Tag Archives: politics

My Journey to the Heart of the FOIA Request

Spenser Mestel | Longreads | September 2017 | 21 minutes (5,400 words)

On July 2, 1972, Angela Davis was sitting in the Plateau Seven restaurant in Santa Clara County, California, a few blocks from the courthouse where she’d spent the previous 13 weeks on trial for criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. The jury had just started deliberating, and Davis was eating with Rodney Barnette, a friend and former Black Panther. While the two talked, a local reporter emerged from the courthouse pressroom with news for Davis’s family and the activists gathered there: Four black men had hijacked a Western Airlines 727 jetliner carrying 98 passengers and were en route from Seattle to San Francisco. (Later it was confirmed there were only two hijackers, one man and one woman.) Not only were the hijackers demanding $500,000 and four parachutes, but they also wanted these items delivered by Davis, who was to stand on the runway of San Francisco International Airport in a white dress.

When the news reached the restaurant, several patrons around Davis and Barnette suddenly surrounded the pair’s table; these were in fact FBI agents dressed in civilian clothes. Almost a year earlier, Davis had been charged in California with aiding and abetting a murder. Though she hadn’t been at the scene, authorities alleged that guns she’d purchased were used to kill a superior-court judge. The Black Panthers relied on sympathetic Vietnam veterans, like Rodney Barnette, to acquire arms and train new members to use them. Barnette, however, had left the Panthers four years earlier following a suspicious interaction. At a meeting, a stranger claiming to be part of the “Panther Underground” had called Barnette into a back office and told him to beat members who arrived late. Barnette objected. (“We can’t do that to our own people,” he said an interview later. “How could we differentiate the police beating people, and us beating people?”) The man suggested he leave the group.

“I always thought he was some FBI agent,” Barnette would tell an interviewer in 2017. “Some agent provocateur or informant that all of a sudden appeared to try to split the party up.” This unnerving feeling of suspicion persisted even after Barnette left the Panthers. The FBI continued to interview his family members in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles, where Barnette had moved and gotten a job as a letter carrier. Despite stellar evaluations from his superiors, in 1969 Barnette was fired from the Postal Service, after less than a year on the job, for living with a woman he wasn’t married to, which qualified at the time as “conduct unbecoming a government employee.”

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Ta-Nehisi Coates Takes on the Trump Presidency

In the spring of 1963, James Baldwin was interviewed for the documentary, Take this Hammer, which followed the local African-American community in San Francisco. Seated, wearing a crisp collared shirt, an ascot tie, and smoking a cigarette, the author spoke about the creation of a class of pariahs in America.

Well, I know this. Anyone’s who’s tried to live knows this: That what you say about anyone else reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me. Now, here in this country, we’ve got something called a nigger. We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I’ve always known. I had to know by the time I was 17 years old, what you were describing was not me, and what you were afraid of was not me, it has to be… Something you were afraid of, you invested me with…

In an excerpt at The Atlantic from his upcoming book about the Obama administration and its legacy, We Were Eight Years in PowerTa-Nehisi Coates riffs on Baldwin’s analysis to construct an incisive look at the foundations of Donald Trump’s political ascent.

For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. The insult intensified when Obama and Seth Meyers publicly humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. But the bloody heirloom ensures the last laugh. Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.

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Eileen Myles: There’s No Escaping History

At Rolling Stone, Helena Fitzgerald profiles punk poet and 1992 write-in Presidential candidate Eileen Myles. Myles’s new memoir, Afterglow, was released this week, and their first autobiographical novel, Cool for You, was recently re-released and included an introduction by I Love Dick author Chris Kraus.

Myles (who prefers gender-neutral pronouns) has been publishing since the 70s, but has lately experienced a new wave of popularity, gathering new young fans in part because of their Twitter presence and also the character inspired by them on Transparent.

Among other things, Myles talks with Fitzgerald about the importance right now of poetry and art as forms of resistance under the current U.S. presidential administration. Interestingly, though, Myles points out that what’s been happening really isn’t all that new.

In this current moment, the feeling that we’re facing an avalanche, that we might be destroyed, is hard to ignore. When prompted to speak about art in the current political moment, Myles says: “You know, there is nothing new about what’s happening now.” Myles goes on to call Trump’s assembled henchmen “a cabinet of cockblockers: an educational secretary who’s against education, an attorney general who’s a Klansman.” But they also stress that there’s precedent throughout our history for all of these, that none of these people came out of nowhere. As much of Myles’ work — such as the seminal “An American Poem” — has grappled with in the past, this is the America in which we have always lived. The James Comey testimony took place a few days before our meeting, and Myles was passionately skeptical of the liberal praise that has been showered on the former director of the FBI. “They’re like, ‘Oh, Comey’s the good guy!’ Are you kidding me? He’s talking about a Shining City on the Hill; he’s talking about the horror, and the outrage, of people interfering with our election — like that isn’t what we do in the Middle East and in South America. I’ve never been so driven to make the argument about the nature of our history.”

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A Long, Dark Night of the Soul at Donald Trump’s Childhood Home

The house in eastern Queens where Donald Trump spent his first four years of life is now an Airbnb, but a night costs more than a bed at the Trump-owned Plaza Hotel, and the $816 doesn’t get you a fraction of that lavish experience. For Newsweek,  Alexander Nazaryan spent a night at the house, exploring the land of Trump’s birth and searching the environment for insights into what shaped him. He finds decor that’s the “raison d’être of Donald Trump, which is the endless veneration of Donald Trump.” Nazaryan shows how Trump likes to frame himself as an outsider from Queens who made his money in Manhattan — but how he is in fact a provincial creature with daddy’s money, born into the genteel suburbs of Long Island.

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On Syrian Doctors and Borders: America’s Loss is Canada’s Gain

In January, 2017 — before Trump’s inauguration — physician Khaled Almilaji spent a week in Syria to check on his many humanitarian projects, leaving his pregnant wife Jehan behind in the United States. Expecting to return well before Trump’s inauguration, Khaled discovered that his visa — along with those of 40 other medical students, mostly from the Middle East — had been revoked in the month before Trump took office.

The dean of Brown University called schools outside the U.S. on Khaled’s behalf to help him continue his studies. Toronto University answered the call with a scholarship, and Khaled and Jehan look forward to welcoming their baby daughter in Canada. Khaled relates the harrowing story of how Trump’s politics and travel ban have affected him and his family at Toronto Life.

A month later, Trump announced his second travel ban, which paused any visas from Syria for 90 days. For weeks, I’d been telling Jehan that I’d be home soon. Suddenly we realized it would be at least three more months. She was alone when she saw our baby on the ultrasound for the first time, when she heard the heartbeat on the sonogram. One day while I was in the office, she sent me an image of a pair of pink shoes: a sign that we were having a girl. I was elated. For the next few months, whenever I went to the market in Gaziantep, I bought baby clothes, keeping tiny dresses and onesies in my apartment so I could have something to bring my new daughter when I returned.

Brown was doing everything they could to help me continue my studies. The dean called colleagues at schools outside of the U.S. to find me a new home, including the University of Toronto. I hated the idea of leaving my scholarship at Brown and the people I had met in Providence. And yet by that point, Jehan and I couldn’t waste any more time. When U of T offered me a scholarship, I accepted, and we applied for student visas in Canada. In June, my Canadian partners and I received the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General for our humanitarian work. A few days later, Jehan and I got our Canadian visas approved.

In early June, just days before my flight to Toronto, the U.S. Consulate called. Five and a half months after this all began, they told me I could come pick up my visa. For me, it was too late. I know the travel ban is all about politics, not security. It’s a game. But the people on Trump’s list have been suffering for many years, and the ban only increases that suffering. It’s a horrendous violation. It was done carelessly, by people who didn’t consider the consequences—the lives changed forever by their actions. I still think America’s a great country. I also know that if I went back, that violation would recur, over and over again. On June 16, I got on a plane in Turkey and flew to Toronto.

In Toronto, the notion that everyone should be accepted and respected, regardless of their nationality or background, is something that’s practised on a daily basis. I saw it on my first day. In the airport, I looked around and saw people with different faces, different skin tones, different ethnicities, but the same spirit. To see a stable, established country like Canada using diversity to make itself richer and stronger has inspired me. This was what we were fighting for in Syria in 2011. That’s what I want for the future of my country. That’s the spirit I hope to bring to Syria when I return one day.

A few years ago, I never would have imagined having a child in Canada. Now I’m honoured by the fact that my daughter will be a Canadian. Hopefully she can take that with her for the rest of her life.

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Making Your Own Appointment to Die

At the Walrus, Dave Cameron profiles David Forsee, a man with a fatal lung disease called Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), who chose to end his life under Canada’s right to die legislation. As his time diminishes, Forsee and his friends and caregivers struggle to be at peace with the choice he made and the time he has left.

Forsee says he’s trying to be “conscious of being curmudgeonly,” but he can’t deny that dying, and the ipf in particular, has made him impatient with small talk. In his prime, he rarely hurried a thought, and in his illness he can’t afford to. “It’s not always necessary to fill the air with empty words,” he once scolded Ollmann during a drop-in.

Truman again appears at Forsee’s back. “It’s strange, rooting for someone to be able to die,” she says. “He could be with us, cognizant, for a couple more months, but it’s not up to us.”

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The Colorblind Whitewashers of American History

Law professor and critical race theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, writing in The Baffler, considers the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and the way that  declarations of America as “post-racial” or “colorblind” serve to diminish our history of racial violence. To those who understand Obama’s success as owing to his race-neutrality, she offers a sharp rebuke.

In the same way that elite institutions have congratulated themselves as sites where merit flourished, American society held up Barack Obama as conclusive evidence that power is indeed colorblind. Yet Obama’s election proves very little about the triumph of colorblindness either as a tactic for gaining power or as a frame for how it is exercised. In fact, upon closer inspection, the election of Obama supports the opposite inference. Despite the common refrain that Obama made history as the nation’s first post-racial Black candidate, the Obama campaign reflected the ongoing salience of race-consciousness among the electorate, the pundits, and the candidates. Obama’s steadied posture of racial avoidance was actually one of highly selective racial engagement, showcasing the candidate’s talent for deftly navigating the complex terrain of race and emerging with a reassuring tale of individual uplift—a moral, as it happens, best illustrated by the candidate’s own life story. The public image of Obama’s so-called race neutrality masked an intensely race-conscious campaign to counter Obama’s racial deficit on the electoral map. In key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, whites were mobilized to talk about race with other whites to neutralize Obama’s racial disadvantage. Even the celebration of Obama as “race-neutral” was obviously not colorblind, but rather a reflection of the opposite impulse. Voters and pundits of all races engaged in a complex assessment of Obama’s racial performance to determine what kind of Black Obama was going to be.

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What’s The Matter With Texas? How Long Do You Have?

It’s hard to pinpoint the most Texan detail in Lawrence Wright’s magnum opus in the New Yorker on the state’s changing politics. (Seriously, it’s 19,000 words long.) It might be a nighttime hunt for wild pigs, with Democratic lawmakers armed with pistols, wearing cutoff jeans and tennis shoes. Or perhaps it’s the “Poo-Poo Choo-Choo,” a train that shipped toxic sludge from New York City to El Paso in 1991.

For Wright’s purpose, which is to map the permanent shift right — far, far right — of the Texas State Legislature, it would likely be the 2003 redistricting plan, which involved a run to the border, an old fashioned manhunt, and a standoff at a Holiday Inn.

Tom Craddick, an ultra-conservative Republican lawmaker, became the Speaker of the House that year. Spurned by a lifetime of Democratic obstruction, he came up with a plan not just to win elections, but to make winning a foregone conclusion through gerrymandering. The Democrats, faced with a bill that would create a permanent Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, left the state house and hightailed it to Oklahoma.

Under Craddick’s leadership, the Texas legislature began carving historical congressional districts into new fiefdoms. Taking care not to violate Supreme Court guidelines on minority representation, lawmakers jigsawed Texas into shapes that would decisively capture the state for the right.

In May, 2003, the redistricting plan came up for a vote in the Texas House. Fifty-three Democrats, sensing a lethal threat to their party, fled to Oklahoma, denying Craddick a quorum. He locked the capitol chamber, to prevent any more defections, and called out state troopers to hunt down the missing members, who became known as the Killer Ds.

In the midst of this hubbub, Pete Laney, the former speaker, flew his Piper turboprop from the Panhandle to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where he joined his Democratic colleagues at the local Holiday Inn. Someone from DeLay’s office obtained Laney’s flight plan from the Department of Homeland Security by implying that Laney’s plane was overdue to land and might have crashed or been seized by terrorists. Texas troopers and national reporters swarmed into Ardmore. The Democratic faction remained in Oklahoma for four days, until the deadline for considering new legislation had passed. The governor, Rick Perry—by then a stalwart Republican—called a special session for late June, whereupon eleven Democratic state senators decamped to New Mexico. It took two more special sessions to ram the vote through.

It was a successful gambit. So successful that redistricting has become the key tool in elections all over the country, resulting in a Congress with a steadfast and confident Republican majority. So should we watch Texas for what the future will bring? The future, writes Wright, is already here.

Because Texas represents so much of modern America—the South, the West, the plains, the border, the Latino community, the divide between rural areas and cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation. Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, and Kansas and Louisiana more out of whack, but they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future.

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The 1972 Movie of the 1969 Musical, “1776”

There’s no going out on the 4th of July at my house. The evening is allocated to the soothing of an anxious dog. The shift runs from dusk (around 8:30 in my Northwest corner of the U.S.) until the bad noises stop. It’s a good night for movies. Thanks to a recommendation from Salon, I landed on 1776, the 1972 movie version of the 1969 musical.

“1776” brings to life the vibrant personalities that helped bring America to life. You have Daniels as the acerbic, indignant and unshakably honorable Adams, Da Silva as the sly and charming but deeply idealistic Franklin and Howard as the quiet and cerebral Jefferson. Like all of the best works about history, it forces audiences to see important figures from the past as flesh-and-blood human beings rather than stodgy icons.

Spoiler alert: the vote goes to independence and the rest is (sorry) history.  I did not read the entire Salon piece up front; I didn’t want to know anything more than “Yep, this movie is a great choice (for those of you stuck under 15 pounds of quaking dog) for July 4th.”

Because I didn’t read the entire write up, I didn’t know that none other than President Richard Nixon had feelings about the movie. It’s thanks to him the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” was cut; it’s since been restored.

In the musical “1776,” the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” depicts Revolutionary War era conservatives as power-hungry wheedlers focused on maintaining wealth. So it’s not surprising that then-President Richard Nixon, who saw the show at a special White House performance in 1970, wasn’t a big fan of the number.

What is surprising is that according to Jack L. Warner, the film’s producer and a friend of the president, Nixon pressured him to cut the song from the 1972 film version of the show–which Warner did. Warner also wanted the original negative of the song shredded, but the film’s editor secretly kept it intact.

Small wonder — it’s a scathing number. “Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor,” scowls John Dickinson. (Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration of Independence.) The cast breaks into a second verse about the joys of conservatism.

We’re the cool, cool considerate men
Whose like may never, ever bee seen again
With our land, cash in hand
Self command, future planned

And we’ll hold to our gold
Tradition that is old
Reluctant to be bold

We say this game’s not of our choosing
Why should we risk losing?

No wonder Nixon hated it. It was the Broadway version of the 1776 version of “We’ve got ours, we’re good, thanks.”

The movie holds up well enough for 1972, though I’m fairly certain Martha Jefferson would not have sung to John Adams and Ben Franklin about her husband Thomas’ prowess at… violin, sure, that song is about his musical skills, sure. I found Franklin too cartoonish, though I liked William Daniels’ Adams a lot (he played Benjamin’s dad in The Graduate). I was riveted by “Molasses to Rum,” the number praising, among other things, the slave trade.

Once the credits rolled, I had to research any number of things — where Edward Rutledge stood on slavery, what happened to John Dickinson after he declined to sign the Declaration, and what about that Abigail Adams anyway?

I don’t know how I got through the 70s without seeing 1776. When I posted to Facebook that I was watching it, my feed lit up with commentary — including one friend admitting he would like to play Andrew McNair, the long suffering custodian/bell-ringer who keeps trying to open the windows to let some air into what’s now known as Independence Hall.

All those men in brocade, arguing in the heat of a Philadelphia summer. It must have stunk to high heaven in the room where it happened.


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How Do You Introduce A Candidate Like Randy Bryce?

When a political ad for Randy Bryce, the Wisconsin ironworker challenging Paul Ryan’s congressional seat, hit the internet last month, it quickly went viral. Esquire called it “one hell of a political ad.” A Twitter user suggested that Bryce was “genetically engineered from Bruce Springsteen songs.” Bryce himself was elated when GQ wrote it up, tweeting from his own account — @IronStache, naturally — that his mother told him he’d never reach such heights.

The ad is a compelling mix of verité documentary filmmaking and political savvy. It was produced by Acres New York, which last year made a four-minute ad for Bernie Sanders   featuring a testimonial from the daughter of Eric Garner. (In 2015, Acres also produced an ad for the Senate run of John Fetterman, the major of Braddock, PA, who had pulled his town away from the brink of disaster and into the world of Levi’s ads).

Longreads reached out to Acres founder Matt McLaughlin and director Paul Hairston to learn more about their approach to storytelling. McLaughlin is business partners with Bill Hyers, a political strategist who ran Bill de Blasio’s 2013 campaign. The pair recently launched WIN, which develops political strategy around video campaigns, and whose list of clients includes Bryce, Fetterman, Sanders, Bill De Blasio, and Martin O’Malley. The Bryce ad is WIN’s inaugural work. 

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