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COMMENTARY: The Cruelty of Exploiting Vulnerable People for Political Advantage

DeSantis’s scheme to deceive, manipulate, and harm vulnerable people seeking asylum in our country is evidence that the cruelty wielded by Trump and embraced by so many of his followers will continue to poison our politics if Trump or DeSantis or someone of their ilk is the Republican presidential nominee in 2024.

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Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

By Ben Jealous

There is always a new low for Trump Republicans. And that is pretty frightening.

Take the latest exercise in lawlessness, dishonesty, and cruelty from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He chartered a plane to send dozens of mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, an island community off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. He clearly was gleeful about the idea of sticking it to liberals and gloating about it on right-wing media.

It wasn’t even an original idea. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had already been putting migrants on buses to cities like Wash., D.C., where they have been dropped off in front of Fox News and outside the Vice President’s residence—a giveaway that the purpose is publicity.

The news of the DeSantis flight made it clear that he was exploiting vulnerable people for his own political advantage. And the more we learn, the worse it gets.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of people deceived into taking the flight says the migrants were approached in San Antonio by people pretending to offer humanitarian assistance. They were promised that jobs, housing, and other assistance were waiting for them if they were willing to get on a plane.

None of it was true. These vulnerable people were reportedly told lies about where they were going and given brochures with false information about help that would be waiting for them. Even worse, they may have unknowingly threatened their asylum claims by making it likely that they would miss court appointments scheduled far from where they had been flown.

DeSantis and his henchmen hadn’t contacted government officials or nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts. It was a photo op. It was definitely political. And it was possibly illegal. The sheriff in Bexar County, Texas, has opened a criminal investigation into the false pretenses under which people were lured onto the planes. A lawsuit has been filed on the migrants’ behalf.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre slammed DeSantis for “alerting Fox News and not city or state officials about a plan to abandon children fleeing communism,” calling it “a cruel, premeditated political stunt.”

Of course, it’s not the first time that dishonorable politicians have exploited vulnerable people. In fact, racist white southerners who were resisting segregation in the early 1960s did almost the same thing to Black Americans 60 years ago.

The Washington Post recently highlighted that history. A group of segregationists organized “Reverse Freedom Rides” in 1962 as retaliation for the Freedom Rides that carried civil rights activists throughout the South in 1961. According to the Post, “The plot was organized by white supremacist Citizens’ Councils in Arkansas, who bought radio ads and made fliers advertising the ‘opportunity’ to African Americans.” One Arkansas woman and nine of her children were dropped off on Cape Cod near the Kennedy family’s compound because she had been falsely told that Kennedy was going to greet them.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Last year, journalist Adam Serwer published a book called “The Cruelty is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America.” Serwer has made the point that Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of a cruel streak in American politics. There is a long history of backlash against progress, going back to the post-Reconstruction period in which white supremacists used violence to reverse the enfranchisement of Black people.

DeSantis’s scheme to deceive, manipulate, and harm vulnerable people seeking asylum in our country is evidence that the cruelty wielded by Trump and embraced by so many of his followers will continue to poison our politics if Trump or DeSantis or someone of their ilk is the Republican presidential nominee in 2024.

Recognizing this truth is important to understanding the work we have ahead of us. We must also recognize that the cruelty in our past and our present is not our whole story.

Our story also includes good people in Hyannis in the 1960s and in Martha’s Vineyard this year who responded by mobilizing to welcome and support the arrivals. It includes the people of all colors and faiths who have repeatedly built movements to expand civil rights and promote human dignity, and who have given their time and treasure to elect political leaders who appeal to our national ideals rather than trash them.

We should be outraged at the cruelty displayed by some of our leaders. Let us also be motivated, and optimistic, that we can out-organize and overcome them.

Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. A New York Times best-selling author, his next book Never Forget Our People Were Always Free”will be published by Harper Collins in December 2022.

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Activism

Call to Protect Geoffrey’s Inner Circle from Threatened High-Rise Development

Geoffrey’s, located at 410 14th St., is part of the city’s Black Arts Movement and Business District which was formed in 2016 by reso-lution of the Oakland City Council to protect Black-owned businesses and enhance a downtown district that would encourage the historic African American legacy and cul-ture of Oakland.

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By Ken Epstein

Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, a downtown Oakland Cultural Center that has featured live jazz and served music lovers and the Black community for decades, is now under threat from a proposed real estate development that could undermine the stability and future of the facility.

Geoffrey’s, located at 410 14th St., is part of the city’s Black Arts Movement and Business District which was formed in 2016 by resolution of the Oakland City Council to protect Black-owned businesses and enhance a downtown district that would encourage the historic African American legacy and culture of Oakland.

Now, the Oakland Planning Commission is considering a high-rise building proposed by out-of-town developers next to Geoffrey’s, which would jeopardize both the survival of the venue and the Black business district as a whole.

In addition to running a business that has been a crucial institution in the local community and the regional arts scene, Geoffrey Pete, founder, has utilized his business to offer meals for thousands of unsheltered individuals and hosted countless community events.

The following petition is being circulated in defense of Geoffrey’s and the Black Arts district (To add your name to the petition, email info@geoffreyslive.com):

“The African-American community in Oakland has been seriously damaged by developers and public offcials who are willing and sometimes eager to see African Americans disappear from the city. Black people comprised 47% of the population in 1980; now they make up only 20% of said population. In response to this crisis the 14th Street Corridor from Oak to the 880 Frontage Road was established as the Black Arts Movement and Business District by the City Council on Jan. 7, 2016, in Resolution 85958.

Tidewater, an out-of-town developer, is proposing to build a high-rise building at 1431 Franklin, which will damage the Black business district and the businesses in the area including the iconic business of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle at 410 – 14th St.

We demand that the Planning Commission and the City Council reject this predatory building proposal and proceed with plans to fund and enhance the Black Business District.”

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Activism

16th Annual MLK Day of Service on the Richmond Greenway

The 16th annual MLK Day of Service in Richmond honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  was held Jan. 16 with a day of service to the community and activities for families on the Richmond Greenway.

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“…Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 16th annual MLK Day of Service in Richmond honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  was held Jan. 16 with a day of service to the community and activities for families on the Richmond Greenway.

The event was hosted by Urban Tilth and the City of Richmond. Event partners were Groundwork Richmond, Rich City Rides, Moving Forward, Hope Worldwide, The Watershed Project, Contra Costa Resource Conservation District, Building Blocks for Kids, City of Richmond, Cal Cameron Institute, Friends of the Richmond Greenway; and Pogo Park.

The celebration made possible with the support of the Hellman Family Foundation, City of Richmond, and hundreds of individual donors.

The day’s schedule included volunteer projects along the Richmond Greenway and a Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial and community celebration at Unity Park.

Among the community service projects were opportunities to take part in projects to transform and beautify the Richmond Greenway Trail, like tending to the Greenway Gardens, trash pickup, and planting native plant and trees.

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Activism

Sheng Thao Sworn in as New Mayor of Oakland, Pledges New Direction for the City

Mayor Thao provided a few minutes on the program to introduce to the community Dr. Kimberly Mayfield, the newly appointed deputy mayor, who has served as vice president of external affairs and dean of the school of education at Holy Names University, a leader of the Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) and a member of the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc.

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Mayor Sheng Thao, sworn in as the 51st Mayor of Oakland, is flanked by her son Ben Ventura and her father “Richard” Nou My Thao at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Jan. 9, 2023. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.
Mayor Sheng Thao, sworn in as the 51st Mayor of Oakland, is flanked by her son Ben Ventura and her father “Richard” Nou My Thao at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Jan. 9, 2023. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.

Mayor Thao appoints HNU’s Dr. Kimberly Mayfield as deputy mayor

By Ken Epstein

Sheng Thao, a daughter of Hmong refugees who overcame homelessness and domestic abuse to attend university and build a life for herself and her family in Oakland, received the official oath of office Monday afternoon as the new mayor of the City of Oakland.

Sworn in at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, she stood on stage surrounded by friends, family, and staff members. She was flanked by her son Ben Ventura, who performed a musical piece on the cello, and her father “Richard” Nou My Thao.

The mayor called on Oaklanders to join with her to create a more humane, inclusive, and just city. She spoke about her commitment as a progressive to significantly improve the quality of life for residents, making the city safer and cleaner, building 30,000 units of truly affordable housing, fostering jobs, promoting economic development, supporting small businesses and providing solutions to homelessness that recognize the dignity of the unsheltered.

“I know what we can do together, Oakland,” she said. “Our city’s’ best days are still to come. The Oakland that we all know is possible and within our reach.”

Newly appointed Deputy Mayor Kimberly Mayfield (left) with Mayor Sheng Thao. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.

Newly appointed Deputy Mayor Kimberly Mayfield (left) with Mayor Sheng Thao. Photo courtesy of Alain McLaughlin Photography.

Mayor Thao provided a few minutes on the program to introduce to the community Dr. Kimberly Mayfield, the newly appointed deputy mayor, who has served as vice president of external affairs and dean of the school of education at Holy Names University, a leader of the Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) and a member of the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc.

In her remarks, the mayor focused on the city’s long fight to become more inclusive and equitable.

“We believe everyone deserves a seat at the table, not just a few, not just the wealthy, not just the well-connected,” she said.

“Sometimes, we take our shared progressive values for granted, our advances toward justice and equality,” said Mayor Thao.

She reminded people that “a…century ago, our city was dominated by members of the Ku Klux Klan (where) Klan members burned crosses in our hills and marched through our streets. As recently as the1970s, freeways were made possible by tearing down thriving Black, Latino, and Asian communities,” she continued.

“We recognize what we have overcome together to remember what is worth fighting for every day…(and) to take stock of how far we still have to go.”

Promising a “comprehensive” approach to public safety to make all neighborhoods in the city safer, she said she would bolster anti-crime programs like Ceasefire and “we will fill (police) vacancies with home-grown police officers who know our community, who look like us.”

At the same time, she said, the city must increase opportunities for young people, reinvigorating the summer jobs program (for youth) and enhance the school-to-work pipeline so young people can gain experience and job skills.

She said she would beef up the many city departments that are currently operating on skeleton staffing, promising to fill the staffing vacancies that “plague our city.”

Mayor Thao said she herself is a renter, and that she “will fiercely protect Oakland renters. If you are a renter in Oakland, you’ve got a mayor who’s got your back.”

Speaking about the Oakland A’s proposed waterfront real estate development promoted by former Mayor Libby Schaaf, Mayor Thao said the city will continue negotiations to keep the team “rooted in Oakland.”

“Working closely with the A’s, I’m hopeful we can reach a good deal, (based) on our Oakland values,” she said.

The former mayor’s plan for building the proposed waterfront real estate development at the Port of Oakland was dealt a major setback this week when Oakland failed to secure more than $180 million in federal funds to help pay for infrastructure development for the project.

Speaking of the importance of the appointment of Mayfield as deputy mayor, the Mayor’s Office explained her role in the new administration:

“Mayor Thao was thrilled Kimberly Mayfield agreed to join her team because of her tremendous and longstanding leadership in Oakland. In recognition of her vast experience, it was decided that the best role for her would be as deputy mayor where she will be an instrumental part of the leadership of both the Office and Oakland.”

In her introduction at the Paramount Theatre, Mayfield said, “Today is not about political agendas…It’s about the power of the people…it’s a recognition of the rejection of the status quo. This new chapter begins with a mayor that understands how to build a culture that works for everyone. Thank you, Mayor Thao for the opportunity to serve.”

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