On the eve of wealthy cis white men who made their money through slavery declaring independence for stolen land, this week’s Extra! Extra! takes a look at the state of democracy in the US and abroad. Many people, far more eloquent than I am, have reflected on what “freedom” even means in a country born out of genocide and slavery; current events only reinforce the hypocrisy on which this country was built. The news this week serves as a reminder of the ways that equality, freedom and the most basic of human rights remain out of reach for far too many people.
The State of Democracy
Natalie: In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Stacey Abrams reminded us that “voter suppression was baked into the notion of America.” At the heart of that is the idea that voter eligibility is enshrined in the Constitution but voter access is left to the states. We’re seeing the consequences of that in the disparate response to voter access: from Washington and Oregon where there is full access to the franchise to Texas, Kentucky and Alabama, which continue to place hurdle between citizens and the ballot. Until our Congressional leaders and our president understands that voting is a right not a privilege, this will continue to be a recurring problem.
Himani: As if the voting situation weren’t bad enough on its own, we simultaneously have people (who, by the way are overrepresented in our political systems by virtue of the voter suppression, gerry meandering, and electoral bull shit Natalie discuses above) gearing up for Civil War. Quite literally.
Himani: Russia held a much anticipated constitutional vote this week to determine if Putin could run for re-election and, therefore, hold power until 2036. The all or nothing vote included several other changes to the constitution, including a largely overlooked “definition of marriage as possible only between a man and a woman.” Unsurprisingly (for a country with a long history of electoral manipulation), the constitutional amendments won a clear and overwhelming majority of the vote. This win sets Putin up to become the longest-serving Russian leader. In the lead up to the election, opposition groups raised several concerns, including the inability to monitor voting fraud and an early assessment of the election indicates that fraud was, indeed, rampant.
Himani: Meanwhile, barely a month ago, China forced a security law through Hong Kong and that law has just gone into effect this week. The law directly targets the pro-democracy protests that have been ongoing in Hong Kong for over a year. A mere 24 hours after coming into effect, nearly 400 protesters were imprisoned. As with so many other situations, this move also has global ramifications. Within the region, China’s maneuvers in Hong Kong have exacerbated tensions between China and Taiwan. The UK and the US have offered their own responses, although given both governments’ general appeal to nativism, what this means in practical terms for the people of Hong Kong remains to be seen.
Himani: Over in Ethiopia, tensions are mounting again between the Ethiopian government and the Oromo people after the murder of a Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa. It’s unclear who was behind the murder, but his death led to a series of protests that were violently suppressed by the government.
Natalie: When we reflect on some of the most significant moments in world history — the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, September 11th — we always say, “never forget,” but, increasingly, it’s becoming clear that we are forgetting. The treatment of the Uighurs is slipping closer and closer to genocide and we’re not doing enough to stop it. Shame on us for looking the other way.
Rachel: The past month has been an unbelievable roller coaster for trans legal issues. All of the factors we’d usually look at to get a sense of the landscape — court rulings, public opinion and support, access to resources and community, economic options — have been in intense flux between the recent SCOTUS ruling, the 10,000-strong rally for Black trans lives in NYC, and the Trump administration’s attacks on healthcare and safe shelter during a global pandemic. Between JK Rowling’s comments and other public events like Graham Linehan’s suspension from Twitter, there’s more mainstream public discourse around TERF ideology than I feel I’ve ever been aware of before. I feel ill-equipped to talk about major takeaways from this moment, but am definitely noticing two things: the multivalent movement around Black lives in this moment has successfully resisted being watered down or forced into a one-dimensional, oversimplified position; demands on multiple fronts around support, survival, decarceration, mutual aid, and Black trans folks’ needs have all remained on the table and refused to be understood as mutually exclusive, a deeply inspiring organizing feat. (This pearl-clutching tweet really tickled me, and this level of attempted pushback feels to me like a marker that messaging and organizing in this arena has been successful!)
Second, although this moment is about more than electoral politics or federal policy, it remains remarkable and important to note just how driven the Trump administration remains when it comes to literally killing trans people. In the midst of multiple national (and global!) crises on constantly shifting, dynamic fronts and an election, it cannot be emphasized enough how clearly violence against trans folks is being prioritized.
Natalie: I can’t disagree with what much of what Rachel said here, though I am a bit more skeptical of whether or not the effort to make the movement as inclusive as it was intended to be has worked. I want to find the joy in the rally for Black Trans Lives but I worry about sustaining the movement… and ensuring that we invest as much (if not more) time, energy and money in helping black trans women live and not just demanding justice for their deaths.
To that end, I think these cases are appalling: in a government committed to the rule of law, anti-trans restrictions on health care, education and housing would’ve been withdrawn immediately after Bostock. The Court’s been abundantly clear on non-discrimination…and yet the administration persists…because the cruelty, however brief, is the point.
Himani: In addition to everything Rachel and Natalie have said above, this article is a sobering reminder that even on the rare occasions the law is on the right side of human rights, trans people continue to face substantial and dangerous discrimination while on the job. Job protections are incredibly important, but that is only the first step. Culture within individual industries, among customers and clients – in short, society as a whole – needs to change substantially to ensure true rights and security for trans people.
An Update on the Protests, Police Brutality and a Few Recent Wins
Rachel: I’m really grateful to the people who have for a while now been sounding the call that we need to include the psychiatric and medical systems in our discussion of what decarcerating on a cultural level would look like. This very clear link between the PIC and our healthcare system, in which cops coerce paramedics into sedating civilians with ketamine, in many cases an extremely dangerous amount, really crystallizes some of why that’s so urgent. I’m also reminded of the ongoing revelations around “excited delirium,” a term I had never heard before this month but is apparently well-worn: “In 1985, two University of Miami professors, Charles Wetli and David Fishbain, set out to explain what they saw as a puzzling new phenomenon: sudden deaths, mostly in police custody, of otherwise healthy men under the influence of a non-lethal amount of cocaine. “Excited delirium” was the term they coined to describe the state of agitation in which these individuals allegedly ignored pain, lost touch with reality, and spontaneously died.” Hm! Are we thinking that the ‘deaths in police custody of otherwise healthy men’ is a genuine medical epidemic, occurring in a vacuum?
The history of otherness and disposability being medicalized is strong in the West; think of women being suppressed through theories of “hysteria,” of the unspeakable and nonconsensual medical experimentation performed on Black and Indigenous people, of the horrific medical myths that Black people don’t feel pain. In the coming months and years, as cities and states are successfully pressured to move away from traditional policing, it will, I think, be important to watch out for a further lateral move into this carceral healthcare strategy, and “kinder, gentler” police that want to provide “mental healthcare” for the people they arrest in the same way that arrested sex workers are forced into “diversionary programs” that claim to uplift them and in fact control and deprive them. As anyone with a history of mental illness, especially psychotic disorders, can tell you, being forcibly detained into mental healthcare by the state does not particularly help!
Natalie: If you ever needed evidence that our current system of policing cannot be reformed, it has to be completely dismantled and reimagined, let this story be it. Alex Keung was a well-intentioned guy who joined the police force in an effort to bring change from the inside but being inside the system proved corrosive and on that fateful day, he allowed the system he intended to change work as it always has.
Himani: The title of this article is clearly clickbait. But, author and social worker Jonathan Foiles provides a candid look at the anti-Black racism built into social work as a discipline from its inception. In his own words: “A temptation that has been present within social work from the beginning is to offer a thin veneer of respectability to systems that must be radically reimagined. … The first step is to begin listening to Black and brown Americans as they share their stories and their efforts at reform; anything less merely continues the dynamics of white supremacy that have led us to this problem in the first place.”
Natalie: I’ve lived in the South for most of my life which has meant growing up seeing the Confederate flag and statues with startling regularity. For years, I’ve thought that the best case scenario was that statutes would be adorned with a plaque that acknowledged that the Confederacy was a stain on our history and a betrayal of the great American experiment. I wanted an acknowledgement that the forefathers of our state had gone to war to enslave their fellow citizens… an acknowledgement that is far more controversial than you might think. That was the best I’d ever hoped for… I didn’t dare dream of this.
(Sidenote: beneath the Confederate monument that sat in Raleigh, North Carolina’s capitol square, crews found a time capsule from 1894. It’s worth asking: who buries a time capsule beneath a statue that they don’t want to be discovered one day? They saw then what I couldn’t even begin to hope for…that one day the statues would come down.)
But in the case of Mississippi, a state that’s carried the Confederate battle insignia on its flag since 1894, let’s be clear about why this change is happening: Mississippi’s flag is changing because Kylin Hill, a running back for the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the reigning best player in the state of Mississippi, refused to play under the flag any longer. Once Hill stood up, the dominoes started to fall: prominent coaches spoke out, University presidents spoke out and then conferences began to consider not hosting events in the state. The threat to the state’s sacred cow — college football — at stake, the legislature finally moved.
They did the right thing… a thing I never believed would happen… but they only did it because they were forced to do so.
And In Case Anyone Still Believes the Police Are Needed to Investigate Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
Himani: Every article and every account of domestic violence and sexual assault that I’ve read always come back to the same point. The police didn’t help. The criminal justice system enacted its own violence on the victims, forcing them to relive their trauma, placing them at risk and never, ever offering up anything even remotely resembling justice.
Update from the SCOTUS
Himani: The Supreme Court handed down its much-anticipated ruling on abortion this week and, on the face of it, abortion seems to be safe. But as many, many legal scholars and political commentators have observed, this wasn’t really a win for reproductive rights. Dahlia Lithwick says it best when she writes, “Roberts’ concurrence is classic Roberts—cloak a major blow to the left in what appears to be a small victory for it. … Not only that, he goes further and does essentially what he did in last year’s census case and last week’s challenge to the DACA rescission: He hints that essentially any old pretextual defense of an abortion law will serve; he just doesn’t like when lazy litigants offer up sloppy pretexts.”
Himani: This was one of the more disturbing things I’ve read in a week full of disturbing news. It serves as a sobering reminder that the shameless rapacity of tech companies is truly what will do us all in.
Himani: Well, Trump is over at Mount Rushmore today, in yet another instance of the US government completely disregarding tribal sovereignty and endangering the lives of indigenous people. Last week, the Oglala Sioux president called for the removal of the faces of four racist US presidents from the sacred Black Hills that were stolen from them.
And, on a somewhat related note, talk of Mount Rushmore reminds me of this investigative report from The New Yorker about the multi-decade project to carve a monument of Lakota leader Crazy Horse into the Black Hills which brings in millions of dollars a year from visitors. Unshockingly, none of that money goes to indigenous people or any of the tribes in the area.
And What about Paying the Bills…?
Natalie: So my home state is #1 at being the absolute worst… this checks out.
There’s been a lot of pushback against the governor (Roy Cooper (D-NC)) for how slowly the unemployment system has been in responding to the unprecedented need — after filing for unemployment in late March, my own mom went eight weeks without a check (and the federal support that came with it) — but, truly, this is how the system was set up to work. Republicans destroyed the social safety net in North Carolina intentionally: refusing the Medicaid expansion, denying benefits to 9 out of 10 unemployed North Carolinians, putting strict limits on the amount of money citizens can receive and for now long. The fact that, in the early days of the pandemic, the state had moved to only denying 6 of 10 is kind of a miracle. I sincerely hope that Thom Tillis, the architect behind this inept system, gets held accountable in his Senate campaign.
Rachel: I’ve been thinking recently about the conversations I had at the beginning of this pandemic, roughly 10,000 years ago in March, about whether this crisis would provide an opportunity for systems of oppression (and capitalism) to further grind the spirit of the US’s general populace into the dirt, or whether it would be a context for radicalization and mobilization. Certainly in the past month it feels like I got an answer! My initial reaction reading this stories is absolutely, you know, despair — and I feel incredible despair and helplessness thinking about my friends who were laid off and have no options for employment in sight, my friends who never even got a stimulus check or still haven’t gotten their FIRST unemployment payment, my friends with kids who are now seeing a seemingly indefinite stretch of time ahead where they’re expected to homeschool, parent, and homemake 24/7 while also working full-time – or in some cases while unable to find work. I’m incredibly worried about my brother, who’s had to continue his in-person essential worker job throughout this, and my mother, who will have to return in-person to a school system with really unclear anti-exposure practices in a few months. At the same time, the past month has given me hope that the measures outlined above aren’t something that we as a nation will accept, and that the long-overdue changes we’re seeing in many other areas could also be brought to bear on the capitalistic policies that have been killing people from one side while COVID kills them from the other for months.