Disclaimer: I wear several hats in the political world. While I am president of a local union, I also do occasional political commentary from a progressive, Democratic perspective. I am, as well, a member of the Democratic National Committee and, therefore, an officer of the Minnesota DFL. My opinion here is – just that – my opinion. It is not a political statement about the race for Minnesota House seat 60B in that it is not an endorsement of a candidate. Neither SEIU nor I individually have endorsed in the race up to this point.
I. Representative Kahn does the right thing
Two days after she making an extremely inappropriate comment to press minimizing the violence that occurred at Cedar-Riverside on February 4, and one day after doubling down on that remark, State Representative Phyllis Kahn has done the right thing and apologized. And it was not one of those “I’m sorry if you were offended” non-apologies. Kahn wrote on her “Re-Elect Phyllis Kahn” Facebook page:
As I said last night at the caucus, I oppose violence in any form. It has no place in our democratic process. I apologize for the statement I made minimizing violence. That was not my intent when I spoke and it certainly never has been my belief. Violence of any type is entirely unacceptable. Our caucus on Tuesday night was a peaceful, positive step- and one that I hope will guide us throughout this process.
Thank you, Representative Kahn for doing the right thing and apologizing for an extremely offensive statement.
When I started writing this post it was titled “Representative Kahn Must Apologize or Resign.” Like many others, I was distressed when on Tuesday of this week MinnPost published an article quoting Representative Phyllis Kahn as saying:
Kahn dismissed Omar’s injuries, acknowledging that she didn’t know whether Omar had been sent to the hospital and had the forms to prove a concussion. “I participated in the process when it was much more unfriendly to women than that,” Kahn said, describing a time she said she got the equivalent of a death threat. “Once that has happened, what’s a punch?”
Kahn was referring, of course, to the events of February 4, when the Cedar-Riverside caucus convened at the Brian Coyle Center was shut down when violence broke out. Ilhan Omar, a DFL activist, vice-chair of Senate District 60 and aide to City Council member Andrew Johnson was beaten badly enough that she was taken to a hospital, where she was treated for a concussion, lacerations to the face, and a sprained neck. “What’s a Punch?” was an astounding thing to say, and DFL and social media circles were buzzing with horror.
Seemingly refusing to see Omar as anything but a political enemy, Kahn showed callous disrespect for someone who was injured, and in the process seemed to be condoning or even encouraging political violence and violence against a woman. When the MinnPost article was published, February 18, I assumed we would hear a flood of denunciations from public figures demanding that the Representative apologize. When Wednesday past without that happening, that evening I posted on Facebook:
A full day has gone by since a DFL elected official minimized violence against a woman with “what’s a punch?” and this is not scandalous? Would we ever stand idly by if a Republican were to say something like that? No, we would be calling on that person to apologize or resign.
Again, to be clear – I am supporting no one in the race for 6OB and SEIU has made no endorsement, but this is beyond electoral politics. Phyllis Kahn must apologize, and DFLers must demand that she do so.
The evening of the 19th, the Cedar-Riverside Caucus was re-convened and, instead of seeking reconciliation, Representative Kahn seemed to double down, miniminizing the violence even further. MPR reported:
Kahn also questioned the extent to which Omar was injured.
“I’m just pointing out there should be some evidence, and if it’s true, then it’s true,” Kahn said.
When a reporter suggested that her remarks sounded less than conciliatory, Kahn said, “I’ll let her friends and associates be concerned about her health.”
I understand the reluctance some of Kahn’s colleagues, some of whom have told me privately they were appalled by her statements, to denounce her words publicly. Kahn is an institution in the Minnesota House. She has been a trailblazer for women’s rights in her long, storied career. As a profile in Governing says:
Among the 45 laws she’s succeeded in passing are milestones such as the state’s first computer-crime law and the 1975 Clean Indoor Air Act, the nation’s first law to mandate nonsmoking sections in public places such as restaurants. But she’s best known as a champion of women’s rights issues. She won landmark victories cracking down on anti-female violence, creating gender-equity for sports funding, and establishing a woman’s right to keep her own name after marriage.
Respect for that career, however, is no excuse for silence. Some would argue that respect for her legacy is precisely what should have led her friends to intervene with the Representative. I believe some of those colleagues did step up today, resulting in tonight’s much-appreciated and much-needed statement.
II. Now can we all stop calling this a problem in the “Somali Community”?
One of the things that has been most distressing about the news coverage and commentary about the events at Cedar Riverside is the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, people talk about this as a problem “in the Somali community.” Can we just stop, please stop this. Just. Stop. As Carla Kjellberg writes in a hair-on-fire blogpost, “THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM WITH THE SOMALI COMMUNITY. IT IS A PROBLEM WITH OUR COMMUNITY.”
Exactly. This is our community. Our City Community. Our Minnesota Community. Our DFL Community.
Why has this situation pained me, personally? Because I am a member of the DFL Party. Because I am the President of a union with hundreds of East African members, many of them deeply engaged in the political work of the union and engaged in this race. Because I abhor political violence and I want the communities that I live and work in to be democratic, pluralistic, and welcoming to all. For all of these reasons and more, It is in my and our self-interest that we get to the bottom of what has happened so that everyone I know and love in this state can live in peace and exercise their political voices without fear of retribution.
When even well-meaning commentary, such as former Mayor Rybak’s statement at the re-convened caucus, suggests that the first caucus reflected badly on the Somali community, we are failing to take collective responsibility, failing to call on all of us to look at ourselves. And this focus on the “Somali community” has been politically convenient for the Rep. Kahn. It has allowed her to absolve herself of any role in the discord, saying: “This is kind of a fight between different parts of the Somali community. I’m essentially irrelevant to it, in terms of any real part of instigating, or encouraging, or anything like that.” That is simply not good enough. When your supporters are dropping homophobic literature against Mohamud Noor critical of his support for marriage equality – whether you want them to or not—it is your problem. And when political violence breaks out on your behalf it is your problem and you must denounce it unequivocally. Tonight’s apology is a very good start.
It is not simply in an abstract sense of community that I say this is not just a Somali problem. By talking about it this way, we are missing an important part of this story. In the process are also missing some important elements of this story. In her Star Tribune commentary about caucus night, Ilhan Omar writes:
“…a small group has decided that one Somali elected official is enough and now the community should sit down and be quiet. This small group is aided and abetted by influential people outside the community who do not have our best interests at heart. I have now been called an “outsider” and worse by those who attacked me.” [emphasis added]
That seems like a pretty clear line of inquiry for the media that has been writing about this story. Who are these people? The most obvious figure to look into is Brian Rice, the powerful lobbyist who – it is well-known—helped Abdi Warsame organize during the redistricting of Ward 6 and who was a strong backer of his city council candidacy. What say you, investigative reporting media?
III. No, things were not simpler when the caucuses were “composed of the Teamsters”
From the outset, Representative Kahn has had things to say about the controversy that were, at best, odd. First, despite the fact that the disruption had meant that no delegates were selected in this heavily Somali precinct, rather than join the chorus demanding the caucus be reconvened, Kahn instead seemed to cast doubt on whether it was appropriate to do so:
According to Kahn, state law only permits postponements of caucuses for weather-related reasons. “Can you say a bad social climate is the equivalent of bad weather?” she asked.
This statement added fuel to the argument many in the community were making, that the violent disruption was precisely designed for that desired outcome – to ensure no delegates were chosen. The best way to defend herself from that charge would have been to call herself for a reconvening of the caucus. That would have been the high road, given the wide recognition that Noor had overwhelming support there.
And then there was this unforuntate gem:
“We used to have better control when the caucuses were composed of the Teamsters,” Kahn said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning. “This was a pretty big fight.”
Some tried to suggest to me that Kahn was making a joke. Obviously, the guy calling himself a Thug in Pastels is not averse to having fun with the stereotype of union thugs. The “Teamster” era is juxtaposed as different from Cedar-Riverside in that this one was a really big fight. If it’s a joke, it’s a really offensive one.
What was even more disturbing was the tone deafness about the racialized image conjured up by that particular turn of phrase. You cannot get away from the fact that the Ghosts of Caucuses Past are, well, very white ghosts. This not-so-coded language has contributed to the discussion of the situation at Cedar-Riverside as a problem of the Somali community and therefore of the Somali character. And to view this as a question of the Somali character is – there is only one way to say it— deeply racist.
(Let me be very clear about what I am and am not saying. I am not saying Representative Kahn as a person is a racist – so please spare me recitations of her admittedly strong legislative record on civil rights. What I am saying is that she has been irresponsibly careless with her language and, in so doing, evoked racist imagery. I am talking about her words and her actions; that is all any of us can be judged on.)
IV. Apology Accepted. May We Learn as We Move Forward
I reached out to Ilhan Omar about Kahn’s apology. She had this to say:
I appreciate Representative Kahn’s statement apologizing for her unfortunate and painful choice of words regarding the violence of February 4. Her comments have spurred an outcry from many leaders across Minnesota. What occurred that evening was not just painful for me but for our entire community. We can only heal when we all accept that violence has no place in our political process. I thank Rep. Kahn for making that clear with her apology tonight.
As we await the police and DFL investigations into the violence that occurred that night, I hope our community — our city, state, DFL community — absorbs and learns important lessons from these events. We must take political violence extremely seriously and denounce it quickly and without hesitation. We must also resist the temptation to see our immigrant communities’ problems as only their concern. New people entering the political process is a wonderful thing. It means we cease being fractured communities. If we are going to truly become one, democratic community, when one corner of our world has a serious problem, it is our problem.