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Here’s What It’s Like to Be Muslim in the Bible Belt in 2017

Mother Jones

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In August 2012, a mosque opened in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a bustling college town outside of Nashville that is home to students, long-time residents, refugees, suburban families, and everyone in between. The national headlines for the stories about the event suggested some of the conflicts that had led to this moment: The New York Daily News wrote, “Tennessee Mosque Opens After Years of Controversy,” the New York Times wrote “After a Struggle, Mosque Opens in Tennessee”, and NPR wrote “Murfreesboro Mosque Finally Opens.”

But the summer day when it opened was peaceful and harmonious, with the exception of a lone protester, wearing an “I Love Jesus” hat and a shirt bearing the 10 Commandments. The day was one for celebration, and the members of the Muslim community who had gathered were not dwelling on the fact that during court battles over permits, Rutherford County had spent more than $340,000 in legal fees fighting the right to build this place of worship. Or that the lieutenant governor of Tennessee at the time, Ron Ramsey, had described Islam as a “cult” while voicing opposition to the mosque.

The community itself was split between those attacking the approximately 300 families of the mosque for being Muslim and those who banded with their Muslim neighbors. The peaceful community was the target of a bomb threat—the anonymous caller, later found to be a Texas man, promised it would go off inside the office space where the community was worshipping in the interim on Sept. 11. A vandal scrawled “not welcome” across a sign announcing the construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. Construction equipment used to build the walls of the mosque was set on fire, its charred remains a warning to worshippers that they were not safe. But after two troubled years, the mosque finally opened, and residents began to take its presence on Veals Road for granted.

Then Donald Trump was elected, and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that once inflamed the Bible Belt town of 126,000 was reignited.

Murfreesboro is home to a very small fraction of American Muslims, but it was primed for a backlash in a unique way. Most residents remember the saga of the mosque, and the Baptist church next door made its anti-Islam position very clear by erecting 13 10-foot-tall crosses into the ground “to make a statement.” There are residents of Murfreesboro who stood with their Muslim neighbors, leaving flowers and handwritten cards at the front door of the mosque, but there are increasingly louder voices that threaten the safety of others who happen to be Muslim. It’s a sort of microcosm of what has happened across the country, where tensions and even violence have escalated against Muslims in the wake of the inflammatory rhetoric of President Donald Trump.

“People are afraid, and they won’t tell others about harassment,” says Saleh Sbenaty, a leader in the Muslim community, who was deeply involved in the struggle to get the mosque built. “It’s really scary and dangerous.”

He added that some members of the mosque have told him they are considering not attending services because they are frightened of the possibility of an attack. When news broke that a mosque in Texas had been set on fire shortly after Trump announced an executive order temporarily banning refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, they prayed for safety. When a shooting at a Quebec City mosque by a 27-year-old white male who was reportedly “a right-wing troll who frequently took anti-foreigner and anti-feminist positions and stood up for U.S. President Donald Trump” left six dead and more injured three days after Trump’s executive order, they felt their worst fears were being confirmed.

The Sbenaty family left Syria because it was unsafe, and they wanted a better life for themselves and their children. His daughter Dima was born in Damascus, but her mother brought her to the United States when she was eight months old to join Saleh, who was earning his PhD at the time. Their son, Salim, was born in Murfreesboro. A week after the election, 20-year-old Salim, was waiting tables at a local restaurant when he was asked, “Son, where are you from?”

“I was born and raised here in Murfreesboro,” he replied.

The response was abrupt. “You look foreign.”

“My parents came from Damascus a long time ago,” Salim said. The man stared.

“I’m going to the car to get my gun.”

Later that night, he told his father, who was horrified, and asked how he responded. Salim said the man had probably never met anyone who looked like him before, and he did not want to deepen his hatred. Saleh says many people in the Muslim community in Murfreesboro would have done the same, although he encouraged his son to report the incident.

During his campaign, Trump went back and forth on a proposal to create a “Muslim registry.” When he was asked about it in November 2015, he said, “We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We’re going to have to look at the mosques.” Later, he said he wanted to have a database on Syrian refugees who immigrate into the United States. Less than a month later, in December 2015, he proposed banning all Muslim immigration. Trump has consistently talked about the threat of “radical Islam,” and in an interview with CNN last year, he told Anderson Cooper, “I think Islam hates us.”

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has also been vocal about his views on Islam. “We are in an outright war against jihadist, Islamic fascists,” Bannon said in a 2014 speech. He also said the religion was metastasizing—like cancer.

Some Tennessee lawmakers have spouted similar claims—Tennessee state Sen. Mae Beavers told town hall attendees on Feb. 16 that Muslim terrorists were “infiltrating churches” and planning jihad in the Bible Belt. She also has expressed support for Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who served as a vice chair of Trump’s transition team, said Trump’s immigration order was a “security test, not a religious one.”

“Our intelligence and security agencies must ascertain the scope of the Islamic terror threat in order to develop proper refugee vetting protocols—if possible,” she wrote in an op-ed for The Tennessean.

And now, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, anti-Muslim hate groups have tripled since 2015.

Ossama Bahoul, the former imam at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, said there is a big difference between what the Muslim community in Middle Tennessee went through when the mosque was being built and what is happening now. Back then, the government was on their side—it defended his people’s right to worship and promised to take swift action against anyone who threatened them. Now, he hears the Islamophobia that used to come from the mouths of protesters coming from the government. “It is really disturbing for me to be talking about this,” Bahloul said. “The people who are supposed to protect us are singling our community out. That’s tough.”

Bahloul and Saleh Sbenaty tell Mother Jones about women who had been threatened for wearing the hijab and sometimes, Bahloul said, people have tried to assault them. Schoolchildren have come home crying because other children asked if their headscarves are hiding a bomb. Other Muslims have told him they have heard mutterings of “it’s about time to clean up America” and “go back home” when they pass by.

Recently, when another student at school referred to one of the children in his congregation as “Bin Laden,” Bahloul found himself at a loss. “Our kids were born in America—they don’t speak any language but English,” he said. “They are American kids, and they will come at a very young age and say, ‘Why do they hate us?'”

The effects of Trump’s comments about Muslims is not restricted to the random acts of violence directed at Muslims in the United States. The executive order he signed banning refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly-Muslim countries—including Syria—mean the Sbenatys and other families fear they’ll be separated from family members for quite some time. Saleh hasn’t seen his mother, who is 83, in 11 years. He wants to bring her to America, but the recent events make that seem unlikely. His siblings got married after he left Syria, and he has nieces and nephews he has never met. Minutes after the Ninth Circuit Court filed a preliminary injunction against Trump’s immigration order, effectively putting it on hold, Trump tweeted, in all caps: “See you in court, the security of our nation is at stake!”

“Now there is no option for me to go and visit or for them to come over here,” Saleh told Mother Jones before the court ruling. “It’s something you cannot explain in words.”

Dima Sbenaty, Saleh’s daughter, is a 27-year-old clinical coordinator for the stroke unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. The week after Trump’s “Muslim ban” took effect, she spoke at a vigil in support of Muslim Americans. Thousands showed up. “Islam taught me to give back…As a Muslim, it is my obligation to you to be strong, to uphold justice, and to protect your rights,” she told the crowd that night. “That is how America raised me.”

Recently, she decided to start wearing a hijab, and because of the outward signifier that she is Muslim, she has encountered some animosity in the workplace. Sometimes, when she’s out running errands, she gets an uncomfortable sensation, like she’s being watched by someone with less-than-friendly intentions. But she’s determined not to let fear rule her. “I’m practicing my freedom by covering my hair; I’m practicing my freedom by saying that I’m Muslim and going to the mosque,” she tells Mother Jones. “That’s my freedom as an American, and I don’t think I should be afraid…Refugees are leaving a place where they’re being dehumanized. They’re coming into America to seek refuge, and they’re entering another hell.”

As for Imam Bahloul, he is still wrestling with how to explain to the community what is happening and how to deal with being targeted. “For a girl to cry and say, ‘I want to cover my hair, but I’m scared,’ that girl must not be scared in America,” he said. “We’re part of the American fabric.”

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Here’s What It’s Like to Be Muslim in the Bible Belt in 2017

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8 People Who Owe Their Lives to Obamacare

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump has vowed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA)â&#128;&#138;—â&#128;&#138;a move that could leave some 30 million Americans without health insurance. ACA literally sustains millions of livesâ&#128;&#138;. Without the health insurance it provides, many people wouldn’t have access to medicine and procedures that they need to survive. When we asked people on Twitter and through healthcare advocacy organizations to share their stories of how ACA keeps them alive, we were overwhelmed with responses. We heard from people waiting for organ transplants, from cancer survivors, from people with debilitating mental illness, and more. They told us about the toll that disease has taken on their lives: Before the ACA, some were forced to skip treatments because of the price; others couldn’t get insurance at all because they were already sick. Here are a few of their stories.

Claudette Williams

Claudette Williams, 58, Orlando, Florida: I lost my job in 2005. After that I decided to purchase a policy. I found them online. They had a gentleman come to my house, and we talked about my blood pressure medications. The insurance was almost twice what they had quoted me because of the medication, and also because of my condition. I eventually couldn’t afford it any more. I was uninsured, except for one year when I qualified for Medicaid. I ended up in the emergency room on a few occasions for heart trouble. I also developed diabetes. I couldn’t afford to have regular mammograms. In 2014 I signed up for Obamacare. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September of last year. The lumpectomy alone was billed at $40,000. I have four more chemo sessions to go, and after that, I have to do radiation. Luckily my cancer is only a stage one, so my prognosis is pretty good. But it is really scary thinking about my insurance being taken away. This is a fight for my life.

Charis Hill

Charis Hill, 30, California: When I was 25, in 2012, I had a series of unexplained and undiagnosable respiratory challenges that felt like the flu or bronchitis or pneumonia. Doctors just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. My condition got worse and worse. I visited urgent care a few times. I thought I was having a heart attack once. They tried to blame it on anxiety.

Eventually reached out to my dad, who was estranged from me. I knew that he had a severe health condition. The first words out of his mouth were, it sounds like you have what I have, which is ankylosing spondylitis (AS). I knew that I would need health insurance to be treated. But if I were to get a diagnosis before getting health insurance, I would have the preexisting condition working against me. So I got the cheapest plan that existed. I wasn’t getting all the tests done or getting all the treatments. Then, ten months later, the ACA was implemented, and because of my income, I was eligible for a subsidy to purchase health insurance on the exchange in California. I got a better plan for less than I was paying before, which meant that I could access more treatment and not skip medication.

I have infusions of a drug every eight weeks. I have to go to an infusion center for 2.5 hours. There’s no generic. There’s no way to get those treatments unless I have insurance. They slow down the progression of my disease. I also take anti-inflammatory medications orally. AS is a severe inflammatory condition. It primarily affects the spine. It causes a lot of pain and fatigue from the body trying to fight that inflammation. I’m permanently disabled. I was a college athlete, and now I’m not even able to run. I use a wheelchair sometimes. As hard as I fight to be healthy, I’m never going to be healthy, and I’m always going to have to rely on the medical system to keep me alive.

John Weiler, 27, Oakland, California: I got HIV when I was 19. When I was in college, I was on my parents health insurance, so when I started meds when I was 21, I took it for granted that I was going to have insurance that would cover it, because it was so easy. When I went to grad school, I naively accepted a position without asking any questions about how the insurance was structured. When you do a science PhD, it’s typical for the school to pay your tuition, pay your health insurance premium, and give you a stipend. In my program, the stipend is about $30,000 a year. So when I enrolled and started to look at my insurance situation, I realized the policy offered to students provided up to $10,000 worth of prescription coverage per academic year, and that was it. But in 2013, the student government got together and petitioned the university to change across the UC system. The students basically said, ‘We don’t care if our insurance premiums are higher, we don’t want these things that the ACA offers to not be part of the insurance plan for the school.’

I was on a med cocktail called Complera, and that one was $22,000 a year. HIV meds are super expensive. I switched to a different medication since then, called Stribild, and I don’t know exactly what it is this year, but if I remember correctly, that one was closer to $27,000 a year.

I’m about to graduate and find a job, and, let’s say worst case scenario, first Congressional session they manage to totally gut the ACA and revert to how things were before. If that were to happen and I were to get a job, it would be totally legal for an employer to be like, ‘Hey, yeah, we’re not covering this.’ I’d be looking at close to $35,000 a year in medical expenses just for maintenance, let alone if I got sick.

Ruth Linehan

Ruth Linehan, 26, Portland, Oregon: I graduated college in May 2012. I was 22. About a month later, I started an internship as a software developer at a Portland startup. Thanks to ACA I was on my parents’ insurance. After four months I was offered a full time job, but the insurance didn’t start until 6 weeks after my first day as an employee. On my first day I was diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma. I looked like I was 7 months pregnant. I started chemo the day after I was hospitalized. This is an incredibly fast-growing cancer. I was in the hospital for seven weeks. I received about four rounds of chemo. After four months I was declared in remission. I continue to be in remission. The hospital bills were about half a million dollars. I only had to pay about $10,000 because I was on my parents’ insurance.

If I lose my job and the cancer comes back, what am I going to do? I worry about illness down the road. I’ve had cancer at a very young age and a lot of very harsh chemo. I worry that I won’t be able to get affordable insurance, or get insurance at all.

Larry Sterlingshires, 35, Tennessee: I have a condition called hidradenitis surruptiva—look it up, do not look at pictures, because it’s not a good time—it’s a chronic skin condition that’s ultimately debilitating. As it progresses, it causes tissue degradation on the skin layer that doesn’t heal, like normal wounds do. Sometimes it creates lesions that don’t heal for a year and half. It’s debilitating because it’s painful—the tissue underneath is exposed without that protective layer, so it bleeds regularly. You have to keep everything patched and bandaged, and it easily gets infected. But because of the ACA, I can have medication that can’t completely undo the symptoms, but it seems to have halted its progression, and even promoted some healing. Complications related to the tissue damage and infections can be fatal.

The medications I’m on right now, in addition to just my normal medications for diabetes and hypertension, will help me survive longer. This lets me afford something called Claravis, and another medication called Humira. Humira runs approximately $7300 a month, and the Claravis is about $4000 a month. Those basically keep me functional without being completely disabled. That’s no exaggeration. If you check the disability schedule, it’s so painful and considered debilitating enough that you can qualify for full disability with it. The Affordable Care Act covers all of that medication in full. I come from poverty, I’m just now getting used to having insurance for the first time in my adult life, and now that seems like it might evaporate.

Debbie Lynn Smith, 59, Las Vegas, Nevada: I was a TV writer and producer. In 2000 I was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans. It’s also called popcorn lung. I got it from buttered popcorn. When you work in TV, you work 15 hour days. They provide snacks and things. Microwave popcorn is one of the things they give you. I ate a lot of it. It just so happened that I was susceptible to this disease.

I was in remission for 16 years, but I was living with 50 percent of my lung capacity. I couldn’t do TV anymore, couldn’t put in those long hours. I really had a hard time working and being reliable because I would get sick. So I couldn’t get insurance through work. I had insurance through the high-risk California program and I was paying $2,000 a month for that. My husband was on it, too, he had prostate cancer. We moved to Nevada. When the ACA came around we were ecstatic. We were both out of work at the time, so we went on ACA.

This year, in April, my disease came out of remission. I am now down to 30 percent of my lung capacity and waiting for a lung transplant. So you can imagine the fear I have—being so close to getting a transplantthat they might repeal the ACA right away, and I will no longer have access to insurance, and I won’t be able to get my transplant. I am extremely stressed. I was so stressed before the election that I could not take anything else. I was working for Hillary and I ended up in the hospital.

Michele Munro

Michele Munro, 64, Southern California: I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. I was 44. I was a single mom with two boys. I had Kaiser insurance. It wasn’t a bad cancer, and we caught it early. Then seven years later I was diagnosed with a different type of breast cancer. That was 2004. I also had a hip replacement. The Kaiser premium doubled, so I went without insurance for the first time in years. I was working as a freelancer, and insurers told me I was uninsurable. In 2011, ACA started to kick in. It was not allowing insurance companies to consider preexisting conditions. I applied and was accepted into Aetna. The first thing I did was go for a mammogram, and, sure enough, I had a triplenegative tumor. Very aggressive. It was small and early, so we caught it just in time. I had a double mastectomy and chemotherapy and breast reconstruction, all covered through ACA. I went into the hospital seven times total for infections. The billing was $900,000. Aetna settled and paid out $180,000.

I’m feeling really good right now because December was the fifth anniversary of being cancer-free. I exercise a lot. I’m doing everything I can on my end. But there is only so much you can do. I’m scared for myself, and also for my children. My parents had to claim bankruptcy for health insurance reasons. They were not covered for a medical emergency.

Suzanna Moore, 29, Fairfield, Iowa: When I was a baby, I had a stroke. I recovered well, but I would always have issues afterward. Throughout my childhood, it always a concern if I would have proper health care. I grew up in a pretty poor family in New England. With Obamacare, I went to an orthopedist for the first time in forever and got a prescription for orthotics to alleviate chronic pain in my knees and ankles on one side, because my right side was affected more from the stroke than my left side. The pain built up for a while, but basically throughout my twenties, I was never able to get it addressed, because I was living on my own in Tennessee and was unable to focus any money toward my personal health care.

I also had a meniscus tear during that time. Had I had surgery on that on my own, it would have been like $15,000 or more. With Obamacare, we still had to prioritize, but we didn’t go in debt over it.

My husband has a rare condition called achalasia, which means the muscles in his throat stopped working the way they were supposed to, so he had trouble swallowing and eating. He had to force food down his esophagus with air and water. After a while, it got so painful that he was eating less and he was losing weight rapidly. It was hindering his quality of life, and, left untreated, it could contribute to throat cancer. So he had to have surgery about eight months after I had my knee surgery. We were able to afford all of it. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without Obamacare.

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8 People Who Owe Their Lives to Obamacare

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I Have Thoughts About the Oscars

Mother Jones

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The Oscars! They are tonight! I went to them once and my dad lost to Nicolas Cage and then took us to McDonald’s and I had 20 McNuggets and many hot mustard sauces. (But like dad already had an Oscar so like it was totes political; Dad totally should have won).

Anyway! I’m going to watch the Oscars and put some thoughts about them in this here post. The kids, they used to call this live blogging, but Twitter sort is a running live blog and it kind of killed that whole thing, so instead of doing proper live blog time stamp stuff I’m just going to continually update this article and we’ll see where it goes! Maybe tomorrow morning this will just be a Reuters post I copy and pasted in.

Buckle up, friends! This baby is about to get cooking. (Don’t cook your baby. Unless it’s not a human baby and you are referring to a Boar’s Cut piece of meat as ‘baby’)

• This Jimmy Kimmel monologue is either a) not great and totally forgettable, or b) i have not been paying enough attention because I was making that art of me in the grass with Julie Andrews and the Oscar statue.

• The first Oscar is Best Supporting Actor and it goes to Mahershala Ali from Moonlight! He’s apparently the first Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar, which is nuts. That’s insane. That it took this long for Hollywood to give a performer of the second largest religion in the world its highest recognition is insane.

Suicide Squad, an unwatchable film, just won some technical Oscar. Think about that. Suicide Squad is an Academy Award winning film and Donald Trump is president. God is dead.

• You know what was really great this year but wasn’t nominated for an Oscar because it is actually not a movie at all and thus not eligible? The Amazon Original television show Mozart In The Jungle! It’s better than like 90% of this crap. Do you like it? They’re so cute together, the weird conductor and the weird oboist! I hope they fall in love. I mean they are in love but I hope they admit it to themselves, get together, and stay together. Relationships are hard, but when when you put in the effort they can be really rewarding. Anyway, it’s not a film so it wasn’t eligible tonight.

OJ: Made In America won best documentary! I haven’t seen all the other nominees but I have seen that and it was great. It was a great companion piece to the similarly great The People Vs OJ Simpson. My colleague Edwin Rios actually wrote a great thing about how OJ: Made In America is great.

• Mel Gibson is nominated for Best Director tonight. A story:

• LOL at this prophetic Trump tweet

• Viola Davis won! And she gave a really sweet speech.

• The film The Salesman from Iran just won best Best Foreign-Language Film. The film’s director Asghar Farhadi announced a few weeks ago that he was going to boycott the ceremony because of Donald Trump’s stupid fucking Muslim ban. A statement was read in his absence.

• The dude from Mozart in the Jungle just appeared at the Oscars to present some animation award! Is he reading this post? If you are reading this, star of Mozart In The Jungle, please know that I am a big fan and would love to hangout sometime. Do you go to SoulCycle? I love SoulCycle. Let’s go to SoulCycle!

• The guy from Mozart In The Jungle came back to present some second animation award but first gave a really eloquent little speech about how Trump’s wall is dumb and evil. Sir, sir, sir, I love you. I want to be your best friend. I should probably learn your name.

• I’m tired. I have to be up early tomorrow to interview someone :(. I might just stop watching this. But I also might not stop. You know what they say, “life isn’t a song you’re playing, it’s a song you’re writing.” No one knows what the next brick on your path is even though you’re the one who lays the bricks, you dig? I dig. And I might keep updating this…or i might not.

• I personally don’t really care for Seth Rogen’s films but he seems nice?

• Michael J Fox just said he wanted to point out how much “we all owe to editors.” Indeed. This rambling ramble could probably use one.

• Some British dude won some Oscar. Finally, the British have arrived.

• Oh the British dude who won was the editor of Abortion, I mean Arrival. Arrival was about abortion.

• Hahaha the We Bought A Zoo thing was great.

• The cat who directed La La Land just won Best Director. It could have gone to the dude who did Moonlight. I don’t know who should have won and believe “should have” is a question for the poets, but I really liked La La Land and I say that as a person who went to theater camp and, i don’t mean to brag, had their first sexual relations backstage at a musical.

• Emma Stone won Best Actress! I don’t personally care if she was better than whoever, but she seems like such a sweet person. I really think that she at least appears to be maybe the most lovable Hollywood celebrity. I hope and believe that she probably is. Anyway, my main point is: congrats for this actress who seems objectively wonderful.

•HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT Warren Beatty just gave Best Picture to La La Land but then they came out to say he fucked it up and it was actually Moonlight!!

This was just so nuts

A post shared by Ben Dreyfuss (@bendreyfuss) on Feb 26, 2017 at 9:34pm PST

• i’m going to bed, but the real winner tonight was Marisa Tomei.

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I Have Thoughts About the Oscars

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The DNC Chair Race Is Over. Now Comes the Real Battle.

Mother Jones

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And to think, that was the easy part. Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez was elected as chair of the Democratic National Committee on Saturday, edging out Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison in the first competitive election for the job in decades. The 55-year-old Perez, the first Latino chair of the party, will now inherit the most thankless job in politics—rebuilding a party that is at its lowest point since the 1920s.

The race was often miscast as a proxy fight between supporters of Bernie Sanders and supporters of Hillary Clinton, a framing that was unfair to both Ellison and Perez, dynamic and progressive political operatives running for a job often reserved for staid political figures. In the end, Perez’s win was not a rejection of Ellison’s vision of the party; in key ways, his campaign was an affirmation of it.

Party chair is a position typically of interest only to political junkies. But with organizers still amped up from the presidential election, the race had the feel and structure of a competitive primary, with a half-dozen candidate forums across the country and an intensive push from rank-and-file voters that recalled previous courting of superdelegates. “I’ve been lobbied consistently by phone, by email, by Facebook, by Twitter for the last month,” said Melvin Poindexter, a DNC member from Massachusetts who was supporting Ellison.

Ellison, for his part, tried to tamp down the barrage of phone calls on his behalf, which one state party chair unfavorably described as “anarchy.” But aggressive lobbying proved critical. Kerman Maddox, a DNC member from California, explained that he’d chosen Perez in part because “Tom called me more than any of the other Democratic candidates”—a sentiment echoed by other voting members.

After the results were announced, a dozen Ellison supporters—including the congressman’s brother, Eric—chanted “party for the people, not big money” from the back of the Atlanta ballroom, with a few cries of “bullshit!” thrown in. While the formal final vote, sealed on the second ballot, was 235 to 200, in a show of unity, Perez was subsequently elected by acclamation. In his first move as chair, he announced that Ellison had agreed to serve as his deputy chair.

“If you’re wearing a ‘Keith’ t-shirt—or any t-shirt—I am asking you to give everything you’ve got to support chairman Perez,” Ellison told the room. Afterward, they switched campaign pins in a show of solidarity.

In the run up to the vote, some Ellison backers argued that there was no real case for a Perez chairmanship—that he was running as a check on Sanders’ influence and little more. But DNC members I spoke with seemed to understand Perez’s pitch quite clearly: he was a turnaround artist who had retooled complex bureaucracies toward progressive ends, first at the Maryland Department of Labor, then at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and finally as President Barack Obama’s Labor Secretary. If progressives had forgotten what they liked about Perez, they needed to look no farther than the conservative Breitbart News, which once heralded Perez “the most radical cabinet secretary since Henry Wallace,” the New Dealer who eventually bolted the Democrats to mount a third party challenge in 1948.

The fights that Perez has waged over the course of his career track closely with those Ellison cut his teeth on in Minneapolis—housing discrimination, voter suppression, and living wages. Neo-liberal stooges still have a place in the Democratic party. But the DNC chair isn’t one of them.

Beyond their shared political priorities, Perez even offered a similar diagnosis as Ellison. The party had become top-heavy, focusing too much on the presidential race, and had neglected to compete on a county-by-county level. He advocated something resembling a restoration of former chair Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, and proposed to spend more time knocking on doors in off-year elections. There was no talk of compromising with President Donald Trump; Perez dubbed him “the worst president in the history of the United States.”

Ellison sought to win the same way he always has, through a mastery of coalition politics. His backers included American Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, Rep. John Lewis, and Sanders—many of whom found themselves on opposing sides during the president primary. The threat by OJ Simpson counsel and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz< to leave the party if Ellison won did not appear to have a substantial effect on voters. (Maybe they were waiting to hear from F. Lee Bailey.) He ran not as Sanders 2.0, but as a restoration of an even older form of Democratic progressivism, one evoked by the spruce-green colors on his t-shirts and tote bags—the campaign colors of his political idol, the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone.

Just a few hours before the election, there was an indication Ellison might come up short when the committee members voted on a resolution that would reinstate the party’s ban on corporate donations. The ban, which was first implemented by president-elect Barack Obama in 2008, had been dropped last year by the previous party chair, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Ellison had supported the reinstatement of the ban and envisioned a party’s fundraising model in the mold of Sanders’ small-dollar campaign. Perez never committed to reinstating the contribution ban.

The resolution brought on the most contentious 10 minutes of a weekend that, up until then, had been a love-fest. Bob Mulholland of California, the leading critic of the ban, chided critics as naive. He cited corporate opposition to ousted North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory as proof that corporations aren’t all evil. Supporters of the ban, some of the new party leaders whom had been recently elected to their posts with the backing of Sanders’s supporters, implicitly tied the resolution to the senator’s one-time candidacy, warning that the party risked alienating voters who cared about money in politics. Jessica Sell Chambers, a Sanders backer and the newly minted national committeewoman from Wyoming, offered a succinct appraisal: “I belong to the party of the people and the last time I checked corporations aren’t people.”

Inside the Westin, where Democrats began assembling on Thursday, the notion that the chair candidates were engaged in a rancorous, existential fight seemed far-fetched. Perez, who was hoarse from two days of lobbying as he made a last-minute push Friday night, had taken to calling the event “Unity Saturday.” Even the most die-hard Ellison supporters were optimistic that the party would be in good hands win or lose. Each of the leading candidates devoted portions of their stump speech to a call for unity no matter who won.

“I really just want to like put at least four of them together,” said Dolly Strazar from Hawaii, a Sanders supporter who ended up backing Perez. Another voting member, Aleita Huguenin of California, predicted that the fight would quickly simmer down. “I’ve been through too many of them,” she said. “People are a little disappointed, they have two dinners, and will be back together.”

In reality, the contentious fight over the future of the party never really described the DNC race—but there is such a battle playing out across the country. Already, Sanders supporters, both organically and with the support of the Senator’s non-profit Our Revolution, have begun targeting the party’s apparatus at state, county, and local levels. They are poised to take over the California Democratic party in May, after winning a majority of delegates to the state convention in January. The Sanders wing is ascendant in Nebraska and Wyoming, and setting its sights on Florida and Michigan. Beyond party positions, re-energized Sanders supporters are talking openly about primary challenges to Democratic officeholders who support Donald Trump’s policies.

Less than a year after only 39 of 447 DNC members endorsed Sanders’ presidential campaign, his chosen candidate came about 15 votes short of taking over the whole thing. The numbers reflect Sanders’ forces growing strength in the party, a gradual upheaval that may only be sped along by Perez’s victory. DNC members from Wyoming—where the Vermont senator notched a huge caucus victory but due to party rules emerged with few delegates—who are not on board are feeling the heat. When Bruce Palmer, the party’s vice chair, told me he was supporting Tom Perez, he conceded that it may be to his own detriment. After all, he’s got an election next month.

Continued here:

The DNC Chair Race Is Over. Now Comes the Real Battle.

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Donald Trump May Be on Your Television, But Here’s What America Really Looks Like

Mother Jones

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Photojournalist Peter van Agtmael considers his third book, Buzzing at the Sill, the latest chapter of what he calls “one greater book”—a sweeping exploration of the September 11th attacks and the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on soldiers and their families. His project began with his 2009 book, 2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die, and continued with Disco Night Sept. 11, which appeared in 2014. In Buzzing at the Sill, published by Kehrer Verlag, he shifts his attention to unexplored corners the United States, after he realized “how little I know about my country.”

The Magnum photographer first went to Iraq in 2006 when he was 24, and he covered the conflicts there and in Afghanistan for several years before returning to the States. With 72 images pulled from his journalism assignments and others he shot while traveling throughout the country, Buzzing at the Sill examines the reverberations of 9/11 through glimpses of daily American life that often have the intimate feel of a snapshot. The photos in Buzzing at the Sill depict vulnerable, grieving, celebrating, and sometimes threatening Americans, collectively offering a cohesive and sharp reading of the country, with a powerful undercurrent of alienation. “In America, we somehow feel immune,” he writes in Buzzing at the Sill, “but in any country at war, the first thing they’ll tell you is that they didn’t think it could happen there.”

I talked with van Agtmael about making this book and what it might say about the political climate in the United States today.

Kentucky Derby aftermath. (Louisville, KY. 2015)

Mother Jones: Can you tell me about the title, Buzzing at the Sill?
Peter van Agtmael: Buzzing at the Sill is from a Theodore Roethke poem called “In a Dark Time.” I’d heard a small part of it in a play, a sort of sci-fi play about morality in a virtual reality universe. Nothing to do with the book precisely, but it was a great play. I read the poem afterwards because I was intrigued and had one of those strange senses: “This poem is kind of important to me. I don’t know why, but I’m going to just keep it in the back of my mind.” I just kept coming back to it. As I started putting the book together and writing the stories for it, this idea of buzzing as a word kept popping up in my brain.

I started the book with the story of a vulture that flapped up to this window sill outside of a burn ward at a military hospital in Texas. I guess it could smell the rotting flesh through the walls and was just trying to desperately and aggressively get in through that window, I don’t know, to try and feast on the flesh. It was really a troubling moment. But apparently it happens all the time, because the soldiers in recovery and the nurses were totally accustomed to the presence of those vultures.

When I started thinking of the decisions that led me down the road first—which was part of Disco Night Sept. 11 and then the buzzing being— I somehow couldn’t ignore the urge to do things that kind of defy logic. And I liked the poem, I liked the ring of it. I was sitting with David Allan Harvey one day when he pointed out how appropriate the title was for the things I was talking about.

MJ: In what way do you see that Buzzing at the Sill continues the narrative you built with Disco Night?

PVA: I went out to cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fundamentally because I was interested in war as a notion and in experiencing it. I was interested in history and how societies form. I was interested in the recent history of what had provoked these wars. So when I finally got out there, I was really seeing the wars through the American perspective, much more than through being embedded with American soldiers and Marines. I realized in that process how little I knew about my own country. I had grown up in the suburbs and, after college, I moved out of the country, so I didn’t really know the place well. When I started following soldiers and their families back home, it provoked a lot of the questions about who we are as a nation, questions I realized couldn’t be explored through the more limited framework of looking at the military at war and at home. So that inspired these trips in which I began to explore America in more general terms. I really started this work in 2009. I got the bulk of it done as I was easing out of Disco Night. I started them as almost concurrent projects.

A woman attending the annual Iowa GOP Ronald Reagan dinner, where Sarah Palin gave the keynote speech. (Des Moines, Iowa, 2010)

The Fourth of July. (Brooklyn, New York, 2010)

The KKK had boasted that dozens from their Klan chapter would attend the rally and cross burning, but there were only a few people when we showed up, including a British TV crew and a freelance photographer. (Maryland, 2015)

Outside Lyniece Nelson’s house. Nelson’s 19-year-old daughter, Shelly Hilliard (known as “Treasure”), was strangled, dismembered, and set on fire in 2011. Treasure was a transgender teen born Henry Hilliard Jr. The family is with Treasure’s urn. (Detroit, Michigan, 2012)

MJ: What was your thinking as you approached putting together this body of work? The photos feel like they’re pieced together from assignments or from different stories.

PVA: At first it wasn’t meant to be a book, although I’m always thinking about that in the back of my mind. It started off as a series of exploratory road trips that I was doing with Christian Hansen, who I dedicated the book to. Then I started getting some assignments to go shoot in America because I think editors liked the pictures I was taking. What I was doing for those assignments wasn’t always directly tied to what I was doing for myself, but it gave me the space to photograph. I started getting assignments that dealt with my own interests and made some pictures in that direction. A lot of it was just photographed through general exploration. It was sometimes provoked by assignments, then I’d go back on my own dime if I really clicked with a place. And sometimes it was just hanging out with my family or friends.

MJ: How did you approach the editing? How were you going to tie the pictures together?

PVA: I’m a constant editor. Every few months or so I make a ton of 4×6 prints. I put them on a magnetic board and I live with them for a while to see what bubbles to the surface. A lot of this was part of Disco Night originally, and I suddenly started realizing, “If I keep working on this because I’m not done and I put all that in Disco Night, how can this be one book? Is it going to be too long and bloated and crazy?” Then I started thinking, “Okay, I have so many other questions about America, when do I stop?” I started thinking about each book being a chapter in one bigger book and that gave me the space to cut it off at a certain point. I needed to have some kind of thematic focus to the work.

I was taking all these prints and I brought them to the Magnum meetings, trying the old Josef Koudelka trick: Give them to photographers, who are getting bored during the talks about the economics of the agency, to look through with a pen. They’ll separate them in two piles—what they like and what they don’t like—and put their initials on the back. I started to find the core pictures that people seem to relate to. I’d ask myself why? And did I relate to them? Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t. But it gave me an idea of how other people were seeing the work. From there, I kept shooting but started making drafts of the work, essentially spending a few days a month sequencing and editing, hanging things up on the board, showing them to trusted confidantes from in and outside the photo world. It started to take its shape naturally over time until I kind of ran out of ideas. At that point I was like, “Okay, I guess it’s a book.”

After dinner at Lyniece Nelson’s house. One of Nelson’s children was murdered, one committed suicide shortly after his 16th birthday. Her house burned down not long after the death of her son, destroying the urns of both her deceased children. (Detroit, Michigan, 2012)

Hunting rabbits with BB guns. (The outskirts of New Orleans, Louisiana, 2009)

Iraqi refugees in a low-income housing community in Portland. The area is home to several thousand Iraqi refugees. (Portland, Oregon, 2015)

MJ: When you’re out on these road trips, do you still see reverberations from 9/11 in the country?

PVA: Constantly. You find them in them most unexpected places, like graffiti on a wall. Sometimes it’s a faded picture; sometimes it’s a newspaper tacked to a wall. Sometimes it’s weird paraphernalia related to it, home constructed paraphernalia. It resonates through society and continues to resonate today. The travel ban that was imposed by the administration is a very direct reverberation of 9/11. Even though most people were disconnected from it, the moment amplified a fairly massive and somewhat irrational fear that exists in the populace at large. And I think a lot of the work I’ve done and a lot of the work I’m going to do in the future still ties to 9/11 and the fallout from it.

MJ: In the text you’ve written for both Disco Night September 11 and Buzzing at the Sill, you are introspective about covering war. Do you still cover conflict?

PVA: I am still covering conflict to some degree. I was back in Iraq last year for the next book I’m working on. I’ve covered quite a bit of the Israel and Palestine conflict in the last five years for another book I’m working on. But I’m not doing it with the kind of intensity I was before and I’m not seeking out the front line and the kind danger that comes with being at the edge of the war the way I used to. It just kind of ran its course for me. For a long time I could justify doing it to myself, no matter how irrational it was. It was important to me and my work. And I just don’t feel it in the same way any more. When it comes up and it’s important to me, I’ll do it, but more out of sense of duty than desire—which used to be a big part of it.

MJ: When we started talking, you mentioned that Buzzing at the Sill reflects the times, the current situation in America. Can you explain what you meant?

PVA: It deals with the margins of America, a lot of parts unseen. Well, parts that are seen and familiar to a lot of the populace, but unseen when it comes to the parameters of what mainstream news and popular culture and Hollywood reflects. That kind of unease, that melancholy, is of course partly my interpretation, but partly, I think, it’s something that’s really there as well. It resonates with this moment and the sort of alienation from the power structure a lot of people feel, as well as a certain amount of desperation, in the hope of disrupting the power structure so they can live better lives. I think in those ways, it’s intimately connected to today.

The youngest children tending the horses. (Pine Ridge, South Dakota, 2011)

A “second line parade” is a local African American tradition where brass bands–known as the first line-march in the streets and are joined by members of the public, the “second liners.” (New Orleans, Louisiana, 2012)

All photos by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos, from his book Buzzing at the Sill.

Continue reading – 

Donald Trump May Be on Your Television, But Here’s What America Really Looks Like

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