Maria Luisa Tucker

Even Little Kids Are Protesting Trump: Here's How to Keep Them Safe on the Frontlines

Martha, a Brooklyn mom and activist, wants to take her 16-month-old daughter to the Women’s March on Washington on January 21 , but her husband doesn’t like the idea. “He worries that my daughter could get hurt in some way: tear gas, overcrowding, etc. and that we could never forgive ourselves if something unexpected happened,” she says. “I understand his point, and honestly, it makes me feel like a bad mom for wanting to go.”

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Does Having a Child Make Me an Environmental Villain?

I've got some of the standard maternal guilt that is ingrained in our culture: I worry that I am not spending enough quality time with my son, while also worried that I may be a "helicopter" mother. But my main source of guilt springs from the mere fact that I created a person. Specifically, an American person who will inevitably leave a large carbon footprint. It's environmental guilt.

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A Is for Activism: Why I Took My 10-Month-Old to the People’s Climate March

"I've never seen so many strollers in my life," remarked a gray-haired People's Climate March organizer as I walked by with my 10-month-old son. Nearby, a marcher breastfed her daughter while the crowd around her chanted "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Fossil fuels have got to go!" Elsewhere, a small child with a megaphone led the crowd in a "Save the flowers!" chant while gripping a stuffed elephant. Clearly, the largest climate march in history was a family affair.

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Not Your Soldier

How many of us have high school friends that were suckered into the military with promises of bonuses, college money and cajoled with the fictitious “glory of war” and the idea that the military “makes you a man”?

I can count four among my friends—four young men who later regretted their enlistment and realized that had been duped into something they knew very little about. Thankfully, those friends are out of the military by now, but recruiters are continuing to target Latino kids with Hummers, bonuses, and glorified ideas of military life. And thankfully, there are counter-recruitment measures underway across the nation.

Today, Boing Boing noted one counter-effort in an organization called Not Your Soldier. By offering educational camps for youth aged 13 to 22, the organization is attempting to arm students with knowledge

Not Your Solider focuses on kicking military recruiters out of schools and/or telling the other half of the story to youth who are being wooed by recruiters -- it provides handbooks and comic books about military recruitment and suggests that students invite a local veteran from Iraq Vets Against War to speak at their schools. Here’s a tidbit from their website:

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Even Doormen Like To Dance

"There's a whole second part, a second soul to everybody here that nobody seems to know about."
--Samuel Contreras, building maintenance worker, New York City, from "Unseen America."


The timing was coincidental, said Esther Cohen, but miraculous. Unseen America, a book of photography edited by Cohen, was released on Monday just as city centers across the nation filled with demonstrators demanding legalization for undocumented immigrants. The much-heralded Day Without an Immigrant was also the day that scores of immigrant workers celebrated their newfound fame as published photographers.

Fittingly, it is a labor union that is behind the publication of "Unseen America"; unions have been primary supporters of the burgeoning movement for the legalization of undocumented immigrants. Like the immigrant rights' movement, the book has been a long time coming.

Cohen runs Bread and Roses, the nonprofit cultural arm of New York's Health and Human Services Union, which began sponsoring photography classes to workers and union members across the nation several years ago. What resulted were the incredible images of a largely invisible sector of society -- janitors, nurses, doormen, day laborers and clerks' views of the world from an artistic angle. "Unseen America" provides a view of the working class, which invariably includes images of immigrants, legal and illegal, working alongside American-born citizens.

The idea behind the book is simple; it seeks not so much to educate, but rather to expand the nation's view of its low-skilled, largely black and brown work force. It humanizes those who are rarely, if ever, shown as real people in popular culture. While the photos are by and about workers, they show much more than working life. The 200 pages are full of snapshots of relationships between co-workers who are also friends, between nurses and patients, bosses and employees. A number of the images depict day laborers during their nonworking hours -- picnicking at a lake, cooking dinner, serving a drink to the person behind the camera.

Editor Esther Cohen spoke with AlterNet about how the images were produced, and what they mean to the great immigration debate.

Maria Luisa Tucker: How did "Unseen America" come about?

sax-player
"I met Dewey Redman when he came into the store for a prescription. He is a prostate cancer survivor, and he's still performing. I took this picture to express hope."
--Photo by Arthur Deavers, Cashier, Rite-Aid 1199 SEIU, New York City


Esther Cohen: In the '80s we did an exhibit called Images of Labor, and the idea was that we get famous artists to depict what it's like to be a worker in this country. We did an iconic set of posters [with artists including Ralph Fasanella, Sue Coe, Jacob Lawrence and Milton Glaser].

So, 10 years ago when I took over the program, I wanted to figure out a way for workers themselves to tell their own stories, to make them the famous people. I thought it was important to develop the voices of those in society who have very important stories to tell. … I could see that language was a big issue since many people came from other countries, but then a volunteer brought me 100 cameras that were donated by a store in her neighborhood, and we realized that no matter who you are and what culture you come from, you can see. Photography was the perfect medium for us.

MLT: How did you choose which photographs to include in this book?

EC: The photography students curated it. This book represents thousands of people. It was a mammoth task. We've done over 400 classes with about 10 to 20 people, but I would say the classes resulted in thousands and thousands of pictures. At the end of the classes, each group had an exhibit of their work and we asked the classes to choose which photographs to display. They were in a huge variety of places from bus stations to galleries to community centers. The book represents only 21 of the 400 photography classes that were offered by the project.

MLT: Do you think the photographs speak to the issue of illegal immigration?

EC: That's a really tough question, and I don't know that I can answer it. I would say that these pictures in an honest and meaningful way show the pain and joy of living in this society of workers. They show people's complex lives, and they show their lives without irony or an agenda. I was worried at first that the book wouldn't do justice to the project, but people were so happy at the book party. As I was leaving the book party at the Guggenheim, the woman who ran security came up to me and told me that she and her security staff all wanted copies of this book. She said that they had provided security for a ton of events at the Guggenheim and this was the first one they actually related to. That felt really good.

MLT: What percent of the photographers are immigrants? How many are here illegally?

EC: More than 80 percent of the photographers featured in the book are immigrants. I don't know about who is here legally and who is not. When I work with photographers, I ask them what they see, not what their legal status is. It's funny, I was on CNN's Anderson Cooper, and the interviewer asked how I would change the immigration laws and I laughed. There are a lot of laws I would change if I could, but unfortunately I don't have that power.

MLT: Why are some of the photographers anonymous?

what-i-planted
"With each picture I feel like a gardener. When you take the film, each roll is like a seed and when you see your creation, it is a flower."
--Anonymous photographer, The Workplace Project, Long Island, N.Y.


EC: The migrant workers asked to be anonymous. They were the first group we did this project with. They were these guys doing mostly construction work in Long Island, standing by the side of the road. We wanted to work with them because their lives are never explored much, and also they were the subject of a lot of racism in the area they were living in.

During the photography class, we had a half a day of conversation about depiction -- is it good, is it bad? They were worried that the exhibit would jeopardize their relationship with the community. In the end, they decided to go ahead with the exhibit as long as those photographers who wanted to remain anonymous could do so. One of the day laborers actually became a professional photographer.

MLT: There has been a lot of debate over whether undocumented workers depress wages and increase unemployment for American citizens in low-skill jobs, particularly black Americans. I was wondering if, during this project, there has been any tension between illegal immigrants and workers who are citizens?

EC: I would say that when people come together to take this class, the room doesn't divide into people who are here legally or illegally. There hasn't been one form of dialogue -- it's not just about being legal or illegal. People have shared their work experiences, child rearing ideas, notions of life. I think it's silly to think about life in single-issue terms.

"Unseen America" is an ongoing project of Bread and Roses.

Marvel Comics takes on homeland security

Marvel comics is taking on politics with its new series called Civil War, “which can only be described as a gutsy comic-book series focusing on the whole debate over homeland security and tighter government controls in the name of public safety,” according to The Globe and Mail. The series was released Wednesday:

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Majority favors earned citizenship

One day after legislators returned to work, CNN released poll results indicating that a majority of Americans favor legalization for most illegal immigrants. CNN reports:

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The rapists in charge

We've often heard the refrain that rape is not about sex, but about power. When it comes to prison culture, that refrain seems especially appropriate.

Last week, the CDC released a study about HIV transmission in Georgia's prison population. Most headlines focused on the somewhat surprising finding that 91 percent of HIV-positive inmates contracted the disease before entering the system. What seemed more telling to me, however, was the info below the fold regarding the incidence of sex reported between corrections officers and inmates. Gay.com reported Saturday:

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Anti-War grannies go to trial

A gaggle of peace-loving grandmothers are on trial today in New York for disorderly conduct. Yahoo News explains:

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Defining the Melting Pot

In New York's Washington Square Park, the influence of immigration -- both legal and illegal -- was obvious long before today's immigrants' rights rally began. Hours before the marchers arrived with their flags and megaphones, nannies from the far corners of Latin America and Africa strolled through the park with their fair-skinned American toddlers in tow. Mexican and Irish construction workers ate Indian kati rolls on their lunch breaks. A gaggle of international students from New York University hailed a taxi, driven by a man with a West African accent.

Then, the pro-immigrant marchers converged.

From far off, it sounded like an impromptu pep rally, drums banging and whistles blowing. Once engulfed in the frenzy of the crowds, marchers could have been in any number of places. Phoenix, Los Angeles, Atlanta -- any of the 100 plus cities where people rallied on the National Day of Action for Immigrant Justice. The chants were similar, the signs were similar, the message was clear: 11 million illegal immigrants, along with millions of their legal relatives and friends, want legal status. "We love America!" one marcher exclaimed via megaphone. "We are America!"

Children and parents, friends and cousins, cheered at this pronouncement. "We are here to let them know we're working hard. We're already part of this nation," said Tito, who crossed into the United States illegally ten years ago and now lives with his wife, Reyna, and their two kids in New Jersey. The children, 7-year-old fraternal twins, are American-born. Reyna is a naturalized citizen. If Tito were to be deported, Reyna would be an instant single mom. She is acutely aware of this fact and says she is here for him and many more relatives who are here illegally.

Alongside entire families, students and union organizers supported the immigrants' call for citizenship.

"I feel that our country needs to acknowledge the people that do most of the low-wage labor," said David Vigil, a Columbia University student, ESL teacher and former organizer for the Janitors for Justice campaign. Though he acknowledged the worry that illegal immigrants take citizens' jobs, Vigil said "I think it's problematic to say to they're 'our' jobs and not somebody else's, especially since so many companies don't respect borders anyway."

The long march was slowed by police officers using strict crowd-control measures; marchers were gated in on many blocks, and near City Hall they were allowed to leave but not to reenter. Throughout the long afternoon, the mood was jubilant, and the speakers plentiful. Among the notables were Manhattan Rep. Charles Rangel, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Al Sharpton, a handful of local elected officials, heads of immigrant rights groups and the like. The most compelling stories, though, were not the political but the personal.

Representing an immigrant network called Families for Freedom was a young man named Julio, who told the story of his father's sudden deportation. "Six immigration agents with guns took my dad … they deported him without telling us anything and turned my mom into a single mother," he said. "Immigration laws are tearing families apart, taking mothers and fathers away from their American-born children."

It was the family ties at this and other rallies that seemed the strongest motivator for many marchers. Contemplating the day's events, Mexican-American author and scholar Richard Rodriguez likened the entire immigrant movement to a family gathering. He wrote in Salon:

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Immigration Debate Creates Strange Bedfellows

Throughout the dramatic highs and lows of the Senate's immigration debate, one thing has rung true; no matter which side of the debate you are on, you are in bad company.

Anti-immigrant groups that claim to be the voice of the American working class are being joined, to their dismay, by white supremacists and militant nativists calling for violence. Meanwhile, pro-immigrant Latino civil rights organizations like the National Council of La Raza are reluctantly standing next to big business lobby groups. As Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for policy at La Raza, said this week: "Civil rights and business are together -- and we're not often allies."

Around the country -- and even here on AlterNet's pages -- this debate has not adhered to party lines. Last Thursday, a coalition of big business Republicans and liberal Democrats proudly announced a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform -- a bill providing a path to citizenship for an estimated 7 or 8 million illegal immigrants, as well as a guest worker program and enhanced border enforcement. On Friday, a bipartisan group blocked the compromise measure. (The debate will pick up again after legislators' two-week Easter break.)

The Senate's Thursday morning compromise and Friday afternoon fumble were not about partisanship. All of it, from the legislative battle to the rallies in the streets and the Minutemen border patrols, has been about how each of us, as individuals, view Latin American immigrants in this country.

The white supremacists, anti-immigrant legislators and many working-class American citizens regard the mass of brown people -- desperate for work and tending to have lots of children -- as a threat, though for wildly different reasons. Nativists and xenophobes may fear the "browning" of white America -- a fear of becoming a minority and having to share power with the "other." Workers worry about the real threat of weakened labor rights and blame immigrants for low wages. Immigrants are a convenient scapegoat in this country, where poor citizens often remain poor no matter how hard they work. Many poorly educated African-American men continue to face fierce discrimination and high unemployment rates.

Meanwhile, big business lobbyists, many unions, churches and American-born Latinos stand on the opposite side, viewing (legal or illegal) Latin American immigrants as a natural part of American life -- one we can't imagine America without. For many corporations, the construction industry, hotel and restaurant owners, and farms, immigrants are a dependable, steady supply of cheap labor. (And according to the Pew Hispanic Center report illegal immigrants comprise as much as 24 percent of the work force in farming, and 17 percent in cleaning.)

To unions, they are a sleeping giant that could, if mobilized, reinvigorate the waning power of labor. To the church, they are the base of Catholicism, the poor and hungry that scripture says to feed, clothe and shelter. And for American Latinos and many fellow immigrants, they are our relatives and friends, people like us, or in the same boat our parents and grandparents were in. They are people who, like the millions of immigrants before them, are desperately seeking the elusive American dream. And for that, we cannot fault them.

From the beginning of this political upheaval, our polarized views of the Latin American busboy/farmworker/maid have shaped fundamentals of the debate. While the white men in suits on both sides of the aisle agreed long ago that the country needed to reform its immigration laws, the two sides of the debate never actually agreed on what the problem was. One side saw bad laws; the other side saw bad lawbreakers. For legislators who sympathize with illegal immigrants, the problem they see is that of exploited laborers, people dying in the deserts in attempts to cross the border illegally and unrealistic immigration limits. For those who view illegal immigrants as scabs and parasites, the problem has been one of enforcement -- how to jail, deport and keep out immigrants in order to ensure the welfare of "real" Americans.

The far right (Rep. Tom Tancredo, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Minutemen) have been trying to figure out how to get the public's support for a 700-mile wall, huge new detention centers, and the jailing of priests and volunteer workers. The official plan has been to criminalize illegal immigrants, as the Sensenbrenner bill would do; the unofficial plan has been to terrorize them: the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that "neo-Nazis and anti-immigration extremists responded to a highly publicized wave of immigration reform demonstrations in major U.S. cities, with open calls for terrorist violence, including truck bombs, machine gun attacks, and assassinations of U.S. senators and members of Congress."

The result of this kind of rhetoric has been a political debate tainted by racism and xenophobia. A recent poll conducted for New American Media showed that 67 percent of legal immigrants thought anti-immigrant sentiment was growing. The poll stated that legal immigrants were "alarmed regarding the tone and substance of the current political debate on immigration policy." A whopping 55 percent of respondents said that anti-immigrant sentiment had affected their own families.

Meanwhile, the pro-immigrant left, right and center have tried to figure out how to get illegal immigrants integrated into society as legal residents and/or citizens, because, in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's words, "Get real, we're not going to deport 12 million people."

The debate has turned usual politics on its head, as the most unlikely forces have banded together -- Republican John McCain, Democrat Ted Kennedy, centrist Hillary Clinton, the big business lobby, the Catholic Church, the religious left, immigrant rights groups, Latino high school students and many unions. It's a choir of the good, the bad and the ugly, all calling for comprehensive reform for different reasons. Of course, in this particular motley crew, many progressives are loathe to join forces with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition, huge business lobbies intent on making profits by paying low wages and providing no benefits. The result of this strange coalition has been repeated accusations of insensitivity to the low-wage American citizen, a feeling of betrayal among the blue-collar citizenry.

Yet the grassroots outcry for compassionate immigration reform has come from fellow blue collars. And the outcry continues. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are participating in a National Day of Action calling for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Immigrant rights groups, student groups and unions who are organizing rallies said they expect millions of people in scores of cities to drop work or school on Monday, April 10, in a populist call for lawmakers to view their busboys, gardeners and homebuilders as workers who deserve a place at the American table.

For a list of rallies taking place today around the country, go to April10.org or visit the calendar of events for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

The zero-sum game of immigration economics

In the last week, I've been called a corporate whore, a Bush lover, an elitist and an idiot for supporting compassionate immigration policy.

Most readers who disagree with my pro-immigrant stance have argued that illegal immigration is bad for American workers and the U.S. economy. One man from Sedona, Arizona emailed me to say that illegal immigrants had "taken his job" -- something that is probably not uncommon in border areas. For workers in his position I have sympathy and can understand his personal feelings about any legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. (The Sedona reader said he was in favor of a guest worker program.)

However, on a macro level of economics where numbers are unsympathetic, the job losses by some folks in particular industries and regions are part of a zero-sum equation. NPR Economics Correspondent Adam Davidson explained this yesterday on Weekend Edition -- you can listen here. When asked if illegal immigrants take away jobs and hurt the U.S. economy, this was his reply:

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Viva la Immigration Debate

(Editor's Note: This story was originally posted in The Mix.)

Yesterday, as eight states recognized Cesar Chavez Day as an official holiday, some groups recalled Chavez's memory in their own fight for legislation that would provide 11 million undocumented immigrants with a path toward citizenship.

The conflation of Chavez's work and the fight for compassionate immigration reform is both right and wrong.

In spirit, it makes sense. Chavez, after all, worked on behalf of the underdog and always clung to a spirit of nonviolence (just as pro-immigrant demonstrators have done over the last week). A farm worker who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, he has become a legendy figure of social justice and civil rights for Chicanos. He followed Gandhi's example and fasted in 1968 to draw attention to the poor treatment of farm workers. It was this sense of justice and equality that makes Chavez a person to remember during the debates on immigration.

However, Chavez was no friend to undocumented immigrants during his time. He was born a U.S. citizen in Arizona and was loyal to American farm workers. In fighting for the rights of agricultural workers, in 1969 his union protested farms that hired illegal immigrants as scabs during a union strike. They even reported some suspected illegal immigrants to INS.

I point out these two images of Chavez in order to make a point about the immigration battle that will continue for weeks to come: Just as Chavez was not a simple man, immigration reform it is not a simple issue. It is not black and white. There is no perfect answer.

Those who support legalization of undocumented immigrants are not against unions or worker's rights. Rather, we see that the ability for families, no matter where they are from, to stay together and make enough money simply to eat is a human right. The anti-immigrant legislation that the House has already passed would rip families apart -- parents who are illegally here would inevitably leave their children and grandchildren who were born U.S. citizens -- and proposes to send millions of immigrants back home to starve. I don't believe this is the kind of "justice" that Cesr Chavez would condone.

Rather than pitting poor American citizens against poor illegal immigrants, I propose that we take Chavez's vision of social justice and apply it to all. Let's fight for legalization and workers' rights. We can demand both, and I believe there is enough American wealth to support all our nation's laborers and service workers, citizen and noncitizen, alike. We need to concentrate on forcing those who own the wealth to share it with their employees, rather than blaming our nation's newest immigrants for our crappy wages. So, rather than fighting one another for the pennies that corporations throw at their workers, let's make the Wal-Marts of the world pay up.

After all, the problem is not a lack of wealth, it is the disparity of the wealth. Why else would so many Latin American immigrants come here?

Exploding heads

Pundits on both sides of the immigration debate look like their heads may explode before the any reform legislation reaches the Senate floor next week.

The anti-immigrant forces have been issuing increasingly dramatic alerts asking their xenophobic followers to protest any immigration reform bill that—gasp!—might actually include a guest worker provision.

For example, the ultra conservative website RightMarch.com is asking each of its readers to pay $14 to fax a letter to Judiciary Committee members. The form letter they recommend is emphatic, telling Senators that they "will listen to NO MORE weasel words or slick excuses" and basically demands that Congress send all them foreigners back where they came from, gosh durnit.

The equally xenophobic Immigration Watchdog is lying to its followers, telling them that, "The committee is preparing an unlimited guest worker amnesty plan. 20 million illegal aliens and their families living abroad will be given de facto amnesty."

Uh, what? Couple things wrong with that one, watchdog.

First of all, there aren't 20 million undocumented immigrants in this country (most estimates fall around the 11 million range). And second, there are no bills being considered that seek unlimited amnesty. But I'll take these ridiculous attempts as a good sign-- desperation spells defeat, hopefully.

The escalation in the sheer number and drama of each action alert is no surprise, though. Things have been heating up for a while.

Last week, anti-immigrant Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), and Puerto Rican born Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) got into a shouting match after appearing on CNBC. The televised debate apparently escalated after the cameras stopped rolling. According to the Rocky Mountain News:

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Looks like medical marijuana is a no go in New Mexico

I was hoping to write about a progressive victory this week; the New Mexico state legislature was widely expected to pass a compassionate-use medical marijuana bill.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

The legislature effectively killed the bill by sending it, late in the game, to the conservative Agriculture and Water Resources Committee. As reported by the Santa Fe New Mexican on Monday:

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Bono shames the Prez

This year's National Prayer Breakfast came and went with little fanfare on Feb. 2 because, I presume, most of us don't have the stomach anymore for Dubya's predictable and nauseating lip service to compassion, tolerance and faith.

But this year's event was actually worth watching simply for the curiosity of it. The typical Jesus crowd (the event is hosted by the evangelical Fellowship Foundation) gave some room at the pulpit for Muslims, Jews… and a rock star. The prayer breakfast was co-chaired for the first time in history by a Jew -- Sen. Norm Coleman. And the keynote address was given by King Abdullah II of Jordan, marking the first time a Muslim head-of-state spoke at the prayer breakfast. The highlight of the event, however, was a speech by U2's Bono.

Bono, a vigorous advocate for fighting AIDS in Africa, delivered something of a public shaming of America. After giving brief praise of U.S. aid to Africa, he launched into a critique of the U.S. government's lip service to justice and equality:

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The State of Our Values

Going to church to watch political debates or discuss legislative action is a whole new deck of saints cards for us spiritually minded lefties, but that's just what hundreds of people across the country did on Tuesday night. We went to houses of worship to watch the State of the Union Address as part of Sojourners' "State of Our Values" event.

Sojourners, a social justice-minded Christian ministry with a knack for organizing via the internet, prompted 160 churches from 40 states to "put forth an alternative vision that embraces the biblical principles of economic and racial justice, healthy families, strong communities, a consistent ethic of life, peacemaking and caring for God's creation."

In my little neck of the desert, the pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian in Albuquerque, N.M., allowed a group of us to watch the speech in the church library. St. Andrew's is a modern and modest building on a nondescript street in a commercial part of Albuquerque. Not quite middle America, though it is certainly an important place to shift the "values" debate. Swing state New Mexico is home to socially conservative Catholics, desert libertarians, hippie environmentalists and a cadre of hard-core progressive activists. (Even now, almost three years into the Iraq war, Santa Feans hold weekly anti-war protests.)

The St. Andrew's group was comprised of a retired Unitarian minister, a pastor from the National Council of Churches, 10 church-going older ladies and two agnostics. We were an expressive group, grunting when Bush asked Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act, and bursting into hilarious laughter when Democrats surprised Dubya by applauding his mention of last year's failed Social Security reforms. When Bush said, "Our government has a responsibility to help provide health care for the poor and the elderly, and we are meeting that responsibility," one lady almost jumped out of her chair protesting the unsympathetic TV screen.

When the 51-minute speech was over, we launched into our discussion, committed to do more than just bash Bush. We were going to make a plan of action. We were going to create a response from the quiet Religious Left to let our elected officials know we're here and we're not happy.

The conversation immediately focused in on Bush's plan to "reduce or eliminate more than 140 programs that are performing poorly or not fulfilling essential priorities." Among these programs will be Medicaid, Medicare, tuition assistance and after-school aid.

"He has never addressed the fact that those budget cuts are needed to fund war," commented Beth Daniel, an organizer of the event. These concerns of the Albuquerque group were representative of the worries among the larger community of religious lefties.

Sojourners had earlier reminded its faithful that "this speech will likely come just a day before the House of Representatives votes on whether or not to pass a budget that harms low-income families and children by cutting vital services like child support, Medicaid and assistance for disabled persons. We believe this is the real moral scandal in Washington, yet is receiving little attention."

The National Council of Churches tried to bring attention to the budget earlier in the week with its "Faithful State of the Union Address":

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Kanye the Instigator

During an MTV show in August, rapper Kanye West publicly called for his fellow rappers and the hip hop community to stop gay bashing. With the Aug. 30 release of his latest album, "Late Registration," West started conversations about conflict diamonds with his song "Diamonds from Sierra Leone." In September, he asserted his belief that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" during a Red Cross telethon for Hurricane Katrina survivors. And now, with his portrayal of Jesus on the cover of Rolling Stone, he has instigated debates about religion and race.

In the magazine, which hit the stands Friday, West is pictured wearing a crown of thorns, a serious expression, and a few appropriate trickles of blood. The magazine titles its cover story "The Passion of Kanye West," clearly playing off the controversial film "The Passion of the Christ." However, it may unintentionally remind readers of the true passion of a musician who is clearly troubled with the state of the world.

Even if you don't agree with his opinions, the increasing resonance of West's political statements is undeniable. And his ability to get political discussions going -- from the race factor of Hurricane Katrina to human rights abuses in the diamond industry -- is unparalleled by any other hip hop artist. While he often comes off as an arrogant and unlikable celebrity, West's political commentary is refreshing because it seems to have no calculated political message and no preachy moral story. He simply talks about the issue that is on his mind. And this month, he wants to talk about Jesus.

Predictably, the Rolling Stone cover has incited angry responses from some Christian leaders, who have berated the magazine and, in one case, called West "mentally challenged." In a statement released two days before the magazine even hit the stands, Catholic League President Bill Donahue accused the magazine of being racist, saying, "If it is true that West is a morally confused black young man, it is also true that Rolling Stone is staffed by morally challenged white veterans: They are to West what white boxing agents in the 20th century were to black boxers -- rip-off artists. It is not for nothing that West poses as a Christlike figure on a magazine geared to whites."

Though this statement is somewhat mystifying, Donahue in later interviews essentially argued that West was being exploited by the magazine, a laughable idea since any celebrity pictured on the cover of Rolling Stone is clearly promoting his own career. Kanye West's defenders have largely chalked up the anger over the cover photo to the idea that a black Jesus goes against some religious leaders' white sensibilities.

Hip hop activist Rosa Clemente responded to the Catholic League's statement by asking, "Was it wrong for Jesus to be portrayed by Charlton Heston, a gun-toting member of the National Rifle Association?" Clemente argued that the outcry against West-as-Jesus was really about the fact that Jesus was depicted by a black man: "The problem for the Catholic League and many white Christians who will start coming out of the woodwork to also condemn Kanye and begin to attack hip hop is that Kanye West as a black man does not represent their revisionist history of whom Jesus was."

Aside from the content of the complaints, the fact that conservatives have launched a pre-emptive strike against the rapper belies the widening reach of West's voice.

It's been a long time coming.

West grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, the son of a professor. A gifted student, he won a scholarship to college and majored in English. Then, as his first album would relay, he dropped out to pursue his interest in music. West was a talented producer before he was a talented rapper. His 2004 hit "College Dropout" garnered 10 Grammy nominations and won three. His newest album, "Late Registration," is up for eight Grammy Awards, including album of the year.

Throughout his career, he has gained a reputation as being arrogant and outspoken. (He has the titles of some of his own songs tattooed on his arm.) Both Time and Newsweek profiled West in August, calling him an artist "full of contradictions" (Newsweek), and a "Buppie" who is "challenging the way rap thinks about race and class" (Time).

Catholic League's Donahue admitted in his statement that, "West is a young rapper who is hard to peg. On the one hand, he eschews gangsta rap and likes to sing lyrics like, 'They say you can rap about anything except Jesus/ That means guns, sex, lies, videotapes/ But if I talk about God, my record won't get played.' On the other hand, he is capable of saying plainly foolish things, e.g., the government is responsible for the spread of AIDS among blacks and gays." (At the Philadelphia Live 8 concert in July, West promoted the idea that AIDS was a "man-made disease placed in African communities.")

When the president of the Catholic League is contemplating the lyrics of a rap song, it's a pretty good indicator that the rapper in question has been fully politicized. But West is far from the "morally confused" patsy that Donahue imagines. While the self-admitted porn addict and self-congratulatory musician may not be a sympathetic figure, he is certainly no idiot.

West's public personality does not fit the caricature of the gangsta rapper defining himself by his rough demeanor (perhaps proven by gunshot wounds a la 50 Cent). Rather, he seems more like a complex man who has come up from the hip hop generation's middle class. He is not the poor, oppressed child of the streets who is angry about his lot in life. He is the child of suburbia who is angry at the state of injustice in the world. He is at once egotistic and self-conscious, a consumer and a critic of consumption. His lyrics sometimes come off as self-congratulatory rhymes with poppy appeal. Just as often, they take a socially conscious approach to political issues that most rappers would pass right by.

One of the most talked about songs from "Late Registration" recounts the guilt West felt after learning about the fate of diamond workers:

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The fight against misinformation

A few days ago, I drove across the plains of North Texas. Smooth flat lines of the winter yellow grass met the blue horizon for miles without interruption. I was so far from much of anything that my radio had slowly been taken over by static. I found only able to find a few islands of sound out there. The clearest voices came from the local Christian talk radio station. Sounding like a good-natured grandfather, the host of the show dispensed advice and news. Underneath the friendly veneer, however, was a campaign of lies meant to convince the flocks to join in a demonization abortion, contraception, and even information.

Among the many screeds against abortion, contraception, and safe sex, this particular radio show was railing against Planned Parenthood. The charge was that Planned Parenthood is not actually a women's health organization. No, according to the Christians who dominant airwaves in anywhere, Texas (and anywhere, USA), Planned Parenthood is an evil, baby-hating organization dedicated to killing human beings and brainwashing young women.

Hearing this, I sighed and turned of the radio. Like a lot of folks, I'm sick of screaming at each other from different sides of the aisle as the rising voices grow more insane in their rage. But more than anything, I am sick of the lies. I'm disgusted with the shrewd campaign of misinformation by the Christian Right.

I bring this up on this anniversary of Roe v. Wade because I think it is hugely important for us to stand up not only for our right to choose abortion, but also for the rights of the organizations that provide us with choices. Organizations like Planned Parenthood give us the tools to be able choose our destinies by providing an education that is so vehemently withheld in many schools and churches. It aids women in making smart contraceptive choices, and supports us when we choose to correct the life-altering mistake of an unplanned pregnancy. Yet, the Christian Right declares Planned Parenthood -- which offers prenatal care, low-cost exams to test for ovarian and breast cancer, infertility screening, testing and treatment for STDs -- to be unconcerned with health?

Five million people receive health services from Planned Parenthood per year, actually helping prevent abortions by giving women access to contraception and knowledge. Yet the Bush administration and his Christian cronies have fought to kill this institution for years. Without organizations like this, we would go back to days when women killed themselves along with their unwanted fetuses. Days when women would mutilate and harm themselves because the only other option was forced childbirth.

The fight about abortion has been framed in a variety of ways -- it is about choice, about control over women's bodies, about religion and secularism, contraception and education, children and the effects of forcing unwanted children into existence. But it has also turned into a more basic struggle about simple information. So on this day of protecting the right to have control over our own bodies, we also have to make it a day of protecting the truth and the organizations that give us reproductive choices.

Posted in conjunction with Blog for Choice Day.

Baby Propaganda

Is anyone else getting sick of all the "Baby Noor" coverage? While I am glad to hear that a small child -- any child -- is getting the medical help s/he needs, I can't believe the media has so gladly and blindly run with this story.

"The rescue of Baby Noor" sounds as if it is being read directly off a press release from the U.S. military. And the ridiculous way it has been reported seems insulting to both viewers and the family of Baby Noor.

It has been repeatedly reported that the child was "discovered" by U.S. troops, who "noticed" that she had some medical problems. Actually, the child was in the care of her family, who was well aware of her illness. When the Georgia National Guard raided their home in the middle of the night, the child's grandmother had the bravery to show the armed soldiers that the baby was ill. The American soldiers decided to make the child their "project" and the media has followed their decision to swoop in like saviors and rush her to the U.S. for a rescue operation. She has now had a free operation to help correct her birth defect, spina bifida.

(To add an extra dose of cynicism, one blogger speculates that there is " the distinct possibility that Baby Noor's birth defect was caused by American use of depleted uranium in both the Gulf War and the current invasion of Iraq.")

CNN, CBS and USA Today are going crazy over this piece of pro-military propaganda. For the last few weeks, CNN has given its viewers endless updates about Baby Noor's medical condition, and posted 13 full articles on its website about the child's "rescue."

I don't mean to be heartless, but I am suspicious. I'm sorry, but don't we remember the very recent U.S. propaganda scandal? Just three weeks before Baby Noor made headlines, the military admitted that it was "placing" stories in the Iraqi press and passing them off as real news written by true journalists. Does that ring any bells, here?

Clearly, it's a good thing that this child's life has been saved. But did it need to have 13 headlines and a mention every 15 minutes on CNN? Why has the military made this so public? Why does it have to be turned into a public relations campaign, despite the fact that soldiers emphasized early on the need to keep it quiet for the family's safety:

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How to celebrate MLK?

An advertising/public relations agency in Seattle recently launched a segregated website to memorialize Martin Luther King, Jr.

To enter the site, RememberSegregation.org, viewers must click either "White Visitors" or "Colored Visitors." Both options lead you to the same information -- a timeline and biography of Dr. King, ending with this reminder:

"No matter the color of our skin, we all need to remember that January 16th is more than just a day off. It is a day to join together in celebration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A day to be thankful for how far we have come. And a day to realize how far we have left to go."

The business that created the site, DDB Seattle, also sent out segregated black-and-white direct mail to Seattle's public figures and high school civics teachers. The point is, obviously, to make people "Remember Segregation" and to increase awareness and reverence for this day.

But, clearly, MLK day has not reached the same heights as, say, Presidents' Day, Veterans' Day or Labor Day. I mean, where are all the sales? If the retail world sees fit to take 40% off all linens to commemorate those who have died in war, why can't we get at least, like, 30% off to commemorate the contributions of a civil rights leader and the end of segregation?

Okay, so I'm being facetious. I just think the way we publicly commemorate the things we revere is both interesting and occasionally odd. Here's this PR and advertising agency attempting to educate people (while quietly promoting itself) about Dr. King's life by segregating us online. (Meanwhile, CNN anchors ironically focus on the "battle" that is "raging" about whether or not to turn over the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change to the National Park Service.)

Does anyone else find this to be a little odd, or am I the one off message here? Any thoughts on how we should be celebrating and remembering Dr. King?

Finding Words to Talk About Race

I am the daughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant mother and a father from a Southern white ranching family. I was born in East Texas, in a town where people frequently called my mom "wetback" and "taco-bender" to her face. In an attempt to protect her children from this verbal brutality, my mother did not teach us to speak Spanish. She wanted us to quietly blend in, to be as unnoticeable as possible.

When I was 2, we moved to a more quietly intolerant college town in the central part of the state, where black, white and brown were equally fractioned. My brother and I were assumed by most to either be plain ol' white or part Chicano. In middle school, a fellow classmate spit the word "Mexican" at me as if it were an insult, and so I took it as one. In high school, I had one ear listening to Selena, the other tuned to Kurt Cobain.

I had no language to talk about these divides of difference. "Race" meant white or black. "Ethnicity" meant ... well, most people weren't exactly sure what it meant, but ethnic food was anything spicy and ethnic clothes were folksy costumes. To actually discuss prejudice or discrimination, its causes and consequences and daily realities — that was as distasteful as talking about sex at the dinner table. Even when James Byrd, Jr., was murdered in Jasper, Texas -- he was chained by his ankles and dragged behind a pickup truck -- and the murderers were tried and convicted in my hometown, people didn't talk about it.

And there, right in the center of middle-class Middle America, is the root of this nation's difficulty in talking about race and ethnicity. My mother's generation was bullied into fitting in. In a post-civil rights world, my generation grew up obeying a polite colorblindness, a denial of difference. For decades, we quietly ignored race, which meant we ignored discrimination, and we shrank from talking about racial or ethnic tensions. Today, primarily because of Hurricane Katrina, Americans have finally acknowledged that, actually, we do have to talk about race. We're just having trouble finding the right words.

What's needed are a million personal conversations between ordinary Americans. The complexities and nuances of color and culture, the disparities of wealth and education are best understood by learning the stories of each others' lives. Ordinary people are the true experts in cross-racial, cross-ethnic dialogue, if only we would start talking.

Whenever I begin to be lulled into the tranquil idea that maybe, just maybe, race and ethnicity don't matter, something happens to remind me of the power of these things to be either connecters or dividers.

A couple years ago, I was working on an article about the families of murder victims and had been invited to attend a support group for grieving parents. At the end of the meeting, I sat quietly reading some of the group's materials.

An old Mexican man came up to me and asked, "Your name is Maria Luisa? Are you Hispanic?"

This man's son had recently been murdered. He looked into my eyes -- he, the subject, me, the reporter -- and tried to decide whether to trust me with his story of grief.

"Yes, but my father is white," I answered.

"Well," he said, pausing to touch my pale hand. "Make sure to tell people your name is Maria." Then, he began his story.

He didn't want to know my credentials as a journalist, only my ethnicity. He told me about the agony of watching his crack-addicted son go down a dangerous path. He told me about the miserable end to a three-day search, when his son's lifeless body was found in a dumpster. He spilled family secrets because he assumed that since we were both Latino, we shared the same values.

It is significant that a name, skin tone or accent has so much emotional hold over us. Had my name been Amanda or Tiffany, the old man may never have greeted me. Actually, my name is different, and is pronounced differently, depending on who I'm talking to.

Friends and family call me Luisa. When asked why I use only one half of my first name, I explain that most women in my extended family are named Maria something-or-other, so we Marias go by nicknames or shortened versions of our full names. I'm not sure if this is entirely true, but most of the non-Latino people I meet demand an explanation, so I made one up for them.

When I introduce myself to Latino folks, I am Maria Luisa, the namesake of my maternal great-grandmother and the most obvious symbol of my Hispanic heritage. Like reminiscing about biscuits and gravy with fellow Southerners, most of the time I consider this variation on my introduction as a way to connect with Latinos. But sometimes, I feel like I'm pimping out my pseudo-Hispanic identity, like wearing a low-cut blouse in an attempt to get a special discount. Am I a cultural con artist, a disingenuous fake? What does it really mean to be Hispanic if my skin is white and my language is English?

Throughout my teens, I wondered about this. I hesitated to identify myself as a minority. I didn't feel like a "minority," nor did I know what that was supposed to feel like. But when I filled out forms for financial aid and college scholarships, being a minority took on a positive connotation. "Different" morphed into "diverse." The mother who had refused to teach us Spanish as children encouraged us to make sure we checked the "Hispanic" designation as college students. In college, I dabbled in trying to feel like a minority. I went to a Hispanic sorority party. I briefly joined an organization promoting racial equality. I attended a church group that promoted interracial marriage and ending racism as a spiritual goal.

Openly talking about race puts us at risk of being sucked into a quicksand of accusations and defensive anger. We fear the reactions to our words, cringe at the thought of being labeled. Depending on which side of the color line we stand on, we are afraid to offend, or we're afraid to be singled out. We don't want to be forced to act as a representative for all people of color or be questioned about the authenticity of belonging to a certain tribe.

And what words should we use when we do talk about race? Blacks may be unsure whether they should say "Latino" or "Hispanic." Whites may not know if it's PC to talk about Ebonics. A Christian once advised me not to call Jewish people "Jews" because, he said, the word was an epithet. And so conversations are stopped before they even begin.

The discomfort that goes hand in hand with discussions about race has halted conversations within my own bi-ethnic family.

My parents divorced long ago. My father remarried, to a woman who was both white and blonde. They wanted more children but were unable to conceive. Finally, two years ago, they adopted three Mexican-American siblings who had been in foster care. My left-leaning, hippie-esque father and I have never once had a conversation about race or ethnicity; the adoption of three little brown children didn't change that sad fact.

Secretly, I was thrilled at the addition of more Latin blood into the family. I daydreamed of bonding over our shared ethnicity. I would watch Dora the Explorer with them and show them how to dance the meringue. Like the old Mexican man, I assumed we would share similar values and interests because we shared a Latin American heritage.

My fantasies were halted when my father announced that, at the adoption ceremony, their names would be changed. Their "Mexican-sounding" names would be simplified into shorter, "white" names. Ostensibly, this was a protective measure to prevent the children from being teased. I wanted to scream at my dad; I felt this was a mistake worse than my mom abandoning Spanish. It was denying more than language -- it was denying their very identities. These three sweet-natured brown-eyed, brown-skinned children were being raised in a state that was about one-third Hispanic, yet their new parents' first lesson was that being Latino was strange and should be hidden. I couldn't understand why my father would do this. Two months ago, I got my answer.

After years of poor health, my dad's mother passed away. After the funeral, I caught up with my paternal relatives, who I hadn't seen in years. My mother had kept her distance from them during my childhood, and I had been repeatedly warned to stay away from one particular uncle. (Later I learned he was one of the individuals who referred to my mom as a "wetback.") It was this uncle who approached me.

"You know, your dad's problems started with those kids," he said.

I was silent.

"Those Mexican kids, you know. I told him he needed to change their names. It's just a fact of life that old white guys like me will mess with them."

He was apparently oblivious that he was talking to his niece, Maria Luisa. He might as well have said my father's problems started with my mother, or with me. What he did say was, "The world is full of old white guys like me."

It took a minute for the meaning of his words to sink in. By the time I found my tongue again, he was gone.

My uncle is right. There are a lot of old white guys like him. The world is full of people who unthinkingly buy into racism and prejudice. And the world is full of people who are afraid of those white guys and afraid of talking about the jumbled mess of race and racism. Because talking about our prejudices, our color, our deeply felt experiences, means exposing ourselves and our families. Conversations about race and ethnicity are conversations about sex, hate, love, ignorance, history, guilt, shame and anger. It's embarrassing, uncomfortable and emotionally draining.

Given the choice, we'd rather not talk about it. But given the state of things, we should try.

A Whiter Shade of Christmas

The holiday song "White Christmas" is a favorite among the white supremacist set, for obvious reasons. May your days be merry and bright / And may all your Christmases be white. Put into the context of white nationalism, the tune becomes a jolly anthem for white pride and privilege. And don't think that racist activists can't be jolly or share a little holiday cheer.

In fact, there is an international organization of white supremacist women who devote their energies to holiday activities such as sending Christmas cards to their incarcerated "brothers," and raising money for needy Aryans. This year Women for Aryan Unity (WAU) is holding its 15th annual Yulefund, which has purportedly raised $2,000 over the last three years to buy gifts for children of incarcerated white supremacists. Women for Aryan Unity also publishes a cookbook, sends welcome packages to new mothers, and runs an Aryan Clothing Drive.

The idea of a nurturing neo-Nazi or a charitable skinhead is incompatible with most people's conception of racist activists. After all, a hate group is all about hate, right? Well, yes and no. For many women in the white supremacist movement, their public actions involve the nurturing of their own group. These facilitators of fundraisers, contributors to clothes drives, and community builders represent the "softer side" of hate. They are the "housewives who hate" as one person sarcastically noted on a white nationalist message board. While their actions may be more benign than that of their male counterparts, they are not necessarily less harmful.

WAU's charitable activities are "a way to try to keep the racist movement alive and try to paint [racist inmates] as heroes," said sociologist Kathleen Blee, a leading researcher of hate groups. With the supportive admirers and mother figures WAU provides, prisoners are encouraged to stay active in their racist groups and continue their attacks on blacks and Jews from inside the walls of prison. Perhaps worse, the children of the incarcerated men are ensured a continuing Aryan influence. Women for Aryan Unity, and other female activists, are nurturing new generations of white supremacists in the spirit of a favorite Nazi Party maxim, "In the hand and in the nature of woman lies the preservation of our race."

Diversity Among Racists

Women for Aryan Unity is based in the most urban and international of places, Brooklyn, New York. The group itself is a testament to the ironic fact that, despite its disgust for multi-culturalism and diversity, the world of white supremacy is diverse. Racist activism crosses geographic, class and gender lines perhaps now more than ever before.

"The stereotype of racist groups all being like the Klan -- rural and southern -- is not true anymore," said Blee, noting that the largely urban Nazi and skinhead groups are the most active part of the white nationalist movement. A fast-growing online message board called Stormfront White Nationalist Community is a testament to this new generation of racists.

Stormfront's online community acts as a virtual meeting place for all types of white supremacists, and represented on its pages are all flavors of racist, from those who prefer not to join any organization to the committed members of the National Socialists. While everyone adheres to a doctrine of white supremacy, they have differing ideologies and tactics. Some are supposedly Christian-based, others are more pagan. Some play with radical ideas like joining forces with black separatist groups in order to gain more legitimacy; others berate anyone who has sympathy for the "enemy" races. Gender roles and feminism are hot topics -- one recent string of posts argued over the validity of New York Times columnist's Maureen Dowd's book "Are Men Necessary?"

Clearly, white supremacists are not a monolithic group. During research for her 2002 book, "Inside Organized Racism: Women and the Hate Movement," Blee found that the public's preconceptions about racist activists, and specifically about racist women, were skewed. After interviewing 34 white nationalist women, she wrote that "many did not fit common stereotypes about racist women as uneducated, marginal members of society raised in terrible families and lured into racist groups by boyfriends and husbands." In fact, most of Blee's research subjects were educated middle-class women with decent jobs, and many came to racist activism on their own.

Reportedly, the numbers of women involved in hate groups has risen. In 1980, Klansman David Duke launched a campaign to recruit women to the white supremacist movement. Others followed suit, hoping that a new influx of members would reinvigorate their ranks. It was believed that women would be less likely to become police informants, since they are less likely to have criminal records.

"We have seen women take more of a prominent role in recent years as [hate groups] are more starved for members," said Joe Roy, Chief Investigator for the Intelligence Project, which tracks about 700 hate groups across the U.S. While many women have joined into co-ed skinhead, neo-Nazi or Christian racist groups, others have opted to form their own organizations, like WAU. In 1990, the Intelligence Project began tracking Women for Aryan Unity, which, said Roy, currently has at least six active chapters in the U.S.

Part of the reason for the rise of women-only groups may be due to a delayed battle of the sexes. The traditional role of white nationalist women is to give birth to and homeschool as many white babies as possible, but many ladies aren't so keen on this idea and often challenge their lower status. An Australian WAU chapter recently told its members to buck up, even if their husbands, fathers or boyfriends don't want them involved:

"We have been told that several men in our movement 'scoff' at our work and our magazine, we have even been told that these men don't want their women to be involved! Perhaps these men need to take a good look at themselves, it would seem they're in the wrong movement! Perhaps they feel threatened that their women's knowledge might far exceed their own! Either way, these men should be ashamed of their hypocritical actions."

While part of WAU's mission is to redefine feminism among white nationalists, the projects it publicly advertises are domestic in nature -- a clothing drive, a cookbook, and the annual Yulefund.

Giving Back, the White Supremacist Way

Appeals for WAU's Yulefund are posted repeatedly on Stormfront, where there are sub-boards for members to discuss topics ranging from self-defense and ideology to dating and poetry. Many of the women among Stormfront's 52,463 registered members subscribe to a homemaking message board, a strange window into the kitchens and living rooms of white nationalist families. The normalcy of the posts is eerie. Between cupcake recipes, tips on how to train a puppy and birthday congratulations are rants about the "mudding" of America and the genetic inferiority of Jews and African-Americans.

The women posting to the Stormfront board, and those involved with Women for Aryan Unity, are remarkable only for their racist views. A hospital worker and mother in New York City recently posted a nasty rant about African-American panhandlers. A 34-year-old New Jersey mom and member of Women for Aryan Unity admitted online that she used to tear down posters celebrating African-American history month. Another woman involved in WAU activities is a former nanny who had worked for "non-racialist" families, which she found difficult to do. As one WAU woman, identified only by her screen name as MistWraith, wrote to me:

"Granted, not many women have our views, but scratch that and we're not much different than a lot of women. Most of us work, go to school, eat regularly, interact with people, are married, live in houses, some are professional, some are stay-at-home moms, some are Jills of all trades, etc. We're all different kinds of women... If you're expecting a bunch of high school dropouts living under the thumb of some abusive drunk with no teeth, you're looking in the wrong place."

Indeed, the WAU website describes its members as "normal" looking women, mostly former skinheads, who now "blend in with society." The group is comprised of rural, suburban and urban women around the world. The Yulefund, MistWraith wrote, is "not different than any other kind of fundraiser you've seen, except they're for white families. That's all you need to know."

Right.

The major difference between this fundraiser and the one put on by your local church is that WAU raises money to "purchase and send Yuletide gifts to the families of our Prisoners of War." These white nationalist "P.O.W.s," many of whom are serving time for firearms convictions, are white supremacist activists linked to violent crimes.

Take Chester Doles, a fourth-generation Ku Klux Klansman whom WAU paints as a prisoner of (race) war. Doles was a Georgia leader of the National Alliance, a white supremacist organization that government authorities consider dangerous. In the 1990s, he was convicted and served prison time for felony counts of battery and burglary. In 2003, he was arrested again and convicted of illegal possession of firearms; Doles is now serving a 70-month sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Manchester, Kentucky. Another interesting tidbit: Doles reportedly owned a video game called "Ethnic Cleansing," in which the object was to hunt down blacks and Jews. A perfect Aryan recipient of the Yulefund, apparently.

Multiple white supremacist organizations view Doles as a political prisoner who was "silenced" by the state for his racist activities. Along with WAU, the National Vanguard is also raising money for Doles, whom they describe as "a family man, a loving husband, and a great father to his children." They ask people to "cheer up" the convict this Christmas by contributing funds.

Gary Yarbrough, another "P.O.W." supported by Women for Aryan Unity, is serving a 25-year sentence for shooting at FBI agents, illegally possessing explosives and firearms, including a submachine gun that police said was used in the 1984 murder of Denver talk show host Alan Berg. (Two other white supremacists were convicted of that murder, and Yarborough has denied involvement. All three men were members of The Order, a white supremacist "brotherhood.")

Women for Aryan Unity also sends Christmas gifts to the young son of Mark Gaudin, a National Alliance member who was killed in 2002 during an apparent robbery. Three black men were accused of the crime; one was convicted of capital murder in 2004. Gaudin, a taxi driver and maker of Aryan T-shirts, is considered a martyr for the cause of white supremacy. His family is only one of 22 recipients of the Yulefund this year.

Antidotes to Hate

What can advocates of peace and tolerance do with the uncomfortable knowledge that dedicated racists live quietly among us? How do we deal with the fact that there are some people with hidden ways of showing their hate, like the New York City nurse who hastily stitches up a black woman's wound in a way that will definitely leave a scar. Or the tech support guy who runs the server for a neo-Nazi website from his home. Or the nanny who works on a fundraiser for violent racists in her spare time.

First, remember that the results of a Google search of "neo-Nazi" or "white supremacy" have been designed to scare.

"You can't take what they say on their website at face value," said Kathleen Blee. "It's just propaganda. A lot of these groups do websites to be provocative, kind of as a low level terrorism." Because so much of the racist community is online, the physical presence of a WAU chapter in your town probably poses no threat. Personally, I gave out my name, phone number and email address to multiple WAU members in my area, with no response. The only responses I received to my interview requests were via the Stormfront message board, a familiar and comfortable setting for dedicated racists where some berated me for being part of the "jewmedia" and others calmly deliberated their thoughts.

Perhaps the best defense against the spread of racist activism is the nurturing of a healthy, multi-ethnic youth culture. Like any group, a lot of what racist organizations have to offer is social: parties, friends and identity. If white kids are encouraged to engage in social activities that are multi-cultural, inter-faith and tolerant they will be less likely to be enticed by a free skinhead concert. Research suggests that committed racists are made, not born, and most members of racist groups become radicalized once they enter a group setting that encourages racist attitudes, so preventing recruitment into racist groups is key.

There are ample materials to help parents and caregivers with the task. The Anti-Defamation League recommends a book titled, "Hate Hurts: How Children Learn and Unlearn Prejudice" and a brochure for youth called, "Close the Book on Hate: 101 Ways to Combat Prejudice." Both are available through the Anti-Defamation League website and at Barnes and Noble.

The best and worst thing to keep in mind is that subtle, everyday racism is widespread, while intense organized hate is fairly rare. Rather than simply hating the haters, the Southern Poverty Law Center encourages the general public to promote racial and ethnic tolerance in general, daily ways. Tolerance.org offers practical steps to do this through its 10 Ways to Fight Hate, and suggestions on how to respond to bigoted comments.

In the meantime, you can dedicate your holiday activities to tolerance by giving a year-end gift to one of the many anti-hate organizations and donating to a clothes drive that helps people of all colors. And, for God's sake, please don't sing "White Christmas."

Computers that read your mood

Do you ever wish your computer could sympathize with you when you lose a bidding battle on E-bay? Or that it would congratulate you on a completed spreadsheet? Well, that could happen someday soon, apparently.

Such "emotion recognition" software declared recently that Leonardo De Vinci's infamous Mona Lisa was, in fact, happy. Well, mostly. The computerized analysis, conducted by the University of Amsterdam, actually decided that Mona Lisa was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful and 2% angry. Neither human emotion nor computerized sensitivity is an exact science, but researchers are working on creating an array of machines that will be responsive to human emotions.

European researchers at HUMAINE (Human-Machine Interaction Network on Emotion) have toyed with the idea of an emotion-sensitive Jukebox that "selects media based on the user's current mood." The jukebox could have a personalized archive "indexed with respect to their general emotional tone." Frown angrily at the emo-jukebox and it'll start playing Rage Against the Machine. Smile, and it might put on the Beach Boys.

Then there's the "Caring Plant," being worked on in Chicago by Accenture Technology Labs.

The plant would be used to monitor/spy on the medical patients and the elderly, and then report back to clinicians. Slightly Big Brother-esque, but an interesting idea. The selling point for me, though, is that the plant would also know when to water and fertilize itself.

Accenture is also working on creating a sensitive, caring computer telephone operator marketing the idea like this:

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Learning from Borat

If you are a leftie with a sense of humor, you have probably heard about the dispute between the Kazakhstan government and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, star of the "Da Ali G Show."

On his show, Cohen, a Jewish Brit, plays a character named Borat, an anti-Semitic, horny and unrefined reporter from Kazakhstan who holds prank interviews with clueless Americans. His favorite targets are earnest politicians and rural folks. It's reality TV with a little deception thrown in to produce comedy.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, here is a great description of Borat's character from the New Yorker:

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Teen thug dares to speak Spanish in school hallway

Just when you thought our country couldn't get more ridiculous, or more xenophobic, it appears that some school officials think simply speaking a foreign language is a punishable offense.

The Washington Post reported today that a Kansas teenager was suspended for speaking Spanish to a friend in the hallway:

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Unionizing the Southwest means recruiting en Espanol

The Religious Left got some play today in the New York Times' coverage of a unionizing campaign that targeted Latino janitors in Houston. Through its "Justice for Janitors" campaign, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has gotten more than 5,000 Houston janitors to sign on. The success was partly attributed to a widespread Spanish-language recruitment effort, and a little help from religious leaders:

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The Chosen Judge

On October 31, George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. On November 1, Esther Kaplan's book, With God on Their Side: George W. Bush and the Christian Right was released* in paperback. The timing could not have been more appropriate.

In her book, the former Nation editor profiles how the Bush White House has pandered to the Christian Right in ways large and small, from painting the war in Iraq as a holy crusade, to forcing the Grand Canyon National Park bookstore to sell a "creationist," but scientifically inaccurate book about the canyon.

Kaplan also uncovers the multitude of ways Christian groups have gained significant influence over the judiciary. She warns that, "[George W. Bush's] judicial appointees, combined with like-minded judges put in place by Bush's father and Ronald Reagan, have the potential to remake the federal courts as a reactionary force for generations to come. Protections for abortion and gays, and protections against state-sponsored religion, all of these could be eroded in the years ahead."

The future she writes about may have already begun.

Immediately after his nomination, Alito was touted by the Christian Right as the man who could deliver America from evil (or at least the man who can possibly overturn Roe v. Wade). He has received high praise and petitions of support from religious groups like Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition of America and Family Research Council.

Kaplan talked to AlterNet this week about what Alito's nomination means for the Christian Right.

In your book, you describe how Bush has inserted religion into almost every branch of his administration, from conducting Bible studies in the White House to directly funding religious organizations through his faith-based initiatives legislation. How has the president interjected his religious beliefs into the judicial branch?

Mainly by appointing judges who have pretty creative ideas about church-state separation. Alito is a pretty good example of that. He is someone who thinks that prayer belongs in the public schools and that religious displays are acceptable at public buildings. There are a whole host of judges that Bush has appointed to federal courts that take that attitude, judges like William Pryor, who used to show up at rallies defending "Roy's Rock," the five-ton Ten Commandments monument that Judge Roy Moore placed inside an Alabama courthouse, and who claims the U.S. Constitution, which never mentions God, is "rooted in a Christian perspective."

The Christian Right feels that the Supreme Court has gone too far in segregating faith from the public square, and that this balance needs to be righted. Of course, Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s that strengthened the church-state divide, such as banning mandatory prayer in public schools, helped to launch the Christian right as a social movement. Now they feel like their generations-old dream of overturning those decisions can be realized.

There has been a lot of attention to Alito's 1991 opinion in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case, in which Alito supported legislation requiring women to notify their husbands that they are seeking an abortion. Last week a new frenzy followed the release of a 1985 opinion in which Alito said that "the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion." With each new discovery about Alito, the debate over his nomination has increasingly become another battleground between pro-life and pro-choice activists. Do you think that the intense focus on abortion overshadows other, perhaps equally important, issues?

I think abortion rights are an incredibly important issue, so I think it is correct to make them central. However, I do think that Alito's decisions regarding the rights of workers are equally horrendous. When he was employed by the U.S. Department of Justice, he wrote an opinion that said employers could legally fire people living with AIDS because of a "fear of contagion, whether reasonable or not."

In other words, if you're afraid you will get AIDS by brushing against your HIV-positive employee in the hallway, even though your fear is patently absurd, you can legally fire that person.

If you look at his decisions on workplace issues, he almost universally decides in favor of the employers, whether it is a case regarding racial or sex discrimination. Philosophically, he is clearly not interested in protecting the rights of women, or minorities, or people living with AIDS, or disabled people. He is also clearly pro-corporate.

In a case against DuPont, where a woman was demoted after complaining of sexual harassment, Alito was the sole dissenting opinion -- he argued that if the employer had even a shred of evidence that they demoted her with cause, then she didn't deserve her day in court. (See the full text of the court's opinion.) In a case against Marriott, where a worker claimed she was denied a promotion due to racial bias, he proclaimed again that the plaintiff did not have the right to a trial. The majority on the court strongly disagreed, saying his restrictive interpretation of the law would eviscerate civil rights protections.

On the religious front, he has issued majority opinions that allow religious displays in public buildings and proselytizing groups -- such as the Good News Club -- access to public schools. And he wrote an opinion knocking down an anti-discrimination policy at a university after a Christian group on campus argued that it would restrict their right to condemn homosexuality. You get a strong sense that he wants to inject religion into government and that he doesn't support the spirit of equal rights at all.

What does this nomination mean to the Christian Right?

You cannot underestimate the extent to which the Christian Right feels like this is the culmination of their work. This is the moment they've been waiting for. Roe v. Wade was the single most important factor in the rise of the Christian Right as a social movement, and the brass ring has always been to stack the Supreme Court so they can overturn that decision. They have the Senate, they have the presidency. This really is their moment and they are going to pull out all the stops.

As Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council declared, they are "ready to rumble." But it's interesting to speculate, politically, do the Republicans really want Roe overturned? We forget that the majority of Republicans are pro-choice, as are the majority of Americans. It's always been convenient for the Republican Party to posture as pro-life and trust that the Supreme Court will uphold Roe, but that could change now, with major political consequences.

What, exactly, do Bush and his religious right supporters mean when they say they are in favor of a "strict constructionist"?

"Strict constructionist" is just a code term they have come up with. It is supposed to be the opposite of a judicial activist, but they don't mean it literally. First of all, they obviously support judicial activism if it is in favor of their agenda items. They'd like to see judges restrict marriage rights for same-sex couples, for example. And anyway, the term is absurd: If you were going to be a really strict constructionist, honoring the letter of the Constitution, you would have to choose a judge that supports slavery since slavery is written into the Constitution.

I think it is also code for striking down Roe v. Wade. Abortion rights are based on what was, at the time, a somewhat experimental theory -- the right to privacy. The Supreme Court decided privacy was a right that was implied by a number of other rights, and there is now a big fat stack of decisions that have built on that. For instance, the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Texas' sodomy laws was also based on the right to privacy.

The Christian Right is saying that that whole set of decisions that revolve around the right to privacy should be overturned, which would mean it is okay to ban abortions, it is okay to ban sodomy, and it is okay for the state to impose itself in very strong ways on people's private decisions. They are saying that if states across the country ban gay marriage, a court should not overturn that legislation because it is the "will of the people." A judge who overturns discriminatory laws, in their eyes, is "activist." It's a rubric that implies that even horribly discriminatory legislation should be upheld because it reflects "the will of the people."

If Alito is confirmed, the Supreme Court will be majority Catholic. Why is that, and what does that say to Bush's Evangelical base?

I wouldn't want to make too much of this. Certainly conservative Catholic law schools and the Catholic legal tradition have a much richer history. There are now conservative Evangelical law schools -- Jerry Falwell has started one -- so at some point down the road we are going to start having Evangelical judges with legal ideas that reflect Evangelical training. Maybe in 20 years we'll be seeing a whole generation of [Falwell's] Liberty University grads in the federal courts. That's certainly his explicit goal.

The pro-life movement as a whole actually has Catholic roots. The Evangelicals came into it late in the game. So the Catholic Church has a very long and rich history of making arguments against abortion and we are seeing the G.O.P. leadership tap into it.

If you were able to ask Alito one question during January's confirmation hearings, what would you ask?

I would ask him if he really believes that women, and people with AIDS, and gay people, and people of color are equal in the eyes of the law. I would ask him if he believes that they need every opportunity to challenge discrimination against them in court and if they have the right to control their own bodies and private lives. His record clearly implies otherwise.

*[Correction: With God on Their Side was released in paperback on Nov. 1, 2005. The original hardcover, titled With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush's White House was published October 30, 2004. We regret the error.]

Immigration shoes?

At the San Diego-Tijuana border, a sneaker has become political art. It's not just any sneaker, it's the Brinco, a shoe designed exclusively for Mexicans illegally crossing into the U.S. (Brinco means "jump" in Spanish, which refers to crossing the border.)

The Brinco is the brainchild of Judi Werthein, an artist in residence at a contemporary arts organization called inSite , which produces public art projects in the San Diego - Tijuana area. She says she created the shoes both to spark discussion and to aid immigrants; each year hundreds of Mexicans die during the treacherous trip into the U.S. as they cross miles of desert.

The shoes act as both a practical help and inspiration to Mexican immigrants, and a piece of art to the wealthy Californians who can actually afford them. The BBC reports that the shoes come with a compass, a flashlight, and Tylenol, among other things:

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Where Politics and Hip Hop Collide

Last Monday night, Kwame Kilpatrick went on a club crawl of Detroit's liveliest bars and nightclubs. On Tuesday night, the 35-year-old African American ex-football player partied again until the early hours of the morning, this time at an election party. He was celebrating his own victory. Kilpatrick, America's first "hip hop mayor," had won a second term in office.

Despite a first term riddled with "youthful" mistakes -- most famously he admitted using city dollars to lease a Lincoln Navigator for his wife -- Kilpatrick was resilient. He relied on his base of young African-Americans, a risky bet since young people have notoriously low voter turnout rates. But as the youngest mayor ever elected in Detroit and a member of the so-called "hip hop generation," he pulled it off.

The hip hop generation that Kilpatrick belongs to is defined loosely as minorities born between 1965 and 1984 who have grown up within a culture of hip hop music, dance, fashion and art. They are the first generation born in a post-Jim Crow society, and were raised largely in urban neighborhoods that have exemplified both the successes and ironies of the civil rights movement.

Even with legal equality, schools remained largely segregated. Despite an ever increasing black middle class, black and brown people remained over-represented among the ranks of the poor and unemployed. As the hip hop generation has come of age, many of its members have reacted to these realities by forming or participating in an array of social justice organizations. Only a few have gotten involved in electoral politics; Kilpatrick was elected in 2001, and poet and hip hop activist Ras Baraka was appointed Newark's deputy mayor in 2002 after an earlier unsuccessful run for mayor.

Like Kilpatrick himself, hip hop's growing presence in electoral politics has shown itself to be controversial, awkwardly unpredictable -- and incredibly charismatic. In 2004, it was not clear if the highly publicized hip hop voter registration drives, such as Sean "P. Diddy" Comb's "Vote or Die!" campaign (in which Kilpatrick participated), marked the beginning of a political movement, or simply a trend during a dramatic election year. A year later, it seems that hip hop's place in politics is continuing to grow. The collaborations and organizations that sprung up from the 2004 election are, for the most part, stronger than ever. If a national hip hop political movement was in its infancy last year, then this year it's beginning its uncomfortable adolescence.

"The election was really important. It was really the first time you saw this sort of effort on both the celebrity level and the grassroots level that came together around one big thing," says Jeff Chang, hip hop journalist and author of Can't Stop, Won't Stop. But he likens the trajectory of the hip hop's political movement to entropy--it tends toward disorder and randomness. "The hip hop political movement is not something that has a monolithic look to it. You're talking about folks working day in and day out on a range of issues. What unites them is the fact that there has been massive generational change since the civil rights movement. The question is, how to do you harness something that looks like entropy?"

It's a good question with about a million answers. As a political movement, hip hop is finding itself and just about everything is up for debate: who its leaders should be, who the movement represents, and how to harmonize hip hop's historical resistance against the establishment with a new urge to participate in mainstream politics. The people who made 2004 such a big year for hip hop are, in 2005, proposing very different ways to carry forward.

The Grassroots Organizers

"Hip hop has always been political," says Rosa Clemente, a New York-based activist and co-host for WBAI's (99.5 FM/NYC) show, "Where We Live." "Hip hop can be used to show resistance against oppression; that's what it was in the beginning and that's what it continues to be."

Since its birth in the Bronx, hip hop has certainly welcomed lyrics about oppression, resistance to the white establishment, and blunt challenges to government, from N.W.A.'s hit "Fuck Tha Police" in 1988, to Jadakiss' 2004 song "Why?" which asked "Why did Bush knock down the towers." With a history of Afro-centric nationalism, gangsta rap and graffiti art, hip hop had never been used as a means of assimilation into mainstream (white) culture. It has always been more likely to dismiss electoral politics in favor of localized social justice work.

Clemente, who identifies herself as a black Puerto Rican grassroots organizer, was part of the surge in the 1990s of activists who tied their social justice work closely to hip hop culture. Her professional history could be easily mistaken for notes on hip hop's political agenda. She has tackled issues including youth organizing, prison rights, African-American/Latino relations, racism in South Africa, and ethnic disparities in health care. On the roster of larger organizations she's affiliated with is the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which was founded in Brooklyn in 1993 to focus on self-determination and community building. Through its Central Brooklyn Cop Watch and Political Prisoner Amnesty Campaign, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement also deals with two ever-present issues for African-Americans and Latinos: police brutality and discrimination in the criminal justice system. For Clemente, the key word when it comes to hip hop's political future is self-determination.

"We need to talk about building an independent party, not just joining the Green Party or the Working Families Party. People of color need to build their own political party," she says. "I'm no longer interested in dealing with progressives when they don't allow leadership to look like people of color." While white progressives may focus on social justice just as hip hop activists do, the differences have a lot to do with age, ethnicity and class. "[White progressives and liberals] will protest the war in Iraq, but they will not step in when they see cops harassing a black person in their neighborhood."

While Clemente's dream of a national independent party has yet to grow roots, for more than a decade organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement have left their stamp on their local communities. On the West Coast, for instance, an organization called Youth Speaks has introduced spoken word poetry into high schools, colleges and juvenile detention centers in the Bay Area. On the East Coast, the Prison Moratorium Project in 2001 helped prevent New York City from spending $64 million to expand its juvenile detention jails and urged local officials to use that money for community youth programs. These are just two small examples of the hundreds of organizations that have made their imprint on school board issues, city council decisions and state propositions and laws.

As these types of organizations have worked locally over the years, the stage has slowly been set for hip hop to make its presence felt in national electoral politics. Many local organizations have expanded to include chapters across the nation, or joined their efforts with political groups like The League of Pissed Off Voters, which is directed by 31-year-old William "Upski" Wimsatt, co-editor of How to Get Stupid White Men Out Of Office and author of Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons.

New organizations like the Hip Hop Caucus, the National Hip-Hop Political Convention and the Hip Hop Summit Action Network have been formed exclusively to build a national presence. Meanwhile, hip hop's celebrities have gone into the business of national voter registration drives, first in 2000 with Rap the Vote (a spin off of MTV's Rock the Vote), then last year with P. Diddy's "Vote or Die!" and Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Summits. This has been to the dismay of some activists like Clemente, who says, "Russell and P. Diddy are hip hop capitalists, not hip hop activists!"

The Celebrities

Among the many efforts by hip hop organizations focused on the 2004 election, Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Summits received a lion's share of media attention. In the search for easily identifiable black leaders, the mainstream media latched on to Simmons, a 48-year-old millionaire and the founder of Def Jam Records and Phat Farm brand. Simmons is the chairman and founder of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), which at its start in 2000 acted more like a trade organization. Among its first actions were the creation of parental advisory labeling for CDs and a mentoring program for newly signed rappers. The organization was shaped into social force with a resolution to assist in the "political empowerment of the hip hop community."

By forming alliances between the most powerful businessmen in the industry and the largest civil rights organizations -- including the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Nation of Islam -- HSAN instantly established itself as a leader in the African-American community.

Of course, most of the nation knows HSAN for its 26 star-studded summits, which were held across the nation. The star power of the summits enticed millions of people to attend, and ultimately 2 million young people registered to vote through HSAN. Dozens of rappers made appearances, including Reverend Run of Run-DMC, Kanye West, P. Diddy, Beyonce, Lil' Romeo, Eminem, Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu. Political figures also made appearances, of course, and provided voter education. They, however, were not the stars of the show.

Dr. Benjamin Chavis, HSAN's 57-year-old CEO, estimates that 1.3 million people who registered to vote through the HSAN actually went to the polls and voted. (For people under 30, the total vote was more than 11 million.) Those figures are backed by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which reported that "youth voter turnout increased substantially and much of this increase was driven by an increase in voting among African-American youth."

The election proves that "there are political consequences to hip hop," according to Chavis. "It would be wrong to say that hip hop is just concerned with bling bling, or hip hop is just music, or it's just fashion, or that it's just political. People try to put hip hop in one category, but it is multi-faceted. It's a global youth phenomenon with the ability to affect political change." Over the next couple years, HSAN has dropped out of hardcore politicking and is focusing on a program to promote financial literacy. Chavis says its voter registration program "Team Vote" is still active and will be kicked back into high gear for the 2008 presidential elections.

As anyone with a television knows, HSAN is not hip hop's only celebrity-led political organization. P. Diddy's "Vote or Die!" campaign, founded just four months before the election, sought to make voting "hot, sexy and relevant." More of a media blitz than a part of a movement, "Vote or Die!" got celebrity endorsements from Mary J. Blige, Paris Hilton, 50 Cent, Mya and others. However, after the election, it was reported that neither Paris Hilton nor 50 Cent had actually voted, or even registered to vote. It's not clear whether the campaign followed up to estimate how many of its new voters actually made it to the polls. The website has not been updated since 2004, and its phone numbers were no longer in service.

This type of sloppy follow-through has some activists steaming and invites outside criticism. "To have voter registration drives and not educate people about the issues is criminal to me," says Clemente. "That's why we are in the situation we are in now, with the Bush regime the second time around."

The Divide

Throughout the election year, both the mainstream media and some grassroots activists criticized celebrity-driven hip hop organizations as sometimes hypocritical in their politics, less than revolutionary, and short-sighted. To be sure, HSAN and "Vote or Die!" were not the heavyweights of voter education. This was most apparent by the faces that fronted the voting campaigns -- artists, not organizers, who were sometimes ignorant about the political issues of the 2004 election.

The New York Times called P. Diddy's campaign "insincere marketing" and made fun of the "trendy T-shirts" that were passed out to newly registered voters. The Boston Globe noted that at a summit in Bean town, Sen. Maxine Waters received "polite applause" from the crowd while musician Lloyd Banks was greeted with "near hysterics." A San Francisco Chronicle writer made fun of HSAN's goal of eliminating poverty, asking "How does that work, if what most mainstream rappers represent is part of the problem in eliminating poverty?"

"Some of the contentiousness is only natural, hip hop is evolving as a cultural phenomenon," says Chavis. "But we have never said that participating in the political process is the only way to make a change." Chavis notes that HSAN is "very grassroots" and works in collaboration with numerous other grassroots organizations to carry out its work. "If there is a divide, it's between those that consider themselves hip hop activists and those who consider themselves only involved in the music, fashion, and culture of hip hop. But that is changing. You see Talib Kweli, Common, and other rappers getting involved." Theoretically, then, more hip hop consumers will follow in their footsteps.

Despite whatever tensions exist, at least one organization has managed to bring together both celebrities and the activists who are skeptical of them: the biannual National Hip-Hop Political Convention, a national organization operating in 20 states. The first convention in 2004 was organized by people submerged in the social justice work of hip hop culture, including Jeff Chang, Rosa Clemente, Newark Deputy Mayor Ras Baraka, and Bakari Kitwana, former editor of the Source magazine and author of The Hip Hop Generation.

Grassroots organizers were joined by a handful of celebrities. Together, about 400 delegates from around the nation, including representatives from organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the New Black Panther Party, created a hip hop agenda. It focused on education, economic justice, criminal justice, health and human rights and specifically called for better funding for public schools, free college education, reparations, full employment, voting rights for ex-cons, universal healthcare, funding for AIDS prevention/research, and withdrawal of troops from occupied nations.

The next National Hip-Hop Political Convention, planned for July 2006 in Chicago, promises to strengthen the national infrastructure. If it is anything like the first one, Russell Simmons, wealthy rap stars and neighborhood activists will be brainstorming together. Meanwhile, individual chapters have gotten involved in local elections. The New York chapter, for example, held a mayoral election townhall on Nov. 3.

For a movement that has many divisions, the agenda put together by the National Hip-Hop Political Convention sounds surprisingly similar to the goals expressed repeatedly by other hip hop organizations. The mission statements of HSAN and nearly all organizations that consider themselves part of the hip hop political movement are working toward similar causes: better public education, economic justice, equal and universal healthcare, reparations, racial equality in the criminal justice system, prisoners' rights, and education through the arts. Despite divisions on methodology -- some want to reform, others want revolution -- hip hop's political movement has a pretty solid focus on social justice for historically oppressed people.

As for the blurry edges of the emerging movement, Chavis is optimistic. "Hip hop transcends race and ethnicity. There is room for everybody," he says. "There are some people in the academic world who consider themselves hip hop academics and that's fine, there's nothing wrong with that. You can be a hip hop scientist, a hip hop doctor."

Clemente has some stipulations to an open door policy: "White people can join in if they are willing to support and take leadership from people of color."

To be effective politically, hip hop's activists and celebrities do not necessarily have to adhere to one set of values. "A movement takes all kinds of different fronts, and that's something that people in the left don't appreciate," Jeff Chang says. "In the right, they figure out a way to include cultural conservatives, evangelicals, corporate folks and they put it together in a movement. In the left, we've had a lot of issues over the years with partisanship and ideological division. This is a chance to unite people."

The Future

Now, a year removed from the mania of the Bush-Kerry presidential election, it seems that hip hop's venture into national politics has, at a minimum, begun to affect the way voting blocs are imagined. While white voters are largely defined by their lifestyle during campaigns -- the so-called "soccer moms" and "NASCAR dads" -- minority voters are usually defined by their race. They are viewed by candidates as two monolithic groupings: the black vote and the Latino vote. But in 2004, the hip hop vote emerged, both as a testament to the impact of popular culture on politics and an assertion of self-identification. For the next presidential election, it will be hard to ignore this new voting bloc.

As for Kilpatrick's win in Detroit, Chang cautions against reading too much into it. "Kwame Kilpatrick didn't have much of a presence at the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. When Ras Baraka runs for office next year, that will be more of an indicator, because he was the chair of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention and he has more of a decided bent toward the kind of issues at the convention. That will be more of a litmus test for the hip hop community."

Meanwhile, antagonisms about authenticity, class and methodology of the movement will surely continue to play out. The one thing that is in agreement is the potential power of hip hop to shape national politics.

Wal-Mart Apologizes to Christmas-Shopping Christians

Ok, so we liberals have been saying that Wal-Mart is not responsive, but perhaps we have been wrong all along. While Wal-Mart may not care about its sweatshop workers, pay its employees enough, provide decent healthcare, follow environmental laws, or allow women to be promoted, I am happy to report that it does care about Christmas.

You see, earlier this week, the Catholic League of Religious and Civil Rights accused Wal-Mart of discriminating against Christians and attempting to "ban Christmas." The controversy began when a woman -- one, lone customer -- complained that the stores were displaying signs that read "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and it was discovered that Wal-Mart's website listed Christmas decorations under the category "holidays."

So, the Catholic League did what every Christian group has done when it gets upset -- it raised a ruckus and called for a boycott. Here is the League's call for a boycott from Nov. 9th:

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