Category Archives: Justice

On Violence and Protest

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of violence in social movements. Such violence could take many forms, from punching nazis to property damage.

Conventional wisdom among the mainstream left is that such violence isn’t a good tactic: not only is morally problematic, it is typically unsuccessful.

In his biography of Gandhi, Bhikhu Parekh describes Gandhi’s utility argument against violence, which went hand in hand with his moral argument against violence:

Gandhi further argued that violence rarely achieved lasting results. An act of violence was deemed to be successful when it achieved its immediate objectives. However, if it were to be judged by its long-term consequences, our conclusion would have to be very different. Every apparently successful act of violence encouraged the belief that it was the only effective way to achieve the desired goal, and developed the habit of using violence every time ran into opposition. Society thus became used to it and never felt compelled to explore an alternative. Violence also tended to generate an inflammatory spiral. Every successful use blunted the community’s moral sensibility and raised its threshold of violence, so that over time an increasingly larger amount became necessary to achieve the same results.

There are some compelling points in that argument, but it fails to address the larger question: is violence never a justifiable means for social change, either morally or pragmatically?

After all, Gandhi’s level of commitment to non-violence may not be the example we want to follow. In an extreme example of pacifism, Gandhi wrote of Jews in World War II Germany:

And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring [Jews] an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can…The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.

In contrast to Gandhi’s view, there are many reasons to think violence in response to genocide may be permissible – or should even be encouraged.

My friend Joshua Miller recently reflected on this question, writing:

…in many ways, the canonization of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have served to create an artificial standard of non-violence that no social movement can ever really achieve and that neither the Civil Rights movement nor the Indian independence movement actually achieved. Plus, if violent repression by the police goes unmentioned in the media but activist violence becomes a regular topic of debate, then it will appear that the only violence is coming from the activists. 

I particularly appreciate his insight regarding the ‘canonization’ of Gandhi and King – they both deserve praise for their work and impacts, but we tend to enshrine them as peaceful activists who could do no wrong; who should be emulated at all costs. Malcolm X, on the other hand, is pushed by the wayside, his story is less told. Yet he did have an important and lasting impact on the American civil rights movement; could King’s pacifism have succeeded without Malcom X’s radicalism?

I have no easy answers to these question; indeed, such easy answers do not exist. But I think we owe it to ourselves to think through these questions – is violent protest ever morally justified? If it can be morally justified at times, is it ever pragmatically justified? Do our collective memories of history really capture what happened, or do we tell ourselves a simpler, softer story – do we only remember the way we wish it had happened?

Perhaps, as Camus wrote, there is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.

 

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We Will Not Stop

There have been a lot of theories floating around that some of the most egregious actions of the Trump administration – such as the confusion over whether the executive order banned green card holders – was intended to promote protest fatigue. So by the time all the really horrible stuff started happening, we’d all be too worn out to resist.

It’s reasonable to think that such a Machiavellian tactic would work – after all, the balance of fighting back and continuing life as normal is a precarious one. We still have bills to pay and work to do.

But if that’s the aim of the administration, I think they underestimate the outrage their policies cause; I think they underestimate the American commitment to democracy and pluralism. There may be a white supremacist serving as a senior advisor to the President, but we will not allow his vision for America to become what America is.

We are better than that and we will not stop fighting.

Perhaps I am naive to have such optimism – and goodness knows I am generally not one for optimism – but…today marks the 5 year anniversary of my father’s death. He was a radical, and he taught me to be a radical. I can think of no better way to mark this date than by attending a rally to make Massachusetts a ‘sanctuary state.’

At that rally, they warned of the danger of protest fatigue while the crowd chanted, “we will not stop. We will not stop.”

And, indeed, we won’t. We will not stop; there is so much work to do.

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Demanding Dignity and Respect for All My Neighbors

It’s been a dramatic week. President Trump has signed a number of Executive Orders and Memoranda which strike at the very core of what I believe.

I have been particularly disturbed by two orders signed yesterday; the first on “border security” and the other on “public safety” – phrases which are essentially Newspeak for racial bias and immigrant hatred.  “Tens of thousands of removable aliens have been released into communities across the country,” one order claims.

I am ashamed to hear such hateful rhetoric coming from the President of my country.

But I am given hope by the millions of good men and women who don’t accept such false claims; who have worked and who reaffirm their work to supporting and welcoming all members of our community.

In his Order, President Trump claimed that sanctuary cities – those jurisdictions which have refused to enable a Federal witch-hunt for difference, “have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”

I say that it is these jurisdictions which epitomize the very fabric our Republic. It is these jurisdictions which stand true to American values; who pursue the vision of a land where all people are created equal and endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am proud to live in a Sanctuary city, and I am proud that my mayor, Joseph Curtatone, has said in no uncertain terms that we will not waiver in this commitment. These are our neighbors.

I am also proud to serve as the vice-Chair of the board for The Welcome Project, a vibrant non-profit which builds the collective power of Somerville immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions.

In response to Wednesday’s reprehensible executive orders, The Welcome Project released the following statement this morning. And by the way, you can donate to The Welcome Project here. ___

President Donald Trump signed executive orders Wednesday attacking America’s status as a nation of immigrants. We at The Welcome Project are saddened but steadfast. We will not waiver in continuing the work our communities have entrusted us to do; building the collective power of immigrants to help shape community decisions and pursuing the American vision of liberty and justice for all.

We thank Mayor Curtatone, the Board of Aldermen, and the residents of Somerville as they continue to fight for America and support immigrants, community, and Sanctuary City status.  Somerville continues to be a beacon of light and a hope for many. We know that our community only becomes stronger when all people are free to participate in it; that Sanctuary Cities are not about harboring criminals, they are about reducing crime, increasing trust between the police and the community, and offering a better future for our families.

The Welcome Project will continue to work with all members of our community, supporting all immigrants regardless of documentation status. We will stay vigilant in our mission and push for the rights of all. We will work with the immigrant community to ensure their voices are being heard.  We will continue our commitment to justice, equality, and inclusion. We thank all of you for your continued support as we explore the effects these executive orders have on our organization, our constituents, and our city.

Benjamin Echevarria
Executive Director

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Social Movements and Leadership

In his autobiography, appropriately titled The Long Haul, activist and educator Myles Horton writes about the leadership of social movements. While great charismatic leaders serve an important galvanizing role and go down in history as the leader of the movement, the real power of a social moment is that it multiplies leadership – it turns the people themselves into leaders.

He tells the story of a elderly black woman who started a Citizen School. She heard the idea somewhere, figured it out, and taught a few other people how to do it as well. She had no idea Citizen Schools were happening all over. It was simply an idea which she could pick up and make her own. Horton writes:

It’s only in a movement that an idea is often made simple enough and direct enough that I can spread rapidly. Then your leadership multiplies very rapidly, because there’s something explosive going on. Please see that other people not so different from themselves do things that they thought could never be done. They’re emboldened and challenged by that step into the water, and once the get in the water, it’s as if they’ve never not been there.

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Perspectives on Protest

Last Saturday’s Women’s March has been widely praised as one of the largest acts of protest in US political history. Attendees talked about the amazing sense of camaraderie, and the inspiration of seeing more people than they could imagine taking to the street.

But, of course, the march isn’t without its disagreements. Now that it’s over, skeptics will ask “but how do we turn this into real action?” And leading up to the march, there were a number of difficult and important questions: who is represented in the women’s march? Who is really represented? What is the role of violence in protest?

There have been a number of great pieces about the racism of the white feminist movement, which has historically, unapologetically, sidelined women of color. In the New York Times, Jenna Wortham reflected on a picture from the Women’s March: Angela Peoples holding a sign that reads, “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” Wortham writes that of all the iconic images to come out of Saturday, this was the one she found most resonant: “It felt indicative of the ways in which the day’s events could be viewed as problematic: the notion that women’s rights were suddenly the most important cause in our nation, or that there haven’t been protests and activist movements worth attending until the election of Donald Trump.”

There have also been interesting discussions about core beliefs required for feminism, as a feminist anti-abortion group was removed from the list of official march partners.

Finally, the march has also raised important questions about the role of violence in protest – and the role of the police in responding to protest. The women’s march was praised for it’s lack of violence – which some have attributed to divergent police response to a largely white protest. That praise also overlooks the work of the Black Bloc – which sought to disrupt the status quo during inauguration and resulted in an infinitely meme-able clip of a neo-Nazi getting punched in the face.

In the Nation, Natasha Lennard argued that while such protests are often greeted with distain by more mainstream activists, their work is essential to to overall goal we seek. Most of us are free riders, benefiting from their actions while distancing ourselves from their tactics. As Lennard writes:

To talk with any romance for the black bloc risks falling into the worst tropes of bombastic revolutionary writing. We don’t don black masks and become instant revolutionary subjects. We don’t necessarily achieve more with property damage than a larger, more subdued rally achieves. In every case, the standard of achievement depends on the aims of the action, and all of us are far from creating the rupture we want to see in the world. One broken window, or a hundred, is not victory. But nor is over half a million people rallying on the National Mall. Both gain potency only if they are perceived as a threat by those in and around power. And neither action will appear threatening unless followed up again and again with unrelenting force, in a multitude of directions. You don’t have to choose between pink hat and black mask; each of us can wear both.

I raise this topics of disagreement around the march, because they are all important questions and they will not go away. Coalitions are hard to build and maintain, and we won’t ever agree on everything – from policy to tactics.

There’s a conventional wisdom that conservative win because they are better at collectively getting on message, while liberals are lost arguing amongst themselves.

But I don’t think that failure and disorganization are a intrinsic part of pluralism. As we continue in the work that comes out of the Women’s March, I don’t want to see us brush these disagreements under the rug – I want to see us embrace them. We need to keep raising these issues, keep having these conversations – and we need to keep working together.

I don’t think those ends are incompatible.

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Resistance

I’ve been thinking lately of John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down. It’s a tale of resistance. The story of how a a small town is swiftly conquered by an overwhelming force whose power is so absolute there is nothing the people can do to resist.

Then slowly, steadily, something changes. Resistance builds. The people who have been stripped of all power find that it is in fact their conquerors who have no power at all. In the slow fight for freedom; it is the conquered who will always win.

I excerpt a long passage below:

The days and weeks dragged on, and the months dragged on.  The snow fell and melted and fell and melted and finally fell and stuck.  The dark buildings of the little town wore bells and hats and eyebrows of white and there were trenches through the snow to the doorways.  In the harbor the coal barges came empty and went away loaded, but the coal did not come out of the ground easily.  The good miners made mistakes.  They were clumsy and slow.  Machinery broke and took a long time to fix.  The people of the conquered country settled in a slow, silent, waiting revenge.  The men who had been traitors, who had helped the invaders – and many of them believed it was for a better state and an ideal way of life – found that the control they took was insecure, that the people they had known looked at them coldly  and never spoke.

And there was death in the air, hovering and waiting.  Accidents happened on the railroad, which clung to the mountains and connected the little town to the rest of the nation.  Avalanches poured down on the tracks and rails were spread.  No train could move unless the tracks were first inspected.  People were shot in reprisal and it made no difference.  Now and then a group of young men escaped and went to England.  And the English bombed the coal mine and did some damage and killed some of both their friends and their enemies.  And it did no good.  The cold hatred grew with the winter, the silent, sullen hatred, the waiting hatred.  The food supply was controlled – issued to the obedient and withheld from the disobedient – so that the whole population turned coldly obedient.  There was a point that food could not be withheld, for a starving man cannot mine coal, cannot lift and carry.  And the hatred was deep in the eyes of the people, beneath the surface.

Now it was that the conqueror was surrounded, the men of the battalion alone among silent enemies, and no man might relax his guard even for a moment.  If he did, he disappeared, and some snowdrift received his body.  If he went alone to a woman, he disappeared and some snowdrift received his body.   If he drank, he disappeared.  The men of the battalion could sing only together, could dance only together, and dancing gradually stopped and the singing expressed a longing for home.  Their talk was of friends and relatives who loved them and their longings were for warmth and love, because a man can be a soldier for only so many hours a day and for only so many months in a year, and then he wants to be a man again, wants girls and drinks and music and laughter and ease, and when these are cut off, they become irresistibly desirable.

And the men thought always of home.  The men of the battalion came to detest the place they had conquered, and they were curt with the people and the people were curt with them, and gradually a little fear began to grow in the conquerors, a fear that it would never be over, that they could never relax or go home, a fear that one day they would crack and be hunted through the mountains like rabbits, for the conquered never relaxed their hatred.  The patrols, seeing lights, hearing laughter, would be drawn as to a fire, and when they came near the laughter stopped, the warmth went out, and the people were cold and obedient.  And the soldiers, smelling warm food from the little restaurants, went in and ordered the warm food and found that it was oversalted or overpeppered.

Then the soldiers read the news from home and from the other conquered countries, and the news was always good, and for a little while they believed it, and then after a while they did not believe it any more.  And every man carried in his heart the terror.  “If home crumbled, they would not tell us, and then it would be too late.  These people will not spare us.  They will kill us all.”  They remembered stories of their men retreating through Belgium and retreating out of Russia.  And the more literate remembered the frantic, tragic retreat from Moscow, when every peasant’s pitchfork tasted blood and the snow was rotten with bodies.

And they knew when they cracked, or relaxed, or slept too long, it would be the same here, and their sleep was restless and their days were nervous.  They asked questions their officers could not answer because they did not know.  They were not told, either.  They did not believe the reports from home, either.

Thus it came about that the conquerors grew afraid of the conquered and their nerves wore thin and they shot at shadows in the night.  The cold, sullen silence was with them always.  Then three soldiers went insane in a week and cried all night and all day until they were sent away home.  And others might have gone insane if they had not heard that mercy deaths awaited the insane at home, and a mercy death is a terrible thing to think of.  Fear crept into the men in their billets and it made them sad, and it crept into the patrols and it made them cruel.

The year turned and the nights grew long.  It was dark at three o’clock in the afternoon and not light again until nine in the morning.  The jolly lights did not shine out on the snow, for by law every window must be black against the bombers.  And yet when the English bombers came over, some light always appeared near the coal mine.  Sometimes the sentries shot a man with a lantern and once a girl with a flashlight.  And it did no good.  Nothing was cured by the shooting.

And the officers were a reflection of their men, more restrained because their training was more complete, more resourceful because they had more responsibility, but the same fears were a little deeper buried in them, the same longings were more tightly locked in their hearts.  And they were under a double strain, for the conquered people watched them for mistakes and their own men watched them for weakness, so that their spirits were taut to the breaking point.  The conquerors were under a terrible spiritual siege and everyone knew, conquered and conquerors, what would happen when the first crack appeared.

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Demographic bias in social media language analysis

Before the break, I had the opportunity to hear Brendan O’Connor talk about his recent paper with Su Lin Blodgett and Lisa Green: Demographic Dialectal Variation in Social Media: A Case Study of African-American English.

Imagine an algorithm designed to classify sentences. Perhaps it identifies the topic of the sentence or perhaps it classifies the sentiment of the sentence. These algorithms can be really accurate – but they are only as good as the corpus they are trained on.

If you train an algorithm on the New York Times and then try to classify tweets, for example, you may not have the kind of success you might like – the language and writing style of the Times and a typical tweet being so different.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the Blodgett et al. paper, but perhaps most notable to me is their comparison of the quality of existing language identification tools on tweets by race. They find that these tools perform poorly on text associated with African Americans while performing better on text associated with white speakers.

In other words, if you got a big set of Twitter data and filtered out the non-English tweets, that algorithm would disproportionally identify tweets from black authors as not being in English, and those tweets would then be removed from the dataset.

Such an algorithm, trained on white language, has the unintentional effect of literally removing voices of color.

Their paper presents a classifier to eliminate that disparity, but the study is an eye-opening finding – a cautionary tail for anyone undertaking language analysis. If you’re not thoughtful and careful in your approach, even the most validated classifier may bias your data sample.

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Power and Social Capital

This semester, I’m taking a class on social networks for which I recently read Sandra Susan Smith’s 2005 article “Don’t put my name on it”: Social Capital Activation and Job Finding Assistance among the Black Urban Poor.

I haven’t read a lot of formal Sociology papers, so I was a little taken aback by the articles lack of overt social justice norms while tackling a deep social justice issue, but the paper as a whole is a really interesting read.

Smith sets up the article by describing a common explanation of persistent joblessness among the black urban poor: social isolation, or, in network terms, ‘deficiencies in access to mainstream ties and institutions.” Her work, though, finds a different explanation: it’s not that poor urban blacks don’t have access to resources for finding jobs, it’s that there are functional deficiencies of their job referral networks.

More specifically, over 80% of the respondents in Smith’s study “expressed concern that job seekers in their networks were too unmotivated to accept assistance, required great expenditures of time and emotional energy, or acted too irresponsibly on the job, thereby jeopardizing contacts’ own reputations in the eyes of employers and negatively affecting their already-tenuous labor market prospects.”

There’s a simple way of reading this article which doesn’t delve deeply into the social justice discrepancy found by the study. Such a reading indicated that there is simply a difference between experiences, that “social capital deficiencies of the black urban poor may have less to do with deficiencies in access…[and] more to do with functional deficiencies – the disinclination of potential job contacts to assist to assist when given the opportunity to do so, not because they lack information or the ability to influence hires, but because they perceive pervasive untrustworthiness among their job-seeking ties and choose not to assist.”

But the root of these functional deficiencies are worth digging into. Why do they exist? Where do the come from? Smith doesn’t go into the detail in this paper, though she does get to an important aspect of it near the end of the paper:

Resembling the the distrusting job contacts described in this study, employers expected from black job seekers, especially males, tardiness and absenteeism, unreliability, and an unwillingness to work when on the job. Furthermore, they believed that probability of theft, cursing, fighting, and disrespecting authority were greatly enhanced with black hires relative to other racial and ethnic groups.

In other words, people declined to provide support to their job-seeking contacts not necessarily directly because they perceived those people to be lazy or too ‘ghetto’ in the words of the paper – but because they thought their employer might perceive the job-seeker as such.

Smith’s whole study is done among the black urban poor – people’s who’s job stability is tenuous and who rely heavily upon their employer’s goodwill. Recommending a bad employee presents a significant risk – a risk which is amplified by an employer’s negative stereotypes.

Smith uses the language of ‘functional deficiencies,’ but what’s missing from this discussion in an analysis of power, of employer’s ability to set the norms and threaten sanctions if those norms are violated.

John Gaventa argues that “power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness. Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining.”

It is the self-sustaining nature of those power relationships which we see in Smith’s study: if there are functional deficiencies in the social capital of poor urban blacks, it is because power made them so, and power re-enforces them

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Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict

At last week’s National Communication Association (NCA) annual conference, Penn State’s Kirt Wilson gave a moving lecture on Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict: Communicating Social Justice and Civil Rights Memory in the Age of Obama.

Responding to the “civic calling” theme of this year’s conference, Wilson praised the urged to get involved, but cautioned that we must do so wisely – first understanding “the nature of the society we are called to,” and critically interrogating the civic actions we take on its behalf.

We all know that our society is not perfect – indeed, that is why we so acutely feel a civic calling; a need to engage in the hard work of democratic living. But even with the need for such a  “process-model” utopia, as Erin McKenna calls it, the entrenched inequities of our society require more than a moderate amount of collective civic work.

Wilson pointed to the innovative activism of Black Lives Matter, which seeks not only to ameliorate an immediate problem, but to fundamentally disrupt the paradigm which has supported and normalized the perpetual murder of black people.

Wilson quoted Fredrick Douglass: “Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names…and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.”

Black slavery still exists today, Wilson argued, but we call it by other names. The school-to-prison pipeline; the new Jim Crow; police-community relations.

When we act, when we respond to the civic calling of our times, we must do so with a critical eye to the institutions which shape our society and the how our actions will affect them.

Black Lives Matter has come under fire for the disruptive nature of their protests; for breaking with the protest approach of their 1960s peers.

But Wilson made a compelling argument for that shift in strategy. The civil rights movement made tremendous advances, but it did not end the insidious remnants of slavery and oppression. Slavery only changed its name.

The only way to truly change this institutionalized oppression is to disrupt the system, to change the paradigm.

Wilson argued that the radicals of the 60s “marched because the only life affirming response to death and to slavery is to resist.” Today’s young activists organize out of a similar need.

“Black life matters,” Wilson said, “because people are dead and they didn’t have to die. And more are going to die tomorrow.”

That is why we resist.

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On Calls for Unity and Disturbing Appointments

In his election night victory speech, Donald Trump took on a more moderate tone, proclaiming: “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me. For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people. . ..I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”

The Democratic party also took the high road – conceding the election even though Clinton received at least a million more votes than Trump. There were calls for unity and respectful meetings between the president and the president-elect. While some chose to take to the street in “Not My President” protests, the resounding message from the Democratic establishment was clear: Democrats have a civic duty to give the president-elect the benefit of the doubt.

And perhaps we did, but as the work of his transition team gets underway Trump has made it clear what kind of President he will be.

Perhaps Representative Katherine Clark put it best when she wrote: “A ‘President for all Americans’ doesn’t appoint an anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic misogynist as senior advisor.”

I’ve heard from a lot of Trump supporters that his dramatic campaign rhetoric really was just rhetoric. They don’t really expect him to build a wall or undertake any of the more troubling policy proposals. Candidate Trump wasn’t as terrifying as liberals thought because his campaign  commitments weren’t intended to be taken literally.

But even if this argument allays an impression of Trump as a bigot, the appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist and senior counselor cannot be so easily explained away. As chairman of the alt-right Breitbart News, Bannon has given a voice and a platform to the neo-nazis and extremists of America.

His appointment is cause for grave concern.

There are many great articles detailing Bannon’s more serious flaws, but I’ll quote here from the National Review, a “conservative weekly journal of opinion”:

The Left, with its endless accusations of “racism” and “xenophobia” and the like, has blurred the line between genuine racists and the millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump because of a desire for greater social solidarity and cultural consensus. It is not “racist” to want to strengthen the bonds uniting citizens to their country

But the alt-right is not a “fabrication” of the media. The alt-right is a hodgepodge of philosophies that, at their heart, reject the fundamental principle that “all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” The alt-right embraces an ethno-nationalism that has its counterparts in the worst of the European far-right…

..The problem is not whether Bannon himself subscribes to a noxious strain of political nuttery; it’s that his de facto endorsement of it enables it to spread and to claim legitimacy, and that what is now a vicious fringe could, over time, become mainstream…No, Steve Bannon is not Josef Goebbels. But he has provided a forum for people who spend their days photoshopping pictures of conservatives into ovens.

This is why I find the appointment of Bannon so horrifying. When true conservatives agree that this is a disconcerting turn of events, it’s pretty clear that something is wrong. Our republic truly is in danger.

Now is indeed a time for unity; but not the unity of blindly supporting the President-Elect. It’s a time for liberals and conservatives alike to unite in denouncing hate in all its forms; of making it clear in no uncertain terms that equality and respect for all people are core American values on which our country will not compromise.

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