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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A DEATH IN THE GOP

I have begun to wonder if the loneliest person in Minneapolis-St. Paul this Labor Day is not going to be “Mike” Duncan, Chairman of the Republican National Committee. The elephants start their 39th nominating convention on September 1st, post Olympics and pre-World Series, in the Xcel Energy Center. They intend to drag the action out for four action-packed reinventing-the-brand-name days. Beyond the 2,380 delegates and 2,227 alternates, the Repubs say they are expecting 15,000 journalists, which would make this the best attended funeral since Princes Diana’s. But I have my doubts. If anybody outside of Fox Spews and “The Daily Show” bother covering this Gopher State right-wing wing-ding I will be greatly surprised. There are bad omens scattered about like the first coughs from Laura Ingalls in the Little House on the Prairie. Chairman Duncan’s first political campaign experience came when he helped his uncle run for school superintendent. The uncle lost by eight votes. And can you guess who picked Mike to be RNC chair? If you said George Bush you win first prize. And if you voted for George Bush you’ve already won the booby prize: here’s your booby.

The last time the Grand Old Party held their convention in Minneapolis was in 1898, when they nominated the incumbent Republican President Benjamin Harrison; a guy so cold the only person who actually liked him was his wife, and she died of tuberculosis two weeks before the election. Harrison didn’t even get the sympathy vote: he lost to Grover Cleveland, who four years previously had failed in his own Presidential re-election bid, to Harrison: Presidential musical chairs was a popular sport in the late nineteenth century. After his defeat Harrison told family and friends he felt as if he had just been released from prison. This election will release America from prison. And Minnesota has not gone Republican since 1972 when Richard Nixon won every state except Massachusetts, including Minnesota, which was the home state of Democratic candidate Walter Mondale. And look how well that Republican landslide worked out for America. Well, what more could you expect from a place whose state bird is the Common Loon?

I bring this all up because this year the road to Main Street in Gopher Prairie seems to run right past the grave yard. I am speaking here specifically of 67 year old Frank Powers, the retired Wall Street maven who wanted to run for the Staten Island Congressional seat currently occupied by embarrassed and embarrassment Repulsive-an Representative Vito Fossella. Vito got pulled over in Northern Virginia for drunk driving, and in what must have been the best road side confession since Mel Gibson unburdened himself to the Malibu P.D., Vito explained that he was on his way to see his infant daughter, she not being his and his wife’s daughter but his and his mistresses’ daughter. The Grand Old Party turned on Vito with all the compassion of cannibals at a pot luck picnic, and in response Vito has checked out of Republican Party politics. And Frank Powers seemed the perfect choice to replace the only Republican left from New York City in Congress. Frank had committed to spend $500,000 of his own cash on the election, and that made him the favorite son of the Grand Old Party: emphasis on the “Old” part, because over the weekend Frank dropped dead from a heart attack, which says something about the best laid plans of grumpy old men, I guess.
Fossella joined LaHood of Illinois, Ramstad of Minnesota, Rebula of Ohio and Walsh of New York, all retiring Republicans, and in the face of Republican disciplinarians they voted with the Democrats to extend unemployment insurance past the standard cut-off date. Said the frustrated Minority Whip, Roy Blunt, about these mass defections by defectors “It’s not helpful”, meaning it was not helpful to party discipline, even if it was helpful to the voters and tax payers who are out of work. It was just such arguments for unity above individual self interest that has led the Repubs so far from the American mainstream that three out of four Americans say they now prefer a Democrat representing them in Congress. And come late August, as we head off to “Greater Minnesota”, land of ten thousand lakes, birthplace of the Mississippi River, tuna hot dish casseroles, the Lake Wobegon Chatterbox Cafe and the most famous airport men’s room in the free world, Republicans will be asking themselves (such as Governor Tim Pawlenty, Lieutenant Governor Carol Malnau and Senator Norm Coleman – Republicans all!) why the hell the party is coming to a state they stand very little chance of winning, unless it is to highlight the party’s bankruptcy – moral and monetary.
Charles Black, lobbyist for Ferdinand Marcos and Mobuto Sese Seko, and a close advisor to Republican Presidential candidate John McCain, told Fortune Magazine this month that a new terrorist attack against the United States would be good news for McCain. If he get's really lucky maybe we'll all come down with malaria. He later apologized for saying that but it raises the question of just what might be good news for John McCain? Short of a signed photo of Barak Obama shoving Hillary Clinton into a shredder I don’t think such an event is possible. The American people know almost nothing about Obama and almost everything about McCain, and yet the USA Today – Gallup Poll, the Rasmussen Poll, and the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll all have Obama out in front by six points. And the mask poll at BuyCostumes-dot-com, which has never been wrong, has the Obama mask out in front of the McCain mask by 5%. It’s a long pull till November 4th, and a lot can happen, but McCain’s flip-flopping over energy policy (yesterday he was for drilling and today he is for conserving) did not help the jet jockey convince anybody he’s got the answer to anything. The Republican Party of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, the party of “Republican-In-Name-Only” labels: these lunatics have never accepted the “big tent” theory that dilutes their ratings and their power. Their party should be holding their convention in some out of the mainstream corner of America, like Jenna, Louisiana or Crawford, Texas. Because in Minneapolis the “RINO Party” will be out in broad daylight, a very inhospitable place for its convention. Minnasota is a progressive state where “the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”. Can you say, "Oh, yah, sure"?
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Sunday, June 22, 2008

WHAT A RIOT!

I don’t believe there was anyone alive in late July of 1919 who did not know what was coming. It was a different world than the one we live in today. That summer World War I had just ended and the nation was just embarking on prohibition. A million Southern rural blacks had moved to the Northern urban centers for war work and they were now, for the first time, in direct competition for unskilled jobs with Chicago's second generation German and Irish. The great depression was a decade away. The "Roaring Twenties" had not yet begun. And the idea that a black man could ever stand for President of the United States would have seemed impossible.

On June 21st of that summer, in separate incidents, two black males had been murdered by members of white “athletic clubs”, which was then a Chicago euphemism for a street gang. When a white saloon-keeper died of a heart attack on July 3rd, rumor had him murdered by blacks. That night the Irish Hamburg Athletic Club used the rumor as an excuse for a drive-by shooting in a black neighborhood at 53rd. and Federal streets. No one was injured but a few days later signs appeared on lampposts promising to “…get all the niggers on the South Side.” And on the sweltering Sunday of July 27th it all flashed into a wildfire.

The Hamburgs had been running patrols out of their clubhouse at 37th Street and Emeral in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, defending their border with the so-called “Black Belt” Douglas neighborhood just to the south. But along Lake Michigan the clear dividing line of pavement between the ethnic groups broke down on the sandy beaches between 26th and 29th streets. There the border became an undulating wave of intermittent shoving and shouting between black and white males. It seems clear most the people at the beach that day were merely trying to escape their oven like apartments. But some time in the afternoon, with the temperature hovering around 97degrees Fahrenheit, four young black men attempted to enter the water north of 26th street. They were driven back south, but more blacks returned. Stones were thrown from both sides. And then, out in the water, a 17 year old boy was hit in the head with a rock and drowned.
His name was Eugene Williams, and it didn’t matter if he was trying to sneak around the Irish gangs and claim a moral victory, or had simply floated across an invisible line he dare not cross. A white man named Stauber was seen standing on the seawall throwing rocks at the boy, who was holding onto a railroad tie to stay afloat. A stone hit him in the head, he let go of the tie and disappeared beneath the water. Stauber ran off toward 29th street. Meanwhile both white and black men dove into the water, trying to save the young man. They were unsuccessful. Witnesses identified Stauber but the cop on the beat refused to arrest him. And by that time, it was probably far too late to prevent what was coming. Two hours later James Crawford, a black man, fired into a group of police officers. The cops were uninjured, but a black cop shot and killed Mr. Crawford. The riot now spread out across the city.
According to the 1922 report of the riot, between 9:00 P.M. and 3:00 A.M. that night 27 blacks were beaten, 7 stabbed and four shot. Still, Monday morning was quiet. But on Monday afternoon some 30 blacks returning from work were pulled off streetcars and beaten, and four were killed; nine whites were also beaten, six stabbed, five shot and four killed. Street car service was stopped, in an effort to quell the violence. But that just forced whites and blacks to cross enemy territories on foot. People were being killed and injured. The violence was spasmodic, intermittent and unpredictable, and the police often found themselves chasing false rumors and false alarms.
What stands out as emblematic of the entire five days of rioting occurred Tuesday night when a crowd of about 150 whites began milling around in front of 1021 South State Street. At least four white men began throwing stones. Shots rang out and the police moved in. The Chicago Daily News reported the next day (July 29), “Harry Signadell, 35, white, died… after his bullet ridden body had been picked up in front of 1021 South State Street, where a colored woman and 20 other negroes had barricaded themselves and were shooting at all whites who passed…Two revolvers, two rifles, and ax, several knives, and several hundred rounds of ammunition…were discovered piled up near the window… Patrolman John Hays…saw the spurts of fire from their rifles and revolvers whenever whites ventured to pass the place.”
Except for Harold Brignadello’s death (the newspaper didn’t even get his name right!) that story was a fabrication piled on a rumor built on fear. The coroner’s jury that convened days later reported that Mr. Brignadello had died “…from shock and hemorrhage due to a (single) bullet wound in the chest cavity…while standing at the southwest corner of State and Taylor…by a bullet fired from a revolver held in the hand of one Emma Jackson…Just prior to the shooting, said premises had been stoned by a mob if white men.” In fact the jury found that the house was occupied by two women and just three men (not one woman and twenty men) and contained just one revolver, not an “arsenal”. All the occupants were tried for murder and all were found not guilty. None of the whites who precipitated the confrontation was arrested. Rains finally came on Wednesday night and all day Thursday, and that, and the present of state troops, broke everybody’s temperature.
The closer you get to the truth of the Chicago riots of 1919 (and the closer you get to the Zoot Suit Riot in Los Angeles two decades later) the less black and white the situation becomes. And in Chicago the more significant becomes the role played by the athletic clubs; the Hamburgs, “Ragen’s Colts, “the Alywards” and “Our Flag”. As the 1922 report found, “…they had been anticipating, even eagerly awaiting, a race riot. On several occasions they themselves had endeavored to precipitate one…” These clubs were each sponsored by local politicians, who used them to foster and enforce loyalty. Cook County commissioner Frank Ragan paid the rent on his “Colts’” clubhouse, and supported their motto, “Hit me and you hit two thousand”.
Alderman Joseph McDonough fanned the mob mentality with a lurid headline grabbing statement, “They (blacks) are armed and the white people are not. We must defend ourselves if the city won’t protect us…I saw white men and women running through the streets draggin’ children by the hands and carrying babies in their arms. Frightened white men told me the police captain had just rushed through the district crying, ‘For God’s sake, arm. They are coming, we cannot hold them.” No such thing happened, and the Alderman’s story about being shot at was a compete fabrication. But it made him a hero to his constituents.
The price for such a political system in 1919 was 38 dead (15 white, 23 black), for which just 3 blacks and two whites were convicted of murder, 537 were injured and $250,000 ($3.4 million in 2007) in property damage. The man who had started it all by hitting Eugene Williams in the head with a rock was tried and acquitted. But the riot made a lot of reputations in Bridgeport and Douglas, including that of Richard J. Daley, who was a 17 year old member of the Hamburger club in 1919 (the same age as Eugene Williams) and in 1924 was elected president of the club. Eventually Daley’s connections made him Mayor of Chicago from 1955 till his death in 1975. Politics in his Chicago was racist and parochial and best described by the quote from another long time president of the Hamburg club: “Tis a man’s game, an’ women, childrer, cripples an’ prohibitionists’d do well to keep out if it.” - 30 -

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