Political MoJo

50 Years Ago Today, "Bloody Sunday" Catalyzed The Civil Rights Movement. Are We Backsliding?

| Sat Mar. 7, 2015 6:55 AM EST

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" assault in Alabama, where on March 7, 1965, police violently assaulted hundreds of demonstrators attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the fatal police shooting of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Hurling clubs and tear-gas cannisters, state and local police viciously attacked more than 500 people that day. Images and footage capturing the violence shocked the nation and left an indelible mark on the civil rights movement. The march forced a new level of public awareness of the struggles shouldered by civil rights activists and African Americans, and is credited for helping pave the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

AP
AP

James "Spider" Martin, who died in 2003, was a young photographer at the Birmingham News assigned to cover the march. NPR recently broadcast an interview he did in 1987 about the day's brutal events.

"He walks over to me and, blow! Hits me right here in the back of the head," Martin said upon recalling a moment when a police officer approached him. "I still got a dent in my head and I still have nerve damage there. I go down on my knees and I'm like seeing stars and there's tear gas everywhere. And then he grabs me by the shirt and he looks straight in my eyes and he just dropped me and said, 'Scuse me. Thought you was a nigger.'"

President Obama and many other dignitaries are scheduled to visit Selma this weekend to commemorate the anniversary. On Friday, Obama called the work of civil rights activists an "unfinished project." The president's comment came in the wake of numerous high profile deaths of black men at the hands of police, and just days after a federal investigation cleared former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown last August, of possible civil rights violations. At the same time, the Justice Department released a federal report detailing years of rampant racial discrimination, including disproportionate arrests of African Americans, carried out by the Ferguson Police Department.

Brown's death and the failure of a grand jury to indict Wilson sparked a firestorm of debate over policing policies, with violent protests demanding police reform and that Wilson be prosecuted breaking out across the country. Many say the aggressive display of force by police officials towards non-violent demonstrators in Ferguson mirrored the events in Selma nearly fifty years prior.

AP/Charlie Riedel
 

Also at the forefront of this weekend's "Bloody Sunday" anniversary is the Supreme Court's recent gutting of the pivotal Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of discrimination to seek federal authority before attempting to alter local voting laws. In 2013, the court voted 5-4 to strike down a crucial tenet of the landmark legislation. The decision ultimately allowed states, including North Carolina and Texas, to enact strict voter ID laws without automatic Justice Department review. Many say such laws make it increasingly difficult for minorities to cast ballots.

"It is perversely ironic to commemorate the past without demonstrating the courage of that past in the present," NAACP president Cornell Brooks told The Atlantic's Russell Berman last week. "In other words we can't really give gold medals to those who marched from Selma to Montgomery without giving a committee vote to the legislation that protects the right to vote today."

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Tea Party Darling Ben Carson Says Prisoners Prove That Homosexuality Is A Choice

| Wed Mar. 4, 2015 10:45 AM EST

Ben Carson, the prospective 2016 presidential hopeful beloved by Tea Partiers, told CNN host Chris Cuomo on Wednesday that he believes homosexuality is "absolutely" a choice—because "a lot of people who go into prison, go into prison straight, and when they come out, they're gay." 

The former neurosurgeon went on, "So did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question."

Carson, who has previously compared homosexuality to murder and bestiality, also said that states should decide the legality of gay marriage, not the Supreme Court. Watch below:

 

Obama: Netanyahu's Speech Fails to Offer "Viable Alternatives" on Iran

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 5:27 PM EST

President Barack Obama weighed in on Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial address to Congress on Tuesday, saying the Israeli prime minister's remarks did not provide any "viable alternatives" to preventing Iran from securing a nuclear weapon.

The Associated Press reported that after reading a transcript of the speech, Obama noted that Netanyahu used essentially the same language as when the United States brokered an interim deal with Iran, a deal the president said Iran followed through on by scaling back its nuclear program. White House officials also slammed the address:

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu characterized the negotiations—which would ease sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on the country's nuclear program—as a "bad deal" that would inevitably strengthen Iran's nuclear capabilities, rather than stopping them.

"I don't believe that Iran's radical regime will change for the better after this deal," Netanyahu said. "This regime has been in power for 36 years and its voracious appetite for aggression grows with each passing year. This deal would whet their appetite—would only whet Iran's appetite for more."

In January, House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak before Congress without consulting the White House—a move that received widespread condemnation from Republicans and Democrats as a clear attempt to undermine the president's authority. As many as 60 Democrats boycotted Tuesday's speech.

DOJ Finds Pervasive Racial Bias at Ferguson Police Department

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 4:10 PM EST

The Department of Justice has concluded that the Ferguson Police Department engaged in racially biased practices, including disproportionately arresting African-Americans during routine traffic stops. The findings are the result of an investigation launched back in September, which found that systematic biased behavior, including "racist jokes about blacks" on police email accounts, have resulted in fractured race relations in the Missouri community and a deep mistrust of police officials. From the Times:

In compiling the report, federal investigators conducted hundreds of interviews, reviewed 35,000 pages of police records and analyzed race data compiled for every police stop. They concluded that, over the past two years, African-Americans made up about two-thirds of the city’s population but accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests and 88 percent of cases in which the police used force.

The full report is expected to be released on Wednesday.

The findings are separate from an FBI investigation focused on Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown last August. According to previous reports, the Justice Department is planning to clear Wilson of civil rights charges.

Brown's shooting death and a Ferguson grand jury's decision not to indict Wilson sparked a national debate on police brutality and racist police practices.

Hero Mom Has the Perfect Response to Son Begging to Join ISIS

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 3:48 PM EST

Everyone of us can relate to having once been a stupid teenager, irrationally whining to our parents about needing to hang out with that group, wear this outfit, etc.

Such is the case of 19-year-old Akhror Saidakhmetov of Brooklyn who had a burning desire to join club ISIS, like all the cool kids seem to be doing these days. But despite having all the gear to prove he was ready to commit to the band, Saidakhmetov's dreams were ultimately crushed by a very adolescent roadblock—his mom. From the Times:

Mr. Juraboev and Mr. Saidakhmetov bought tickets, planning to travel to Turkey and then sneak into Syria, court papers say, and as the date of their departure neared, they seemed eager.

But Mr. Saidakhmetov still needed his passport, and on Feb. 19 he called his mother. In a conversation recorded by federal agents, he asked for it. She asked him where he was going. He said to join the Islamic State.

"If a person has a chance to join the Islamic State and does not go there, on Judgment Day he will be asked why, and it is a sin to live in the land of infidels," he told her, court documents say.

She hung up the phone. It is unclear if he managed to get his passport back. But the government’s informer helped Mr. Saidakhmetov secure travel documents. In the days before he left, he told the informer that he felt that his soul was already on its way to paradise.

Trust us, young Saidakhmetov, you'll thank your mom one day. We already do.

Sean Hannity Said Some Something Really Creepy at CPAC Today

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 2:20 PM EST

In his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference this morning, Fox News' Sean Hannity had some downright creepy things to say about the "young, good-looking crowd:"

I can look out in the crowd, I kinda have Fox X-ray vision, and I can see that some of you women, you don't even know it yet, but you're pregnant. It's not your fault. It's not his fault.

The joke—if that's what it was—bombed, drawing nervous laughter and groans from the crowd. The Twitter reaction was swift and perplexed:

Other CPAC attendees were apparently unfazed by Hannity's claim that he could seen into women's uteruses.

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California's 3-Strike Prison Reform Is Working

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 1:19 PM EST

California's three-strikes law used to mean that all third-time felons had to spend at least 25 years behind bars—pretty harsh, considering that the third strike could be the result of stealing a $2.50 pair of tube socks. Last year, voters decided to scale back the policy, and passed two initiatives to give judges more sentencing discretion and retroactively reduce the penalties for low-level drug and theft crimes. Law enforcement leaders warned that the reform would set free "thousands of dangerous inmates," and called it "a radical package of ill-conceived policies" that "will endanger Californians."

Of roughly 2,000 former life prisoners freed as a result of the three-strikes reform, only 4.7 percent have returned to prison.

But almost five months after the second initiative passed, that warning sounds increasingly overblown. About 45 percent of inmates released from California prisons normally re-offend within 18 months. Of roughly 2,000 former life prisoners freed as a result of the three-strikes reform, only 4.7 percent have returned to prison, according to the New York Times. These ex-convicts had been out for an average of 18 months.

Experts say that intense exit counseling helped contribute to the low recidivism rate. "There's a lot of emotional work," Mark Faucette, director of community relations for the Amity Foundation, told the Times. "They're moving from a number to a name."

Crime rates did fall—but a 2012 study from UC-Riverside later found that it had nothing to do with three strikes.

Two decades ago, fear of crime was at a nationwide peak. The murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a career criminal helped push Californians to pass the three-strikes law, the country's strictest, in 1994. Crime rates did fall—but a 2012 study from UC-Riverside later found that it had nothing to do with three strikes. The law also added an estimated $19 billion to the state prison budget. As federal courts started pressuring California to shrink its prison population in 2009 due to inhumane treatment and overcrowding, the three-strikes legislation made even less sense.

The tides may be shifting for the rest of the country, too. As my colleague Shane Bauer writes, a 2013 poll found that even among Texas Republicans, 81 percent favor treatment over incarceration for drug offenders. Other states—more than 20 of which also passed three-strikes laws in the 1990s—may also soon be questioning prison time as a blanket solution for low-level crimes.

Elizabeth Warren Launches New Battle Against the Fed

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 7:02 PM EST

While speaking before the Senate's Banking Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) hit Fed Chair Janet Yellen with a string of harsh questions over the performance of Scott Alvarez, the Fed's general counsel, who is at the helm of an investigation of a Fed leak from September 2012.

Warren has expressed frustrations over the investigation's lack of public information. 

"Wall Street banks could profit handsomely if they knew about the Fed’s plans before the rest of the market found out, and that’s why any leak of confidential information from the Fed results in serious penalties for the people who are responsible," Warren said on Tuesday. "But apparently there have been no consequences for the most recent leak."

The Massachusetts senator specifically pointed to Alvarez's Wall Street-friendly reputation, mainly referring to his past criticisms of Dodd-Frank, when she asked Yellen whether the Fed's views aligned with those of its top lawyer.

Pressed for a strict yes or no response, Yellen eventually said she is "not seeking to alter Dodd-Frank in any way at this time."

"Do you think that it is appropriate that Mr. Alvarez took public positions that do not evidently reflect the public position of the Fed’s board, especially before an audience that has a direct financial interest in how the Fed enforces its rules?" Warren responded.

Yellen appeared slightly irritated:

 

 

 

The FCC Just Approved Net Neutrality

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 2:40 PM EST

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to categorize the internet as a public utility and thereby uphold strong net neutrality regulations.

Advocates applauded the passage as a victory for internet consumers, blocking what had been described as the creation of internet "fast lanes" for companies willing to pay more for high-speed service.

The vote came down to a 3-2 margin, with dissents from Republicans Michael O'Reilly and Ajut Pai. 

"The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free open access to the internet," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said prior to the vote.

"The internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules," he added.

In recent months, net neutrality has emerged as a divisive political issue, with fierce opposition against regulations coming from Republicans and broadband providers alike. President Obama's announcement back in November fully supporting net neutrality's preservation prompted members of the GOP to denounce the potential move.

 

Obama Just Vetoed the GOP's Keystone Bill, and This Democratic Presidential Hopeful Is Pissed

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 6:12 PM EST

Jim Webb is sounding increasingly serious about running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Last week, National Journal's Bob Moser wrote a cover story wondering whether the former Virginia senator could "spark an anti-Hillary uprising," in which Webb explained that his absence from the campaign trail this winter was, in part, the result of major knee surgery to fix problems leftover from his days in the Vietnam War.

Webb struck his first blow against his fellow Democrats on Wednesday. But rather than targeting Clinton, his likely presidential opposition, he struck out against the party's incumbent, President Barack Obama. In a series of tweets, Webb lashed out at the president for vetoing a bill that would have approved construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Webb's tweetstorm doesn't tell the whole story. A letter from the EPA released earlier this month argued that, thanks to recent drops in oil prices, Keystone XL could prove disastrous for carbon emissions.

As I detailed in December, Jim Webb had an atrocious record on climate change and environmental issues while he served in the Senate. Standing up for Virginia's roots as a coal state, Webb tried to thwart Obama's efforts to regulate greenhouse gasses through EPA regulation, and he helped block Democratic attempts to pass a cap-and-trade law.

Clinton, for her part, has regularly sidestepped addressing whether she wants to see the pipeline constructed, though she has generally been supportive of other environmental efforts made by the Obama administration.

While Webb objected to Obama's decision to veto this specific bill, it's still unclear whether the two Democrats disagree on the underlying issue. Obama has strenuously rejected attempts by congressional Republicans to force immediate approval of the pipeline, but his administration has not yet said definitely if it intends to let the project go forward eventually.