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In Praise Of Politics (Talking to You, Ferguson and Washington)

Memo Pad Politics

In Praise Of Politics (Talking to You, Ferguson and Washington)


It’s hard to love politics these days. Even the most avid devotees could be forgiven for deciding now is the time to learn to cook, write that mystery novel or become the most active parent at the elementary school.

As a seventh year of Washington dysfunction looms, the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia nevertheless continues to insist, “Politics is a good thing!” The slogan, the marketing equivalent of a smiley face, appears on stickers, T-shirts, pamphlets and Web pages.

It feels anachronistic, like a relic of a happier age. But, really, what age was that? Center director Larry Sabato says he started using the phrase in the late 1970s to counter the cynicism generated by the Watergate scandal. The center adopted the tagline when it was formed in 1998 — the year Bill Clinton was impeached.

At this point, “things have gotten so bad that students attracted to politics are often embarrassed about it,” Sabato says. In his view, that means it’s more important than ever to remind everyone that politics can be a force for good. “Even in depressing times, there is no alternative,” he says.

In fact, in depressing times, it is especially critical to elevate the role and value of politics. That’s certainly the case now that a grand jury has declined to indict Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who killed black teenager Michael Brown. Though the city roiled with violence after the announcement, others are choosing to work for change.

Brown’s loved ones are in the forefront. “Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera,” his family said in response to the grand jury decision. “Let’s not just make noise, let’s make a difference.”

President Obama did his part to champion the political process, talking of criminal justice reforms and federal help to improve community-police relations. His measured remarks from behind a lectern on the night of the decision obviously couldn’t compete with the looting, vandalism and fires erupting on the other half of the split screen. But that was TV reality. In actual reality, power lies in organizing, petitioning, negotiating, peacefully protesting, running for office and, above all, voting in every election at every level of government for candidates you trust.

Voters in this two-thirds black city will have a significant course-correction opportunity in municipal elections April 7. Three of the five seats held by white people on the six-member city council are on the ballot. Will there be a surge of black people registering to vote? Will they drive up a 2013 participation rate that The Washington Post pegged at 6 percent?

There’s an equally crucial test coming sooner, in the five-week candidate filing period that begins Dec. 16: Will black candidates file to run? Jason Johnson, a political scientist at Hiram College in Ohio, says that’s been Ferguson’s most serious problem. “Black people could have 100 percent turnout in every municipal election, but if there’s no one to vote for it won’t matter,” he wrote last summer in Ebony magazine.

The man with the most moral authority regarding Ferguson may well be Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a revered civil rights leader who was repeatedly beaten and arrested during the 1960s fights against segregation and for voting rights. “I know this (is) hard. I know this is difficult. Do not succumb to the temptations of violence. There is a more powerful way,” the man who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee tweeted after the grand jury decision. “Only love can overcome hate. Only nonviolence can overcome violence.”

Lewis and Obama embody the promise of politics. Restoring confidence in that promise is the challenge of today, not just in Ferguson but also across the country. At the national level, our political system clearly is falling short of solving our problems. Yet those problems, from a broken immigration system to failing infrastructure to soaring debt, are far from intractable. We have the tools and resources to fix them. We also have the stability. Our system and our values are still rock-solid at the core, and our diversity is a wonder.

As he accepted an award recently at the National Press Club, departing South African ambassador Ebrahim Rasool said that “despite the stubbornness of your leaders,” America gets things done and “keeps us on true north.” It was a welcome dose of international perspective.

‘Tis the season to appreciate, so here’s someone else to thank: Ella Jones, a black cosmetics saleswoman from Ferguson. Candidate registration papers for the municipal election became available about a month ago and, according to Reuters, Jones was the first person to pick them up.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: President Obama addresses community leaders at the Copernicus Community Center in Chicago to discuss executive actions he took on immigration, Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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Jill Lawrence

Award-winning journalist Jill Lawrence is a nationally syndicated columnist and a contributing editor to U.S. News & World Report. She also contributed to The Surge: 2014's Big GOP Win and What It Means for the Next Presidential Race (2015). Lawrence has discussed political and policy developments on television, radio, and many other media outlets. She was an adjunct professorial lecturer at American University in 2014, teaching on the relationship between politics and the media.

Lawrence has covered every presidential campaign since 1988, as well as historic events such as the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, the Clinton impeachment, the Florida recount, and the 1993 and 2009 battles over health reform.

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  1. Dominick Vila November 28, 2014

    As disgusted as I am about the Grand Jury decision on the Michael Brown murder, what bothers me the most is the reaction by so many fellow Americans who vociferously support the travesty of that Grand Jury process, and turn the victim into a heinous and dangerous criminal. I use social media every day to stay in touch with family and friends, and I can’t believe what I read in that medium. The emphasis a few days ago was all on the loss of property and material items such as expensive Air Jordan sneakers, TV sets and laptops. Not a word about loss of life, which seems to be irrelevant when the victim happens to be a member of the infamous 47%. The latest claim being used to exonerate Officer Wilson involves an article in the New York Post, in which a list of claims made by eye witnesses are ridiculed, the fact that Michael Brown had his arms up when he was shot is denied (never mind that the trajectory of the bullets are in an upward direction, which confirm the hands up claim), and even the fact that Brown was shot in the back of the head at point blank range and that Wilson had to wipe off all the blood from his revolver to hide that incriminating evidence, is not only denied, but supported by thousands of Americans who find the killing of unarmed African Americans by police officers perfectly acceptable.
    What issues like this confirm, in addition to being reminiscent of some of the most heinous episodes in human history, is the fact that, from a moral perspective, our society is in decline.

    1. dtgraham November 28, 2014

      It’s the process that stunk to high heaven Dominick. There were no official crime scene measurements taken and no official photographs. Wilson took his own gun back to deposit for evidence instead of leaving it at the scene. Worse yet, he then proceeded to wash the blood off himself and who knows what else. There were other witnesses like the white construction workers who heard Brown yell out at one point…”ok ok ok ok ok” repeatedly, yet Mcullough never mentioned them. To have a prosecutor go on a 24 minute soliloquy on his version of the (almost all-white) grand jury process, that sounded to everyone like the defence argument for Wilson is unprecedented. To then hear him discredit all the witnesses who weren’t favourable to Wilson is stunning.

      I frankly still can’t be sure what happened. Evidence, witnesses, and Wilson himself needed to be more thoroughly scrutinized and cross examined but that won’t happen now. I’m fully aware of all of the mitigating circumstances surrounding Michael Brown that make some of Wilson’s claims believable, but I still don’t know anything about Darren Wilson or what frame of mind he may have been in that day. Or what frame of mind he might possibly be in most days. I especially don’t know what happened at the end or whether Brown needed to be killed as Wilson claimed. That may be true, or the truth may be very different. We’ll probably never know.

      It’s the old adage. Justice also has to be seen to be done. It wasn’t here and I don’t blame African-Americans for their scepticism.

      1. Dominick Vila November 28, 2014

        The only thing the prosecutor did not provide to the Grand Jury was Officer Wilson’s record, which included being a member of the Jennings, Mo. Police department, an entity that was shut down in 2011 by the City Council because of corruption and racial tensions after an officer fired a shot in the direction an unarmed African American woman, with a small child in her car, was driving.
        Even if it is true that Michael Brown stole a pack of cigarillos, and harassed Officer Wilson when the latter was in his patrol car, that does not justify shooting someone 8 times, including a shot to the head at point blank range (that’s the reason for Wilson diligently wiping off Brown’s blood from his gun).
        The larger problem, however, is that incidents like this are not isolated, and happen in cities and towns throughout the USA too often…with similar endings.

        1. dtgraham November 29, 2014

          Thanks for the info on Darren Wilson. I wasn’t aware of that and I think it’s likely that there’s more about him that a jury should have known. There was a convenience store video and a bunch of other information released on the victim that was highly unusual for these circumstances. Nothing on Wilson though.

          I’ve heard legal analysts say that they’ve never seen a prosecutor get involved, direct a grand jury like this, and release evidence in this manner. McCullough was described as someone who got the result that he wanted.

  2. Harr Driver December 1, 2014

    Aggressive, violent criminals, such as John Van Allen and Floyd Corkins, are but very good reasons to carry a concealed handgun.

  3. Gordon Gecko December 7, 2014

    It’s also important to remember that – with about 4.5 million members – the highly politicized teachers’ unions are among the most powerful special interests in the US.


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