On Edinburgh Labour Students

In the Spring of 2015, I was galvanised, along with so many other young Americans, by the straight-talking, left-wing politics of Bernie Sanders. I started searching to see if there were other activists in my conservative hometown. Within hours, I had been warmly welcomed into a group of like-minded activists who were already planning the grassroots campaign to get Bernie Sanders elected in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I was nervous, while I’d worked on two Democratic campaigns before, never had I been involved in a grassroots campaign and never had I been involved in one that openly called itself socialist. But my anxiety was assuaged by the warm, friendly welcome I received, and people I’d never met in my life quickly became close comrades and mentors.

The warm welcome did more than just make me feel at home, it empowered me in ways I hadn’t realised before. My comrades in the grassroots Bernie campaign encouraged me to take up activism outside of purely electoral politics. I started doing work in education activism, and with plenty of encouragement and support I started the #SaveFCPS campaign, which pushed back against the School Board and Board of Supervisors on the cuts they were making to employee salaries in Fairfax County Public Schools. In many ways, the confidence I had to do those things wouldn’t have existed had it not been for the accessibility and friendliness of the folks organising Bernie’s grassroots campaign.

I remember the exact moment when the breaking news notification flashed across my screen, “Jeremy Corbyn Elected Leader of the Labour Party.” I knew little about British politics then, but a wave of excitement rolled over me because I knew what this meant. The Left had won something. “Is Jeremy Corbyn any good? Why do you care?” my mom asked me, clearly confused by my elation. “If Corbyn can win this, Bernie can win the primary,” I said, with all the naive joy of someone who had yet to go against the liberal establishment.

Bernie did not win the primary, despite our best efforts, and Jeremy Corbyn has yet to become Prime Minister, but the impacts of their candidacies rippled through more than just my political life. I chose to apply to university only in the United Kingdom. I’d lived in London seven years prior, and the UK had always felt more like home to me than the US ever had. But beyond wanting to chase nostalgia, I knew I wanted to organise in a place where the left could win. Jeremy Corbyn was talking the kind of politics I desperately wanted to pursue. Though I’d joined the Democratic Socialists of America, there was something fascinating to me about the Labour Party and the way the British political system worked. I wanted to come to the UK and join the Labour Party because I knew it meant I could make material changes to people’s lives, to directly help them in ways I had no dream of doing in the States.

In August of 2016, I rocked up to London, acceptance letter to the University of Edinburgh in hand, with a million and one plans for my political life in the UK. A friend from Twitter hooked me up with someone in the Labour Party who sealed the deal for me on getting involved. We chatted excitedly about all that the left could do, all that the Labour Party could be, and I felt a ten ton weight lift off my shoulders, I could finally be useful here. I could finally change people’s lives. I could make the world a better place here. But when I told my friend what university I was going to, the happy tone of the conversation shattered. “Be careful up there, they hate the left and will be quick to backstab you,” he told me. I shook it off, I’d come of age politically in a small conservative town where I’d been ostracized for having political positions to the left of wanting to drone strike the Chicago teachers’ strike, so nothing scared me anymore. I thought I was tough enough to handle whatever was coming my way.

The very first society I joined at Edinburgh University was Edinburgh Labour Students. I didn’t have to think twice about throwing money at them, I wanted to get involved, I wanted to do the right thing. Once again through Twitter (a website that has changed my life in enough ways to be embarrassing), I was connected to some lefties in Scotland. Like my comrades in the Bernie movement a year previously, they welcomed me with open arms, explaining the intricacies of UK politics to me without being patronising. They invited me out for drinks, and gave me solidarity, something I needed desperately after moving 4,000 miles away from home and with my dad deployed to Iraq.

I went to my first ELS event, Women in Red, feeling excited. It was a discussion with an MSP, Monica Lennon, and the leader of the 50/50 campaign, and it seemed like the perfect moment to start introducing myself to the women of ELS. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I walked into the room and felt immediately as though I had walked into the home team’s locker room while wearing the away team’s jersey. No one made an effort to welcome me, no one made an effort to find out who I was. Instead, the discussion became a diatribe against “brocialism” and in favour of supporting Tory women. When I asked why it was that a Labour Students group should concern itself with making sure Tory women got elected, I was treated as though I were a bad feminist.

It only got worse from there. One of the first meetings I went to was a speed debating session which, despite the wholly depoliticised debate topics, ended with me having to argue that defending Augusto Pinochet was not actually a sensible position for the Labour Party to take and that the Iraq War was actually a really bad thing. Later, I heard a member of the committee whispering about me, and all I could think of was how very far from home I was.

When it came time to elect a first year representative for the committee, a left wing non-binary person was elected. I breathed a sigh of relief, maybe there was space for me in ELS.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The first year representative was kicked off the committee after a dramatic backroom committee meeting that in many ways seemed more like targeted bullying that disciplinary proceedings. She was kicked off the committee for having flyered for an event by the Socialist Students Society (which later turned out to be a front for a minor Trotskyist Party – but who knew?) The ELS committee eschewed its own constitution in its mad dash to expel her, and after Labour Students ignored it, they drafted in the Scottish General Secretary to cover their tracks. As I watched them tear down a woman on the left and then undemocratically (and unconstitutionally) appoint someone favourable to their clique, one thing was eminently clear to me: left wing women are not welcome at Edinburgh Labour Students.

When I made jokes with friends on social media about the stereotypical way in which the right wing of the Labour Party behaved, a member of the ELS committee sprung forth from the peanut gallery, demanding I take responsibility for the actions of a man. I can’t imagine the furor and outrage I would have faced had I done the same thing to a woman within the ELS clique.

I stopped attending ELS meetings. I stopped seeing a point in them. The ELS committee seemed as wholly committed to not doing any political activism as they were to making sure no one outside their clique was welcome in the society. I’ve been told numbers are dwindling at meetings, and that only members of the clique show up anymore. I can’t confirm this, because I’ve often found myself too scared and too anxious to show up to meetings. I’ve stopped finding it fun to walk into an openly hostile environment for one to three hours every Thursday.

I’ll admit that I didn’t want to run for the ELS committee. I’m throwing myself back into a hostile situation, and I know it means that the night before the AGM I will be wracked with anxiety and the night of the AGM, regardless of the outcome, I will be wracked by tears. I’ve been told that members of the ELS committee intend to ask pointed questions about my social media presence, and to question my politics using thinly veiled references to my boyfriend, a member of the SNP. I know that they will be unkind in the room, and that the safe space protections that exist to protect those not in power will be weaponised to protect those in power.

I didn’t want to run for ELS committee, but I’m doing it. I don’t want another round of first years (or second years, or third years…) to face the hostility I did. I want the do-gooders, the world-changers, the dreamers, the fighters, and the doers to find their place in ELS. I want ELS to be a hub of education and activism, I want it to be a place where new activists find their voice and returning ones find their niche. I’m running for chair of ELS because I’m sick of depoliticised political groups, I’m sick of shady backroom deals, and I’m sick of cliques. I’m running for chair of ELS because when the next young girl comes along to Edinburgh University believing she can change the world, I want her to find a home in Edinburgh Labour Students.


The Clinton Identity Problem

For the past couple of weeks, liberal think piece purveyors have been punching left against Bernie Sanders and his supporters, labelling them sexist and misogynistic for daring to have substantive criticisms of the presidential candidate who would like very much for you to know that she is a lady with lady parts. This use of identity politics is an excellent choice by Clinton and her surrogates because how can you possible criticise her for being decidedly against gay families as recently as 2011 when it is you who is against a female candidate in 2015. The choice to run not on policy but on identity is a particularly shrewd decision by the Clinton camp, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that if this primary were to revolve around policy and track records Hillary Clinton would crash and burn.

When writers like Amanda Marcotte and Rebecca Traister fire back on criticism from Bernie Sanders with allegations of misogyny, it’s a calculated move – in the words of The Office’s Andy Bernard, “Andy Bernard doesn’t lose games. He wins them, or he quits them because they’re unfair.” This is what the Clinton cabal is doing: they cannot win the substance game so they will quit the substance game for being unfair and pick up the game of Identitarian Bullshit.

With basically every pundit agreeing that Hillary lacks liberal substance, it’s not a surprise that Clinton and her supporters turn instead to conversation-derailing tactics to defend themselves. Hillary Clinton barely passes for a Democrat, let alone a liberal, and with the entrance of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election, she is now running in a liberal race. The 2016 election may well decide the trajectory of the Democratic party for the foreseeable future, whether or not Democrats will be contented with being a center-left catchall party, or whether they will seek to emulate the democratic socialism of the rest of the world (looking at you, Canada).

It’s almost impossible to have a viable conversation about the values of the presidential candidate – and the values of the larger Democratic party – when every reasonable criticism is derailed with accusations of sexism. And this is certainly not to say that sexism against Hillary Clinton is something to be diminished, but the manipulation of very real accusations of sexism into a tool for political gain is reminiscent of the highly racialized Clinton smear of president Obama back in 2008. 
But maybe that’s what Clinton supporters want. They sure as hell don’t want more debates, so why would they want more discussion? Why would you fight a fair game if you know you can’t win it?

Why I’m Registering As an Independent

As the time for me to register to vote draws nearer and nearer, I’ve been spending more time working to understand where I fall on the American political spectrum. In 2008 when then-Senator Obama’s grassroots momentum was capturing the hearts of western kids across the globe, ten year old me was horrified to learn that my mother was not a registered Democrat, but instead an Independent. It seemed to me the ultimate act of political apathy – how could you not care enough about politics to have picked a side? It was the easiest thing in the world, if you were good and moral you were a Democrat, and if you were hateful and vicious you were a Republican. Some years later, I like to think I’ve picked up on more of the nuance of American politics. The naive ten year old who wore a bright pink ‘Hillary for Prez’ t-shirt is now a (hopefully less) naive seventeen year old with a passion for bitching about the bourgeoisie. And, with fewer than 200 days left until I can register to vote, I’ve found myself apprehensive about the idea of registering as a Democrat.

In the most basic of definitions the Democratic party is a coalition of voters who align morally, socially, and fiscally with left-leaning politicians. But what should be a consolidated political party has in practice proven itself to be a completely disjoint faction, with little in the way of success and even less in the way of direction. For the most part the contemporary Democratic Party is a catch-all party for those Americans who find themselves discomfited by the homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, racist and nativist rhetoric so championed by the contemporary Republican Party. Despite their diverse base the Democrats find themselves in the thick of an ineffective presidential primary.

In fact, I think it’d be too kind to call the Democratic primary ineffective, when it is much closer to “rigged,” as former Maryland governor and current Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley put it. The Republican Party has scheduled a full eleven debates for its candidates this election season, while the Democrats have a measly four. More debates would be an obstacle in Hillary Clinton’s calculated waltz to the Democratic nomination. Even the DNC chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, admits it, telling a reporter, “”I sort of feel for my counterpart Reince Priebus because it’s pretty clear why they did everything they could to shrink the number of debates and shrink the exposure.” Aah, democracy at its finest, folks.

It’s not even just the lack of debates that reveal the DNC’s problematic lack of interest in holding a legitimate primary. In early August, the DNC sent out a fundraising email offering the chance for supporters to “hear from HILLARY CLINTON,” and, at the bottom of the email looking less like the all-American hero that Clinton was portrayed as, are the sickly looking motley crew of other Democratic candidates: Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chaffee (who?!), Jim Webb (or a random white guy they picked up off the street), and Bernie Sanders.

So why am I pissed off about this?

Because – shockingly – Hillary Clinton, a corporatist who spent the past two years earning $300,000 a speech, doesn’t actually represent my values. Hillary Clinton, who vehemently supported the 1994 Crime Bill which gave the Prison-Industrial Complex once of its biggest boosts and denigrated the rights of prisoners, who used a private email server to handle hundreds of thousands of emails as the Secretary of State in a move that would’ve had any mid-level employee fired instantaneously, who didn’t support gay marriage until it had been market-tested and okayed by the least progressive of the Democratic establishment, and who supports the continued apartheid in Palestine. Yeah. As someone who started out the 2016 campaign (way back in 2014 – yikes) rooting for an Elizabeth Warren run, Hillary Clinton is not the tough talking, hardcore leftie that I’ve been dreaming of.

Regardless, my issue isn’t so much with Hillary Clinton as it is with the Democratic Party as a whole. I’m not comfortable supporting a party who can’t keep their own leaders from mutinying over major foreign policy deals. That elemental disorganization is pervasive with the Democrats in the past decade, and it’s not casting them as a functional party worthy of my time and money. My experience with the Democratic party at the state and local level has been no better, between abandoning candidates in influential districts, to backing viable but non-progressive candidates in swing states. If this is my experience with the party at age seventeen, what will it be at twenty-seven? Thirty-seven? Or will I be too strapped with student loans and other associated debts to even care? Is that why the Democratic plans for reducing student loan debt are so embarrassingly bad?

But I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what I think – the DNC doesn’t want to hear me except for if I’m shilling out praise for former Secretary Clinton. I still have a few more months until I can register, but unless things change, this millennial voter will be a proud independent.

The All-American Story of the Good People Who Killed Mike Brown

In the spring of 2013, in the aftermath of racialized harassment against Academy Award winning actor, producer and director Forest Whitaker in an Upper West Side deli, Ta-Nehisi Coates penned an op-ed for the New York Times, calling out the modern American belief that “racism [is] the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed.” He castigated white America’s propensity to forgive or overlook racism if it propagated by otherwise “good people,” and criticized the “invisible violence” exacted by white America against black America, particularly the “scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal,” and a “a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.” His assessment is especially true in an America where terms like “racism” and “white supremacy” and references to Thomas Jefferson’s illicit relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings were wiped from a nationwide American history curriculum to appease white people who felt offended by the reminder that their ancestors perpetuated systematic racism. Coates wrote “The Good, Racist People,” a full seventeen months before the infamous events of August 9th, 2014, and the language of his indictment of “good people” is prophetic with respect to the new conversation about race in America.

I will never forget the first time I read Mike Brown’s name.

It was August, and August is the worst month for humanity in the District of Columbia. In the evening, the humidity coats you like a soggy, fleece blanket, and the heat could be bearable if it weren’t radiating off of every millimeter of the pavement – and my god, there is so much pavement.

I get in my dad’s Mini Cooper after having seen my best friend perform as Ché in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita on 14th Street, and the shock of getting into a frigid car after bathing in the capital swamp makes me shudder, a dangerous act in a car barely larger than a hand basket. As a good daughter of the Technological Revolution, my first instinct is to turn my phone on, and shove the auxiliary audio cable into its headphone jack, waiting for that satisfying moment when iTunes loads and I can play my music, regardless of what my dad wants.

AT&T responds to a surge of cell traffic in the summer by shrinking its reception until you might as well hook your smartphone up to a dial-up modem. It takes me until just before Roosevelt Island before my 3G data rouses and I can get my Twitter-insulin shot. The sky blue welcome screen is stark against the amber glow of the speedometer and the indigo nighttime outside my window, and while my eyesight leaves a lot to be desired in the classroom and in public, I have never struggled to read the microscopic text of social media. Funny how that works.

I follow opinion writer Goldie Taylor because she’s a rare combination of audacity, cogency, and sensibility. At 9PM on August 9th, Goldie Taylor was the first tweeter on my timeline, tweeting about something called #Ferguson. I skimmed through the hashtag, reading jumbled and incoherent tweets about protestors coming to blows with police, about a murderer, and about someone named Mike Brown.

Five months later I would make a pilgrimage to Canfield Green in Ferguson, Missouri, and discover that the St. Louis suburb in which Mike Brown was murdered was not entirely unlike the Washington, DC. suburb in which I lived, except that the proximity of my town to DC has saturated it with excess cash and a false sense of superiority.

In the early hours of August 10th, I sit in front of my laptop, watching in revulsion as police officers barrage their own townspeople with tear gas and rubber bullets. In the coming weeks, I will spend my days addicted to reports from the frontlines of Ferguson, to tales of Mike Brown’s blue-clad murderer, and to articles decrying the militarized reaction to the protests. If I was only a casual Twitter user before August 9th, I became a full-blown junkie after, rarely letting my phone rest for more than a few minutes at a time, never wanting to miss out on a single detail of the events in Ferguson, of the stories corrupt police departments (sixty of them in the St. Louis area!), of the details of that fateful day, of the warfare happening in the streets.

But then Twitter started talking about this being endemic, that the slaughter of Mike Brown was not an anomaly, but a common occurrence in black America. I didn’t believe it: it’d been almost fifty years since the Civil Rights Movement. We were done. America was fixed. Racism was over. Sure, plenty of black people were sharing their experiences with racism in America, but they were just victimizing themselves, or they were just experiencing isolated incidents. White people aren’t racist anymore; no one who looks like me could possibly be racist.

As a nation, we have decided that we are a post-racial society, and that racism was liquidated along with Martin Luther King, Jr. “[W]e believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed,” remarks Coates. Coates is asserts that American society believes that only villains can be racist in modern days – I’m a testament to that blinded thinking. It is because of this assumption that our society refuses to address racism unless it is beyond explicit, and even then we give more consideration to White heritage than Black lives. In America, acts of racism by an individual can be nullified if that individual posses some traits we consider “good.” It is as though racism is the binary opposite of goodness and symptoms of a racist system cannot manifest themselves in a good person. The idea that racism cannot live in “the heart of a democratic society,” writes Coates, “is reinforcing to anyone who might […] find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.”

As I spend my nights glued to my laptop, watching livestreams of the protests that feel more like ISIS controlled Iraq than America, a very distinct picture begins to reveal itself to me. The thick clouds of teargas billowing like spray from a fire hose, the containment of the media to designated “First Amendment Zones,” the white police officers dressed for war against black youth don’t look like the America I’m used to. It looks like the racism my textbooks had taught me about: this is Birmingham, round –well, who knows what round we’re at now.

Even the least violent manifestations of racism reinforce the notion that black Americans are not welcome to the American dream. Roxane Gay’s ‘I Once Was Miss America,’ deliberates on the portrayals of young girls that exist for public consumption that only seem to belong to a very specific subset of Americans, namely, white people. Gay’s description of “an unrealistic, narrow ideal of beauty (blonde, white, thin),” presented in media renders a symptom of the implicit racism that Coates discusses, one that, until recently, was very rarely criticized. The author of the Sweet Valley High books, Francine Pascal, almost definitely did not create her identical twin protagonists with the intention of creating a bad role model for her young female audience, but in consistently describing them as “perfect” while erasing non-white characters (Gay remarks on “one time a citizen of Sweet Valley […] dated interracially, that relationship only lasted for one book because the couple decided […] that they were too different.”) Pascal promotes a racist ideal. Of course, no one would ever label Pascal a “bad” person for her omitting of any diversity from her books, but it is this twisting of racism into some intangible concept and our society’s unwillingness to identify and combat it that enforces the Coates’ mandate that black people “were never meant to be a part of the American story.”

As Gay admits, “As a black girl, as a Haitian girl, I was not supposed to see myself in the Sweet Valley High books,” she strengthens another facet of Coates’ diagnosis: the demand that American black society assimilate entirely to American white society. Gay begins her piece with her reaction to Vanessa Williams becoming the first black Miss America, which uncovers yet another insistence that black people to the American story: if black people have been in America since 1619, why where they not considered beautiful until 1983? Why is it that the media that surrounded Gay as a child (and likely still, as an adult) staunchly refused to portray people that looked like her, and instead constrained the ideal to physical traits attainable only by white Americans?

Perhaps it’s not an exaggeration that black people were never meant to be a part of the American story, because this is exactly what the American story was engineered to be. I spent the first 12 years of my life living outside America, and still retain some of that outsider’s view to what the American story is. Insofar as I can see it, there is a war being raged by representatives of the American society against people of color. Mike Brown’s murderer was never charged, thanks to a defective prosecutor and a careless Department of Justice investigation. In Staten Island, a police officer who illegally choked a 44 year old father – Eric Garner – to death never went to trial. The police officer that shot eighteen year old Ramarley Graham in his home will never see prison time. We find ourselves in the midst of yet another police-involved murder, where 28 year old Sandra Bland was found hanged in her prison cell after she was pulled over for not signaling a lane change. As of August 5th, 693 people have been killed by police officers since the start of the year, and a disproportionate number of those victims have been black. When the name of a different black person trends daily on Twitter marking their premature deaths, when rallies “celebrating” the heritage of the Confederate battle flag are not universally met with disgust, when a top polling presidential candidate is a man who believes the first black president of the United States wasn’t born in America, but instead in Africa, it becomes flagrantly evident that the American story is just as much the story of the success of white America as it is of the violent oppression of black America.

I learned of America’s extant racism thanks to Mike Brown. I learned that in America in the year 2015, racism isn’t always spoken for by men in white hoods and women draped in the Confederate flag, but instead by people who look and talk like me, oftentimes even by me. We like to tell the American story as a victorious story of a group of brave men who triumphed over a tyrannical king, while neglecting to tell the story of the victims of the revolutionary nation under new systems of tyranny that continue to this day. While Mike Brown’s name will probably never be glorified alongside other American deities, his legacy illuminates the once-invisible violence against black America.

The FCPS School Board Sucks, 2015 Edition 

One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
That’s a quote from a fellow 17 year old girl, Malala Yousafzai.
On Friday, April 24th, I started the Save FCPS hashtag, after getting the devastating news that my favorite teacher would be leaving the county at the end of the year. The following Tuesday, I created the Facebook page and began distributing critical information. Within a day, I received feedback from the Official Technocrats of Fairfax County Public Schools that the teachers have indeed received a pay raise in the past seven years. What – of course – they failed to mention was that these pay raises were negated by sharp increases in benefit costs, retirement fund contributions, and cost of living.

I’ve attended schools on four different continents, and all but one of them has been private. But the best education I’ve ever received has been at public school, in this very public school system. I’ve had 34 teachers in Fairfax County, and 11 of them have left in the past four years. I would not have had the confidence to stand up here right now were it not for the unyielding dedication of my teachers. And you are forcing them out of the county. By refusing to give my teachers competitive pay, you are refusing to acknowledge how critical their contributions are to the shaping of our future.

I go to school with students who will one day be presidents, CEOs, activists, judges and journalists. Their lives were bettered by teachers, all the while the lives of teachers were worsened by the School Board. It is unconscionable to me – to all of us – that you would award yourselves a raise while witnessing a mass exodus of teachers. On a moral level, it’s disgusting; on a political level, it’s reckless. There are School Boards in major US cities that work for no pay at all, and yet you shamelessly awarded yourselves a $12,000 raise. Clark County School Board Members – who serve the city of Las Vegas and oversee almost two times the amount of students you do in the city of Las Vegas – only earn $9,000 a year. I have yet to see justification as to why you deserve nearly four times the salary they do.

We are the single most competitive schooling system in the DC metro area, and we have the least competitive teacher salaries. Property values in Fairfax County are as high as they are thanks to greatness of our schooling system, but our schooling system is only great because our teachers have continued to let that be true. We pay our teachers $7,000 less on average than Montgomery County despite Fairfax County’s median income being $28,591 higher than Montgomery County’s median. That is nothing short of humiliating.

Next year, my school will be losing some of the most passionate teachers Fairfax County has had. I would list their names, but after so many years of inaction on your part, I doubt you care. But know this: when you fail to invest in teachers, you fail to invest in students.

I may not be able to vote yet, nor can most of the students whose educations are so decisively hampered by these decisions, but we can affect change by making teacher salaries a priority for those who can vote – our parents, the taxpayers.

Right now, I call on you to Save FCPS, and I, along with 2,000 of my favorite taxpayers will see you on Election Day.

You Don’t Want To Go There.

McLean High School is proud to tout their love of freedom of speech… kind of.

In 2013, I was horrified to find myself surrounded by derogatory posters comparing abortion to murder. I was fourteen years old, and while I had a foundational knowledge of political and social issues, I was also fourteen years old and totally not qualified to form a rational opinion on abortion. The poster was blatant in its wording, obviously implying that women who chose to get abortions could be compared to serial killers, the ranks of which include Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy. I attend public school, and so as far as I’m concerned, they have a right to make those statements, offensive though they may be. This is a nation whose primary guiding principle is that of the freedom of expression, and to paraphrase Voltaire, I may not always agree with what you have to say, but you can be damned sure I’d be willing to die for your right to say it.

The school-approved Pro-Life Club Poster hung in McLean High School hallways, 28 February, 2013.

So here we find ourselves, a week after the gruesome and indefensible attacks on the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. There exists at my school an active Muslim Student Association. The Muslim Student Association meets weekly to plan events, practice for competition, and act as catharsis for oft-discriminated against students. The group is comprised of savvy, articulate students (mostly girls), who, whether by circumstance or by birth, are keenly aware of the distaste the western world holds for them, based solely on their religion. There are students that attend that are not muslim, but have an air of worldliness and nondiscrimination about them that draws them to this group.

There’s a lot to be said about the liberal nature of the students and teachers at McLean. Aisha Rashid, a junior, used the medium of a Declaration of Independence project in her english class to declare independence from the “wrong accusations of being oppressed (Rashid is a Hijabi) and being labelled as a terrorist,” she says that her class was “really understanding and open minded about it.” This goodwill notwithstanding, Rashid also spoke about how uncomfortable she feels when the word ‘Islam’ is immediately followed up with the word ‘terrorism’ in classroom discussions, examples of which are too numerous to individually retell.

This liberal nature may exist only among the younger generation, however. Rashid describes a situation with her six year old sister in Tyson’s Corner Mall where a young boy approached them and began making “goofy faces,” as young kids are want to do. Rashid reciprocated the sentiment, behaving as she would with her own little sister. Despite the gleeful laughter of the little boy, “his mom came up and grabbed his hands and said something along the lines of ‘don’t talk to her.'” It was an experience which upset sixteen year old Rashid because, as she jokingly says, “the worst I could do was tell him that Santa wasn’t real!”

One of the main talking points after the Paris attacks has been the differentiation between muslims and islamists. While to anyone of reasonable mental capabilities it’s a distinction that really doesn’t need to be made (it’s a no-shit statement), for many westerners it must be iterated and reiterated. It’s especially important to draw this line for young people, and what better place to breed open-mindedness than a high school, where young, impressionable people literally fill up the building. Besides, at McLean High School the precedent has been set for covering the walls with potentially controversial literature, an objective statement should pass the filtering process no problem.

But of course, I would not be writing this if that were the case.

It is the acuity of this group of students that lead them to their decision to create posters, disavowing themselves of the murderous Islamist extremists, and reminding those who may have forgotten of the patent dissonance that exists in that comparison.

The Muslim Student Association poster that was rejected by McLean High School. 15 January, 2015.
The Muslim Student Association poster that was rejected by McLean High School. 15 January, 2015.

The Muslim Student Association poster that was rejected by McLean High School. 15 January, 2015.

It is a standard procedure that those wishing to hang posters in the hallways of the high school must first get their poster approved by the McLean High School activities office. This is the cursory procedure that the aforementioned Pro-Life Club poster had to go through, and the same procedure the Muslim Student Association respected in asking to hang their poster. However, when the MSA attempted to post their uncontroversial poster, they were met with immediate denial by McLean High School. “[She] just shook her head and said ‘yeah, no, you don’t want to go there,'” said junior Aisha Rashid, of the denial of the poster.

Forgive me, because maybe I have worse language comprehension than everyone else, but I’m not quite sure why the MSA doesn’t want to “go there.” The poster is formatted in the same way that many SAT questions are, which most McLean students would be familiar with. The poster presents a comparison far more accurate than the dangerous one that equates 1.2 billion people to a minority group of terrorists. The poster is, by all rational views, uncontroversial.

Perhaps then, the most controversial aspect of the poster is the fact that it does not paint with a broad stroke all muslims as heinous savages out to behead every last infidel. That may not be the case, but insofar as I as an outsider can tell, it seems the only answer. And it is disgusting. And it is not the behavior that McLean High School should be displaying. If McLean High were in Homs, Syria and not ten miles away from the capital city of the most powerful nation in America, then maybe I’d understand the censorship of facts. Until the day arrives when McLean, Virginia is under the control of Daesh, we’d do well to not disregard facts in favor of ideology, especially not in a public school.

On Speed Limits, Segregation, and St. Louis

The first thing I said to my dad when we drove across the Mississippi was, “this is Memphis.”

It wasn’t Memphis, it was St. Louis, but the sentiment stands. When you cross through from Illinois, it’s clear that St. Louis is a working town, from the dreary barges and tugboats in the river to the smog-braised buildings. The city’s outwardly industrial appearance is an excellent mask for its deeply racist history, a history contrived from and bolstered by a century of institutional and societal segregation coupled with seemingly aeonian, systemic civil rights failures.

St. Louis feels exactly like all the other sub-hub cities of the Midwest: Milwaukee, Cleveland, Kansas City, Cincinnati, etc. They’re the cities most affected by the modernization of transportation and the delocalization of commerce. They are the cities that were once waypoints for products moving from the agricultural mid-west to the commercial east, before trucks and boats became so fuel efficient, before airplanes became major cargo carriers. The importance of these cities in national trade meant that these sub-hubs turned into thriving cities, growing regional banks, department stores and large working class populations.

In a sense, it wasn’t necessarily tough economic times that wiped these cities from national importance, it was the good economic times for the cosmopolitan coasts that did it. It was neither Reaganomics nor Clintonomics that took these cities down, but the leaps and bounds that the technology industry took in those times and beyond. While highly-paid economists in New York City or San Francisco argued the efficacy of trickle down economics, the working class of St. Louis found their employment increasingly hung in the balance, watching with fear and resentment as automated machines encroached on their jobs. The more mechanized certain industries became, the less important the working class got, and the less hegemony they had for collective bargaining.

In 1974 the National Maximum Speed Law was signed by President Nixon, prohibiting speeds higher than 55 miles an hour. It was a relatively reactionary law, created to curb the harmful after effects of the ’73 oil crisis, and by 1987 the national speed limit had increased to 65 miles an hour. By 1995, the national speed limit had been repealed. This evolution of the speed limit is indicative of a lot of characteristics of American life: oil and gas prices, the buying power of the population, the overall state of the economy, and most importantly, innovations in and accessibility to transportation technology.

In 1974 when the national speed limit was set at 55 mph, that was a fairly accurate representation of what the average street-safe car could do. By about 1984, cars were capable of comfortably cruising at 60 or 70 miles per hour on the highway. By the mid nineties this comfortable cruising speed had reached 80 miles an hour, and the need for the repeal of the national speed limit was imminent.

This innocuous history actually means a lot for the Midwestern sub-hubs. At a basic level, as cars became capable of faster and faster speeds, fuel efficiency increased — the two were directly proportional — if you will. Now you could get from point A to point Z at much faster speed and a significantly lower price, without having to stop at points B, C, D,etc. in between. So John Doe’s Fruit Company based in Oxnard, CA could ship their goods cross country in half the time, for half the price, without having to stop in St. Louis, Indianapolis or Columbus on the way.

If you drive south on Route 1 from DC to Richmond, Virginia, you’ll find yourself on a stretch of road flanked by permanently closed motels. These are relics from the epoch of lower speeds and lower fuel efficiencies, when Coca-Cola truckers driving from Atlanta to New England would need to spend the night, unable to complete the trip in a day. The motels that once served these Coke drivers now stand empty, evidence that a tank of gas has not always meant what it means now. Most Midwestern cities were just large-scale motels for some trades, midway points between industry and commerce. When transportation became more efficient, some of these cities became drive-thrus. The real nail in the coffin for the sub-hubs, however, was the delocalization of the American economy.

For most of the 20th century, commerce and finance were handled regionally. You went to college down the road from your high school (if at all). You earned a paycheck a town over from where you were born. You cashed your paycheck five minutes from your home, bought your clothes in a regional department store, and bought your food in a regional grocery store. The money you earned at your local job went to pay for goods at your local store, which were sourced by your local industries. Everything was local (take a moment now to turn on John Mellencamp if you’re from the Midwest, or Bruce Springsteen if you’re not, I’ll let you relive your glory days).

Around the early ’60s, local economies became regional economies. In the early ’80s those regional economies blossomed into national economies, only to later become an integral part of the international economy during the Internet age. Cities like St. Louis flourished during the periods of local and regional economies because they were regional hubs. When it costs a quarter of a paycheck to pay for gas to drive between Clayton, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois, not very many people are going to go to Chicago. Instead, they’re going to go to their local city: St. Louis.

The delocalization of economies (helped in no small part by the modern transportation revolution) centralized finance and commerce on the coasts, as it had been in pre-Civil War America. In very elementary terms, it could be said that commerce in Missouri was handled in Missouri, and commerce not in Missouri was not handled in Missouri. But with delocalization, commerce in Missouri could be handled in either San Francisco or New York, dependent on which city promised better outcomes. Why would workers choose to go to their regional banks with volatile protections if they could go to regional branches of national banks with excellent reputations?

With easier and cheaper transportation came more extensive expansion of corporations and franchises. No longer were Daytonians buying their clothes at Rike’s, but instead at Hex, Macy’s, or Lord & Taylor. This is emblematic of the changes that were happening in the Great Midwest in the 70s, 80s and 90s. This delocalization has of course been exacerbated in the 2000s by the rise of Internet commerce, but the primary demise of these sub-hub cities happened in that mid-century thirty year period.

So what does all this say about St. Louis? A lot. Because of the systematic segregation that is so integral to St. Louis and Missouri’s history, most of these economic changes most directly affected the white working class who generally lived south of Delmar Boulevard (known colloquially as the Delmar Divide), and not the black working class who lived north of the Divide. Even now, just days away from 2015, the difference between the two cities of St. Louis is blatant. North of Delmar, roughly 98% of the population is black, and south is roughly 73% white, and that in itself is almost all the information you need to distinguish the two cities.

One of St. Louis’ most famous inhabitants wasn’t even (legally) a person. Dred Scott v Sanford (1857) is not the first event on St. Louis’ racist timeline, but it’s certainly a monumental one. The case ruled that former slave, Dred Scott, was not a legal person, and therefore did not have access to the rights enumerated in the Constitution. According to many activists, this has been the Modus Operandi in Missouri since.
The next big stop on the grand tour of Grand Wizardry in St. Louis is the year 1917, when a race riot of epic proportions broke out as white mobs rampaged through East St. Louis, attacking any black person they could reach. Another white riot occurred in 1949, when a group —200 strong — of angry whites rioted to prevent black children from swimming in the same pool as white children. Several people were hospitalized. While a 1948 Supreme Court case (Shelley v. Kraemer) declared racially restrictive property rules, or redlining, unconstitutional under the Fourteenth amendment, far more clandestine racially divisive property practices continued, leading to the stark Delmar Divide seen today.

St. Louis was one of the last cities in America to be desegregated, with public school parents continuing to fight for educational desegregation past the seventies and well into the late nineties .

The history of the black working class is also emphatically different to the history of the white working class. Where the white working class arose out of the industrial revolution, the black working class arose out of slavery, emancipation, and many decades of uneven, and unjustly compensated work. At a time, black urban employment was higher than white urban employment, until amoral redlining laws and other racial restrictions negated the ability of black men to work, driving up the rates of black unemployment. The history of urban antebellum slavery is also inextricably linked to the emergence and subsequent denigration of the black working class. Urban black slaves often functioned as a form of contract labourer, where the contract existed only between foremen and slave owners. After emancipation, freed slaves and their sons acted as strike breakers, an attempt from industry bosses to hinder the collective bargaining powers of white workers (do you see where the resentment arises from?). The frequently inconsistent working patterns of black men in America prevented black men from establishing themselves in any one industry, as white workers were afforded the right to do, especially in the brewing and docking industries of St. Louis.

When you drive into St. Louis from Illinois, you’re seeing the white, industrial part of town. It seems like the rest of the mid-western hubs because it is a Midwestern hub. Honestly, when I initially compared it to Memphis, I was pretty wrong in my comparison because where central St. Louis is 74% white, central Memphis is 63% black. Memphis’ Midwestern comparison would be Detroit (83% black), and St. Louis’ comparison would be Green Bay (77% white). But still, attempting to make comparisons between St. Louis and any other city is pretty misguided, because of how unique the city is.

Though the city may often get categorized with other Midwestern cities, the city of St. Louis is steeped in a lot of highly racialized history, from its early beginnings with the Missouri Compromise, to the more recent Ferguson protests. The discussion surrounding the city, and whatever social movements that may occur within it is meaningless without a solid, contextualized understanding of what the identity of St. Louis truly is.