Stomping on Martin’s Dream

Writing to overturn key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts declared, “Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically. Largely because of the Voting Rights Act ‘[v]oter turnout and registration rates’ in covered jurisdictions ‘now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.’…The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years.”

“Justice,” in this case, is best understood as an occupational title, not a moral principle, let alone an aspiration to mend our grievously fragmented social contract.

No sooner did the U.S. Supreme Court stomp on the Voting Rights Act, nullifying some provisions and sending the pivotal Section 5 back to Congress for refinement (good luck with that), than Texas, followed by a host of Republican-led state legislatures, set about making radical changes in election policies, practices, and laws.

The crucial part, Section 5, required certain states and counties notorious in years past for infringing on the voting rights of people in certain groups, said groups defined largely by the color of their skin, to ask permission of the Department of Justice before changing state voting laws.

Adopted initially in 1965 and extended in 1970, 1975, and 1982, the Voting Rights Act was arguably the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted by the United States Congress. Then John Roberts got out his chain saw and work boots.

Normally, it takes months or even years before the full effect of a Supreme Court decision can be assessed, let alone felt at ground level. This time it took a day. The ink was barely dry on John Roberts’s signature before the Texas legislature reinstated a voter registration law earlier overturned and put on hold by a lower District Court. Other states followed suit.

Consider this: In Texas, between 600,000 and 800,000 registered voters lack the photo ID the new law requires. People of color are between 46 percent and 120 percent more likely than whites to be in that number. Voter ID cards are issued by the Department of Public Safety. Only 81 of 254 Texas counties have DPS offices. Some people must travel as much as 250 miles to get to a DPS office; counties where the majority of residents are not white are far more likely to lack a DPS branch; non-whites in these counties are about half as likely as whites to have a car. DPS ID cards are free to non-drivers, but the documents required to validate the person’s identity and right to be in Texas are not. Obtaining a birth certificate is no easy matter in any state. Texas requires an original, not a copy. If the person’s name on the birth certificate is not the same as the one being used, then another original document – a marriage license or court ordered name change, for example, also not free – must be presented.

I have a driver’s license. I have my birth certificate. I have a court decree allowing a name change. I am not in Texas. Still, reading the Texas brochure explaining how to document my identity made my head want to explode.

Texas does not accept as valid a student ID card – not even one issued by a state college, a welfare ID card, or a SNAP (food stamp) ID card. But I’m not picking on Texas alone. Other states reject certain state-issued photo IDs but accept others, such as a concealed weapon license.

It’s not just Voter ID cards that are stomping on Martin Luther King’s dream. Republican legislatures and state election officials are cutting back on polling places in strategic areas – places where the majority of voters are of color, to be specific. Here’s Texas again: in one county that is home to a traditionally black college, where there were four polling places now there is one. And that one is expected to serve more than 9,000 voters. The state average is 1,500 voters per site. Outside the 9,000-voter poll are 35 parking places. And the law does not allow polls to stay open after the normal closing time if people are still on line waiting to vote.

Get the picture? Even people who have been able to vote in years past stand to lose that right if the 30-plus states contemplating, or implementing, strict Voter ID laws are successful. Says the American Civil Liberties Union,

“Studies suggest that up to 11 percent of American citizens lack such ID, and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain it or forego the right to vote entirely….Three additional states passed laws to require documentary proof of citizenship in order to register to vote, though as many as 7 percent of American citizens do not have such proof.”

Almost without exception, those who will find themselves required to jump through flaming hoops to vote, and those unable to make the leap, will be people of color, elders, students, and those with disabilities. What do these groups have in common? They’re more apt to vote for Democrats; they tend to see the Republican Party as indifferent, if not outright hostile, to their interests.

Now why in the world would they think that?

Personally, I don’t think that rank and file Republicans are necessarily blind to what their chosen party is up to. I think that independent voters and registered Democrats, who see what’s going on but don’t have much sway with the legislators who are stomping us back to the 1960s, have a role to play in talking with reasonable, ethical, aware Republicans, getting them to call on their legislators to remedy this situation before the 2014 elections.

Legal challenges will proliferate. Voter registration drives will help people get the documentation they need to vote. And maybe, just maybe, the Obama Administration will be as good as its word.

On August 22, as the Justice Department filed suit against the new Texas law in federal district court, Attorney General Eric Holder said,

“We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights,” Holder said Thursday. “We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement. This [suit]represents the department’s latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last.”

And on August 28, speaking at the ceremony celebrating 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, crowned by Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech, President Barack Obama said,

“[W]e would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all…it requires vigilance.

And we’ll suffer the occasional setback. But we will win these fights. This country has changed too much. People of goodwill, regardless of party, are too plentiful for those with ill will to change history’s currents.”

From your lips to god’s ears, Mr. President. We can help, but it’s you who ultimately must pick up dear Martin’s dream from under the heels of those who would grind it to dust. At this you must not fail.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Just as Congress was heading home for a five-week vacation, the administration closed embassies throughout the Middle East, warning of increased danger of an attack somewhere, on something, and telling people everywhere to be extra cautious.

Gradually, it emerged that the warning came because someone overheard a phone  conversation between two Al Aqaeda leaders about how they’d like to do something destructive around this time.

Americans who are inclined to be afraid are now Very Afraid. And congressmembers are conveniently at home and can hear directly from those who are afraid about how they don’t mind if their privacy is compromised as long as we don’t get attacked again.

This happens against a backdrop in which some representatives and senators in both parties are preparing bills to curtail the National Security Agency’s snooping powers, ending the FISA Court’s tradition of hearing only one side of the story, and more.

So what I want to know is this: If it’s true, as we’ve been told, that NSA is recording only who we are talking with on the phone and in email, how often we contact them, and for how long we are in contact — but not what we say — how is it that someone heard the conversation between these two Al Qaeda leaders (I’m omitting their names purposely)? Doesn’t that mean NSA is actually listening to phone conversations?  And if the program that lets the NSA listen to this phone conversation has nothing to do with the NSA program some legislators will try to curtail, when will the administration tell us that?

They will tell us, won’t they?

Guilty of Getting Himself Killed

You want proof that his race was what got Trayvon Martin killed? Try this: a jury of six white women found his 29-year-old killer not guilty of second degree murder or even manslaughter because the 17-year-old black boy, wearing a hoodie in the rain and armed with a bag of candy and a can of iced tea, put him in fear for his life.

Forget that the killer, a fully-loaded pistol stuffed in his pants, called police to report a “suspicious” person on the street, said “these assholes always get away,” and muttered “effing punks” under his breath. Note the use of the plural nouns, “assholes” and “punks.” It shows the shooter saw the boy not as an individual human being, but as the representative of a class of undesirables he didn’t want in his neighborhood. Walking while black was Trayvon Martin’s crime, and he paid for it with his life.

Okay, I’ll grant you that Trayvon, on his cell phone talking with his girlfriend, described the man who challenged his right to be in the neighborhood as a “creepy-ass cracker.” Note the use of the singular noun. Trayvon confronted one person. The killer confronted an entire class of people — black men, to be specific.

I submit to you that so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws such as the one that gave the killer permission to shoot a boy in the chest at point-blank range give an unfair, even fatal advantage to non-black men who harbor fantasies of black men as bigger, stronger, and angry to the point of threatening their lives simply by existing.

The prosecution had to prove malicious intent to get a conviction. All the defense had to do was sow a reasonable doubt in the minds of six women, people like me who have never evoked terror or size envy in a man who saw them as representatives of a class of less-than-human beings.

I certainly have a reasonable doubt that Trayvon Martin could have banged his assailant’s head on the concrete sidewalk — repeatedly, as the defense claimed — without rendering him unconscious, or dead. I have a reasonable doubt that Trayvon even put up a good fight; there was no evidence of blood on his hands, or of the killer’s skin under his fingernails.

If you doubt for a moment that Trayvon died because he was black, picture his shooter as the black man and Trayvon as a light-skinned Hispanic boy. What do you think the verdict would have been then?

Don’t tell me America is not still a racist nation.

I have one consolation to offer: Even if he loses all the weight he gained while awaiting trial, unless he undergoes a face transplant George Zimmerman is marked for life. He’ll always have the 4-a.m. horrors of remembering how it felt to pull the trigger. He doesn’t dare shoot another black man; that would reveal who he really is. But he’ll always be looking back over his shoulder, fearing vengeance.

My religion holds that there is that of God in everyone. I’m trying to believe that about George Zimmerman, but I can’t help but hope he never again experiences a good night’s sleep.

And I also hope that those who are expressing their anger in public will honor the stoic dignity of Trayvon’s parents, and not answer violence with violence. The best revenge will be to stand up tall and witness for justice, every time we see a violation of a human being’s right to walk free.

We, the people…and the Farm Bill.

Growing up in Massachusetts means a special kind of connection to the Fourth of July. Along with Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July is one of two holidays all Americans can claim as our own. Both were born in Massachusetts: Thanksgiving in Plymouth around a communal dining table and the American Revolution, which started with the shot heard ‘round the world in Lexington and Concord.

The Fourth of July here is almost as long-planned for as is Christmas and the winter holiday season. Patriotic fun abounds and is helped along by all kinds of traditions. Boston’s Harborfest is the ultimate spectacular. Here in western Massachusetts there’s a somber reading of the Declaration of Independence at Old Sturbridge Village; in New Bedford the traditional Blessing of the Fleet; fine art shows in Brewster; a road race on Nantucket and a week of fireworks displays in every region of the Commonwealth.

Sure, we all learned about the American Revolution as school children. Even before we studied American history in high school, we knew July 4th is the birthday of our nation. My dad was a Marine and a veteran of the Korean War. The Fourth was a big deal. Back then, we kids lit sparklers and the grown ups fussed over packing up snacks for the trek to see fireworks at Szot Park.

As a child, I didn’t give much thought to what the day really meant. I did know that voting was the first test of patriotism in my parents’ house. When I turned eighteen, I registered to vote. I have kept faith with what my father taught me.

Each of us who step into a voting booth honor our forebears: fifty-six men pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor in a Philadelphia meeting hall to the original thirteen colonies, soon to become the United States of America. Honorable men, who debated for hours before signing the Declaration of Independence. Some gave their lives in the war that followed, many gave their fortunes, and all of them preserved their sacred honor.

All for a philosophy of freedom that turned the world upside down and changed the concept of what it meant to govern and be governed.  A nation of promise and growth “from sea to shining sea.” Lately, I’ve come to think of this day as more than
just the birthday of a nation.

I think a lot about our people, our farmers and our food. Watching the unfolding political landscape that lacks congressional cooperation in getting a farm bill passed to support our farmers and our people hits a nerve. The same one that made me register to vote 40 years ago, and the reason I encourage everyone to do the same. Voting matters.

There are those in Congress, notably US Representative Eric Cantor, who welcome the opportunity to break the traditional alliance between rural and urban by separating  the agricultural and nutrition title pieces of the Farm Bill. National Farmers Union Board of Directors passed a resolution this week that said, in part, “Not only would this be a jarring disruption to the historic coalition of urban, rural and conservation groups, it would also likely effectively kill both bills, producing no legislative action for either.”

Today we have two million farms down from five million farms thirty years ago, and 313 million people up from 227 million people during those same thirty years. According to the American Farm Bureau, farmers and ranchers receive only 16 cents out of every dollar spent on food at home and away from home. In 1980, farmers and ranchers received 31 cents. We have less farmers producing food for more people.

If you are looking for more good reasons not to let a new comprehensive Farm Bill go unpassed, I suggest you read Joel Berg’s article. Berg points out that supporting our farmers and feeding our hungry are not exclusive of each other, the crux of the rural-urban partnership that creates the Farm Bill is not partisan, it’s practical. While fingers have been pointed across both the aisles, it’s appropriate to call out Eric Cantor for his part in the shenanigans aimed at hurting our farmers and everyone else.

The Fourth of July is a reminder that our government is created and managed by our people, with no powers except those granted to it by our people. We seem to forget the basis of our nation’s founding sometimes, and we never should. Let your elected representatives to Congress know you want them to go back to work on passing a comprehensive Farm Bill before the extension of the 2008 Farm Bill expires on September 30.

If they can’t manage that, maybe it’s high time that we, the people, throw the bums out.

Farm Bill defeated in House; traditional rural-urban alliance frayed

The old rural-urban alliance that married farm and nutrition programs failed to get a Farm Bill through the House this afternoon. The bill lost 195-234, with food stamps apparently the main issue.

The House seemed ready to pass the bill this afternoon “after the Agriculture Committee leadership agreed to a sweeping en bloc amendment Wednesday night to greatly shorten the time of debate” and protect the bill from weekend lobbying, David Rogers reports for Politico. The amendment passed 217-208, clearing the decks for votes on more controversial amendments and final passage or defeat.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Tex., agreed to let his “divisive food-stamp amendment” fail on a voice vote to help attract Democratic votes needed to pass the bill, Rogers writes. The House later rejected an amendment by Rep. Mike Huelskamp, R-Kan., to impose certain work requirements on food-stamp recipients, but then voted 227-198 for an amendment by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., to allow states to set their own work requirements. That may have doomed the bill, which drew only about 20 Democratic votes. About 60 Republicans voted against the bill, which would reduce money for food stamps and put new restrictions on the program.

An amendment by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, D-Va., to scrap the bill’s proposed dairy program failed by a wide margin, despite support from House Speaker John Boehner. Rogers writes that the battle “may be best described as the well-connected vs. the well-heeled. Politically influential milk co-ops like Dairy Farmers of America dominate one side; Kraft Foods, Dean Foods and Nestle, the Swiss international company, are on the other.” (Read more)

Among amendments approved was a bipartisan measure that would allow colleges and universities to grow industrial hemp for academic and research purposes in states that have authorized industrial hemp growth.

Reprinted with permission from The Rural Blog.  Article written by Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and The Rural Blog.

Happy Flag Day!

Each year on June 14 we celebrate the wonder that is Old Glory with pride and local flavor. Check out a few fun facts and the history of Flag Day from the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia. If I lived in the area, my event choice would be the free hot dogs at the Columbus/Fort Benning Elks Lodge tonight at 6:30.

Our nation’s flag is proudly displayed everyday all across America. We fly our colors from our town halls and schools on flag poles, we display them on walls and in wooden cases. We even drape our front porches with the red, white and blue.

Make a point to find your local Flag Day event and celebrate your patriotism with local flavor!

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Unanimous high court backs Monsanto over farmer

Agribusiness food giant Monsanto took on Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman (NPR photo by Dan Charles) in a dispute over a patent to grow genetically modified soybeans. The case went all the way to the top, with the Supreme Court ruling unanimously yesterday that Bowman violated Monsanto’s patent.

Monsanto’s soybeans are resistant to the weed killer Roundup, which Monsanto also manufactures. Bowman bought his first crop from Monsanto, and his second from a grain elevator, then used his own soybeans that were now resistant to Roundup, which the court said was making copies of a patented invention, Richard Wolf recounts for USA Today.

Justices said Monsanto spent hundreds of millions of dollars over more than a decade to perfect its soybeans, something it would not have done if others could so easily replicate them, Wolf reports. Center for Food Safety executive director Andrew Kimbrell argues that “the court’s ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics, because it improperly attributes seeds’ reproduction to farmers, rather than nature.” (Read more)

We wrote in February that soybeans “farmers grow from these seeds have the same Roundup Ready traits that the original seeds did, but Monsanto has farmers sign an agreement that they will not use the beans for a second planting. Farmers also aren’t allowed to sell the beans to others for planting, but they can sell them for feed to grain elevators like the one where Bowman got the beans in question,” reports Robert Barnes for The Washington Post.

Reprinted with permission from The Rural Blog.  Article written by Tim for The Rural Blog.  Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and The Rural Blog.

Heartbreak in Whately, MA

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A massive fire tore through the Golonka farmhouse in Whately, Massachusetts last week. Sonia and Mary Golonka died. A sad day for the Golonka family, the Pioneer Valley agricultural community and the never ending stream of customers who visit the Golonka Farm produce stand all season long.

Most farms and ranches in the United States are family owned and operated. USDA defines family farms as “any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation.”

In 1956, Mary Golonka was a young farmer’s wife with a growing family. She and her husband Bernard started out growing cucumbers. I can only imagine how many families made pickles with Golonka cucumbers over the years. Their youngest son is the farmer now. Jim Golonka and his wife built the farm stand some 25 years ago. Most days, his sister Sonia, who lived in the family home with the elder Mrs. Golonka, manned the counter.

Golonka Farm’s vegetable stand is my favorite place to shop during the growing season. And for good reason. The produce is exceptional and everyone knows about where to find the best tasting corn in the valley come July. Not to mention, every purchase came with a smile and a forecast from Sonia Golonka on what next crop would be ready for buying when I returned the next weekend.

Sonia loved to knit, cook and gave good advice about both. At the close of last season, I stopped for enough pumpkins to make pie filling for the upcoming holidays. After Sonia sweet talked me into trying a jar of corn cob jelly. I said goodbye as fitting for the end of the growing season. “See you in the spring,” I said.

“I’ll be here,” she responded with her typically shy smile. She waved, I waved back.

This morning I used the last of that corn jelly on a piece of toast. I’ll be looking for another jar later this year. True to her word, Sonia will be there. She’ll be watching over her family, the farm stand and customers like me who came to care for her over many years of Sonia’s shy smiles … from heaven.

Any questions?

Supreme Court to mull control of patented seeds

The case of an Indiana farmer who planted the genetically altered soybeans he got from a local grain elevator has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Hugh Bowman’s dispute with agricultural giant Monsanto has evolved into a larger debate of the influence big agribusinesses have on farmers.

Monsanto, the producer of the powerful herbicide Roundup and the genetically altered crops that resist the herbicide, says that Bowman’s decision to plant the seeds he got from the grain elevator, seeds that farmers are expected to use for feed, was a violation of their planting agreement with farmers. “His legal battle, now at the Supreme Court, raises questions about whether the right to patent living things extends to their progeny, and how companies that engage in cutting-edge research can recoup their investments,” Robert Barnes reports for The Washington Post.

More than 90 percent of U.S. farmers use genetically altered soybean seeds from Monsanto or from companies licensed by Monsanto, Barnes writes. The beans farmers grow from these seeds have the same Roundup Ready traits that the original seeds did, but Monsanto has farmers sign an agreement that they will not use the beans for a second planting. Farmers also aren’t allowed to sell the beans to others for planting, but they can sell them for feed to grain elevators like the one where Bowman got the beans in question, Barnes said.

Bowman, now 75, bought Roundup Ready seeds from 1999 to 2007 for initial plantings, but used seeds from the local grain elevator for second plantings, which are usually less profitable, making Monsanto’s seeds less economical. Monsanto sued Bowman and was awarded nearly $85,000, Barnes said.

“Monsanto should not be able, just because they’ve got millions and millions of dollars to spend on legal fees, to try to terrify farmers into making them obey their agreements by massive force and threats,” Bowman told Barnes. Monsanto has countered that its “notoriously high research and development costs” to produce living products like the Roundup Ready seeds merit legal protection for its seeds and their progeny. “Inventors are unlikely to make such investments if they cannot prevent purchasers of living organisms containing their invention from using them to produce unlimited copies,” Monsanto said in its court brief.

Monsanto has raised fears about what the end of a streak of legal victories for the company might do to the biotechnology industry, and many experts have argued in its favor, Barnes reported. Patents and patent protections lie at the heart of innovations like the ones that made Roundup Ready seeds available for farmers, some say.

Others say Bowman’s actions represent the much larger issue of the domination of agriculture by a few businesses. Bowman maintains that his actions did not threaten Monsanto. “I see no threat in what I’ve done,” he told Barnes. “If there was, there’d surely be a hell of a lot of other farmers doing it. . . . As far as I know, I’m the only damn dumb farmer around” who has tried.

Reprinted with permission from The Rural Blog.  Article written Martha Groppo for The Rural Blog.  Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and The Rural Blog.