ChildWatch: A Country We Still Have to Create
This Fourth of July I am returning to the wise words of my late friend Dr. Vincent Harding, the revered historian, theologian, social justice activist, and visionary who never lost sight of the “beloved community” his friend and colleague Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed our nation and world could become. In July 2012 on his 81st birthday Dr. Harding spoke at the National and Racial Healing Town Hall at a Children’s Defense Fund’s conference. He told us he believed America was a wounded nation, but despite so many years of struggle he remained convinced America could and must get better. He urged all of us to commit ourselves to healing America and making our country what it should be, and shared a line he had heard a West African poet recite: “‘I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.’”
The poet was speaking about his homeland, which was going through political turmoil on the road to independence, but my dear brother Vincent said it applied to our current spiritual and moral crisis in America: “We are citizens of a country that we still have to create—a just country, a compassionate country, a forgiving country, a multiracial, multi-religious country, a joyful country that cares about its children and about its elders, that cares about itself and about the world, that cares about what the Earth needs as well as what individual people need…I am, you are, a citizen of a country that does not yet exist, and that badly needs to exist.”
He drew a comparison to the words of the brilliant poet Langston Hughes in “Let America Be America Again.” That poem celebrates the poor, working class, and immigrant Americans from all backgrounds and colors who have always been the farmers, factory workers, and laborers on whose backs America was built, but who generation after generation have been “tangled in that ancient endless chain/Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!/Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!/Of work the men! Of take the pay!/Of owning everything for one’s own greed!” Vincent Harding quoted Hughes’s refrain, “America never was America to me,” and said: “We can always stop there and complain and complain and complain. ‘You’ve never been America to me.’ But remember, Langston did not stop there: ‘America, you’ve never been America to me. But I swear this oath—you will be!’ I want you, those who are not afraid to swear oaths, to swear that oath for yourself, for your children, and for your old uncle here. You will be, America. You will be what you could be. You will be what you should be, and I am going to give my life to the working for that.”
I swear this oath—you will be! We are in a moment when we are watching hollow promises about American greatness turn into an American nightmare. Instead of the vision of the Statue of Liberty welcoming the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and the “homeless, tempest-tost,” the picture of America today is the photograph of 23-month-old Angie Valeria Martinez Avalos, her body tucked inside her father’s shirt with her arm around his neck, drowned while trying to swim across the Rio Grande in desperation after attempting to seek asylum at the United States border. But millions of Americans agree this is not who we are—and we will refuse to let it be who we become.
On this Fourth of July we are very, very far from living up to America’s promise, but this barbaric and shameful moment in American “exceptionalism” and American leadership will not last forever. The need to change course, heal, and make America what it professes to be and the nation our children and grandchildren deserve is more urgent than ever. Those of us who share the vision for a just, compassionate, multiracial, joyful nation that cares for children and elders, itself and the rest of the world, and the needs of the Earth and the people who inhabit it must never stop working to make that America reality. We are citizens of a country that does not yet exist, but it is up to us to finally create it and make it a just and hopeful land for all.
July 3rd, 2019
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Hoyer Statement on the Inspector General’s Investigation into the Administration’s FBI Relocation Plan
WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 3, 2019)—Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (MD-05) released the following statement today after the Inspector General announced it would open an investigation into the Administration’s abrupt decision to not relocate the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from its headquarters in DC and instead pursue a more expensive plan:
“Congress and the American people deserve to know why the decade-long process to build a new, relocated headquarters for the FBI was abandoned over-night by an Administration whose president would be personally financially impacted by its outcome. It is entirely appropriate for the Department of Justice Inspector General to investigate what transpired and how the Trump Administration came to this decision. Along with the rest of the Maryland delegation, I will continue to push for the FBI’s long-planned move to a new, consolidated headquarters and advocate for the selection of a site in Prince George’s County.”
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To Be Equal: States Should Follow Illinois’ Lead on Expungement, Opportunity in New Cannabis Law
“The U.S. “war on drugs”—a decades-long policy of racial and class suppression hidden behind cannabis criminality—has resulted in the arrest, interdiction, and incarceration of a high percentage of Americans of color. The legal cannabis industry represents a great opportunity to help balance the detrimental effects of the war on drugs by creating an equal playing field for all people to benefit from the changing legal landscape.”
—Minority Cannabis Business Association
It’s difficult to overstate how devastating America’s racist “War on Drugs” has been for communities of color. Although Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates, Black people have been four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
In Michigan, which has already legalized marijuana for recreational use, a 68-year-old man named Michael Thompson is 25 years into a 40-to-60-year sentence stemming from the sale of three pounds of marijuana to an undercover officer.
Last week, Illinois made history when it passed a marijuana legalization law that seeks to atone for the injustice of the War on Drugs.
Illinois’ law gives low-income communities of color—the very communities ripped apart by decades of racist drug policies—a fair shot at dispensary and grow-shop licenses. A portion of tax revenue generated by cannabis sales will be directed to investment in those communities through the Restore, Reinvest, and Renew Program.
Under the new law, arrest records for possession of small amounts of marijuana will be expunged automatically, and the board that makes clemency recommendations to the governor will receive a list of everyone convicted of minor possession offenses.
Nearly 800,000 criminal histories could be erased under the law.
We applaud Illinois historic achievement. We stand ready to evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of the law. We urge other states to follow Illinois’ lead when crafting legislation to legalize marijuana by looking comprehensive at redress for past wrongs and creating economic opportunities for communities that bore, and continue to bear, the negative effects of the War on Drugs.
The history of cannabis in the United States—which became known as marijuana in the early 1900s—is fraught with racist hysteria. Following the Mexican Revolution, more than 890,000 Mexican people legally immigrated into the United States between 1910 and 1920. Even though cannabis long had been used in the United States as an ingredient in unregulated “patent medicines,” the Spanish term marijuana became associated with fear and prejudice against new immigrants. By 1930, 16 states had outlawed prohibited marijuana as a way to target the growing Mexican community.
In 1971 President Richard M. Nixon launched the “War on Drugs,” which was exposed in 2016 by White House Counsel John Ehrlichman as a political ploy to target African Americans and anti-war protestors. Two years after Nixon proclaimed drugs “public enemy number one,” presidential hopeful Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York signed the most draconian drug statues in the nation, setting the sentence for selling two ounces of certain drugs, including cannabis, or possession of four ounces, at a minimum of 15 years to life in prison. The laws have been blamed for tripling New York’s prison population.
Even now, as states have begun legalizing recreational marijuana use, recent investigation by the New York Times found that Black people were nearly 15 times more likely than whites to be arrested in New York City for low-level cannabis crimes.
It’s going to take much more than simple legalization to level the playing field—and Illinois’ new law recognizes the challenges.
Illinois will waive half of the application fee for license-seekers who are either long-term residents of a “disproportionately impacted area” or who have been incarcerated for a minor pot crime that is eligible for expungement under the bill.
These applicants who receive a license to grow or sell marijuana in Illinois will also be eligible for special low-interest loans from the state, direct grant aid for start-up costs, and other benefits.
As Illinois state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth said, “What we are doing here is about reparations. After 40 years of treating entire communities like criminals, here comes this multibillion-dollar industry, and guess what? Black and brown people have been put at the very center of this policy in a way that no other state has ever done.”
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