Yeah, I’m upset with the fact that the powers that be have not so gently thrown Cynthia McKinney out of her seat in Congress, just about the time the Democrats may take over. It’s a gross injustice, sleazy, and we are a worse country for it. It’s not the kind of message that the Democrats should want to be sending at this time, but they did little to prevent it, and probably encouraged it. Why?
I grew up in New Baden, Illinois in the 1950s and 60s. New Baden is a small town, at the time somewhere between 1500 and 2000 people. New Baden literally straddles the border between Clinton and St. Clair counties, about 30 some miles east of St. Louis. Most of New Baden is in Clinton County, and it is generally considered to be in Clinton County. St. Clair County is the infamous “metro-east” area represented for years by the late Congressional powerhouse Mel Price, including the now almost entirely black city of E. St. Louis, the hometown of my dad.
Clinton County, however, is a county of small towns about every five miles–the county seat is Carlyle, population maybe 5,000 and home of the Carlyle Lake reservoir, the largest in Illinois. It is a unique county in that it is heavily settled by German-Catholic farmers. These very serious and competent people, with good land and a favorable climate, were able to establish and keep family farms over many generations. The small towns, ranging in size from several hundred to several thousand, are characterized by large, ornate catholic churches, with very tall steeples. The one in New Baden, St. George, looks like some kind of gothic cathedral. We grew up distinguishing between the “publics” and the “catholics.” I was a public.
Clinton County in general had very little racial diversity at that time. (Still doesn’t) No, Illinois didn’t have “Jim Crow” outwardly. I didn’t grow up with separate water fountains, bathrooms, counters, and the such. No, I would only encounter that on my first trip to Florida to visit my grandmother in 1962. That blatant racial prejudice was pretty shocking to me. I was much more used to a quieter, subtle kind where you try to pretend that you weren’t being prejudiced.
In our region there were a handful of African-Americans in a few of the towns, but most didn’t have any. New Baden sure didn’t. There were all kinds of whispers about black people amongst us kids growing up. Even though there was Scott AFB nearby, which is a major military installation, and we often got transient military families coming through our schools, they were always white. We always thought that if a black family tried to move into New Baden, that they would get the message real quick they weren’t welcome. That may have happened a time or two–I seem to recall it.
This kind of attitude got some not so subtle as well as subtle reinforcement from our adult leaders. For example, a varsity basketball coach from our consolidated high school was quoted as saying to his players that he “never saw a nigger that couldn’t sing, dance, or play ball.” The long time biology teacher at the high school, in preparation for an annual biology class trip to Shaw’s Gardens in St. Louis, (now the Missouri Botanical Gardens) famously reminded us “not to yell at the ‘brownies’ when we drove through East St. Louis.” There was more, believe me. It was a constant reinforcement of racial prejudice that I grew up.
I never liked it. I never was comfortable with it. I usually just sat there in silence when all this was going on. The fact is that I had some heros who were black men when I was growing up. For example, Curt Flood. I guess a lot of people know about Curt Flood, but a lot probably don’t. Curt Flood was centerfielder for the Cards. You don’t grow up with a dad who comes from East St. Louis who is a baseball nut and coach, and not be a Cards fan. Well, I guess there’s a few traitors, but not many.
Curt Flood was as good a centerfielder as there was in the majors. (back in the long forgotten days when the national league was better than the other league.) Just ask Willie Mays–he’ll tell you, and Willie was the best! Curt could do everything–field, hit, run, throw, entertain. That’s why I was shocked when the Cards tried to trade him. Who would have ever guessed that such a great player would be traded, let alone “blackballed?” And now what he asked for–not to be treated like property, occurs as a matter of course through “free agency.” This was one of my first experiences of a black person I admired getting the shaft. I was too young to really understand what was going on.
But Curt Flood wasn’t the only black person I admired as I grew up. Dick Gregory had a huge impact on me at a very key point in my life. When I was 19 and a freshman at Western Illinois University, Dick Gregory came to speak. He was just beginning to get some attention as an entertainer. And while he was a “controversial” character, he got access to the state universities of Illinois because he had recently graduated from Southern Illinois University as an all-star track and field athlete. That was my good fortune.
I’ve seen Dick Gregory speak 3 times now in person. He’s totally awesome. When he speaks, he repeats a key phrase–the main point of his talk–repeatedly throughout the talk at strategic times, in different tones and inflections, to help drill home the point. The first time I heard him, his “mantra” to us college kids was “you have a big job ahead of you.” He was referring to turning around the corruption, greed, ignorance, prejudice, and violence of our society. He was so right. “fter hearing him that first time, in 1970, at WIU, I became a vegetarian and have never gone back to eating meat. I became an activist. His influence on me was one of the strongest of an outside advisor, and I’m proud to say that.
And what about Miles Davis? Miles came from East St. Louis, the home town of my dad, and one of the most creative, enigmatic, charismatic musicians ever. Being a horn player myself, I fell in love with Miles Davis. He was cool. And of course there were Dr.and Mrs. King, Aretha Franklin, and many other black people that were top-notch heros to me as I grew up. So as I have grown up with these outstanding black role models, I have just had a hard time dealing with the prejudice. I didn’t want to be prejudice. I wanted to be like them! And while at the beginning of my life, I didn’t actually live around African-Americans, and had very limited contact, now I actually live in a region where there are a number of black people and I have been able to experience first hand what goes in such a community. I now have regular, although still somewhat limited contact with black people in the community. What I see and feel is that, while most white people think that things are “better than they were,” there is still a lot of room for improvement in black/white relations, and African-Americans in general still face significant obstacles in life that most white people in general don’t. And, it is just plain wrong to think that all of our nation’s racial problems have been solved or are even near to being solved.
* * *
And then there is the forest protection movement. I wouldn’t have guessed how important forests would become to me, and that I would have ended up buying land adjacent to a national forest. I also wouldn’t have guessed that trying to stop the U.S. Forest Service from allowing our national forests to be destroyed by a variety of ills would become at least part of my employment. But it did, and with it, conferences, conference calls, meetings, etc. etc. etc. Networking, organizing, working in teams, working toward consensus on issues. Like any political movement, there is a lot of give and take, working together with other people. Typically, this working together, networking, organizing, etc. occurs between white people when you deal with national forests. I know it can’t be because only white people care about public lands, and I know it isn’t because the activists in the forest protection movement don’t like nor want diversity in their ranks. But that’s how it is. That, however, could (and probably should) be the subject of a whole separate paper.
When I first started getting educated about national forests, which was in the early 1980s, there were certain baseline beliefs that we were all lead to accept as unchangeable. Two of those were that there would be logging of some sort on the national forests, and that off road vehicles would be allowed to be used at some time or another. I guess that has pretty much remained true, although not everywhere.
These beliefs became challenged, at first by visionaries like the late Dr. Bob Klawitter, from Protect our Woods, an Indiana-based grassroots environmental organization formed around 1985 to give local input into the first Hoosier national forest plan. Dr. Klawitter, at the first Heartwood Forest Council, held in 1991 in Southern Illinois, laid out a perfect case as to why logging shouldn’t be allowed on our national forests. Heartwood itself was formed in 1990 specifically to fill the advocacy void because none of the national or even local groups would publicly come out for a flat out ban on logging and off road vehicles on national forests. This was still considered a little far out for most.
Our activist community was getting convinced, especially on our small national forests of the Ohio Valley, because people with academic credentials such as Klawitter were making irrefutable arguments on behalf of such a policy. But, even among our allies, it was a hard sell to get people to go public stating that they thought there should be no logging or off road vehicles on the national forests, even though there had been repeated media coverage about how the Forest Service lost hundreds of millions of dollars nationally each year selling trees from the national forests. And as far as taking on the ORVers, we all knew that they were tearing up the national forests, but in most places they were entrenched and taking them on, well that would have been just plain suicidal. So we took positions like stopping clearcutting and limiting off road vehicles to certain trails.
But the sad fact was and still is that the National Forest Management Act, the law that (still) governs our national forests, allows all kinds of logging and off road vehicles, with what is fundamentally very few restrictions. And, sadly enough, Congress, with many member’s pockets full of timber and ORV industry’s hefty campaign contributions, gives a lot of money to the Forest Service to subsidize these activities on national forests for the benefit of their clientele.
On top of that, with judicial review of Forest Service actions governed under the Administrative Procedures Act, only those actions that are “arbitrary and capricious” are overturned by the courts. Arbitrary and capricious means that the agency has to do something really really illegal to get caught, not just plain ol’ illegal. Furthermore, under that standard, if the agency calls one of their people an “expert” in a certain subject, and he or she has some kind of college degree to back it up, his or her word then becomes more important, whether or not he/she truly is an “expert” in that subject, than the word of a real independent expert in the subject who may come to a completely different conclusion about an issue. Furthermore, you are limited in the evidence the judge can see to a written record which the agency has compiled in the light most favorable to them. And then there are the judges–often conservative and not well educated in issues like “biodiversity,” “habitat fragmentation,” or “conserving an endangered species.” Even many Democratic-Presidentially appointed judges don’t get it. Add it all up, and it means that there’s a lot of bad things occurring on our national forests and not a lot of defense against it.
There were some early champions that saw this and tried to get Congress to strengthen the laws governing the national forests. Ned Fritz, a forest lover and attorney from Dallas, Texas, is a very courageous visionary for his time in this regard. Ned was doing all he could to try to craft new legislation that will fill at least some of the most egregious gaps in the NFMA. He went so far in the early 1980s as to fly in a small plane all over the country with a photographer to different national forests documenting horrific clearcuts. Ned, now in his 90s, was and still is determined to stop clearcutting, or the mass cutting of all trees across large areas, on national forests. He crafted legislation that, if passed, would prohibit clearcutting, make it easier to sue the Forest Service, and put some further restrictions on “selective” logging, or the practice of picking specific trees throughout the forest for logging but not cutting every tree. Ned’s legislation never passed.
Then a group called “Save America’s Forests” started in D.C. with the goal of lobbying for new national forest legislation. Their bill, after several evolutions, ended up picking up a lot of Ned Fritz’s ideas, with some increased restrictions on logging. That bill, which would not, as their authors admit, stop all the logging on the national forests, has been introduced a few times, but it’s kind of dormant now, as its top advocates are pretty much waiting for the Democrats to take at least one of the chambers of Congress. John Kerry had endorsed the bill. It’s an easy position to take. A politician could claim that they were doing something for the environmental protection of the national forests but in reality, since the bill doesn’t restrict the volumes that can be cut from the national forests, the politician can also tell the timber industry not to get heartburn over it, that the timber would still be coming. It avoids the hard questions about losing money on timber sales, and what our public forests are really worth to the public. But the bill does have some support, and some knowledgeable people in the movement believe that it will be a version of the Save America’s Forest bill is the one that has the best chance to get through even a Democratically controlled but timber industry compromised Congress.
While there are a number of bills that have either been passed or have come and gone to deal with specific issues on national forests, such as forest fires, payments to counties, recreation fees, things like that, there haven’t been any other that have made the light of day that deal directly with logging and the money loss–except one– the National Forest Protection Act, or NFPA. I heard about it early on–a bill that would basically ban selling trees from federal lands, and divert some of the funds that are currently filling the “timber management” side of the Forest Service staff, which is most of it, into environmental “restoration.”
Of course, I have worried that the wrong definition of “restoration” could end up keeping the timber pipeline full, but I also knew that the main supporters of the bill did not want to compromise on the ban on sales. If it became point blank illegal to sell any trees from federal lands, that would pretty much shut down the logging. It wasn’t the fact that cutting trees and not selling them would lose money–no, they already lost money. But the incentive for the timber industry to stay in bed with the agency would be gone, and that would be a huge disincentive for the Forest Service, which primarily sees itself as partners with the timber industry. On the other hand, it would save the taxpayers billions of dollars over the years to come. So, knowing Congress, would they opt for saving the taxpayers billions and protecting the forest or continuing the giveaway to their timber industry buddies? No way, Jose’, was my thought. That bill will never even get introduced.
* * *
Was I surprised when I learned that the bill actually had been introduced into the House of Representatives by a Congresswoman named “McKinney?” You bet. I didn’t recognize the name. Of course, to this day, I hear the names of representatives that I know nothing about. But there are 435 of them scattered across the country, so in a way that isn’t surprising. But this was an issue that I knew about and I was mystified about who this new found environmental and economic champion was that was taking on the influence of the timber industry on Congress.
To tell you the truth, I was pretty shocked and surprised, in a good way, that there was a congressional representative out there that would actually put their name on the line and introduce legislation to challenge what had been drilled into out head was an immovable barrier–that is, to fundamentally shut down logging on the national forests. I was really surprised when white Republican Senator from Iowa, James Leach, co-sponsored the bill in the U.S. Senate. At one point, the bill had over 100 co-sponsors. Who was this Rep. McKinney who had started all of this? I had to find out about this person.
Was I surprised to find out that this particular representative was an African -American woman, not from an area with a national forest, but from the Atlanta urban area? You know it! And better yet, the more that I read about this particular representative, the more impressed I was. She was doing all kinds of great things to promote the causes that I believed in–a heck of a lot more than any of the elected officials that I knew in Illinois. Some of the issues she spoke out about, however, were definitely pushing the system–for example, on behalf of the rights of the Palestinians, and questioning the spending and the power of the pentagon, just to name a few of the big ones. She spoke truth to power. I wondered how she was getting away with it. People don’t get that far questioning the system with the voracity that she was and stay in power. At least that’s what I thought. But I was very glad that she was there. We need that kind of courage at the top to do the “big job” of cleaning up our society. Unfortunately, I would soon come to find out that she wouldn’t be there much longer.
* * *
In 2002, a group out to unseat Ms. McKinney, primarily funded by AIPAC, the American-Israeli Political Action Committee, ran another African-American woman, Denise Majette, against her in the Democratic primary. Ms. Majette was much more conservative. Majette also had mega sums of money poured into her campaign by AIPAC and other Republican-linked sources. It was practically unprecedented for a complete political unknown to have this kind of money in a campaign against a multi-term incumbent.
The smears put on McKinney were nationwide and inaccurate–the biggest one being that she had blamed George W. Bush for the 9-11 attacks. She never did that. But what she did do was ask “what did he know and when did he know it.” Those were good questions, but they cut too quick to the bone for the powers that be. They feared her and had to shut her down. Heaven forbid that people start finding out the deeper truths of our country. We might actually start demanding to find out who killed President Kennedy or Dr. King! We didn’t need to be asking those kind of questions.
So the right wingers who wanted to get rid of Ms. McKinney fed a story to the media which the national consolidated, corporate mainstream media printed and broadcast over and over and over and over again–that Ms. McKinney was accusing Bush of causing the 9-11 attacks. While the short history since 9-11 has shown us that the Bush administration knew a lot more about the situation with Bin Laden and what Al Queda may be planning than they were admitting to at time, the “merican public wasn’t in the mood to blame Bush for the attacks, and there was political backlash from the repeated story that Rep. McKinney had done just that (even though she hadn’t).
There was an organized effort statewide in Georgia by the Republican party that year to minimize primary challenges so that, under archaic Georgia primary laws, Republicans could cross over in the McKinney primary, not risk any Republican primaries, and vote out McKinney in favor of Majette. With the help of AIPAC backing, it worked. Tens of thousands of Republicans crossed over and Majette won the primary. In that district, the Democratic primary victor would win the final election, so for all intents and purposes, this was the election. The Democratic party leaders basically sat back and let it happen, even though McKinney was a 5 term Representative.
To make things worse, shortly after the election a reporter purportedly asked her Dad, a well- known retired state senator and historic civil rights activist in the Atlanta area, why her daughter had been defeated. Supposedly his answer was the infamous “J-E-W-S.” I have no idea whether he really said it or not. Knowing the media’s record in making up false statements attributed to Ms. McKinney in order to destroy her politically, I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even say it. And while sometimes the term “jew” is used in a derogatory, prejudicial manner, the use of that word to describe a person of the Jewish faith doesn’t automatically mean there is prejudice. My guess is that Mr. McKinney was unhappy because the main Jewish lobby had targeted his daughter for false reasons. I don’t think that it was a terribly inaccurate statement, if he made it, that Jewish interests were primarily responsible for her defeat.
One thing for sure is that Ms. McKinney didn’t make any such statement.
Nevertheless, McKinney’s opponents (and the corporate media) seized on it. Not only did the mainstream media nationwide spread the word about her father being a blatant anti-semite, they also repeated insinuation that like-father, like-daughter, Ms. McKinney was also anti-semitic. Of course that fit AIPAC’s goals like a glove, because they want to stop anyone who speaks up for the Palestinians at all. While no doubt there is true anti-semitism in the world, not everyone who dislikes things that Israel, AIPAC, and Jewish leaders do is anti-semitic, just as it isn’t true that anyone who criticizes the U.S. government, or the Pope, for example is anti-American and anti-catholic. It often seems to me accusations of anti-semitism are used to deflect and avoid legitimate criticism and discussion of political issues surrounding the behavior of the Israeli government and their corporations, and this may very well be one of those cases. But regardless of the legitimacy of their claims, AIPAC wanted her out, and they are very powerful. McKinney’s voice was removed from the House.
* * *
I couldn’t believe that so shortly after I discovered this woman in power who was saying things that I actually believed in had been so brutally and unfairly thrown out of power. Where was the Democratic party? Why didn’t they help? But I wasn’t going to let her influence go that easily. I suggested that we invite her to be the keynote speaker at our Heartwood Forest Council at Camp Blanton, and there was unanimous support. I was going to try to get to her at the huge January, 2003 anti-war march and rally in D.C. and ask her personally. That was the first time I heard her speak in person. I got very close to her, but the crowd was so huge that I couldn’t get her attention. But I did love her talk, and she was only one of two elected officials that came out on the frozen day and spoke to the hundreds of thousands of people gathered there to insightfully oppose what would be the imminent invasion of Iraq. After that we contacted her through some networking associates. Amazingly, she accepted, even though we could only promise her a very meager compensation for her trip. We were all very excited to have her join us.
You need to realize that Camp Blanton, on the edge of the Blanton Forest, one of the largest blocks of old growth forest in the eastern U.S., is deep into the mountains of Southeast Kentucky. There are no major or even semi-major airports near. There aren’t a lot of fancy hotels. It’s country–backwoods–and mostly white. So when we proposed this trip to Ms. McKinney, we informed her of the long drive from the Tri-State airport on winding mountain roads, and the lack of fancy accommodations. She wasn’t demanding at all. She went along with what we could do. One of our members would pick her up in their personal vehicle in Asheville, North Carolina, and give her a couple hour drive to the camp site. We got her a motel room at a nice but modest motel in Harlan, Kentucky. She never complained, and was very cheerful about it all.
When she showed up at the camp, I didn’t know what to expect. There were, sadly but typically, very few minorities at the gathering. (Although more than usual) As she was being brought up to the registration table by the driver, I went up to introduce myself. She was a gracious, gentle, warm soul, who seemed genuinely happy to be there. A number of people noticed her at the registration table, and came to greet her. She was, afterall, kind of a celebrity in our crowd, although she didn’t come off that way at all. She went from registration right into our display room, and walked the room viewing the literature and displays. Finally, she shopped the silent auction, bidding (and winning) on a number of items.
After meeting several other of the leaders, she got a ride back to her room. She would be brought back in a couple hours, just before her speech. When she did return, she wanted to see where she would be speaking. Andy Mahler, Ann Phillippi, and I walked with her to see it. The amphitheater was a beautiful setting. We sat on one of the seats for about an hour talking about all kinds of things. I was very impressed by her knowledge, her ability to listen, and her overall charisma. I couldn’t wait to hear her speak. Then people started to arrive at the amphitheater. Not only that, but people were arriving just for the evening. When it was time for her to speak, there were about 350 people present.
She was told she could speak about anything. She spent a good bit of her speech talking about how Martin Luther King had been followed and harassed by the FBI leading up to his assassination, and how the public still doesn’t know the truth of what really happened. She warned us about the rising influence of the neo-cons. It was a powerful speech, giving us information which she said she had obtained from information requests she had done as a congresswoman, and which I had never heard about. Her theme wasn’t that much different than that of Dick Gregory’s first speech–that we have a big job ahead of us to clean up the corruption, greed, and prejudice of our society. She electrified the audience out in that forest, and she was given an incredible ovation. Afterward, she stood up there in front of these 350 or so people and took questions for over a half hour. After that she hung around for an hour or so mingling with the people. Then she got a ride back to the motel, and was driven back to the airport the next morning.
One of the things that she did during that talk which really surprised me was that she gave her email address out to everyone during the talk. Not only did she give it out, but she encouraged people to write her. I hurriedly took my pen out of my pocket and scribbled it on a piece of paper. I was going to write her.
And I did. When I got home, I wrote her an email thanking her for coming, praising her for her great speech, and thanking her for all of her work. Low and behold, she wrote me back. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, really, I’m a nobody. I’m not famous or important. I might get a handshake from my own Congressman, but not much more. But of course I emailed her back. It turned out that we kept emailing. We ended up becoming what I call great pen pals. We didn’t see each other, but we kept in touch regularly. We worked on a number of projects together. I wrote some stories about her. But even more so, I came to admire her work even more.
* * *
During the time when she was not in Congress, she both went back to school and traveled all over the country speaking to groups like ours that wanted her. She lent her hand on tough issues. She built an ever growing email list. I have always been impressed at her dedication, vision, and ability to draw people together. The Green Party approached her about a presidential run. I wasn’t sure if that was the right way to go at that time. When she decided that she was going to run for re-election to her Congressional seat, I wanted so bad to help her. She had the kind of courage to say things that needed to be said more than anyone else in Congress. In that regard, I felt she was a critical part of our democracy.
I had followed the campaign closely. When Majette decided she was going to abandon her House seat and run for Senate, I knew Ms. McKinney was reading the tea leaves. The Republicans had some hotly contested seats, including a U.S. Senate primary. The 9-11 talk had died down, in part because people forget over time, and in part because information had come out that strongly indicated that McKinney was right to raise the question of who knew what when in regard to 9-11, questions we still don’t have answered completely. In the face of 6 other good candidates running with Ms. McKinney, she had a real opportunity to take back her seat, but she needed to get 50% plus one, because a run-off would be dangerous.
Because of the relentless media attacks on her and her Dad after the election two years before, there was still some significant resistance and funds coming into the district to oppose her. Some groups that had supported her, for example, the Sierra Club, refused to endorse her. But she had set up a campaign headquarters and had a great organization working grassroots to get her back in. Kristi and I, plus another couple that are close friends, felt that maybe we could make a difference in some white neighborhoods and with the environmental community if we helped the campaign. We offered the campaign our help and they accepted. I wrote essays endorsing her and criticizing the Sierra Club. We made plans to go to the Atlanta area the weekend before the primary and go knock on doors for her. We were going to try and help her get back in Congress. We thought it was incredibly important.
Her campaign managers assigned us to some fairly well- to–do primarily white neighborhoods near downtown Decatur. A lot of the neighborhoods were Jewish, and there was some hostility to our campaigning. But a good deal of it was open to it also. We worked hard for two days. During that time, we got to experience other parts of the campaign besides door to door campaigning that told me a lot about the depth of Cynthia’s support within the African-American community. But we also felt the effects of the AIPAC campaign to label her as an anti-semitic. It had been pretty effective.
After the first day of campaigning, a number of campaign workers had a tent set up out in the parking lot of the little strip mall where Cynthia had her campaign headquarters just outside of DeKalb. They were grilling and drinking beer and hanging out. It wasn’t all black–there were a few other white people. But it was largely black, in a largely black neighborhood. The spirit was really good. People were determined to get Cynthia back in. We met her Dad, former state senator and the purported infamous mutterer of the “J-E-W” exclamation that the press used to beat up on Cynthia at the time. He couldn’t have been nicer.
One of the more interesting and extraordinary experiences that we had while there occurred spontaneously. As we were standing out in the parking lot drinking beer and hanging out with Cynthia’s supporters, her Dad, who had disappeared inside for a while, came walking up the parking lot to us and said, “Cynthia wants you to come to the BPW (Business Professional Women) banquet where she is speaking tonight, so we need to get going.” We were sweaty and tired, dressed in our “blue crew” t-shirt, after a couple beers. We tried to argue off the suggestion, saying that we weren’t dressed or ready for such an occasion and such. But those excuses weren’t to matter. Pretty soon we were in vehicles heading somewhere, still in our blue crew tshirt, still sweaty and still not dressed for any such occasion.
We ended up at the Atlanta airport at one of the fancy hotels. Her Dad lead us into the ballroom. There was no doubt that he was highly respected, the way he was greeted. The four of us, plus her Dad, plus her campaign treasurer, whose husband was her bodyguard for the night, had an empty table waiting. We walked through a sea of black faces, dressed formally, looking interestingly at us. We were sitting around a table with a couple hundred or more people, mostly dressed in either tuxes or fancy suits, most black, dancing and hanging around waiting for the program to begin.
We were served dinner. Then the president of this chapter of the BPW got up to introduce Cynthia. She made a passionate plea to get work to get her back into Congress. She said firmly, “We need Cynthia back in Congress!” She introduced her father, a retired state senator and the first black policeman in Atlanta, to a stirring round of applause. Cynthia got up, and the first thing she did was acknowledge us. It was kind of embarrassing really, because we were all sweaty and totally out of dress. But at the same time, it was empowering, because we love Cynthia for who she is and all her great work.
Cynthia gave a short but very good speech about leadership. This is a important topic to her, and it is to me also. We went home that night inspired. We went door to door the next day, and then, afterward, before we headed home, went to a bar and had a debriefing session with our friends. We talked about the obstacles she faced, and wondered if she could overcome them. We all felt really good about what we had done, and hoped that we had made a difference.
Cynthia won that primary, beating out very good candidates, and garnering, not by a lot, but by enough, the over 50% she needed by Georgia’s out-of-date primary rules to win without a runoff. . And, as expected, she easily won the general election. We felt elated and part of the victory, even though we couldn’t be there in Georgia for the election night celebrations. That elation was to turn to some frustration and anger when Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi stripped Ms. McKinney of the seniority she earned with a decade of service in House, even though other Representatives had their seniority restored in similar circumstances. Protests to Pelosi fell on dear ears. Once again, the Democratic party did nothing to help her.
* * *
While working in Congress zaps your time, she still tried to make the time to keep up with her network. That in and of itself is a tribute to her dedication. She remained a strong progressive advocate, and had accomplished some very impressive things. For example, she was the first Representative to bring up in hearings the fact that there had been at least 5 military exercises on 9-11 that may have affected the “official” response to the attacks. She uncovered and questioned the $61 billion or more simply missing from Iraq. She went to New Orleans after Katrina and was one of the first people in power to speak about how primarily African-American citizens were stopped by armed police from crossing a bridge out of New Orleans to get help after their neighborhoods had been destroyed and flooded. She was one of the first and most vocal Congressional Representatives to be against the war in Iraq–speaking and marching at large events held by citizen’s organizations prior to and during the war–even rallies in which one or maybe no other Democrats would attend. Then she started speaking out about the ills and technical problems with electronic voting machines and the voting laws in general. The Democrats still aren’t dealing with this issue properly, and it is likely that Ms. McKinney was victimized by the very ills to which she has been trying to draw attention. These are all cutting edge issues that are proving to be serious and critical.
In spite of her continuing to push these progressive issues, the press was reporting sporadically about what a “good girl” Ms. McKinney had been during her new term. Under the radar screen, however, the Republican state legislature had redistricted Georgia’s congressional districts. In Cynthia’s districts, there were subtle, but important shifts. Their significance would make themselves known later. I certainly didn’t understand them.
* * *
But, right as the media was saying that she would easily cruise to a primary victory and keep her seat, came the highly publicized encounter with a U.S. Capitol policeman. We all know the (purported) story. She didn’t identify herself well enough–a well-meaning but coincidentally white Capitol policeman innocently didn’t recognize her, asked her for more identification. She got mad and outraged because she is such an important person and how dare a white policeman talk back to her, and she hauled off and cold-cocked the policeman, some stories said with her cell phone, some said fist. It didn’t matter. It was something to make her look bad. As it turned out, it wasn’t true. However, it was just what her opponents needed.
Now a primary challenge materialized–another conservative black (this time) man, Hank Johnson, running as a Democrat against her. Then came the Republican and AIPAC money backing Johnson, and guess what, “deja vu all over again.” Then came the Democratic party failing to help her at all. The “slugging the policeman” incident became a media firestorm for many days. It couldn’t have been a much more unflattering portrayal of her, all with no evidence–no videos, no audios, no nothing. Just the media reporting it the way they wanted. Ms. McKinney said that she had reacted in a defensive manner to being grabbed from behind as she was walking. She apologized for the encounter, noone was even close to injured, there was no threat to the public, and that should have been the end of it.
Even so, a Republican run U.S. Department of Justice convened a grand jury. But when all their evidence was in, NO charges were brought. Unfortunately but typically, as far as the mainstream media goes, they didn’t give that piece of news nearly the firestorm that they did the so–called slugging incident. You think if a Republican-run Justice Department could have gotten charges on her they wouldn’t have? Obviously there was just no evidence that she had done anything criminal. But the mainstream media’s repetition of the incident told in the inaccurate and negative way to taint Ms. McKinney had taken it’s toll.
Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to Atlanta to campaign this time. I feel bad about that. But, interestingly enough, in spite of the challenges and the media attacks, Ms. McKinney did win the first primary, only failing by a few percent of getting the 50% plus one she needed to avoid a runoff in a three way primary. In most other states, including mine, Illinois, she would have become the Democratic candidate that night. But in Georgia, she faced a run-off, and now, all Republicans that didn’t vote in the original election could cross over and vote against her.
The national corporate media, lead by pseudo-liberal political journalists like Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal, and Ken Ruden, NPR’s “political junkie” continued their relenteless attacks on McKinney. Tucker and Ruden proved themselves to be nothing short of corporate hacks–not journalists–though all of this. I’ve seen Tucker as a talking head on some national news shows, and she seems haughty and full of self-importance. She wrote column after column, based on the same lies that couldn’t stand up to the pitifully weak evidentiary standards of a grand jury, lead by a Republican attorney general, to try and destroy Ms. McKinney. Ruden spewed the same garbage on the supposedly “liberal” NPR.
I can’t help but wonder to what degree Tucker was jealous of Ms. McKinney because she had done what Tucker could never do, which was travel the country and build a grassroots constituency. Or maybe she is simply the consummate corporate reporter–loyal to the duty of destroying anyone who might question corporate power, regardless of the merits of their question. Ruden just seemed to be happen to have someone on the “left” to attack, for “balance.” Heaven forbid there might have been facts involved that they may have gotten wrong.
For whatever reason, Tucker used the full power of the local paper to pound on McKinney continuously leading up to the primary. These attacks too took their toll. ” well organized effort of Republicans to vote in the Democratic runoff again provided the votes to defeat her. Oh yeah, Diebold voting machines and difficulty in voting were part of the defeat equation also.
Even if Cynthia McKinney did make some mistakes, (and by the way, don’t we all) what about the good things she had done? What about things like confronting the incidents of the armed guards blocking a bridge to safety that black people from flooded areas of New Orleans were trying to use to escape the misery associated with the storm and flooding? What about her assistance in asking Mitch McConnell to ask the FBI to help solve the suspicious murder of a young black woman, Jessica Currin, in Mayfield, Kentucky. What about her courage in asking for an investigation into the military exercises on 9-11 that could have very well contributed to the lack of response by the U.S. Air Force to the hijackings, and in asking for a true accounting of the billions of taxpayer dollars literally missing in Iraq? And most of all, what about insuring that everyone who wants to vote legitimately can, and that their votes are counted fairly? Isn’t that the most important question a democracy, especially one that is holding itself up as an example for the rest of world, needs to be asking. She was asking great questions, but the mainstream media is afraid–akin to a coward–in confronting difficult questions. And these are just a few of the very timely and legitimate issues she was raising.
Instead of Ms. Tucker and the rest of the media even mentioning any of the good things that Ms. McKinney had done, she repeatedly was subjected to intense negative media blitzs against her for things that haven’t ever been proven to be true. The so-called policeman slugging incident shouldn’t even have made the media at all. All kinds of Congresspersons have done a lot worse than that without any media attention, let alone a negative national media firestorm, for example my Congressman Shimkus, who covered up Foley’s salacious chats with underage pages but seems to have skated. But it didn’t seem to matter to the mainstream media. They smelled McKinney blood, and they went for it, the facts be damned.
So where was the Democratic party in all this? Nowhere to be seen, as far as I can tell. And that is the shame. The Democratic party should have been there fighting for Cynthia. They should be fighting for the questions she asked, and the issues she raised, regardless of whether or not she is there. But they should have fought for her. And the failure to do so is obvious. It reflects on Pelosi, Reid, Emmanuel, Durbin, and many others. To me it is subtle racism and I don’t understand it–especially at the same time that the Democrats bank heavily on the votes of the African-Americans. It reminds me a lot of my youth days in New Baden.
Some of the party leaders could have come to Atlanta and helped her through the primary. Many did for Joe Lieberman. Doesn’t Cynthia McKinney deserve it as much as Lieberman? Lieberman is male, white and Jewish. McKinney is black, female, and speaks up for the Palestinians. Duh. And of course there is Rahm Emmanuel, former citizen of Israel and Congressman from Chicago who is the chair of the House Democratic party re-election committee. Was there some reverse prejudice coming from Mr. Emmanuel and the party’s failure to support one of their own? There’s more here than meets the eye and it’s time for the party to be upfront about what is going on.
As far as the Democrats go, all I have to say is SHAME SHAME SHAME, (infinity, as Pee Wee Herman would say). You’ve made a bad choice by standing on the sidelines and letting Ms. McKinney get thrown out by rules that would never stand in other Blue states. By letting her get torn down by untrue accusations. By not embracing the truth she brings to national politics. You are letting down a whole constituency and driving them farther to the left. Already many of the pundits are pronouncing Cynthia McKinney’s political career dead on arrival, and the Democratic party seems satisfied to just let it happen. But I wouldn’t be so sure. The truth doesn’t die, and she speaks the truth.
And who would blame her if she left the Democratic party to build an independent progressive movement? I do not know her plans for the future, and haven’t had a lot of communication with her since the election. But I can’t imagine that she will stop caring about justice and equality for the weakest and most powerless. I can’t imagine that she will stop speaking out. And I can’t imagine that more and more people won’t listen, and that her leadership will be an issue that in time the Democrats won’t be able to ignore any longer.
MARK DONHAM lives in Brookport, Illinois. He can be reached at: email@example.com