I'd like to tell you my own memories of crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, some 31 years ago. But the truth is that -- as large as the bridge looms in America's consciousness, and its conscience -- my trips through Dallas County as a young reporter for the Birmingham News in the early 1980s were quick and my memories of that iconic town are kind of hazy. It's a small town -- just a handful of red lights -- for such a large role in American history, but maybe that's the point, that social change is where you find it. How many of us had heard of Ferguson, Mo., this time last year?
I am fairly certain that I whipped across the bridge in my cramped (and not air conditioned!) Dodge Colt on at least one occasion to frantically catch the motorcade of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, 1984 presidential candidate. It's hard to recall now in the era of Barack Obama, but Jackson's campaign was truly historic -- the first black candidate to win primaries and delegates and be taken seriously on the national stage. Focused heavily on Alabama in the large "Super Tuesday" that year, Jackson -- whose very first act of activism was the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march -- worked the state's rich tapestry of civil rights history. He spoke steps away from the so-called "schoolhouse door" at the University of Alabama where George Wallace (still governor then, by the way) failed to prevent integration in 1963, and under cover of darkness outside a church in Marion, the small town where Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered during the Selma protests.
I was a 25-year-old near-rookie reporter, and I was somewhat awestruck. Of course Jackson was a flawed messenger -- that was clear then, much clearer now -- but what a message: An African-American seeking the White House in a state where less then 20 years earlier black people could not register to vote. Jackson's campaign celebrated that past, but it didn't celebrate for long because there was so much more work to be done. The long tail of backlash had put Ronald Reagan in the White House by the 1980s, and programs that could have helped Alabama's poor were under the knife. Jackson told the Democratic convention that summer that "the South, I tell you, is unnaturally conservative. The South is the poorest region in our nation and, therefore, [has] the least to conserve. In his appeal to the South, Mr. Reagan is trying to substitute flags and prayer cloths for food, and clothing, and education, health care, and housing."
Another bomb went off in the American heartland tonight.
This time it was Galena, Ill. -- a town in the far northwestern corner of that state. Once again, for the umpteenth time in the last couple of years, a mile-long train carrying massive amounts of highly flammable oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota jumped the tracks, sending a large mushroom cloud into a gray winter's afternoon. Officials said that eight cars derailed, causing the massive fire, and appears that no one in the immediate vicinity got hurt. We're not always so lucky; in July 2013 a runaway oil train crashed in a populated Quebec town, killing 47 people, including some whose bodies were never found.
The exploding derailments -- activists call them "oil bombs," and when you see the pictures it's easy to understand why -- are in the news a lot, in West Virginia, in North Dakota, in Virginia, in Alabama. If members of the group ISIS somehow infiltrated the United States and set off explosions with the same intensity in the same spots, certain political figures and CNN anchors might have a nervous breakdown on your TV set. But no, it's just our own Big Oil and Big Rail doing their business...keep calm and carry on.
There's so much clutter out there some days you have to cling to the few essential truths. There's none more essential than this: All violence is senseless. It doesn't just destroy the victim -- it rips out the heart of families, communities...and a civil society.
This afternoon, Philadelphia Police Officer Robert Wilson III, an eight-year veteran of the force, was on the job, patrolling one of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods in North Philadelphia when he happened on a robbery in a video store at 22nd and Lehigh. Shots were fired, and a heartless punk fired the bullet that claimed Officer Wilson's life. He was just 30 years old, father to a 9-year-old son and a 1-year-old son who will grow up now without a father coming home every night.
And for what?
You probably saw the video that went viral a few days ago -- the one where a Los Angeles cop fires five rounds in a struggle with a homeless man in the center of downtown's Skid Row, as horrified onlookers watch. The video was viewed hundreds of thousands times before it was pulled by Facebook, and many viewers were shocked by what they felt was an excessive show of force. The L.A. police say the unidentified man known as "Africa" was shot because he was in the process of grabbing the officer's gun, and in this open case we'll have to see if more evidence backs up their account.
But the Los Angeles case also showed, dramatically, how the ease of filming and uploading videos in the 21st Century has changed the way that we view the police and how they do their job. Just a few years ago, before smartphones, the LAPD would have simply released a short press release about "a justifiable shooting," the L.A. Times would write an 8-inch story based on the police version, and that would be the end. But when we can see what really happened, we begin to ask questions. Did it really have to go down this way? How does a situation become so lethal so quickly? Why does the United States have many, many more times police-involved shooting than other developed nations?
Thanks to video, we now know that when the police and other civic leaders -- folks we so desperately want to trust -- provide us with basic information about these emotionally charged incidents, they are so often not telling people the truth. On Staten Island, we saw the film where an officer slams Eric Garner to the ground in a confrontation over the beyond-inconsequential crime of selling loose untaxed cigarettes, then murders him with a banned choke-hold -- and yet no one was charged. In Cleveland, we saw footage that showed the killing of a 12-year-boy with an air gun, Tamir Rice, take place in a matter of split seconds, nothing like the initial police account. Right here in Philadelphia, police told the public that a man who was gunned down by police, Brandon Tate-Brown, was pulled over for driving with his headlights off -- until the video showed his headlights were very much on.
I've been thinking a lot about fear lately. It's impossible not to think about it if you spend more than a few minutes watching cable TV news. In fact, so far in 2015 I've probably watched cable news less than any time in the newish millennium. Why? Maybe it's the incessant coverage of "the ISIS threat" or "the war on ISIS" or whatever The Graphics Department is calling it this week.
Look, I agree with you that the 20,000 or so thugs in ISIS are the worst people in the world -- using extreme violence to deprive people of their freedom and impose their warped religious ideas on others is indeed as low as it gets. And they are causing instability in a region where -- despite decades of warning that this is a dumb idea -- a lot of the industrialized world gets its oil. But the violence caused in that same region by Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad didn't seem to pose an existential threat to the United States or to CNN's producers. Nor did rampant genocide, rape and use of child soldiers in Africa -- in other words, ISIS without the oil.
But ISIS and its tabloid-ready beheading tactics does have the effect -- for better or worse -- of extending America's regime of fear. As long as the fear factor is in effect, after all, America has all the excuse it needs to keep its troops and drones in Iraq and other regions of the Middle East. As long as the fear factor holds, America will continue to spend more on its military than the other major nations of the world combined. As long as the FBI continues its inane headline-generating entrapment operations against young losers and the mentally ill, as long as CNN treats three teenaged girls on a bus bound for Syria as it if they were a missing "suitcase nuke," America can -- and will -- be governed by fear.
UPDATE: The plan is out -- you can read some of the details here. I watched Wolf's speech and heard from a few smart people since I posted this last night. The bottom line -- I like the plan a little more than when I was going on the initial advance leaks, but I still have concern about raising the sales tax. It should have been noted -- as several commenters pointed out -- that court cases have pretty much put the kibosh on a progressive income tax, and other tax fairness ideas, barring a constitutional amendment, which is a time-consuming and virtually impossible process. The notion that Wolf's plan would lower taxes for Pennsylvanians making more than $100,000 and raise them for those earning more sounds like the right direction, but we'd like more info, please. Also, there's not a snowball's chance in hell that Republicans pass this, right?.
ORIGINAL POST: Just six weeks into his administration, Gov. Tom Wolf is determined to shatter every stereotype about bald, bearded guys -- to which I can only say it's about damn time. It seemed like a long time ago that Wolf introduced himself to Pennsylvania as a mild-mannered -- arguably milquetoast -- dude whose Jeep was either a way to get around Mt. Wolf or the manifestation of a mid-life crisis.
But since taking the oath in late January, Wolf has been a governor on Viagra -- and the once-bored spouse that is Pennsylvania can't decide whether to share in his enthusiasm or hide under the covers. He's put a temporary kibosh on the death penalty and on expanding fracking in state parks and forests, worked to undo some 11th-hour Tom Corbett appointments, and -- in the latest, most local shocker -- ousted Corbett's pick Bill Green as head of Philadelphia's School Reform Commission.
To the nattering nabobs of negativism in the lamestream media, the guy is nothing less than a human gaffe machine. How could you not question a dude who has the nerve to present himself as ready for prime time in the 2016 White House race when he can't even answer the most basic questions on evolution or whether the current president of the United States loves the United States, when he thinks that labor unions are a threat comparable to ISIS and when he maintains the biggest "foreign policy decision" of his lifetime was Reagan firing domestic air traffic controllers?
That's not all. He's uncharismatic and humorless. He'd be the first president since the World War II-era not to have a college degree. In an age of political apathy, he can get 50,000 people to show up in blizzards or 2-degree weather to protest his policies. Over 900,000 people signed petitions for a recall election -- one of only two U.S. governors to suffer that indignity in the last 94 years. He's still the subject of a never-ending criminal probe into his campaign fund-raising activity.
The pundit class thinks it has a read on Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker, but of course this effete corps of impudent snobs has it all wrong. That in fact is the very essence of the Scott Walker phenomenon. Indeed, the shared resentments of the Republican base could -- emphasis on the word "could" -- propel this dour enemy of Working People right into the Oval Office. A lot could happen between now and next July on the road to Cleveland (heh), but personally I'd rate Walker with by far the best chance of winning the GOP nomination...much, much better than the hugely overrated Jeb Bush. And if that happens, the reality is that Scott Kevin Walker has a 50 percent chance of becoming the 45th president of the United States.
Of all the people running for mayor in 2015, no one is offering ideas that are bolder and more progressive. If elected, he would freeze charter schools, re-open some of the many neighborhood schools that have been closed in recent years, and work to restore an elected school board. On hot-button policing issues, his ideas are truly radical. He would put more officers on the street -- 1,000 more, in fact -- but also proposes a huge shift in the way that law-enforcement works. There would be a new emphasis on conflict resolution, and keeping folks out of jail (saving tax dollars in the process). He backs a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but he'd curb abuses of tax break programs for big business.
No candidate for mayor has a resume like his, either. He was raised by parents who came to America when he was 10, in search of a better life in the city's then-booming factories. He's survived a lifetime of rough-and-tumble ward politics and taken on the city's corrupt, entrenched Democratic machine and won. Now in the mayor's race, he's doing battle with a candidate endorsed by only by the city's wealthy business elites but by President Barack Obama.
And the crazy thing is that he just might win.