people…. A lot of the focus is on so called ‘affordable housing’ which deals with middle class people and union members and people that have political clout,” but troubling to Harry was the absence of a coming together of “the affordable housing people,” and “the people living in intractable poverty and fighting to save public housing.” Matthew And Harry explore why that might be:

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 As we looked forward, Arizona P4P member Al Bell asked Matthew whether he had heard of any members of congress who truly understand this issue of eviction and could potentially become an advocate. Matthew shared some encouraging updates with news of happenings on ‘The Hill’ since the publication of Evicted.  Give a listen:

goo.gl/5Yc7FS

Michelle McCleary helped take our perspective from the macro to the micro-level. “If I knew someone was hungry, I’d buy them a sandwich. If they were cold, I’d give them a coat” she shares, “What is our personal responsibility to our fellow man?!’ “I personally think this is where the conversation has got to go if we are going to make any lasting change…” Matthew replied. “By 2025 about 1.6 billion people will live in substandard housing or unaffordable housing… climate change and housing are the biggest issues facing humanity.”

You can hear Matthew and Michelle’s conversation below.

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You can listen to the full conversation with Matthew Desmond below, ENJOY.

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NEWS FLASH

Next Politics for the People Selection:

Terrible Virtue

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by Ellen Feldman

Our conference call with the author

will be on January 22nd, 2017 at 7 pm EST

 

 

 

 

Readers’ Forum–Tiani Coleman and Dr. Jessie Fields

Tiani Coleman

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Dr. Lenora Fulan with Tiani Coleman, recipient of a 2015 Anti-Corruption Award by the New York City Independence Clubs

How I Relate to Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

As I read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, the portrayal of the friction-filled lives and terrible living conditions experienced by eight tenant families in Milwaukee as telling “an American story” that can be found in average cities across the country, and isn’t reserved to places like Detroit, Los Angeles, or Chicago, I thought about two opposing experiences I’ve had living in two different cities:  New York City and Salt Lake City.

In 1998, when I first graduated from law school, having accepted a job offer in NYC, I took a day off from studying for the NY Bar Exam to go on a housing hunt.  Not being from the City, safety was a concern.  I scanned the newspaper for good places to rent.  The cheapest place I could find that still met our basic requirements was on the West Side.  As I got closer and closer to the address, I noticed that the surroundings were getting dumpier and dumpier.  I pushed the buzzer on the walk-up, and a man buzzed me in, but when I opened the door and saw the dark, dirty, banged-up, ever-so-steep flight of stairs, I got the heebie-jeebies, turned around, and walked away.  I soon found out that that had been in Hell’s Kitchen.

So I have a confession to make (a big, bad one):  I gave up on trying to find the perfect, relatively cheap place full of character, and was lured into signing a promotional contract with a new development  — yes, Donald Trump was my “landlord” — I was the very first tenant to move into the first Trump Place on the upper West side by the Lincoln Center, along the Hudson.  Apart from riding the subway, I didn’t see too much of the stereotypical inner-city life, spent long hours at the office, and went to church with lots of other DINKS.  But within a year, I had a baby, and my husband and I moved to downtown Salt Lake City.

When we first went to church in downtown SLC, we quickly discovered that it looked nothing like the congregation in NYC.  For one thing, the pews were relatively empty (ironically surprising).  For another, the people were not well educated, and with the exception of a wealthier retired community and a few others, the congregants were primarily residents of a retired and/or disabled public-housing high-rise, or part of a permanent low-income class, living in ghetto-like neighborhoods, including three homeless shelters.

Shortly after getting sworn in to the Utah Bar (still nursing my baby), I discovered that I would be called upon regularly (along with a couple of others) to be the pro bono legal services for my congregation.  My first case was an eviction case.

A family with young children was being asked to vacate immediately or incur triple damages and attorneys fees, with back rent owed regardless.  After helping my clients put up bond, and counterclaiming with, among other things: partial payment, with prior notice of a broken furnace and sewage problems; and stolen tools (the landlord had taken my handy-man client’s specialty tools, affecting his ability to work), I got chewed out by opposing counsel.  He said, “What are you doing?  You must be new around here; this isn’t the way it’s done.  You’re unnecessarily complicating things.”  When I went to court, I saw that the docket was set up for these cases to be rubber stamped quickly; the judge and opposing counsel were chummy from having seen so much of each other, with nobody there with representation to defend themselves against their slumlord.  The case dragged on (for discovery) while the living conditions got worse and my clients looked for other options.  The landlord, nervous about some of the allegations against him, did return the tools, and we got the case dismissed, without damages or attorneys fees; but ultimately, my clients moved back with the in-laws out of state, and the landlord was never really held accountable as a bad actor.

I spent four years living in SLC’s inner city before moving to the suburbs.  I saw situations similar to  Desmond’s documented vignettes of how the poor are exploited, and how people’s housing situation affects every other aspect of their lives:  from the devastating effects of high interest pay-day loans to try to keep afloat, to the heart-wrenching stories of DCFS being so quick to take children away from poverty-stricken families and putting them into juvenile homes or foster care, to people living in constant fear, if not of gang violence or deportation, then of eviction.

Desmond eloquently explains that when we discuss the housing issue, “[t]here are two freedoms at odds with each other:  the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”  While he paints a picture that makes it clear that we can’t blame tenants for their plight (they have no options to get ahead), he doesn’t cast all of the blame at the feet of landlords, either:  “[i]f given the same opportunity, would any of us price an apartment at half of what it could fetch or simply forgive and forget losing thousands of dollars when the rent checks didn’t arrive?”  But we’re deceiving ourselves if we say the housing market should just be left as is to regulate itself; after all, the government is actively supporting the exploitation, with a system that “legitimizes and defends landlords’ right to charge as much as they want; that subsidizes the construction of high-end apartments, bidding up rents and leaving the poor with even fewer options; that pays landlords when a family cannot, through onetime or ongoing housing assistance; that forcibly removes a family at landlords’ request by dispatching armed law enforcement officers,” and on and on.

I completely agree with Desmond that we need to “uncover the ironies and inefficiencies that arise when policymakers try to help poor families without addressing the root causes of poverty.”  After all, simply increasing wages, without any other action, just leads to higher rents, and the poor still have the same impossible burdens to meet.   Desmond believes there’s a way to re-balance the two competing freedoms: by significantly expanding our housing voucher program (and ensuring regulation).  I’m not sure this will solve what’s a very difficult problem, but we certainly need to have a real, serious conversation about it.

It starts with awareness.  Just as I failed to witness the day-to-day struggles of many living in NYC, many residents of SLC are oblivious to the dire situations of people just blocks southwest of their high-end downtown living.  Now when I drive along the West Side Highway in NYC, I feel sick as I see that the entire West Side has been turned into a long string of character-lacking, high-end housing, bearing the name of Trump.  I contributed to there being fewer and fewer places for low-income people to live within the City because I couldn’t see the big picture.  Why haven’t we been having these conversations during this election season?  In the last several months, we’ve scarcely heard about the ever-increasing income gap or what the two major-party candidates plan to do about the multi-faceted problem of poverty in our country.  Both parties seem to benefit from not finding answers.  We need to create a less polarized, less special-interest driven electoral system that allows us to see each other, talk to each other, understand each other’s concerns, needs and interests, and start making real progress for the good of our country.  For me, the inner city is a crazy memory, but for millions of Americans, it’s a devastating daily reality.

Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.

Dr. Jessie Fields

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Dr. Jessie Fields and Kerry Malloy (r) at the 2105 Anti-Corruption Awards

The book, EVICTED Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond teaches us so much about how eviction impacts the lives of poor people in America and about how profitable poverty is in our cities.

I find the book to be a powerful combination of personal tragedies, grit in the face of exploitation and hardship, and important revelations about causes of poverty. It is a stirring, compelling must read. We come to live with the families as the author did and many moments in the book provoke deep sadness and tears at their suffering.

When Vanetta and Crystal, two young black women who had been evicted and were staying in a shelter were denied housing because of their race, the author explains that housing segregation was not an accident of urban industrialization.

The ghetto had always been a main feature of landed capital, a prime moneymaker for those who saw ripe opportunity in land scarcity, housing dilapidation, and racial segregation.”

Property in poor communities plagued by long standing housing segregation cost landlords less, they are still able to charge relatively high rents without the expense of having to maintain the property.

One of the many stories in the book is the disproportionate impact of eviction on Black women, their children and families.

The everyday stories of our cities: too bleak to wrap in stanzas

Such fury jumps the meter, misery will burst the rhyme

Like a forced move down below

With no heat in winter

Clogged sinks and empty shelves

To worse on the streets.

Arleen, Jori, Jafaris

Vanetta and her little boy

Crystal spinning out of control.

Lamar and the boys

The Hinkstons: Doreen, Patrice, Natasha

Lorraine, Pam and Ned

However poor whites

And blacks kept divided.

Matthew Desmond, a Harvard professor moved into Tobin’s trailer park in May 2008 and lived there for several months, followed by living in a rooming house in the black community on the North Side of Milwaukee until June 2009. Desmond immersed himself in the lives of poor families black and white and he worked to understand the landlords as well. In the last chapter of the book, “About This Project” he writes about the personal impact the work had on him.

The honest answer is that the work was heartbreaking and left me depressed for years.”

“You do learn how to cope from those who are coping.”

There is also in the book many examples of the decency and humanity that poor and working people steadfastly uphold even in the midst of it all.

Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

 

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Politics for the People Conference Call

With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Reader’s Forum–Tiani Coleman

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Dr. Lenora Fulan with Tiani Coleman, recipient of a 2015 Anti-Corruption Award by the New York City Independence Clubs

How Can We Reclaim the American Dream? 

Thoughts from an Independent on Hedrick Smith’s, 

Who Stole the American Dream?

Perhaps, if we’re fortunate, in about four decades, someone will write a book about how we reclaimed the American Dream from the brink of extinction, and will point to a book, as significant, written in 2012 by Hedrick Smith, titled, Who Stole the American Dream?  Not necessarily because Mr. Smith’s analysis and conclusions are entirely correct, nor even because his book was a vital catalyst in influencing the masses to generate change.  But because the grassroots groundswell that he talks about as necessary – demanding various changes – has slowly been brewing and is now playing out intensely in the 2016 election season.  Despite the outcome, the grassroots have been fired up, and a movement will likely continue, until, in the future, a real “people’s revolution” reconnects us with our heart and soul, and we have a government – and economy – that’s “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Mr. Smith cites numerous facts, figures and statistics, and relates various people’s anecdotal stories, that clearly demonstrate that the American Dream prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s has mostly evaporated.  The middle class used to be able to count on being able to live a little better than their parents had, and through hard work, provide sufficiently for their families, and then enjoy a secure retirement; but today, most Americans are not on track for retirement, are mired in debt, and are not living better than their parents did.  Smith shows positive growth trends between the 1940s to 1970s, and negative growth trends between the 1970s to 2011, and claims that the turning point that led us to where we are started with a rarely discussed memorandum written by Lewis Powell (who later became a Supreme Court Justice) addressed to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971.  The memorandum was a call to arms for businesses and corporations to exert more power in Washington, and they did.  Smith offers plenty of correlative evidence that corporate lobbyist influence exploded after that, and many policies in Washington began to favor corporations and their elite over ordinary Americans. While all of that may be true, I believe it’s a little more complicated than that, and other factors not mentioned have also contributed to the inequality we see today.

As a society, we’re just starting to widely acknowledge that we have an ever-widening income gap; Smith shows that middle class workers used to get a solid share of the nation’s gains in productivity; but for awhile now, middle class wages have been flat.   “In 2007 [before the collapse], corporate profits garnered the largest share of national income since 1943, while the share of national income going to wages sank to its lowest level since 1929.”  CEO pay exploded, and those in the financial industry have cashed in, while middle class worker pay has stagnated at a time when costs of living; namely, housing, health care, and education have gone up exponentially.  Bernie Sanders has hounded on this theme so relentlessly that it seems to have now become part of our national consciousness, and even the campaign of Donald Trump has spoken to the angst felt by so many who have been left out and want to “make America great again.”  Bernie rails against Wall Street, and talks about increasing the minimum wage, and taxing the wealthy to cover health care and college.  And both Bernie and Trump are anti-establishment, have rebuffed super PACs and big donor campaign contributions, and are against free trade deals and offshoring.

Will these kinds of policies bring back the American dream?  No doubt that many flaws in our system have brought us to where we are.  Smith discusses:  the influence of corporate money and lobbyists; unfair changes to the tax code and bankruptcy laws; the formation and collapse of the housing bubble; the movement to send production and jobs overseas; the abused high-tech H-1B visa; how shifting from pensions to 401Ks gave more money to corporate insiders and put more burdens on workers (“You the investor put up 100% of the capital. You take 100% of the risk. And you capture about 37% of the return. The fund or Wall Street puts up none of the capital, takes none of the risk and takes out 63% of the return.”); and related topics.  The tangled web of greed, incompetence, and (in many instances) fraud is disturbing.  But to successfully rebuild, we need more than reactionary policies; we need structural reform that takes us out of a polarized us versus them mentality, and gives a meaningful voice to everyone.

We seem to have an ongoing argument in our country about economic philosophy and what spurs growth.  Do guaranteed high wages for the working class produce consumers who drive economic growth, or only cause inflation?  Do protected high profits for the business elite produce investors who create jobs or just an exclusive wealthy class that leaves everyone else behind?  Smith points out that it used to be that 50% of profits went back into a business for research and development, new markets, and worker training and pay, but now 91% of profits goes to shareholders. In a less polarized system, where power isn’t concentrated in business, in government, or in parties . . . but in the people, giving everyone a voice, we might have the freedom to grow and work together to find the right balance in these competing philosophies, without pressure to pick one side as an all or nothing alternative to be implemented through sheer force of will.

Smith indeed includes a section about our broken political process, how gerrymandering has created less competitive elections, and a more polarized government with gridlock and an inability to get even the most simple tasks done.  In addition to campaign finance reform, Smith talks about the need for reforming the primary system to include open primaries and nonpartisan primaries.  As is often the case, this is couched as important in order to revive the political center, the moderates.  It may just be a matter of semantics, but I support nonpartisan primaries for a different reason.  Unfortunately, “the moderates,” also traditionally known as “the establishment” are part of the problem.  A big reason we are where we are is because the moderates have caved to the parties, the special interests, and the power.  While it’s true that we need people who can think through our challenges in an open-minded, problem-solving manner, and not a dogmatic, ideological, wedge-driven manner to find cross partisan solutions; we also need people who are not afraid to stand up for unpopular positions when they make more sense than the popular positions.  For this reason, I don’t like to talk about electoral reform as a means to the end of “electing moderates.”  Any electoral system that’s implemented to get a particular ideological outcome is no electoral system at all.  I support open primaries and nonpartisan primaries and other electoral reform because it gives candidates greater access to the ballot, gives people an equal voice in our process, and provides for greater choice and competition in our election system, and thus holds elected officials more accountable.   With technology and globalization, our very way of life is changing.  We’ll never bring back the economy of the past, which means that we need to work together to innovate our way to a new economy that works for everyone.  Smith offers up many needed changes; but we need structural reform to help us build consensus as to how it will happen, and what specific policy proposals will be implemented.

Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.

 

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Reminder: Politics for the People

Conference Call With Hedrick Smith

Sunday, June 19th @ 7 pm EST

(641) 715-3605   Code 767775#

Reader’s Forum-Tiani Coleman

President of NH Independent Voters, Tiani X. Coleman (l) with Jessica Lubien, Sarah Klinger and IndependentVoting.org President, Jackie Salit at the NH Rebellion Convention

The imagery in Chapter 8 titled “Repeal” in Lisa McGuirr’s The War on Alcohol evokes strong emotions primarily because it paints a picture so relevant to today.  It would be baffling – if it didn’t sound so familiar – to think that in 1932 “at the height of global economic catastrophe,” there had been so little focus and concern put on how to solve the bank failures, the unemployment crisis, the breadlines, or the rise of fascism in Europe; and that the platform plank pledging repeal of Prohibition stood out as the vital issue of the election that brought the hall at the Democratic National Convention to erupt in sustained applause.

Of course, by 1932, repeal seemed like a natural culmination of a long fought battle that had brought devastation around the country . . . with the lethal alcohol alternatives found on the black market, the graft and corruption of public officials connected to organized crime, the selective enforcement that severely affected the poor and minority working class populations, the out of control citizen prohibition militias, not to mention the ballooning power of the federal government, subject to abuses.  The reaction favoring repeal in 1932 wasn’t the problem – the problem was America’s response to the “moral crusades” of the early 1900s that brought about Prohibition in the first place.  Even though the heavy use of alcohol had certainly created some worries for the nation, and it had some devastating effects on women and children, careful thought should have gone into the least harmful and intrusive approaches to addressing those concerns, without calling out the full, uneven enforcement powers of the federal government with an outright ban encouraging a black market and subsequent consequences.

The book’s obvious relevance lies in our current War on Drugs.  How did we repeal Prohibition, but not learn some of the deeper lessons that have had devastating effects on our Borders, our inner cities, our overcrowded prisons, and even our health and well being?  Now that states are starting to make marijuana — especially medical marijuana — legal, and some presidential candidates have adopted a national legalization position, we can see that change is around the corner.  One of the very few current issues receiving bi-partisan support is criminal justice reform.  But will we get it right?  Will we simply pass legalization/non-criminalization/rehabilitation measures without re-tracing our steps of how we got here and what else has been negatively affected that needs reform?  Will we re-evaluate the power we’ve given to the federal government?

The War on Alcohol is relevant even beyond the War on Drugs.  With FEAR as a driving force, we’ve seen similar patterns play out over abortion, gay marriage, immigration, gun control and the list goes on.  The devastating effects of illegal back-alley abortions and intrusions into privacy brought us a more activist Supreme Court (Planned Parenthood v. Casey).  More recently, we watched the religious right’s heavy influence sway state after state to pass constitutional amendments banning gay marriage as part of election mobilization efforts to help get Republicans elected.  As public sentiment began to shift in favor of gay marriage, Republicans dug in their heels, advocating for a national constitutional amendment. Now with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling finding an equal protection right for gay marriage, Republicans have grown relatively quiet on an issue that has dominated their politics for the last several election cycles.  Not only is this similar to Herbert Hoover’s approach with the Republican Party in 1932, as he dug in his heels on Prohibition rather than listening to the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party, but we see a similar thing playing out over immigration.  After the 2012 election, it seemed clear that Republicans needed to improve their position on immigration in order to attract more minorities into the party and forge the kinds of coalitions needed to take back the White House.  But in the 2016 election cycle, candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio felt forced to tone down their comprehensive reform positions, but still lost to candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the most ardent anti-immigration, anti-comprehensive reform candidates.  It’s hard to tell at this point if this strident approach will lead to the Republicans’ loss in 2016, or if enough pent up anger by the white working classes will carry them through.  But either way, the lopsided emphasis on enforcement, without addressing the underlying issues, and the expectation for the federal government to wield its heavy hand against the “threatening, less powerful segments of our society” will in many respects prove fatal at some point.  Gun control – primarily on the Democratic side – is another issue where we have a president issuing executive orders in response to various mass shootings that are mobilizing citizens, especially women, to call for action.  We need to proceed intelligently and cautiously as we work to address the problem, and not hand over too much power to the federal government.  We’re now starting to witness new political re-alignments in the country, in part due to the unintended ramifications of our policies, which have ceded power away from the people.  It’s up to us to help steer this energy in a productive direction.

As we work to do so, I’ve been reminded, through reading the book, that all of our problems and challenges run deeper than can be found in policies that are largely political in nature.  Those who have the biggest impact for change, such as Al Smith who favored repeal before FDR did, are often largely forgotten.  I’m glad to be part of this movement, which isn’t an “ends justifies the means” movement, but is more about the methods, the developing culture, and the ability to truly empower people.  Understanding as much history as possible, from various perspectives, and getting fully educated about current events and the latest research will help us proceed less reactively and more purposefully, thoughtfully and inclusively towards long term change for the better.

Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.

 

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