- Better 'Lisa Simpson 2020' Than Four More Years of Homer
- 3 Signs the Korean Olympics Truce Won't Last
- A Democratic Memo Undercuts Key Republican Complaints About the FBI
- America Washes Its Hands of Syrian Civilians
- A Case Against Gun Control
- Paul Manafort's Fate Is Sealed
- The Parkland Students Aren't Going Away
- Letters: Bari Weiss vs. the 'Outrage Mobs'
- Trump’s Hardline Approach Is Forcing Immigrant Advocates to Readjust
- <i>Seven Seconds</i> Ponders the Failures of Justice
Posted: 25 Feb 2018 03:00 AM PST
On Thursday at a conference sponsored by the American Conservative Union, Ben Domenech, the publisher of The Federalist, had an illuminating exchange with Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who once called Donald Trump "a pathological liar," but has since lined up behind the billionaire who spread lies about his father, insulted the appearance of his wife, and nicknamed him "Lyin' Ted."
Domenech and Cruz attempted to understand U.S. politics through The Simpsons, the long-running cartoon comedy that anticipated a Donald Trump presidency in 2000.
Their focus was an episode of the show about the gun debate:
Americans should be able to hunt or protect their family with a gun.
But without going all Comic Book Guy, they got the episode of The Simpsons somewhat wrong. Marge is extremely upset when Homer brings home his new handgun:
And an armed Homer is more a menace to his family than a protector or provider.
Still, Cruz's partisanship analogy has a lot of truth to it. Imagine if we had to pick our leaders from the world of The Simpsons. Lisa Simpson, with her conversions to vegetarianism and Buddhism and her recurring focus on environmentalism, is definitely a Democrat. And she is often at odds with the rest of Springfield and Red America.
If she ran for office she'd fair poorly in a Republican primary.
And Lisa has real flaws that make her fall short of the ideal leader. In her worst moments, she can be a bit of a sanctimonious know-it-all, and sometimes has an over-simplistic, 8-year-old's view of the world that causes her to be unduly harsh toward others. I wouldn't be dismissive of Republicans if they preferred to hold up compassionate conservative Ned Flanders or innovative businessman Herbert Powell as their model (or if they were dead set against elevating the corrupt Joe Quimby, or Disco Stu, who'd just preside over throwback, 1970s-style gas lines and malaise).
But over the course of "The Cartridge Family" episode alone, Homer has a background check that turns up his history in a mental institution and his assault on a former president; points his handgun at his wife's face; agrees to let his 10-year-old son borrow the gun; accidentally shoots up the snack bar at the firing range; brandishes the weapon at the immigrant who runs the Kwik-E-Mart; accidentally fires off three rounds at the dinner table; hides the gun in the refrigerator, where his son finds it; sends his terrified family fleeing for their lives to a motel; and then, while hosting an NRA meeting, he uses his gun as a can opener and shoots at his television, drawing gasps from his fellow NRA members, who scold, "I've never seen such recklessness! You could have killed someone! Are you some kind of moron!"
If Lisa falls short of perfection, her flaws aren't exactly disqualifying, especially when one remembers her consistent honesty, integrity, good heart, and generally level head. And yet, I really do think today's Republican base would be so bothered by her mild sanctimony that they would prefer Homer Simpson: a blundering, impulsive, self-centered, undisciplined incompetent.
Homer is a cartoonishly bad citizen and leader, even for a cartoon. A political party that acted on the attitudes that make Homer seem more appealing would become cartoonishly absurd.
It would be exactly as if the Republican Party lined up 15 or 16 possible standard-bearers, then chose to elevate a tabloid mainstay who ran multiple businesses into bankruptcy; started an online university that defrauded credulous working-class strivers; bragged that he grabs women by the genitals without asking; stood accused of sexual misconduct by 19 women; walked through the changing room of a beauty pageant for teens; flaunted an adulterous affair to humiliate his first wife; taunted a nuclear-armed tyrant on Twitter; praised multiple authoritarian human-rights abusers; called for jailing an opponent despite having invited her and her husband to his third wedding; hired a sleazy operative for foreign interests to manage his campaign; put his son-in-law in charge of achieving peace in the Middle East; gave a former contestant on his reality TV show a job in the White House; denigrated religious and ethnic minority groups to boost his support among bigots; and gave a radio shock jock explicit permission to call his daughter "a piece of ass."
Even Homer, who is not cruel-hearted, would know better than do to much of that.
But the GOP as a whole now aspires no higher than Homer. Trump is held up by some of his supporters as the best Red America has to offer. Lisa has never been so condescending. And if Trump's numbers are any indication, the Republican Party is at risk of losing America's Marge Simpsons, many of whom would find themselves agreeing with the A.V. Club:
The irony is that one can absolutely imagine Lisa Simpson graduating cum laude from Princeton, competing in debate, attending Harvard law, editing the law review, clerking for the Supreme Court, working in a private law firm, being appointed solicitor general of her home state, and eventually winning a seat to the Senate, where colleagues would think of her as brilliant but express annoyance at her know-it-all smugness and sanctimony. In a way, isn't Ted Cruz the Lisa Simpson of the U.S. Senate?
The difference, known to viewers of "Lisa's Wedding": she'd have sooner stuck to her principles and lost reelection than become subservient to a rival who insulted her family. (She'd have savaged any Democrat who called them deplorable and irredeemable, too.)
Like Ted Cruz, I believe that the Constitution guarantees an individual right to bear arms, and in my perfect world, Lisa Simpson would be the jazz critic at Vox, not run the executive branch. But so long as the choice is Homer versus Lisa, then I say Lisa 2020.
After all, "Reading, Writing and Refilling the Ocean" doesn't sound so bad:
Especially given the alternative on offer:
Posted: 25 Feb 2018 02:00 AM PST
The Closing Ceremony of South Korea's Winter Olympics marks the end not just of dazzling twizzles, celebrity curlers, and shirtless Tongans, but also of an interlude in the international crisis over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program. In recent weeks we've witnessed North and South Koreans marching and competing together, the American vice president almost literally rubbing elbows with Kim Jong Un's sister, and tentative talk of a grand summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae In. But the spectacle of the Games has obscured several signs that the nuclear crisis will soon resume—and quite possibly accelerate.
While Mike Pence signaled during the Olympics that the Trump administration is willing to meet directly with North Korean officials, the vice president stressed that the United States will not ease economic sanctions until the North takes steps toward dismantling its nuclear arsenal. In fact, the administration is intent on increasing the pressure amid evidence that international sanctions are inflicting serious pain on the Kim government. On Friday, the Treasury Department sanctioned dozens of ships and shipping companies that it says are helping North Korea evade severe restrictions on trade in fuel and other essential products.
These sanctions are designed to compel North Korea to make concessions on its nuclear program. Yet in the near term, at least, they could make substantive negotiations less likely to take place. Pence, for example, was planning to hold a secret meeting with North Korea's official delegation as part of his visit to the Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang, but the North Koreans canceled at the last minute. Their reason: Anger about Pence's announcement of the latest round of sanctions.
The United States and South Korea suspended joint military exercises during the Olympics, but they plan to reschedule the massive drills for after the Paralympics conclude in mid-March. And while the Americans and South Koreans characterize these exercises as critical to preparing for North Korean aggression, the North Koreans view the training as a rehearsal for invasion. A commentary in North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency this week pointedly argued that North-South dialogue can't progress so long as U.S.-South Korean drills persist.
Missile and Nuclear Tests
North Korea has a track record of conducting missile tests in the spring, and that might be particularly true this spring as it refines the technology to place a nuclear warhead on a missile that can reach the United States. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has found that U.S.-South Korean military exercises lead to more provocations by the Kim government when North Korea's relations with America are strained in the weeks preceding the drills. That's the case now despite the Olympic reconciliation between North and South Korea; the U.S. standoff with North Korea is primarily about nuclear weapons, while the overtures between North and South Korea have avoided nuclear issues.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said he expected North Korea to conduct more missile tests in the months ahead and suggested that additional tests of nuclear weapons could be in the offing as well, noting that North Korean officials have threatened to take the extremely provocative step of detonating a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean. (The North Koreans might be tempted to carry out such an atmospheric nuclear test, which hasn't occurred since the Chinese staged one in 1980, to dispel doubts about their capacity to threaten the United States with nuclear weapons.) In December, three months after North Korea's last nuclear test, Senator and Trump confidant Lindsey Graham told me he thought there was a 70 percent chance of the Trump administration taking military action against North Korea if Kim Jong Un tested another nuclear bomb. Even if the probability is far lower than that, Graham's estimate speaks to how high the stakes are in every test that moves North Korea closer to a long-range nuclear capability that the Trump administration claims is unacceptable.
A nuclear-armed North Korea poses a "potentially ... existential" danger to the United States and could blackmail America into abandoning its alliance with South Korea, Coats told the Senate. "The decision time is becoming ever closer in terms of how we respond to this."
As for whether the U.S. can reverse North Korea's nuclear program through sanctions rather than military force, Coats didn't sound particularly optimistic. The North "has repeatedly stated that it does not intend to negotiate its nuclear weapons and missiles away," he noted.
Posted: 24 Feb 2018 06:24 PM PST
The Republican charge that the FBI misled a secret surveillance court in order to spy on a former Trump campaign operative seemed to unravel on Saturday, when Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee revealed the exact wording that the bureau used when applying for the order in October 2016.
In a memo drafted by the intelligence committee's Republicans in January and promptly declassified by the White House, the majority claimed that the FBI had misleadingly obscured the origins of a dossier written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, some of whose research on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was included in the bureau's application for a warrant to surveil him. "Neither the initial application in October 2016, nor any of the renewals, disclose or reference the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele's efforts, even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior FBI officials," the Republicans' memo alleged.
Following its release, Republican lawmakers used it to argue that the FBI's investigation into whether the Trump campaign aided a Russian effort to sway the 2016 election, and the subsequent special-counsel inquiry into the matter, were both tainted from their inception by partisan bias. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the committee, has accused the FBI of abusing its surveillance power to "fuel" a counterintelligence investigation during the campaign.
But as the original Republican memo also acknowledged, that inquiry began months before the FBI received the Steele dossier, and the FISA court appears to have been aware that Steele was an anti-Trump source. The court also renewed the FISA warrant on Page three separate times following the FBI's initial application in October 2016, and, according to the Democrats, former FBI Deputy Director told the committee in a December interview that the bureau has worked "vigorously" to vet Steele's reporting.
In a rebuttal memo released Saturday, Democrats included a portion of the Justice Department's application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which described the political origins of Steele's research into Trump's Russia ties in 2016.
The Justice Department told the court in its FISA application that Steele had been "approached" by Fusion GPS's co-founder, Glenn Simpson, to research Trump's Russia ties. Fusion GPS was first hired in December 2015 by the conservative owner of the Washington Free Beacon to conduct opposition research on Trump. Perkins Coie, a law firm representing the Democratic National Committee, took over funding for the project in April 2016 after Trump won the Republican nomination. Steele was hired in mid-2016 by Fusion GPS.
An extract from the FISA warrant application, reproduced in the Democratic memo, says that despite their "longstanding business relationship" stemming from their past work on Russia-related issues, Simpson did not tell Steele about "the motivation behind the research" into Trump's Russia ties. But the application noted that "the FBI speculates that [Simpson] was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit [Trump's] campaign."
Portions of the Democrats' memo were redacted by the Justice Department prior to its release, including details about which aspects of Steele's research on Page the FBI had been able to independently corroborate. But the redactions "were not to the detriment" of the substance of the memo, a Democratic committee source told me, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the classified nature of the material.
Republicans acknowledged earlier this month, following an outcry from Democrats, that the FBI did disclose the dossier's political origins in a "footnote" on the FISA application. But Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who spearheaded the majority's memo, told Fox that a "footnote saying something may be political" was "a far cry from letting the American people know that the Democrats and the Hillary campaign paid for dirt that the FBI then used to get a warrant on an American citizen to spy on another campaign."
Republicans stuck with that critique following the Democratic memo's release, complaining that it ignored the fact that the DNC and the Clinton campaign paid for the Steele dossier—a fact that was not explicitly revealed to the court. Democrats, however, have said the Justice Department was upholding its longstanding practice of not identifying U.S. persons and entities in highly classified intelligence reports.
Trump accused the FBI and DOJ of acting illegally in a series of tweets on Saturday, following the release of the Democratic memo.
"The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal BUST. Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!" he wrote. He added later that the investigation into whether his campaign team coordinated with Russia to win the election was "an illegal disgrace."
Nineteen individuals and entities have been indicted or pleaded guilty in the probe so far—including Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, whose deputy Rick Gates pleaded guilty on Friday to conspiracy against the United States and lying to federal agents. Page, for his part, has been on the FBI's radar since at least 2013 on suspicion of acting as an agent of the Russian government, and the Democrats' memo—portions of which appeared poorly redacted— confirmed that at least three other "individuals linked to the Trump campaign" other than Page were under FBI scrutiny by September 2016.
In August of 2013, Page wrote a letter to a book editor claiming he had been serving as "an informal adviser to the staff of the Kremlin" on "energy issues," and he was interviewed again by the FBI in March 2016—just before he joined the Trump campaign.
"As we've seen many times before with the felonious news leaks of the past year, this new round of misinformation surrounding efforts by Washington to illegally influence the 2016 election inflicts even more damages on the instigating perpetrators from the swamp," Page said in a statement on Saturday night. "Today's memo further underscores the critical importance of the immediate disclosure of all my FISA applications and other relevant documents."
Posted: 24 Feb 2018 12:38 PM PST
This post has been updated.
The Security Council approved Saturday a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria "without delay." But there are few signs that a truce will hold; fewer indications that Russia, which supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, will persuade him to stop the atrocities in Eastern Ghouta; and scant public signaling that the U.S. will do more for Syrian civilians than blame Moscow for the carnage.
"We have conversations with the Russian government, and reach out to the Russian government to implore them to stop enabling the Syrian regime to do what [Syria is] doing to its own people," Heather Nauert, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday. "Is Russia listening? I'm not sure that they are."
The ceasefire agreed to on Saturday allows humanitarian supplies to be sent to besieged areas like Eastern Ghouta, the rebel-held region outside Damascus that has come under sustained bombardment in recent days, where the death toll now stands at nearly 500, as a sustained bombing campaign continued after the UN Security Council delayed Friday a vote on the resolution. The UN's slowness to act in Syria is another blow to the world body's credibility, as it is unable to forge global consensus to act on some of the world's worst recent conflicts. "The Syrian tragedy must not also become a graveyard for the United Nations," François Delattre, France's UN ambassador, said Friday.
A previous version of the UN resolution stumbled Thursday because Russia wanted groups it says are allied with terrorists to be excluded from the ceasefire. Some of those groups are active in Eastern Ghouta, meaning that if Russia's demands were met, the resolution would have allowed Assad to keep pummeling the area. It is immediately unclear whether the resolution that was unanimously approved Saturday accommodated Moscow in this way. If so, it will do nothing to stop the ongoing slaughter.
Nauert said Russia bore "a unique responsibility for what is taking place" in Eastern Ghouta, and she was right. "Without Russia backing Syria, the devastation and the deaths would certainly not be occurring," she said. But when pressed about what more the U.S. could be doing diplomatically in Syria to stop the violence, she replied: "I don't know what some of you expect us to do. … Our best tool … is an attempt at diplomacy. … We will continue to do that."
Humanitarian groups describe a desperate situation in the region. Water, food, and fuel are in short supply. Civilians are digging underground shelters in order to escape the daily bombardment. There are no routes to medically evacuate the sick or dying.
The U.S. has troops in Syria to fight ISIS, but there's still no envoy for Syria in charge of diplomacy. The U.S. is the largest humanitarian aid donor in Syria, but the Syrian government has blocked the delivery of supplies in rebel-held areas. "What we're seeing ... is some of the worst violence we've seen in more than seven years," said Dafna Rand, the vice president of policy and research at MercyCorps. The humanitarian group has been active in Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011. "We are having a hard time reaching people because our partners (on the ground)—their lives are endangered by the violence. … Our staff are risking their lives every time they go outside to distribute anything."
Assad's past use of chemical weapons on his own people gets much of the publicity—a sarin gas attack in Eastern Ghouta, the very same area currently under bombardment, nearly led the Obama administration to intervene against Assad in 2013—but conventional weapons are killing a much higher number of people. MercyCorps, in a new report, said the Syrian conflict "has spiraled into a humanitarian crisis unprecedented for our modern times." About 400,000 Syrians have been killed and 11 million others have been displaced—about half of them now live in refugee camps outside the country.
The conflict also shows the limits of international diplomacy. There are two dueling international peace processes, neither of which has produced much in the way of peace. The Astana process, which was overseen by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, established "de-escalation zones" where the fighting would stop to facilitate peace talks between Assad's government and the rebels. Eastern Ghouta is supposed to be one of them. "So much for that de-escalation zone," Nauert said Thursday. She said Russia "can get back to trying to create a de-escalation zone, but we want them to get back to the Geneva process."
But the Geneva process, which is supported by the UN, the U.S., and its allies, is moribund. It aims to bring together the various warring parties and work, ultimately, toward Assad's exit and a transitional government. But the nationwide "cessation of hostilities" that process yielded in 2016 never really took hold, and Assad, whose government is firmly entrenched, has few incentives to negotiate with anyone, let alone what's left of the opposition.
If expression of high-level concern is any indication of U.S. priorities, stopping the current mass killing of Syrians seems not to be especially important for the Trump administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson himself has not referred to Syria in public remarks since last week. Asked at a Friday press conference about the attacks in Eastern Ghouta, Trump said that "what Russia, what Iran, and what Syria are going ... is a humanitarian disgrace" but said America's job in Syria was "to get rid of ISIS and go home." He then moved on to other issues.
ISIS is largely defeated in Syria, but the U.S. isn't exactly going home. Just days ago, the White House told Congress it did not need congressional authorization to keep U.S. troops indefinitely in Syria (and Iraq) to fight ISIS. Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and other countries, noted when I spoke to him last week that there was something familiar about Trump's approach to Syria. "Like the Obama administration, the Trump administration has dealt with the Islamic State as a purely military problem … because anything else gets you into all those messy, complicated issues we've wrestled with elsewhere in the region," he said. "But we've got to wrestle with them."
That's not something the Trump administration appears to want to do.
Posted: 24 Feb 2018 04:44 PM PST
Previously in this series:
What's the mail like from those who reject the need for new gun laws? Here are two samples. The first is — unfortunately, but realistically—representative in its tone and argumentative style of most of the dissenting messages that have arrived:
To the reader's last point I say: Amen.
A different kind of argument comes from a reader who contrasts my enthusiasm, as a small-plane pilot, for the "right to fly," with my skepticism of AR-15 owners' right to enjoy, use, or even possess their weapons. The reader says:
Posted: 24 Feb 2018 10:35 AM PST
There should be no denying Paul Manafort's fate. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's list of charges keeps on swelling—a repeatedly amended compendium of malfeasance that is now so long and so pointillistic that it could be only defused by a world-historic prosecutorial gaffe. Despite this seeming comprehensiveness, each fresh filing in court contains a moment where the special prosecutor winks at his target, as if letting him know that he has only begun to bring the pain: a small display of how comprehensively he has surveilled Manafort and his minions; a further sampling of the evidence that could be sitting in his reserve stash.
Everyone understands Manafort's fate, except apparently the man himself. Rather than cutting a deal—as his longtime deputy Rick Gates did yesterday—Manafort continues to cut a figure of defiance. He has, in essence, dismissed Gates as a weakling. And even as the bedraggled Gates turned against him, Manafort boasted in a statement that he would not be knocked from his stance: "This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges contained in the indictments against me."
There's one primary reason that Manafort appears so unwilling to reconcile himself with the unimpeachable reality. For his entire career, he has taken audacious risks and managed to get away with them. His friends describe him as wired to take chances that most rational creatures would avoid. Such is the temperament that leads a person to allegedly launder millions, in a long series of batches, each one a fresh opportunity to get busted by the feds. And it has led him to spend much of his career working on behalf of murderous autocrats, capricious dictators and vengeful oligarchs, like the Angolan insurgent Jonas Savimbi and the Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos. Manafort not only had the skills to bend these characters to his will; he seemingly took pleasure in the challenge of taming and mastering dangerous men. (Trump was the rare strongman he couldn't quite master.)
To live with the constant threat of personal peril requires a healthy dose of denial. Manafort behaves as if he believes everything will eventually fall in his favor, that problems will inevitably resolve themselves. When the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska accused him of stealing $20 million in 2011, Manafort simply didn't respond to the aluminum magnate's calls or emails for several years, according to a lawsuit filed by Deripaska earlier this year. Instead of trying to assuage Deripaska, who carries such a fierce reputation that the U.S. has denied him a visa, Manafort acted as if his pursuer didn't exist. It wasn't an entirely foolish bet. When Manafort eventually joined up with the Trump in 2016, he sent emails to Deripaska via an emissary promising him privileged access to the campaign, perhaps providing a tidy moment to settle their old differences. (Deripaska denies having seen the emails and denies any recent contact with Manafort.)
This pattern of flagrance runs through his biography. We can see this in his daughter Andrea's hacked text messages, posted on the dark web by activists irate at Manafort's meddling in their country. When his family caught him in affair in 2015, he promised to end his infidelity. Yet the fact that his daughter had nabbed him once before, and that his marriage very nearly collapsed, didn't preclude him from continuing the dalliance. (Inevitably, his daughters busted him again several months later.) And it was this sense of impunity that permitted him to join up with the Trump campaign in the first place, even though his friends warned him that a career of dodgy dealing would ultimately catch up with him and doom him.
As Manafort pushed forward with these risks, he always had Rick Gates by his side. Gates had come up through the ranks of Manafort's firm, starting as an intern. One of Manafort's former colleagues told me that he could never allow his protégés to grow into their own: "He always saw us as they young people he hired." Most of his deputies I spoke with would come to resent being treated as such junior partners, always assigned arduous and relatively menial tasks. They would eventually leave Manafort's fold, many of them quite bitterly. But Gates tended to his boss with unusual devotion and patience. Mueller's most recent indictment shows the extreme measures that Gates would take to protect him. According to the indictment, if Manafort asked Gates to concoct a phony letter for a bank to procure a fraudulent loan, Gates wouldn't blink. According to the indictment, he fabricated one tale about how he had borrowed Manafort's card and run up a $300,000 bill without paying back the balance, in order to explain away the overdue debt. Gates kept taking personal risks on behalf of his risk-happy mentor.
They were in the mud together for years—and when their alleged misdeeds were finally exposed by Mueller, Manafort could reasonably have convinced himself that Gates would remain loyal to the end. But now Gates has peeled away from his father figure, and that couldn't be any worse for Manafort.
Whatever blanks remain in Mueller's narrative, Gates can fill them. If there are any weaknesses in the existing evidence, Gates can bolster them. With their intimate history and Gates's long immersion in the crevices of Manafort's finances and political dealings, he's pure prosecutorial gold. With the next turns of the Mueller's screw, Manafort will be forced into an ultimate reckoning with all the witnesses, all the evidence, all the sentencing guidelines arrayed against him, a belated, harsh reunion with reality.
Posted: 24 Feb 2018 06:00 AM PST
The aftermath of a mass shooting in the United States can feel like an all-too-familiar play.
Act I: Some combination of grief and shock and terror ripples across the nation, accompanied by a deluge of news coverage.
Act II: Gun-control advocates leverage the moment to call for stricter laws; those who oppose such restrictions offer their thoughts and prayers to victims but argue that gun control won't help.
Act III: the inevitable deadlock. America moves on; America forgets. Nothing changes, except for those for whom everything has changed. Public opinion on gun control remains as divided as ever.
That play is following a different script this time around. The curtain has stayed up on Act II, as survivors of what is now the deadliest high-school shooting in modern U.S. history have prevented the play from proceeding along its typical trajectory. "We call B.S.!" chanted Emma González—a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior whose face has since become a symbol for this exploding youth-led political campaign—at a rally last Saturday. Since then, the Parkland, Florida, teens' tweets, essays, and television appearances—equal parts fierce determination and fervent agony—have been the public-facing cry of what they have dubbed the "Never Again" movement.
Countless factors could explain why their activism on gun control has so quickly evolved into a national movement. And one could be Parkland's demographics. People in Parkland tend to be well-off. The median household income in the city is just over $128,000, according to census data, compared with less than $53,000 for the (massive) surrounding Broward County. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, or MSD, reflects this relative wealth: Fewer than 23 percent of its students during the 2015-16 school year received free or reduced-price lunch, compared with close to 64 percent of students across Broward County Public Schools.
That comparable affluence could be key to understanding why Never Again's youth leaders seem to be building so much political clout in a debate that until now seemed impossibly stuck. (And, realistically, may still be.) It could also be key to understanding why similar efforts led by disadvantaged youth in recent years have gained little, if any, meaningful traction.
"It's mind-blowing that while [the Parkland students] are still in the first days of dealing with trauma, anger, grief, they're putting it toward really careful and thoughtful political and civic action—it's just amazing," said Meira Levinson, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor whose research focuses on civic education and youth empowerment. "At the same time, it's also important to recognize that other young people have done this [activism] also within days—they're experiencing the same grief—and haven't gotten the attention that these [Parkland] students have."
* * *
MSD students' campaign started percolating on social media almost immediately after the massacre, in which 17 of their classmates and educators were murdered and many others injured. Persistent and plucky from the get-go, the teens urged President Trump to justify and rectify his inaction on gun control and lambasted the conservative pundit Tomi Lahren for insisting that any post-shooting "anti-gun" commentary was inappropriate.
It quickly became clear that these survivors were poised to spearhead a political movement whose message is so loud, and so raw, it's continued to dominate mainstream news coverage and radio shows and even late-night comedy a week after the shooting—an unusual phenomenon in today's real-time news environment. They've written haunting op-eds and delivered viral speeches; they've instigated rallies and prompted nationwide walkouts by students and teachers.
Now they're planning—from their parents' living rooms—a massive demonstration to take place in Washington, D.C., next month. The "March for Our Lives" event already has a sophisticated website with a mission statement and merch for sale—and, like the historic Women's March last January, it is inspiring satellite protests not just across the U.S. but also across the globe. Triple-digit donations from the likes of George and Amal Clooney and Oprah are helping to make all of this possible. Donations to the march's GoFundMe campaign have been on the rise since the effort was launched several days ago, and organizers have in turn continued to increase the funding goal. As of Friday evening, donations totaled roughly $2.3 million.
Why is there suddenly so much traction? Has the country just finally had enough with these mass shootings? Political scientists and scholars of student activism agree that the affluence of many families in Parkland plays a substantial role. Historically, affluence has often been key to gaining political leverage, and to ensuring that leverage has translated into actual policy change. "Citizens with low or moderate incomes speak with a whisper that is lost on the ears of inattentive government, while the advantaged roar with the clarity and consistency that policymakers readily heed," reads a 2004 report by an American Political Science Association task force on inequality and democracy. U.S. senators' voting patterns, for example, correspond far more closely with the preferences of their wealthier constituents than with those of their less-affluent ones.
It isn't hard to see why: As detailed in a 2002 study by the political scientist Larry Bartels, compared to their lower-income counterparts, wealthy Americans are more likely to have access to information about policies and to in turn form sophisticated opinions about those policies; they're also more likely to vote in elections and have direct contact with public officials. And of course, they're more likely to donate to political campaigns.
These advantages seem to be relevant across age groups. Schools such as MSD—where three in four students passed some or all their AP tests during the 2009-10 school year and where participation in the gifted program was nearly twice the national rate—are far more likely than their lower-performing, under-resourced counterparts to teach kids about civic engagement. Such education might include asking students to analyze current events and political issues in classes, to engage in community service, and to participate in extracurricular activities that expose them to the inner-workings of government or public speaking.
Aspects of this instructional focus can be seen in how the Parkland students have responded to the shooting. The 17-year-old David Hogg, a student journalist, filmed and interviewed his classmates while they took shelter from the gunman—footage that, he explained in a CNN interview, he gathered in part so he could later sway politicians' opinion on gun control. Asked about whether she'd prepared for the political activism she's now demonstrating, Jaclyn Corin, also 17, explained to The New Yorker writer Emily Witt that a few months earlier she'd worked on a 50-page project about gun control for her AP composition-and-rhetoric-class. And as one Buzzfeed article noted, the MSD activists planning the March for Our Lives largely know each other from the school's theater program; the skills honed in the dramatic arts—confidence, persuasive communication, creativity, stage presence—can be very useful in effective political activism.
Such opportunities are far rarer on high-poverty campuses, and poor students perform significantly worse than their more-affluent peers on the national standardized civics test. That's compounded by more abstract barriers, like attitudes about civic life. In part because politicians often disregard their lower-income constituents, those constituents (who are predominantly black or Latino) are less likely than wealthier people to see themselves as having political power. A 2009 Pew report showed that political participation increases significantly along with income levels, and in a national 2002 survey of young people aged 15 through 25, 71 percent said they believed that political candidates would rather speak to older and wealthier people than they would to younger people.
But scholars suggest that other realities could be at play, too. One is extremely straightforward: It costs money to engage in the kind of activism that the MSD students are undertaking—the trips to the state capitol in Tallahassee and D.C., for example, and the freedom to dedicate time to this campaign rather than to a part-time job or to caring for a younger sibling. As Aaron Fountain, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Indiana University whose research has focused on high-school activism, explained to me, low-income communities have often excelled at political organizing—limited access to resources, however, often prevents that activism from translating into policy change, as connections to influential people and the media and the ability to travel help facilitate that change.
Much of the discrepancy in political clout may come down to a bias against poor people, who are more likely to be a racial minority than they are to be white. Black children and teens are, according to a 2013 report, nearly five times as likely as white youth of the same age to die from guns. A 2016 analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense found that 39 percent of the non-shooter victims of gun violence on school campuses since 2013 were black; just 16 percent of public-school students, meanwhile, are African American. Communities affected by this pervasive gun violence—what ProPublica has described as "a relentless drumbeat of deaths of black men"—are acutely aware of the problem. And they've acted on it.
Harvard's Levinson listed numerous examples of young, largely poor people of color acting on their outrage over gun violence and "turning it toward constructive, civic, political purposes to try to get legislation and policy changes": the ongoing student protests against school closures in places like Chicago, for instance—activism that is premised on the well-founded fear that the closures make children more vulnerable to gang violence because they force kids to traverse long, unfamiliar, and unsafe routes to school. The protests and pleas have had little avail.
Then there's Black Lives Matter. While the movement has raised awareness about the country's deeply ingrained social injustices and spawned a network of young activists crusading to combat police brutality and racial violence, it didn't receive the same kind of sustained mainstream-media attention that the Never Again movement is experiencing. And the coverage of that movement has been a mix of positive and negative reports.
In one 2016 Pew survey, fewer than half of whites (46 percent) and just over a quarter of Hispanics (28 percent) said they understand the movement's goals at least fairly well, including just 12 percent in each group who said they understand them "very well."
Charlene Carruthers, a black community organizer and writer, compared the reactions to the two movements in response to Oprah's tweet pledging her donation to "March for Our Lives":
The author Roxane Gay expressed a similar sentiment:
Levinson cited research showing that the concerns of middle-class and affluent students, particularly those who are white, are "more likely to be interpreted as universal" whereas the concerns of their lower-income peers of color are more likely to be regarded as relevant to and true of a small percentage of kids. "Their experiences are not niche; they're not a side show," she said. "But for some reason the people in power, including people like us [journalists and academics], tend to see kids like those in Parkland as being our kids and as representing nationwide concerns as opposed to kids protesting in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York."
Similarly, a sociology thesis paper out of Bridgewater State University found that school shootings in urban settings and on predominantly low-income black or Latino K-12 campuses received far less national news coverage than those in suburban middle-class environments. Indiana University's Fountain cited a noteworthy parallel: His research has found that during the social movements and civil-rights activism of the 1960s and '70s, white youth activists were disproportionately featured in news coverage and historical texts even though people of color were often the main agents of those efforts.
Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian who's researched how political movements shape schools, said the apparent discrepancies in how youth activists are received by the public are disappointing but not surprising. "When you think about it, how could it be otherwise?" he said. "In a society of inequality, including racial inequality, the suffering of some people is going to gain more attention than others." Even so, Zimmerman and others applaud and value the traction these activists are getting.
And maybe Parkland's demographics ultimately have little to do with the amount of leverage the teens are experiencing. For one, while MSD's student population is predominantly middle-class or wealthier, it is diverse in terms of race: 56 percent of students are white, while 21 percent are Hispanic and 12 percent are black—a breakdown that roughly mirrors that of the U.S. public-school population as a whole.
Analyzing the demographics of other high-profile school shootings further complicates the picture. Columbine High School is predominantly white and affluent, with just one in five of its students identified as low income in the 2015-16 school year. Yet that massacre—which in 1999 took 13 lives, a dozen of them students—did not inspire a Never Again-type movement or instigate much political change. Perhaps that's because it was the first school-shooting rampage in modern U.S. history; for Americans, it may have felt like an absurd anomaly.
Sandy Hook—where 26 people were murdered, 20 of them young children— is very wealthy and white, too. The 2012 tragedy certainly roused the nation and reinvigorated debates about gun control, but the grieving parents who emerged as that moment's key gun-control activists struggled to move the needle on federal law, too. As one MSD student suggested in an interview with CNN, unlike the Parkland teens, "those kids [the Sandy Hook survivors] weren't old enough to speak their experiences and their tragedy."
A confluence of phenomena likely explains why the Never Again youth see their political clout growing exponentially: their educational experiences and social capital and political savvy; their advantage as middle-class Americans whose message resonates across demographics; the way in which mounting anxiety about and the almost-overwhelming media coverage of mass violence is making gun control seem more and more like a universally personal and high-stakes cause; and the fact that Trump—who's historically been a vocal gun-rights advocate and whose current disapproval ratings exceed those of at least the previous dozen presidents at this time during their respective presidencies—is the commander in chief. In Trump, the students of Parkland have a target for their rage, something survivors of shootings during the Obama era lacked. It's possible that just having that target—one that a lot of the public is similarly enraged against—has enabled their words to reach a wider audience.
Against this backdrop, maybe the outrage that had been bubbling up amid Columbine and Sandy Hook—and the steady sequence of often-overlooked school shootings—finally hit a tipping point.
Last week, I spoke with Michele Gay, whose daughter Josephine was killed at Sandy Hook. As we chatted, I lamented that America had seemingly become numb to mass shootings. "It's not numbness," said Gay, who after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre founded the nonprofit Safe and Sound Schools. "It's paralysis … people are becoming so profoundly shocked that they're paralyzed, especially when the response to these tragedies is so similar … They're paralyzed because they're frustrated and confused about what it is they can do."
Whatever the reason, the MSD teens' Never Again crusade seems to have provided the ingredients America needed to free itself from that paralysis.
Posted: 24 Feb 2018 06:00 AM PST
Bari Weiss and the Left-Wing Infatuation With Taking Offense
In a recent article on TheAtlantic.com, Shadi Hamid discussed the controversy that erupted over a tweet from the New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss, and argued that the left has allowed polarizing identity politics to distract from more fundamental debates.
In his article "Bari Weiss and the Left-Wing Infatuation With Taking Offense," Shadi Hamid declares the left's "indignation" to be baseless and void of ideas, and flimsily mentions the actually concrete, verifiably existent arguments. Then, rather bizarrely, he attempts to dispute these explanations with his own emotional reactions.
I'll be honest: When Hamid says that he's not offended by incorrect assumptions of his citizenship or questions of where he's "really" from, I'm happy for him. I'm glad he feels oblivious to the consistent onslaught of subtle but effective dehumanization faced by nonwhite Americans, because that is unnecessary emotional labor that I would wish on no one. But if he is privy to such luck, then why does Hamid wield it to invalidate other people's experiences? Additionally, if he is going to treat his own anecdotal evidence as fact, then why does he believe that his personal reactions are worth more than those of, as he puts it, "hundreds" of others? Hamid's own response is built on his emotions, and it does nothing except, perhaps, illustrate a possible lack of empathy.
The article's subtitle reads: "Outrage mobs are chipping away at democracy, one meaningless debate at a time." It's unfortunate that Hamid fails to recognize that these so-called "outrage mobs" are not trying to dismantle democracy—they are composed of people who are speaking up in hopes of restructuring our democracy to be a more inclusive one. Let's not forget that democracy is contingent on citizen participation: Its success depends on people relentlessly protesting, advocating, and being heard. If you're looking for angry mobs attempting to dismantle democracy, then look elsewhere—I assure you, the people of color asking to be acknowledged as Americans are not the ones you're seeking.
Hamid is confused, among other things, about the basis of the complaint, hijacking and distorting it for his own personal crusade against excesses of modern identity politics. ...
If Weiss's supporters would like to hang their arguments on civility, ending online abuse, and freedom of speech, I, as most would, agree with them wholeheartedly and unreservedly. But most have gone several steps further by prescribing how others should or should not perceive a long-standing stereotype or behave in their own daily lives—a sort of "thought policing" in its own right. Ideas of polite speech are ever-evolving. Today, there are many outdated phrases most of us are happy to have left behind and this newfound sensitivity is not weakness, but a strength. We are a better America today precisely because of it.
I agree with Shadi Hamid that we as a society should not be "infatuated with taking offense." However, I disagree that his opening example of Bari Weiss and Mirai Nagasu is the best example to make this point.
Like Hamid and Nagasu, I am the child of immigrants. Like Hamid, I get the question "Where are you from?" and my experience is also that the question usually means "Where are you really from?" Finally, like Hamid, I am not offended by the question, per se.
However, unlike Hamid, I think we should discuss rather than dismiss the implications of the question and what it "usually" means. If a white or black person is asked "where are you from?" and he responds, "Connecticut," the follow-up question (if any) is never "where are you really from?" or "were you born here?"
But as Hamid recognizes, when an Arab or Asian person is asked this question, those two questions are quite often asked next. My impression of Hamid's article is that he opposes our "identitarian age" and "identity politics." If so, then it seems somewhat inconsistent that he criticizes people who "took offense" at Bari Weiss's tweet, while simultaneously giving a free pass to people who ask Arabs, Asians, etc. "where are you really from?"
I am not offended when I am asked where I am from. I grew up in Georgia, so I give that as my answer. I am also not offended when I am asked where I am really from. I was born in Iowa, so I give that as my follow-up answer. But if we truly want to live in a non-identitarian age free of identity politics, then there should not be any "where are you really from?" follow-up question if I say I am from Georgia. If people are instead curious about what my ethnicity is, then they should feel free to ask me that directly rather than imply that I cannot really be from Georgia. (My family background is Chinese, and I wish everyone a happy lunar new year.)
Posted: 24 Feb 2018 05:00 AM PST
For years, activists have urged lawmakers to provide a path to citizenship for so-called "Dreamers," immigrants brought to the United States illegally as minors. They've staged sit-ins, protested at the steps of the Capitol, and organized rallies across the country. But the Trump administration's hardline stance has required advocate groups to go further and consider how much they're willing to concede to protect young undocumented immigrants—potentially at the expense of other immigrant groups.
There are dozens of immigrant advocacy groups across the country, but the policies they defend can differ depending on the group of immigrants they're serving. This includes systems to legally immigrate to the United States, some of which President Trump has proposed scrapping.
In September, the administration announced that it was ending the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program with a six-month delay, leaving a window of time for Congress to act. Democrats tried to enshrine DACA protections into law by tacking it on to must-pass legislation, such as bills funding the government. And as a result, in January, the lack of a DACA deal led to a three-day government shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to hold an open-floor debate on immigration if a deal wasn't reached before the February 8 funding deadline. This month, the Senate engaged in a debate over immigration, much of which happened behind closed doors, and failed to advance four separate proposals.
Attempts to pass the DREAM Act, a measure first introduced in 2001 that would allow some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to eventually obtain legal status, have stretched on for years. During his tenure, President Obama backed the legislation, but Congress failed to pass it. In 2013, the Senate passed a bill to overhaul the nation's immigration system, but House Republicans refused to bring it up for a vote because it lacked the support of the majority of the Republican conference. Efforts have been further complicated recently as the Trump administration, along with hardline House conservatives, push for stricter immigration measures, including slashing legal immigration, in exchange for protecting the "Dreamers."
The array of proposals puts activists in a precarious position, forcing them to decide how much they're willing to concede to help the "Dreamers" stay. It's not uncommon for divisions to reveal themselves in a movement of this size and scope, as one immigrant advocate told me: "I don't think [fractures are] surprising given that there's negotiations ongoing right now and everyone is collectively trying to advocate for their individual provisions," adding, "At the same point, I think the question will be where folks come together in the end."
Last month, the White House released an immigration framework that would provide a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants, in exchange for $25 billion for border security and restricting family-based migration, dubbed "chain-migration" by some conservatives, and ending the diversity visa program. The proposals would greatly slash legal immigration levels: The libertarian Cato Institute estimated that in all, Trump's immigration framework would bar 22 million immigrants from legally immigrating to the U.S. over the next 50 years. In the Senate, Trump's plan fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance. But a separate measure in the House has received the president's support: A bill by Representative Bob Goodlatte would would allow young undocumented immigrants to obtain temporary legal status and slash legal immigration levels.
Trump has insisted that he's unwilling to relent on his "four pillars," as he calls them, but he's previously changed his mind about what exactly he wants in a DACA deal. While proposals to change immigration policy fell flat in the Senate, the House may take up the matter next. Advocates, for their part, are continuing to pressure Congress to pass legislation before the March 5 deadline, while considering what they're willing to give, if anything, to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation—and how to stay united in the process.
"When I talk about unity and a movement united, it doesn't mean carbon copy advocacy and messaging and policy," said Cesar Vargas, the executive director of Dream Action Coalition, a pro-immigrant group. "I do mean that we all are in this together."
To that end, pro-immigrant groups are also in the unique position of having to defend policies that benefit the segment of the population they serve and navigate around strict immigration proposals.
Take the UndocuBlack Network, an organization that advocates for undocumented black people. Immigrants from Africa are among those who have benefited from the diversity visa program, which allocates a limited number of visas to countries that don't usually migrate to the United States. It's in the interest of the group to ensure the diversity visa lottery stays intact.
"There is no green card shiny enough for me to justify the devastating consequences on vulnerable communities here and abroad. So we say, not in our name," said Jonathan Jayes-Green, the director of UndocuBlack Network and a DACA recipient, in a press call last month.
UndocuBlack Network is not alone in opposing the end to the diversity visa lottery. Gustavo Torres, the executive director of CASA, a Maryland-based organization that advocates for Latinos and immigrants, said he too is against it being scrapped. "In terms of the diversity visa and the family reunification, I am not going and I'm unwilling to sacrifice these two important issues for DACA," Torres said.
The family-reunification system, which allows close relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to legally migrate to the country, has become a point of contention for other advocacy groups as well. According to the Department of Homeland Security, in fiscal year 2017, roughly two-thirds of new green-card holders had family connections to U.S. citizens. Immigrants from Asia make up a large share of visas issued under this category. The Asian Americans Advancing Justice—AAJC, a group focused on advancing civil and human rights for Asian Americans, has made protecting the system a priority in talks with lawmakers. "When you're talking about cuts to legal migration, that'll hit us really hard," said John C. Yang, the president and executive director of AAAJ—AAJC.
Karin Wang, the vice president of programs and communications for Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, cited the troubled history between Chinese immigrants and the U.S. as reason for concern. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major law restricting immigration, barred the Chinese from obtaining U.S. citizenship and suspended the entry of laborers for 10 years. "I don't know that [problems with ending the family-reunification system are] unique to Asian Americans, but I know for Asian Americans especially, given a very explicit history where we were valued at one point as low-wage laborers but not considered human enough to be allowed to have families and communities, this feels really relevant," Wang said.
In many cases, DACA recipients live in mixed-status households, meaning that some relatives may be U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents while others may be undocumented. This plays a significant role in the debate over DACA, since proposals to cut legal immigration could directly impact the families of the program's beneficiaries. As many recipients will tell you, it's not just about passing legislation that provides them legal status but also one that doesn't alienate their relatives.
But under a Republican administration and Republican-controlled Congress, a trade-in of some kind is inevitable—and advocates by and large agree a border-security package will need to be part of the deal.
"We have to be realistic in the moment we're living in," said Juan Escalante, the communications manager at America's Voice and a DACA recipient. "We're caving on the border-security package and we're putting forth a piece of legislation that is widely accepted by the American public. If the DREAM Act was passed, Congress [could] be seen as a functioning body."
When I asked activists to explain what that package would include, few could say for certain, often punting to lawmakers who will be tasked with writing the language, as well as groups more knowledgeable on border security. Clarissa Martinez, the deputy vice president for UnidosUS, specified the organization is open to supporting funding for border security under certain circumstances: "Reasonable border-security measures and accountability for expenditure of that money is something we're willing to look at," she told me.
This became a point of contention between pro-immigrant groups this month in regard to a bill co-sponsored by Senators Mike Rounds and Angus King. The proposal, which failed by a vote of 54 to 45, included a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants though it would prohibit them from sponsoring their parents, and $25 billion for border security, among other things. The large sum of money dedicated to the border frustrated members of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, which is made up of more than 60 organizations in the southern border region.
"SBCC has been very clear about what border communities need and what they need is a solution that not only protects Dreamers but to the extent it includes any kind of border policy, that that border policy be driven by data, analysis, and consultation," said Andrea Guerrero, the organization's co-chair. "The great failure of the Rounds-King bill was that it did not include data, analysis, and consultation. It predetermined that what we need is $25 billion that was based on a political agreement." United We Dream, the largest immigrant-youth organization in the country, also opposed the measure. Greisa Martinez-Rosas, the director of advocacy and policy at United We Dream, told me the bill "crossed the line."
UnidosUS, formerly known as National Council of La Raza, saw the bill as an opportunity. "The difference of opinion is not about the concerns over the substance. We share those concerns. We share concerns about continuing to feed this false notion about border security needing that kind of money," Martinez said. "At the same time, because there were some limitations to how that money was going to be used and how rare it is to be bring a debate to the floor, [and] the fact that it included protection for Dreamers, we decided to support that push." FWD.us, a pro-immigration group funded by the tech industry, also backed the measure.
Guerrero called support for the Rounds-King bill a "misstep." "Opening the door to border enforcement that was unaccountable, opening the door to the elimination of family visas, and opening the door to discretionary decisions by [Customs and Border Protection] were all extremely dangerous because we know that on the House side, this bill was going to get worse," she said.
SBCC supports Representative Will Hurd's immigration bill, dubbed the USA Act. The Republican congressman, who represents roughly 800 miles of Texas' border with Mexico, has proposed legislation that offers a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants and bolsters border security. The legislation has more than 50 co-sponsors from both parties. A companion bill in the Senate by Republican John McCain and Democrat Chris Coons failed by a vote of 52 to 47. "The misstep last week is that we should've all been throwing in behind the USA Act," Guerrero said.
The divisions within pro-immigrant groups over negotiations also became clear within the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino rights group. The group released a letter backing Trump's immigration framework, then retracted it after a fierce backlash from members.
According to estimates from the liberal Center for American Progress, 122 DACA recipients are losing their protections daily. That number is likely to spike following the March 5 deadline when more permits begin to expire. (A recent court ruling allows recipients already enrolled in the program to apply for renewal, though the process to do so can be slow and as a result, briefly leave recipients without protections, leaving them subject to deportation.) Activists have cited the urgency of the matter as reason to find a legislative fix—and do so quickly. But amongst themselves, they'll also be faced with that they're willing to give up to protect the "Dreamers."
"For anybody in Congress who feels that this is going away, I think that's a mirage," Martinez said. "If anything, the intensity is going to increase because of the deadlines that are coming up."
Posted: 24 Feb 2018 04:25 AM PST
The central question of Seven Seconds, Netflix's new 10-part miniseries from Veena Sud (the creator of AMC and Netflix's The Killing), is never who killed Brenton Butler, a black teenager in Jersey City. In the show's opening minutes, viewers see Pete Jablonski (Beau Knapp), an off-duty police officer, hit something with his car while he's rushing to the hospital to take care of his pregnant wife. The tragedy unspools one awful image at a time: the wheel of a bike, spinning; a boot thrown off by the force of impact; a red stain pooling across the white snow.
The underlying tension of the show, then, is whether justice will ever be served for Brenton's death. Jablonski, horrified by what he's done, calls his captain, Mike Diangelo (David Lyons), who quickly orchestrates a cover-up, calculating cynically that the optics of a white officer killing a black teen will end Jablonski's career. It's a heartless and transparently terrible decision that underlines the most urgent preoccupation of Seven Seconds—how communities take care of their own to the detriment of everything else. From the police force to street gangs, from the armed forces to faith groups to families, every character in the series is crippled to some extent by their fealty to the groups they hope will protect them.
In its strongest moments, Seven Seconds raises important and compelling questions about the fault lines in American society: who has power and who doesn't, who's heard and who isn't, whose lives matter and whose lives don't. Brenton, killed while riding an expensive BMX bike, is first written off by detectives as a gang member, with the implication being that his death carries less weight. The police force, meanwhile, immediately closes ranks around its members, and the district attorney, who's running for office, is reluctant to anger a group whose endorsement means so much. It's up to an assistant district attorney, K.J. Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey), and her reluctant assigned detective, Joe "Fish" Rinaldi (Michael Mosley) to ascertain what really happened, and to help Brenton's riven family get the justice they deserve.
Like the overwhelming majority of Netflix dramas, Seven Seconds takes a long time to get going, so much so that it might test the patience of many viewers. The first four hours are largely spent freewheeling, setting up character archetypes and interpersonal relationships that could be intuited without so much emphasis. ADA Harper is the most frustrating lead, a professional and personal trainwreck haunted by a past failure who falls into pitiful puddles of gin in karaoke bars and often fails to show up at work at all (Homeland's Carrie Mathison called and she wants her tired working-woman characterization back). But she's the exception: Others benefit from more nuanced roles, with Mosley's Rinaldi and Lyons's Diangelo among the most compelling.
The MVP of the show, though, is Regina King as Brenton's mother, Latrice. There are few finer actresses working today, and King's recent portfolio of television performances on The Leftovers and American Crime has won her both praise and two Emmy Awards. As a character, Latrice is defined by her grief and her rage, constantly having to fight to awaken other people's empathy for a dead child. King finds added texture, though, in portraying a woman unmoored from everything she's ever believed in. In one of the most damning scenes, Latrice visits a lawyer who tells her that a civil suit—with a six-figure payout—is the closest to justice she'll likely get. "I know you don't care about the money, but this is how you make them pay," he tells her. As her husband, Isaiah, Russell Hornsby is just as adept, struggling to make his own peace with his weaknesses as a father. Brenton's uncle, Seth (Zackary Momoh), a returning veteran, is caught between his past lives in a gang and in the military, neither of which puts a particularly high premium on his life.
Seven Seconds traverses a broad cross-section of different American communities and groups, all of which seem to come into conflict with one another. It's unflinching in its portrayal of a society where equal justice under law often means anything but. Brenton's story is juxtaposed with that of Nadine (Nadia Alexander), a 15-year-old drug addict from a wealthy white family whose shoplifting offenses are overlooked while Brenton has a criminal record for a couple of joints. But Sud resists making things simple. She never defends the decisions her characters make, instead exploring the reasoning that gets them there, and the allegiances they feel.
The show plays out against the distant skyline of New York City, with the Statue of Liberty looming over the horizon on a handful of occasions. It's a not-totally-subtle reminder of the gap between the ideals of American society and the reality. If Seven Seconds is sometimes clumsy and slow to start, shifting from legal drama to The Wire and back again, it gears up into something more reflective and more surprising. What does justice mean when people are so easily persuaded that it means nothing at all?
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