Name the Evil, then Change It

In “How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power,” the young, black writer argues that Coates assumes white power in America is all-powerful and unchangeable, that he panders to “woke” white liberals, and that he plays into the hands of racists with a poor-me picture that should be made more complicated, independent, and hopeful. This is an old center-left diversionary argument that goes something like ‘don’t ever paint a bleak picture of reality unless you:

1) make sure everyone says it’s way more complicated than the particular bleakness we’re addressing;

2) proclaim your problem not anywhere nearly as important as another big picture bleakness;

3) focus on solutions, on practicalities, you freaking whiners; and

4) sprinkle any testimony with anthemic hope. Or at least end on a note of it.

A witness names what is. I love being positive and feeling strong sometimes, but that’s not what witnessing means; not to Sinclair Lewis, Ella Baker, Studs Terkel, or James Baldwin. Coates’ great lesson to me is noticing, acknowledging and explaining the terrible costs of the hidden and powerful unconscious bias in our society.

Some things aren’t complicated. He doesn’t focus on future policy. He highlights the notion of “overcoming” in maybe the most important sense, to give me a sense,of what others must achieve to obtain my birthright. He notes progress, and makes warnings, and can bear an elegiac despair, as have many of his ancestors. His words can certainly sound to the unconvinced as if he fetishizes victimhood and rejects potential for improvement. But he’s just pointing out risk and pain where we don’t see it, now and in our history, explaining what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness,” the jumbled, sometimes irreconcilable sense of what it means to be American and black at the same time.

As to pandering to white liberals: I had been unaware of much of the history in his work, and was shocked at the grinding and consistent waves and creative manifestations of discrimination in recent history. It is not pandering to teach history– is it soliciting pandering for me to want be included in the conversation? What if I feel good after reading him– or bad– what might that mean?

That same sense of being acquainted with misery and cruelty also helps me. Poignant despair arising from unnecessary suffering isn’t part of me. Through witnesses, I can leap to a sense of what it means to have those losses, and to have them lurking in the future. Because I was inspired with insight into another person’s experience, I’m probably less likely to participate in this blind man’s bluff of bias that tends to enter the world through us. Thanks to his thoughts, I’m certainly better at identifying bias, in myself and others. 

The center-left should find and herald the clear witness. They shouldn’t expect him to also be their favorite philosopher, or worry how he looks in a suit. The center-left may certainly address the complexity, and solution set, and big pictures, and we many others can march right alongside, but witnesses give us a proper sense of history and scope. A witness speaks to what is.


Report of Alicia Roman’s Firing


Report Alicia Roman’s Firing 

as Chair of Sonoma County’s Citizen’s Advisory Council

 April 18, 2017

Ms. Alicia Roman was elected as chair of Sonoma County’s Citizen Advisory Council in 2016, serving the Sonoma County independent oversight effort over the Sheriff’s Office, or IOLERO, created as a result of the death of Andy Lopez. She was fired from that position on March 15, 2017 without warning by Mr. Jerry Threet, the head of the oversight office. There are many facts of grave concern to the community about the firing, especially how Mr. Threet executed it. Items 1-10 and 15 concern why and how Mr. Threet fired Ms. Roman; item 11 roughly represents the view of the Police Brutality Coalition and other local citizen groups advocating policing oversight; and items 12-14 concern the Sheriff’s negligence of the community’s oversight effort under Mr. Threet. The below has been reviewed and approved by Alicia Roman.

1. In early February, 2017, Ms. Roman told a community circle, when she was given the opportunity to speak, when a deputy in the circle had said to the immigrants in the circle that they ”had nothing to fear”, that that wasn’t entirely true. Originally, when he had said it, Ms. Roman shook her head in frustration, because she didn’t have the conch and couldn’t speak and didn’t want to interrupt the deputy while he was speaking.

Shaking her head as an officer spoke was given as a reason for Mr. Roman to be fired.

2. When a lady told a group in Ms. Roman’s citizen’s circle that she didn’t trust law enforcement, because she’d been involved in an incident with them, a deputy, who didn’t have the speaking conch and shouldn’t have spoken, began peppering the lady with questions about the event, “interrogating her.” When he did that, Ms. Roman rolled her eyes in frustration, but didn’t say anything because she didn’t have the conch.

Rolling her eyes while an officer spoke was given as a reason for Ms. Roman to be fired. In a investigatory interview of Mr. Threet after the firing by members of the Police Brutality Coalition, items 1 and 2 were clearly indicated by Mr. Threet as best revealing the flaws in Ms. Roman’s approach that led to her being fired.

3. No due process, advance notice, or warnings were given to Ms. Roman that she was being fired- she found out when she went to a meeting she thought would also be with her vice-chair and Mr. Threet on another subject, and the vice-chair wasn’t present. Ms. Roman believes Mr. Threet intended to fire her March 7, the day after the CAC meeting and after she sent an email to Jerry stating she wanted to allow questioning during public comment, but he waited another week in silence during scheduling difficulties.

4. Ms. Roman was selected by the original advisory council as their board chair on December 5, 2016, by an 8-2 majority. None of the council members had any idea that any problems that may exist with Ms. Roman’s approach were bad enough to even discuss, let along to cause her to be removed from the chair position and the council.

Per by-laws, Evelyn Cheatham, the vice-chair automatically became chair, and a vice-chair will need to be elected. At the first CAC meeting after the firing, Elizabeth Corzine was nominated for vice-chair, but rejected the nomination. The members voted 7-2 to delay a vice-chair election until a discussion and investigation into the firing of Ms. Roman was done over the next month. The whole council seemed upset during the CAC meeting after the firing, and the meeting agenda was radically adjusted at the beginning of the meeting to accommodate their need for initial expression of their frustration over being shut out, and to resolve how to proceed. His secretive, speedy, and assumptive action has delayed other important work, and placed his relationship with the community in peril.

Mr. Threet did not apologize to the council for firing their chair in secret. He has taken to repeating that she served at his pleasure, and that her attitude simply made her unfit for the role. The email record between the two provides more detail on his perception of Ms. Roman’s attitude problems.

5. Mr. Threet complained that Ms. Roman’s first, quite direct “Close to Home” article could be interpreted as CAC’s official stance, and contained her personal opinions. He insisted in an email that it was best that she withhold some of her opinions from the public while in that position. After the firing, many citizens took issue with this advice, providing examples of local board members and chairs expressing pointed, controversial opinion in public, and many deemed it highly desirable to juxtapose activism and voluntary official duty in that way.

In her next “Close to Home” article, Ms. Roman stated at the bottom that the article reflected personal opinion and not that of the CAC. However, Mr. Threet did not want Ms. Roman to mention the CAC.

6. Mr. Threet complained that Ms. Roman was being “antagonistic” when she went to the Board of Supervisors to see if the county could legally issue policy that the Sheriff would be required to comply with. Ms.Roman viewed it as a simple logical point that should be investigated, since, if it was possible, it might aid greatly in community goals.

After Ms. Roman was fired, she wrote to Mr. Threet, “I have felt constant pressure by you to among other things: stop asking questions that upset people, not “working within the government system”, or to stop stating my point of view.“

7. Mr. Threet disclosed orally on at least two independent occasions that there was “pressure” to fire Ms. Roman. He didn’t say where the pressure came from. This pressure may have come from either the Board of Supervisors (his employer), the Sonoma County legal or administrative departments, or the Sheriff, or from more than one of these.

It must be considered that this pressure, in and of itself, may well have influenced Mr. Threet greatly in his decision. There is no way to know whether the Sheriff or a County stakeholder actually caused the firing. It may have been done secretly merely because Mr. Threet was foolish, or the firing may have flowed from Mr. Threet’s stated desire to make better progress without Ms. Roman.

8. Mr. Threet disagreed with Ms. Roman on the Know Your Rights (KYR) slide-show presentation- about advising people that they should exercise their constitutional right to remain silent. But Know Your Rights isn’t a local but a national procedure, virtually universally accepted; as Ms. Roman says, his is an uninformed perspective, because KYR doesn’t exist without that statement; it is an incontrovertible part of the card handouts that are the key KYR tool of dissemination. He suggested instead a vague statement for a person to use one’s judgment, because it might go worse for an immigrant to not talk to the police. Mr. Threet later said that he had not declared the KYR procedure unacceptable, only that HE would not be telling immigrants that they should remain silent; however, Mr. Threet does not do KYR seminars himself.

9. Ms. Roman mentioned to citizens at an English Learner Advisory Committee meeting, in her greeting, that she had sued the Sheriff’s Office; she felt it simply gave citizens trust that she represented their interests. Mr. Threet felt that she was being divisive and prejudicial. In fact, Ms. Roman was merely stating what she did for a living– it’s unlikely in her field that she would not sue the Sheriff’s Office.

Telling immigrants that she sues the Sheriff’s Office as part of her work was given as a cause for her firing.

10. Mr. Threet is against allowing questions from the community to their volunteer advisory council members during public comment. This is a common tactic in Sonoma County, used by bureaucrats afraid of losing control at public meetings; it is an abuse of the Brown Act that badly needs to be challenged in court, and is utterly contrary to the principles of government transparency that are the foundation of the office Mr. Threet leads. We are, per my last investigation, the only county in California that interprets the Brown Act to forbid government representatives to answer direct questions from the public. It was a hard-fought reform act that mandates certain protections of public intercourse, including questions of the public being amiably answered by staff or member. Mr. Threet strongly dislikes the potential for unscheduled public comment time, and the risk of the public not accepting Sheriff Office answers, asking the question repeatedly, or getting exercised over an answer.

The only disagreement between the two that was weighed on by the council was centered around Ms. Roman’s strong desire for questions by citizens to be answered by IOLERO, CAC, or the Sheriff’s office members. Mr. Threet invited discussion on the point. Ms. Roman compromised by agreeing to allow questions to be submitted in writing, to be answered at the CAC’s discretion. Mr. Threet complained that her divisiveness in that situation was a reflection of her intractable nature, even though she compromised a strongly-held belief, as she had done many times during her tenure as Chair.

11. Ms. Roman was fired for being a strong, clear woman who addresses the many Sheriff’s Office delays, lies, and deceptions straightforwardly. Mr. Threet thinks that approach with the Sheriff’s office is inappropriate; we don’t know, of course, but it may be because it annoyed the Sheriff enough to insist that Mr. Threet fire Ms. Roman. Mr. Threet’s unconditional approach of courtesy and restraint (rapprochement)  toward the Sheriff is roughly similar to that of the Board of Supervisors’, historically; this approach has ensured that Mr. Threet’s office has been co-opted (ignored) by the Sheriff. Mr. Threet seems unaware that this has happened, despite the evidence from items 12-14 below. He is hopeful that this Sheriff will work in good faith with the public at some point, and believes that community leaders such as CAC members must be polite to the Sheriff and all his staff at all times, and not express in public certain long-held frustrations, based on experience, that are disagreed with by the Sheriff, or that embarrass him, or that the Sheriff got away with through collusion with the Board of Supervisors. As Mr. Threet said in an email after firing Ms. Roman from the council and chairmanship, “you may be more effective without the constraints inherent in a role as an IOLERO CAC member.” These “constraints,” which Mr. Threet assumes that he knows, needed to be discussed with the advisory council before the firing, and weren’t.

In defending his action, Mr. Threet stated that his office was “independent”, and made the case that he can’t stand consistently with the community in his job of Sheriff oversight; that he has a strong mandate to stand apart from the community to make decisions like the firing of Ms. Roman, in an attempt to be “independent” of the community, as he is independent of the Sheriff. This is a deep misreading of his mandate, and a twisting of the word “independent” in his office name, which was clearly and purely a reference to independence from the Sheriff’s Office when we created the office, so that the office could advocate for marginalized citizenry. This assertion of independence from everyone may make him feel justified in firing Ms. Roman in secret, but it is a fabrication of one mandate, and a denial of others related to good will, transparency, and the community’s desires.

12. In late 2016, the Sheriff was on the record as in the middle of adjusting his immigration policy, but he did not invite the CAC to review the adjustments or provide input. The Sheriff then displayed zero interest in the citizen council’s March, 2017 published recommendations on immigration, stating through a representative that he wouldn’t work on the policy suggestions until a related California State bill’s fate was decided (SB 54). The irritated advisory council called this “unacceptable” and not a response, explained how the bill didn’t address key aspects of the recommendations, and insisted on receiving the written response they had asked of the Sheriff. As of this date, no written response has been received by the CAC.

While CAC was working to make immigration policy change recommendations to a 2014 superseded Sheriff policy that was all they had, which they thought was the current policy, the Sheriff put out yet another new policy, also unannounced, on January 15, without the Sheriff’s Liaison informing CAC. The police liaison claims that was an early printing date only, not a release date, but his story didn’t make sense, because he was uninformed as to the chronology or versions involved. Even if that were true, it was a secret policy change, worked on without the CAC’s input, while the CAC was working on the same immigration policy using an out-of-date policy. The latest Sheriff’s immigration policy changed the procedure from 9 to 3.5 pages.

13. The Sheriff has not attended any of the five CAC meetings. The CAC was quite vocal during the fifth absence, questioning openly the Sheriff’s good will, and asking on the record if the Sheriff respects their efforts as volunteers and citizens.

Though Mr. Threet has assumedly conveyed the community invitations and frustration to the Sheriff, there has been no public criticism by Mr. Threet of the Sheriff’s absences. This is not “independence”, nor is such silence dictated by his fiduciary strictures; it is effectively colluding in the stonewalling that has become the norm for this Sheriff.

14. The Sheriff Liaison will no longer answer questions from the public during public comment at CAC meetings. Mr. Threet supported this change, against the strong wishes of Ms. Roman, because he was concerned that such questions can get repetitive, and citizens can get angry and irrational, creating a burden or time cost to the liaison and the council. Since the Sheriff doesn’t attend the meetings, this effectively means that the public has been officially shut out of any communication with the Sheriff.


15. Mr. Threet’s announcement to the CAC that he had fired their chair stated that the firing was a “mutual decision,” when it was nothing of the kind, as made plain in the email record. If the council had been fooled into thinking it was a mutual decision, Mr. Threet would have been able to adjust leadership without reviewing the management issues that were involved in the firing. The activist community, the CAC, and the public-at-large must now be torn between trying to support the important planned work of the CAC, and addressing appropriately the integrity and communication weaknesses of IOLERO.

The irony is that the conflicts between Mr. Threet and Ms. Roman desperately needed the spirit of community and of transparency to hold sway, to allow the kind of teaching, compromise, and apologies to occur that are the reason why the oversight office was created. After all, there are questions of balance and style and politics that bureaucrats must address. There are also communication and clarity and unity considerations for volunteers and leaders. Here was an opportunity for Mr. Threet to involve the council, and therefore the community, in a spirit of trust and openness, to create a conversation about how the council suggested approaching the differences between his and Ms. Roman’s views. This would’ve had many advantages, but a glaring one is that Mr. Threet would’ve been relieved of his several misperceptions of proper policy or protocol by an experienced public (items 1,2,6,8, and 9). He would’ve certainly seen better how Ms. Roman’s “antagonistic”, seemingly counter-productive approach to leadership was at least partially borne of expertise, deep familiarity with the challenges of the voiceless, and a style that addresses the Sheriff’s dissembling and citizen neglect directly. It is likely that such a discussion would’ve yielded productive adjustments on all sides, as transparency and working in good faith tends to do.The community would’ve likely taught Mr. Threet that Ms. Roman’s approach had advantages he should consider as complementary to his own of compromise and restraint. The council seems anxious to do that with him, but now there is a demonstrated lack of good will, and a lack of regret evident over the breach in trust.  

Mr. Threet has not apologized for stating the firing was a mutual decision.


Labor versus Capital

Our upcoming Labor Secretary and other fast-food execs are considering replacing humans with machines. “If you’re making labor more expensive, and automation less expensive — this is not rocket science.” I’d expect any businessman to react so, especially if others in the industries are doing it. I also think it should be illegal, so that the industry competition pressures that drive that move to machines are reduced dramatically.

Allow me to be an early advocate of legislation against automation that systematically destroys massive numbers of low-paying jobs, depended on so completely by the poor and the young. This is a terrible solution, really, but the problem it’s trying to address is much bigger than the market system that we depend on.

It’s a terrible situation because bureaucrats are forced to come in and select specific automations that aren’t ideal for society for elimination. That’s one of the slipperiest sentences I’ve ever written: “ideal for society”? Determined by who? How?

Yet, here we are, with many millions of jobs on the line, and, as usual, the jobs in question are those of the poor and the young. I’m not a fan of assumptive market manipulation, but machines and man will be doing a dance for the rest of our history, and narrow-minded libertarian ideas and invisible hands have a place at the table, but not at the head. Markets are blind: they serve their masters. Heretofore, its masters were arguably a large swath of the people, but it’s increasingly in the business of providing for the wealthy minority of Americans.

I don’t know where we draw the line on automation, which will be a nightmare- have no idea– but labor is on the run in the world, having largely lost the battle to capital. That’s what all this inequality really is: a grinding, worsening shift between the importance of labor and capital in the global economy.

Yet another policy front where the conservative shrug is wholly inadequate as a solution, and where the left is asleep. It’s really another face of the same pressures that have kept the minimum wage going down in real terms for decades, but this is the larger issue in the long run. Who gets to hold a job in America? How sacred is the current absolute right to automate away jobs whenever we like? When machines eliminate low-skill jobs, how will we ensure adequate economic health, training and education to avoid an America of haves and have-nots?

A bit of good news on election day

for you to wake up to.

I skipped politics completely all day and night yesterday. My work with ideology is quite removed from politics, in an odd way, because I focus on understanding these people as individuals– as our friends, lovers, parents, work associates and bosses. I was blessed to catch the news all at once this morning, the battle over. Like being led sleepily to a hole in the ice and being thrown in at 5 am. I kept circling back to thinking that I had to be in an unusually detailed dream; kept wondering how the news feed could look so real, for so long.

Life is funny– tricksy. When I look back on the most satisfying work of my life, it was done when I knew I was doing the right thing, but there were few beside me, or when I was forced to stand alone. Standing with you this time will be a similar privilege, a similar feeling of pride and joy mixed with frustration. Standing with great souls again, knowing that representing our causes now is much more urgent, because it will be less popular. People will lose their way, you see, and fade back into busy lives. Each of us left at the barricades has just become much more important, much more efficacious, even if it seems the opposite is true.

Now is the best kind of reminder, a stinging one, that life isn’t about the arrival, but the paths we take, the choices we take at the junctures like this one. We stand where we do as liberals because we must, if we’ve lived correctly. I’ve found it to be more than enough.

I’ll be talking to liberals and conservatives all week, continuing what I’ve been intermittently doing for the last few months, in between book and promotion stuff. I’m in North Carolina at the moment, moving through South Carolina on the way to Georgia. I think the vast majority of these winners aren’t thrilled– more like bemused, or surprised, or justified, or satisfied that America’s trying something– anything– that doesn’t look like regular politics.

Their reasons defy our usual instinct to complicate things. Almost every single one is incredibly frustrated with the lies of commission and omission, of hubris and realpolitik in the many shades possible which candidates trade in avidly as the lingua franca of their worlds. Few of the people I talked to are truly happy with Donald Trump. They’re frustrated people, many of whom have lost money or work from Bill Clinton’s NAFTA, or seen their health insurance premiums go up while their coverage became worse. They whisper among themselves about terrorism and immigration, which seem to them to stand silent around a near corner, awaiting their moment. The Republican leadership ground a lesson into their bones for two generations that the people were puppetry, while the left loudly celebrated every gain that seemed to pass the white people here in a slipstream. No one was speaking either to them, or for them.

They’re very proud of this people’s victory, even without the usual assurance and joy that I’m used to with political success. It’s hard for me to blame them. As I walk among them and talk to them, I can’t separate myself from them, from their lives and dreams and heartaches. My life has been a far country from theirs for many years, but I do this work about understanding them because I love them, because the research got far enough along to justify and clarify my deep appreciation to be based on characteristics I can sketch out for others. I spent much of my life among them; I know them as well as any liberal can. We are right to focus on their foibles and weaknesses when it comes to policy, but we shouldn’t discount the heart of these people, nor their goodwill and conscientious natures, notwithstanding all the populist stupidity and rancor flaying away on the harder edges of the conservative movement. These are people who mean well, who intend an America that’s strong and safe, that provides her people jobs. As they speak, it’s clear to me that they don’t realize how closely they hew in spirit to the broad-minded and generous spirit of conservative thinkers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Colin Powell of the right, who have shined with generous and insightful commentary the last few months, in brave opposition to authoritarianism and lies. They’re all, people and pundits alike, earnestly articulating the hope that we turn from corruption, inefficiency, and removed, insider politics, to solutions that work for a broader set of Americans. The left doesn’t know the language of those solutions yet, and neither does the right. There will be some brutal learning ahead, with some twists as surprising as the one last night.

We’re going to watch the right grow up a little, as the excessive parts of their loose coalition try once again to gain the confidence of the people. Trump will have to backpedal on promises like no one ever before; that should be fun. It will be fascinating to watch the conservatives who didn’t support Donald Trump be forced to truly take on the mantle of leadership, and speak more truth than they have, as they can’t just sit back anymore and take pot shots at the left, but make an earnest effort to abide by whatever their principles are to lead the nation through the many conflicts they have with their new chief executive. I’m quite hopeful, in medium-term way. Not that we’ll avoid populist excesses and bad legislation, which are inevitable. And we’ll continue our fantasy of permanently cheap oil and money, and harmless consumerism. But Americans on the right will learn to listen better to minorities, our allies, and their young as the old conservatives die off. They’ll renew their approach in unpredictable and sometimes sensible ways, as people of color take more and more of a voice in our country.

It’s an early winter’s dawn, this good news. Wan, bleak, perhaps even hard to see, but good news nonetheless. Yes, the left is now a sideshow in national politics, even if we’re quite alive and well in the states and our towns. The Supreme Court will be taking a turn to the right for a good chunk of this next generation. There will be filibusters and civil disobedience just for basic services and sanity– some of which won’t work. But one must take the long view. There is a great work afoot for each of us, if we want it. That’s one of the best things to have in life, it turns out. We can each be an island of hope and inspiration for how to live, and what to stand for. We can keep on the selfsame journey together, only with more urgency, and a little less known about the destination.

Americans are a remarkable people. We have a darkening coming for a little, and then a gradual lightening you and I will all participate in, as we learn the lessons we need to as a nation to move together into the heart of the 21st century. We’ve only been reminded more forcefully than usual that we are yolked together on our way to our children’s America. It will be a humbling and disorienting lesson, but we should turn it into a useful one, or we’ll not do as well as we can for each other.

Being liberal just became a much more vital, much more courageous thing to be. I’m so glad to have you with me! Let’s move the needle together, if only a little.