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Interviews for Resistance: A Conversation with Kali Akuno

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We are pleased to share with you the first in a new, syndicated series of interviews by Sarah Jaffe. INTERVIEWS FOR RESISTANCE will introduce you to some of the key figures in the growing movement(s) against our reactionary new federal government. We hope you will find comfort in knowing the crucial work of fighting back has already begun in many (sometimes unexpected) places, and find tools in these conversations for your own part in the struggle.

Kali Akuno, co-director of Cooperation Jackson, a project advancing a solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi through a network of worker-owned coops. / Photo courtesy Kali Akuno/Cooperation Jackson

Kali Akuno, co-director of Cooperation Jackson, a project advancing a solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi through a network of worker-owned coops. / Photo courtesy of Kali Akuno and Cooperation Jackson

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. In this series, we’ll be talking with organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who are working both to challenge the Trump administration and the circumstances that created it. It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequality are impossible to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sexist, and xenophobic violence. But around the country, people are doing the hard work of fighting back and coming together to plan for what comes next. This series will introduce you to some of them.

 —Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe with Kali Akuno, co-director of Cooperation Jackson:

Kali Akuno: Greetings. My name is Kali Akuno. I am the co-director of Cooperation Jackson, an emerging cooperative, innovative project in Jackson, Mississippi. The overall aim and intent is to create a vibrant social solidarity economy in Jackson and, more thoroughly, to use that to transform the local political economy of Jackson and the State of Mississippi, i.e. to take it over and to move it in a more radical direction.

Sarah Jaffe: You are part of a new project called Ungovernable2017. Can you tell us about that?

KA: The Ungovernable project started election night. There was a video chat that myself and Cooperation Jackson hosted as part of an ongoing project that we have called An American Nightmare, which is focused on the question of disposability, labor disposability, particularly the disposability of the black working class. It is kind of a canary in the coal mine. We wanted to have a conversation that night to really try to sharpen in on what forces throughout the United States could and should be doing in the next period, regardless of the outcome.

Now, truthfully, myself and many others thought that Trump was going to win very early on, but were really just trying to prepare ourselves and prepare others to start having an open and honest dialogue about what the next four years, assuming that the democratic order will stay in place. Once it was clear that he had won the Electoral College, he was going to be the next president of The United States, a point that I raised was “Now we need to prepare to be ungovernable.” That lingered in my head.

It is a phrase that I remember picking up from my younger days, from the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s as part of their non-compliance strategy. So, drawing on that historical memory is where that phrase came from. The general idea of the project is to start propagating ideas on how to build and resist this incoming regime. There is a focus on Trump, which is necessary, but I think we miss the boat if we don’t really look at the Republican controlled Congress, the Republican controlled Supreme Court, which is now an inevitability, and if we don’t look at the fact that Republicans control two-thirds of all of the state governments. We are looking at a major right wing shift I think the likes of this country has never seen before.

It is a minority movement and it is a minority government in every instance. I think we really need to be mindful of that. We are going to have to really dig deep and figure out how to develop a comprehensive program that enables us to survive this austerity onslaught that they are going to come hard with. How do we use it not only to pivot to resistance, but to actually create the new future that we need, and to see this as much as an opportunity to do many things that were off the table three or four years ago?

The Ungovernable project, first and foremost, we are trying to galvanize and mobilize forces throughout the country and throughout the world to take actions on January 20, but beyond that, we really want to engage in creating a larger conversation on how to build a serious resistance program.

SJ: You said that you did think that Trump was going to win. Can you talk a little bit about the analysis you had that led you to be prepared for this?

KA: I have the benefit of living in Mississippi, as odd as that may seem. I saw the enthusiasm for Trump. I listened to a lot of right wing and reactionary radio, in part because of political reality and the context in which I am in, but also to study what these forces are doing, how they are doing it, who they are reaching, what is their impact? I started looking in September at the Electoral College map and the map lined up pretty favorably for Trump. I never thought that he would win the popular vote, but you don’t need to win the popular vote in the United States to win the presidency. It was very clear to me that if he could win a few key states—North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Michigan—he had a shot.

Now we need to prepare to be ungovernable.

There was clearly no enthusiasm in the black community for Hillary Clinton. A couple of different places, I happened to be on the road when she was having events in different cities throughout the country. Even though she spent eight years really building up the infrastructure to prepare for this presidential run, she just couldn’t overcome the historic deficit in the black community. People really just did not believe in her, nor forget what she and her husband did during their eight years in the White House. The 1990s was [at the time] the largest number of people in history being incarcerated, under their watch. People didn’t forget her super-predator comments. Even though she did get a lot to support, financially, from institutions like the Congressional Black Caucus and the black Democratic Party machine,[*]  she couldn’t turn that into votes. She couldn’t turn that into mobilization. Obama got out there and was imploring everybody to go out and vote and if people didn’t vote—he was talking about the black community—and if they didn’t vote for Hillary, he would take it as a personal affront.

Despite all of that, they knew—I think—looking at all the metrics, I think they knew that they were in trouble. I think one of the things that clearly let me know that she was vulnerable was by all accounts Bernie should not have stood a chance in hell at actually challenging her given how much money she had in her war chest. How she had been basically buying allegiances for over almost a decade, had the money to back it, had the finance capital and virtually almost all of Wall Street on her side, and they were struggling.

I think Trump is a very astute politician. I don’t think any of his antics are random. He comes off that way to disarm people, but he is very calculated. Some moves that he did, particularly in the black community—one that I will cite, there were some folks who were trying to get Hillary to address issues of concern about the Clinton Foundation and its actions in Haiti and how they helped to install a very oppressive and reactionary regime in Haiti. Some Haitian activists were trying to get her to speak to certain concerns and they basically ignored the Haitian community. Trump very skillfully went to Florida on two occasions that I am aware of and talked to a lot of the Haitian leadership, much of which is actually left wing. He played up on the dislike that many have for the Clinton Foundation and the Clintons and what they have been doing in Haiti. For him to go and try to get, at best, ten to twenty thousand votes from the Haitian community means that he was doing some serious math and he realized, “Hey, this could add up. If I can just break what is typically considered the black vote, it will help me and my chances in Florida and some other key states to turn the tide.”

He was looking at those moves, looking at that electoral map, really looking at the economic anxiety in the black community, but also in the white community, which is very real in Mississippi, very real in the South, very real in the Midwest. I don’t think that was being heard. It wasn’t really being paid attention to. I think he picked up on it. He did everything he could on several occasions, as you remember, to very visibly and very publicly appeal to Bernie voters and say, “Hey, I am on your side. We are talking the same economic measures and concerns,” which is not true, but it was great rhetoric.

Then, I think also the reality, a deeper piece, is that there was economic populism, economic nationalism that he presented in a very crafty way, and very skillfully also did the racism card and the racism. I think he played up racist fears. He knew exactly what he was doing. I think he was a very astute follower of history. I think his analysis was very reminiscent of what Reagan did when he came down here to Mississippi and went to the site near where civil rights workers were murdered. He came out with some great slogans—Reagan did and so did Trump. “Make America Great Again”—many on the left laughed at it, but I think anybody who watches Westerns knew exactly what he was doing. I think he picked the perfect target and spoke to both concerns about racism and economics with targeting the wall and targeting Mexico. He knocked out several things all at once.

Then, the rise of Occupy and the rise of the Movement for Black Lives, I think, also presented a certain amount of angst amongst large sectors of particularly rural white America about being excluded, a narrative about being overrun, isolated, marginalized, forgotten. He played all of that up. I think people need to recognize that in terms of what his strategy was and where the lack of strategy was on the other side.

Photo courtesy of Kali Akuno and Cooperation Jackson

Photo courtesy of Kali Akuno and Cooperation Jackson

SJ: You mentioned, of course, that this was still a minority movement, that a small percentage of people voted for Trump. He won the Electoral College, not the popular vote. Why is it important to remember that when thinking about resisting Trump?

KA: I always bring it up because people feel isolated, number one. Which is, in part, what I call late capitalism or neoliberalism, part of what it is socially designed to engineer. Neoliberalism needs to be understand as a political movement. First and foremost, what it was trying to accomplish is breaking our social solidarity. It has done a good job over forty years, clearly. Clearly, as we see with what we are calling the “neo-Confederate states” and the Trump regime, that many thought there was not much more to squeeze after 2008. They have, clearly, been proven false and they are going to try to squeeze the people more, very hard and fast, beginning in the next couple of weeks. We already see it with the repeal of Obamacare on the Senate floor [this week]. And Trump is not even the president officially yet.

We need to recognize that in a number of different instances, that folks who actually want to see something different constitute the majority. There were the majority of people who voted against Trump, if you just look there. On a deeper level, this is something that I think we need to look at more profoundly and really try to address: the 50 percent of voting age adults in this country who typically don’t vote.[**]  I don’t think that is apathy. Or not all of it. I think there is a growing dissatisfaction with the façade of democracy. People feel that “Whoever I vote for, nothing fundamentally is going to change. Their economic policy is going to be what it is. A lot of the fundamental questions around society are not on the ballot. We are restricted from being included in any serious discussion of democracy and what we can vote on, so why should I vote?” I think that is begging for some more fundamental, deeper, and systemic change that I don’t think the electoral strategy and the electoral focus that we—in this case being the left—have been so oriented towards touches upon.

Time and time again, particularly over the last twenty years, where we have demonstrated our greatest strength is actually in the social movement side, the resistance side. We have to find ways to build the type of organizations and institutions that can build a radical hegemonic project that is beyond episodic, that is beyond just Occupy, or beyond just the Movement for Black Lives, but is really geared towards meeting direct needs and in the process creating new types of social relationships, creating the society that we want, that we envision, and that we need. We have to figure out “How do we rebuild the social bonds? How do we rebuild the social solidarity that we need?”

I don’t think any of us have, by far, all of the answers, but some things are staring us in the face. I have been constantly pointing out that those of us who want a different path, who actually chose a different path in the means that were available, we were in the majority and not in the minority. We need to look towards each other, first and foremost, for the solutions that we need.

SJ: What you were just saying leads us pretty perfectly to talking about what you are building in Jackson. Tell us a little bit about Chokwe Lumumba’s election and then what is still going on with Cooperation Jackson.

KA: I will give the shortest version I can of the overall project and strategy. I am a long-time member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. After September 11, one of the key things that we have been working on, securing the freedom of our political prisoners, prisoners of war, and political exiles—we recognized after September 11 that was going to become a major challenge, if not impossible, given how the United States government was going to redefine the political terrain. We recognized that we were going to have to do some major shifts in our own orientation and strategy. One of the main things that we recognized was that the repressive nature of the United States government was going to reach new levels. The COINTELPRO program, which was devastating to black liberation and socialist organizations, that was founded as a secret program under the United States government. Largely illegal by their own law and standards. We knew that after September 11 they were going to create something that would be COINTELPRO-like.

We created a strategy group and we started to try to rethink what we were doing with the limited resources and limited human forces that we have. “How could we be more effective?” It took us a couple of years to narrow some stuff down. Then, after Katrina, it got sharpened and focused. We started to take climate change more seriously, particularly once we looked at the maps of the United States and recognized where major sea-level rise would impact—most of it being in low-lying communities in the South where black people are highly concentrated. We said, “Okay, where are we strongest? Where could a small radical organization really bore itself in and have the greatest amount of impact?” For a lot of different reasons, we looked at Mississippi. We looked at Jackson in particular, partly because we already had a strong chapter there that had some major victories in the eighties and nineties, and said, “What can we do that would lend us towards being in a position to shape the outcome of society on a municipal scale?” That led us to the creation of the Jackson-Kush Plan.

Out of that plan, there were some things that we were already working on, like people’s assemblies. We re-shaped and re-focused and re-purposed it in a lot of ways to try be an instrument of dual power. Something that can both press government, but also work outside of it to transform society, to really push for a new politics. Then, the third part, which is where Cooperation Jackson comes in, is transforming the economy, creating a democratic economy leading towards the creation and construction of a socialist economy, but through a democratic bottom-up process.

The first major piece that we put forward to try to actualize that strategy was the election of Chokwe Lumumba. We first ran Chokwe for City Council in 2009 and he won that election. We wanted to do that, first and foremost, to gain some experience in the art of governing and learn municipal law, municipal code, and to try to figure out what could be done on a municipal level to support a radical program of social transformation. Despite many of our years, if not decades, of studying radical theory and process, we didn’t encounter many who had any serious analysis on how to actually govern. Those first four years, we learned a little bit. We felt confident enough that we wanted to try and move it to the next level and we ran Chokwe for mayor in 2012 and 2013. He won in 2013. He took over the mayorship in July and he held that position until his untimely death in February 2014.

Something like Cooperation Jackson had been thought of for over ten years prior to Chokwe becoming mayor. We knew we wanted to build something like Cooperation Jackson, and our initial thinking was then that the first thing we wanted to do was to change some of the municipal law to support local hiring, local buying, local procurement to change some of the rules of the game in a way that would support not just minority contractors and builders, but people who were doing collective work, cooperative work. We also wanted to create a capital stream for these emerging vehicles. We were putting some of those things in place, and I was working for the Lumumba Administration, working directly on those particular things when he died.

We are going to have to get down, get dirty, and struggle and work our way out of this.

The idea was there, but the next administration didn’t take it up and had no regard for it. On our part, we said, “Hey, it was an untimely and unfortunate loss, but we need to keep the process moving forward,” and try to move on to the next and third phase, which we always thought was the most critical phase, which is “How do you organize a community to both own and seize the means of production within its environment?” That is where Cooperation Jackson was born. That is still a process that we are working on and trying to cultivate. We are experimenting left and right, many things are working, many things are not, but it is all part of this process of trying to build a democratic culture and to do that on the level of production. It is more of a challenge than it sounds like because we don’t really live in a democratic society. The more you really try to get into work like this, the more you realize how undemocratic the overall society that we live in really is. Particularly when it comes to the economic realm. All that is geared towards private accumulation. It is a boss who tells you—not without struggle by workers for better wages and better working conditions—but for the most part, most of [working conditions] are really dictated by our employers and by capital. Which is not democratic in any form or fashion.

We definitely see it as a long-term struggle. We see it as one that has become harder with Trump’s election and the potential consolidation of the political forces he represents with these Tea Party neo-Confederates and their control over state governments. I do think in a moment like this, living in Mississippi is an advantage. Mississippi has been dominated by the Tea Party even before the party had its name. Our governor, Phil Bryant, is a Tea Party member. We have a Republican supermajority and it has been that way for most of the last six years and they can virtually pass almost anything they want. We have been able to sharpen some ideas about how to resist, how to organize in such a repressive and restrictive context, before the nation got hit and exposed with this with the Trump presidency. I think we had a little bit of a head start, which kept our core from being as depressed by what just transpired.

We were like, “Welcome to Mississippi!” to the rest of the United States. We don’t wish this on our worst enemies, but this where we find ourselves. Crying about it or wishing it was different is not going to change the situation. We are going to have to get down, get dirty, and struggle and work our way out of this. Our orientation is that we have to be fighting both defensively and offensively as much as we can at the same time. That is very challenging to do, but I think it is an orientation that we have to really pivot towards. I think it is a time—going back on some old clichés, but I do think they are true—it is a time for us to really dream big, to vision big, much bigger and bolder than I think we have thought in most of the last thirty years as we have learned to acquiesce and accept TINA: There Is No Alternative. When actually there is, there has to be because if the forces are that the helm now continue to have their way, humanity won’t survive much longer.

It is imperative that we not only remove them from power, but we totally re-orient the economy and society to one that is in balance and in harmony with nature. We need a good grip on de-carbonizing the economy and putting forth a just transition. These are necessities and we have to build it from the ground up. That is what we are trying to do in Cooperation Jackson here in Mississippi.

Photo courtesy of Kali Akuno and Cooperation Jackson

Photo courtesy of Kali Akuno and Cooperation Jackson

One thing that is coming up, Chokwe Lumumba’s son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, is running for mayor. Our mayoral election is going to be May and June. Right now, by far and away, he is the leading candidate. We fully expect to be back in office come July, but under some new terms that we are really going to have to figure out because the city is under major debt now. We are being threatened with the loss of our school district. The state is likely going to take that over because of some arbitrary grading system that they created several years ago, primarily focusing on black school districts. Jackson is also faced with the threat of losing control over the city’s water system, in part, because of a consent decree that the city was forced to sign with the federal government in 2012. The water situation has been bad going on into the 1970s. They just kind of kicked the can down the road until it became inevitable. Jackson has a water problem similar to Flint, but not as bad. For us it is a key issue because the sale of water to both the residents of the city and the greater metro region constitutes 44 percent of the city’s annual revenue. So, if we lose control of the water, fundamentally really we are not going to have a municipality to speak of.

We are trying to avoid what I call a Syriza trap, which is having a left-wing government come in to administer the worst forms of austerity. It is a similar situation that we are staring down. We are trying to meet that as best we can, with the most radical democratic ideas to counter it. The road ahead of us is very clear, that we are taking a major risk and—to steal a phrase—“inventing the future” to deal with some of the issues that I spoke to earlier about black disposability in the current and growing economic reality in this globalized world. It is increasingly becoming more and more computerized and more and more automated, which is going to have some major consequences for labor displacement. Ultimately, what we think is disposability on a grand and global scale [is coming] and we need to get prepared for it now. We do so, in our view, by fighting and creating a program which is about democratizing technology and putting it in the direct hands of the community so that we control the process, so that automation is going to serve humanity and not just serve the 1 percent or small elite.

We dream big here. We believe visioning small and trying to act in a very small and isolated way actually doesn’t help us or the broader left’s project in any form or fashion. We don’t believe single issue work is the way forward. We have to push beyond our capacity as we presently understand it. We think it helps people come out of their isolation to have some hope, and to start envisioning a future where they can be active participants in its construction.

SJ: Lastly, can you tell people where they can find Ungovernable and Cooperation Jackson, how they can find out more information?

KA:     You can reach Cooperation Jackson at our website, first and foremost, which is Our Facebook page, which is Cooperation Jackson. If you want to get more up to date on what we are thinking, what we are doing, the Facebook page is the best place to go. Our Twitter handle is @CooperationJXN, you can find us there. For the Ungovernable initiative the website is Also, look for the new Ungovernable Facebook page that we are also using to do regular updates and analysis. Right now, we are trying to get everybody to take the Ungovernable Pledge to join in actions in your city, in your state, or if you can make it to D.C. for January 20 and 21 and do that. Stay tuned for the broader, more long-term initiatives, because one day is not going to stop this regime from moving, by any stretch of the imagination. We have got to start organizing and building for not just immediate survival, and hopefully overturning of the Trump regime, but transforming society. We hope everybody will join us. 

[*]  The Congressional Black Caucus does not financially support presidential candidates, though the group’s PAC gave Clinton its public endorsement.


[**]  In the fall of 2016, the New York Times reported that 40 percent of American adults do not vote, although in the 2014 midterm elections, that number was as high as 58 percent, according to Al Jazeera.


Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast.

The post Interviews for Resistance: A Conversation with Kali Akuno appeared first on The Baffler.

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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - The Pleasure Button

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Hey venture capitalists! I have an idea: New social media that ONLY shows you things that allow you to wallow in misery. As far as I can tell, that's what people want anyway.

New comic!
Today's News:

Wednesday Book Reviews!

(belated again, because I'm an idiot)

A Numerate Life (Paulos)

What a fun and strange little autobiography. Paulos is a mathematician and writer whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. They’re word books, and they’re not for everyone. For instance, this book has a (quite clever!) section on transhumanist pickup lines.

You may ask what that’s doing in an autobiography. Well, this isn’t *really* an autobiography. It contains a few stories from Paulos’ life, but the bulk of the book is either digressions into topics that interest Paulos or discussions of why memoirs are probably mostly false, in that they rely on flawed memories and attempt to create cogent narratives of haphazard lives. In some ways it reads like a long chat with a beloved grandfather who’s quite quirky. All in all, the terrible puns notwithstanding, that’s a pretty good thing.

The Undoing Project (Lewis)

This book is a telling of the story of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, as they created prospect theory, and all that came with it. On the one hand, this ground has already been covered in other books (including one by Kahmeman himself!), but on the other hand… it’s Michael Lewis. I dunno. It’s weird. Like finding out there’s yet another book about Einstein, but it was written by Mary Roach.

In any case, it’s definitely a fine book, and it contains a lot of information I was not aware of, including in depth discussion of the intellectual love affair and later falling out between Kahneman and Tversky. I’d have to say I recommend it if you’re not familiar with the topic. Lewis always writes well, and the subject matter is interesting. But, if you’re in any way up to date on this stuff, a lot of the stories will be familiar to you.

We Have No Idea (Cham, Whiteson)

I’m trying to figure out how I should handle books by people I know, given that it means I’m not a reliable source. I think from now on, I need to just have a blanket caveat.

So, here goes: I know the author (one of them, anyway) so I am not a reliable source.

Bam. OK, so this is a sort of quick primer on all sorts of areas of particle physics and cosmology where we don’t have a good sense of what’s going on, such as with Dark Energy or the nature of time. It is peppered with jokes and comics to lighten things up a bit. So, if you’re a fan of Jorge Cham and want to learn some physics of the universe, I recommend it!

A Contract With God (Eisner)

I think this book must be read as a historical document, as it’s sometimes considered the first serious graphic novel. Given that pedigree, it’s interesting to point out that the book is in fact somewhat transitional between books and comics, containing large sections of (hand-drawn) text, with somewhat simple drawings. I didn’t find the stories themselves particularly amazing (sorry if that’s heretical to say!) but they aren’t bad, and they are well drawn. And, as a window into the history of comics, it’s quite good. Incidentally, if you are interested in the history of Jewish New York, there’s a lot here for you as well.

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The Pain Button
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Philadelphia, PA, USA

Local IT staffing exec indicted in alleged bribery, kickback scheme

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A Carmel man who leads a local IT consulting and staffing company has been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering.
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News: Doing Their Due Diligence: Millions Of Responsible BuzzFeed Readers Are Flying To Russia To Verify The Trump Dossier

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Farewell Obama

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Obama using his farewell address to make a sales pitch for political activism and running for office as the solution to people’s problems pretty much sums up modern liberalism. Snake oil politicians trot out this tired bullshit whenever they see the religious zeal surrounding them and their policy initiatives fading away.

Does Obama really see his remarkable political ascendancy as part of any realistic aspiration for marginalized people? Power doesn’t just corrupt; it blinds you to the reality of your words while building you a throne atop which you can sit, privileged enough to avoid being victimized by the excesses of state capitalism.

While change and diversity were the main themes of Obama’s address, he remains arrogantly intolerant of people who have no interest in the reality show of American politics and repeats the same old conservative pleas for faith in his failed institutions. The fact is that most eligible voters chose nobody for president. The number of people who would rather spend time with their family, read a book, have sex, get high, burn a flag, see a movie, work, or just sit there and stare at a wall rather than cast a meaningless vote for one of two aspiring murderers outweigh the backwards, out of touch, “politically engaged” citizens.

Obama should recognize this trend and use his platform to channel it into true civic virtue and mutual aid, not beg the productive members of society for their time, attention, or, worst of all, moral license while he uses their money to blow up children in the Middle East while paying lip service to “democratic values” from his cozy position.

The more people who take the outgoing president’s advice, the less their voice actually matters on the margin — so goes the systematically under-provided public good of intelligent political activity. But I guess this cruel irony of politics is easy to ignore when your voice actually does matter but you want to deflect blame onto those damn lazy, selfish voters for your legacy of mass deportation, unaccountable drone killings, and bulking up the surveillance state and executive power just in time for a megalomaniac to be elected by your precious democracy. The entire speech was practically one big exercise in absolving himself from any guilt whatsoever and doing the political equivalent of victim blaming.

The pervasiveness of this laughable narrative really is a big reason why Trump won. After all, if your leaders just keep telling you to vote harder and faster, but continually abuse you, then a strong man who bucks this trend and offers instant gratification seems like the only sensible way to play the game of politics. Unfortunately the prospect of moving to alternative ways of organizing society that are more peaceful and horizontal, that don’t so easily reward people who crave power over others, is lost on Obama.

The biggest arms dealer in the world insisting that “citizen” is the most powerful office in the United States as he rides off into the sun on wings of moral superiority and blamelessness for his many war crimes in Yemen and Pakistan is so tone deaf and emblematic of Obama’s self-congratulatory and downright contradictory underdog Americanism that it makes the most fitting end to his presidency. It disgusts me to remember that over the next four years we will be looking back on the Obama years with nostalgia. There’s never been a better argument for burning it down.

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Will Dylann Roof’s Execution Bring Justice? Families of Victims Grapple With Forgiveness and Death

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The first thing you see when you walk into the home of Arthur Stephen Hurd is a row of oversized photographs of his wife, Cynthia. They are displayed along the wall on the right, placed on chairs and propped against the fireplace. In one corner is a portrait taken around the time they met. She’s in her early thirties, radiant in a colorful high-neck sweater and gold earrings. Further down is a picture from their wedding day – they wear dark, formal outfits; Cynthia beams, holding a red bouquet. Leaning on the fireplace is a photo of the pair boarding a Carnival cruise ship a year later – a trip to celebrate their anniversary. In the middle of the display is a framed picture of the luminous stained glass windows above the pulpit at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. This is where Cynthia died, shot to death alongside eight fellow parishioners by 21-year-old Dylann Roof in 2015.

Photographs of Cynthia Maria Hurd are displayed in the living room of the North Charleston home of her widower, Arthur Stephen Hurd, on Jan. 6, 2017.

Photographs of Cynthia Maria Hurd are displayed in the living room of the North Charleston home of her widower, Arthur Stephen Hurd, on Jan. 6, 2017.

Photo: Liliana Segura/The Intercept

The photos were last displayed at Cynthia’s funeral, held at Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, and attracting hundreds of mourners. Since then, Hurd has received countless gifts and messages of support, many from strangers: a three-panel poster board that came in the mail, filled with signatures from people he does not know; a wooden cross on the mantle from a Baptist congregation in Texas, reading, “We Will Never Forget Cynthia Hurd.” And in the front yard, a statue of an angel, donated by a landscaping company in Spartanburg, SC.

I met Hurd on Friday, the third day of Roof’s sentencing trial, which ended today with a federal jury returning a punishment of death. Hurd had spent that day in court, hoping to take the stand as one of a long procession of government witnesses called to testify about their loved ones. But prosecutors chose three other people to talk about his wife instead. Each was powerful in their own way: Her brother Malcolm, a former lawmaker in North Carolina, said Cynthia was his “protector” growing up, the one who would see his report cards before their parents did. Her friend and fellow librarian Patrice Smith described how she had helped her through a miscarriage and a divorce, giving her a gift card for groceries when she was struggling to make ends meet. And in particularly emotional testimony, her younger sister, Jackie, described how she had discovered she had cancer after Cynthia urged her to get a mammogram. The diagnosis came just one month before the shooting. “I got you,” Cynthia had said.

Hurd, who goes by Steve, has stories too – more than 20 years’ worth. There is the one of how they met: He was driving down King Street when he saw Cynthia leaving the Human Services Commission, next to the library where she worked. “I told my brother he was gonna have to take the wheel because I was getting out of the car,” he says. He speaks low and soft, describing her with photographic precision. “She had a bag of Lays chips in her right hand, a can of Coca Cola in her left hand. She had on navy blue slacks, blue sling-back heels, a white French cuff shirt, her hair pulled back and tied with a blue bow.”

Cynthia turned him down multiple times, only to ask for his phone number when he came to the library one day. They went to see “Mrs. Doubtfire” on their first date. “Seemed like we were the only two people in that theater with a sense of humor,” he says.

Cynthia was ten years older than Hurd, yet they connected. “She had a degree in math and a masters in library science,” Hurd says. “I have a degree in physics, chemistry and math education.” On the stand earlier that day, Malcolm, her brother, had joked that she was a “nerd.” In Hurd, she found someone who spoke her language.

CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 20:  Arthur Hurd (C) tells the story of the first time he saw his wife, librarian Cynthia Hurd, while talking to reporters outside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church where she and eight others were shot to death June 20, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Hurd is a merchant marine and was in the Persian Gulf when his wife was killed and returned to Charleston Saturday. Members of the church announced that services and Sunday school will go ahead as scheduled tomorrow, four days after the murder of nine churchgoers. Suspect Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was captured and charged in their deaths.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In this photo from June 20, 2015, Arthur Hurd tells the story of the first time he saw his wife, librarian Cynthia Hurd, while talking to reporters outside the historic Emanuel AME Church where she and eight others were shot to death in Charleston, S.C.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The couple dated for seven years before getting married in 2001. Hurd eventually went to work as a merchant seaman, where he was often deployed for months at a time. In November 2014, he left the country, boarding a ship as a refrigeration engineer off the coast of Oman. “When I got on board the system was all screwed up,” he says. “I rebuilt everything.” He had been scheduled to come back in May 2015, but the work was substantial – he extended his trip a little while longer. He was still overseas when Cynthia stopped by Mother Emanuel on June 17 to drop something off, deciding to stay for Bible study.

Hurd has replayed the events before and after Cynthia’s death again and again. He recites them like a script, rapidly and with meticulous detail. How he had made preparations for Cynthia’s upcoming birthday, ordering a pizza, chicken wings and a cake that said “Happy Birthday Boss Lady, Love Big Arthur,” for a party at the library. How he was tired and not planning to call her that night, but did it anyway – she demanded that he say “I love you” multiple times. How he woke up soaking wet from a nightmare, later finding no new emails from his wife. When his mother told him over the phone there had been a shooting at Mother Emanuel, he did not understand: Cynthia had told him she was only planning to pass by the church that night. “No, she stayed for Bible study,” his mother said. “What did you just say?” he asked. “She stayed for Bible study,” she answered.

Over the phone, a coroner at the scene described the clothing of one of the victims in the church who might be his wife, but could not confirm her identity – the woman was in a pool of blood and could not be moved. The outfit she wore sounded like Cynthia – black loafers, gray slacks, a white shirt – except for a lime green sweater he had never seen. Later, Hurd got in touch with her boss, who pulled up surveillance tape from that day. When Cynthia came into view, he described her outfit: “Black loafers, gray clacks, a white shirt and a lime green sweater.” It was then Hurd knew his wife was dead.

On the long journey home from the port city of Duqm, Oman, Hurd found himself watching CNN International, which aired a report from Roof’s bond hearing. “I listened to people say they forgave him right there on the spot,” Hurd said. “I can say this: Before my wife’s body hit the ground, she’d already forgiven him. Me? I haven’t.”

Yet Hurd does not need Roof to get the death penalty. “Cynthia wasn’t a big proponent of that,” he says. “Up until this point, I really was. Now, all I can say is, if they give him death, that’s the easy way out.”

Forgiveness became a loaded concept in the wake of the Charleston massacre. The prevailing media narrative – of an exemplary black community that remained peaceful and forgiving rather than falling prey to riots – was offensive for the assumptions it contained. Yet the dominant image was even invoked by Hillary Clinton during the presidential race. After violence broke out between protesters and Donald Trump supporters in Chicago last March, Clinton released a statement calling on Americans to be more like the grieving relatives of the Emanuel 9, who “melted hearts” with their forgiveness – the “model we strive for to overcome painful divisions in this country.” The response angered many as insensitive and tone-deaf, drawing a false equivalence between defenders of Trump’s racism and those who were protesting against it.

The forgiveness story also failed to capture the full spectrum of sentiment in Charleston, where there was no shortage of rage. Last November, local journalist Shani Gilchrist wrote a column for the Charleston City Paper, urging fellow writers to stop feeding a narrative that had spun “wildly out of control,” reminding readers that, at the famed bond hearing for Roof in 2015, there were only two family members who said they forgave Roof. “This forgiveness was personal, and the nation turned it into a blanket statement representing every victim’s family,” she wrote. On a deeper level, there was a sense that the model of forgiveness so praised and admired by white people allowed Americans to divest themselves of the task of dealing with the roots of the hate that animated Roof’s deadly actions. In Charleston, where the legacy of slavery is literally everywhere, tours still peddle an image of a “genteel, gracious Southern city,” Gilchrist wrote, substituting the word “servant” for “slave.”

In the months following the shooting, a PBS town hall was filmed at a different church downtown, titled America After Charleston and hosted by Gwen Ifill. “We have to tell the truth about this country,” said 75-year-old Emanuel parishioner Willi Glee, who was at the Bible study that night but left early. “We have to say that the country was founded as a racist, white supremacist society. And Dylann Roof is just a byproduct of that.” Malcolm Graham was also there, invoking his sister, Cynthia. “I have a forgiving spirit,” he said. But “I do not forgive.” As the audience applauded, he said, “It’s okay to be angry.”

In the meantime, Mother Emanuel had became something of a tourist mecca, with white visitors showing up for Sunday service while on vacation. Many wished to tell church leaders personally that Roof did not represent what was in their hearts. The New York Times published a photo of a white tourist from Ohio hugging Reverend Dr. Norvell Goff. The church still welcomes visitors with open arms. But it has also struggled with problems more pressing than attending to its new visitors. The Times noted a lawsuit filed by Steve Hurd accusing the church of being neither “transparent nor forthcoming” when it came to the donations that had poured into the church on behalf of the Emanuel 9, a charge he repeated in our interview.

A man stops to observe the makeshift memorial in front of Mother Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina on January 4, 2017. Dylann Roof, the self-described white supremacist who gunned down nine black churchgoers in a Charleston church, offered no apology or motive for his actions as a jury began considering whether to sentence him to death. / AFP / Logan Cyrus (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)

A man stops to observe the makeshift memorial in front of Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, S.C. on Jan. 4, 2017.

Photo: Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images

On the Sunday before jurors would decide whether Roof will live or die, flowers and Christmas decorations adorned the base of Mother Emanuel, where a sign reads “We Thank You For Your Many Acts Of Kindness.” At the 9:30 service on January 8, a group of visiting white bishops hailed from Oregon, Texas, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Invited to introduce themselves, one man shared his commitment “to eradicate the scourges of racism.”

On the Prayer List in the program were the Emanuel 9, along with “survivors and all families of Mother Emanuel.” Following the Hymn of Praise, Reverend Edward Decree gave the invocation, offering thanks and praise to God, while offering prayers “for those who are in prison all over this land” as well as “those who are in prison in mind and in spirit.” In his rousing sermon, Rev. Eric S.C. Manning never mentioned the Roof trial explicitly, but acknowledged that for many, the week had been hard. He feverishly exhorted worshippers to draw strength from God’s devotion to them. “Simply put, He brought us this far. Together He shall never leave us. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that He will continue to bring us through not only last week, but He will continue to bring us through this week. And this month and next year.”

“Don’t worry about how it’s going to turn out,” Rev. Manning urged, enjoining his parishioners to look to God for strength. “You may have been down, but you’re definitely not out.”

On the next morning, government prosecutors brought their last round of witnesses to speak about the youngest of Roof’s victims, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders. Among them was his father, Tyrone. The previous week, I’d met a man who went to school with Tyrone Sanders, who said he was having a very hard time. “He’s not the one of the forgiving ones,” he said. On the stand, Sanders spoke haltingly about his son, describing how much he misses fishing with him, how they used to drive together to homecoming football games every October. Now, he said, he has no one to ride with.

The final witness was Felicia Sanders, Tywanza’s mother. She survived the massacre at Emanuel; jurors had previously heard her describe how she had seen Roof shoot her son to death after Tywanza said, “You don’t have to do this. We mean you no harm.” Laying still in her son’s blood while clutching her 11-year-old granddaughter, Felicia Sanders played dead – and both of them made it out alive. Sanders has said she will respect whatever decision is made about Roof’s fate, although reports have said she would have been fine with Roof’s offer to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. Her friend and attorney, Charleston lawyer Andy Savage, has been outspoken in his belief that Roof should get a life sentence rather than the death penalty. Yet Sanders made headlines after her testimony at trial, saying about Roof: “There’s no place on Earth for him except the pit of hell.”

Sanders took the stand while still wiping her eyes. Like witnesses before her, she shared poignant highlights of her son’s life; his love of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a child, how he doted on his cousins as a young adult, wanting to escort one of them to his prom despite her protests. How he refused to leave her own side when she was being treated for cancer, forcing her to go on walks with him during her recovery because “a body at rest stays at rest.” She described a moped he used to ride, how she was so relieved when it got stolen. “I thought that was gonna be the life of him,” she said. “I was so afraid of him on that moped on I-26.” Instead, he died doing the very thing she had always taught her kids to do, to go to church, because the word Bible stood for Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth. That was what her son and aunt were getting at Bible study that night. “I did not know that was gonna be the life of them,” Sanders said. “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that.”

Over the Christmas break between the guilt phase and the sentencing trial, while others went home to see family, Hurd woke up in the middle of the night. His tradition with Cynthia was to get up at midnight and exchange two gifts, then go back to bed. But now he was alone, having momentarily forgotten that his wife is gone. “I’ve been home for a while now,” he says quietly. “And I’m so lonely. I go to the grave and I get a lawn chair and I sit for hours at a time. I would give all of my smarts, all of my talents, every dollar I have. My lungs, my kidneys, my heart. Just for a moment to hear her voice. Forty-five seconds to kiss her. Thirty seconds to hold her hand.”

One thing that keeps him going is a plan start a charitable organization called Your Opportunity*, which would provide support to individuals “who want to do something with their lives.” He wants to help the kinds of people in whom his wife saw potential. “It doesn’t say you have to go to church, it doesn’t say you can’t have a felony record.” It will be a combination of financial aid and mentorship. “If you don’t have  GED,” for example, “we’re gonna get you through that.”

FILE - In this June 18, 2015 file photo, Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C. The sentencing phase of Roof's federal trial begins Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Charleston. He could face the death penalty or life in prison. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C. on June 18, 2015.

Photo: Chuck Burton/AP

The government’s closing statement on Tuesday morning lasted two hours. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Richardson discussed Roof’s victims one by one, urging jurors to sentence him to death. At one point, Richardson invoked Hurd’s love for his wife, Cynthia. Because of Roof, he argued, Hurd “no longer will see that bright smile on her face.”

As Roof is sent to federal death row to face execution, Hurd will continue to work on forgiving him. “I know that I have to, because he is occupying space in my head that’s not necessary,” Hurd says. He compares the process to moving a grand piano up a flight of stairs. “Some days I make good progress. Some days, I stand still because I have to breathe. And some days, I fall back a few steps because it’s too damn heavy.” Hurd says he would feel satisfaction if Roof were to spend the rest of his days in prison, preferably in general population. “I refuse to hate him,” he says. “But I think of him with much disdain. How dare he decide who lives and who dies?”

Before I left his house that night, Hurd showed me a letter Cynthia wrote to him the month before her death. She had spoken to her husband on the phone earlier that day; in the letter, she wrote, “It’s obvious you’re feeling some kind of way….I know you are missing home and fishing so I thought I’d send some articles and current magazines to read. Hope you like them.”

“It’s funny,” she went on in the letter. Two days earlier, she had witnessed a potential domestic violence situation, yet on that day, she had married a couple with their six-month old son present. “Everyday is one of change and transition and happiness or sadness. No matter what, we must maintain hope and love. Tenacity (one of the characteristics I love about you) and commitment will get us through all that life has for us. Love will sustain us always.”


*Hurd has already selected the first round of Your Opportunity participants, who he wished to be recognized. They are: Darnell White, aspiring truck driver; Nancy Roses, aspiring hairdresser; Patricia Strong, aspiring caterer; Kevin Hutchinson, aspiring chef; Antoine Rouse, aspiring jail bondsman; and Aries Nelson, aspiring business owner.

Top photo: Rain falls as pallbearers exit Emanuel AME Church carrying the casket of Cynthia Hurd on June 27, 2015, in Charleston, S.C.

The post Will Dylann Roof’s Execution Bring Justice? Families of Victims Grapple With Forgiveness and Death appeared first on The Intercept.

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