#Pointergate and the People of the Internet

21 Nov

Dear People of the Internet:

I know, even you must be tiring of this whole #pointergate thing. I’ll try not to repeat myself or what a million others have opined about the KSTP news “story” that is now in its third week of slapsticky goodness. Dearest People of the Internet, I write today to draw your attention to The Columbia Journalism Review’s amazing new article about the scandal with an even more amazing title, “There’s doubling down, there’s tripling down, and then there’s what KSTP is doing.” I promise to try to make it worth your time to read one more piece about how index fingers are tearing away at the very fabric of our society.

That CJR story has some important new tidbits for all of us to enjoy. First, KSTP owner Stanley Hubbard once again speaks about the scandal, which in itself is full of awesome. (Incidentally, the next time someone tries to say that there is a wall – a wall!—between the KSTP newsroom and its ideologically conservative ownership, we now have an entire bibliography of Hubbard commentary and clear involvement in the creation of the news product there).

In the CJR interview, once again, Mr. Burns, er, Mr. Hubbard, does not disappoint.

KSTP owner Stan Hubbard was interviewed by MPR late last week. Go listen listen.

Mr. Hubbard has a theory about the origins of P

Mr. Hubbard confirms that the creepy robo-poll that Minneapolis residents have been reporting receiving is indeed KSTP “studying” the public’s reaction to the #pointergate scandal. He feels reassured that their numbers show that the public overwhelmingly “don’t care one way or the other” about the issue, which totally confirms his station’s point that this is a very important issue and worth multiple news stories. Also, some black people have called him and told him “Good job!,” and the granddaughter of an employee, also black, wrote him a note saying she knew the Mayor was flashing a gang sign and she learned that “on the street.” This is all evidence on top of the truth bomb that Mr. Hubbard dropped last week, when he informed us that he hired the first black anchorman in Minnesota —which was not at all an answer to the question, why have you done three #pointergate stories without a single African American on camera to speak to community reactions to the piece?—but does totally prove the story was not racially tinged, let alone racist. I hire black people, get phone calls from black people, and their grandkids send me notes, people!

People of the Internet, Mr. Hubbard also assures us he did his own research: “Hubbard added that he also personally looked up gang signs on Google, and he found one that looked just like what the mayor was doing.” The Google! That’s the same tool so many of you used to find other notorious gangsters, like Martha Stewart, Vice President Biden, the Pope, and, uh-oh, Mr. Hubbard himself.

There’s a lot more in there, including confirmation that the head of the Minneapolis Police Federation was their original source, contradicting previous iterations of the story.  But, People of the Internet, here is the real reason I’m writing. This CJR article once again points to (See what I did there? I’m sorry, I never realized how until now how often we all use the word “point”) a theory that KSTP, Hubbard and Kolls seem to be pushing about this whole #pointergate thing. On MPR, last week Mr. Hubbard suggests this whole controversy was something stirred up by Mayor Hodges and her allies. The CJR story quotes Mr. Hubbard speaking at the Augsburg forum offering “some media criticism of his own”:

“I’ll tell you what reporters should do. If the reporters at MinnPost and the Star-Tribune are really good reporters they will find out who started this so-called Pointergate and started a Twitter site and who that person is associated with. There’s a story. Because you people have been sucked in. You’ve been sucked in, folks.”

Hubbard gang signUh-oh. People of the Internet, I have a confession to make. Gather closer. I think he might be talking about me.

As some of my friends will tell you, I always think it’s about me, but bear with me. I think this is different. An email from Jay Kolls to the mayor’s office that MPR obtained shows that Mr. Kolls has become interested in my personal life. I’ve heard that Hubbard himself has also made a few claims about it around town. Since KSTP may be about to quintuple down on their “story,” they may be about to drop a bombshell on us all: it turns out that I am in a long-term, homosexual relationship with Mayor Hodges’ Chief of Staff! Well, sure, I talk about John Stiles all the time on my podcast,  on this blog, in social media, even on conservative radio, but you see it is very important, relevant, that the public know that Brown Guy Who Quit KSTP also “is associated with” the Mayor’s Chief of Staff.

The dots that KSTP may be trying to connect are that because I’m in a relationship with the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, and because I’ve had a few things to say about #pointergate, I created this backlash.

They got me. Look, what can I say? I hate cleaning the cat boxes and the dishes hadn’t been done in weeks. I owed John Stiles a favor. So I created #pointergate. (Merry Christmas, sweetie! I got your gift early!)

This only makes sense if, People of the Internet from across the country—the overwhelming number of whom I have never met, who have tweeted and Facebooked about this by the tens of thousands—I CONTROL YOU. I’m sorry, really. I promised I would keep our relationship on the DL, People of the Internet. Mr. Hubbard, however, has uncovered our dirty little secret, and now the whole world knows.

You’ve been sucked in, folks.

Now that the secret of my extraordinary power over The Interwebs, is out there, I really should make you, People of the Internet, do stuff more often. I’m coming up with a list: stay tuned.

***

Can I be serious for a minute? Allow me to recommend some reading for organizers, business people, and anyone interested in how the “wisdom of the crowd” works in the Age of the Internet: Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstom’s “The Starfish and The Spider.” (I thank Marianne Manilov for this insight and introducing me to Brafman and Becks’ book. See her “From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and Beyond”).

Brafman and Beckstrom’s premise is simple. There are two models of organizations we can see functioning in business (and other realms): spider organizations and starfish organizations. A spider organization is hierarchical, with a leader at the top. And what happens when you cut a spider’s head off? It dies. A Starfish organization, on the other hand is “leaderless” (though I would prefer to think of it as decentralized leadership). What happens when you cut off one of a starfish’s arms? It grows another one. In some species of starfish, the cut off arm itself becomes its own starfish.

Remember in the early day of the Tea Party movement, when groups were popping up all over the place calling themselves Tea Partiers (before big money got involved and channeled the movement into being an arm of the Republican Party, that is)? Remember the early weeks of Occupy Wall Street, when something that was hatched as a concept by a graphic artist became an encampment in New York and then in more and more places around the globe? What do those two moments have in common? Neither has a “president” or head, one whose head could be chopped off and the whole thing would die down. They were impossible to define, pin down, and that was their very power.

Go back to Arab Spring. In the face of thousands of Egyptians crowding Tahir Square, the Egyptian government went in search of a culprit, and they found one: Wael Ghonim, a Google employee who they accused of orchestrating the whole “fake” uprising. Mr. Ghonim was imprisoned and, upon his release, said in an interview:

“The heroes are the ones in the streets … people who put themselves in danger for real. And I’m sitting writing on the keyboard…. This is the revolution of the youth of the Internet that became the revolution of the youth of Egypt.”

The Egyptian government thought that what they had on their hands was a spider uprising and that, once they chopped off that spider’s head, the fervor would die. They failed to see that twitter, the internet, all kinds of technology, had created a Starfish Revolution, one that (I’m not Middle East Expert, so forgive me for opining) is probably still years in the making. And when they tried to cut off that spider’s head, the movement only grew.

What does all this have to do with #pointergate? I hate to break it to Mr. Hubbard, but I didn’t do it. The city and the country reacted as it did because your story was just that stupid and just that offensive.

Yes, of course, people worked to push back on the station’s insane story. There are multiple authors and leaders, but this one was the most important: community organizing.

For the first week of #pointergate, back when KSTP was still saying that the story was not about Navell Gordon but about the mayor’s “judgment,” Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the youth and African-American led North Side organization that employed Navell Gordon, led the charge. The People of the Internet rallied around NOC because they saw KSTP’s story as an affront to their good work and the work of all trying to actually do something good in the world under difficult circumstances.

So, yes, David Brauer, a former media critic who heard the story was going to air, was the person who coined the term “pointergate,” which encapsulated the silliness of the whole thing. And, yes, I was the first to tweet to the hashtag. It was young, pretty badass organizers, however –many of whom earned their stripes in the Occupy movement and who know a little thing or two about social media–who lit the fire as they fought to defend their work (not a mayor). But, ultimately, a person and one community organization cannot alone create the phenomenon like #pointergate. That is, simply put, the wisdom of the crowd. The People of the Internet Spoke, and that is why KSTP has backed itself into a quadruple down contortion.

So, what’s next for KSTP and #pointergate?

The CJR story makes one thing clear for us: KSTP will make sure we stop talking about #pointergate when they damn well please. Where do I think the story is likely to go? Here are my guesses:

  • Sunday night is one of the best nights for local news stations. Maybe that’s when their next story will be.
  • Expect they’ll highlight their “poll” to make the case that they’ve been right all along and only the internet (run by ME!) thinks they’re wrong.
  • Expect them to finally find an African-American or two to put on camera and confirm the mayor flashed gang signs.
  • Expect them to continue to sensationalize Navell Gordon’s life. After first saying their story was not about Gordon, last week they ripped off all pretense and made him the focus of their story. Working with police sources who are embarrassed by this whole fiasco, expect them to continue to go after him.
  • Expect them to argue that the whole controversy was concocted by the Hodges team to distract from crime in the city and maybe, gulp, perhaps point to yours truly as one of the evil masterminds.

I honestly hope I’m wrong about all of these. There is important work to do in Minneapolis and the state. There are actual news stories to cover. Give it a rest, guys.

Yes, Jay Kolls and Stan Hubbard trolling around about my private life is creepy, and not just because we all know what kind of havoc a billionaire with a chip on his shoulder can wreak.

I suppose I could start looking over my shoulder more, but that sounds exhausting and I have enough to do already. Which reminds me…

People of the Internet, Get Ready. I have some shit for you to do.

#TrendingNationally,

Your T.I.P.

 

 

 

Through Pain, Towards Joy: Thoughts on the President’s Immigration Announcement

20 Nov

I wrote this recently as a reflection of a difficult period in my career as a union leader and organizer. I remembered it today as I watched news coverage of President Obama’s announcement tonight (Thursday) that he will take executive action to provide temporary relief for millions of immigrants living in the US but in the shadows. It weaves the very personal with a story about organizing work, and it feels incomplete, but I thought I’d post this today as a personal reflection on this moment. The president’s announcement is only a partial victory; we cannot fully celebrate until our laws are actually fixed. We must go beyond temporary fixes. This does, however, seem like a good moment to reflect on the pain we have been living and on the work ahead we have to create a future of joy.

This vacation was supposed to be a break from stress. It was on the tail end of a short sabbatical from work, and the hot sun on this beautiful beach in Puerto Morelos, 30 minutes south of Cancun, was supposed to be a reprieve. But no sooner had I put on shorts and gone out onto the sand, I noticed the spot on my foot and I start to panic. I know what that is. And it’s not the first one so I definitely know what that is. I tell myself not to freak out, that after a week of sunning I’ll see if it goes away. And I actually did manage to forget it. But on Friday of that week, when I was admiring my tan brown body –I’m Puerto Rican, I get very dark in the sun—and there is that one spot, as discolored and white as it had been before, now standing out even more from my tanned skin.

I know what this is and a few days later my doctor in Minnesota confirms it. He took one look at the spot on the foot, said “it’s vitiligo.” My eyes well up. “Oh,” I say. “Were you worried about that?” and I say yes as a tear falls. He gives me a referral to a dermatologist and doesn’t say another word. As angry as I was at my hip, gay Uptown doctor and his utter lack of bedside manner, looking back I kind of understand why he didn’t think it was the big deal I did. Vitiligo is Michael Jackson’s disease. No one ever believed he had one, they thought he was just lightening his skin to be white, but he actually suffered from this autoimmune condition where your skin gradually loses its pigment. The darker your skin the more noticeable it is because of the contrast. Vitiligo is not deadly. It’s not a symptom of anything and it doesn’t cause anything. It doesn’t hurt, unless you count vanity.

I read everything I could about vitiligo and found a dermatologist who specializes in its treatment. There’s no real cure, although there are some effective treatments. I learned that, although they don’t know what causes it, for people who get it later in life it often comes after a period of extreme stress. That I knew about.

 

I am the president of a union of close to 6,000 over 4200 of them janitors. The members of the union come from all over the world – the industry has always been sort of an Ellis Island of occupations. Our members clean all of the downtown buildings, the skyways, the airport and commercial office buildings across the metro area. I had taken that brief sabbatical from work because the previous year and a half had been brutal. Around 4,000 janitors are members of the union and on June 6, 2009, hundreds of janitors and their families were packed into our union hall for a big meeting. Our member meetings are not usually that well attended, but just two days before we had gotten word that our largest employer was being audited by Immigrations Customs Enforcement.

What happens during one of these audits is ICE collects from an employer all of the documents that employees fill out when they’re first hired. We got word that 1,256 janitors were on a “Notice of Suspect Documents” and that every Monday for six weeks 200 would be notified they were on the list and told they had until Thursday to present new documentation or be fired immediately. No due process, no time to correct honest mistakes – they didn’t even tell people what was allegedly wrong with the documentation they did present, sometime 10 to 12 years prior, when they first applied for the job.

1256 people on a list. This was the Obama administration’s supposedly softer, gentler version of immigration enforcement. They did away with the swat team raids of the Bush era and replaced them with these silent, desktop raids. We were all, of course, panicked. What we fought for when we worked to elect president Obama was quick immigration reform. We did not get that, but we did get access. Within a week I was in a meeting in Washington DC with the Chief of Staff of ICE, and for the next month I shuttled back and forth, was on constant phone calls, begging. We need more time. You can’t expect people in three days to be able to figure out what is wrong and fix it. What if people are mistakenly on the list? When we finally got the complete list it didn’t take long to find US citizens, residents on the list. But even if someone on the list was not authorized to work, if they are indeed undocumented, can they at least be given more than 48 hours to prepare?

Hundreds turned out to meetings we’d have where we had an army of volunteer attorneys trying to help find people who might have legal recourse to a work visa. At those meetings, members agreed and understood that until we fix our insane, broken immigration laws that all we could do was buy time. We knew that people who had non-union jobs in situations like this got fired on the spot. And every day of work was eight more hours on a paycheck. We got the company to back off their initial plan of 200 letters going out a week while I continued to try to get DC to say definitively they would give us more time. For six weeks we were in limbo. DC would tell us one thing, local ICE would say something different to the employer.

Six weeks the uncertainty lasted. I got a phone call from the Chief of Staff of ICE. It was brief. She asked how much time we needed. I said 90 days. She hung up. Not long after, I got a call from our employer.  They confirmed ICE had finally loosed their grip and provided the time extension.

Right after that call we scheduled another meeting attended by hundreds. I was so happy, we had done it. I had done it. I did what no one said could be done—I got us more time. At this meeting, I think I even had a smile on my face as I gave everyone the good news. But as soon as the words came out of my mouth I realized the mistake I had made. You fucking idiot. You self-involved prick. You. Fucking. Idiot. You come in here declaring we’ve staved off the execution but here is your date certain –and you expect people would cheer? That they’d be happy? Yes, everyone said they understood that until our laws are fixed all we could hope for was borrowed time. But now, you’ve given them a date. You have 90 days. In 90 days you will be fired. And you come in here with a fucking smile?

We thought – I thought – that if we had had a big public fight with the Obama administration about this raid that we would essentially be admitting that many of our members were not authorized to work and that that would accelerate the process of firing people. And so we chose silence. Members agreed, but that’s where I led. And I was wrong. Our members felt betrayed by everyone – their employer, who of course knew, the government, who also knew, and the union, who didn’t stand up to all of this hypocrisy, even if it meant people getting fired immediately. I didn’t stand up and publicly say. This is fucking wrong. This union that had had big, public campaigns to win good contracts and affordable healthcare was silent. We were invisible. And it has eaten at me ever since.

I don’t know that I can ever forgive myself for that mistake. Yes, we bought more time. And in those 90 days a couple dozen people were able to be helped by lawyers and got their papers fixed. Others at least had time to prepare. When we surveyed members, 600 said their home was in foreclosure or they feared it would be soon.   During those 90 days and after, rumors flew around. We heard some were saying that in my shuttling back and forth to DC I had actually sold everyone out. As much as those rumors still pierce my heart like a bullet, the frustration they express had an essential truth at its core. Of all the characters involved in this drama – the employer, ICE, President Obama, the union—we, the union, we are the only entity whose charge, whose reason for being, is empowering and protecting workers. And we were powerless to do anything. That we should get disproportionate blame – it may not be correct, but it is understandable.

This was not the first desktop raid we suffered. A year later, 250 more members lost the jobs. Then they started going after smaller companies. I started joking with my friends about the stress and my vitiligo, These mother fuckers are not going to stop until I am completely white.

There is a lot I love about my job. When you work in social justice and you have a victory, you take part in adding joy into the world. It’s now five years later and the raids have stopped, or paused. We’re still waiting for DC to fix our immigration laws. The vitiligo is still around, though it has not spread, and I know that the stress that I feel doing this work is nothing compared to the stress experienced by undocumented workers living in the shadows every day.

When I am in a bad place about work, I try to remember all of the joyful moments in organizing. When we work together and win healthcare and wage increases, when we fight a Big Bank and save someone’s home from foreclosure. There are many. And then I think, if only the work was more about all of those moments of joy and not all of this pain, or at least a lot less of it. I had a prolonged moment of funk centered around these thoughts.

I came out of that mental cloud reading the work of a Tibetan Buddhist, Yongey Minghur Rimpoche, author of The Joy of Living. I was especially drawn to a meditation on compassion where you visualize yourself on your in breath, taking in pain, suffering, all of the pain and suffering in the world, and on the out breath you emit life. Breathe in, pain. Emit light. Pain. Light.

I realized that in this kind of work you can’t wish for just one side of that. “If only I didn’t have to deal with all this…” The work is both. Breathe in Pain. Emit Light. And I try to remember this, especially at times when it feels just too hard to breathe.

*****

Tonight, the President will be announcing temporary relief for millions of people. I’ve been going through my head today the names and faces of former member who I know will be helped by this action, and it is overwhelming. I’m looking up old phone numbers, calling people up to invite them to a party we will be having to watch the president’s speech in Nevada where he will detail the impact of the relief the administration will provide. Yes, the Right Wing is already fighting back, talking retaliation and outrage that the President is doing the same thing that Presidents Bush and Reagan did before him.

But, tonight and tomorrow, all that stuff is just noise. We are celebrating the lessons learned of the past. We will not lead from silence any longer. We are celebrating the promise of the future. This fight is not over until we have not just temporary relief but have fixed our unjust laws. We are celebrating the lives of men, women and children who have worked through years of pain and fear to seek what all of us seek–because we all deserve to live lives of joy.

 

Race and Education. Some Thoughts, Post #pointergate

18 Nov

This is the first of two, maybe more, posts about education and the polarized debate surrounding it in Minneapolis. This post provides mostly background thoughts. Subsequent posts will deal more specifically with the recent Minneapolis School Board election.

A while back, right before the election, I said I would write up a fuller synopsis of the depressing Minneapolis School Board race and the broader issue of the polarization of the debate around education in Minneapolis. Then #pointergate happened. It wasn’t just that I was personally pretty preoccupied with that story and its impact on an organizational ally, Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), that kept me from writing this post. I saw in the first few days of that big story how united Minneapolis—and in fact Minnesota and the country—became around an issue having so deeply to do with racial divisions in society, and it was inspiring. And, as several friends mentioned on Facebook, it was nice to see Minneapolis coming together after the bitter divisions that the school board race surfaced (some might say caused, but I chose that word purposefully).

And so writing about difficult issues at a time of unity feels a little like knowingly taking on the role of Debbie Downer. Pointergate has made me think more deeply about the issue of education and the racial divisions of both our education system and the divisions caused by the proposed solutions to fix those problems. These posts are my sometimes sprawling thoughts on the issue of education in Minneapolis, why I think it has become so divisive, and how getting over our societal inability to deal openly with the issue of race is key to us moving forward collectively.

Naming race. This is my point of departure for connecting the two topics of pointergate and Minneapolis schools. What was so gratifying to many who fight for racial justice was the way in which a broad swath of the public immediately saw the story for what it was, the worst kind of race baiting. By blurring Navell Gordon’s face and merely identifying him as a convicted felon, erasing all context of what he and the Mayor were actually doing that day (getting out the vote in low income neighborhoods), KSTP made Gordon into the anonymous Scary Black Man, and people got that. In a state where it often feels exhaustingly difficult to discuss race, this remains amazing to me and it gives me hope. So often we are caught in the US in “OJ moments,” where the media story is about how differently different groups see the same situation. The universal condemnation of pointergate has been truly edifying on that point.

If you followed KSTP reporter Jay Kolls’ twitter meltdown on the first night of the broadcast saw that his defense was simple: I didn’t mention race! You guys are the ones bringing race up! It’s a particularly facile suggestion, that unless one actually mentions race then surely something isn’t about that. Kolls’ impulse, however, is a caricature of a real problem, an impulse to not mention race, to allow it to be subtext and not dealt and talked about openly. This seems especially true in Minnesota, where the mere mention of race seems, well, impolite.

Race and Education, Minneapolis and Everywhere

Very recent coverage of an issue facing Minneapolis Public Schools highlights, to my mind, the challenges and necessity of engaging deeply with race when it comes to education. On this week’s edition of the Wrong About Everything podcast, conservative Mike Franklin and I tussled over the recently announced suspensions policy of the Minneapolis Public Schools. The policy, which was immediately misrepresented and ridiculed as schools now need “permission” to suspend black and Latino students, actually states that the district will review, after the fact, the suspensions of students of color as a way of responding to an issue that is not unique to Minneapolis: the insanely disproportionate rates at which students of color, especially young black men, are suspended in public schools vis a vis their white counterparts. There are horror stories of children as young as pre-k receiving suspensions as discipline, even as studies show what seems so obvious: keeping kids from school does not help them learn. The less bombastic criticisms of the policy suggest there is a constitutional issue with only reviewing the suspensions of kids of color, made by Franklin on WAE and attorney Tom Corbett in the Star Tribune, suggest the policy won’t pass constitutional muster once the first white or Asian kid who gets suspended sues the district alleging her/his suspension is discriminatory because it wasn’t reviewed.

On the podcast Franklin suggests reviewing all suspensions, something I don’t disagree with but that I also think doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. His and others’ reaction seems to fundamentally rest on a discomfort with using race in the analysis at all. I’m left wondering, how are we to deal with issues of inequity and discrimination, if we do not look at race? And to Franklin’s credit, he does acknowledge that there actually does seem to be a problem with the suspensions of kids of color in MPS. I’m just not clear he or any other conservative would be satisfied with any proposed solution because it would necessarily require at some point looking at the race of students. (If you want to hear an in-depth, at times heart-wrenching account of the issue and its ramifications, listen to this episode of This American Life. It’s stunning.)

While I don’t pretend to have the perfect solution for this particular issue, the point I want to underscore is a simple one: discipline is just one of the many issues we cannot deal with if we try to do so without talking about race. We must deal openly with the fact that white kids and kids of color have fundamentally different experiences and outcomes in Minneapolis Public Schools and in Minnesota generally. That is the problem before us.

Why Do I Care?

People have asked me why education is an issue I have an opinion about. Some folks in the teachers’ union in Minneapolis have asked in a rather pointed way – this is our issue, why do you care? It’s a fair question I’m happy to answer because by some of the measures we traditionally define the issue, I don’t fit the bill of someone who should care about our schools. First, I have no kids (that’s best for everyone involved). Second, I’m the president of a union of janitors and security officers in the private sector. With the exception of security officers who work in Saint Paul Public Schools, SEIU Local 26 does not represent educators or support workers in schools.

So why do I care? The first reason is personal. Education opened doors for me that were not available to my parents, which is why they insisted that all of their children study and study hard. My siblings and I are the first generation of college graduates in our family, and my parents are very proud of that fact. And how did I, a kid from a family of very modest means, get a fancy Ivy League college education? First, a lot of debt that I will probably still be paying into retirement. But debt and scholarships is how I paid for it once I got in, and I got into a school like Yale because I was lucky enough to be educated in US public school system that succeeds where others do not, a school system where kids of color excel and where achievement and opportunity gaps are not the mammoth problem they are for here in Minnesota. My father was an enlisted soldier in the US Army, and so my entire schooling happened in Department of Defense Schools, first in Germany and then on a military base in Puerto Rico. Like so many who enter the volunteer army, my parents did so escaping poverty in the early 1960s. He did two tours of duty in Vietnam in combat. We were always very aware that the sacrifices our parents made they made so that we would have opportunities they did not.

The second reason I care is indeed professional. SEIU Local 26 is a union of janitors, security officers and window cleaners. The largest group, the janitorial division, is made up of members who come from all over the world. We have a fairly young membership. If you come to one of our member meetings, you will see small children running around; there is a lot of joy in the room. And when, over the years, I have asked members why they decided to make the difficult decision to come to a country whose language and culture is different from theirs, I most often hear my parents’ voices in theirs: I came to make a better life for my kids. For the members of Local 26, the “achievement gap” is not an abstract concept. Those are our kids.

In the next post, I will go more deeply into the polarized debate around education in Minneapolis and how an analysis of race, where we all challenge ourselves, is essential to solving the issues before us.

Wrong About Everything This Week – #pointergate and more!

17 Nov

logo smallFor those of you new to this blog through #pointergate, as you can see I don’t write very consistently.  I wish I had the time.

I do co-host a weekly podcast, “Wrong About Everything,” that is an irreverent, fun and bipartisan look at Minnesota and national politics.  t’s two Democrats and two Republicans, and the funnest part of my week is getting together with this group every Sunday to talk serious policy but also laugh and be silly with each other. You can find the show in iTunes, stitcher, or wherever you prefer to download podcasts.

On this week’s episode, we discuss Stanley Hubbard’s Mr. Burns impersonation in his MPR interview meltdown at

KSTP owner Stan Hubbard was interviewed by MPR late last week. Go listen listen.

KSTP owner Stan Hubbard was interviewed by MPR late last week. Go listen listen.

the end of last week, giving me a “Dear White People” moment where I give advice on what not to say when asked a question about race. We also have some fun talking about the (Mac)Gruber Obamacare Follies and ask, will the Republicans be able to stop themselves from saying crazy racist stuff when President Obama signs his upcoming Executive Order on Immigration.  Also, the silver lining to this year’s election fiasco for Democrats? The Return of our Republicans Gone Wild segment!

We didn’t discuss this on the show, but if you’re following #pointergate, don’t miss this takedown of KSTP from the St. Cloud Times.

Navell Gordon is a Man. Media, #Pointergate & Dehumanization

9 Nov

In case you missed it, Navell Gordon and Anthony Newby of Minnesota Neighborhoods Organization for Change (NOC) were on Melissa Harris Perry’s show on MSNBC Sunday morning.  Gordon is the young man in the now famous photo with Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, the one at the heart of the now national #pointergate story. Watch:

Navell Gordon has face. He has a name. A Voice. A Story.

Thank you, Melissa Harris Perry for introducing the country to the young man whose name, voice and story was blurred and distorted by an irresponsible journalist and the television station backing him.

One of the most frustrating aspects of KSTP’s #pointergate debacle is that the station’s “explanation” for why they ran with the insane accusation that Gordon and Mayor Hodges were flashing gang signs is as bad, as hurtful, as wrong, as the original story itself. In their Friday afternoon statement about #pointergate and their subsequent news followup  to the story, KSTP makes the point that their story was about the “Mayor’s judgment” and not Gordon, telling us that this is why they “blurred the individual’s face and did not name the group he was working for.“ As I wrote in a previous post,

That is not only not a good explanation, that is precisely the problem, KSTP. You ignored the context in order to sell a sensationalist story spoon-fed to you by the Police Federation.  If you had named the organization, explained what they were doing, and given the full context, viewers would have immediately seen how insane was the proposition that the Mayor and Gordon were flashing gang signs.

If you had explained the context, you wold have had to explain that NOC is an organization dedicated to improving the lives of young people of color, including and especially those who have made past mistakes.  If you had named Navell Gordon, you would have had to admit that sensationalizing his story by calling him a “convicted felon” isn’t news — his past, and a desire to rebuild it, is precisely why he’s doing the organizing work he’s doing.[...]

Your newsroom didn’t blur Gordon’s face and fail to name NOC out of some concern for him or the community — you did that because, had you done basic journalism, your story would have fallen apart.

Someone on Twitter later pointed out something I’d missed when I first saw the story. The KSTP newsroom didn’t just blur out Gordon’s face, they blurred out his t-shirt so you can’t read what it says: “VOTE”.Navell Vote

KSTP was so intent on making it look like the Mayor was consorting with a bad, bad man that they erased his name, his identity, and any evidence that he was actually doing something very positive for himself and his community at the very moment that photo was taken.

KSTP still has lots to answer for. They say in that first segment that the person in question, Gordon, has no known gang ties. (If he’ not in a gang, aren’t those just fingers, KSTP?) That evening, however, in an epic twitter meltdown, reporter Jay Kolls called Gordon a “gangbanger.”  While his twitter feed has gone silent, Kolls’ daughter has also called Gordon a gang member in her public twitter feed.  I know that in Kolls’ initial inquiries into the story he unequivocally described the man in the photo as a “known” gang member.  So why, then, did the story air saying that he is not known to have any gang affiliations?  Did the information Kolls was fed by his sources turn out to be so far off base that it could not be corroborated?  If so, why did they run with the story anyway?

Some have speculated that KSTP’s double-down may have to do with bracing for a lawsuit.  If they and their reporter knowingly put out false information about an individual, one can see how admitting a mistake now could be tantamount to admitting slander.

The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike MLK stood with the day before he was assassinated.

The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike MLK stood with the day before he was assassinated.

KSTP now tries to hide behind their blurring of Gordon’s identify as if to suggest they were doing him some kind of favor when, in fact, it was ignoring him as a human being that allowed them to inflame racist fears of a dangerous black man who (even though their own research suggested otherwise) must be in a gang. By making him no one, he became the Black Everyman who is used to stoke fear.  As a blurred face, Gordon is Willie Horton and every other image ever used to scare white folks about crime.

KSTP simply could not tell the story they wanted to tell, of a white Mayor consorting with danger, if they had actually named Navell Gordon and treated him like a human being  and not an abstract concept.  Because Navell Gordon is not an abstract concept.  He is a man. A man who has made mistakes and admitted to that. A man who was, at that very moment they sensationalized, working to make his community better. Navell Gordon is a man who deserved to be treated like one.

And that is why KSTP must retract their story and apologize.

***

In my previous post, I listed a few actions people can take to express their outrage at KSTP.  Since I wrote that, NOC has started a public petition at pointergate.org.  If you’ve not yet signed it, go there now.

This Brown Guy Quits KSTP. You Can Do Something, Too.

8 Nov

In light of KSTP’s doubling down on their absurd report slandering a community group, a young organizer, and Mayor Hodges of Minneapolis– a report for which they have been ridiculed by local and national media and called “extremely racist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center–concerned Minnesotans have to kick up their game.  Until the station apologizes for their offensive news coverage and engages deeply with the community they have insulted, we should all do everything in our power to reject KSTP.

Here is the little I can do. For the past few years, I have had the opportunity to be an occasional political commentator on local TV and radio.  I love doing it.  I have been for the past several years part of the stable of commentators rotated on KSTP’s Sunday morning political talk show, “At Issue with Tom Hauser.” I have deep respect for Tom Hauser, he has always been very welcoming me to his show, and he is not a part of the news team that brought us #pointergate. That notwithstanding, after the station has chosen to blame the public for “missing the point” –get it? isn’t that cute?–I simply cannot in good conscience have anything more to do with KSTP.

Look, I’m not fooling myself. I’m not that big of a deal.  When I let “At Issue” know yesterday that I no longer felt comfortable or welcome on their station, the show’s producer was quick to respond: “We agree that it’s the best move for all of us.” (I may not be a big deal, but at least I know they read my tweets!)

I've been a regular guest of the "Face Off" segment "At Issue."

I’ve been a regular guest of the “Face Off” segment “At Issue.”

This is not a sacrifice for me. I don’t get paid to do any political punditry and I don’t do it that much.  (I was scheduled to be on At Issue twice this month.) Here is the only thing that truly bothers me about this.  If you watch At Issue regularly, you may have noticed one thing.  This light-skinned Puerto Rican is diversity on that show. And not just on that show.  Politics and political commentary, as well as news reporting, is simply not as diverse as Minnesota has become.

The thing I have wondered incessantly since Jay Kolls’ inflammatory piece first aired is, how many eyes looked at that story and saw no red flags?  Or, as one twitter use replied to me, “how many saw the red flags, but didn’t feel able to voice their concern?” I don’t know how many people of color are in the KSTP newsroom.  Anecdotally, after years of going into the studio fairly regularly, my guess is not a lot.

And so it is no small deal for me to make the KSTP news operation even less diverse, but there are times when we all have to do what little we can.  Some may be wondering, what can we all do together? Just as social media has brought national attention and derision to this travesty of journalism, we can use our collective power to let KSTP know that the public rejects their newsroom’s double-down.

What we can all do

First, let KSTP know of your outrage.  You can find their comment page here or you can call their newsroom phone at 612-588-6397. As always, please be civil but firm.

Also, continue tweeting at them your outrage, letting them know you refuse to watch their show and will  not patronize their advertisers.  Tell them to stop standing by the shoddy reporting of Jay Kolls.  He is damaging their brand, and maybe eventually they will realize the problem he is for them.

A twitter user calling her/himself @kstpadwatcher has begun tweeting the names of companies advertising on KSTP news.  The account was just created and doesn’t have many followers, but watch there to see if this develops into a full-fledged campaign.  With advertisers, let them know why you object to their sponsorship of a TV station that displays such an appalling disregard for journalistic ethics.

Let’s not let the Minneapolis Police Federation off the hook.  The Federation’s president, John Delmonico, chose to pursue a vendetta against Mayor Hodges because she dared assert that, while the overwhelming number of cops are good men and women doing their jobs, there are a few who damage the reputation of the whole force.  In response to Hodges’ “Open Letter” to the community of Minneapolis, Delmonico wrote his own open letter stating that the problem in the Minneapolis Police Department is too many officers are being disciplined. After his role in #pointergate, it is clear that John Delmonico himself is one of those cops damaging the reputation of the corps.  The Federation’s email address is info@mpdfederation.com and their phone number is 612.788.8444. Remember again, civil but firm. The twitter handle for the police department is @MPD_PIO. It is important to make a distinction between the action of Delmonico and the force as a whole.  It is the opinion of many that there is a cultural problem within the department; one role the public can play in improving that culture is highlighting the difference between cops who are building community and those who are damaging it.

(Let me point out that taking on the Police Federation and pushing for reform in the MPD is something that white allies can in particular play a big role in.  People of color, especially African-American men, have reason to be concerned that speaking out could lead to police harassment. One of the things that has been missed in a lot of the reporting on #pointergate –and that KSTP, of course, completely ignored–is that the young organizer in that photo with Mayor Hodges, Navell Gordon, had recently caused some bad press for the police department when he was featured in news stories alleging police harassment of Get-Out-The-Vote canvassers on the North Side. A question Jay Kolls didn’t think to ask the cops who spoon-fed him the pointergate story is, did this very recent bad press have anything to do with why cops were trolling his Facebook page photos to begin with?)

Finally, you can do something proactive.  Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change is the community organization that was slandered by KSTP and Jay Kolls.  They are a youth and people of color-led organization that is doing amazing work focused on the North Side of Minneapolis.  Support their work.  Throw a few bucks their way. You can also follow their work on Facebook.

About that KSTP “explanation” and Who is Missing the Point

I don’t at this point need to summarize for anyone the scandal of ethics and journalism that has become “Pointergate.” If you want to get caught up, some of the best things to read or listen to include the interview MPR News did with Anthony Newby, the Executive Director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change; University of St. Thomas Law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds’ brilliant, “Dear White People: Mayor Hodges is Not in a Gang”; and the first blogger to bring national attention to #pointergate, Shaun King, “Pointergate may be the most racist news story of 2014″.

Here I’d like to just speak a little to KSTP’s follow-up story, where they double down on their original reporting, re-interview the same retired cop and continue to ignore the outraged community (the only person of color featured in any of their news stories about pointergate is the blurred face of organizer Navell Gordon.

In their Friday afternoon statement about #pointergate and their subsequent news followup story, KSTP makes the point that their story was about the “Mayor’s judgment” and not Navell Gordon, telling us that this is why they “blurred the individual’s face and did not name the group he was working for.

That is not only not a good explanation, that is precisely the problem, KSTP. You ignored the context in order to sell a sensationalist story spoon-fed to you by the Police Federation.  If you had named the organization, explained what they were doing, and given the full context, viewers would have immediately seen how insane was the proposition that the Mayor and Gordon were flashing gang signs.

If you had explained the context, you wold have had to explain that NOC is an organization dedicated to improving the lives of young people of color, including and especially those who have made past mistakes.  If you had named Navell Gordon, you would have had to admit that sensationalizing his story by calling him a “convicted felon” isn’t news — his past, and a desire to rebuild it, is precisely why he’s doing the organizing work he’s doing.  How do we know?  He says it in this video,which also happens to capture the exact moment the pointergate photo was taken:

If you’d named the organization, you would have had to admit that, despite what reporter Kolls claimed in his first story, NOC did reach out to your newsroom to correct your interpretation before the first story aired.  I know this for a fact.  I have worked with NOC for years and have been in regular communication with Anthony Newby since Kolls first started digging around about this story.  I know, for example, that upon learning from KSTP what they planned to say about that photograph, NOC sent the newsroom many more photos of the event, including those showing Police Chief Janee Harteau right by Mayor Hodges when she canvassed with Gordon (and just out of frame of the camera of the #pointergate photo). Your newsroom didn’t blur Gordon’s face and fail to name NOC out of some concern for him or the community — you did that because, had you done basic journalism, your story would have fallen apart.

And the mendacity continues.  Friday night’s rehashed argument on KSTP still makes no mention of the above video, which debunks the story’s entire premise.  As of Friday afternoon Jay Kolls said on Joe Soucheray’s radio show “Garage Logic,” that he still had not seen the above video! (By the way, when Joe Soucheray and Twin Cities progressives are agreeing that your story was horse manure, you’ve got a problem).

Poor Jay Kolls must have been so busy sending angry tweets the night his story first aired (he has since stopped tweeting) he just didn’t have time to click on a video that has now been viewed over 160,000 times. He obviously still wasn’t able to get to it before the Friday night newscast.  Research is hard.

#Pointergate is about more than KSTP

Yes, we should focus a lot of organizing attention on a station as irresponsible as KSTP, but there are deeper issues that the community conversation must consider.  The next time talking heads on TV wonder why the relationship between police departments and the communities they serve, remember John Delmonico’s role in this and remember #pointergate. The next time journalists of color call out the lack of diversity in newsrooms and the effect that has on coverage, remember #pointergate. The next time a black kid gets shot because someone thought something he was doing with his hands — a gesture, reaching in his pocket, putting his hands up in the air — gets misinterpreted, remember #pointergate.

Minneapolis School Board Race. Some Thoughts Before You Vote.

3 Nov

In Minneapolis this year, the race for the at-large school board seats has become one of the nastiest and divisive elections in recent memory. Trying to carve not even a middle path in this fight between the union and reformers, let alone a conversation, seems impossible, especially during the heightened tensions of an election. I’ll have a much longer post-mortem after election that will go into detail my frustrations with certain segments of both the reform and union crowds, but here I’ll just stick to my pre-election day thoughts that I hope some Minneapolis voters will find useful.

Let me begin by acknowledging that everyone running is seeking what is essentially a volunteer job, paying around ten thousand dollars a year (insane when you consider they manage a budget of almost 800 million dollars). It is also a thankless job with a ton of work, very little if any staff support, and the job description consists of trying to chart a way forward for kids in the midst of lots of adults yelling at you that you are not doing your job right. Kudos to all willing to put up with the current electoral vitriol they are sustaining only to win and accept that job.

Iris Strib Editorial EndorsementAnyone who knows me knows I am not unbiased in this race. Iris Altamirano is not only SEIU-endorsed, she is a good friend and someone who worked as political director and internal organizing lead at Local 26. She has been on strike lines, is extremely smart, and her story is the one of so many Minneapolis Public Schools students. There are three viable campaigns for two at-large spots: Altamirano, Don Samuels, and Rebecca Gagnon. Ira Jourdain is also vying for a spot, but his campaign has been lackluster, though he has a base of support in the hardcore left of the teachers’ union. Samuels is the darling of education reformers and Gagnon the darling of the mainstream of labor and the teachers’ union. Altamirano’s is the only campaign that has actively sought to build a conversation across groups and differences of opinion. That is what we need in a new school board – as she says, a new conversation, led by people willing to challenge all sides to do better and focus on kids.

Minneapolis kids are in crisis, especially kids of color. We have the greatest racial disparities in outcomes in the entire United States. Let that sink in. Worse than Mississippi, worse than Alabama, worse than Texas, where Iris Altamirano grew up.

Iris knows the plight of Minneapolis kids; she too was expected not to succeed. She is the proud daughter of a janitor who worked at her high school. When the superintendent of that school found out that Iris had been accepted to Cornell University, he did not celebrate her as the first student of any race to be accepted to an Ivy League from his district. No, he pulled her mother aside in the hall she cleaned every day and asked her, “Why your daughter?” Iris’s mom replied in her accented English, “Why not my daughter?” Iris and her mom cracked the code. They figured out a way for her to be successful in a system stacked against her. She has since then dedicated her life to changing that system. She will be the first Latina elected to the School Board and the only member with a direct connection to the largest community of immigrants in the city.

If Samuels and Gagnon get elected together, the school board will be bitterly divided, polarized—and the polarized debate has helped no one, especially kids. (More on that in the post-mortem).

DFL-endorsed Altamirano came in a strong third in the primary, but there are only two spots open on the board, and she is clearly the underdog. She is up against former City Council Member Samuels, who last year ran for mayor and won the highest number of second third choice votes and support across the city. He had a network of donors ready to go and the passionate support of some key stakeholders, including former Mayor Rybak. As soon as he announced, electing Samuels became the top priority of the “reform” crowd.

Then you have the incumbent, Gagnon, for whom the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation re-wrote the rules of endorsement in order to support her, choosing for the first time not to screen candidates and instead support the “DFL ticket.” That meant labor could put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the DFL while she could say she is not beholden to labor. (That is literally why it happened; it’s how she wanted it). It is abundantly clear that, if the rules of the game are re-written to fit one person, that person is your priority. Having been a strong supporter of labor, especially the teachers, on the board, re-electing Gagnon is the top priority of most the “union” crowd.

Coming out of the gate, Altamirano was neither group’s top priority. Unlike Gagnon, she is not wealthy enough to feed her campaign with thousands of dollars. Unlike Samuels, she is not known citywide. Although she comes out of the labor movement, organized strike lines and helped thousands of workers in the Twin Cities make their jobs better, no one has rewritten any rules to support her. The DFL endorsement was valuable; that and Altamirano’s tireless work got her a decent close third in the primary. Third place doesn’t get you on the school board.

Post-primary Altamirano continued a strategy of talking to everyone and began gaining their support. Reformers who donated to her did not give in as high quantities as they did to Samuels, and although she does not agree with them on all issues, they have seen in her someone who will at least listen and talk. Likewise, teachers and other union folks have invested in her campaign. She has run on her organizing experience, even when many in labor have attacked her viciously (and I do mean viciously) simply because she does not believe that being pro-labor means you have to close off communication with everyone else and be open to ideas wherever they come from.

Her work to engage people across groups has garnered her high praise. Just today, the 2014 Educator of the Year, Tom Rademacher, endorsed Iris, writing: “The conversation needs to change. I respect Iris Altamirano for her willingness to talk to everyone working to make schools better. Iris seems to understand that our biggest problems need allies more than they need enemies, and has refused to take the easy way out of picking a side in an argument and scoring easy points attacking others. Again and again, she has refocused the conversation through this campaign on finding solutions and staying centered on our students. She has my vote for Minneapolis School Board.”

In a surprise to the establishment, newcomer Altamirano also received the endorsement of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Are there also people supporting her candidacy financially—principally through independent expenditures that she legally has no control over—who progressives disagree with on a whole host of issues? Absolutely. Why should you support her anyway? Because, in a world where money flows into elections to absurd degrees, Altamirano has been upfront about the fact that she is talking to everyone. If any of her critics who also cannot afford to self-finance their campaigns would care to run for office in the current campaign finance climate, I look forward to watch their learning curve.

In sum, whoever of the other two frontrunners you like, Samuels or Gagnon, Altamirano should be your other choice. If you want someone who will lead a new conversation, vote for Iris. If you are passionate about Rebecca Gagnon, you should also support Iris. If you are passionate for Don Samuels, you should also support Iris.

This race has been hard on everyone involved. Both the reform and the union side have engaged in tactics I find deplorable (more on that later). If the each group’s work gets Gagnon and Samuels elected, each will have elected the candidate they really wanted and the opponent each deserves. Minneapolis will have the most divided and divisive school board in memory, and we will have a much more difficult time healing from this election and focusing on kids.

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