Category Archives: History

Book Review – Africa Uprising

In the capital of Uganda, the police can go places where the public cannot – even when that place is a public square or park. When I tried to walk through Constitution Square in 2013, police vehicles and armed officers blocked the entrance to the only public park in downtown Kampala. One police officer told me that the park was closed.  Over his shoulder, I could see a couple dozen officers from the nearby police station lounging on the grass. The public park named Constitution Square was cordoned off to the public, unconstitutionally.

When an Associated Press reporter asked a police commander about the closure of Constitution Square, the commander responded by posing his own question: “Why should they go there as a group in the first place? The place must be controlled.” It was unclear whether “they” meant protesters, or the broader public. Distinctions such as that did not seem to matter much.

The control the police commander sought was a response to a short-lived popular uprising that rocked Kampala in 2011, one in which the people took to the streets and walked to work in protest against a hail of rubber bullets, tear gas, and dyed water cannons, but even two years later the security presence persisted. As far as I know, it continues to persist today.

The police repression has not let up since. In the weeks prior to my stroll past the square in 2013, police had seized the files of the leading independent newspaper in response to an investigative piece critical of the government and then suppressed the ensuing protests. During my visit to the country, they tear-gassed a crowded market because an opposition politician waved at people from his car. A couple of months later, the Ugandan Parliament passed a law severely restricting public assembly, curtailing the right to protest.

The popular uprising of Walk to Work, however short-lived, had been stifled. More recent protests in Uganda have been of a different nature. Many have a more narrow focus, such as protests against socially conservative legislation such as anti-LGBT laws or the so-called miniskirt ban. Others have continued to criticize the regime, but lack the popular mobilization and have resorted to spectacle instead: last year two students smuggled yellow-painted pigs into parliament to criticize corruption and youth unemployment. Protest lives on, but it has reshaped and retooled itself.

2011’s popular protest, which brought people together in Uganda regardless of ethnicity, class, or geography, uniting them against the state, was just one in a string of protests that have shaken the African continent. The ongoing protests against Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s attempt to run for an unconstitutional third term are another. There, too, after a failed coup attempt and the resumption of demonstrations, state repression reached new and higher levels.

In the past decade, demonstrations in Africa have challenged the status quo countless times, though these moments of mass political action seldom make Western headlines. From the popular revolutions that ousted Tunisia and Egypt’s autocrats to the more narrow-focused wildcat strikes at Marikana in South Africa, from the Red Wednesday protests in Benin in West Africa to anti-corruption demonstrations in Kenya in the east, people are taking to the streets seeking change. Amidst this ongoing wave of political upheaval, popular protest is the subject of Africa Uprising, a new book by Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly. (I helped organize a panel discussing this book with the authors two years ago).

Continue reading

Memory and Monuments at the U.S. Capitol

One of the things I did during a recent trip to Washington, DC, was visit the U.S. Capitol. I’ve never been in the building, and went on a tour through most of it with some family. One thing I hadn’t ever heard of was the National Statuary Hall Collection, which displays 100 statues – 2 representing each state in the union – in several of the rooms in the building. Originally confined to the Statuary Hall, some statues now stand in the visitor center, rotunda, and other wings and halls of the building. Each of these statues was created and donated by a state, chosen by its legislature to represent it in the Capitol.

Looking through the list of statues is an interesting exercise to do. There are many people of renown and many who are rather obscure even to fans or scholars of American history. For every Samuel Adams, there’s an Edmund Kirby Smith. There’s a bit of diversity in types of figures – mostly politicians but some activists and inventors – but there’s also a sizable list of war heroes responsible for untold misery on the frontier, like Andrew Jackson.

The first thing that caught my eye upon entering the Capitol Visitor’s Center’s Emancipation Hall was that several statues of indigenous leaders flanked the lines for tours. Kamehameha I, resplendent in gold and the heaviest statue in the collection, represents Hawai’i. 17th Century Pueblo leader Po’pay represents New Mexico and is the oldest figure among the collection. Sakakawea, Washakie, and Sarah Winnemucca also stand in Emancipation Hall. (Sequoyah and Will Rogers bring the indigenous to seven percent of the 100 statues in the collection. Impressive and unexpected).

There are six presidents currently in the collection, from Washington to Jackson to Reagan. There are also a number of Vice Presidents, like John C. Calhoun and Hannibal Hamlin, as well as presidential hopefuls from William Jennings Bryan to my own home state’s Barry Goldwater, the newest statue. Of the hundred statues, nine are women, among them several suffragettes and activists.


Some tourists – presumably Arizonans – posing by Barry Goldwater. In the National Statuary Hall.

As any historian might guess, the Civil War era features prominently in the collection, and that’s the demographic that I want to talk about here.

There are two dozen Civil War figures among the hundred statues, and if you add such antebellum big names as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, and a couple of lesser known Reconstruction names, the specter of the Civil War makes a huge mark on the National Statuary Hall Collection. What’s interesting – albeit not surprising – is just how many Confederate fighters have monuments in the U.S. Capitol.


Jefferson Davis, who worked in this building as a U.S. Senator until he resigned and became the President of the Confederate States of America.

Despite the fact that there were twenty-three Union states and eleven in the Confederacy, there are roughly a dozen statues representing each side in the collection. Included among the secessionists are none other than Jefferson Davis and Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the President and Vice President of the Confederate States of America, represent Mississippi and Georgia, respectively.

Remember that the states choose which two statues represent them in the collection. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia all sent a Confederate to Capitol Hill – several of whom had resigned from positions as U.S. Senators and Congressmen to join the Confederacy.

Mississippi is the only one with two Confederates representing it (James Zachariah George, as well as Davis). Alabama had two until former member of the U.S. and C.S.A. Congress Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry was replaced by Helen Keller in 2009 (Confederate general Joseph Wheeler remains). In addition to Confederate Zebulon Vance, North Carolina’s other statue is Charles Brantley Aycock, a Gilded Age/Progressive Era politician who was a champion of white supremacy and famously said, upon being nominated governor, “When we say that the negro is unfit to rule we carry it one step further and convey the correct idea when we declare that he is unfit to vote. To do this we must disfranchise the negro.”

Of the twenty-two statues in the collection from states that once formed the Confederacy, eleven are of men who fought against the United States of America. While half of these statues are secessionists, just a quarter of the statues representing the states which once made up the Union forces are from the same time period. Among them, however, are leaders like Hannibal Hamlin and Free Soilers and founding Republicans who not only fought to preserve the Union but to rid it of slavery.

Frederick Douglass. On the side of the pedestal is a quote regarding emancipation in the West Indies:

Frederick Douglass. On the side of the pedestal is a quote regarding emancipation in the West Indies: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that the 100 statues in the collection feature zero black people. Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass both have statues in the Capitol – both installed way back in 2013, and there are busts of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sojourner Truth in the building, but no state has chosen to represent itself with a black person in the collection. But 11% of the collection once fought the United States in the name of slavery. Go figure.

What do we do with a collection of statues that memorializes so many men who once tried to leave the union? I’m not necessarily for getting rid of monuments completely. While I’m all for taking down the Confederate flag, less a historical artifact and more a symbol of white supremacy and hate, it’s less clear what should be done when Robert E. Lee is literally put on a pedestal in the same room as Samuel Adams or Roger Sherman.

When it comes to monuments in general, I find myself agreeing with Ta-Nehisi Coates, who tweeted that “the fact that white supremacists were lionized for so long is also history.” And indeed, many of the statues in the collection were first donated in the early 20th Century, just decades after Reconstruction was cut short and in the midst of the White Supremacist Democrats’ Solid South era.

But the statues continue to stand, shoulder to shoulder with historical figures who struggled for things like liberty and rights and not white supremacy and slavery. What’s more, while the U.S. Capitol is part-museum, there is only brief discussion over who the actual figures are and why they are there. The tour guide when I went (who was awesome despite her relatively recent employment there) explained statues correlating to states where her guests were from, and briefly referred to Davis and Stephens’ statues in the light of recent debate over Confederate flags and other paraphernalia.

But, just as Colin McEnroe says about the name of Yale’s (John C.) Calhoun College, “It’s not called Calhoun College So Let’s Talk About That.  It’s called Calhoun College, and it’s an easy feat to spend four years at Yale without ever having one those “teachable moments” about the background of the name… For three of my four years [at Yale], my roommate was an African-American man, Ken Jennings. He tells me the Calhoun name was a topic of discussion, if not a towering issue at the time. He’s not surprised I never noticed. ‘A lot of this kind of thing is below the radar if you’re not of African descent.'”

The fact of the matter is, the dozen rebels standing in the Capitol weren’t even put there by the Capitol. They were sent by Southern Democrat state legislatures in the early 1900s – that is to say, White supremacist state legislatures – and they were sent to memorialize great men of their states. This was no history lesson on racism. We can make it one by changing the plaque to signify these men’s real actions. To cite another Coates tweet, this time regarding what we should do with monuments like Stone Mountain: “Keep it. Put a big-ass inscription near it saying ‘These Men Fought For An Empire Of Slavery.'” Or, better yet, these state legislators can commission a new statue to represent them in the Capitol, and move these old ones into a museum or state park – with proper and honest signage. After a century of these Confederates standing on pedestals, I think it’s time for something new.

White Supremacist Terrorism in Charleston, and in Our History

I’ve been closely following the news from Charleston, where a white supremacist shot and killed nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last night. As I write this, it appears that the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, has been arrested in North Carolina.

The church that was the target of the shooting is a historic landmark and site of black resistance, and has been for centuries. Yesterday was the 193rd anniversary of Denmark Vesey’s aborted slave revolt. Vesey was an early member of the church (I’ve heard even a founding member, but am unsure), which was burned down as the revolt’s organizers were hanged.

When the shooter was first identified, a Facebook profile picture was circulated that showed him wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid South Africa and white-rule Rhodesia on it. The state of South Carolina flies the Confederate flag over the capitol.

There is a deep history to white supremacy and black resistance to it. It’s a violent history. It’s one we need to reckon with, and that we haven’t. I’ll paraphrase Angus Johnston by saying that we need to do more to teach the long history of racial violence, as part of an effort to raise anti-racists (do read the linked tweets, please).

Just as important is the history of the struggle. Teaching about resistance against hate, against oppression, is an imperative if we are to continue resisting these things. Just today, several pieces were published about the role of the AME church in the history of both white supremacist violence and black resistance.

Jamelle Bouie calls Emanuel AME Church “a historical symbol of black resistance to slavery and racism,” and Dave Zirin wrote a short piece detailing the long history of its place in 300 years of anti-racist, abolitionist history. This article on the place of black churches as symbols in American history is worth reading, in full. Here’s an excerpt on this AME church in particular:

while black churches have long been seen as a powerful symbol of African American community, they have also served as a flashpoint for hatred from those who fear black solidarity, and as a result these edifices have been the location for many of our nation’s most egregious racial terrorist acts.

Further, the very spot of land on which the Emanuel Church is built has witnessed much of this sobering history. In the summer of 1822, white residents of Charleston, South Carolina, discovered that one of their worst fears had come true: a slave conspiracy to rise against their masters and slaughter all white residents was afoot in the city. The accused ringleader, Denmark Vesey, was a former slave who had been a free carpenter in Charleston for two decades. His insurrection was supposedly planned to take place on July 14—Bastille Day. Once the plot was uncovered, however, authorities were swift with retaliation: 131 men were charged with conspiracy, 67 were convicted, and 35, including Vesey, were hanged. While historians today debate the extent of the conceived rebellion, the event proved formidable in confirming southern angst over an “internal enemy” and white supremacists knew they had to respond quickly and violently.

That Vesey was one of the founders of the Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church was no mere coincidence. To those that pushed prosecution, the church was central to the conspiracy. The year prior, city officials had closed the church because they feared it was breaking slave codes concerning unsupervised black gatherings after sunset and the law against teaching slaves to read. Charleston authorities depicted Vesey’s frustrations over their suppression of church activities as one of his three primary motivations. (The other two being the Haitian Revolution and the debates over the Missouri Compromise.) The punishment for these sins was the noose.

There’s a lot of history behind this act of violence. There’s a lot of history behind all of them. This country – this world – is marked by white supremacy. Its an idea that forms the foundations of our country, and its an idea that is tearing it apart. This is all part of our history.

Edit to add: The twitter hashtag #CharlestonSyllabus is a growing collection of suggested readings and other resources for any educator (or person eager to learn), focused on race and violence in South Carolina – and the South more broadly – as well as critical readings of race in America, the Confederacy, and white supremacy in general. Also, remember that this hashtag follows in the footsteps of #FergusonSyllabus, which continues to be a resource on the same issues.

Coates on Reparations

The latest issue of The Atlantic features an important piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the issue of reparations for the U.S.’s racist history. It went live on Thursday to a lot of hubbub, but I wanted to dedicate a short post to tell you all to read the whole thing in full.

Coates uses housing as his framework for viewing America’s history, focusing on the long plunder of the 20th century. He spends much of the rest of the article arguing for reparations by showing how the repercussions of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration continue to punish black people. He also criticizes efforts to help the disadvantaged without taking race into account.

Coates also wrote here about tracing his line of thinking from opposing reparations four years ago. It includes links to several interesting pieces, all factors in his thought process. Coates also penned this short footnote to the article, highlighting why it is an important issue to tackle. Both are worth perusing if you’re interested.

In response, Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote this piece about education’s role in inequality and the (lack of) potential it has for being the channel through which we can attain a more equitable future. She brings numbers to the game, for those who like them, from a recent economic policy paper. Summarizing the findings, she states: “No matter what black college grads do, they are more sensitive than non-blacks to every negative macro labor market trend. They are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and hold low quality jobs even when they have STEM degrees.” She closes by arguing that “[w]hen we allow education to be sold as a fix for wealth inequality, we set a public good up to fail and black folks that do everything “right” to take the blame when it goes “wrong”.”

Alyssa Rosenberg also wrote this piece reflecting on how culture would have to change in order for such reparations to occur. She sheds some light on American media and how much attention has been paid to slavery and racism through what we watch. There’s also an interesting piece on the recent Caribbean effort to gain reparations from European countries for 400 years of slavery and colonization, and this piece outlining ways to actually see reparations through.

(If you know of other good pieces on Coates’ article, leave them in the comments.)

Early 20th Century American Slang

For those who don’t know, I work part time at a library of rare books and manuscripts. It often involves stamping books, organizing magazines, opening the mail, filing receipts, and loading packages into the freezer. Recently, it involved putting a giant collection of Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books in numerical order. They are small 3.5″ x 5″ books published in Girard, Kansas, during the early- to mid-20th Century. The books include everything from Shakespeare and Ibsen plays to the U.S. Constitution and French-to-English guides. One that caught my eye was #56, A Dictionary of American Slang.

Included in it were some things that we still use today, like geezer, gold digger, high jack, and hot dog as an exclamation. But there were also some things that I have never heard of, and some of the definitions were just as strange. So, without further ado, some examples of ~1920s slang:

  • absotively – absolutely and positively
  • acknowledge the corn – admit responsibility for
  • Adam’s ale – water
  • all to the mustard – excellent
  • almighty dollar – money, god of America
  • applesauce – blah, tripe, nonsense, foolish talk
  • go to the bad – attend Sunday movies, dance, or otherwise offend the Rotary Methodist god
  • birthday suit – nature’s garb
  • cake eater – tea-hound, lounge-lizard, lady-bug
  • snake’s hips – something excellent
  • cracker – poor white, as in Georgia
  • dude – one who follows “What Men Are Wearing” in the theater programs
  • flumadiddle – humbug, flummery, nonsense
  • full of prunes – you’re crazy, you’re wrong
  • gibble-gabble, mulligatawny – foolish talk
  • to ride the goat – to be initiated into a secret society
  • fluzie – a daughter of joy, prostitute
  • Heavens! – formerly, god’s resident; now, an expletive
  • hotsy-totsy, tootsie-wootsie – a girl all to the mustard, all O.K.
  • izzum-wizzum – hotsy-totsy, red hot sweetie
  • Jericho (to send one to) – Hell, or Hoboken
  • justice – slang for what is obtained in legal courts
  • late unpleasantness – the last war; long used for the Civil War, in 200,000 AD it will be used of the most recent war
  • low-brow – an average person; one who prefers the poetry of Eddie Guest
  • Bible Marathon – the latest American indoor sport, in which both Testaments are read aloud in relays at breakneck speed, to the glory of God
  • mollycoddle – excessively effeminate person
  • mossback – a fossil, dodo, conservative stand-patter
  • to get one’s nanny – to get one’s goat
  • necktie partie – a hanging bee, lynching
  • to pass on – Christian Science euphemism for “to die.” It has become general throughout these Rotaried states. Nobody has died since Christ; all the rest have “passed on.”
  • paste – to strike a blow; “I’ll paste you in the bean”
  • piffle – nonsense, twaddle, applesauce, stewed rhubarb
  • poor white trash – a 100% free and un-terrified Nordic financial and mental pauper in the Southern States, whose family never owned slaves. If a child of poor white trash becomes President, historians will at once raise his ancestors to the aristocracy.
  • pop the question – to propose marriage; to dare congual shipwreck
  • primrose path – road to Hell, anything pleasant
  • puritan – one scrupulous about the morals of others; one who holds that the pleasant is always wicked
  • red – Communist, Socialist, Bolshevik, radical, prohibitionist, anti-prohibitionist, or member of any belief different from yours
  • right-o – annoying, the British expression of approval
  • rough diamond – an uncalcimined daddy; a rich man who eats peas with his knife 
  • rum row – the liquor-laden fleet 12 miles out
  • Sam Hill – the devil, as in “what the Sam Hill?” Sam’s father was Bunker Hill, shortened to Bunk Hill
  • stork – long-legged bird, purveying all human babies. In the U.S. the cabbage and rose bush methods have become slightly obscene; the biological is verboten. The Stork, Santa Clause, and Yahweh live in St. George Washington’s cherry tree.
  • strawberry blonde – red head, carrot top
  • V spot – five dollar bill
  • whangdoodle – mythical creature, akin to the gymnascutus, leg shorter on one side than the other, to let him feed n a hillside; nonsense

Only Nixon, Only Reagan – International Treaties and the Presidency

A lot of people have been lamenting the US Senate’s failure on Wednesday to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by a vote of 61-38 (treaties need 67 votes to be ratified), and rightly so. There is virtually no reason not to ratify the treaty, and many GOP senators even went back on promises at the last minute by voting no. It’s really terrible that the United States is so unwilling to ratify international conventions, many of which are great treaties, on the absurd fear of losing all American sovereignty (or whatever it is they’ve convinced themselves).

But the fact is, we shouldn’t be surprised. The Unites States is the only country other than Somalia that hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. And we’re in the minority of non-ratifiers for a host of other conventions and treaties, from landmine bans to climate change protocols to international justice. The next time the U.S. signs onto anything like this, it will be because a Republican President wants to.

Sometimes people look at me with a bit of skepticism on that point, but it’s true. In an only-Nixon-could-go-to-China way, only a Republican president could twist the arms of enough GOP senators to vote alongside Dems, who for the most part already support such measures. The only reason the U.S. ever signed onto the Genocide Convention was because Ronald Reagan accidentally visited a Nazi cemetery (and didn’t visit any concentration camps) on a trip to Germany. To solve the controversy, he pushed for the Genocide Convention’s passage and voila. That is almost the only route for America to sign anything.

So we just need the next GOP President to fuck up on an issue, I guess.

We are the 99% – 1890 Style

I recently started a part-time job at a library on campus, stamping and source-marking books and manuscripts in acquisitions. My first project has been to sort through a large array of broadside ballads and booklets of songs. Last Friday I happened upon something pretty great: the December 17, 1890 edition of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside & General Labourers’ Union of Great Britain & Ireland. The issue is a collection of labor songs, and one on the front page struck me as particularly linked to contemporary issues. Unsurprisingly, it seems workers chanted against the stark inequality of the top one percent long before last September. Here’s a scanned copy, with the text below.

“Chants of Labour,” from December, 1890.

“There are Ninety and Nine”

There are ninety and nine that work and die
In want and hunger and cold,
That one may live in luxury,
And be lapped in the silken fold!
And ninety and nine in their hovels bare,
And one in a palace of riches rare.
From the sweat of their brows the desert blooms,
And the forest before them falls;
Their labour has builded humble homes
And cities with lofted halls,
And the one owns cities and houses and lands,
And the ninety and nine have empty hands.
But the night so dreary and dark and long
At last shall the morning bring;
And over the land the victors’ song
Of the ninety and nine shall ring,
And echo afar, from zone to zone,
“Rejoice! for Labour shall have its own!”

Teaching Students Racism

Last week my wife told me about an insane case in which a Texas high school had an annual tradition of teaching students about Nazism in the stupidest way possible – by having half of the students be Nazis, and half of them Jews. From the article:

The students playing Jews wear red ribbons. “[Red ribbon students] must do everything school faculty or other students tell them to, including picking up other students’ trash, being taken outside and sprayed with water hoses, bear-crawling across the hot track, carrying other students’ books, and even carrying other students,” says the suit, filed in federal court by Andrew Yara, 19. “Engaging in this exercise was compulsory, with it constituting 60 percent of a major test grade for students in their World History Class, and any student who did not do everything they were told were receive a failing grade.”

This is some insane shit. Giving one group of high school students unrestricted power over another group of high school students is ludicrous, and all it does – besides exacerbating bullying and other problems – is teach students to be assholes.

When I first heard about this, my mind went straight to Jane Elliott’s work in Riceville, Iowa in 1968. You might know her as the third grade teacher that split up her students based on eye color and treated them differently. She began by explaining to her students that blue-eyed people were smarter, cleaner, punctual, and more determined than brown-eyed students, and therefore deserved snacks, extra recess, and sitting up front in class. She noted the sudden divide between students as bullying occurred on the playground and grades rose and fell for the two groups. The next day, she reversed the roles and the third graders immediately swapped places, with grades and attitudes rising and falling according to eye color. The result was a particularly telling example of how prejudice can affect people, with a side of controversial treatment of children.

Elliott’s exercise isn’t without criticisms, and rightly so. It’s worth noting that treating children in such a way can lead to some sorts of trauma through emotional abuse (on which I’m no expert). Telling a third grader, “of course your homework is late, you have blue eyes” will probably have some sort of effect. As this paper (pdf) shows, while most of her students remember the two day experiment as beneficial and life-changing, albeit humiliating at the time, some are hesitant when thinking about whether or not to put their children through the same lesson. Whether you agree with her tactics, the strategy is clear: show all students what it’s like to be mistreated, and they will learn what it feels like to be judged based on their appearance, then they should spend the rest of their lives trying not to be racist.

Compared to Elliott’s exercise, the Perryton High School exercise goes farther in demoralizing students and submitting them to abuse, and I’m curious as to what sort of post-exercise lesson the students undergo. Giving students two days to treat peers as slaves is very different from a supervised two tier classroom setting, and Red Ribbon Days seem to not really do much teaching. News articles don’t point to any positives of the lesson whatsoever; there’s little supervision, some actions cause bodily harm (which has led to the current uproar, after a lawsuit was filed when a student was forced to carry another student almost double his weight), students don’t share both experiences, and the actual lesson doesn’t even address the core curriculum of teaching the Holocaust. It’s controversial and it’s dangerous. It’s also bad teaching.

Enforcing Arizona’s Progressive Constitution

Yesterday I wrote about 2/3 of a panel that I saw the Arizona Historical Society concerning the state’s constitution and its place in the progressive movement. It was interesting to hear about how groundbreaking Arizona’s founding document was and how involved labor and the progressive movement were in constructing that document, but it wasn’t entirely convincing since Arizona is so reactionary now. Arizona, after all, is the home to a slew of seemingly disastrous legislative ideas and hosts some of the most conservative state officials in the country.

The third speaker at Wednesday’s panel was Paul Bender, a law professor at ASU, who concentrated on Arizona’s State Supreme Court and explained how it had allowed – or took part in – the gradual crumbling of the state’s relatively progressive constitution. He broke his lecture into three ways in which the Court has treated the constitution: stripping it down, protecting it, and ignoring it altogether.

Direct Democracy

Bender argued that the Arizona Supreme Court was uncomfortable with the amount of direct democracy inherent in the constitution, and therefore allowed the state’s government to circumvent some of the obstacles that direct democracy created. The initiative process in the constitution allows the general public to circumvent the legislature in the lawmaking process, creating laws by popular ballot. This inherently implies that the legislature is beholden to what the people decide, however there were a number of instances in which the legislature repealed laws passed by initiative. When the issue was brought before the judicial branch, judges said they saw no issue with legislators opposing popular initiatives.

In addition, Bender explained, state legislation is not supposed to go into effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends, allowing time for the public to gather signatures for an opposing referendum if so desired. There is a provision that allows legislation to be enacted immediately during emergency situations, with 2/3 of the legislature’s approval. Often times, the legislature invokes an emergency without the grounds to do so, and when this is brought up to the courts, they deny review on the grounds that it is too political an issue.

And so we see instances in which the legislature pushes back against the control that the constitution grants the public over governance. But beyond this, we also see the judiciary stepping aside and allowing it to happen despite clear breaches of the law.

The Right to File Suit for Damages

The state of Arizona’s constitution specifically enumerates the right to sue for damages, which might seem bizarre to many. It’s as much a product of the times as the rest of the constitution – hearkening to labor’s involvement and the fear of major corporations corrupting the system. Indeed, there were some occasions of the legislation trying to limit the right to file suit through statues of limitations or restrictions on types of cases – all of which have been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. It’s easy to see why: the judges are preserving common law precedence. Men and women trained in the ways of law are working to preserve the law as it is. This doesn’t ring of hypocrisy when compared to the relatively foreign idea of the populace creating laws on their own. Where the courts were uncomfortable with direct democracy, they were more than comfortable with civil suits – and so they protected the notion of a right to sue.

Individual Rights

The U.S. Bill of Rights specifies rights that the federal government cannot abridge. Historically, it did not apply to state governments until the Supreme Court began to implement a more activist reading of the document. It is for this reason that many states have almost identical rights included in their own state constitutions. Arizona is no different, except that the rights listed are more broad that the Bill of Rights. Take, for example, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And compare it to the Arizona constitution’s Article II, Sections 5 and 6:

Section 5. The right of petition, and of the people peaceably to assemble for the common good, shall never be abridged.

Section 6. Every person may freely speak, write, and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.

The key difference is that the former specifies that one’s rights are protected from Congress, but makes no mention of state and local governments as well as private businesses and citizens. The latter simple states that everyone enjoys these rights – it implies that no one may abridge them. According to Bender, the Arizona Supreme Court has sometimes used to these provisions to protect people’s rights, but often defers to the more restrained precedence of the Supreme Court of the United States.

During the campaign to recall Governor Evan Mecham in 1987, campaign volunteers were prohibited from collecting signatures at some shopping malls – in Fiesta Mall Venture v. Mecham Recall Committee the state Appeals Court cited the U.S. Bill of Rights and upheld the decision, and the Supreme Court denied review. Similarly, in the case of Morton Berger, the state Supreme Court upheld his 200 year minimum sentencing for possession of child pornography, arguing that it was bound by the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedence instead of looking at the state constitution’s 8th amendment equivalent, Article 2, Section 15.

These are just some of the examples provided at the forum. It seems that the state’s judges have frequently ignored the progressive and protective provisions of the state’s constitution and instead either allow the legislature to be unaccountable or defer to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings. It is unfortunate to see the opportunity to defend civil liberties pass by because judges choose to forget that the state’s founding document protects them. But of course, judges in Arizona can be recalled and must pass retention votes every cycle – and several Republican lawmakers have threatened to do away with the merit-based selection system. While it is important to hold judges accountable as well, some of these rulings raise the question of whether or not judges should be elected and whether or not they are serving in the interests of the state’s constitution and the people who are protected by it – the public.

Arizona’s Progressive Constitution – 100 Years Ago

Last night, I attended a forum at the Arizona Historical Society on the state’s constitution. The panel at the forum was made up of a history professor (who taught the first university class I ever took!), a law professor, and a lawyer. I wanted to paraphrase some of what was discussed, as well as reflect a bit.

Arizona on the verge of statehood in 1911.

At the forum, historian Phillip VanderMeer touched on the historical context of Arizona’s constitutional convention in 1910. State governments had shifted from a strong legislature to increasingly balanced branches of government, and at the time of Arizona’s statehood, progressive ideas were finding their way into states’ founding constitutions, revised constitutions, and amendments. At the turn of the century, Arizona’s economy was deeply influenced by railroad and mining companies, and the workers in these companies struggled to achieve rights. It was at the constitutional convention that organized labor brought ideas including an eight-hour workday, an elected state mine inspector, the prohibition of blacklists of labor leaders, and a ban on child labor – all of which made it into the constitution, along with broad progressive ideas such as initiative, referendum, recall, and direct primaries.

Paul Eckstein, a civil lawyer here in Arizona, spoke about the actual debates and influences on the constitutional convention in 1910. He explained the nature of Arizona’s divided demographics – the territorial legislature was predominantly Democrat, but the territorial governor (appointed by the President of the U.S.) was almost always Republican. Across the border, New Mexico was predominantly Republican, and so both states were admitted at the same time in the name of balance. Eckstein pointed to Arizona’s constitution’s progressiveness relative to our sister state’s founding document as well as contemporary models of statehood across the West and Midwest. He listed a number of things New Mexico’s constitution did not have, that Arizona’s did have (remember, this is in 1912, and both constitutions went into effect almost simultaneously):

  • Initiative
  • Popular Referendum
  • 2 year terms for elected officials
  • Advisory popular vote for the U.S. Senate
  • Direct primaries
  • Public campaign contribution provisions
  • State anti-trust laws
  • Progressive income tax

Some of these are clearly at the forefront of the progressive movement at the turn of the century. Arizona was talking about campaign finance, direct election of Senators, and a progressive income tax before the federal government had made any headway on these issues. Women gained suffrage in 1912, before the 19th Amendment was passed, and prohibition in 1914, five years before the 18th Amendment. President Taft opposed the right to recall judges, leading the territory to remove the provision in order to gain statehood – only to reinstate it almost immediately.

Progressive ideals, especially the idea that the government should be held accountable to the public, is clear in Arizona’s constitution. Two year terms for elected office and the ability to recall elected officials combine for a strong opportunity to keep lawmakers on tight reins. In addition, the executive branch in Arizona was very weak – he was among over a dozen elected officials in the executive and had relatively few appointment powers. The people refused to allow the legislature to run rampant without the support of the general populace.

While some Arizonans today are unfortunately supportive of the more restrictive pieces of legislation put forth in the legislature, the real problem is that the constitution is no longer recognized for what it is supposed to do – lawmakers are not answering to the public and the three branches are not utilizing checks and balances. One of the main tenets of the constitution – to hold government accountable to the public – isn’t happening anymore. Our legislators are not being scrutinized as much as they should – even in light of the recent recall of Russell Pearce.

Update: The sequel of this post, examining how the state’s courts have treated the constitution, can be found here.