Friday, September 25, 2015

Our Call to Action

            With President Obama’s second term soon coming to an end, one cannot help but remember a key message of his original 2008 campaign – Change. His “change we can believe in” struck a chord with millions, particularly young people. In 2008, Barack Obama received the highest share of voters under 30 of any candidate since 1976, when exit polls first started reporting results by age. It is safe to say that Barack Obama mobilized our generation, and our belief in change was stronger than ever before.
            Now, with one of the most unpopular and unproductive Congresses in history, many members of our generation have lost hope. But I truly believe that the message of Change was not so much the ability to turn Washington around overnight, but rather the ability of everyday people to make progress when they finally take action. It is the story of everyday citizens, such as Rosa Parks and Mother Jones, who said enough is enough and chose to change their circumstance rather than accept them.
            With 2016 approaching, I believe it is important to reflect on what we can do before throwing our absolute support at any candidate. For when the dust clears, and the president has been elected, we will return to our everyday lives with everyday decisions to make. The key decision will be: will I rely on someone else to make Change, or will I do it myself? If we are to accomplish anything we must empower ourselves and make change, beginning at the most grassroots level.
            Tip O’Neil’s famous words, “All politics is local,” come to mind when I think of Change. And there is nothing more local for us students than our campus. As Democrats, it is our duty to participate on campus. Participation can take many forms, whether it is aiding a cause or leading it. Participate in student government, to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable and fight for local progressive issues such as college affordability and sustainability. Get involved in other clubs who share our values in social justice, protecting our environment, and defending unions. Speak out when Penn State’s administration, Board of Trustees, or the State College Borough make wrong decisions. And ultimately, act when it is time to act. Petition. Canvass. Call. Protest.

            During your four years at Penn State, you’ll be presented with many opportunities to make an impact. Do it. This is our Call to Action.

                                                                             -Ryan Valencia

Ryan is a senior majoring in International Relations and History. He has the distinct honor of serving as President of the Penn State College Democrats.

Friday, December 19, 2014

When I learned about the civil rights movement, I wondered where I would be. Now, in late 2014, we all know the answer based on what we are doing right now.

Yes, I am talking about Ferguson. Before I dive deeper into this contentious subject, I must state that I am writing about the reactions and the protests that followed the grand jury’s decision. I am not writing about what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson that lead to Mr. Brown being shot six times by Mr. WIlson. Personally, I think it’s a shame that the word “Ferguson” has been placed on these protests, because that makes outsiders believe that they are protesting that one specific case.  If I could have it my way, I would replace the label, “Ferguson Protests” with the label, “Systemic Racism Protests.”

Of course, I think it’s important for me to be transparent about the actual events that unfolded between Mr. Wilson and Mr. Brown.  I personally don’t know what happened on that day.  There are many different stories, many different witnesses, and many different people on both sides that will say the other side doesn’t have credibility.  However, I believe a few things that are fundamental to understanding how systemic racism, and other factors that the protests are about, have played a part in the specific case.

For one, I believe that if this case were brought to trial, Mr. Wilson would have been found not guilty, as he should have been because there was simply too much reasonable doubt in this case for Mr. Wilson to be found guilty. On the other hand, I acknowledge the grand jury’s role is to determine probable cause in the case, and I believe that there was more than enough probable cause to indict an officer.  At the same time, I do not believe that the grand jury erred in their decision. Rather, I believe that the prosecution was not giddy about indicting a police officer for killing a member of the black community.

The prosecution relies on the police for 99% of their other cases. Coupled with the fact that there is no adversarial system used in the grand jury, I’m frankly not surprised that they chose not to indict Darren Wilson, or, for that manner, Eric Garner’s killer. I believe no one in the grand jury procedure was representing the interests of Mr. Brown or Mr. Garner.

The protestors often chant things like, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.” I agree.  The system is guilty.  Before I continue, a metaphor.

Coal miners were known to carry “canaries” in the mines. WIkipedia elaborates, “If dangerous gases such as methane or carbon monoxide leaked into the mine, the gases would kill the canary before killing the miners, thus providing a warning to exit the tunnels immediately.” In America, right now, black people are the canaries in the coal mine, and they are warning us that something really troubling is going on in America, and that is the militarization of the police force.  It just so happens that black America is feeling the impact first, because of institutional racism.  

In 2013 Ferguson, 92% of searches and 86% of car stops involved black residents. Yet, 1 in 3 white people stopped were carrying contraband, whereas 1 in 5 black people stopped were carrying contraband.  It’s no surprise, then, that the police are felt more by black residents than white residents.

Yet, it’s not that Ferguson has an over militarized police force that systemically targets black people, it’s that American cities has an over militarized police force that systematically target black people, and Ferguson is the most recent publicized illustration.

This is why the movement has gained national momentum, black folks around America can relate in some capacity to the anger and frustration that was felt by those close to Mr. Brown and Mr. Wilson.  In the words of Penn State President Eric Barron, “Our nation faces a dilemma. We have a portion of our population who feels more vulnerable by virtue of their appearance.”

I believe that George Zimmerman acted in self defense, I was at the trial. I believe that Darren Wilson should have been found not guilty, if the case went to trial. I’ve had police officers defend me.Yet, I personally participated in the New York City protests the Tuesday after the Ferguson protest. I experienced the LRAD in Times Square. I participated in the die in protests in the HUB, the library, and showed my support for the other events I could not attend.  To me, the protests aren’t about just Ferguson. They aren’t about just Mr. Garner. They aren’t just about the overmilitarization of the police.  

These protests are a protest of a broken system, one that makes a portion of the population feel more vulnerable by virtue of their appearance. These protests are those people, and other close observers, warning us about the upcoming militarization of the police that white folks can’t feel yet, or at the very least, aren’t talking about yet.  And this militarization of the police is scary.

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio recently spoke in support of law enforcement and in support of the protestors for feeling some type of way about the law enforcement agencies.  Now, the police are telling him not to come to any funeral.  Additionally, the St. Louis Police Department wanted the NFL to issue an apology to law enforcement for some of their player’s hands up, don’t shoot gesture.

Again, I am a proponent of law enforcement.  Very few people I know would take a bullet for me if someone started shooting at me.  A law enforcement officer, despite him or her not knowing me, would take that bullet.  They would take that bullet for anyone, despite their skin color, despite their creed, and despite their gender.  I honestly believe that law enforcement officers have the best intentions possible when becoming a cop.  At the same time, I see a dangerous practice that is ongoing in the law enforcement community; the unwillingness to question the actions of a fellow person in blue.  

That’s a dangerous thought process, and the implications are being felt on the communities that they target. There is no need for your small town police force to have a tank.  

At the same time, we, the protestors, have to end the resentment of law enforcement and learn to empathize with them, just as law enforcement has to learn to empathize with us.

We need to realize that the protests are not just about Mr. Brown, or Mr. Garner.  We have to realize it’s about something much bigger, it’s also about systemic racism.  

Racism is something that has been taught in our children without us even knowing it.  It is deeply ingrained in our society. Studies confirm this, with multiple studies indicating that a resume where the only difference is the name, in some cases a letter (such as from Tyrone to Tyler, from Jose to Joe,),will have the name perceived as white as having a better chance of a callback than a name perceived as non-white. Racism is deeply embedded in the structures of our society.

Just watch this video to see the effects. Don’t worry, you can turn it off at 4:59 and start it at 3:47.

I’m not going to jump onboard and say that I agree with everything the protestors have done.  Yes, there have been riots, but the opponents of the protest seem to follow a pattern when arguing their side of the events. It seems that there is a lack of willingness to discuss the greater issue, such as systemic racism, or the over militarization of police, and instead nit pick any action that is negative and blow it up in attempts to discredit the whole movement.

“Michael Brown was a thief, here is a video we will release proving it.”
“Trayvon Martin was on drugs when he got shot.”
“Eric Garner didn’t comply, and that lead to a series of events which lead to his death.”
“Witnesses in the grand jury case were discredited, they did not err in their decision. These protests are an insult of the process!”
“Darren Wilson did not deserve to be assaulted, are you supporting assault on police officers?”
And my personal favorite,
“Protesting and shutting down my street, or rioting, are proof that these are just ‘thugs.’ What are they hoping to accomplish?”

Yes, riots undermine the movement in the public eye. But should they?  Riots happen. We rioted at Penn State over the firing of our football coach. At least the protesters think that they are rioting for justice. Even if you disagree that they are, they think they are! It isn’t over the loss or victory of any football game, or hockey game, or sports competition.  Or the firing of a freaking football coach.  

And it isn’t everyone rioting, just a select few.  And no, peacefully protesting in cities where there have been riots are not attempts to shield the rioters from prosecution. It’s exercising your first amendment rights.  

As for the shutting down of roads? The shutting down of bridges?  Sure, they are inconvenient. But that’s how social change happens. To discredit the protesters peaceful actions is to discredit the civil rights movement aswell, because the same tactics are being deployed.

I’m sure Rosa Parks sitting in the front of a bus interrupted the commute of a lot of angry folks that day.

I’m sure sitting at a “White Only” dinner probably ruined the meals of some people.  

Is history going to remember the HUB protests as that annoying thing that made you late to class?

Moving forward, the atmosphere feels different for these protestors. It doesn’t seem like anything is going away, and it sure doesn’t feel like giving police body cameras is going to fix the system.

After all, Eric Garner’s death was on film. Eric Garner was unarmed. The coroner ruled it a homicide. The chokehold was banned. And Mr. Garner repeatedly told police that he couldn’t breathe seconds before he was killed by their actions.

And what did they say they stopped Mr. Garner for? Selling cigarettes illegally.

We have a video of an officer killing a man, and we can’t even get a grand jury to find probable cause that he killed a man.

I can’t breathe either.  

Luis Rolfo is a Junior at Penn State pursuing a dual major in Political Science and Communication Arts and Sciences.  He currently serves as a communications chair for the Penn State College Democrats.


Further Exploration:

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What 2014 Means For Cannabis

The election is over, the Republicans have taken control of the Senate but our governor is now one of the party of the people. Also noteworthy, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington D.C. have joined Colorado and Washington in legalizing cannabis for recreational use, with Florida’s medical amendment falling just short of the 60% supermajority needed to be the first state in the south to allow medical cannabis. Many other states have taken to the legislature to reform their cannabis laws, and as 2014 wraps up, support for treating cannabis like alcohol is at an all time high.  So what does 2014 mean for cannabis laws?

In Florida, 57.5% of voters said “Yes” to medical cannabis, despite an opposition campaign funded 85% by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Florida requires a supermajority of 60%, so this amendment did not pass. However, famed trial lawyer John Morgan, the face and money behind Florida’s proposed medical marijuana amendment, insisted that he is going to try again in 2016 and lobby members of the legislature. As a result of the support for Amendment 2, a CBD strain was already passed by the radically conservative legislature, and the election results and low turnout should make a convincing case for at least some form of cannabis reform, in a state where possession of any amount of marijuana under 20 grams carries a punishment of up to 1 year in prison.  

Washington D.C. might be the most interesting case due to how their government works.  DC’s legalization has been supported by the mayor and the board, which have said they will write laws to allow for it to be sold and taxed, yet it must survive a veto from Congress and the President.  Some Republicans in congress have already vowed to use any powers necessary to silence the voices of the people living in D.C., making it a possibility to put Congress on the spot of where they stand. Additionally, the President may veto this legislation. If Congress does not approve D.C.’s legalization, this will push the President to make his opinions about legalization of cannabis more transparent.  The unique impact of D.C.’s legalization is that it is the closest hub for many folks in the north east to travel to in order to experience legalized cannabis, which may have ripple effects amongst the east coast.  Additionally, it will be hard for federal lawmakers to ignore the movement to legalize cannabis, since it is now legal in their own backyards. For some congressmen, it may no longer be, “smoke the vote,” but, “vote then smoke,” although hopefully not, “smoke then vote.”

Yet, the Federal government still considers cannabis a schedule one narcotic, meaning that many states are now ignoring federal law. This classification has not changed, though increased pressure, especially from the D.C. vote, may force cannabis to be reclassified.  It shouldn't be hard to push the rhetoric that this is a state’s rights issue to the Republicans, but again, we are talking about Republicans here.

In Pennsylvania, the State Senate earlier passed SB1182 by a 43-7 margin.  Then, Republicans blocked a vote from taking place in the house.  Tom Wolf’s campaign said the Governor-elect would sign SB1182 as written before it was watered down in committee, and with a new legislative session and a blue governor, 2015 may be the year for patients with debilitating conditions to obtain cannabis in Pennsylvania.  Currently, cannabis possession in  Pennsylvania, if under 30 grams, carries up to 30 days in prison.  

2014 was a good year for cannabis, yet the future of cannabis laws is up in smoke.  Perhaps our state and federal governments can act to ensure that these laws are no longer a cloudy haze.

-Luis Rolfo

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Guns: The Never Ending Debate
            I, as a kid from a small, rural town in Northern Pennsylvania, have come across many people who support gun rights and the mentality that everyone should have a gun and disagreements should be settled with a duel at 20 paces.  Now, the latter may be a slight exaggeration, BUT, you get my point.  I, growing up in a liberal household, was always told that guns were not the answer, and I believe the same is true today, but there is no way that the United States is just going to give up all of their weapons.  I proposed, in a mock legislative exercise, common sense legislation that would make sure no one deemed mentally unstable, along with a few other criterion determined by a board of specialists, would be able to acquire a weapon.  This was shot down by almost everyone in my hometown because it was “an invasion of privacy.”  I see their point, but they are attempting to acquire something that is capable of killing numerous people, so for the greater good of the people they should give up a little of their privacy.  If one does not have anything to hide, then they have nothing to fear, that’s my theory. Americans are never going to give up their guns, but something needs to be done in order to prevent tragedies like Newtown and Columbine from happening again.  There are many angles and many issues that need to be fixed with the gun situation in America, but starting out with who can have guns and who can’t is a good start. 

-       Everett O’Conner

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Minimum Wage

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and na├»ve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.” - Pope Francis  

“It will harm the economy!” they say.  “It will kill jobs!” they scream on A.M. radio. “As corporate profits go up, the wealth will trickle down!” they lie.

It was promised to us by President Obama in 2008, and we are still waiting.  A promise the President originally campaigned on was to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 for an hour’s worth of work by 2011, and tie it to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).1  Recently, there has been talk amongst the political elites that now is the time for the minimum wage debate to be propelled back into mainstream American politics in hopes of boosting it out of its stationary and scant $7.25 an hour.  

Of course, this proposal will face stiff opposition from corporate America, despite their record profits. “Corporate Profits Soar as Worker Income Limps,” profoundly proclaims The New York Times.2  As The Economist points out, “The wage was last raised, to $7.25 per hour, in 2009. Since then its real value has slipped back to where it was in 1998.”3

Currently, in the world’s richest country, minimum wage workers make as much as they did in 1998, and the little income they receive is diminished ever so slightly as inflation erodes the value of their income.  

This affects every single one of us, not just low wage workers. Worse of all, this is simply a  covert form of corporate welfare for the largest corporations.  

1998 level minimum wages are not livable wages in 2013, and it shows because the taxpayer ends up picking up the tab for workers who are willing to work, are able to work, and are currently working.

The taxpayer is picking up the tab for corporate America due to the fact that they will not provide a livable wage simply because they don’t have to.  In fact, “In state after state, the largest group of Medicaid recipients is Walmart employees.” Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) illustrates. “I'm sure that the same thing is true of food stamp recipients. Each Walmart ‘associate’ costs the taxpayers an average of more than $1,000 in public assistance.”

That’s right, Uncle Sam pays more than $1000 per Walmart worker.

The argument made by corporate America that jobs would be lost if the minimum wage were to rise simply falls short of the facts. If every Walmart employee were given a 30% raise, Walmart would still be a profitable corporation.  

Our hesitance as a nation to raise the minimum wage is simply hurting our fellow Americans, and corporate America knows it!  McDonald’s published a sample budget to assist their employees with budgeting their money.  Aside from its ludicrous estimates, such as $20 a month for health insurance and dedicating $0 a month for heating, the McBudget required the employee to work at McDonald’s and have another job for a total of a 70+ hour work week.4

When George W. Bush was informed that a woman in Omaha worked three jobs, he said that was, “Uniquely American,” and the crowd of Republicans he was speaking to instantly broke out in applause.5 Now, working multiple jobs is slowly becoming the norm thanks to the Republican hesitance to raise the minimum wage.

5.2% of hourly wage workers make at most minimum wage.  

Yet, arguments that say it will hurt the economy are proven wrong in the real world every time.

In fact, raising the minimum wage might help the economy. The EPI estimates a $9.80 minimum wage would pump $100,000 into the economy.

We live in an economy dependant on consumer spending, with around 70% of the United States GDP being composed of consumer spending.  It’s logical to assume that if you pay employees more, they will have more money in their pocket to spend, thus fueling the economy. Plus, it would free up some government money being given out as part of the social safety net, which so many hard working Americans are hopelessly laying on.

The minimum wage in Washington state is $9.19 an hour, yet it has a 7% unemployment rate, just slightly below the national average, and a cost of living that is also around the national average.

There are still businesses in Washington state that are profiting.

Small businesses are still commencing and thriving in Washington State.

Walmart still has locations in Washington State. So does McDonald’s. And so do many other low wage employers.

The median household income in Washington State is more than $10,000 higher than the national median household income. The poverty rate in Washington State is around six points less than the national average. In addition to having a $9.19 state minimum wage, Washington State also has areas with a $15 an hour minimum wage, and those areas are doing well, too.

The minimum wage workers of the land are waiting.  They have been waiting. They haven’t, in practice, received a raise since 1998.  They struggle to feed themselves and their families. A lot rely on government programs, and some may be on government programs because their employer encouraged them to do so. These workers are not lazy - they are far from it.

They are, “uniquely American,” and we shouldn’t be proud of that.

It’s time to raise the minimum wage to a livable one and tie it with the CPI.

-Luis Rolfo, Communications Chair