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Why Detroit residents pushed back against tree-planting

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This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A landmark report conducted by University of Michigan environmental sociologist Dorceta Taylor in 2014 warned of the “arrogance” of white environmentalists when they introduce green initiatives to black and brown communities. One black environmental professional Taylor interviewed for the report, Elliot Payne, described experiences where green groups “presumed to know what’s best” for communities of color without including them in the decision-making and planning processes.

“I think a lot of the times it stems from the approach of oh we just go out and offer tree plantings or engaging in an outdoor activity, and if we just reach out to them they will come,” Payne told Taylor.

In fact, this is exactly what was happening in Detroit at the time that Taylor’s report came out. In 2014, the city was a few years deep into a campaign to reforest its streets after decades of neglecting to maintain its depleted tree canopy. A local environmental nonprofit called The Greening of Detroit was the city’s official partner for carrying out that reforesting task, which it had started doing on its own when it was founded in 1989. By 2014, TGD had received additional funding to ramp up its tree-planting services to the tune of 1,000 to 5,000 new trees per year. To meet that goal, it had to penetrate neighborhoods somewhat more aggressively than it had in the past and win more buy-in from the residents.

The tree-planters met stiff resistance: Roughly a quarter of the 7,500 residents they approached declined offers to have new trees planted in front of their homes. It was a high enough volume of rejections for such an otherwise valuable service that University of Vermont researcher Christine E. Carmichael wanted to know the reasons behind it.

She obtained data that TGD collected on the people who turned them down, and then visited Detroit to interview staff members and residents. What she found is that the rejections had more to do with how the tree-planters presented themselves and residents’ distrust of city government than it did with how residents felt about trees. Carmichael’s findings (with co-author Maureen H. McDonough) were published last week in the journal Society and Natural Resources.

The residents Carmichael surveyed understood the benefits of having trees in urban environments — they provide shade and cooling, absorb air pollution, especially from traffic, increase property values, and improve health outcomes. But the reasons Detroit folks were submitting “no tree requests” were rooted in how they have historically interpreted their lived experiences in the city, or what Carmichael calls “heritage narratives.”

These are the stories that people from all walks of Detroit life tell themselves and each other about why city conditions are the way they are. The heritage narratives that residents shared about trees in Detroit were different from the ones shared among the people in city government and TGD.

A couple of African-American women Carmichael talked to linked the tree-planting program to a painful racist moment in Detroit’s history, right after the 1967 race rebellion, when the city suddenly began cutting down elm trees in bulk in their neighborhoods. The city did this, as the women understood it, so that law enforcement and intelligence agents could better surveil their neighborhoods from helicopters and other high places after the urban uprising.

The city was chopping down trees at a faster clip at this time. And the city was flying helicopters over their homes at one point — to spray toxic DDT from above on the trees. However, the government’s stated reason for the mass tree-choppings was that the trees were dying off from the Dutch elm disease then spreading across the country. These were competing heritage narratives of the same event — the clearing away of trees in the 1960s. The two narratives are in conflict, but it was the women’s version, based on their lived experiences, that led to their decision to reject the trees today. It’s not that they didn’t trust the trees; they didn’t trust the city.

“In this case, the women felt that [after the race rebellion] the city just came in and cut down their trees, and now they want to just come in planting trees,” Carmichael said. “But they felt they should have a choice in this since they’ll be the ones caring for the trees and raking up the leaves when the planters leave. They felt that the decisions regarding whether to cut down trees or plant new ones were being made by someone else, and they were going to have to deal with the consequences.”

There was distrust not only of the city, but of the tree planters as well, particularly considering how TGD staff stepped to the people in the communities they were plotting on. The Greening of Detroit had 50,000 volunteers (during that 2011-2014 time period), most of them white and not from Detroit. The organization had just one community-outreach person on staff. And that outreach apparently did not include involving neighborhood residents in the planning of this urban-forestry program.

“City residents could request a tree planting in their neighborhood from TGD, but TGD’s green infrastructure staff decided in which neighborhoods to plant trees, as well as tree species to plant and tree maintenance protocols,” reads the paper. “TGD’s green infrastructure staff members committed to maintaining trees for three years after planting, which residents were informed of through door hangers and at community meetings, if they attended such meetings.”

Failing to meaningfully involve the residents in the decision-making is a classic environmental justice no-no. However, from reading excerpts of Carmichael’s interviews with TGD staff members, it’s clear some of the tree planters thought they were doing these communities an environmental justice solid. After all, who would turn down a free tree on their property, given all of the health and economic benefits that service affords? Perhaps these people just don’t get it. 

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As one staff member told Carmichael in the study: “You’re dealing with a generation that has not been used to having trees, the people who remember the elms are getting older and older. Now we’ve got generations of people that have grown up without trees on their street, they don’t even know what they’re missing.”

However, environmental justice is not just about the distribution of bad stuff, like pollution, or good stuff, like forestry projects across disadvantaged communities. It’s also about the distribution of power among communities that have historically only been the subjects and experiments of power structures.

In 2014, Detroit had an African-American population of 83 percent, and the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the top 25 metros in the U.S., according to the Brookings Institution. This forestry project was ramping up right as the city was in the throes of bankruptcy. These residents may have had different priorities in mind than those carried by the tree-planters who came knocking. Race and class matters in urban greening agendas, as the City of Houston once learned when it failed to survey non-white, lower-income residents for the creation of its parks master plan in 2014.

One Detroit resident whom Carmichael interviewed for her study told her: “You know what, I really appreciate you today because that shows that someone is listening and someone is trying to find out what’s really going on in our thoughts, the way we feel, and I just appreciate you guys. And maybe next time they can do a survey and ask us, if they would like to have us have the trees.”

Monica Tabares, TGD’s vice president of operations and development, said the organization always had a community-engagement process, but other factors complicated their interactions with residents, such as the city’s poor record of tree maintenance.

“Our capacity to fulfill every community partner’s needs was in hindsight a bit more difficult to achieve, and that resulted in some impressions among some individuals about not feeling the inclusion,” Tabares said. “Also, the city itself didn’t have the capacity to bring down dead trees, nor to prune trees, plus the fact that we were now replanting trees in some really decimated areas with no tree canopy. It left people questioning whether they were going to be taken care of. It just didn’t jibe right with all of our resident partners.”

Since talking with Carmichael and learning her study’s findings, Tabares says TGD has made several changes to its program, adding more material involvement of residents in the tree-planting and planning process. The organization now also has four community-engagement members on staff, all of whom live in the city of Detroit, which Tabares said has encouraged more trust from the residents.

“Having people come in and not be from the city and then dictate what goes on — not that we ever did that — but that’s the feeling. So we want people to feel comfortable with our engagement team that’s talking about the benefits of trees,” Tabares said.

The lessons learned from the study are immediately important, given that environmental organizations often partner with cities for these kinds of services. This is especially true when local governments don’t have the funding to do it (as happened in Detroit) or when the federal government shuts down (what’s happening now). Having diverse staffs that reflect the city’s neighborhoods and understand the heritage narratives that run through them matters.

“Heritage narratives are important because they guide actions that are taken,” Carmichael said. “A nonprofit might say tree-canopy decline can be used to justify their approach to educating residents, because there are people who don’t understand the value of trees. But everyone I interviewed understood those benefits, so it’s inaccurate to say that. Ultimately, the feeling was that they were being disenfranchised.”

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Why Detroit residents pushed back against tree-planting

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When criminal justice and environmental justice collide

Rhonda Anderson and her daughter, Siwatu-Salama Ra, have spent much of their lives working to protect their Detroit community from polluters. Anderson has organized for the local Sierra Club for nearly two decades. And Ra represented the Motor City during the landmark Paris climate talks.

Fellow activists credit Ra with bringing this year’s Extreme Energy Extraction Summit — where activists from vulnerable communities strategize on fighting polluters — to Detroit for the first time.

Ra, however, won’t be able to attend. Last month, a judge sentenced the 26-year-old mother, who is currently 7-months pregnant, to a mandatory two years in prison after she was controversially convicted of felony assault and firearm possession. She faces the prospect of giving birth in prison — away from her family, as well as the community she works to lift up.

“My daughter — my baby — she’s not doing well,” Anderson tells Grist. Ra, who had complications in her last pregnancy, is already experiencing contractions this time around. Her mother describes a pelvic examination her daughter recently had to endure while shackled.

“It’s medieval,” Anderson says. “And it reminds me of slavery.”

Black communities in the United States, like the one Ra and Anderson serve, face a host of structural challenges that impact day-to-day life — from environmental injustice to heightened policing and racial profiling. Black people are 75 percent more likely than other Americans to live in neighborhoods that border oil and natural gas refineries — and they face a disproportionate amount of health threats as a result of air pollution. As a black woman, Ra is more likely to be incarcerated than a white woman — four times more likely, in fact. These systemic injustices have collided in Ra’s case, as her supporters say a double standard and a flawed legal system have robbed her community of one of its most dedicated defenders.

“Siwatu has spent her life fighting environmental injustice and pushing back against the big polluters who are violating the law to poison her community,” the Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, said in a statement. “In this case, it does not appear that she is being afforded the protection of the law she deserves, as is all too often the case for women of color dealing with our criminal justice system.”

Here’s how Ra arrived at her current predicament: This past summer, at Anderson’s home, Ra got into an argument with another woman. As the dispute escalated, the woman reportedly rammed her vehicle into Ra’s car — which had Ra’s toddler inside — before allegedly aiming her car at Anderson. In response, Ra, who says she repeatedly asked the woman to leave, reportedly took out her unloaded, registered firearm. The woman called the police before Ra did, which authorities said made Ra the assailant in the case.

Michigan has a stand-your-ground law that protects people from facing criminal charges if they use deadly force in self-defense. It’s the same legal strategy George Zimmerman successfully employed in Florida after he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was walking to his father’s Orlando-area home. To prove her innocence under the provision, Ra needed to convince jurors that she was afraid for her life.

“The prosecutor convinced the jury and judge that I lacked fear, and that’s not true,” Ra said during her sentencing. “I was so afraid, especially for my toddler and mother. I don’t believe they could imagine a black woman being scared — only mad.”

Ra’s advocates have called into question the fact that the jury was not informed that finding Ra guilty would result in a mandatory sentence. Because of the required punishment for a guilty verdict, letters of support from the community attesting to her years of service had no effect in lessening her punishment.

“In environmental-justice organizing, you’re dealing with a lot of small emergencies all the time, especially in an underdeveloped, under-resourced city like Detroit,” says William Copeland who worked alongside Ra at the East Michigan Environmental Coalition. Her incarceration, he adds, “is a big emergency.”

Copeland says Ra excels at getting people who are often left behind engaged in environmental justice work. As a teen, she founded a program to get urban youth involved in the East Michigan Environmental Coalition — reeling in a group that other environmentalists hadn’t been able to reach.

“The successes that she had shows the depth of being able to speak people’s language — to be able to read something that’s written in one language and translate it to the language of the ‘hood or the language of the people,” Copeland says. “[Without Ra], those folks wouldn’t be getting involved.”

That’s one reason why he and Anderson say they need Ra back in the community immediately. In the past, she’s also worked to hold a Marathon Petroleum refinery and the Detroit Renewable Power trash incinerator accountable for their emissions. “Get her back out here so she can continue the work that she’s been doing all these years,” Anderson says.

Ra’s attorneys are working toward an appeal and asking that she be released on bond so that she can give birth outside of prison. On Wednesday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations Michigan Chapter filed a complaint on behalf of Ra and other Muslim women at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, noting that they have not been allowed religious meal accommodations or access to a hijabs.

As part of her campaign to free her daughter, Anderson is calling for the larger environmental community to realize that pollution is just one of many inequities people in fence-line communities face. But polluting and criminalizing these groups essentially go hand-in-hand, she explains.

“As long as we find a whole group of people dispensable, the environment is going to continue to be impacted. You can pollute them and do whatever to them, and white folks and anybody else can sit off to the side and say, ‘I’m safe — it’s not me,” Anderson says. “We are the ones that are preyed upon.”

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When criminal justice and environmental justice collide

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American Buffalo – Steven Rinella


American Buffalo

In Search of a Lost Icon

Steven Rinella

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: December 2, 2008

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC

From the host of the Travel Channel’s “The Wild Within.” A hunt for the American buffalo—an adventurous, fascinating examination of an animal that has haunted the American imagination.   In 2005, Steven Rinella won a lottery permit to hunt for a wild buffalo, or American bison, in the Alaskan wilderness. Despite the odds—there’s only a 2 percent chance of drawing the permit, and fewer than 20 percent of those hunters are successful—Rinella managed to kill a buffalo on a snow-covered mountainside and then raft the meat back to civilization while being trailed by grizzly bears and suffering from hypothermia. Throughout these adventures, Rinella found himself contemplating his own place among the 14,000 years’ worth of buffalo hunters in North America, as well as the buffalo’s place in the American experience. At the time of the Revolutionary War, North America was home to approximately 40 million buffalo, the largest herd of big mammals on the planet, but by the mid-1890s only a few hundred remained. Now that the buffalo is on the verge of a dramatic ecological recovery across the West, Americans are faced with the challenge of how, and if, we can dare to share our land with a beast that is the embodiment of the American wilderness. American Buffalo is a narrative tale of Rinella’s hunt. But beyond that, it is the story of the many ways in which the buffalo has shaped our national identity. Rinella takes us across the continent in search of the buffalo’s past, present, and future: to the Bering Land Bridge, where scientists search for buffalo bones amid artifacts of the New World’s earliest human inhabitants; to buffalo jumps where Native Americans once ran buffalo over cliffs by the thousands; to the Detroit Carbon works, a “bone charcoal” plant that made fortunes in the late 1800s by turning millions of tons of buffalo bones into bone meal, black dye, and fine china; and even to an abattoir turned fashion mecca in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, where a depressed buffalo named Black Diamond met his fate after serving as the model for the American nickel.  Rinella’s erudition and exuberance, combined with his gift for storytelling, make him the perfect guide for a book that combines outdoor adventure with a quirky blend of facts and observations about history, biology, and the natural world. Both a captivating narrative and a book of environmental and historical significance, American Buffalo tells us as much about ourselves as Americans as it does about the creature who perhaps best of all embodies the American ethos.

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American Buffalo – Steven Rinella

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"I Gotta Go and Hunt Criminals." On the Road With Ohio Highway Patrol.

Mother Jones

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We’re sitting in the middle of the highway looking for drug mules. Specifically, we’re at mile marker 174 of Interstate 80, which I learn is the interstate with the third most drug traffic in the country, and I’m in a highway patrol car next to a garrulous sergeant who has a square face and close-cropped blond hair and alternates between wads of chewing tobacco and sips of an energy drink. His eyes dart from car to car—sedans and SUVs and big rigs—looking for what, exactly, is hard to tell.

Beyond the shallow embankment on either side of the road are forests and farms and vineyards of northeast Ohio, and beyond that, the drug hubs of Detroit and Cleveland and Buffalo and New York City. “As I tell my guys, there’s bulk loads going by us multiple times a shift every day,” the sergeant says, eyes still on the cars. “Our job is to interdict drugs before they get to our community.” Or, as he puts it later: “I gotta go and hunt criminals.”

Ohio has one of the most robust highway drug seizure programs in the country, with 13,300 drug-related arrests last year—or about one every 90 minutes. In 2016, troopers seized 167 pounds of heroin—the equivalent to about 2 million doses on the streets—and 64,708 opiate pills. “Our approach is to stop a lot of cars,” says Lieutenant Robert Sellers, the public affairs commander for the highway patrol. “What we don’t want our troopers to do is walk away. We want to make sure that whatever they thought wasn’t right is right.”

The sergeant’s job is, in the split second that cars pass by, to look for telltale signs of drug couriers. It’s typical for people to see the car, slow down, and then speed back up once they’ve passed him—those are the people he’s not interested in. He’s not interested in people speeding, or the drivers who look confident and relaxed. He is interested in rental cars, overly cautious drivers who stay below the speed limit, people who look in their rearview mirrors at him as they pass by, cars with tinted windows, drivers who look like they’re scrambling to move or adjust something as they pass, cars with recent fingerprints on the trunk. Cars that move into the right lane or that are closely tailing another are also red flags—they’re trying to distance themselves from the patrol car and blend into their surroundings, says the sergeant. Ultimately, a lot of the job is based on gut instinct: After years of watching thousands of cars go by, “your intuition will tell you when something’s wrong,” says Sellers.

Comments like this make me uneasy: The operation seems like a perfect recipe for profiling. The sergeant makes clear that race is not something that goes into his calculation of red flags—as he says later, “If you do this job based on stopping a certain race or age group or gender, you’re not gonna succeed.” But I cringe a little when, as we pull over the one car that we’ll pull over that afternoon—a sedan that had been closely tailing another car, in the far right lane, with recent fingerprints on an otherwise dirty trunk—the window opens to reveal a black man. (The sergeant lets him go with a warning.)

“Our professional operations policy forbids bias-based policing,” said Sellers. The troopers go through annual implicit bias training as part of their continuing education, he added, and each month, supervisors check the arrest data of their troopers to gauge for abnormally high arrest rates by race. According to highway patrol data online, 14.4 percent of drivers during all Ohio highway patrol stops were black. African Americans make up 12.7 percent of the state’s population.

Highway patrol drug arrests so far in 2017 Ohio State Highway Patrol

If a car catches the sergeant’s eye, he’ll turn onto the road and floor it so he can get a better view. Are the people moving around in the back just toddlers? Did the car speed up after all? If, after this, he’s still interested, then he pulls them over, typically for a minor violation like going over the lane marker or tailing another car. He maintains his friendly demeanor as he talks to drivers through their windows, but he’s also looking for clues: Nervous, sweaty drivers, pill bottles—especially in a different name than the driver’s—the scent of marijuana, recent receipts from a different place than the driver says he or she has been. And if anything looks suspicious, a German shepherd hops out of a squad car to sniff around. The dogs, who live with their handlers when they’re not on duty, are trained to look at or scratch around the area where they smell drugs. The sergeant tells me the story of a recent seizure, when a driver insisted there weren’t drugs in the car, and yet the dog kept calmly staring at the rooftop carrier—where the troopers later found 14 pounds of marijuana.

The day I’m there, troopers in the area use the tactic to find a car with a bucket full of marijuana, and another with two quarts of marijuana Kool-Aid, which I didn’t know was a thing, even as a Californian. The day before, there was a couple in a 2016 Nissan Ultima with more than 200 OxyCodone pills. The state highway patrol website features a strangely captivating running tab of the seizures, complete with photos of drugs in trunks or duct tape packages. There’s also a regularly updated map of drug busts, with a web of tiny blue dots for each seizure.

Marijuana and marijuana Kool-Aid seized by Ohio Highway Patrol in March Ohio State Highway Patrol

Unlike so many tight-lipped cops that make the news, the sergeant is eager to show me his work, and rattles on about recent busts, complete with details of the weight and the type of drug and where in the car it was. He’s seen what drugs can do to families—he was adopted because of his mother’s substance abuse—and he gushes about his daughters, 15 and 20. A few years ago, he says, “I decided I needed a hobby—all I did was eat, sleep, and breathe drugs.” When I ask him what the hobby is, a sheepish grin crosses his face as he mumbles, “fish.” I assumed this meant he liked fishing, but no—he has 16 aquariums with all sorts of exotic fish at his house. After a long day, he’ll sit in the aquarium room—where it’s quiet and things move slowly and there is no addiction or violence—and just watch.

I like the sergeant, yet I can’t stifle the questions that keep popping up in my head as we’re sitting there, looking for criminals. In addition to the profiling concern, there’s the question of efficacy: Are the troopers finding drugs just because they’re making so many stops and drugs are so prevalent, or are they finding drugs because they’re focusing on the right cars? Which is to say, is this even working?

The sergeant says he doesn’t think much about that higher-level question—as he put it, “I’ve got one goal in mind: If they’ve got drugs, to get their drugs.” Sellers admits that efficacy is hard to prove, but he says, “We do know we’ve had an impact.” He notes the heroin seized last year: “That’s 2 million doses of heroin that we took off Ohio roads that were destined for Ohio communities.

And finally, there’s the concern about the casual nature with which troopers arrest and imprison. When he describes a trooper with a particularly high seizure rate whom we’re about to visit, the sergeant simply says, “He’ll probably have someone in handcuffs by the time we get there. He’s that good.” Indeed, he does—when we arrive a half hour later, the trooper has pulled over the car with four pounds of marijuana in a bucket. The troopers playfully compete with each other—as we’re leaving, the sergeant says, “Now we have to find five.” The sergeant routinely calls the drug couriers “bad guys,” as in “the bad guy is in the sergeant’s car.”

I press him on this “bad guys” thing—aren’t some of these folks just desperate people in desperate situations? His face softens and he begins to tell me about an arrest a few weeks ago—a man and young pregnant woman, who voluntarily produced a bag of marijuana and 10 Xanax pills. But watching the video of the couple in the back of the patrol car, the troopers noticed that the woman kept sticking her hands down her pants, adjusting something. When confronted about it, she tearfully reached into her vagina and pulled out a condom full of hundreds of pills. The sergeant shakes his head recalling this. “I would love to see her show up for court looking good, have her act together. But unfortunately, those kinds of endings don’t happen that often.”

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"I Gotta Go and Hunt Criminals." On the Road With Ohio Highway Patrol.

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Donald Trump May Be on Your Television, But Here’s What America Really Looks Like

Mother Jones

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Photojournalist Peter van Agtmael considers his third book, Buzzing at the Sill, the latest chapter of what he calls “one greater book”—a sweeping exploration of the September 11th attacks and the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on soldiers and their families. His project began with his 2009 book, 2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die, and continued with Disco Night Sept. 11, which appeared in 2014. In Buzzing at the Sill, published by Kehrer Verlag, he shifts his attention to unexplored corners the United States, after he realized “how little I know about my country.”

The Magnum photographer first went to Iraq in 2006 when he was 24, and he covered the conflicts there and in Afghanistan for several years before returning to the States. With 72 images pulled from his journalism assignments and others he shot while traveling throughout the country, Buzzing at the Sill examines the reverberations of 9/11 through glimpses of daily American life that often have the intimate feel of a snapshot. The photos in Buzzing at the Sill depict vulnerable, grieving, celebrating, and sometimes threatening Americans, collectively offering a cohesive and sharp reading of the country, with a powerful undercurrent of alienation. “In America, we somehow feel immune,” he writes in Buzzing at the Sill, “but in any country at war, the first thing they’ll tell you is that they didn’t think it could happen there.”

I talked with van Agtmael about making this book and what it might say about the political climate in the United States today.

Kentucky Derby aftermath. (Louisville, KY. 2015)

Mother Jones: Can you tell me about the title, Buzzing at the Sill?
Peter van Agtmael: Buzzing at the Sill is from a Theodore Roethke poem called “In a Dark Time.” I’d heard a small part of it in a play, a sort of sci-fi play about morality in a virtual reality universe. Nothing to do with the book precisely, but it was a great play. I read the poem afterwards because I was intrigued and had one of those strange senses: “This poem is kind of important to me. I don’t know why, but I’m going to just keep it in the back of my mind.” I just kept coming back to it. As I started putting the book together and writing the stories for it, this idea of buzzing as a word kept popping up in my brain.

I started the book with the story of a vulture that flapped up to this window sill outside of a burn ward at a military hospital in Texas. I guess it could smell the rotting flesh through the walls and was just trying to desperately and aggressively get in through that window, I don’t know, to try and feast on the flesh. It was really a troubling moment. But apparently it happens all the time, because the soldiers in recovery and the nurses were totally accustomed to the presence of those vultures.

When I started thinking of the decisions that led me down the road first—which was part of Disco Night Sept. 11 and then the buzzing being— I somehow couldn’t ignore the urge to do things that kind of defy logic. And I liked the poem, I liked the ring of it. I was sitting with David Allan Harvey one day when he pointed out how appropriate the title was for the things I was talking about.

MJ: In what way do you see that Buzzing at the Sill continues the narrative you built with Disco Night?

PVA: I went out to cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fundamentally because I was interested in war as a notion and in experiencing it. I was interested in history and how societies form. I was interested in the recent history of what had provoked these wars. So when I finally got out there, I was really seeing the wars through the American perspective, much more than through being embedded with American soldiers and Marines. I realized in that process how little I knew about my own country. I had grown up in the suburbs and, after college, I moved out of the country, so I didn’t really know the place well. When I started following soldiers and their families back home, it provoked a lot of the questions about who we are as a nation, questions I realized couldn’t be explored through the more limited framework of looking at the military at war and at home. So that inspired these trips in which I began to explore America in more general terms. I really started this work in 2009. I got the bulk of it done as I was easing out of Disco Night. I started them as almost concurrent projects.

A woman attending the annual Iowa GOP Ronald Reagan dinner, where Sarah Palin gave the keynote speech. (Des Moines, Iowa, 2010)

The Fourth of July. (Brooklyn, New York, 2010)

The KKK had boasted that dozens from their Klan chapter would attend the rally and cross burning, but there were only a few people when we showed up, including a British TV crew and a freelance photographer. (Maryland, 2015)

Outside Lyniece Nelson’s house. Nelson’s 19-year-old daughter, Shelly Hilliard (known as “Treasure”), was strangled, dismembered, and set on fire in 2011. Treasure was a transgender teen born Henry Hilliard Jr. The family is with Treasure’s urn. (Detroit, Michigan, 2012)

MJ: What was your thinking as you approached putting together this body of work? The photos feel like they’re pieced together from assignments or from different stories.

PVA: At first it wasn’t meant to be a book, although I’m always thinking about that in the back of my mind. It started off as a series of exploratory road trips that I was doing with Christian Hansen, who I dedicated the book to. Then I started getting some assignments to go shoot in America because I think editors liked the pictures I was taking. What I was doing for those assignments wasn’t always directly tied to what I was doing for myself, but it gave me the space to photograph. I started getting assignments that dealt with my own interests and made some pictures in that direction. A lot of it was just photographed through general exploration. It was sometimes provoked by assignments, then I’d go back on my own dime if I really clicked with a place. And sometimes it was just hanging out with my family or friends.

MJ: How did you approach the editing? How were you going to tie the pictures together?

PVA: I’m a constant editor. Every few months or so I make a ton of 4×6 prints. I put them on a magnetic board and I live with them for a while to see what bubbles to the surface. A lot of this was part of Disco Night originally, and I suddenly started realizing, “If I keep working on this because I’m not done and I put all that in Disco Night, how can this be one book? Is it going to be too long and bloated and crazy?” Then I started thinking, “Okay, I have so many other questions about America, when do I stop?” I started thinking about each book being a chapter in one bigger book and that gave me the space to cut it off at a certain point. I needed to have some kind of thematic focus to the work.

I was taking all these prints and I brought them to the Magnum meetings, trying the old Josef Koudelka trick: Give them to photographers, who are getting bored during the talks about the economics of the agency, to look through with a pen. They’ll separate them in two piles—what they like and what they don’t like—and put their initials on the back. I started to find the core pictures that people seem to relate to. I’d ask myself why? And did I relate to them? Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t. But it gave me an idea of how other people were seeing the work. From there, I kept shooting but started making drafts of the work, essentially spending a few days a month sequencing and editing, hanging things up on the board, showing them to trusted confidantes from in and outside the photo world. It started to take its shape naturally over time until I kind of ran out of ideas. At that point I was like, “Okay, I guess it’s a book.”

After dinner at Lyniece Nelson’s house. One of Nelson’s children was murdered, one committed suicide shortly after his 16th birthday. Her house burned down not long after the death of her son, destroying the urns of both her deceased children. (Detroit, Michigan, 2012)

Hunting rabbits with BB guns. (The outskirts of New Orleans, Louisiana, 2009)

Iraqi refugees in a low-income housing community in Portland. The area is home to several thousand Iraqi refugees. (Portland, Oregon, 2015)

MJ: When you’re out on these road trips, do you still see reverberations from 9/11 in the country?

PVA: Constantly. You find them in them most unexpected places, like graffiti on a wall. Sometimes it’s a faded picture; sometimes it’s a newspaper tacked to a wall. Sometimes it’s weird paraphernalia related to it, home constructed paraphernalia. It resonates through society and continues to resonate today. The travel ban that was imposed by the administration is a very direct reverberation of 9/11. Even though most people were disconnected from it, the moment amplified a fairly massive and somewhat irrational fear that exists in the populace at large. And I think a lot of the work I’ve done and a lot of the work I’m going to do in the future still ties to 9/11 and the fallout from it.

MJ: In the text you’ve written for both Disco Night September 11 and Buzzing at the Sill, you are introspective about covering war. Do you still cover conflict?

PVA: I am still covering conflict to some degree. I was back in Iraq last year for the next book I’m working on. I’ve covered quite a bit of the Israel and Palestine conflict in the last five years for another book I’m working on. But I’m not doing it with the kind of intensity I was before and I’m not seeking out the front line and the kind danger that comes with being at the edge of the war the way I used to. It just kind of ran its course for me. For a long time I could justify doing it to myself, no matter how irrational it was. It was important to me and my work. And I just don’t feel it in the same way any more. When it comes up and it’s important to me, I’ll do it, but more out of sense of duty than desire—which used to be a big part of it.

MJ: When we started talking, you mentioned that Buzzing at the Sill reflects the times, the current situation in America. Can you explain what you meant?

PVA: It deals with the margins of America, a lot of parts unseen. Well, parts that are seen and familiar to a lot of the populace, but unseen when it comes to the parameters of what mainstream news and popular culture and Hollywood reflects. That kind of unease, that melancholy, is of course partly my interpretation, but partly, I think, it’s something that’s really there as well. It resonates with this moment and the sort of alienation from the power structure a lot of people feel, as well as a certain amount of desperation, in the hope of disrupting the power structure so they can live better lives. I think in those ways, it’s intimately connected to today.

The youngest children tending the horses. (Pine Ridge, South Dakota, 2011)

A “second line parade” is a local African American tradition where brass bands–known as the first line-march in the streets and are joined by members of the public, the “second liners.” (New Orleans, Louisiana, 2012)

All photos by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos, from his book Buzzing at the Sill.

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Donald Trump May Be on Your Television, But Here’s What America Really Looks Like

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Keith Ellison Is Everything Republicans Thought Obama Was. Maybe He’s Just What Democrats Need.

Mother Jones

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Chris Visions

Last May, as Donald Trump was locking up the Republican nomination, a prophetic clip began circulating among portions of the left. It was a nearly one-year-old segment of ABC’s Sunday show This Week, featuring Rep. Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat then on the verge of winning a sixth term. “Anybody from the Democratic side of the fence who’s terrified of the possibility of a President Trump better vote, better get active, better get involved,” Ellison warned, “because this man has got some momentum and we better be ready for the fact that he might be leading the Republican ticket.”

Ellison made his prediction in July 2015, shortly after Trump had launched his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” His fellow panelists laughed along with moderator George Stephanopoulos, who offered Ellison a lifeline. “I know you don’t believe that,” he said. But Ellison insisted, “Stranger things have happened.”

Now, Trump is president, and Ellison, who saw it coming, is after a new job: running the Democratic Party. He announced his candidacy for Democratic National Committee chair in mid-November, and he and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez are the front-runners for the position, which the nearly 450 members of the DNC will vote on in late February. Ellison, an early and vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders who campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton last fall, is running to unify a fragmented party. Sanders backs him. So do Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader. So does the AFL-CIO. Win or lose, the 53-year-old Ellison, a Muslim, African American co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is poised to hold a position of influence in the party during one of the darkest moments in its history. Democrats are out of the White House and in the minority in Congress, and they’ve lost their window to reshape the Supreme Court. They control both the governor’s mansion and legislature in just six states; with another round of redistricting looming, the electoral map is only poised to get worse.

The role of the DNC chairman is to run a political machine that helps to elect Democrats throughout the country, not to dictate the party’s policy priorities. But Ellison’s blueprint for defeating Trumpism is nonetheless rooted in the anti-establishment politics of Sanders. The DNC has become the “Democratic Presidential Committee,” he argues; short-sighted focus on big-dollar fundraising and swing states has weakened the party on a county-by-county level. Change starts with shifting the party apparatus toward assembling a multicultural army of organizers, focused on the communities likely to bear the full brunt of the new president’s policies. Ellison says the proof that this can work is in his district. Emphasizing door-to-door engagement over TV advertising, Ellison boasts he’s juiced turnout in his safe Democratic seat to some of the highest levels in the country. Even as the Upper Midwest goes red, Minnesota Democrats have scored victories at the state level, bolstered by Ellison’s Minneapolis machine.

Republicans are eager to take him on, because in many ways, the story of Keith Ellison is the story conservatives wanted to believe about another cerebral African American community organizer from the Midwest—Barack Obama. Raised Catholic in Detroit, Ellison converted to Islam, dabbled in black nationalism, and marched with the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan—all before his first bid for Congress in 2006. His past dogged him in that run, and it has continued to be an issue in the DNC race: Billionaire Haim Saban, one of the Democrats’ biggest donors, has trashed him as an “anti-Semite.”

As a young activist in Minneapolis, Ellison learned to build coalitions outside the scope of party politics. He also learned the limits of what such activism could achieve without political power. For Ellison, it was a time of experimentation, education, and sometimes radical dalliances that ultimately imbued in his politics a hard-edged pragmatism. Many Democrats underestimated the extent to which Trump’s religious intolerance and ravings about “inner cities” would appeal to broad, largely white swaths of the electorate. They banked on the arc of progress to knock him back. Ellison, who built his career battling racist institutions, knew better than to make that mistake.

Ellison was the third of five boys raised in a big brick house in a mixed-race enclave of Detroit known as Palmer Woods. His father, Leonard Ellison Sr., was a psychiatrist, an atheist, and a hard-ass who quizzed his sons on current events and drove them to Gettysburg to walk the battlefield every Easter. Leonard was a Republican, not an activist. While he once helped to integrate a sailboat race run by an all-white Detroit yacht club, he mostly believed in nudging a racist system through relentless achievement. The Ellison boys were expected to become either doctors or lawyers. They all did.

If his trajectory was ordained by his father, Ellison’s worldview bore the imprint of his mother, Clida, a devout Catholic from a Louisiana Creole family. The congressman’s maternal grandfather was a voting rights organizer in Natchitoches. Clida was sent to a boarding school for safety; the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross outside their house. Clida’s family tree—with roots in the Balkans, France, Spain, and West Africa—was a prism for understanding the absurdity of the South’s racial caste system. Ellison’s younger brother, Anthony, now a lawyer in Boston, recalled Ellison struggling with their mother’s revelation that some of their Creole ancestors had owned slaves. During visits to a family cotton farm in Louisiana, Ellison brought notebooks and a tape recorder and spent hours interviewing relatives.

Ellison’s political awakening, which he credits to reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X at age 13, came during a period of racial turmoil in Detroit. When riots started after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Ellison, then five, hid under his bed as National Guard personnel carriers cruised past his block. Over a two-and-a-half-year period in the early 1970s, one Detroit police unit that formed after the riots was accused of killing 21 African Americans. Ellison feared crime and the people tasked with stopping it. After graduating from high school in 1981, he majored in economics at nearby Wayne State University, moving out of his leafy neighborhood and into a one-bedroom apartment in the city’s crack-ravaged Cass Corridor.

Ellison’s first brush with controversy came a few months into his freshmen year. After joining the student newspaper, the South End, he persuaded the editor to publish a cartoon featuring five identical black men dribbling a basketball alongside a man in a Klan robe who was clutching a club. Above it was a question: “How many Honkies are in this picture?” It was meant to poke fun at racial caricatures, but students didn’t see the humor. An African American classmate stormed into the newspaper’s office to confront him—a scene Ellison breezily recounted in a follow-up column mocking the outcry. His critics were “still living in the Jim Crow era,” Ellison wrote. The firestorm made the pages of the Detroit Free Press.

In the months to follow, friends noticed a change in Ellison. “He seemed to be a little more introspective, a little more circumspect,” says Mary Chapman, a Detroit writer who worked on the South End. “Maybe he grew up.”

Or maybe he found religion. Ellison had drifted from his mother’s Catholic church, but it had left a void. In his 2014 memoir, My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, Ellison writes that he began attending a mosque when he was 19—drawn by a billboard he passed on his commute. Clida Ellison described the reveal as more confusing than shocking. “He announced one day that he was going to mosque,” she said, “and my next question was: ‘What’s mosque?'”

Increasingly, he devoted his energy to anti-apartheid activism, and his columns took on a new urgency. When Bernie Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder after shooting four black men on a New York City subway, Ellison warned, “It won’t be long before police officers, old ladies, weekend survival gamers, and everyone else considers it open season on the brothers.”

He read a lot of Frantz Fanon, the Marxist anti-colonialist writer from Martinique, and in 1985 he attended a campus speech by Louis Farrakhan, the controversial Nation of Islam leader who blended calls for black empowerment with lengthy diatribes against Jews, gays, and other groups. “I remember talking to him and being surprised at how far left he had gone,” says Chuck Fogel, an editor at the South End who lived next door to Ellison. But there was an air of experimentation to everything he did. In high school, Ellison had formed a short-lived ska and thrash-metal band called the Deviants. Now, Ellison would fiddle with his guitar incessantly, studying different variations of “Johnny B. Goode,” Fogel recalls. Sometimes it was the Chuck Berry version. Sometimes it was Jimi Hendrix. “He was trying on things and searching.”

Many democrats view Ellison as the kind of organizer the moment demands, capable of harnessing the resurgent movements of the left—racial justice and economic populism. But critics have flogged a consistent narrative about his past, one that has haunted him since his first run for Congress in 2006. The case against Ellison has its roots in his time at the University of Minnesota Law School, where he began making a name for himself as a fierce critic of police and a Farrakhan defender. It was a radical identity he outgrew, one that friends insist doesn’t represent the Ellison of today, but one that fundamentally changed his idea of how politics worked.

Detroit had been a hub of black culture and political power. The Twin Cities were not. When Ellison arrived in the fall of 1987, the University of Minnesota had few tenured black professors. The state had just one black legislator. In an interview at the time, a young Ellison described the climate as “extremely isolating.”

When the Africana Student Cultural Center sponsored speeches by Farrakhan and one of his associates, tensions erupted on campus between Jews and African Americans. Ellison, who had taken to calling himself “Keith Hakim,” published a series of op-eds in the student paper, the Minnesota Daily, defending the Nation of Islam leader. The center also invited Kwame Ture, the black-power activist formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, to give a speech, during which he called Zionism a form of white supremacy. Ellison, then a member of the Black Law Student Association, introduced him.

In the hopes of mending fences, the university organized a series of conversations between black students and Jewish groups. Ellison could be deferential at these meetings. He thanked Jewish students for sticking up for black students’ right to host controversial campus speakers—even if they had denounced those speakers—and suggested working together on common political causes. But he also insisted the charges that Ture was racist were unfounded. Michael Olenick, a Jewish student who clashed with Ellison and who was the opinions editor at the Daily, recalled Ellison maintaining that an oppressed group could not be racist toward Jews because Jews were themselves oppressors. “European white Jews are trying to oppress minorities all over the world,” Olenick remembers Ellison arguing. “Keith would go on all the time about ‘Jewish slave traders.'” Another Jewish student active in progressive politics recalled Ellison’s incredulous response to the controversy over Zionism. “What are you afraid of?” Ellison asked. “Do you think black nationalists are gonna get power and hurt Jews?” (Ellison has rejected allegations of anti-Semitism. “I have always lived a politics defined by respecting differences, rejecting all forms of racism and anti-Semitism,” he wrote recently. He declined to be interviewed for this story, and his office did not respond to detailed questions from Mother Jones.)

Ellison addresses the Democratic National Convention. Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

At law school, Ellison was already laying a foundation for his shift to politics. He was becoming known as an organizer, with a flair for publicity. At the beginning of 1989, two incidents solidified his growing reputation. On January 25, as part of a series of raids on suspected crack storehouses, police tossed a stun grenade through the window of an apartment building in North Minneapolis. Two elderly black residents died in the resulting blaze. No drugs were found, and none of the men arrested at the building were subsequently charged. A grand jury declined to indict the offending officers.

Ellison and a few students organized a protest over the lack of prosecutions, but the day before their rally, another incident happened at the downtown Embassy Suites. The hotel was a hangout spot for college students, and on that night two parties were happening on the same floor. One was a kegger hosted by a group of white students. The other was a birthday party attended by African American students. It was a low-key gathering; one woman had brought her toddler. But when police responded to a noise complaint about the kegger, they busted up the birthday instead.

Partygoers alleged that the cops had called them “niggers.” One student at the party, a Daily reporter named Van Hayden, told me an officer had dangled him over the edge of the sixth-floor railing. He left in handcuffs, with a broken nose and a few bruised ribs.

The next day, after the students were released, they joined Ellison at the demonstration against police brutality. A few days later, Ellison led about 75 people in a march to City Hall, where they stormed a City Council meeting, forcing officials to yield the floor to Ellison for a 10-minute speech. By then, Ellison was organizing several protests a week and holding press conferences to pressure Minnesota’s attorney general to launch a state investigation into the raid. Ellison demanded “public justice.” “It was a mini-Ferguson before anyone had heard of Ferguson,” Hayden told me.

Ellison and his chief collaborator, an undergraduate named Chris Nisan who was active with the Socialist Workers Party, attracted the attention of Forward Motion, a small socialist journal. Their interview ran with a photo of Ellison clutching a megaphone, a headband wrapped around his forehead. “People are coming face-to-face with their own oppression,” Ellison said. He was alarmed by the rise of white supremacist David Duke. “Eight years of mean-spiritedness of the Reagan era have encouraged fascist and racist forces to come out again. A Ku Kluxer was just elected in Louisiana. We see a rise in police brutality all over the country.” Ellison envisioned a unified front of young black people, white progressive students, organized labor, and American Indians pushing back against the evils of capitalism and white supremacy. “The more the right attacks, the more we have to respond.”

Ellison and Nisan’s protests did win a victory, albeit a limited one. Four of the five students arrested at the hotel were acquitted of their misdemeanor charges, and Minneapolis set up an independent, if weak, review board to investigate police brutality claims. In 1990, Ellison helped launch the Coalition for Police Accountability, which organized community meetings and published a quarterly newspaper, Cop Watch.

As the city’s crime rate soared in the early ’90s, some residents took to calling it “Murderapolis.” Black residents found themselves in the crosshairs of anti-crime initiatives and city politics. Ellison was still leading protests against the police, but he was not just on the outside. Two years out of law school, he ran for a seat on a city commission that controlled $400 million in development funding. Ellison’s slate stunned observers with its organization, bringing in three busloads of Hmong residents to vote in a race few people knew existed. North Minneapolis now controlled seven of eight seats.

Around this time, Ellison began attending a book club led by a prominent history professor at Macalester College who placed an emphasis on reclamation—the idea that whatever gains African Americans made would have to come through their own efforts. “The same way that our ancestors laid something down for us, we got to lay something down for the people who come next,” is how Resmaa Menakem, a friend of Ellison’s who was also in the club, described the theme. In practice, this meant building institutions—schools, civic groups, nonprofits—capable of boosting and protecting the community.

During Black History Month in 1993, Menakem and Ellison guest-hosted a segment on the black community radio station KMOJ about James Baldwin and Malcolm X. It evolved into a weekly show called “Black Power Perspectives” that lasted for eight years. The callers forced Ellison to think and argue on his feet and at times keep his emotions in check. Islam was a particularly volatile subject. White supremacists frequently called in, and Ellison once got so agitated he had to leave the studio.

Ellison’s fiery disposition sometimes got him into trouble. Bill English, a longtime Twin Cities activist, recalled almost coming to blows with Ellison during a nonprofit board meeting in the early aughts. “We went down to nose-to-nose, and people walked up to us and separated us, and a day later he called me and apologized profusely,” he says. English was nearly 70 years old at the time. During his 2012 race, Ellison and his ex-Marine Republican opponent got into an exchange on a radio show so heated that the moderator interrupted to call for a commercial break.

In 1993, after a pit stop at a white-shoe law firm, Ellison landed a job as executive director of the Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit focused on providing indigent defense in the city’s African American, Hmong, and American Indian communities. (One of the group’s founders represented Russell Means and Dennis Banks after their 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee.) Ellison still didn’t shy away from controversy. He partnered with a former Vice Lords gang leader named Sharif Willis to tackle police brutality—an effort that fell apart when Willis held 12 people up at gunpoint at a gas station. (Ellison has called the alliance “naive.”) But he made a name for himself on tough cases. His aggressive legal tactics were a lot like his approach to political organizing. “Some lawyers will spend most of their time in the back room trying to convince not only their client but also the prosecutor to make a deal—Keith was kind of the opposite,” says Bill Means, Russell’s brother and an early supporter of the Legal Rights Center. “He’d be filing motions five, six at a time on a traffic case.”

Ellison’s aspirations as a community leader led him into an alliance with the Nation of Islam. If reclamation was the idea animating Ellison as he entered his 30s, Farrakhan was black America’s leading evangelist for it, commanding huge crowds for speeches that could last hours. In 1995, Ellison and a small group of pastors and activists he’d worked with on policing issues (including the leader of the local NOI chapter) organized buses to take black men of all religions from the Midwest to attend Farrakhan’s Million Man March.

In his book, Ellison describes the event, held in October 1995, as a turning point in his flirtation with Farrakhan. After filling those buses and attending the march, he was struck by the smallness of Farrakhan’s message compared with the moment. The speech was rich in masonic conspiracies and quack numerology about the number 19. What was the point of organizing if it built up to nothing? Ellison says he was reminded of an old saying of his father’s, which is attributed to former House Speaker Sam Rayburn: “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”

Ellison has said that he was never a member of the Nation of Islam and that his working relationship with the organization’s Twin Cities study group (the national organization’s term for its chapters) lasted just 18 months. He has said that he was “an angry young black man” who thought he might have found an ally in the cause of economic and political empowerment, and that he overlooked Farrakhan’s most incendiary statements because “when you’re African American, there’s literally no leader who is not beat up by the press.” In his book, Ellison outlines deep theological differences between the group and his mainstream Muslim faith. But his break from Farrakhan was not quite as clean as he portrayed it. Under the byline Keith X Ellison, months after the march that he described as an epiphany, he penned an op-ed in the Twin Cities black weekly Insight News, pushing back against charges of anti-Semitism directed at Farrakhan. In 1997, nearly two years later, he endorsed a statement again defending Farrakhan. When Ellison ran (unsuccessfully) for state representative in 1998, Insight News described him as affiliated with the Nation of Islam. Two organizers who worked with him at the time told me they believed Ellison had been a member of the Nation. At community meetings, he was even known to show up in a bow tie, accompanied by dark-suited members of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation’s security wing.

Minister James Muhammad, who in the 1990s led the Nation of Islam’s Twin Cities study group, confirms that Ellison served for several years as the local group’s chief of protocol, acting as a liaison between Muhammad and members of the community. He was a “trusted member of our inner circle,” says Muhammad, who is no longer active in the Nation of Islam. Ellison regularly attended meetings and sometimes spoke in Muhammad’s stead, when the leader was absent. An Ellison spokesman declined to answer questions about the congressman’s role in the study group and instead replied in an email, “Right wing and anti-Muslim extremists have been trying to smear Keith and distort his record for more than a decade. He’s written extensively about his work on the Million Man March, and has a long history of standing up against those who sow division and hatred.”

It was only in 2006, as his run for Congress floundered, that Ellison repudiated Farrakhan. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come up,” he told the Star Tribune, when pressed. In a letter to a Jewish community organization, he conceded that Farrakhan’s positions “were and are anti-Semitic, and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did.” Now he considers the matter settled. Last fall, his aides canceled a scheduled interview with the New York Times when they were told that questions about Farrakhan would be raised.

Critics in the Twin Cities view the relationship in cold political terms—Farrakhan was a useful affiliation for Ellison up until he wasn’t. “Keith was able to climb up some steps by talking about his respect and love for the honorable minister,” says Ron Edwards, a Minneapolis media fixture and a former director of the radio station where Ellison co-hosted his show. “People don’t forget that.” Spike Moss, an organizer who worked with Ellison on the Million Man March, called his reversal “the ultimate betrayal.” Farrakhan even recorded a Facebook video responding to Ellison this past December. “If you denounce me to achieve greatness,” he said, “wait until the enemy betrays you and then throws you back like a piece of used tissue paper to your people.”

Menakem attributes the various identities that his book club buddy and radio co-host adopted over the years—Keith Hakim, Keith X Ellison, Keith Muhammad—to “him becoming conscious and him trying on different ways of being before he settled on who he is,” he says. “He’s always remaking himself,” says Anthony Ellison, the congressman’s younger brother. “The Keith Ellison from 20 years ago is not the Keith Ellison today.”

After a decade mostly working outside elected politics, Ellison says he decided to run for the state House after testifying at a hearing on sentencing reform and seeing no black legislators. “We oftentimes had these debates and discussions about ‘out of the streets and into the suites’—that was the term that was used to describe the swan song of the civil rights movement,” says August Nimtz, one of the few black professors at the University of Minnesota and a longtime acquaintance of Ellison’s. “He made a decision and thought he could make a difference by being on the inside.” After a false start in 1998, he won election as a state representative from North Minneapolis on his second try in 2002. A few years later, he jumped into the race to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Martin Sabo in 2006.

In a field that included a former state party chair and a candidate supported by Emily’s List, Ellison had to find his own base amid a steady trickle of stories about his past. One Minnesota political newsletter declared him a “dead man walking.” Ellison labored to show Jewish progressives he’d turned a page. He picked up the endorsement of the American Jewish World, the Twin Cities-based newspaper, and he addressed voters’ concerns about Farrakhan at the state’s largest synagogue. Ellison’s years of organizing and legal work formed the basis for a coalition. Fashioning himself as a lefty in the mold of progressive icon Paul Wellstone, Ellison adopted the late senator’s spruce-green campaign colors and railed against the “Republican lite” leaders of his party. He ran against the Iraq War and pushed for single-payer health care. Also critical was the mobilization of a new constituency in the Twin Cities—Muslim Somali Americans, who had begun settling in the area in the 1990s.

In that first primary, Ellison embraced the old-school tactics he aims to bring to the DNC. He ran no campaign ads; instead, he invested in paid community organizers who started their work early, months before a traditional campaign might lumber to life. Ellison often accompanied his organizers on their rounds. They targeted apartment buildings housing immigrants—Russians, East Africans, Latinos—who had little history of political engagement, and they recruited organizers who came from these communities. “You go to Keith’s campaign office and it looks like the United Nations,” says Corey Day, the executive director of the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. The Minneapolis City Pages called his coalition “the most diverse crayon box of races and creeds a Minnesota politician has ever mustered.”

Ellison’s district is so blue he hardly needs to campaign to ensure reelection. But he views constant voter contact, during the election and afterward, as essential to his agenda. He cites research showing that just 58 percent of self-identified liberals vote, versus 78 percent of self-identified conservatives. If a state party can juice that 58 percent just a little, he argues, it can defeat ballot initiatives and keep its grip on statewide offices. Day credits Ellison’s organizers with beating back a Republican voter ID initiative in 2012. Michael Brodkorb, a Republican operative who unearthed some of the most damaging stories about Ellison in 2006, views Ellison’s get-out-the-vote machine with awe: “He turned political organizing into what I think most people think political organizing is.”

Heading to Washington marked another change in Ellison’s political identity. In St. Paul, “I don’t think more than a handful of close friends of his even knew he was Muslim,” Dave Colling, who managed his first congressional campaign, told me. Ellison shied away from discussing his religion during the race, telling reporters it was “not that interesting.” But as the first Muslim representative ever elected to Congress, a rising tide of conservative religious nativism ensured that his faith would remain front and center.

After Ellison told a Somali American cable-access host that he intended to be sworn into office on a Koran (he used Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy), Rep. Virgil Goode, a Virginia Republican, warned there would “likely be many more Muslims elected” unless his colleagues “wake up.” Glenn Beck asked the congressman-elect during an interview to “prove to me you are not working with our enemies.” The innuendo did not go away with time. In 2012, after they had been representing neighboring districts for five years, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann accused Ellison of working with the Muslim Brotherhood. When Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) held hearings on Muslim “radicalization” in the United States in 2011, Ellison testified in defense of his faith, crying as he recounted the story of a Muslim paramedic who died in the World Trade Center attack only to be posthumously smeared as a terrorist accomplice.

Ellison was thrown into another maelstrom when, in the fall of 2015, Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man, as he lay handcuffed on the ground. After Black Lives Matter protesters began an occupation at the fourth police precinct headquarters, Ellison flew home to meet with them. At first, he backed the encampment. With the city on edge, he moved easily between different groups, negotiating a meeting between Clark’s family and the Democratic governor, Mark Dayton.

For more than a week, Ellison hung with the BLM organizers, even as the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a photo of Ellison’s middle son, Jeremiah, with his hands up while a policeman pointed a gun in his direction. (Ellison called the photo “agonizing.”) But after several white men opened fire on the mostly black protesters, injuring five people, Ellison finally broke with the demonstrators and supported the mayor’s call to relocate the encampment for public safety. Debating with activists on Twitter, he insisted he was merely proposing a change in tactics; the goal had stayed the same. Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds, filling the role Ellison once played of the organizer chipping away at the system from the outside, dismissively referred to him as “the old guard,” and protesters held signs calling him a “sellout.” When Ellison showed up at a North Minneapolis community meeting to explain himself, Levy-Pounds refused to give him the floor and Ellison left without speaking. “It was essentially the establishment versus the community,” Levy-Pounds says. Ellison had crossed over.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, Ellison recognized the Democratic Party was at a crossroads. With a message that foreshadowed his DNC campaign, he traveled the country imploring Democratic groups to get back to organizing. Toting a voter-turnout manifesto called “Voters First,” he barnstormed places where the party was desperate for a jump-start, like Utah and Nebraska. But he also made his pitch to party insiders at the DNC’s summer meeting in 2015, just as the Democrats were powering up their 2016 election machinery, led by a network of allied super-PACs. Implicit in his message was a critique rooted in his experience in Minneapolis: Democrats focus too much on fundraisers and not enough on organizers. They provide lip service to the working class while fêting elites. The party’s losses in November have reinforced Ellison’s belief.

Clara Wu

In laying out his platform, Ellison, who has promised to step down from Congress if he wins, acknowledges a rot within the party. It has lost more than 900 state legislative seats since 2008, and the problem is self-perpetuating; those losses mean Republicans control redistricting, which means Democrats lose even more seats, which means they have fewer candidates to run for higher office, and so on. Former DNC Chair Howard Dean, facing a similar quandary, proposed a 50-state strategy; Ellison is offering “a 3,143-county strategy.”

Party chairs reflect the ethos of their time. Dean followed the wave of the progressive Netroots; Tim Kaine mirrored the hope and dad jokes of Barack Obama. Ellison’s candidacy and the intensity of the progressive groups backing it are in many ways a continuation of the last war, between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who the Vermont senator’s supporters claim was unfairly aided by the Democratic establishment. Ellison’s closest rival, Perez, is backed by Clintonites. But the frame elides the similarities between the two. Perez, like Ellison, was a civil rights lawyer, and he retooled the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to refocus on voting rights and police abuses. They aren’t far apart politically, and their prescriptions for healing the party aren’t too different either. When it comes to the DNC, their biggest difference may be that Ellison supports a ban on accepting money from lobbyists and Perez doesn’t. (But Ellison says he won’t press the issue if DNC members oppose it.) Ellison wants the DNC to get a greater share of its funds from small-dollar donors, and he has committed to acquiring Sanders’ historically lucrative email list for the party if he wins. Perez would like that list, too, of course, but Ellison, by virtue of his close relationship with Sanders and trust among the party’s left wing, might stand a better chance of both getting it and knowing how to deploy it.

He is pledging to bring voters who have not been active in Democratic Party politics into the fold, just like he’s done in Minneapolis. “We’ve got to give Black Lives Matter a place where they can express themselves electorally,” he said in December, while in the same breath urging the party to cast aside tired assumptions about voters in the Midwest: “Can we not say ‘Rust Belt’ anymore? Look, I’m from Minnesota—I don’t feel rusty.” Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who co-chairs the progressive caucus with Ellison, says his colleague’s strength is in rallying diverse factions around a common narrative. “He can talk about his life experience. He can talk about what it’s like to represent and be part of a multicultural, multiracial, multi-issue kind of a political activism.”

Choosing Ellison to lead the Democratic Party would be a gamble. It would mean going all in on a diagnosis that says the party’s shortcomings in recent years are not due to a rejection of liberalism by voters, but because the party has not been liberal enough. It might alienate a small but influential faction of Democratic leaders, such as Haim Saban. (At a debate featuring DNC candidates in January, Ellison said he and Saban had spoken and “we’re on the road to recovery.”) Still, Ellison is betting big on his hands-on formula. If Democrats do the work, he reasons, they just might be able to reverse their losses and usher in a new era of post-Trump progressivism. In the first days of the Trump administration, it looks like a long shot. But stranger things have happened.

Additional reporting by Ryan Felton.

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Keith Ellison Is Everything Republicans Thought Obama Was. Maybe He’s Just What Democrats Need.

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Trump Visit to Black Church Will Feature Protests But No Speech

Mother Jones

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Donald Trump is hoping that his upcoming appearance at a predominantly black church in Detroit will help him make inroads with black voters. But before Trump mingles with worshipers at Great Faith Ministries on Saturday, he will be welcomed by a protest organized by a black pastor critical of the presidential candidate.

On Monday, the Detroit Free Press reported that Rev. W.J. Rideout III, the leader of All God’s People Church and a community activist, is planning a “March on Donald Trump” protest for Saturday. Rideout told the paper that while he does not oppose Trump’s speaking in Detroit, “I don’t want him to think that he can come in here and get our votes.”

In a recent interview with CNN, Rideout said that Trump’s recent attempts to reach black voters are too little too late after more than a year of comments critical of Muslims, immigrants, and other minorities.

“How can I give him credit for the things that he has said about black African Americans, Latinos, gays, lesbians?” he said. “The things that he has said is not peaceful talk. He’s trying to build walls and we’re trying to build bridges.”

Rideout did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump’s upcoming appearance at Great Faith Ministries was initially billed as the candidate’s first speech before a black audience, an attempt to counter recent criticism that Trump’s black outreach consisted wholly of talking about black communities in front of white audiences. Earlier this week, Trump’s campaign manager said that the candidate is planning to visit several black churches prior to Election Day.

But on Wednesday, the Free Press reported that Trump actually won’t address the congregation during his time in the church on Saturday. Instead, he will attend a sermon and then sit down for a one-on-one interview with the congregation’s leader, Bishop Wayne T. Jackson, that will be broadcast on the Impact Network, a Christian television cable network owned by the minister. The network, which Jackson claims reaches some 50 million homes, usually broadcasts sermons and other religious programming, but will air the interview with Trump as a network special. The interview will not be open to the media and will not be filmed before an audience.

Jackson says that while Trump will not address the congregation during the service, the candidate’s appearance could lead to informal interactions. “He’ll be here Saturday,” Jackson told the paper. “He’s going to sit in service and have the experience in the black church, and then he and I will be in this office and do an interview for the Impact Network that will be aired later on. Just like any visitor, there will be fellowship at the service, and he can talk to people one-on-one.” Jackson has said that he has also invited Hillary Clinton to appear at the church and sit down for an interview.

Trump’s interview will be filmed on Saturday but won’t air for at least a week.

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Trump Visit to Black Church Will Feature Protests But No Speech

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These Stats Show Why Milwaukee Was Primed to Explode

Mother Jones

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Milwaukee’s mayor imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on Monday and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker activated the National Guard in response to weekend rioting sparked by Saturday’s fatal police shooting of an armed black man, 23-year-old Sylville Smith. The unrest, in which protesters torched multiple businesses and police cars and at least one person was shot, was the second wave of major protests since December 2014, when a county prosecutor declined to file charges against police in the fatal shooting of another black man, Dontre Hamilton. But while anger over such police shootings may have set off the mayhem, decades of unemployment, segregated housing, substandard schools, and racist policing set the stage for Milwaukee to blow. Indeed, the city has earned itself a reputation as the worst place to be black in America. Here’s why:

Concentrated poverty: Milwaukee is one of the nation’s most segregated cities, with black residents—40 percent of the population—living almost exclusively on the city’s north side. Milwaukee is also America’s second poorest major city, in a state that in 2014 had the nation’s highest black unemployment rate. A third of its black residents live in “extreme poverty,” defined as a household with an income less than half that deemed appropriate by the federal government for a family of its size—and 40 percent live below the poverty line. This is partly because the region’s jobs are concentrated in three white suburbs that are all but inaccessible by public transportation. The WOW counties, as these suburbs are known, are at least 94 percent white, and just 1 to 2 percent black.

Failing schools: Milwaukee’s public schools are doing a poor job of educating their students. During the 2013-14 academic year, Milwaukee had the nation’s largest black-white gap in graduation rates, and K-12 test scores were abysmal.

Most black kids in Milwaukee attend highly segregated public schools. According to University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Mark Levine, roughly three out of four attends a high-poverty institution where 90 percent of the students are black. And when those kids misbehave, schools are quick to dole out suspensions. In 2011-12, Wisconsin led the nation in suspending black high schoolers, thanks largely to excessive suspension rates in Milwaukee. (If you want to understand why suspensions are bad, and how children can be disciplined more effectively, read this piece.)

Mass incarceration: Black men in Milwaukee are incarcerated at the highest rate in the nation. In 2013, according to UW researchers, one in eight were locked up, and by the time the men hit their 30s and 40s, more than half have served time. Two-thirds of the incarcerated men came from six of the city’s poorest zip codes, including those for Sherman Park, the neighborhood where the most recent police killing took place. Another of the zip codes (53206) has the highest black male incarceration rate in America—62 percent, according to another UW study. (A documentary on that community is due out later this year.) So many Milwaukeeans have criminal records, one ex-offender told NPR, that police routinely ask the people they pull over whether they’re on probation. Wisconsin spends more on corrections than on higher education. And to top it off, just 10 percent of black men with a criminal record in Wisconsin have a valid drivers license—which makes it tough to secure jobs and services. (The sheriff of Milwaukee County recently called the Black Lives Matter movement a terrorist organization.)

How it got this bad: Black people moved to Milwaukee in large numbers beginning in the 1960s—later than many blacks who left the South inhabited other Rust Belt cities such as Chicago and Detroit during the Great Migration. White immigrant communities in Milwaukee fiercely resisted integration in housing and schools, and when the city’s manufacturing industry collapsed shortly after blacks arrived, massive racial disparities sprang up in employment, housing, and education. Milwaukee also was hit harder by globalization and by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs than other major urban centers, an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found. Black men suffered a drop in employment during this period that was more than twice what the nation endured during the Great Depression. White residents fled to the suburbs, taking their resources with them, and little has improved since. Decades of tensions between police and the city’s black communities helped fuel this latest flareup.

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These Stats Show Why Milwaukee Was Primed to Explode

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Tesla wants to be your renewable energy everything

Tesla wants to be your renewable energy everything

By on Jun 24, 2016 5:04 amShare

Elon Musk — future Mars settler, founder of Tesla – stepped into the solar business earlier this week with Tesla Motor’s $2.5 billion bid to buy SolarCity, the top home solar company in America.

Shareholders from both companies still have to approve the deal. And if they do, Tesla promises the results will be awesome. Musk says that he never wanted Tesla to be just a carmaker. Buying SolarCity will turn Tesla into a company that will sell you an electric car and the power to charge it. “This would start with the car that you drive and the energy that you use to charge it, and would extend to how everything else in your home or business is powered,” Tesla wrote in its company blog.

Then Wall Street frowned. The day after the announcement, Tesla’s stock slumped 10 percent, and Morgan Stanley cut its rating on Tesla’s shares.

So what gives? Does Wall Street not have the vision to get with Musk? Is the most futuristic car company in America about to drive off a cliff?

Here are a few ways of looking at it:

This whole thing is really a family drama.

Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s co-founder and CEO, is Musk’s cousin. Is there some kind of family power struggle taking place? According to Eric Weishoff, founder of Greentech Media, Rive “didn’t sound happy enough for a man that just got $77 million dollars wealthier.” And why should Tesla buy Solar City when the two companies have been collaborating on batteries for half a decade now?

Tesla’s stock is sinking because Wall Street doesn’t get Silicon Valley.

Tesla was born in the startup culture of Silicon Valley, where it’s all about taking bold stands and getting big or going home. In Silicon Valley, companies eat other companies for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night snack.

Worriers, however, have good reason to wonder why Tesla wants to get into the solar business so badly when it has 375,000 pre-ordered Tesla Model 3s that it’s supposed to be making. There’s the also the example of Sun Edison, an actual energy company that went bankrupt after a massive company-buying spree.

This smushing together could actually work, because, you know, synergy!

Tesla’s current clientele is, to put it mildly, loaded. Three-quarters of Model S buyers make more than $100,000 a year. It’s entirely possible that they are exactly the kind of people who might wander into a showroom, order a car, and impulse-purchase an entire solar installation to go along with it.

Solar City sells 100,000 solar installations a year to a wide demographic. If the price of the Tesla Model 3 manages to drop from the current sticker price of $35,000 and keep dropping, it’s imaginable that SolarCity’s current customers could be persuaded to choose a Tesla for their next car.

What we really need are lots of little Teslas, not a bigger Tesla

It’s been clear for a long time that Musk is a crazy dreamer of the Steve Jobs variety. But building a big company, even a really cool big company, cannot get America to low-carbon car heaven alone. The Big Three automakers — GM, Ford, and Chrysler — arose out of a Cambrian stew of automotive experimentation in the workshops of Detroit. Many have made the point (including me) that three still wasn’t enough to create the kind of competition that the American automotive industry needed to avoid getting its ass kicked by automakers in Germany and Japan.

This sale — if it goes through — might lead to great things. But what the world really needs are many Teslas, enough to create a large ecosystem of entrepreneurs working on cars, batteries, and solar. We need this a lot more than we need to buy solar panels from a car company.


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Tesla wants to be your renewable energy everything

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Officials face criminal charges for the first time in Flint water crisis

Officials face criminal charges for the first time in Flint water crisis

By on Apr 20, 2016commentsShare

Three city and state officials are now facing felony and misdemeanor charges in the wake of the Flint water crisis, almost two years to the date after the drinking water catastrophe began.

The employees in question, according to the Detroit Free Press, include Michael Glasgow, the city’s laboratory and water quality supervisor. Glasgow faces multiple charges, including tampering with evidence to hide tests that showed dangerous levels of lead in the water supply. The other two officials, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality official Michael Prysby and Steven Busch, a district coordinator for the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, face charges of misconduct in office, tampering with evidence, and violating the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, among others.

In an effort to save an estimated $5 million over two years, in 2014 the city began supplying its water from the contaminated Flint River instead of Detroit’s municipal water system, which it had used for the past half-century. Flint leaders continued to claim that the water was safe to drink, despite residents’ complaints about the smell and taste. In September 2015, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) publicly acknowledged the problem for the first time, promising to take action in response to the higher-than-average lead levels seen in children’s blood.

Gov. Snyder is not facing any charges, criminal or otherwise. He will be drinking Flint’s tap water, though, in a show of solidarity for a month — well, when it’s convenient.


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