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Opinion | Beware the Ides of March

Joey Kennedy

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Beware the Ides of March, warned the seer to Julius Caesar, but Caesar didn’t, and the Roman emperor was reportedly assassinated on March 15, 44 BC.

On this Ides of March, there are other warnings going out, not for a literal assassination but, perhaps, massive political consequences. Politicians on all levels – federal, state, and local – need to be paying close attention, because voters, and especially young voters, look to be mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.

They’ll let their voices be heard this fall in the midterm elections, so the seer might warn the Caesar-like politicians to beware the 6th of November as well.

At some point, more Americans are bound to wonder exactly what President Donald Trump owes the Russians. Or what the Russians have on him.

There must be something.

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The president refuses to slap sanctions on Russia, despite near-unanimous approval of those sanctions in a bipartisan vote by Congress. The president is quick to criticize specific Democrats and even members of his own administration (AG Jeff Sessions is “beleaguered”), but has yet to call out Russian President Vladmir Putin on anything, whether it’s cyberattacking the United States, running a simulation that has Russian nuclear weapons targeting Florida, or assassinating his critics with a deadly nerve agent in the United Kingdom.

And most Republicans appear to be standing behind their “beleaguered” president. Together they stand, united they fall?

Perhaps the most serious warning politicos would be astute to observe, or at least understand, is the hornet’s nest stirred up after the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Wednesday marked one month since the shootings, a month, generally of little or no activity on the part of Congress or state legislatures to do something about the violent gun culture we live in today.

The United States is an anomaly on this issue. The politicians try to limit the causes to mental health or violent video games and movies.

There are mentally ill people across the world. Kids across the globe play violent video games and watch violent movies.

We live in the only nation that has such a high rate of violent gun deaths, either one-on-one on a daily basis or the much too often mass killings like the one a month ago in Parkland, Fla.

It’s not even close, and the major difference between us and them: We have more than 300 million guns, many of them easily converted to fully automatic, out there, and practically unregulated.

Young people across the country aren’t being quiet this time. They’ve taken up the challenge to either change the current politicians’ mind-set toward sensible gun restrictions, or to warn them (Beware the Ides of March) that they won’t be around for long if they don’t do something more than simply bowing to the thugs who lead the National Rifle Association.

On Wednesday, students across the United States, commemorating the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shootings, walked out of their classes for 17 minutes – a minute for each of the victims killed in the spree.

Many students in Alabama walked out, too, with the blessings of their school officials. Other administrators didn’t allow students to leave their classrooms. Some students walked out, anyway, risking discipline for doing so.

Gov. Kay Ivey, in her typical proclivity to double-speak, said the students were “noble,” but shouldn’t walk out of their classrooms.

“We need our children in school to learn so they can advance their own careers,” Ivey said.

They’re learning, Governor. And they’re teaching, too. The adults better be listening to this lesson, because many of these students are going to be voting in November and certainly after. Don’t take them for granted.

It was Ivey, remember, who said she had no reason to doubt the sexual abuse accusers of former Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, then declared she’d vote for Moore because he is a Republican.

Do not ignore these young activists. Hear them, and respond to their pleas to be allowed to live in peace in their schools.

And that doesn’t mean arming teachers, either.

So the Ides of March is upon us. It’s a good time to heed warnings. Or, like Caesar, be ready to pay the consequences.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Opinion | Alabama voters: You just don’t care

Joey Kennedy

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Secretary of State John Merrill expected turnout in Tuesday’s Democratic and Republican Party primary runoffs to be “extraordinarily low.”

Merrill said he thought, on average, 15 percent to 18 percent of the state’s registered voters would go to the polls.

Even that was wishful thinking.

Alabama voters: You don’t care. With as much going on in Alabama and American politics at this moment in history, you just don’t give a damn.

Early numbers indicated fewer than 12 percent of Alabama’s registered voters bothered to take a few minutes to be heard in Tuesday’s runoffs.

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True, in some areas, Democrats didn’t really have runoffs. But Republicans had runoffs in key statewide races, including lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the courts.

And even where Democrats had runoffs – Jefferson County is an example – voting numbers were low.

Alabama voters, you just don’t care.
Of course a lot of this is on Merrill and Republicans in control of the House, Senate, and governor’s mansion, where the goal, truly, is a low voter turnout. Republicans don’t want voters to go to the polls because they’ll have more trouble staying in control if they do.

Strict photo voter ID, a prohibition against crossover voting in taxpayer-funded primaries, purges of voter rolls, keeping former inmates from re-registering to vote, partisan gerrymandering, the lack of early voting or multiple-day voting – all of this is part of the GOP’s efforts to suppress voter turnout.

That hideous, mean-spirited strategy is wildly successful, too.

Consider also that the turnout of “registered” voters does not mean “eligible” voters. Many voters are eligible, but for whatever reason, don’t register to vote. So Tuesday’s turnout of eligible voters was likely quite a bit below 10 percent.

In that vote, Republicans nominated their candidates for lieutenant governor (the second highest position in Alabama government) and attorney general (the state’s top law enforcement officer).

U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, a disaster and embarrassment for Alabama in Congress for awhile now, was re-nominated for her fifth term and will likely defeat her Democratic Party opponent in November.

Another career politician, Republican Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, was defeated in her primary for lieutenant governor, but this was a free election for political opportunist Cavanaugh. She’ll simply return to her post as president of the Alabama Public Service Commission, having lost little, and where she’ll continue to do little. But Cavanaugh will be well-rested for whatever political opportunity she tries to grab in 2020.

Important runoffs in Jefferson County for the five-member County Commission saw two of the most contentious Birmingham City Council members unseat more reasonable incumbents. At least these two are off the City Council now, but they’ll no doubt take their professional dysfunction to the Jefferson County Commission.

Because voter turnout was so low, the results don’t truly reflect what might have happened had voters turned out in the numbers they should have.

But c’mon, Alabama voters: You don’t really care, do you? Oh, you’ll gripe at the results, sure. You’ll moan and roll your eyes when the candidates you didn’t vote for embarrass your county or state. But you really don’t give a damn.

Maybe that’ll change some if the Southern Poverty Law Center’s and Campaign Legal Center’s Alabama Voting Rights Project is successful.

Secretary of State Merrill won’t like it, but that’s really more of a recommendation for the project than not.

The SPLC and CLC want to make it clear to tens of thousands of Alabamians that a felony conviction doesn’t permanently take away a person’s right to vote. Once an individual has fully paid for his crime, he can get his voting rights reinstated.

According to the SPLC’s July 12 announcement, “Workers will organize and train local leaders in communities across the state, participate in community events and forums, and go door to door to work with formerly incarcerated people who may be eligible to vote under Alabama law. They will also make use of an online tool, www.alabamavotingrights.com, that will guide formerly incarcerated Alabamians through the process of registering or re-establishing their voting status.”

Many of these “criminals” were convicted of nonviolent drug or other nonviolent offenses. They’ve paid their debt. Being eligible to vote again is an important part of their successful return to society.

“So many people fought and died to ensure that all citizens have a voice in our society through the right to vote, yet many men and women – disproportionately people of color and poor people – have been denied the right to vote even after serving their time and completing their sentences,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the SPLC, in the announcement. “The Alabama Voting Rights Project is dedicated to ensuring that every person who is eligible to vote in Alabama is registered and that each one of them can access the franchise. A healthy democracy depends on full participation by all members of society.”

And that’s what bothers Merrill and his Republican Party minions. “People of color and poor people” are disproportionally going to vote against Republicans. That’s probably why Merrill hasn’t done his duty to make sure these folks know they can regain their voting rights. The SPLC and CLC believe “(t)ens of thousands of additional Alabamians may be eligible to restore their right to vote through a simple application for a state Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote.”

So yeah, the dastardly plan worked Tuesday – and it has in many previous elections where our state leaders are happy if even 30 percent of registered voters show up.

As the state’s top election official, Merrill should be working to guarantee all eligible citizens are registered to vote, to make it convenient for them to vote, to get the highest voter turnout possible.

That’s not the strategy, though, and mainly because: 1) Voters don’t care enough to go vote. And, 2) because those in charge simply don’t want them to vote.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Opinion | Our duty to refugees

Joey Kennedy

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Anybody who pays attention knows that the world has a refugee crisis.

What they may not realize is that the United States has a refugee crisis, too. Not a crisis of people fleeing the United States because of persecution or threats of ethnic violence, or an unstable government out of control, or one ruled by a dictator in brutal control — though certainly another column could address the dangers of us becoming one of those nations.

No, the refugee crisis we face is one we’re helping create but refusing to help solve. During President Donald Trump’s first year in office, the U.S. government set a goal of accepting at least 100,000 refugees from around the world. After Trump got settled in, fewer than half that number of refugees were allowed here.

Now, those “goals” are referred to as “caps,” and in the current year the United States has set a “cap” of just 45,000 refugees. It’s doubtful even that modest number will be met. One reason the refugee crisis is so bad is that we intentionally don’t do our part.

As a free and wealthy nation, we have an obligation to take in refugees from other countries that are at war with themselves: Syria, Iraq (we broke it), Afghanistan (we can’t fix it), and many of the unstable African nations always seemingly at war.

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Other First World nations are doing what they can; we should be doing even more. We’re the largest of the free, democratic nations in the world. With great power comes great responsibility.

These refugees are not “illegal” immigrants, as xenophobes like to refer to undocumented migrants who come into our country looking for a better life. These are people – good men and women, girls and boys and, yes, babies — who are the targets of ethnic violence or victims of war – many of them the victims of wars we brought brutally to their land.

Deyana Al-Mashhadani is one of these refugees. I met Deyana, now 19, on Thursday during a civil rights tour by refugees under the auspices of the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) organization based in New Haven, Conn.

IRIS provides services for hundreds of refugee families. Deyana and 11 other young women visited important civil rights sites in Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama over the past week.

Their pilgrimage was funded completely through private donations. Two Southerners who work for IRIS, Ashley Makar of Birmingham and Laurel McCormack of Georgia, helped put the week-long trip together.

Thursday, I joined the group as it visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the just-opened lynching memorial) and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. The sites are projects of the Equal Justice Initiative. While the National Memorial for Peace and Justice focuses on lynchings across the South of more than 4,000 African-American men, women, and children between 1877 and 1950, the Legacy Museum deals more with enslavement and unfair incarceration of African-Americans throughout our state’s ugly history.

Both visits were emotional experiences for me; I can’t imagine how the dozen young women refugees were feeling as they observed the exhibits and learned the tumultuous history of our region. What memories will their tour dig up? They’ll write about their experience.

But consider Deyana’s history: Born in Iraq, she and her family fled after the 2003 war started – the one started by us. Her family’s Bagdad home was caught in a crossfire between two rival groups. They huddled in their basement as bullets ripped through their home. After that, the Al-Mashhadanis knew if they stayed: “You die,” said Deyana.

In any event, Deyana said, you see “people die in front of you.”

They relocated as refugees to Syria where they lived for eight years until the civil war exploded there. They moved to Turkey, where after three years, they finally were allowed to come to the United States as refugees.

Deyana and her family are among the lucky few. For the most part, Deyana said, she and her family are treated well. Despite all the forced relocations her family endured, Deyana is well educated. She speaks three languages fluently – Arabic, Turkish, and English – and has started college. She is studying biochemistry and hopes for a medical career.

Yet, so many refugees aren’t as fortunate as Deyana and the other young women on the bus to Montgomery Thursday. The women on the trip this week are from Iraq, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Congo Brazzaville. They are finishing high school or entering college. Another Iraqi, Fatima Al Rashed, 18, is headed to the University of Pennsylvania this fall on a full academic scholarship.

These women will make America a better nation.

They do remember, however, where they come from. And they know, as well, that they probably can never go back.

“If I was in Iraq, I could never continue my education,” Deyana said, emotion teasing her voice. “My life is here.”

Our nation does have great power. Yes, it does. Nobody will deny that.

But do we understand our great responsibility?

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Opinion | An Independence Day wish

Joey Kennedy

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A friend asked her Facebook followers this question on Independence Day:

“On this beautiful 4th of July, I am just wondering what freedom means to you?” It’s a great question, and one well worth thinking about.

One person wrote: “The right to think for myself is one thing.”

Another quoted Nelson Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

“To be at peace with yourself and others,” said another.

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All good answers.

My response to her was more reflective. I simply said: “Living in a nation with compassion and empathy, one that cares for the least of these. Maybe we will again one day.”

Of course, we’ve been a flawed nation from the start. All men have never been created equal. From the beginning, we kept millions in bondage through slavery; we prohibited women from owning property or voting; we destroyed civilizations of Native Americans across the land.

But our ideal – “that all men are created equal” – was a goal for which we, as a government and a people, strived over the decades to make true.

That’s in the past tense, because this Independence Day, we hardly try anymore. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class is in disarray and shrinking.

We have a Republican Congress that is going after our seniors’ Social Security and Medicare, the poorest citizens’ Medicaid and food aid. And we have a president who doesn’t really care.

The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, one of our very own, has spent his entire political career as one who believes he knows better than any of us. He is an embarrassment to this state and country, and he has the mean streak of a bully. Like his boss.

With all our imperfections, our leaders of the past, both Democrats and Republicans, have tried to show we are a compassionate nation, one that welcomes the downtrodden, one that, with all its flaws, believes in taking care of the least of these.

Not today. On this Independence Day, immigrant families are being forcefully separated at our borders, and that’s cheered by President Trump and AG Sessions and others in the Trump administration.

Sessions said people fleeing their native lands from oppression, gang violence, and domestic violence, need not come here. We are not the land of the free and, in many ways, we are no longer the home of the brave.

Yes, immigrants crossing our borders without papers creates a problem. But it’s not one we should address without compassion, and not one we must deal with through brutality. Taking children from their parents who only want a better life is wrong. Refusing asylum for women and children fleeing certain death is wrong.

Sessions is cold-hearted and clearly a racist, like his boss. He’s a perfect fit for the Trump administration.

The attorney general is a disaster for America, and for what America once stood for. Just like his boss.

We do not, this Independence Day, live in a compassionate nation. This Republican Congress and administration have no compassion for immigrants or their own citizens. Trump’s dangerous tariffs will likely cost many jobs right here in Alabama. Sessions’ policies will continue to fill our prisons with nonviolent drug users.

Trump will gladly meet with some of the world’s worst despots – Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin – while he bashes Canada and Germany and France and Great Britain and Mexico.

Journalists are the “enemy of the people,” Trump said, and then has to be embarrassed before he honored five journalists killed in a mass shooting by ordering flags flown at half-staff.

We’re not any better in Alabama, where we refuse to expand Medicaid so that more of our working poor have health care, where we relish kicking people off food assistance, where we proudly maintain our racist and homophobic legacies. Where our own attorney general attacks the media for reporting his wife’s suicide, then holds a press conference revealing all her problems which, included apparently, him.

Republicans here nominated a child molester for a U.S. Senate seat, and joyfully voted for him (thankfully unsuccessfully) on election day. They defended that vote by saying, simply: “He was the Republican.”

This is the buckle of the Bible Belt, but we turn our backs on Christ’s most important commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like the first: Love others as much as you love yourself.

Many of our state’s top leaders, all the while touting their devout “Christianity,” ignore that commandment. Trump, the darling of Evangelicals, ignores that commandment. Jeff Sessions, throughout his entire depressing career, ignores that commandment.

So yes, on this Independence Day, freedom to me is living in a nation with compassion and empathy, one that cares for the least of these.

Maybe we will live in a nation like that again one day.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Opinion | Beware the Ides of March

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