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The Summer Of Our Discontent


Now is the summer of our discontent, Shakespeare might say, with none to make it glorious.

Under a broiling sun, Washington feels stuck on the head of a pin, as Democrats look forward to one party convention in Philadelphia and Republicans dread theirs in Cleveland. What if they gave a party and nobody came? Some fear the party’s about over, now that Donald Trump has crashed it.

The funeral of five Dallas police officers slain by a black former Army reservist was a solemn panoply of presidential unity. To comfort a country rocked by two years of police violence against black men, George W. Bush and Barack Obama led the grieving in the summer’s darkest hour. They represent opposing sides of a desperately divided country, so why not give peace a chance in Dallas, a highly segregated big city? The bloodshed in 1963, the day President Kennedy died — that history can be overcome.

(But I majored in history.)

Yes, the presidents seemed to say to restless street rage: Black lives matter. And yet, police lives matter more, when it comes down to official attention and rites of mourning.

Nothing is resolved. Nice try, though. Angst festers in Dallas, in Baltimore, in Ferguson, Missouri, — to name but a few cities sundered by racially streaked encounters between white police officers and black civilians. Police brutality is nothing new, but it has sunk deeper into the cultural soil and black men have born the brunt of it.

As a white woman, I witnessed it for one night in Baltimore. You haven’t lived until you’ve spent a night in the Baltimore women’s jail.

It’s been real, police militarization, since 2001. Just the other day, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it was caught on camera. Police with excessive body armor, carrying clubs and weapons as if they were going into battle against civilians at a peaceful protest. In Minnesota, another questionable civilian police-involved death recently took place. The Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, conceded race was probably a factor.

And that is how bad it is. The Black Lives Matter movement has changed civilian awareness. Whether it has changed police behavior is the question. The despair of this summer alone suggests not. Police have the power, and they like it that way. Race relations are plunging to their lowest level since 1992, The New York Times said.

Politics in Obama’s final summer is full of spite, with one Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid, asking what planet Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is living on. That kind of personal enmity didn’t used to happen on the floor.

Senators look ready for a change of season from this summer of our discontent. The president, too, looks weary, his face etched with sorrow as he reached the end of his words on racially based police violence. “I’ve seen how inadequate words can be,” he declared in Dallas, “in bringing about lasting change.”

As the first black president, that has to be painful. Then again, Obama never ran to change America’s colors, to lighten a heart of darkness. He cast himself as a post-racial president, dealing with race only in case of emergencies.

Congress just marked its last day on the job until September. Hillary Clinton came to the Capitol to sit down to rally the team of Senate Democrats over lunch. Wish I were there, to see if she could lighten the gloom.

Bush, the former president, gave a good oration in Dallas, but how much “street cred” does he have? His entire war presidency brought this moment upon us. Had he not been so quick to invade Iraq on false grounds, we might have recalled that 15 of 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi. None were Iraqi. He sowed suspicion at home and started a clandestine “war on terror” that involved torturing detainees. The precision shooter in the Dallas slayings got his military training in Afghanistan — Bush’s first stop in his war — where we still have soldiers deployed.

Police departments across America inherited pieces of the Pentagon’s excess war equipment — (a policy Obama later opposed.) I saw with a reporter’s eyes, in Baltimore, how police demeanor shifted in unsettling ways, to a more aggressive “us vs. them” stance. Several relentlessly pursued poor Freddie Gray one Sunday morning, a “suspect” who broke his back in police custody and later died. Riots followed.

Not a pretty pass right now, while the sun is high in the summer of our discontent.

Photo: File picture of members of the group Black Lives Matter marching to city hall during a protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota November 24, 2015. REUTERS/Craig Lassig


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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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