Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Film Noir, Donald Trump and art imitating life (or is it the other way around?)

January 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Donald the Imperious is now the President. For some, this movie-movie moment of a real estate tycoon and reality TV star reaching the Oval Office despite losing the popular vote in an unusally divisive election marked by his ugly rehtoric casts a dark pall over the land. This melancholic sentiment, combined with the grey, misty, foggy weather in Omaha, got me to thinking that Trump bears many of the characteristics of heavies in my favorite cinema genre – Film Noir. That cinema of dark intents, moods, goings-on and settings usually has as its villainous center a suave mastermind or crass boss. You decide which Trump is. The protagonist is generally an anti-hero private eye, cop, attorney or newspaperman going up against steep odds and powerful, sinister forces to expose an underbelly of misdeeds. My screen-fired imagination can easily see this playing out in a real way. Would Trump and his gang get away with it, whatever it is, or would he take the fall and get his comeuppance? Who knows? But the speculation is fun. As for me, I content myself with the thought that we’ll likely to have Trump for only four years. Even if his time in office should play out like a film noir and take us down some shadowy paths, I take faith in the notion that a trench-coated tough guy with a five o’clock shadow and a crooked nose for the truth will make Trump heel and, if need be, bring lawbeakers to justice, even if that means the chief executive himself. Of course, nothing like this may happen at all, but it sure would make a good movie. However this dark art-imitating-life or life-imitating-art episode in American history plays out, it should never be boring and like any good film noir story it should be filled with some interesting plot twists and turns.

 

 

 

Film Noir, Donald Trump and art imitating life (or is it the other way around?)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
The grey, misty, foggy gloom that’s settled over Omaha, combined with the United States presidential inauguration and transfer of executive power taking place today, has me in a Film Noir state of mind. The dark, ill-fated world of that cinema genre contains a certain beauty in its interplay of light and shadow, stark cityscapes, back alley brawls, smoky back room dealings, white hot neon seduction and cold betrayal. it is a dog-eat-dog, predatory world of nihilism and existenialism, of bald avarice, greed and lust. The genre grew out of German Expressionism and took root in a World War Ii America of waning innocence and idealism and had its heyday from about 1941 through 1959. The genre reflected the undercurrent of anxieties of those times: economic depression, hot war, cold war, the bomb, racial strife, organized crime and corruption, et cetera. Every once in a while film noir gets an update or homage when the genre seems a good template for a particulalry troubling period, and so “The Long Goodbye,” “Chinatown” and “Body Heat” spoke to their time. Even the most famous American film about a Whte House occupant brought down by an investigation, “All the President’s Men,” is at its heart a film noir.

Film noir is as apt a metaphor as I can find for the tenor that the new Commander in Chief and his henchmen are asserting as the new gang in town in this time of division and uncertainity.

Viewed in a certain noirish, fatalistic light, our nation’s capitol is a battleground between opposing mobs, syndicates and special interests that we just happen to call administrations, political parties, departments, think tanks, consultants and lobbyists. None may meet the technical or legal definition of crooks or criminal enterprises, but the corruption, under-handed dealings, budgetary overruns, hush money, slush funds, scandals, threats and vendettas are real. They certainly come with the territory. Some of our elected officials navigate this underworld with some subtlety. Others are more brazen about it.

Donald Trump is a lot like some of the heavies in classic noir. He doesn’t pose to be anyone than who he is – a rich, powerful man who will stop at nothing to get his way. Think of the character Noah Cross (John Huston) in “Chinatown” or – and how’s this for irony? – Ronald Reagan as Jack Browning in the 1964 made-for-TV adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Yes. Trump has the part down pat. Calculating when it serves him and impulsive when things get tight. Ruthless, vindictive, self-centered, vain. A misogynist with a decorative dumb blonde on his arm. Always scheming to get what he sees as his. You cross him at your own risk. He’s right out front in his I’m-above-the-law attitudes and actions. Smug in his confidence that nothing, not even the rule of law, can touch him.

 

(credit: Paramount)  Reagan as the Bad Guy

Where before Trump had only partners and shareholders to answer to, he now has a nation, a party, a congress and an administration to hold him accountable. But will we? Will the office and responsibility he now holds change him? Will he grow emotionally and intellectually into the position? Will the system of oversight work to reign him in when necessary? Or will this rank opportunist find ways and loopholes to get around every modulating check and balance to feed his ego and greed?

What about his agenda? Is there really anything more to it than his nationalistic appeal to make America great again, whatever that means? Isn’t it just all about lining the pockets of rich people like himself? Will small business people and low to middle class workers really see any benefits, especially if they have to pay for health care themselves and if inflation spikes and interest rates go up? Won’t average homeowners and taxpayers pay the brunt of his plan?

Won’t Trump be just another CEO or Boss in this economic political landscape that puts the interests of corporations above the greater good? If he gets his way and follows through on his promises to deport the undocumented, to close borders, to crack down on undesirables, to force loyalty oaths and to cut the safety net for the vulnerable, won’t he be a capo or despot by any other name?

So, in this scenario who is the film noir equivalent of the hardboiled character that will take on Trump and his gang? if it comes down to it, who will help expose him in a journalistic or criminal investigation that looks deep into the shadows of some wrongdoing rising to the level of impeachable offense? Might it be a grizzled reporter or cop or attorney or even senator who has the guts and I’ve-got-nothing-to-lose chutzpah to poke his nose where it’s not wanted and risk getting it broken or slashed? Would any traditional media or law enforcement officer or court or elected official have the will and courage to risk everything to expose such things? Or would it have to come from an outlier like an Edward Snowden?

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to needing a Sam Spade or Jake Gittes to haunt those dark streets in search of answers to secrets and lies, plots and scandals. But if it does, I will try to view the brooding, menacing, treacherous America of Trumpland as a sprawling film noir and hope that a femme fatale or false move undoes it all and humbles him before our eyes.

My Early New Year’s Wish for America

December 9, 2016 1 comment

My Early New Year’s Wish for America

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

 

 

Given the fear and hate-mongering the recent presidential campaign brought to the surface, my fondest wish for the new year is that each of us find it in our hearts to love The Other. Healing the nation must start inside individual hearts and minds before recovery from distrust and division can be expressed through words and actions.

America is a fractured mosaic created by tumults and traumas that the nation has never fully addressed. Revolution, slavery, immigration, migration, civil war, world wars, economic depression and recession, social movements, mass industrialization, ghettos, riots, illicit drugs, violent crime, mass incarceration, hate groups, suburban sprawl-white flight, urban renewal, states rights fights and regional wars are just a few of the ruptures to have shaped America. The individual and collective weight of these fissures are incalculable and generational. The resulting psychological, emotional, social, economic consequences affect policies and systems as well as group dynamics that in turn impact people’s lives.

So many defining events in the nation’s history pit people against each other on one side or the other of some issue or cause or reality. Competing self-interests collide at every turn. The harder, more unsure the times, people tend to be extra protective of what they have and wary of anyone different from them. That is human nature. Minorities are often targeted for their differences and made the scapegoat for the disenfranchised’s struggles or reversals of fortune. The less empowered people feel, the more they blame others who are different from them and the more they look to groups they identify with to be their sounding board or acting out cover.

The more people erect figurative or literal walls to isolate themselves from The Other, communities and neighborhoods cease being unifying, free, open spaces for engagement and interaction and instead become closed circles of self-interest that keep folks apart.

Here’s hoping that those holding a grudge against another group or fearing another group, whether justified or not, take the opportunity to try and authentically connect with someone from that group. If your attempt is rebuked, well, at least you tried. If your attempt is accepted, well, then maybe, just maybe a bridge has been made that positively impacts two lives and perhaps stimulates a larger ripple effect beyond them. Big things start in small ways, after all.

On a larger level, here’s hoping some breakthrough happens during the Trump presidency whereby the president himself along with senators, congressmen or cabinet members of different races or faiths model embracing The Other as acceptable, desired behavior. America needs all the reinforcing it can get from the nation’s leaders that interracial, interfaith communion is not only healthy for the United States but necessary for its survival as a pluralistic, democratic society.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the outgoing president who preached inclusion and appealed to the better angels of our souls only to be opposed at every turn were to lead a unifying movement with this president-elect who preached division and pandered to the worst in us? That kind of strange bedfellows union that overlooks personal differences for the greater good would not be a first in American politics but it has been sorely lacking in this era of uncompromising agendas and silo building.

Is it just wishful thinking that these two men so opposite in their beliefs, values and world views could put their differences and animosity aside in service of healing and unity? I pray not. If they could be joined in this effort by Bernie Sanders, Al Gore, the Clintons, the Bushes, Condoleezza Rice, Gen. Colin Powell and other players from past elections and administrations, then so much the better.

Whatever the occupant of the White House does, here’s to all of us choosing to build bridges rather than silos in 2017.

Tony Vargas beats the bushes for votes in pursuit of history

October 17, 2016 1 comment

South Omaha has been home to machine politics and to legacy families serving in elected office and other avenues of public leadership. Trying to break the mold is Omaha transplant Tony Vargas. The brash New York City native and son of Peruvian immigrants has made quite a splash on the scene since moving here in 2012 with his wife, attorney and South Omaha native Lauren Micek Vargas. He was soon appointed to the Omaha Public Schools board. He co-founded New Leaders Council Omaha. Now he’s running for the Nebraska Legislative District 7 seat. The bi-lingual candidate has been pressing lots of flesh and knocking on lots of doors to better know the constituents and issues he’s vying to represent. The majority of residents in that district are Latino. The demographics roughly parallel those of the Subdistrict 9 OPS Board of Education seat he holds until his term ends this year. Should he win his state senate bid, this outlier would be the first Latino from Omaha to serve in the Nebraska Legislature and only the second Latino ever to serve in the Unicameral.

 

Tony Vargas beats the bushes for votes in pursuit of history

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

 

Nebraska Legislative District 7 candidate Tony Vargas canvasses homes wearing shoes with soles worn to the nub. Even though his feet get wet on rainy days, he intentionally sticks with that same beat-up footwear.

“It is a reminder that if I’m not knocking on doors, I’m not doing enough,” said Vargas, 32. “There is no substitute for hard work. People in our community are working their tails off trying to provide for themselves and their families and so I should be doing the same thing, which means meeting people where they’re at. There’s no substitute for that type of engagement.”

This bilingual son of Peruvian immigrants is nearing the end of his Omaha Public Schools Board of Education term representing Subdistrict 9.,which encompasses the same heavily Latino South Omaha area as Legislature District 7.

The former New York City public school teacher knows what it took for his family to make it in America. His father is a machinist shop steward and leader in his local union. His mother worked on assembly lines.

“It wasn’t until later in life my family had some success. I’m fully aware of all the struggles and sacrifices my parents made and I carry that with me in everything I do. My parents emphasized it was great our getting closer to the middle class but it didn’t mean anything unless we were helping others do the same.”

A life of public service has followed for Vargas.

“My parents instilled you can’t sit idly by and watch. I worked with Habitat for Humanity all throughout high school doing builds in my community and across the nation. In college I did service work. I became a public school teacher in a lower income community because I wanted to be where it reminded me of places I grew up and where I felt my skills would be most impactful.”

He was a Teach for America adviser and Leadership for Educational Equity’s director of policy and advocacy.

His wife, attorney Lauren Micek Vargas, is a South Omaha native who was a pubic school special education teacher, She worked for Legal Aid Nebraska before joining the Douglas County Public Defender Office. The couple moved here in 2012 so Lauren could finish law school at Creighton University. They have a home in Little Italy and attend St. Frances Cabrini Church. In 2013 Vargas felt called to apply for the vacant OPS Subdistrict 9 board seat. He was appointed over three others to complete the position’s remaining term.

Vargas is now vying for incumbent Nicole Fox’s District 7 state senate seat that she won by appointment when Jeremy Nordquist’s vacated the office. Vargas decisively won the spring primary – taking 10 of 12 precincts – over Fox and runner up John Synowiecki, who is a past District 7 representative. Vargas and Synowiecki both registered Democrats, are facing off in the nonpartisan Nov. 8 general election.

If elected Vargas would be the first Latino state senator from Omaha and only the second ever in the Unicameral. The potential history is not lost on Vargas.

“To me it does mean something and since my district is one of the state’s largest Latino populations, the topic does come up. But what really comes up is how I’m working to earn people’s votes and respect. My wife and I have been knocking on doors for a year. People are excited we are working to understand what their lives look and feel like. Still, some people do remark, ‘And you’ll be the first Latino elected from Omaha to this office.’ and that makes it a little more exciting for them.

“As much as I want to be a voice for the Latino community, I’m serving all people-all populations in my district.”

Vargas said his melting pot experience dovetails with the “very diverse district” he seeks to serve.

“I have many different identities that matter to me: my Latino identity; my immigrant identity; my working-class labor family identity; my public service-public school teaching identity. All those things keep me grounded. One thing my background really taught me is that in our current system there are haves and have nots and it tends to be much harsher on communities in poverty and of color. If we don’t find pathways to support them, we’re not improving our entire city.

“The same real problems I saw affecting people in New York I see in my community now. There are pockets seeing some growth, strength and development. But I see the majority of people still struggling in similar ways to how my family did.”

He said people are voicing “concerns around barriers to accessing quality health care, housing and not making high enough wages or getting enough hours from employers. I am hearing about underemployment and unemployment and the impact it has on kids and families.” Education inequities at inner city schools is another pressing issue. He’s proud of the track record he and his school board mates achieved.

“I think what we’ve done on the school board is really a step in the right direction in terms of improving infrastructure and the safety of our schools, closing the achievement gap in our neighborhoods, improving community engagement, holding the district accountable to what we do well and what we don’t do well and passing a strategic plan.”

His campaign stresses voter education.

As a founding board member of New Leaders Council Omaha, he trains millennials to be Next Gen leaders like himself.

Visit http://www.vargasfornebraska.com.

Freedom Riders: A get on the bus inauguration journey diary

October 21, 2010 4 comments

My work as a reporter intersected with history when I embedded myself with a group of Omahans traveling by motorcoach to witness the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009.  The University of Nebraska at Omaha‘s Department of Black Studies organized the trip and kindly invited me along and The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper generously picked up my tab.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am glad I had. My diary or journal like story appeared in truncated form in The Reader.

All a journalist like me can hope to do in a situation like the frenzy around the inauguration is to try and get the facts straight and to make sense of a bigger-than-life event.  I believe I succeeded.

NOTE: You can see photos from my trip and even spot me (I’m in a light blue-grey ski jacket with a blue stocking cap and I have eyeglasses on) at the following site: http://www.unomaha.edu/blst/

SPECIAL SCREENING: UNO Department of Black Studies chair Omowale Akintunde led the trip. Akintunde, who is also a filmmaker (see my story “Deconstructing What Race Means in a Faux Post-Racial World” about his feature debut, Wigger) directed an Emmy Award-winning documentary about the trip, An Inaugural Ride to Freedom.  The doc has shown at festivals and a special screening of the film is scheduled for October 26 at 7 p.m. at Film Streams, 1340 Mike Fahey Street. A post show Q & A with Akintunde will follow.

Because the film has generated some buzz, I am reposting my inauguration journey story here.  In this light, my story is a kind of companion piece to the documentary.

 

Freedom Riders: A get on the bus inauguration journey diary

©by Leo Adam Biga

The story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

Fifty of us from the metro area signed up to intersect with history. The chance to be at Barack Obama’s inauguration came via a special bus trip organized by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Department of Black Studies and sponsored by UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Dubbed An Inaugural Ride to Freedom: The Legacy of a People, a Movement and a Mission, the trip’s mode of transportation, a Navigator charter bus, was both practical and symbolic. Buses figured heavily in marshaling foot soldiers for the civil rights movement and addressing segregation in public schools.

The UNO trip’s “freedom riders” included folks with direct ties to the movement, including older African Americans for whom this journey held deep meaning. Some are retired now and others still engaged in the struggle. Edwardene Armstrong is a UNO Black Studies adjunct faculty member. Her husband Bob Armstrong, former Omaha Housing Authority director, consults with public housing officials across America and the globe. James Freeman directs UNO’s multicultural affairs office.

Leading the university figures along for the ride was charismatic UNO Black Studies Chair Omowale Akintunde. Several UNO students joined us. One high school student was on board as well: Omaha North senior Seth Quartey. Most students were sponsored by UNO.

Community members, such as activist Katrina Adams, Youngblood’s Barber Shop owner Clyde Deshazer and gospel playwright Janette Jones, had no direct ties to UNO but strong convictions about our mission. Friends, couples and families made the trip. The youngest rider, 10-year-old Carter Culvert, traveled with his mother, Jackie Culvert. A few folks went on their own, including this journalist. All but a few made our first D.C. visit on this ride. What a time to go.

Precursor – Get to Know Each Other

A Jan. 7 briefing at UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center ballroom brings participants together for the first time. The group’s diversity is soon evident. Blacks, whites, Hispanics. Young, middle-aged, seniors. Students, working stiffs, professionals.

From the start it’s obvious Akintunde, a tall, lithe man with a brass band voice and a bigger-than-life presence, is in charge. Also a filmmaker, he’s chronicling the trip in a documentary. We all sign releases for our comments and images to be used.

(NOTE:  The film premiered at UNO’s Malcolm X Festival in April 2009.)

As things develop the shooting threatens turning the trip into a tail-wags-the-dog scenario with all its set-ups and interviews. Some students serve as crew, holding the boom, operating lights/sound, carrying supplies. DP Andrew Koch flew in from the west coast for the gig. PA Stephanie Hearn did much of the prep work.

I leave the briefing with these thoughts: this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that sweeps us along on the tide of history; and we “tourists” constitute a microcosm of the broad-based support that made Obama’s election possible.
What follows are snapshots of our group’s four-day, 100-hour, 3,000-plus mile odyssey to embrace change and to participate in history.

Sunday, Jan. 18

Rolling Out – Get on the Bus

Lot C in UNO’s South Campus is our departure point. I arrive about 7:30 in the cold dim daylight. The bus is there, its engine idling, the lower baggage compartment opened. Some early arrivals have already loaded gear and settled in seats. I choose a mid-section spot befitting my middle-of-the-road nature. Over the next 75 minutes the bus fills out and the rituals of finding a place to sit, stowing away carry-ons in overhead bins and meeting-greeting fellow passengers ensues.

Obamamania appears low key for now. Only a few folks wear anything with Obama images or slogans. One woman climbing aboard is overheard telling another, “He’s not the chosen one.” The mood is a mix of sober expectancy and fan-filled ardor.

There are the usual stragglers and late arrivals. Some of us catch Zs, others chit chat. We’re finally all together and push off on time at 9. A 28-hour grind awaits us before we reach our hotel in Chestertown, MD, about 90 minutes from D.C.
All but a few seats are filled in what are cramped accommodations. For the biggest bodies the bus will mean contortions squeezing into narrow seats and relieving pressure on sore, stiff joints. Leg room is almost nonexistent. Everyone carves out a few inches of sanctuary in the tight quarters.

By the time we cruise I-80 in western Iowa, passing brown-white splotched fields sprouting hundreds of sculptural wind turbines, Akintunde’s filming is in full swing. He captures folks slumbering, reading, cell phoning, text messaging, you name it.

Reminders of this being a Soul Bus trip are the black themed movies that light up the tiny screens suspended overhead. By trip’s end we’ll have seen blockbusters like Ray to little gems like The Secret Life of Bees to old favs like Claudine to a Tyler Perry flick to a fresh bootlegged copy of Seven Pounds.

Akintunde, with Koch manning the digital video camera, grabs establishing shots and spot interviews where he can — on the bus, in parking lots, at rest stops, restaurants, the hotel. The two seemed joined at the hip in our close confines. The director, resplendent in jumpsuits, follows “emerging stories” in our ranks.

Some of us begin our own chronicles, snapping pics and journaling. One woman strides down the aisle, clicking away on her camera as she declares, “I’m going to get me some pictures right here.” In the case of this old-school reporter, notes are jotted on a pad and interviews committed to a micro cassette recorder.

We certainly all have our own story for being here. For retirees James and Jackie Hart it’s about bearing witness to the fulfillment of MLK’s vision.

“I can’t even describe how excited I am that we’re going to have a new black president,” Jim says. “I hope I’m around to see his eight years.”

“I Wanted to See It for Myself”

For Denise Howard, a wife, mother and student, it’s about being “part of change. I wanted to see it for myself, I wanted to feel the atmosphere. It was a must.”

For UNO public administration masters student Joe Schaaf it’s about being present at “a wound healing event, not only racially but politically. This is a huge breath of fresh air. There’s a momentum to change Washington. I view it as one of the top five moments in our country’s history.”

For Keisha Holloway the trip’s a homage to her late sister, Deanna Rochelle, who died only a week before. The two shared a passion for Obama. They voted together. “To kind of keep her legacy going I’m going for me and her,” says Keisha.

Bob Armstrong’s reasons are complex.

“My family’s life has been lived trying to fight for civil rights, especially for black people. Many of the civil rights leaders had been to my house to meet during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, including Dr. King,” says Armstrong, who was in D.C. for King’s ‘63 address. At the time, he said, “we didn’t know it was history. It became historic. It’s a different setting though (with Obama). This time we’re going knowing that history is being made and so here we are 45 years later for the culmination of all those activities with the election of a black president.”

The way Edwardene Armstrong sees it, Obama’s achievement is only possible because of the work done by many others before him. Freeman agrees. He was on the front lines of the civil rights movement at Tuskegee University, and he said Obama stands on the shoulders of countless freedom fighters.

“It means so much to me because we’ve gone through so much getting to this point,” Freeman says. “We’re not where we ought to be but we’ve come a long, long way. It wasn’t only black folks. During that time there was a sense of commitment and frankly I haven’t seen that until this campaign. Back when we used to march there were so many people of all colors, of all nationalities, and then you saw that this (past) year. Just an affirmation that now I see that vision come to pass. It makes you want to cry. I wish my dad and mom could have been here.”

Edwardene can’t help be struck by the fact the new president has a similar biracial background as her great-grandfather, the son of a black slave mother and white slave master. A black president seemed inconceivable to her.

 

 

  • *
    Linda Walker of Bay Shore, New York lifts her hand in prayer as President Barack Obama is sworn in as 44th president of the United States in Washington on Tuesday Jan. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/ St. Petersburg Times, Martha Rial) ** TAMPA OUT. USA TODAY OUT. HERNANDO TODAY OUT. CITRUS COUNTY CHRONICLE OUT **

 

  • *
    Crowds gather on the National Mall in Washington for the swearing-in ceremony of President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

 

 

Bob Armstrong never thought it would happen, period. “It’s such a historic moment I felt we had to be there,” he says. “It doesn’t mean all our problems are solved but it means it certainly gives black people the aspirations that they can do pretty much what they want to do if they’re willing to sacrifice and get themselves educated and do those things necessary to become successful. It’s an emotional time. You’re going to see a lot of tears shed when he takes the oath. Tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of pride, tears of wonderment of thinking could this really be happening…”

The stories go on all day and into the night. We drive through light snow showers in Illinois and Indiana. We cross the gray-slated, ice-strewn Mississippi River. We skirt south of Chicago and Indianapolis. We pass through Columbus, Ohio. By the time we hit Maryland more snow showers appear.

Sleep is fitful for most. A blessed few sleep through anything: the racket/motion of the bus; the sound from the DVDs; the din from up front, where Akintunde and his self-described “big mouth” holds court, and in the back, where there’s often a conversation or card game going on. Laughter sporadically breaks out.

Call it a lesson in multiculturalism but the “soft music” we’re promised late at night turns out to be hardcore Hot Country, courtesy Rebel 105.9. The driver’s choice. Quite a contrast from Marvin Gaye. Rumblings of a mutiny go up. Most take it in good-humored stride. Thankfully, that driver’s relieved, as previously scheduled, in New Paris, Ohio. The drivers repeat the process on the return trip. The music goes off and order’s restored with an Earth, Wind and Fire concert DVD.

Monday, Jan. 19

The Day Before – Get Off the Bus

We roll across Maryland on I-70, traversing forested ridges. Fog hangs in the depressions. Mills line the riverways. Colonial-style brick homes predominate.

At a Shoney’s I’m treated to a spirited discussion by three UNO students. They embody the youth Obama ignited. Brandon Henderson says Obama’s message of unlimited possibilities “resonated for us. It brought that a lot closer. He’s not just a black candidate. All kind of people are going to be at this thing. It took everybody to get him to where he is right now — to elect him as president. I just want to be part of the atmosphere of Everything Obama.”

Joshua Tolliver-Humpal says Obama “did a great job tapping into that youthful idealism. The youth vote really came out strong. I just have to be there to see the most captivating figure in American politics get inaugurated.”

“Really this is the first significant, world-changing event in my lifetime,” Joseph Lamar says. “Everybody’s going to remember where they were at this particular time and I can say, ‘Hey, I was there.’”

Upon reboarding the bus after bathroom/food breaks Akintunde takes to saying, “Is anybody here that wasn’t here before?,’ or, ‘Is anybody not here that you saw before?’ It’s the ghetto roll check,” he explains.

We never lose anyone, but we do gain two members our second night. They’re Nigel Neary and Tom Manion, whose public housing corporation in Manchester, England Bob Armstrong consults. They “crash” our trip at his invitation. Their addition lends our trip an international perspective.

A sign of the times finds many wired to their cells, Ipods, Blackberries. A few break out lap tops, too. The result is a running commentary or living blog about this trip.

We cross the massive Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the fog shrouded ocean spread out before us and make it into Chestertown by mid-afternoon, where we’ll encamp overnight at a Comfort Suites. There’s a snafu with some room assignments but we manage checking in and freshening up for an evening sightseeing tour of D.C. Signs leading in and out of the capital warn of major delays tomorrow.

“I’m Going to Take My Foot”

In response to a Fox News report that space on the Mall will be constricted to one square foot per person, Clyde Deshazer says, “I’m going to take my foot.” Given the congestion no one’s sure what we’ll actually see tomorrow. “Whatever there is to see,” Deshazer says, “I want to see it. I haven’t seen any part of history.”

Like many elders on the trip Deshazer grew up in the South. He’s struck by how a fractious nation moves toward solidarity at Obama’s lead. “I am so glad all races are coming together and focusing in one direction. The people coming together for one common purpose — that’s what gets me. That’s a soft spot in my life.”

“It’s a beautiful thing,” adds Henderson.

For tonight’s jaunt into D.C. we’re joined by Willistine Harris, a former student of Akintunde’s who lives and works in the area. She’s the trip’s consultant.We spot our first vendors. Once in the thick of the government district we get an on-the-scene sense for the immensity of it all. Streets are choked with vehicles, including buses like ours. Tourists overrun the sidewalks. We sneak peaks of monolithic buildings and famous monuments. But we don’t leave the bus until on the waterfront, where we take in the harbor and an open-air seafood market. Dinner’s an everything-you-can-eat buffet at Phillips, which Akintunde selected “so you will see some flavor” of D.C., where he once taught.

On the bus back to the hotel Sharif and Gabriel Liwaru say what they most look forward to is being amid masses who crave the positive social change Obama advocates. They see his inauguration as a catalyst for themselves and thousands like them to go back home and inaugurate change in their communities. Sharif is president of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.

At the hotel it’s soon lights out as we have an ungodly early-to-rise call. We’re slated to leave by 4:30 to beat the rush to the Mall.

 

Tuesday, Jan. 20

Inauguration Day – Get on the Mall

We’re psyched for the siege ahead. Braced for swarms of people. Schooled on the Metro rail system’s dos and donts. We’re to stay as one group. Harris has secured us Smart Cards to expedite our way through the stations. We pack all the necessities — sandwiches, snacks, drinks, maps. Layered clothing means double pants or thermal underwear for what will be hours in the frigid cold

As we gear up Akintunde tells me our diversity reflects the Obama phenomenon.

“What Barack Obama says is true. That despite our differences what really bonds us as a people is our commonality as Americans. And when we can get beyond the pettiness of racial divisiveness, difference of religious opinion, and start to think of ourselves as a collective unit, we can become a more powerful, more resolute people who can achieve anything we set our minds to.”

He’s pleased how smoothly the trip’s went thus far. “I mean, this could have gone so many different ways,” he says.

On the bus we’re sleep-deprived adventurers eager to grab some rest before the main leg of the journey unfolds. Janette Jones says our tiredness will soon seem trivial once “we see the fruit of our labor,” meaning the inauguration. “We’ve gone through the wilderness and we’re stepping over into the promised land now.”

“It’s worth it,” adds Andrew Gaines.

Nearing D.C. we get stuck in a traffic snarl on the Capital Beltway. Many others headed out early, too. Some folks abandon their vehicles and walk to the New Carrollton station. We inch along and after an hour or so finally make the station exit. Akintunde emphasizes, “Don’t panic…be vigilant…stay together… We’ll be cool.” We’re let out a couple blocks from the station. Parking’s at a premium. We break into small groups, huddling near for warmth. Prayers are offered. My group’s leader, Sharif, looking sharp in his dreds, says:

“Lord, we ask you this day to bless us on our journey, to keep us safe and to keep us warm, that we may enjoy this opportunity and that we may utilize this in our lives and in our communities when we get home, and to take the energy we’ve gathered here and use it to do good. Amen.” Amen.

Moving in formation, we come upon an ever-growing line outside the station that eventually stretches for blocks. Akintunde’s plea, “No gaps,” becomes our tongue-in-cheek clarion call. It’s easier said than done in what Deshazer calls “belly press” tight conditions. Our difficulty closing the gaps prompts Miletsky to crack, “Our civil rights marching is a little rusty — we haven’t had a movement in awhile.”

“Gracious and Great”

Everyone’s in a good mood. The positive energy visceral. You can’t help observe and feel it. A woman behind me sums up the vibe with, “This is how I feel — I’m feeling gracious and great today.” Perfect gratitude.

Zebulon Miletsky, UNO Black Studies’ resident historian, puts the situation in context. “It’s just a beautiful moment to be here, to document it, and that’s what we’re all doing — we’re all documenting this history for ourselves, and to me that’s the highest form of history. That’s our history as African Americans — oral tradition. To pass that oral history along to each generation  And this story will be passed down and it will be written about. It’s already being written about. And so many times our history has been written by other people. Here we are as a people witnessing and documenting our own history and serving as the primary source.”

Gaines says he feels “so blessed” to be here with family — daughters Frelima Gaines and Gabriel Liwaru and son-in-law Sharif Liwaru — “and to experience this with so many diverse people. We’ve all come together for this historic moment I think in hope and great expectation for that better part of us that’s being expressed today,” he says. “It’s an excellent feeling. Indescribably great.”

Katrina Adams rode the Obama Express to this place as a grassroots supporter. She prays this is not the end. “This is one of those moments when I stepped up and felt like I could do something — to open the lines of communication, to let people know that regardless of what stance you’re taking you can always do more. You can speak your voice and let that be heard,” she says. “I just hope that feeling we started off with when Obama announced his candidacy replenishes itself and that people are not only touched and inspired but they’re called into action.”

Her fondest wish is that as her son “grows up as a biracial child he’ll understand there’s no limit to himself.”
Speaking of mothers and sons, Jackie Culvert brought 10-year-old Carter “so he will be able to see the change for America and be able to remember this moment.”

Every few minutes cheers go up as trains arrive and depart, moving us nearer the station. Security helicopters hover above. At 8:45 we finally make it inside. There, the crowd packs in even tighter. No shoving though. We’re connected to some living, breathing organism that moves in fits and starts. We’re one.

Akintunde says, “I don’t know why I’m not getting angry, I’m just getting more excited.” “More energized,” a woman says.

Terri Jackson-Miller marvels how “everybody’s in the same spirit…very cooperative. No one’s pushing or throwing attitudes, and I just think that’s all part of what’s out there right now, what’s happening today. Truly a blessed day. This breaks ground. The unknown is now known. It’s going to be a life changing experience.”

Between the magnanimity of the people and the cool-headed actions of cops and Metro workers, who closely monitor traffic flow, thousands safely snake through the station. Only a certain number are allowed on the platform. Once out of the crowd’s grip it’s a release and relief. Amazingly, the entire UNO contingent makes it through intact, amid hoops and hollers, all boarding the same Orange Line train. The empty cars fill in no time. It’s 10:30.

Our prearranged stop: Foggy Bottom. A half-hour ride. From there, a 20-minute walk to the Lincoln Memorial, our target area for watching the big event.

Jackson-Miller says the teeming crowds who’ve come from everywhere “really show the magnitude of this whole thing.” Confirmation is as near as the woman sitting beside me. She’s with the Red Rose Sisters from Miami, Fla. She “just had to be part of history.” Later, a man from Ireland joins me. He says Obama’s election night victory speech inspired him to cross the pond for this moment.

Akintunde announces our Foggy Bottom stop and we’re off, charging into daylight on the George Washington University campus. Vendors galore greet us, hawking Obama caps, buttons, key chains, T-shirts — “My President is Black” reads one. Food trucks do a brisk business. As Akintunde promised, “Everybody and their mamas’ selling things.” The cordoned-off district funnels a constant stream of people into the street, onto the sidewalks. A few on bikes. One atop a skateboard. We move in unison. So much activity, yet so quiet, so still. We’re like a great flock of believers bound for church. Serene. Sharing a sense of purpose and faith in a new era. A placards reads, “We Have Overcome — A New Age of Freedom.”

National Guard troops patrol select intersections.

We reach the base of the Lincoln Memorial at 11:15 and soon find the monument overrun with spectators. We make our way down to a grass field lining the reflecting pool, where thousands gather to watch a jumbo screen. We’re a mile from the Capitol, the whole of the National Mall spread out before us. It’s a grand sight with all the people, the flags, the monuments, the pageantry. Magisterial.

So many families are here. Indeed, it’s like a giant family reunion picnic. You don’t know most of the faces but you’re all linked. It’s our Woodstock.

“This is It, This is It”

Though removed from the pomp, circumstance and fanfare we’re still participants in this ritual and reverie. We angle within 25 yards of the screen, our eyes fixed on the ceremony. The mood, upbeat and solemn. Respectful. Swells of cheers and muffled applause rise as Michelle Obama and Joe Biden are intro’d. Aretha Franklin’s soulful “My Country, Tis of Thee” sets it off again. Biden’s oath of office elicits a big response. Rick Warren’s invocation is well-received. The buzz for Obama’s oath grows. When a classical musical interlude ends the crowd senses what’s next. “This is it, this is it,” a mother tells her girl, holding her tightly. The swearing-in rates a huge response, chants of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma” lifted up. Many folks hold cameras aloft to steal away what they can for posterity. Others share the moment with friends and loved ones on their cells. Tears well up in Katrina Adams’ eyes. Mine, too. Hugs and kisses.

 

 

Obama speaking.

Crowd watching a crowd on TV.

 

 

The love-in’s repeated again upon Obama introduced as the 44th President of the United States. People’s faces betray awe, joy, pride. His address merits rapt attention. He hits all the right notes with his call for resolve, common purpose and a new era of responsibility, moving the crowd to shout out approval.

At “Thank you and God bless you” another crescendo, more words invoked, the Star Spangled Banner, and then it’s over. In the afterglow people don’t quite know what to do. Many, including our troupe, tour the Lincoln Memorial, lingering to soak in the panorama. One more tangible link to this moment. Much picture-taking. We do the same at the Vietnam War Memorial. The procession out of the Mall an orderly exodus. Even two hours after the inauguration the people file by.
Some of us get separated in the human stream. After the long walk back getting inside the Foggy Bottom stop takes an hour due to the logjam of people. We’re exhausted, chilled, overladen with souvenirs but still of good cheer.

Impressions from our members:

Janette Jones: “It was exhilarating. It was not so much the fact of him being black, it’s just the point America has come together for the first time in unity, and that’s what his message was all about — unity. It was very inclusive.”
Daryl Hunt“I feel like I’ve made it to the top of the mountain. It’s an awesome feeling.”James Freeman“It gives everybody hope because the door has been opened and so now we can come in.”

Katrina Adams: “It’s confirmed, it’s done, he’s safe, his family’s safe, and we’re going to be OK. I can’t feel my fingers but I’m happy.”

Andrew Gaines: “I’m ecstatic. I feel very hopeful we’re going to experience a new resolve as a country — to reenergize, refurbish, redevelop, reexplore…to make this American Dream we have more of a reality. I’m excited for the future. I’m engaged now.”

Omowale Akintunde: “Wasn’t it beautiful? We actually have a black president. It means we’ve evolved as a nation. You can literally feel the weight lifted. I’m amazed.”

Seth Quartey: “I feel real proud. I know with this change everything’s going to be alright.”

We all make it back to the Carrollton station and bus. Akintunde leads us in singing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, and the “Star Spangled Banner.” Linda Briggs offers a prayer thanking God for seeing us through. At dinner that night the event-filled day’s relived over and over. It’s a blur. Sleep comes easy.

 

 

 

 

Jan. 21-22

The Day After – Get on Home

The enthusiasm’s waned some. We’re still recovering, still digesting. The trip home is long but we have the satisfaction of achieving our mission. James Hart gives thanks for our being delivered back where we started. The bus empties, the cameras record. Goodbyes said.

Postscript

Joining the enormous throng for this slice of Americana gave each of us a personal stake in history, in something far greater than ourselves. Whether riding the human waves on the Mall, milling about the masses on monument row or navigating the gridlock in the Metro, we found ourselves literally and figuratively carried away. No matter how small, we played our parts in this celebration, culmination, commemoration. We made this more perfect union and fervent prayer sing. Hallelujah!

Bill Maher Gets Real

October 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Bill Maher at the PETA screening of I Am An An...

Image via Wikipedia

If you are like me and you like your issues-oriented television with a bit of an edge to it, then we likely agree see eye-to-eye that Bill Maher is a healthy antidote to the talking head drivel that passes for analysis and to the rants that pass for discussion on much of TV these days.  Not that I agree with everything Maher or his guests say.  Far from it.  Not that I think his entertainment show is a substitute for substantive news and public affairs programs.  It isn’t.  It’s just that I like that he isn’t afraid to go after sacred cows and to challenge many of the conventions and systems that we are weaned to believe have our best interests at heart when reality should tell us different. That is a long way of saying I admire Maher and so when I heard he was coming to do his stand-up act here I went after getting an assignment to interview him in advance of his show.  It was a fairly brief phone conversation, but he was just as smart and engaging as I expected.  In fact, even though we were speaking by phone, it sort of felt like I was a panelist on his show and my questions were all the cues or prompts he needed to go off on one of his spirited riffs about this or that.  My story previews his October 24 appearance here and can be found in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I will not be able to attend his live show, and now that I don’t have HBO anymore I miss out on his TV show, but when I do catch glimpses of him as a guest on Larry King Live and so forth I at least have a feel now for what it’s like to go one on one with him.  It’s actually pretty easy and fun because he’s a pro and he’s being real.

 

Bill Maher Gets Real

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Acerbic television host and political comic Bill Maher views the 60 to 70 stand-up gigs he does each year as opportunities to connect with the American gestalt. His October 24, 8 p.m. Omaha Music Hall show will be more fodder for his gauging the nation’s Zeitgeist.

“When I go out into America I can really get a feel for what this country is all about. I especially love going to places I’ve never been before, and I don’t think I’ve ever played Omaha,” he said by phone from his CBS Television City studio office in L.A..

“Then when I go back to Hollywood and do my show here I feel like, Yeah, I’m not just sitting in a place that’s not really America. I do the work, I go out there and I see America, and I enjoy it more than anything,”

His topical late night HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” is in its eighth season. It’s among the few programs that neither talks down to its audience nor apologizes for its signature unabashed sarcasm. Before this show he enjoyed a decade-long run with “Politically Incorrect,” which began on Comedy Central and ended on ABC. Executives at ABC cancelled it after Maher and a guest made controversial remarks in the wake of 9/11. Unlike the network wonks who freaked, he says HBO’s suits take his incendiary humor and viewer reaction to it in stride.

“They’re like a Jewish mother. They will let me know after the fact if I’ve caused them some consternation or pain. They’ll be like, Aw, don’t worry about us, we had to handle 50,000 emails yesterday, it’s OK, we’ll be alright. Yeah, that sometimes happens, but to their great credit they don’t ever stop me.”

Considering his barbed comments on sensitive subjects. just staying on the air may be the greatest accomplishment of this self-described Libertarian and apatheist who considers organized religion a neurological disorder.

“I’m proudest that I’ve somehow managed to remain on television for 18 years,” he says. “I mean, from the end of ‘Politically Incorrect’ to the start of this show there was only a six month break. You would think someone who espouses as many unpopular opinions as I do, I mean just religion alone, would have been shown the door a long time ago instead of getting a star on the (Hollywood) Walk of Fame.

“So it’s pretty amazing to me, but that shows something good about America. When I started on ‘Politically Incorrect’ in 1993 all the critics said this show is never going to last because you can’t have a host who tells an opinion. Hosts were all playing out of the old Johnny Carson or Bob Hope playbook, where you just never let the audience really know your politics  You didn’t know if Johnny Carson voted for Nixon or Humphrey. You still don’t know who Jay Leno or David Letterman votes for.”Maher, who regards America as a declining empire with a dumb body politic, has faith enough folks embrace his funny, smart, self-righteous brand of social criticism that he lets viewers know exactly where he and his guests stand.

“People, even if they don’t agree with you, as long as you entertain them and you’re honest about it and you’re not down-the-line doctrinaire, they respect that,” he says. “They can take it if they don’t agree with you.”

The edge “Real Time” maintains, he says, is the unfiltered, unapologetic way things get said.

“I think people feel like it’s more honest than anything else on TV. That we will give a very raw and different point of view. Admittedly, it’s my opinion and they may not agree with it, but I think they respect the fact it’s real.”

“Real Time” also fills an information niche, albeit a highly interpretive one.

Maher says, “Part of it is we’re a live, news wrap-up show on Friday night. I think the purpose we serve for a lot of people is they have busy lives, they don’t have a chance to be newshounds all week like we do. What I try to do is to make sure that anyone who hasn’t really gotten a chance to look at the paper that week will be caught up on most of the important things that happened if they watch the show. We will touch upon them in one way or the other, either in the monologue, in an interview, in the panel, in New Rules, or in the editorial at the end.”

At the end of the day then, what is Maher — a comic, a humorist, a critic, a commentator, a pundit, or a talking head?

“Well, I guess we live in an age of hybrids, so there are times when I am any one of those things, but I always think of myself first as a comedian. That’s why I still go on the road, because that’s what I love, that’s what I know best, and that’s what I do best.”

For tickets to An Evening with Bill Maher, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.

James Martin Davis – A Self-Styled Gladiator in the Halls of Justice

September 2, 2010 1 comment

 

Courtroom One Gavel

 

 

Every city of any size has its flamboyant attorney who lives and practices law out loud, making bombastic statements, courting the media so as to influence public opinion, and generally raising his voice to be heard above the din.  Omaha‘s attention-getting criminal defense and personal injury star lawyer is James Martin Davis, who is very good at what he does, which is grabbing headlines, winning cases or making deals, and indulging his appetite for the finer things. He has a rich back story that includes combat action in Vietnam, a stint in the Secret Service, the tragic death of his only son, and his own close brushes with death.  Those extreme, vulnerable moments contrast with his public person and it is that dichotomy that attracted me to telling his story.  I did this profile a few years ago for The Reader (www.thereader.com), and I am happy to report that Davis is still busily playing the self-styled gladiator role he casts himself in and still living life to the fullest.

 

James Martin Davis – A Self-Styled Gladiator in the Halls of Justice

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When Omaha defense attorney James Martin Davis calls himself “a gladiator” doing pitched battle in the arena of the courtroom, you’re inclined to chalk it up as just so much bombast. His penchant for taking on high profile cases and playing the media with his voluble, quotable, hyperbolic comments, has led him to be dubbed “the prince of the one-liners and the king of the sound bite.” He even enjoys repeating the dig, his jowly, bulldog mug breaking easily into a smile or scowl from behind the big oak desk in his uber office across from the Douglas County courthouse, where he engages in legal warfare almost daily.

He loves to speak about himself. And why not? He knows he’s good copy and knows he can spins stories for maximum effect from his rich life. Whether it’s tales from the courtroom, the battlefield, the White House, the deep blue sea or the mean streets of organized crime, he’s seen a few things in his time.

Not even death can shut Davis up. On June 17 his wife Polo rushed him to Methodist Hospital after he awoke with chest pains. In the ER his heart stopped — twice. Not until the eighth jolt from a cardiac paddle did his ticker restart for good. Classic heart attack. As he likes to recount now, “When I came to I asked a nurse, ‘What happened?, and she said, ‘You died and we brought you back to life.'” Hours after an angioplasty cleared a severe arterial blockage he was already angling with docs to leave the sick house and plea-bargaining to preserve some portion of his now banned nightly cognac-cigar ritual.

Despite the close call he was in the office less than a week later and exactly one week after the incident he was on the road for a case.

He went through something like this back in 1995, when he ended up having a quintuple bypass. His bum heart doesn’t worry him, just as the prospect of death doesn’t scare him. When it’s his time to go, he’ll go. He just wasn’t ready yet. He said as he regained consciousness in the ER and saw all the white coats rushing around, he realized “this was serious.” Even though death was near, he said, “I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t in pain. I was just totally serene. I basically decided I want to live.” Whether he cheated death or not, he  knows his number will be up again. He’s just not making any dietary concessions. His vices are too ingrained.

“It’s not going to get me down. Life is to be enjoyed,” he said.

The 61-year-old Omaha native doesn’t mind being called a headline-grabber. His hunger for publicity got a good going over during his Omaha Press Club’s Face on the Barroom Floor induction/roast in 2004. He can afford a sense of humor about himself given his success. Attired in one of his sharp suits, he comfortably wears the image of his own high living figure. With his round ruddy face and gourmand pot belly, he’s the picture of self-satisfaction as he lights up an Arturo Fuente cigar, leans back in his plush chair to draw on it and tells war stories drawn from his experiences in the courtroom and the jungle. The trial lawyer is also a Vietnam combat vet. A great raconteur, he punctuates his mix of flowery and profane speech with emotional inflections and dramatic pauses.

He is one well-cured ham.

James Martin Davis
His richly adorned wood and glass offices in the Farnam Plaza building downtown bespeak the high “overhead” of his practice, including a staff of clerks and a team of investigators. He said he must gross $360,000 a year “just to keep the lights on — before I take a penny.” He boasts, “My overhead is well over what most lawyers gross.” Everything about the place announces him as a well-heeled Old School barrister, from the chandeliered conference room/library to the prints hanging on the walls to the life-sized statue of Miss Liberty holding the scales of justice in one hand, a sword in the other and her feet stomping evil serpents.

“This is not a facade,” he said. “That’s what it is, that’s what I am, that’s what I believe. This is a real, old time lawyer’s office.”

He sees himself in the mold of the Clarence Darrows and F.Lee Baileys of his profession.

The prints depict vintage dockside scenes of his beloved Bahamas, where he vacations fours weeks a year. Scuba diving caves, blue holes, James Bond dive sites, shark waters and Spanish Main treasure wrecks is one of his many indulgences. Hunting quail, pheasants and wild turkeys is another. Besides the Caribbean, he enjoys traveling to Europe, Florida and an annual Las Vegas pilgrimage.

Always one for the action, he said, “there’s never been a period of total calmness in my life. I’m not an adrenalin junkie, but by the same token I like doing things that are interesting and exciting. God gives you a cup when you’re born and it’s up to you to fill it…”

“He does like to be in the middle of the action,” said U.S. (D-Neb.) Sen. Ben Nelson, a frequent hunting companion of Davis’. “He does have a high energy level.” Nelson’s known Davis for 40 years. They were in the same law school class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “He is still the same Jim Davis I met the first day in law school back in 1967,” Nelson said. “Still a go-getter, a character, with a great sense of humor. Very outgoing. Can be the life of the party. But a very, very sincere, good friend as well.”

As for his large appetites, Davis said, “I suppose a lot of it is maybe never growing up. You know, playing war or playing cops and robbers, only doing it for real.”

Davis ends his days with a nightly repast of cognac and Graycliff cigars, which he smokes at $25 a pop. “My monthly cigar and cognac bills are more than most people’s house payments,” he said with a mite too much of a smile.

All around him are artifacts from his “full life.” There’s a faded Polaroid of his Army combat brothers in Vietnam. At the end of the ‘60s he did a year in-country, leading a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP)-trained team that infiltrated enemy lines to insert sensors on trails frequented by the Viet Cong. Then, from a safe post, his team monitored the devices. Once the sensors were “tripped” and VC movements confirmed, his team called in artillery fire on the positions. It was part of a classified Army intelligence project whose “black bag” jobs gave him top secret clearance and the autonomy to work outside the normal chain of command.

There are signed pics of him guarding heads of state as a Secret Service agent in the early ‘70s, when he was assigned the Nixon White House and had run-ins with chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, whom he recalls as a “flaming ass hole.” At various times Davis protected the President, the First Lady, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a plethora of ambassadors. He was in Washington when Watergate broke. Other images show him with some of his mover-and-shaker friends.

Prominently on view is a portrait of his and his wife Polo’s late son Jimmy, who was killed in an auto accident at 16. Recounting the loss brings Davis to tears in the course of a long conversation.

A framed front page of a newspaper is emblazoned with the results of an organized crime strike force Davis led in Indianapolis. Finds from the scuba diving trips he makes, including cannon balls, a pistol and coins, lay inside a glass case and atop a credenza. A pedestal displays a copy of a book he authored on conducting raids.

A reminder of what makes possible his living so well is a plaque that reads, “Show Me the Money.” This tough opponent and loyal advocate is a pricey defender of right. “I charge a lot. I’m expensive,” he acknowledges. Although he represents folks of lesser means and does some pro bono work, he has just as many well-to-do clients — doctors, lawyers — that he bills full-rate. If someone has trouble affording his fees, he said he tells them, “I suggest you go to your family or friends or Mastercard or Visa or your bank to borrow that.”

He also moves in circles of power that seem at odds with his persona as a “champion” for the underdog, although he sees no contradiction in railing against the system in one breath and buddying up to establishment figures in the next.

A failed Democratic candidate for Congress in 1996, Davis is on the party’s short list of prized race horses each election cycle, but publicly says he’s sworn off making another political bid. Still, with good friends like Nelson bending his ear, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Davis did run again given his high visibility and gift for gab.

Davis is known for the unabashed way he speaks his mind, whether addressing juries, judges, prosecutors, witnesses, clients or reporters. He doesn’t mince or parse his words. Instead, he tells you exactly where he stands and usually has the facts to back it up. That quality is what made former Girls and Boys Town executive director Rev. Val Peter retain him to defend GBT from sexual abuse allegations.

Peter said he found Davis to be “very bright, very thorough. He knows what he’s looking for, finds it, will report it accurately…unvarnished. And I like all of that. I like frankness. I like real honesty. He’s just got a way for getting at the facts.”

Davis’ live-out-loud style can rub some the wrong way. No one, however, questions his Legal Eagle status. He’s known for doing his homework. The few times his cases do go to a jury trial, he puts up a fierce defense and his cross examinations are legendary, as his withering assaults can break witnesses in the box.

“It’s entertaining to watch but it would not be pleasant to be on the receiving end of that,” said Patricia Bramhall, a former prosecutor turned-defense-attorney who was co-counsel with him in the GBT cases. Bramhall said he’s also quite effective in front of juries. “He’s got a natural ability to just say what he wants to say and you-can-take-it-or-leave-it. He’s articulate.”

Last year, Davis said, he went 6-0 in trials.

“The knock is that he is flamboyant and outrageous, but when he gets in the courtroom he’s very well prepared and very professional,” said Douglas County prosecutor Leigh Ann Retelsdorf, who’s opposed him in numerous cases over two decades. “He does a good job for his clients.”

Bramhall, who squared off with him in the past, said, “You have to bring your A-game” against him. “He keeps you on your toes. It’s a challenge.”

Still, Retelsdorf said, “as an opponent he can sometimes drive you crazy because he’s pretty flamboyant.” Some might even call what Davis does grandstanding. “Some might,” Retelsdorf said, “but, you know, I don’t think he stands alone in that. That’s become more the trend the last 10 years for defense attorneys. You see them more on television…using the media. Of course from my perspective I don’t like it. As a prosecutor I’d rather try the case in the courtroom.”

When you listen to Davis’ first-hand accounts of war or front-line law enforcement work or hear his tirades against miscarriages of justice you realize he really believes he’s a do-gooder. The irony, Retelsdorf said, is that its prosecutors like herself, working on behalf of victims, who typically think of themselves as champions of the people, not attorneys representing criminal defendants.

Clearly, though, his credo of being a gladiator for the people is not an abstraction or pose. First as a soldier running special ops, then as a Secret Service and undercover agent, once passing himself off as Wise Guy “Jimmy D,” and then as a young Indianapolis prosecutor heading organized crime and police corruption task forces targeting “stone cold bad guys,” he put his life on the line for his God, his country, his commander-in-chief and the leaders of the free world.

For him, his work today as an Omaha defense attorney is an extension of that public service and a continuation of the good fight. It provides the action he craves, although the only real danger he faces now is being cited for contempt.

“When I joined the Army I took an oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States,” he said. “Well, there wasn’t any ending date on that oath. I took the same oath as a lawyer. While the money is collateral, I’d be doing this if I was making one-tenth of the money because what I do and what a jury does is important. We the People have to have a champion because the whole history of the world is that governments treat rights like privileges. They think they give them and they can take them away. Well, we don’t receive rights, we have them, they are ours, they are inalienable.

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance and that’s why you have to have lawyers. We’re the buffer between the government and the people. It’s no different then when I was out in the jungle placing those sensors. I’m a sentinel, a listening post out there on the perimeter guarding against improper government encroachment.

“So when I step in the courtroom or talk to the press, I’m not just defending my client, I’m protecting all of us. That’s my job. That’s how I see myself — as a gladiator protecting We the People. I like being that gladiator. I like going into the courtroom. That’s the Roman Arena. That’s where you walk in with your sword held high to protect the people from the lions. That’s what I do…liberty’s last champion…”

Vietnam gave this warrior survival skills for life.

“I was shot at in the air and on the ground. I was blown off an armored personnel carrier twice. I was motored, machine gunned, rocketed and gassed. I had a lot of close calls,” he said. “And I made it out, you know? I’ve never been afraid of anything since. As we combat veterans say, ‘I’ve been to the jungle and seen the elephant.’”

“I never thought I was going to make it back…so I feel every day I have is a gift. I always wanted to do something with my life before Vietnam, but after something like that it just kind of energizes you and it makes you different than other people and it makes you know you’re different. Not better, just different.”

He isn’t so much defined by Nam as he uses its experiences as a gauge and guide. “Part of who I am and what I’m about is what I learned in Vietnam,” he said. “I learned some major lessons over there.”

Drafted upon completing his bachelor’s degree at UNL, Davis and his fellow law school classmates had no interest in joining the military.

“I had been a snob before…an elitist. I looked down on them” (the grunts) “from the Ivory Tower of college. I will never do that again because I discovered in Vietnam the measure of a man is not governed by how much education he has or his status in life. It’s governed by a simple equation, When it comes down to those fundamental situations involving life or death, will you be able to trust your life with this man? Does he have his shit together?

“If he had it wire tight, man, you wanted to be with him. If he didn’t…you didn’t care how educated he was, how rich he was, you didn’t want to be around him. And that is as much a rule I follow in my life now as I did then.”

He sizes up people. Clients, witnesses, juries, opponents, prospective staffers. If you can, as a sergeant in Nam put it, “keep your ass in the grass and do your job,” you’ve got his respect. The stress of combat laid it all out on the line.

“It tests people’s character,” he said. “You know, the Japanese have a saying — You only live twice: once when you’re born and once when you’ve looked in the face of death.”

Having been to the jungle and seen the elephant, he said, gives him advantages.

“A big part of it is instincts. I knew in Vietnam if and when I was going to get hurt. I knew when to go down a trail and when not to. And that’s something you’re born with. One of my strong points is cross examination. I know when to stop asking questions. I know you never ask the question you don’t know the answer to. I know when I’m going to be hurt and when I’m not.

“I know where I’m going to score pay dirt as I’m going. Whether it’s reading that person’s aura or body language or it’s being intellectually incisive, I don’t know. I don’t understand that gift. But I can plug into those things. I like to say it’s radar. You pick up blips and you’ve got to subliminally be able to interpret those blips.”

It’s the same knowing which cases to take to trial and which to cut a plea bargain deal for with prosecutors. “Again that’s instincts. I take the one I think I can win.”

“He’s smart about that,” Retelsdorf said. “He knows what battles to fight and what battles to concede.”

Davis’ feel for the terrain and taste for battle are two of his selling points with potential clients. “I found the way to keep clients happy is if they have confidence in you and they know you’re going to fight for ‘em.” he said. “That’s what they need and that’s what they want, and they sense that.”

“I don’t care what they’ve done,” he said, “my job is to see if I can have them found not guilty. If I can’t, then I have to do what’s in their best interests — either get some of the charges dropped or try to reduce their sentence or try to get them probation, file a motion to suppress evidence or maybe get the evidence thrown out at a preliminary hearing or get the case dismissed.

 

Louis Venditte’s defense attorney, James Martin Davis, answers questions for the media.

 

 

“There are times when people are falsely charged or over charged. There’s a lot of misjustice in this system. The people I represent are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty and I’ve got lots and lots of not guilty verdicts. The two sweetest words in the English language are ‘not guilty.’”

He feels Matt Robinson is an example of a criminal dependent being railroaded by an overzealous county attorney. The 17-year-old Gretna youth drove a car with  two friends in it the night of December 28 when the vehicle spun out of control and crashed near 180th and Platteview Road, leaving the two passengers dead.

Robinson is charged with two counts of felony motor vehicle homicide. Sarpy County attorney Lee Polikov says speed and alcohol contributed to the fatal crash. Davis asserts that while alcohol was in the vehicle, Robinson was not impaired at the time of the incident. Moreover, he says Robinson and his friends were fleeing a threat made by other youths. Davis has released a cell phone voice mail recording of an alleged threat made to Robinson in the hours before the crash. According to Davis, Robinson and his friends were being chased at the time the crash occurred.

Robinson has publicly apologized for his role in the tragedy but contends he should not face jail time. Davis says the circumstances in the case dictate the charges should not exceed misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide, adding Polikov “has made a crusade of this” as part of a crack down against reckless driving. “He’s out there arguing this political battle using my client as a tool for zero tolerance.”

Folks come to Davis when they feel wronged by The System and need a guardian for their rights. Allegations of misconduct often find him at odds with the Omaha Police Department. “I get two or three calls a week at least where people allege to have been beaten up by the cops,” he said. “I like the cops, they’re my very good friends, but there are people on there that overstep their power.”

In April of ’05 a political refugee from Togo named Koko Sessou was shot multiple times by Omaha police officer David Brumagen for allegedly driving his vehicle towards Brumagen, a second officer and others. Soon after Davis took the case he called a press conference to claim he’d produced physical evidence and witnesses that contradict the version of events tendered by police and other witnesses.

As the Sessou and Robinson cases illustrate, Davis is not averse to using the media to make points and air client grievances. Prosecutors may not like it, but as attorney Patricia Bramhall said, “he has a knack for it.”

 

WHNS – Darren Bates, right, answers questions from his attorney James Martin Davis during the trial for Darren Bates, the Council Bluffs City Councilman and former Omaha fire captain accused of soliciting a sex act, at the Pottawattamie County Courthouse in Council Bluffs Thursday.

 

 

Take the recent case of Monte Williams. On the night of November 26 the Omaha man was being arrested when Omaha Police officers noted he was hiding crack cocaine in his mouth. When he wouldn’t expel the drugs, he was allegedly shocked 10 times from a Taser gun operated by officer David Erickson. Soon after the event, Davis went on the offensive, suggesting to reporters the Williams case was part of a pattern. “The question is, is the Omaha Police Department Taser-happy?” he said. “People are getting Tasered all the time when they don’t need to be,” Davis told The Reader. “When I said OPD is Taser-happy, that’s on the heels of a whole lot of complaints of people being Tasered.”

He said since rouge cops “don’t seem to be prosecuted, the only way you can” expect the OPD to clean its own house “is to file claims or suits against the city.”

Erickson, the officer accused of abuse in the Williams case, has since resigned from the force, but OPD offered no explanation whether his leaving had anything to do with the accusations against him. While Davis is glad to have Erickson removed, he said the police’s handling of the incident and the officer’s sudden departure leave too many questions unanswered, something he says happens too often.

“Accountability and disclosure are two of the most important concepts there are to have a free government, but the way the police operate is just horrible in terms of investigating complaints,” he said. “Somebody files a complaint against a police officer and they never know what happens. They’ll get a note saying it was unsustained or unfounded or that it was sustained. So what? You don’t know whether the guy was punished, unless he was fired or suspended. Why? The police will say it’s illegal for us to discuss it. Bull fucking shit.

“The only reason they don’t discuss it is because this Goddamned police union is so strong that they negotiated a contract that says it’s going to be confidential. They’re not the CIA. They’re not Homeland Security.”

He terms “a mistake” the elimination last year of the city’s Independent Auditor post by Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey after auditor Tristan Bond issued a report critical of police conduct. “It’s a power play the police want” to avoid an independent, transparent review process, he said. The idea the police can honestly monitor themselves, he said, is specious: “They can’t self-regulate themselves.”

Courting the media to call out injustice, he said, “is part of the role I play. So many people are afraid of the media. I’m not. They’re not going to screw me if I don’t screw them.” It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship” — in the quid pro quo sense. “I do have that rapport with the media. I try to help them if it’s not going to hurt my client. I bird dog stories for the World-Herald and all the TV reporters. They know they can trust me. I’m not running for office and I don’t have any ulterior motives.”

However, Davis does represent now or has represented before some of Omaha’s leading media figures, ranging from KETV news anchor Julie Cornell to former KFAB announcer Kent Pavelka to Z-92 radio on-air personalities Todd ‘n’ Tyler. In these instances he acts as a kind of quasi agent, reviewing contracts and advising talent what they’re worth in hard market terms.

Then there’s the fact Davis is a sometime journalist himself. For years he’s written a Veteran’s Day op-ed piece for the Omaha World-Herald. He also had military and diving articles published in the Herald’s now defunct Magazine of the Midlands and in such publications as Soldier of Fortune.

His writing has extended to two books, Raids: A Guide to Planning, Coordinating and Executing Searches and Arrests and Top Secret: The Details of the Planned World War II Invasion of Japan and How the Japanese Would Have Met It. He said he’s half-way through penning a new book on treasure wrecks of the Spanish Main.

Given his cozy relationship with the media, it’s no wonder then he finds it a cop out when his colleagues clam up around reporters.

“Lawyers will say, ‘Well, I can’t talk about this because it’s in litigation.’ That’s bull shit. There’s all sorts of things a lawyer can talk about and should talk about with respect to his cases and there’s things he can’t talk about. Most people don’t have the knowledge or instincts to know where to draw the line and so they don’t say anything at all and that just aggravates the press because they know differently.”

He dismisses the notion he’s in love with fame.

“I know that’s been projected out there,” he said, “but I don’t take myself seriously. You can’t. I’m not that important.”

He said the vast majority of his media presence is due to “my clients, not me.”

By the same token he does put himself out there an awful lot and does seem to track stories filed on him, including a profile KM3’s Mary Williams did on him last fall that pleased him. The piece portrayed him as “Omaha’s Shark” in a sweeps tie-in with the NBC dramatic series Shark about a high profile attorney.

Todd Murphy of Universal Information Services, an Omaha media tracking agency, said Davis was mentioned 232 times in a 2006 sampling of area television/radio news casts. That’s a “high” figure by any measure, said Murphy, but pales in comparison to the “broadcast hits” Mayor Fahey and State Sen. Ernie Chambers netted — 1,165 and 583, respectively — in the same period. Davis’ print hits are also high.

Media exposure, including appearances on “Todd ‘n’ Tyler in the Morning,” can only help Davis drum up new business. “I’m recognized everywhere. What people say to me a lot is, ‘If I ever get in trouble, you’re going to be the man to see.’ It’s gratifying,” he said.

The recognition is hollow compared to what he would prefer in its place.

“When my son Jimmy died it was the worst thing that ever happened in my life,” he said. Jimmy, his only son, was killed when the car he was driving hit a patch of black ice and spun out of control and crashed. “I’ll never be the same again, ever,” Davis said. “I mean, you gotta go on, but there’s a hole in my heart that will never be filled. I would give up everything I have — everything I’ve told you about, doubled or tripled, just to have him back. I would trade all of it — the money, the fame, the success…”

Davis has moved on to fight another day. It’s what a warrior does.

“I’ve been to the jungle and seen the elephant.”

Man on fire: Activist Ben Gray’s flame burns bright

September 2, 2010 2 comments

A flame from a burning candle

Image via Wikipedia

Much has changed and not changed since I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) profiling Ben Gray, who at the time was a television journalist in his adopted hometown of Omaha, Neb. Gray was an unabashed advocacy journalist who used the forum of a public affairs program he produced and hosted to confront social-political issues on him mind.  He’s always been an advocate and activist in the local African-American community, and since my story’s publication he’s immersed himself in those roles even more deeply, having left his career in TV to get himself elected an Omaha City Council member representing largely African-American District 2 and becoming a key player in the African-American Empowerment Network (see my stories about the Network on this blog site).  This article alludes to the growing tension between Gray and one of his heroes and mentors, former Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers, a relationship that’s become more strained over time. Gray was not born in Omaha, and he didn’t grow up here.  The U.S. Air Force brought him here and he has devoted most of his adult life to serving the community and to improving conditions here for its most vulnerable residents.

 

Man on fire: Activist Ben Gray’s flame burns bright

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Ben Gray finds himself in “an uncomfortable position” these days for his vehement opposition to the Nebraska Legislature’s recently enacted schools reorganization plan. The law mandates a new learning community and the severing of the Omaha Public Schools into three racially identifiable districts. As co-chair of the community-based African American Achievement Council, Gray is a plaintiff in an NAACP-led civil rights lawsuit that challenges the action.

He’s secure with his denouncement of the school makeover plan as bad policy and, as the lawsuit contends, unconstitutional legislation that sanctions segregation. However, he’s uneasy his stance casts him as an adversary to a man he admires above all others — State Sen. Ernie Chambers — who crafted the key amendment to restructure OPS, a district Gray is adamant about preserving.

The venerable senator is regarded as “a great man” by Gray, veteran KETV Channel 7 photojournalist and host/producer of Kaleidoscope, the longest continuously aired public affairs program in Omaha television history.

It may surprise people to learn Gray, who’s fronted the show since 1979, didn’t originate it. He traces its start to 1969 or 1970 as a response to the riots in north Omaha and to general black discontent in the wake of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassinations and the slow progress of the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement. Kaleidoscope featured rotating hosts until Gray found his niche.

He said public affairs programs like it emerged from the tumult of “constructive dialogue and confrontation from folks like Charlie Washington, Ernie Chambers, Welcome Bryant, Bertha Calloway, Dorothy Eure. They deserve the credit.” Once the show was his, he decided troublemakers like these “needed a forum so their ideas could be presented in their entirety rather than in sound bites. A lot of people were very angry at me because I gave Sen. Chambers that forum.”

More than once, he said management’s alleged he or Chambers handled subjects unfairly, but never proved their claims. For 27 years Gray’s dealt straight-up, in his direct, eloquent, informed approach, based on his vast reading of American and African-American history, with tough stories. From police shootings to racial profiling cases, he’s called it like it is and he asserts, “Not a single person, not any of the police chiefs I’ve had on, can ever tell you they were treated unfairly on my show. Now, they were asked hard questions…but when you come to my television show it’s like coming to my living room and in my living room you are my guest and my guests don’t get treated disrespectfully. Now, they may get asked hard questions…” The show goes beyond local matters to discuss national-world affairs.

He’s patterned his on-air demeanor after three men: Charlie Washington, the late Omaha journalist-activist and host of Omaha Can We Do and To Be Equal; Gil Noble, host of New York’s Like It Is; and Tony Brown, of the syndicated Tony Brown’s Journal. “Charlie didn’t let you off the hook for anything. Charlie argued and debated with you. Charlie adopted that style and never deviated from it. Gil Noble never deviated. Tony Brown never deviated. Those are the guys I admire and respect. I modeled my confrontational style after theirs. Charlie and Tony were great friends I got to know very well. Gil was intimately involved with Malcolm X and he’s shared some of his Malcolm materials with me,” Gray said.

Unlike most of his colleagues Gray’s unapologetic to be both news reporter and news maker. He often takes public stands on the very issues he covers. He wishes more black journalists followed suit. But no issue’s drawn him so far out into the line of fire over such an extended time as the schools debate. The national media’s focus on the controversy as the poster case for the larger resegregation underway in American public schools, has made him a much sought-after quote. His characterization in the New York Times of LB 1024 and the amendment to break up the Omaha Public Schools as “a disaster” has been oft-repeated.

He’s sure with his choice to be an advocacy journalist.

“You have a choice of one of two things when you’re a professional journalist. That you’re going to satisfy yourself personally, i.e. move up the ladder and try and make network and make the big bucks, or to make a difference,” he said. “So, the question becomes, do I satisfy personal goals or do what others before me have done — and that is sacrifice for the greater good, for the greatest number? And that’s what’s driven my decisions.”

He invites trouble by bucking the-powers-that-be in pursuit of doing what he thinks right. His relationship with general managers at KETV, where he’s worked since 1973 after an Air Force stint brought him to Offutt, has often been strained; never more than in 1976 when he and others filed a complaint against Ch. 7 with the Federal Communications Commission. Dubbed by media as “the black coalition,” Gray said the group’s fight went beyond color to gender and equity issues.

“What we were complaining about,” he said, “was that at the time Kaleidoscope and some other public affairs shows on Ch. 7 were only on very early in the morning or very late at night and there were no African-Americans on the air in prime time and had not been for a considerable period of time and there had never been a woman main anchor in Omaha.

“We filed against the station’s license, which employees very seldom do. It was the only avenue we saw because we had a news director at that time who felt like he was going to put an end to what he thought were affirmative action hires. In other words, he didn’t care much for black folks or women” in television.

“Now, you want to talk about tense when we filed that complaint. All sorts of wild rumors went through the station — that black people were trying to take over Ch. 7, that black people were trying to get rid of white people there. I look back and I laugh now, but, man, those were some pretty contentious times. I mean, people were really pissed at us for doing that. Although it was highly unlikely, the possibility the station wouldn’t get its license (renewed) was there. Ch. 7 operated with a temporary license for almost two years as a result of our action.”

Gray and his fellow complainants lost the battle but won the war.

“The FCC finally dismissed our complaint (in 1977) but with this caveat: They said they found merit in our argument about public affairs programming and so they issued a ruling, that comes from us, that no public affairs programming can only be contiguous with early morning or late night hours. Ch. 7 changed the times of several of the programs” to reflect the ruling’s spirit.

Dissatisfied with what they saw as a window dressing remedy, the group contemplated a federal lawsuit when, Gray said, “I got a call from a very high-up person in Pulitzer Broadcasting who said, ‘Before you do anything like file a legal action, give us a month, and if you don’t like what you see…go ahead and file your suit.’ Well, Ch. 7 soon hired the first female anchor in prime time in Omaha with Marsha Ladendorf and then a whole slew of minorities followed after that. Carol Schrader and Michael Scott were two of the beneficiaries. The fact of the matter is we kicked in the door and it happened, and we’re proud of that.”

Along with a more diverse staff on and off camera, programs like Kaleidoscope were accorded more respect. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had to fight to keep the show relevant, much less alive. “I’ve had so many battles,” he said. Current GM Joel Vilmenay has been “by far the biggest supporter because everybody else was trying to get it off the air or were indifferent about it,” he said. Having someone from management in his corner is such a new experience to Gray it took him aback.

“For awhile I didn’t know how to take somebody giving me advice and challenging me and chastising me all at the same time. What I like about Joel is he’s a tough taskmaster. Joel knows what he wants and his standards are high and that’s who you want to work for. When you’re challenged you either fall apart or rise to the occasion. Well, Kaleidoscope has been my baby for far too long for me not to rise to the occasion.”

Vilmenay encouraged his switch a few years ago from a Tony Brown-type discourse to the present This Week-panel format. Each week Gray “facilitates” a panel of talking heads — Brenda Council, Lee Terry Sr. and Jim Fogarty — offering liberal, conservative and moderate perspectives, respectively, on topical issues. Gray only occasionally weighs in with his left of center views, though not nearly as often as “some people want me to.” The show’s tackled the schools divide and what some see as Chambers’ betrayal of his ideals.

By opting to defy his longtime hero, Gray’s put himself on the hot seat. “I’ve chosen a course that’s not necessarily comfortable in opposing Sen. Chambers, but it’s right,” he said. “Again, when you have the kind of respect I have for him, it’s difficult to do, but at the same time when I think you’re wrong I have to call you on it. That’s just the way it is. I don’t think anybody should be above being questioned. And if that puts me on the opposite side of people who are friends or great associates or whatever the case may be, then that’s what it will have to be.”

Ironically, Gray’s doing what he admires in Chambers — raising a dissident voice for the marginalized. It’s not hard to imagine why Gray looks to him, the lone wolf black legislator who champions the underdog, as someone to emulate. Gray measures himself as a strong, outspoken, incisive African-American community activist in the context of the firebrand figure his mentor cuts.

“We don’t have enough men in our community who are willing to stand up and be men and take on issues in spite of the obstacles, in spite of the odds, in spite of who’s for you and who’s against you,” Gray said. “We don’t have enough men who say what really this is and lay everything on the table and keep their ethics and their integrity and their honesty intact. When you see that kind of nobleness in an individual you want to gravitate to that.

“Sen. Chambers does that and I’ve done everything I could to try and come close, because nobody can be Ernie, but at least come close to exemplify his willingness to put it all on the line…to be honest…to stand up against oppression and racism.”

When revealed last week that several Omaha North High School teachers staged racially offensive parodies, with some remarks targeting not only Chambers but students of color, the senator condemned their actions and asked that they be removed from their duties. Gray showed his solidarity by sending a highly critical letter to OPS and the media.

Gray considers Chambers the second most influential person in his life behind his older sister Mary Thompson, who raised Ben and his younger brother Doug in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio after both parents died of cancer in the same year.

“I was 13-years-old and we were very poor. When your parents die and you’re a young person, grief comes later. What happens first is fear. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if some other relative is going to take you in. You don’t know if you’re going to go to a foster home. You don’t know what tomorrow is going to be like,” he said.

“I had an older sister who took us in and she took us when she already had five other children. She raised me and I was not the best of children — by a long shot. But she hung in there. She stuck with me. She’s the person I consider to be my greatest role model. I consider her my guardian angel. To say I love her wouldn’t do her service because she’s been everything to me and continues to be.

“And the other significant influence has been Sen. Chambers.”

 

 

Ernie Chambers
Despite that, Gray said, “People aren’t right all the time. Nobody is. And in this particular instance, knowing what I know about the school system — about the children and families in this district, I think he’s wrong on this, and I would be less than a man if I didn’t express my feelings and act on my feelings. No matter who it is. If it was my sister, it would be the same thing. Because I think it’s wrong.”
As outraged as he is by the damage he fears LB 1024’s learning community plan and OPS split will do, he’s upset by how these measures came to be fashioned in the first place. He believes lawmakers acted rashly, without proper deliberation and community input from those most invested in the issue and in the process.

“I think when you’re going to do something as delicate as this, when you’re talking about our children, you go slowly, you don’t go real fast. I think that’s where the mistakes were made.

“What really galls me more than anything is that the African American Achievement Council, the Latino Achievement Council, the Native American Achievement Council, the Ministerial Alliance and various groups that participated in the political process were not consulted. We did what legislators, the governor and other elected officials hoped we’d do. We engaged in the process. We went to Lincoln. We lobbied. We fought. We cajoled. We testified. We did all this.”

Yet, he said, “nobody came to us to find out what we do or what changes we have made in the district, which are numerous and ongoing and many of which are starting to bear serious fruit. To negate or dismiss all of the work done by plain citizens who just want to help is a travesty and a crime quite frankly. And then you do this (pass the new law) and you lock us out? You didn’t even ask us what we thought — those of us who are engaged?

“And all these folks now running around saying, ‘Yeah, this is a good idea and Ernie’s right,’ and so forth and so on, none of ‘em are engaged. None. Zero.”

Gray, who said he’s carefully read the new law, cites many things not accounted for in the bill’s language, including such basics as funding and hiring mechanisms, classroom assignments, grant stipulations, program operations and oversight responsibilities. He fears too many details have been ignored, too many consequences unaddressed, leaving in limbo and perhaps in jeopardy educators’ jobs and district programs hinging on grants or contracts.

“I don’t know if people realize, for example, the Omaha Public School District has about $30 million in grant programs that somehow have to get reapportioned or reapplied for. What’s going to happen to these programs? Who writes the grants? Who gets the grants now? There’s a teachers union contract that runs over into 2008 — what happens to it? Who’s going to negotiate a new contract? What happens to those teachers? How do we pick and choose which teachers and principals we keep and don’t keep? Who decides?

“What’s going to happen to the district’s Triple A bond rating? What about levee limits and bond rates? With our low property tax base, what kind of bonds can black and Latino districts float? What about insurance — with each new district being much smaller than OPS what kind of group rates will they qualify for? There’s a myriad of things I don’t think anybody thought about.”

He’s not so pessimistic he discounts a framework can be found that answers such questions. “Oh, there’s always a possibility,” he said. His point is that a huge education ball was put in motion without due diligence or foresight. “It should have been worked out before and not after the bill. Normally, when there’s a merger or an acquisition or a break up, the answers have all been worked out and in this instance nothing has been worked out. There’s just too many things we don’t know.” In the interim, some things, like a planned South Omaha Educare center, are on hold until there’s more clarity.

He distrusts and derides the hallmark of Chambers’ provision — local control. He sees little assurance of it when the board overseeing the new learning community will be appointees, not elected officials, installed by other appointees. He points out the suburban districts will have a majority on the board and thus a voting bloc over inner city districts. He contends creating black-Latino districts will isolate them and make them easy targets for unequal shares of the revenue pie.

He also cautions that local control failed the local Head Start program.

“We’ve lost parts of enough generations to not run the risk of doing something as foolish as this and risk damaging a school district or harming children for the sake of this fanciful notion of local control. I call it foolish because we haven’t thought about it, we haven’t talked about it,” he said.

 

Omaha City Council President Ben Gray began serving his two-year term in June. (Photo by Ryan Robertson KVNO News)

Omaha City Council President Ben Gray began serving his two-year term in June. (Photo by Ryan Robertson KVNO News)

 

 

Gray devotes much of his public-private life to education reform. He reveres educators and hopes his work, which sounds more like lecture than rant, rises to that higher calling. The African American Achievement Council he co-chairs with his wife Freddie J. Gray works in concert with OPS on initiatives to bring the performance of minority children in line with that of whites. Under his aegis the Council’s made textbook-curriculum changes infused with black history. He helped launch the Greeter program that brings black men into schools as role models. He gives frequent talks to students of color, mentors individuals, assists black scholarship programs, etc.

He helped frame the OPS argument for its One City – One School District school boundaries effort aimed at swallowing up suburban districts. Along with superintendent John Mackiel, Gray’s made himself a visible, audible point person in support of One City, One School at public forums. One reason Gray’s left caution behind is to defend Mackiel, whom he feels is falsely maligned by critics.

“I didn’t want to be involved in the One City, One School District fight, but I just could not see a white man the caliber of John Mackiel, with the dignity I think he has, fighting for all children out there on the stump by himself. It’s about fairness and doing the right thing with me and what was happening to him was unfair when I know what he was doing was the right thing.”

Gray’s position in forums is that black-Latino inner city schools suffer in comparison to white suburban schools due to an inequitable distribution of resources. He says race, class and white privilege enable the segregated housing and unequal employment patterns that breed segregation.

“We have to address the bedrock that is white privilege. First of all we have to name it. Whites are not going to accept it from me. They’re going to accept it from somebody who lives in their neighborhood and who looks like they do, That’s who’s going to drive this discussion — the Jonathan Kozols and other white authors who call the educational system in this country apartheid.

“And that discussion has to occur because if it doesn’t this country is not going to be long for existence. Joseph Lowry, the former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said it best, ‘We may have come over here on different ships — we are on the same boat now. We better figure out how to fix this boat.’ I have to be optimistic.”

If nothing else, he said, the discord shows what happens in the absence of dialogue about the underlying issues. He sees people “slowly venturing into this uncharted territory,” adding his message is welcome in some parts of town and not others.

While he has “great faith the lawsuit is going to be successful,” he added, “I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. You just don’t sit back and wait. You do other things on the legislative and social justice end. There are already rumblings the legislature next year is going to do some fine tuning. I’m looking for legislative solutions. I hope we find dialogue somewhere, so that we don’t have to go to court.” He’s wary what decision a court might render. “You know, courts can do anything — from rule against us to rule for us. They have wide latitude. I think we all need to be concerned about what a judge will do.”

Students, parents and taxpayers face the surreal reality that once the new schools plan is implemented in 2008, every legislator that shaped or passed it will be out of office due to term limits. In this void, Gray said, “I don’t know who to talk to. I don’t know who’s going to be elected.” Chambers is among those whose term will expire. Before then, Gray hopes to get him to look deeper at the questions the plan poses. “I have to do a better job convincing him because Ernie has very strong convictions, very strong beliefs and you have to prove yourself to Ernie over and over again, and that’s not bad. It keeps you focused and it keeps you strong.”

No sweat for Gray, who shares with Ernie a passion for pumping iron, and carries with him two values from his military days, “discipline and completing the mission,” that ensure the schools plan “will not go unchallenged” by him. He vows it.

Jim Suttle Feels the Heat as Omaha’s Mayor

August 4, 2010 Leave a comment

Cropped image of Omaha Mayor, Jim Suttle. (Ima...

Image via Wikipedia

UPDATE:  Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle incurred the wrath of some fat cats and some average Joe the Plumbers and became subject to a recall election this winter.  Voters opposed to the recall and in support of Suttle remaining in office defeated the pro-recall ranks in a tight Jan. 25 election.  The situation even caught the attention of the New York Times, whose Jan. 26 article makes note of how Omaha and greater Nebraska seem to take the recall route with unusual frequency.  My take is that Suttle’s rigid engineering demeanor was the wrong note at the wrong time for some in the community who saw him as an interloper on the scene.  He walked into a slate of problems that would have alienated almost any leader, but he didn’t do himself any favors with his autocratic style and superior attitude.  Like most of us, he is his own worst enemy.  But he’s survived to at least complete this term, and now that the economic forecast is looking a bit better for the city and the nation he’s out of the hot water, at least until the next crisis hits.

 

Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle was feeling the heat in office when I wrote this story for the New Horizons about nine months ago. But the temperature has only gotten hotter since, as the City’s economic morass has proven even deeper than once thought, and the mayor’s ideas for digging out of the hole have elicited the ire of more and more residents.  It may be that the recession that’s forcing difficult decisions at every level of government is a problem too big for any one elected official to effectively address, and that whomever is in office would be compelled to take stands and to propose fixes that displease a whole lot of people.

NOTE: As of September 2010 the anti-Suttle sentiment ratcheted up to the point that a formal recall petition drive was instituted, requiring organizers collect a substantial number of signatures by a certain deadline.  If the required signatures are gathered within the designated time frame then a recall election would be held. Omaha went through this before when rancor directed at then mayor Mike Boyle led to a recall campaign, and in that case the sitting mayor was unseated by a vote of the citizenry.  The action didn’t necessarily lead to better city government or leadership in the mayor’s office, but it did shake things up.

Jim Suttle Feels the Heat as Omaha’s Mayor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Jim Suttle served as an Omaha City Councilman during a mostly robust economic period for the city. Then last spring he went and got himself elected mayor in the midst of a recession, promptly inheriting the worst financial crisis in recent city history. Priority one his first six months in office has been getting a grip on a budget that’s been running in the red and finding ways to trim spending and increase revenues to avoid a projected deficit next year.

Dealing with the city’s precarious financial straits has been a trial-by-fire baptism for Suttle, who’s weathered much criticism over his cost-cutting and revenue- generating plans. The 66-year-old retired corporate suit and City Hall veteran knows that flak comes with the territory, especially when city programs, services, jobs, wages and benefits are on the line.

Before becoming a household name the Baltimore native and West Virginia University grad enjoyed a decades-long career with international architecture-engineering firm HDR of Omaha. As mayor, he’s been vilified in the media, but he’s been nothing if not consistent and resilient. He’s called it like he’s seen it. He’s gone on record saying he’s not only ready for the challenges of this crucial position in this uncertain time, but relishes the responsibility for pulling the city out of its quagmire and, what’s more, that he’s uniquely qualified to do so.

 

 

He proudly points to a long private sector career and to service as Omaha Public Works Director as experiences that steeled him for the tough issues he faces in the hot seat he now occupies. As a civil engineer he headed up the controversial urban renewal North Freeway project that displaced residents and ruptured a community. As public works director under Mike Boyle in the ‘80s he felt the wrath of taxpayers over street repair, snow removal, garbage pickup, et cetera.

“I certainly knew all about the tenseness of the job and the pressures because I worked very closely with Mike Boyle when he was mayor, and so I was in this office a lot and I saw what he was going through and that was all in my mind as I prepared for this,” he said.

Even in the best of times a sitting mayor feels the heat that comes with the position, but the temperature rises when people’s pocketbooks and bank accounts are hurting, their jobs hang in the balance and the basic city services their tax dollars support are reduced. In grappling with severe budget issues Suttle’s been forced to make some Solomon-like choices.

He’s not helped by a dull, clipped delivery that falls flat in this sound bite era. He can come off as cold and imperious in print or on TV. On the other hand, the calm and certainty he radiates may be just what the city needs in a leader at this unstable juncture. Spend any time with his honor and it’s hard not to note his sure, decisive air. Where some see arrogance, he exudes confidence.

“I am confident,” he said. “I know I can do this job. I’m just prepared for meeting these challenges. I’ve been through this, I was through this as public works director, I was through this in my time at HDR when we would have something chaotic happen with a project or something catastrophic happened with the company, and I would just plow right into it. I’m not afraid of problems. I’ve dealt with catastrophic problems all throughout my career, and you can’t run from them, you have to turn and face them and step into them, and that’s what I do.”

Fairly or unfairly, he’s come under extreme fire from the moment he entered office. Even before then, really. In a headline-grabbing episode a week before he was sworn-in reports emerged that one-time key Suttle adviser Matthew Stamp, who was slated to be co-chief of staff, had been the subject of a police investigation some years ago regarding allegations he’d had sex with a minor. No charges were brought against Stamp. Suttle at first seemed to dismiss concerns about Stamp as rumblings from the rumor mill and implying he didn’t believe in background checks. He seemed to be sticking by his man.

Then, in the wake of public outcry, Suttle did an abrupt about-face and rescinded Stamp’s appointment and cut all ties to Clear Communication Partners, the political consultant firm of Stamp and Gary Di Silvestro, another key former aide. But Suttle did not reveal what he knew about Stamp prior to the story blowing up. Some chided his decision-making process and penchant for staying on-message platitudes to the exclusion of answering legitimate questions.

Months after the imbroglio Suttle acknowledged that ending associations with such close aides “was really difficult. We were family. They were involved in my campaigns and in my personal world for five years.” He said the news caught him “blind sided,” adding, “I learned something for the first time in my life when my wife called and read me this horrible article. I was in West Virginia visiting my mother. That was not fun. I was a deer in headlights, but I came out of that, I saw what I needed to do, I called some 20 people and 27 hours later I made my mind up to sever relationships. I just made my decision and I did not look back.”

As he’s settled into the job he seems less reactive and more open to seeing other points of view, although he makes no bones about standing firm on his beliefs.

“I like to make decisions and then run with that decision, but if I find the decision has got flaws or there’s something better I will change my mind, and I’m not embarrassed about that. I’m not driven by the ego, I’m driven by doing what’s right
for this city and not what’s right for Jim Suttle, and if that leaves me in the wake of the tide, then so be it. The people put me in this position, I represent the people, I don’t represent any other special interest groups whatsoever.”

He won’t temper his assertive manner to avoid critics.

“No, because to do that you’re starting to go in the direction that you see too many politicians go,” he said, “and that is they start paying attention to polls. They start making decisions around the polls or they start making decisions around what’s on the editorial page or letters to the editor or talk radio. No, that’s wrong and that’s going to get you in deep trouble when it’s all said and done because the problems will still be there and there’ll be messier. You get to the problems and get to them now and don’t let them get worse.”

 

 

He won’t be thrown by negative comments directed his way.

“I would say you’ll find me take five percent of it personally, whereas my wife takes 95 percent of it personally. I’m conditioned to just go ahead and let the flack come forward and deflect it to the side and then get on with the mission. This is the whole thing I was faced with in the campaign and in these early months in office.

“I could see there was a particular course that needed to be followed and I was going to stay on that course, and those who didn’t want me in this office or those who disagreed and were trying to get me off mission, off course, they never succeeded. I stayed the course, and I think quite frankly that’s a reflection of my leadership — that I can let the flak and the noise and everything else go around and stay on course toward the better good in front of it.”

He can come across as stubborn, cantankerous and aloof when pressed. At other times he can be easy, warm and engaging, which is how this reporter found him on a recent visit to his office in the City County Building.

Some might view becoming mayor just as the recession hit as rotten luck. Not Suttle. This self-described “optimist” and “glass-is-always-half-full” fellow sees it as an opportunity for making a difference in his adopted hometown. Public office is the fulfillment of a long-harbored dream and long-practiced philosophy of service. Being in this lightning rod post is exactly where he wants to be, good times or bad. It’s why he left corporate America six years ago to run for City Council.

He credits an HDR mentor, Bob Rohling, with instilling in him a greater-good orientation. “He said to me, ‘You can’t just take, take, take from your community without give, give, giving back.’ I’ve never forgotten those words,” said Suttle.

“I think we need to start though with a foundation. I am following a dream and I’ve had this dream for 40 years, and so as I was approaching my 60th birthday I said to myself, You have a choice here. So I went into see Dick Bell, the chairman of HDR, and started talking to him and he said, ‘Jim, I know this is your dream, let’s make it happen.’ I talked to my wife that night and she said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’ And then I went to talk to my financial adviser, who I thought would tell me to pound salt and he said, ‘Now you can afford to do it,’ and so we put it together.

“So I had the basics of what you really need to run for public office — you gotta have that fire in the belly, you really do, and I was committed to taking my dream and moving on my dream. And I had the support of my employer, I had the support of my family and I had the financial capabilities to do it. I didn’t have to be dependent on anything else or anybody else except me.”

While he seemingly came out of nowhere to defeat incumbent Marc Kraft for the District 1 City Council seat in 2005, Suttle was no newcomer. There was his public works tenure. His Council win came in his only bid for public office up to then, but he’s been active in local and state politics since HDR brought him to Omaha in 1971. He and wife Deb raised their two daughters here. A trained nurse, she’s also been active in politics — appointed by then-Gov. Ben Nelson to a Nebraska Legislature seat she later won election to. She’s also a busy community volunteer.

The couple had moved around the country for his work but once they came to Omaha they stayed put. Before long the political animal in Suttle found him raising money for candidates, stumping for them, advising them.

His involvement in politics goes back even farther, to college in the mid-’60s, when he served on the WVU student legislature, and to HDR posts in New Mexico, Missouri and Massachusetts. His student government experience got him hooked. As he worked in politics he recognized his analytical mind, managerial skills, leadership qualities and collaborate bent made him suited for the field.

“I found I liked it. I found my engineering mind let me figure out how to get good problem definition, which is necessary in anything you do, so that’s what I’m good at and I’d been doing it all my life in my professional world but also doing it while dabbling in politics as well. Good problem definition lets you begin to assemble the people and the alternatives to solving, and then you can solve — one, two, three. That’s my success as an engineer, that’s my success as a politician.”

At HDR Suttle embedded himself in the political arena of the communities he served, laying the groundwork for the company doing business in new markets. He beat the bushes, he pressed the flesh, he did dog-and-ponies, he cultivated relationships — the very things a lobbyist or politician does in building a base.

“I was part of the growth engine that took the company from seven offices to 150 offices, that took the company from 350 people to 8,000, and I found as I went to the different marketplaces I needed to know who the local officials were, be it at the state, county or city level, so they knew who HDR was,” he said. “And out of that we really began to follow the decision makers. So when it came time for us to seek professional work or offer professional services we were in the right places at the right time dealing with the decision makers. It helped us to maximize our time, get focused and make sure we were paying attention to local customs, local cultures, whatever it might be that was going to let HDR be hired.

“An example of that was going to Boston with nothing and winning back-to-back contracts on the Central Artery. That was a design all around the community in what I was seeing and learning, and that headline in the Boston Globe when we won that second contract says it all, because it told me I succeeded with my plan: ‘Local firm wins Central Artery contract.’ Notice it said ‘local firm,’ and we really weren’t, but we were because we designed it that way and in the eyes of the community and of decision makers and of the Boston Globe we were local. We became local as we continued to grow that office from zero to 75-100 people.”

 

 

Suttle also gained much political capital in Omaha by serving on civic boards, giving him an insider’s entry to the movers-and-shakers who make things go and some built-in traction and name recognition for when he sought public office.

Outside local Democratic political circles and corporate back rooms, however, Suttle remained relatively unknown to the general public until his City Council stint. Even after four years on the Council his low-key style made made him a dark horse candidate against mayoral challenger Hal Daub, a Republican stalwart and former Omaha Mayor and U.S. Congressman from Nebraska. Suttle’s blunt but bland persona and short elected history undoubtedly worked to his advantage though in facing off with the sharp-tongued Daub, who carried the baggage of a long, productive but contentious-filled public service career.

Though he seemed a decided underdog at the outset, Suttle appeared supremely confident in his chances from the get-go. He’s well aware he didn’t inspire excitement in many quarters, but he never let detractors spin him from his prize. In his bulldog manner, he kept grinding away, focused on that big bone, never doubting he’d get it. He drew extra motivation from being underestimated.

“I think it goes to the fact that a lot of people didn’t want me in this job, a lot of people didn’t think I would even win. I did, I knew I was going to win. From the moment I made the decision to run in August (2008) I knew I was going to win. And I’m not saying that from an ego standpoint, I’m saying it from something that the people didn’t study about me, the media and the Chamber and other places — I am a part of the marketing success of HDR, which was always looking for a new mousetrap. Every two years we reinvented our marketing thrust, and so I built on all that because I knew how to put the winning plan in place, and I did.

“What has been the challenge here is how do I get the acceptability of the business community and the Republicans that didn’t vote for me in the west and any of the other naysayers. I have to earn that, I know I have to earn it. I don’t lose sleep about it. I know it’s on my shoulders to earn their trust, not on their shoulders to just automatically give it to me.”

Soon after taking the oath of office June 8 as Omaha’s 50th mayor, Suttle put in perspective just how dire the budgetary crunch is when he spoke about the need for taking drastic measures “to prevent the city from falling off a cliff,” perhaps even into bankruptcy. This was unchartered territory for a city that had drawn the admiration of analysts and observers for its stable, diversified, economy, Triple A bond rating, low unemployment and high quality of life. It was only when Suttle delineated a laundry list of cuts that the crisis made page one news.

“I’ve been feeling all along and saying all along that the public was in denial that there was a problem. Closing the swimming pools one week early, closing libraries on weekends, shutting down helicopters for a month, all got us out of denial and the public began to see there is a real problem.”

After the campaign but before taking office, the fiscal crisis was only partly known. Still, he spoke about the need for belt tightening. Once the full extent of the dilemma was apparent, he no sooner took office than he described the hard choices that lay ahead and laid out in no uncertain terms what was at stake.

He confronted the problem head-on, a trait he learned long ago and still lives by.

“Well, my whole persona, my whole methodology for being an engineer, for being a manager, for being a business person is molded by the people who influenced me in my career,” he said. “So let’s just take Chuck Durham (an HDR founder) — he had a philosophy that if you see something that needs to be done, don’t ask permission, get it done. I never forgot that and that’s always been in my style. And this got me into some conflicts when I was on the City Council, with some Council members who maybe saw me getting in the way of things in their district, or in the way of their issues, but that’s the way I was trained.

“I ran for mayor because I did sense we had some horrific problems and we were doing too much waltzing around those problems, and as an engineer and as a trained problem solver that was the frustration. I saw when I was on the City Council that I was one of seven in trying to get things done, but as mayor I was going to be one of one. I felt the times were calling me to be the leader of this city because of my engineering and my business background.”

Suttle sensed the time was right to take the leap.

“I would say I got indications. See, I’m a visionary, I’m a guy who’s got a nose for what’s over the crest in the road. I don’t have any magic crystal ball, I just have a feel. About two years before the election I could sense there was going to be a whole different scenario and so I kept my eyes and ears glued to what I thought was going to happen and then just waited for it to happen.

“Now I was preparing in the meantime, I was continuing to get myself mentally ready because I had to have it down here,” he said, tapping his belly. “I basically put the final decisions together in August right after Mike Fahey made the announcement he would not run (for reelection). That’s when I moved into a hundred percent go, 24-hours-a-day mode.”

Fahey, enjoyed an eight-year reign as mayor that during more prosperous times saw the city grow its tax base via annexation and its debt via the Qwest Center. When revenues declined, cutbacks to city services began. By the time Suttle defeated Daub in the nonpartisan general election, it was clear city revenues were on a continuing downward spiral while expenditures were going ever up.

A looming budget shortfall required some hard decisions from the new mayor.

No one knew the depth of the economic woes until after the election. Suttle said his and Fahey’s jaws dropped upon discovering the city’s sales tax stream took a major hit. The sales tax collapse, combined with rising costs and pension payouts, resulted in a $9.5 million hole for 2009 and an even larger projected deficit in 2010. By charter, the mayor was mandated to submit a balanced budget by late July.

None of the options for addressing the problems have proved pleasant or popular. All involve some level of loss or sacrifice. Suttle and his team went about devising a plan. In the lead up to the final plan, Suttle drew the ire of many when he broached cutting more city services, raising property taxes, imposing an entertainment tax, laying off city employees and enacting wage-hiring freezes.

“I could not get any sense of consensus from the Chamber, from the Council, from the public or anywhere,” he said.

At roundtable budget forums he got an earful from taxpayers. When he announced specific cuts, debate began anew. With “the clock ticking,” he said, “we rolled it out. Right or wrong, we had a balanced 2010 budget document. When it was all said and done we had to do some massaging but at least I had something out there I could stand on and felt confident about and it forced the Council, the Chamber and the public to come up with other ideas they could put it into the game.”

As things played out, the Mayor won some points and compromised on others.

“There were really some decisions I did not like to make but some good came out of that,” he said. He admitted to “a couple” sleepless nights in the deliberations.

The city also faces major financial obligations outside its general fund budget: $325 million owed on the Qwest Center; a $500 million shortfall in the police-fire pension fund; and the $1.7 billion federally-mandated sewer improvement project. He wants more fiscal accountability in how the city budgets and conducts business.

Among those advising Suttle are some young staffers not long out of college. Asked if he’s concerned about their inexperience, he said, “no, because City Hall is steeped in the status quo, City Hall needs change, it needs constructive change, so I want to bring in fresh faces and fresh ideas and fresh people in a businesslike process. You’ll see me do that in just about everything I do.”

He said his “keen eye” helps him identify top talent. “I have hired roughly a thousand people in my career, and I’ve failed a few times, I’ve hired some real dogs, but I would say 98 percent of the folks I’ve hired I’ve made good choices. I’m trained to read people, I’m trained to read situations, I’m trained to read the tea leaves and so I will only employ the best.”

One of his older hires, City Planning Director Rick Cunningham, was a protege of Suttle’s at HDR. Suttle’s still looking to fill a few positions. “I’m ready to move on and get a personnel director hired from business that can do the changes in the system here that are progressive, the same with the parks director, and I do want to fill the deputy chief of staff position.”

He termed “bothersome” the tendency by some to compare every move he makes, including personnel and salary decisions, to what Fahey did.

“Making those comparisons is useless and worthless,” he said.

Aside from budget fixes, Suttle wants to create jobs, attract new business, upgrade the city’s infrastructure and spur more development. As for what kind of job he’s doing, he’ll let the only critics who matter decide.

“I’m the actor on the stage. It’s the audience that’s going to take me and it’s the audience that’s going to judge whether or not I do a good performance.”

Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

May 18, 2010 3 comments

Nehru and Gandhi at the opening of the Indian ...

Image via Wikipedia

As a kid I watched John Hlavacek on a local network television affiliate’s newscasts and documentaries, and as a young man I was aware of him serving on the Omaha City Council, and operating his own travel agency. I vaguely knew that he had been a foreign correspondent.  It was only a few years ago though that I met him for the first time and got to know more of his story.  He and his late wife Pegge were both reporters in the Golden Age of American journalism.  Their life stories of living and working around the world are as amazing as those of the historical events and figures they covered.  In the last few years John has had published several books authored by himself and Pegge that recount their adventures. I have also posted the story I wrote about John and Pegge and their adventures, but the following piece is about John and two old reporter friends of his from back in the day.  The three men hadn’t seen each other in decades until John arranged for their meeting in Omaha for a panel discussion.  I covered the event and wrote this story for  The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

They were three young lions of American journalism when they met far from home, a long time ago. John Hlavacek of Carleton College (Minn.) and Jim Michaels of Harvard were green United Press foreign correspondents based in post-World War II India. In wartime Hlavacek trucked medical supplies over the Burma Road for the International Red Cross. Michaels drove an American Field Service ambulance. Each was imprisoned there: Hlavacek for days; Michaels for months. New Yorker Max Desfor covered the war in the South Pacific as an Associated Press photographer.

The paths of these three men crossed in 1946, when their lives-careers intersected with India’s historic bid for independence from British colonial rule. Last spring, they came together for the first time in 60 years with the publication of a book, United Press Invades India, by Hlavacek, an Omaha resident who invited his colleagues to participate in public forums about their intrepid reporting days. The men shared stories and observations during two panel discussions in Omaha.

After being out of touch all that time Hlavacek began the process of reestablishing contact with his old colleagues while working on his memoir. Facts needed checking and where Hlavacek’s memory faltered, he relied on Desfor and Michaels to fill in the blanks. By the time the book was completed, Hlavacek suggested he and his comrades reunite. The men still correspond today.

John Hlavacek

The book that helped bring the old colleagues together was Hlavacek’s second volume of memoirs based on his overseas adventures in India and China, where he taught English in an American mission school in Fenyang as part of the Carleton in China exchange program. Hlavacek now has a third volume of memoirs out, Freelancing in Paradise, that recounts the years he and his wife Pegge, a fellow journalist he met and married in India, filed stories from the Caribbean for national media outlets. He’s also published two books authored by Pegge about her own far flung news career and the couple’s remarkable feat of raising five children while working in India, New York, Jamaica and Omaha.

For Hlavacek and Michaels, now in their late 80s, India began long, distinguished careers in journalism. As bureau chief in Bombay, Hlavacek built up UP’s presence there and under his aegis the news service proved a formidable rival to their bitter rival, the AP. He won what’s now called the Edward R. Murrow Fellowship for study at Columbia University, he covered the Caribbean and after moving with his family in the early 1960s to Omaha, where he was a television news correspondent/commentator, he filed a series of reports from Vietnam on area residents serving in the war.

Michaels got the scoop of a lifetime when he broke the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. He joined Forbes Magazine in 1954, was made editor in 1961, a post he held until 1999. He’s credited with turning Forbes into one of the world’s most read financial pubs. A VP today, he can be seen Sundays on Forbes On Fox.

Before India, Desfor already made memorable images: of the Enola Gay crew upon their return from the mission that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima; and of the Japanese surrender to the allies on the USS Missouri. Soon after his arrival in India in 1946, he snapped a famous picture of Gandhi and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in an unguarded moment of friendship. “You see the interchange, the compatibility, the simpatico. It’s just an enormous moment,” he said. The iconic pic was used as the basis for a popular Indian postage stamp.

Desfor won a Pulitzer Prize for news photos for his work in the Korean War. In all, he shot five wars, many conflicts and much civil strife. He later served as an AP  photo executive/editor before retiring in 1979. That same year though he joined US News and World Report as director of photos. He made his 1984 retirement permanent, but he’s till snapping pics, only now with a digital camera. He’s 93.

Max Desfor posed in front of picture taken of himself during the Korean War

These young lions turned wise old men of journalism reunited for panel discussions in Omaha in 2006. They took to their role as pundits well. They spoke about the momentous events they reported on, the way the news biz has changed and how the India and China of today differ from the developing nations they knew then.

Hlavacek said the troika may be the only surviving American journalists to have met Gandhi. While his colleagues minimize Gandhi’s ultimate influence, Desfor said “he had a moral effect” of lasting import. Michaels said by the end Gandhi was “almost irrelevant” for opposing “industrialization or modernity. Had Gandhi lived, he said, “he would have been loved but nobody would have paid attention to his views.”

The ascetic led a huge movement yet was quite approachable. Unlike today’s restrictive climate, the press had unfettered access to major public figures then.

“A journalist’s access to events in those days was so much more intimate than it is today,” Michaels said. “Gandhi was a world figure, yet he had these prayer meetings when he was in Delhi that the public could come to. If you got there early you could sit right up in front and ask him questions. Or, as John (Hlavacek) did, you could go right up to him and ask for an interview. Today, you wouldn’t be able to get through the masses of hired guards, spin meisters, the whole lot.”

“Once, I wanted to interview the number two man in the cabinet of Independent India, Vallabhbhai Patel, a very important figure in Indian independence,” Michaels said. “So, I drove up in my little car to his place, knocked on the door, a servant answers and says, ‘What do you want?’ I say, ‘I’m from the United Press of America  — I’d like to interview Vallabhbhai Patel’ He says, ‘Wait a minute,’ takes my card and five minutes later ushers me into the garden, where Patel and I had tea together and I had an interview. That kind of immediacy today simply does not exist.”

When Hlavacek wanted to interview Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a Muslim leader in the free India movement, he simply stopped by his flat. He had similar access to presidents (Nehru, Indira Gandhi), religious leaders (the Dalai Lama), royalty (Aga Kahn) and dictators (Juan Peron of Argentina, Zaldivar Batista of Cuba).

“There are many great stories I had the opportunity to cover,” Hlavacek said. “It was interesting. I had a lot of fun. I had a lot of worries from time to time, too. And you were always in competition. You were always trying to beat someone.”

“It was a wonderful era for being a correspondent,” said Desfor, who with his Speed Graphic made pictures of great personalities that “will live forever in history books. This is what gives me such great pleasure,” he said.

When Michaels arrived at the scene of the estate where Gandhi lay fatally shot, he was among the first there. The grounds were open and he could move freely about to ask questions and make observations. After sending off his first dispatches at a nearby cable office, he returned to find the area cordoned-off by police and a large group of reporters and peasants gathered outside the closed and guarded front gates. The reporters there earlier with him were now inside.

“I thought, Oh, my God, I’m going to get beat on this story. I better do something,” Michaels said. “So I went around the back. I knew the area pretty well. And I climbed through the hedges and, wow, staring me right in the face was an Indian constable. I desperately searched in my wallet for my old Geneva card, which I carried as an ambulance driver during the second world war. I flashed this card, which was very impressive, and he said, ‘OK, sahab.’ So I got in. I saw as they brought Gandhi’s body out on the balcony for the people to see. I saw a famous woman photographer (and correspondent) for Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White, thrown out physically when she refused to stop taking pictures.

“I saw all these great Indian leaders sitting around crying. I witnessed Nehru, the first prime minister of India, get up on the wall with tears streaming down his face declaring, ‘The father of our country is dead.’ I witnessed all these scenes.”

The phalanx of competing news groups was far smaller then, too, compared to the unwieldy mobs that descend on news events today.

“The independence of India was one of the great events of the century. It was huge news. Yet it was covered by less than 100 journalists,” Michaels said. “When Hong Kong became independent less than a decade ago, there were 8,000 journalists covering it and the ones that got there had to cover it by watching it on TV. Today, everything is staged. Access to events is tightly controlled.”

In the process, Michaels said, “something is lost between what you read and what happens. The whole nature of the profession has changed — I don’t think necessarily for the better. The news business today belongs more to presenters.” “You have to be an actor,” Hlavacek interjected.” “You have to be a performer,” Michaels agreed, “and what you get is filtered through these presenters.”

Another major difference between then and now is the rate at which news is disseminated. Filing stories from the field in Third World nations once meant getting the news out via mail or cable or teletype, all of which took time. Sometimes just getting from a news event to a dispatch office could take hours of travel. Now, stories can be filed from the most remote or dangerous regions, even war zones, almost instantaneously due to satellite phone lines and the Internet.

“The speed of communication is what’s really changed,” said Hlavacek, who adds “the 24-hour circuit” of news coverage puts hard copy newspapers in a tough spot. “You used to break a story in a special edition. It’s too late now.” Michaels believes the ever growing online info world “is killing newspapers.” To those who worry a point-and-click universe prevents analysis, Hlavacek said, “No, it doesn’t, but this is spot news and it never did. Analysis can come later.” He marvels at “the emergence of the Internet” and is encouraged that “there’s so much information out there. I don’t think you can control it. At least I don’t see that you can.”

The dynamic economies and rising technocracies of India and China have caught the men’s notice. Michaels often goes back to India, where he’s interviewed current prime minister Manmohan Singh. Michaels said India’s ascendancy “is one of the great unheralded revolutions of our time.” He said the planned socialist state under Nehru and his successors resulted in an India that “stagnated from the time of independence right through 1989.” Michaels, who calls  Singh “a very impressive man,” credits him with engineering “a revolution from the top” that urged Indian leadership to abandon the old system in favor of “a free enterprise model.” The result, he said, is a “booming” economy. While India prospers, its caste system’s inequities still pervade the society, said Hlavacek, who’s also been back. The India-Pakistan divide, they agree, is one born of religious-political differences.

Last fall Hlavacek visited the mission school in Fenyang, China he taught at under Japanese occupation. On his 10-day China trip he was most impressed by all “the change,” he said. “That’s the difference.” He said while China is still “ostensibly a Communist country, they’re the greatest capitalists in the world.” “They call themselves Communists,” said Michaels, who’s been there, “but everybody winks and nobody really believes that.” The journalists believe China and India will grow as trading partners with each other and with the U.S. as their economies continue to grow. As the world changes at an ever faster rate, Hlavacek said journalism remains “a higher calling.”

For three old men, a lifetime of curiosity has not waned. The world is still their oyster. The news, their metier.

Get on the Bus: An Inauguration Diary

May 11, 2010 4 comments

My work as a reporter intersected with history when I embedded myself with a group of Omahans traveling by motorcoach to witness the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.  The University of Nebraska at Omaha‘s Department of Black Studies organized the trip and kindly invited me along and The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper generously picked up my tab.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am glad I had.  My diary or journal like story appeared in truncated form in The Reader.

All a journalist like me can hope to do in a situation like the frenzy around the inauguration is to try and get the facts straight and to make sense of a bigger-than-life event.  I believe I succeeded.

NOTE: You can see photos from my trip and even spot me (I’m in a light blue-grey ski jacket with a blue stocking cap and I have eyeglasses on) at the following site: http://www.unomaha.edu/blst/

SPECIAL SCREENING: UNO Department of Black Studies chair Omowale Akintunde led the trip. Akintunde, who is also a filmmaker (see my story “Deconstructing What Race Means in a Faux Post-Racial World” about his feature debut, Wigger) directed an Emmy Award-winning documentary about the trip, An Inaugural Ride to Freedom.  The doc is being shown at festivals and may end up on television one day.  If you’re in Omaha, a special screening of the film is scheduled for October 26 at 7 p.m. at Film Streams, 1340 Mike Fahey Street.  A post show Q & A with Akintunde will follow.

 

Get on the Bus: An Inauguration Diary

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Fifty of us from the metro area signed up to intersect with history. The chance to be at Barack Obama’s inauguration came via a special bus trip organized by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Department of Black Studies and sponsored by UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Dubbed An Inaugural Ride to Freedom: The Legacy of a People, a Movement and a Mission, the trip’s mode of transportation, a Navigator charter bus, was both practical and symbolic. Buses figured heavily in marshaling foot soldiers for the civil rights movement and addressing segregation in public schools.

The UNO trip’s “freedom riders” included folks with direct ties to the movement, including older African Americans for whom this journey held deep meaning. Some are retired now and others still engaged in the struggle. Edwardene Armstrong is a UNO Black Studies adjunct faculty member. Her husband Bob Armstrong, former Omaha Housing Authority director, consults with public housing officials across America and the globe. James Freeman directs UNO’s multicultural affairs office.

Leading the university figures along for the ride was charismatic UNO Black Studies Chair Omowale Akintunde. Several UNO students joined us. One high school student was on board as well: Omaha North senior Seth Quartey. Most students were sponsored by UNO.

 

 

 

 

Community members, such as activist Katrina Adams, Youngblood’s Barber Shop owner Clyde Deshazer and gospel playwright Janette Jones, had no direct ties to UNO but strong convictions about our mission. Friends, couples and families made the trip. The youngest rider, 10-year-old Carter Culvert, traveled with his mother, Jackie Culvert. A few folks went on their own, including this journalist. All but a few made our first D.C. visit on this ride. What a time to go.

Precursor – Get to Know Each Other
A Jan. 7 briefing at UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center ballroom brings participants together for the first time. The group’s diversity is soon evident. Blacks, whites, Hispanics. Young, middle-aged, seniors. Students, working stiffs, professionals.

From the start it’s obvious Akintunde, a tall, lithe man with a brass band voice and a bigger-than-life presence, is in charge. Also a filmmaker, he’s chronicling the trip in a documentary. We all sign releases for our comments and images to be used. The film premieres at UNO’s Malcolm X Festival in April.

As things develop the shooting threatens turning the trip into a tail-wags-the-dog scenario with all its set-ups and interviews. Some students serve as crew, holding the boom, operating lights/sound, carrying supplies. DP Andrew Koch flew in from the west coast for the gig. PA Stephanie Hearn did much of the prep work.

I leave the briefing with these thoughts: this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that sweeps us along on the tide of history; and we “tourists” constitute a microcosm of the broad-based support that made Obama’s election possible.

What follows are snapshots of our group’s four-day, 100-hour, 3,000-plus mile odyssey to embrace change and to participate in history.

Sunday, Jan. 18
Rolling Out – Get on the Bus
Lot C in UNO’s South Campus is our departure point. I arrive about 7:30 in the cold dim daylight. The bus is there, its engine idling, the lower baggage compartment opened. Some early arrivals have already loaded gear and settled in seats. I choose a mid-section spot befitting my middle-of-the-road nature. Over the next 75 minutes the bus fills out and the rituals of finding a place to sit, stowing away carry-ons in overhead bins and meeting-greeting fellow passengers ensues.

Obamamania appears low key for now. Only a few folks wear anything with Obama images or slogans. One woman climbing aboard is overheard telling another, “He’s not the chosen one.” The mood is a mix of sober expectancy and fan-filled ardor.

There are the usual stragglers and late arrivals. Some of us catch Zs, others chit chat. We’re finally all together and push off on time at 9. A 28-hour grind awaits us before we reach our hotel in Chestertown, MD, about 90 minutes from D.C.

All but a few seats are filled in what are cramped accommodations. For the biggest bodies the bus will mean contortions squeezing into narrow seats and relieving pressure on sore, stiff joints. Leg room is almost nonexistent. Everyone carves out a few inches of sanctuary in the tight quarters.

By the time we cruise I-80 in western Iowa, passing brown-white splotched fields sprouting hundreds of sculptural wind turbines, Akintunde’s filming is in full swing. He captures folks slumbering, reading, cell phoning, text messaging, you name it.

Reminders of this being a Soul Bus trip are the black themed movies that light up the tiny screens suspended overhead. By trip’s end we’ll have seen blockbusters like Ray to little gems like The Secret Life of Bees to old favs like Claudine to a Tyler Perry flick to a fresh bootlegged copy of Seven Pounds.

Akintunde, with Koch manning the digital video camera, grabs establishing shots and spot interviews where he can — on the bus, in parking lots, at rest stops, restaurants, the hotel. The two seemed joined at the hip in our close confines. The director, resplendent in jumpsuits, follows “emerging stories” in our ranks.

Some of us begin our own chronicles, snapping pics and journaling. One woman strides down the aisle, clicking away on her camera as she declares, “I’m going to get me some pictures right here.” In the case of this old-school reporter, notes are jotted on a pad and interviews committed to a micro cassette recorder.

We certainly all have our own story for being here. For retirees James and Jackie Hart it’s about bearing witness to the fulfillment of MLK’s vision.

“I can’t even describe how excited I am that we’re going to have a new black president,” Jim says. “I hope I’m around to see his eight years.”

“I Wanted to See It for Myself”

For Denise Howard, a wife, mother and student, it’s about being “part of change. I wanted to see it for myself, I wanted to feel the atmosphere. It was a must.”

For UNO public administration masters student Joe Schaaf it’s about being present at “a wound healing event, not only racially but politically. This is a huge breath of fresh air. There’s a momentum to change Washington. I view it as one of the top five moments in our country’s history.”

For Keisha Holloway the trip’s a homage to her late sister, Deanna Rochelle, who died only a week before. The two shared a passion for Obama. They voted together. “To kind of keep her legacy going I’m going for me and her,” says Keisha.

Bob Armstrong’s reasons are complex.

“My family’s life has been lived trying to fight for civil rights, especially for black people. Many of the civil rights leaders had been to my house to meet during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, including Dr. King,” says Armstrong, who was in D.C. for King’s ‘63 address. At the time, he said, “we didn’t know it was history. It became historic. It’s a different setting though (with Obama). This time we’re going knowing that history is being made and so here we are 45 years later for the culmination of all those activities with the election of a black president.”

The way Edwardene Armstrong sees it, Obama’s achievement is only possible because of the work done by many others before him. Freeman agrees. He was on the front lines of the civil rights movement at Tuskegee University, and he said Obama stands on the shoulders of countless freedom fighters.

“It means so much to me because we’ve gone through so much getting to this point,” Freeman says. “We’re not where we ought to be but we’ve come a long, long way. It wasn’t only black folks. During that time there was a sense of commitment and frankly I haven’t seen that until this campaign. Back when we used to march there were so many people of all colors, of all nationalities, and then you saw that this (past) year. Just an affirmation that now I see that vision come to pass. It makes you want to cry. I wish my dad and mom could have been here.”

Edwardene can’t help be struck by the fact the new president has a similar biracial background as her great-grandfather, the son of a black slave mother and white slave master. A black president seemed inconceivable to her.

Bob Armstrong never thought it would happen, period. “It’s such a historic moment I felt we had to be there,” he says. “It doesn’t mean all our problems are solved but it means it certainly gives black people the aspirations that they can do pretty much what they want to do if they’re willing to sacrifice and get themselves educated and do those things necessary to become successful.

“It’s an emotional time. You’re going to see a lot of tears shed when he takes the oath. Tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of pride, tears of wonderment of thinking could this really be happening…”

The stories go on all day and into the night. We drive through light snow showers in Illinois and Indiana. We cross the gray-slated, ice-strewn Mississippi River. We skirt south of Chicago and Indianapolis. We pass through Columbus, Ohio. By the time we hit Maryland more snow showers appear.

Sleep is fitful for most. A blessed few sleep through anything: the racket/motion of the bus; the sound from the DVDs; the din from up front, where Akintunde and his self-described “big mouth” holds court, and in the back, where there’s often a conversation or card game going on. Laughter sporadically breaks out.

Call it a lesson in multiculturalism but the “soft music” we’re promised late at night turns out to be hardcore Hot Country, courtesy Rebel 105.9. The driver’s choice. Quite a contrast from Marvin Gaye. Rumblings of a mutiny go up. Most take it in good-humored stride. Thankfully, that driver’s relieved, as previously scheduled, in New Paris, Ohio. The drivers repeat the process on the return trip. The music goes off and order’s restored with an Earth, Wind and Fire concert DVD.

Monday, Jan. 19
The Day Before – Get Off the Bus
We roll across Maryland on I-70, traversing forested ridges. Fog hangs in the depressions. Mills line the riverways. Colonial-style brick homes predominate.

At a Shoney’s I’m treated to a spirited discussion by three UNO students. They embody the youth Obama ignited. Brandon Henderson says Obama’s message of unlimited possibilities “resonated for us. It brought that a lot closer. He’s not just a black candidate. All kind of people are going to be at this thing. It took everybody to get him to where he is right now — to elect him as president. I just want to be part of the atmosphere of Everything Obama.”

Joshua Tolliver-Humpal says Obama “did a great job tapping into that youthful idealism. The youth vote really came out strong. I just have to be there to see the most captivating figure in American politics get inaugurated.”

“Really this is the first significant, world-changing event in my lifetime,” Joseph Lamar says. “Everybody’s going to remember where they were at this particular time and I can say, ‘Hey, I was there.’”

Upon reboarding the bus after bathroom/food breaks Akintunde takes to saying, “Is anybody here that wasn’t here before?,’ or, ‘Is anybody not here that you saw before?’ It’s the ghetto roll check,” he explains.

We never lose anyone, but we do gain two members our second night. They’re Nigel Neary and Tom Manion, whose public housing corporation in Manchester, England Bob Armstrong consults. They “crash” our trip at his invitation. Their addition lends our trip an international perspective.

A sign of the times finds many wired to their cells, Ipods, Blackberries. A few break out lap tops, too. The result is a running commentary or living blog about this trip.

We cross the massive Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the fog shrouded ocean spread out before us and make it into Chestertown by mid-afternoon, where we’ll encamp overnight at a Comfort Suites. There’s a snafu with some room assignments but we manage checking in and freshening up for an evening sightseeing tour of D.C. Signs leading in and out of the capital warn of major delays tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

“I’m Going to Take My Foot”
In response to a Fox News report that space on the Mall will be constricted to one square foot per person, Clyde Deshazer says, “I’m going to take my foot.” Given the congestion no one’s sure what we’ll actually see tomorrow. “Whatever there is to see,” Deshazer says, “I want to see it. I haven’t seen any part of history.”

Like many elders on the trip Deshazer grew up in the South. He’s struck by how a fractious nation moves toward solidarity at Obama’s lead. “I am so glad all races are coming together and focusing in one direction. The people coming together for one common purpose — that’s what gets me. That’s a soft spot in my life.”

“It’s a beautiful thing,” adds Henderson.

For tonight’s jaunt into D.C. we’re joined by Willistine Harris, a former student of Akintunde’s who lives and works in the area. She’s the trip’s consultant.
We spot our first vendors. Once in the thick of the government district we get an on-the-scene sense for the immensity of it all. Streets are choked with vehicles, including buses like ours. Tourists overrun the sidewalks. We sneak peaks of monolithic buildings and famous monuments. But we don’t leave the bus until on the waterfront, where we take in the harbor and an open-air seafood market. Dinner’s an everything-you-can-eat buffet at Phillips, which Akintunde selected “so you will see some flavor” of D.C., where he once taught.

On the bus back to the hotel Sharif and Gabriel Liwaru say what they most look forward to is being amid masses who crave the positive social change Obama advocates. They see his inauguration as a catalyst for themselves and thousands like them to go back home and inaugurate change in their communities. Sharif is president of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.

At the hotel it’s soon lights out as we have an ungodly early-to-rise call. We’re slated to leave by 4:30 to beat the rush to the Mall.

Tuesday, Jan. 20
Inauguration Day – Get on the Mall
We’re psyched for the siege ahead. Braced for swarms of people. Schooled on the Metro rail system’s dos and donts. We’re to stay as one group. Harris has secured us Smart Cards to expedite our way through the stations. We pack all the necessities — sandwiches, snacks, drinks, maps. Layered clothing means double pants or thermal underwear for what will be hours in the frigid cold

As we gear up Akintunde tells me our diversity reflects the Obama phenomenon.

“What Barack Obama says is true. That despite our differences what really bonds us as a people is our commonality as Americans. And when we can get beyond the pettiness of racial divisiveness, difference of religious opinion, and start to think of ourselves as a collective unit, we can become a more powerful, more resolute people who can achieve anything we set our minds to.”

He’s pleased how smoothly the trip’s went thus far. “I mean, this could have gone so many different ways,” he says.

On the bus we’re sleep-deprived adventurers eager to grab some rest before the main leg of the journey unfolds. Janette Jones says our tiredness will soon seem trivial once “we see the fruit of our labor,” meaning the inauguration. “We’ve gone through the wilderness and we’re stepping over into the promised land now.”

“It’s worth it,” adds Andrew Gaines.

Nearing D.C. we get stuck in a traffic snarl on the Capital Beltway. Many others headed out early, too. Some folks abandon their vehicles and walk to the New Carrollton station. We inch along and after an hour or so finally make the station exit. Akintunde emphasizes, “Don’t panic…be vigilant…stay together… We’ll be cool.” We’re let out a couple blocks from the station. Parking’s at a premium. We break into small groups, huddling near for warmth. Prayers are offered. My group’s leader, Sharif, looking sharp in his dreds, says:

“Lord, we ask you this day to bless us on our journey, to keep us safe and to keep us warm, that we may enjoy this opportunity and that we may utilize this in our lives and in our communities when we get home, and to take the energy we’ve gathered here and use it to do good. Amen.” Amen.

Moving in formation, we come upon an ever-growing line outside the station that eventually stretches for blocks. Akintunde’s plea, “No gaps,” becomes our tongue-in-cheek clarion call. It’s easier said than done in what Deshazer calls “belly press” tight conditions. Our difficulty closing the gaps prompts Miletsky to crack, “Our civil rights marching is a little rusty — we haven’t had a movement in awhile.”

 

 

Obama speaking.

Crowd watching a crowd on TV.

“Gracious and Great”
Everyone’s in a good mood. The positive energy visceral. You can’t help observe and feel it. A woman behind me sums up the vibe with, “This is how I feel — I’m feeling gracious and great today.” Perfect gratitude.

Zebulon Miletsky, UNO Black Studies’ resident historian, puts the situation in context. “It’s just a beautiful moment to be here, to document it, and that’s what we’re all doing — we’re all documenting this history for ourselves, and to me that’s the highest form of history. That’s our history as African Americans — oral tradition. To pass that oral history along to each generation  And this story will be passed down and it will be written about. It’s already being written about. And so many times our history has been written by other people. Here we are as a people witnessing and documenting our own history and serving as the primary source.”

Gaines says he feels “so blessed” to be here with family — daughters Frelima Gaines and Gabriel Liwaru and son-in-law Sharif Liwaru — “and to experience this with so many diverse people. We’ve all come together for this historic moment I think in hope and great expectation for that better part of us that’s being expressed today,” he says. “It’s an excellent feeling. Indescribably great.”

Katrina Adams rode the Obama Express to this place as a grassroots supporter. She prays this is not the end. “This is one of those moments when I stepped up and felt like I could do something — to open the lines of communication, to let people know that regardless of what stance you’re taking you can always do more. You can speak your voice and let that be heard,” she says. “I just hope that feeling we started off with when Obama announced his candidacy replenishes itself and that people are not only touched and inspired but they’re called into action.”

Her fondest wish is that as her son “grows up as a biracial child he’ll understand there’s no limit to himself.”

Speaking of mothers and sons, Jackie Culvert brought 10-year-old Carter “so he will be able to see the change for America and be able to remember this moment.”

Every few minutes cheers go up as trains arrive and depart, moving us nearer the station. Security helicopters hover above. At 8:45 we finally make it inside. There, the crowd packs in even tighter. No shoving though. We’re connected to some living, breathing organism that moves in fits and starts. We’re one.

Akintunde says, “I don’t know why I’m not getting angry, I’m just getting more excited.” “More energized,” a woman says.

Terri Jackson-Miller marvels how “everybody’s in the same spirit…very cooperative. No one’s pushing or throwing attitudes, and I just think that’s all part of what’s out there right now, what’s happening today. Truly a blessed day. This breaks ground. The unknown is now known. It’s going to be a life changing experience.”

Between the magnanimity of the people and the cool-headed actions of cops and Metro workers, who closely monitor traffic flow, thousands safely snake through the station. Only a certain number are allowed on the platform. Once out of the crowd’s grip it’s a release and relief. Amazingly, the entire UNO contingent makes it through intact, amid hoops and hollers, all boarding the same Orange Line train. The empty cars fill in no time. It’s 10:30.

Our prearranged stop: Foggy Bottom. A half-hour ride. From there, a 20-minute walk to the Lincoln Memorial, our target area for watching the big event.

Jackson-Miller says the teeming crowds who’ve come from everywhere “really show the magnitude of this whole thing.” Confirmation is as near as the woman sitting beside me. She’s with the Red Rose Sisters from Miami, Fla. She “just had to be part of history.” Later, a man from Ireland joins me. He says Obama’s election night victory speech inspired him to cross the pond for this moment.

Akintunde announces our Foggy Bottom stop and we’re off, charging into daylight on the George Washington University campus. Vendors galore greet us, hawking Obama caps, buttons, key chains, T-shirts — “My President is Black” reads one. Food trucks do a brisk business. As Akintunde promised, “Everybody and their mamas’ selling things.” The cordoned-off district funnels a constant stream of people into the street, onto the sidewalks. A few on bikes. One atop a skateboard. We move in unison. So much activity, yet so quiet, so still. We’re like a great flock of believers bound for church. Serene. Sharing a sense of purpose and faith in a new era. A placards reads, “We Have Overcome — A New Age of Freedom.”

National Guard troops patrol select intersections.

We reach the base of the Lincoln Memorial at 11:15 and soon find the monument overrun with spectators. We make our way down to a grass field lining the reflecting pool, where thousands gather to watch a jumbo screen. We’re a mile from the Capitol, the whole of the National Mall spread out before us. It’s a grand sight with all the people, the flags, the monuments, the pageantry. Magisterial.

So many families are here. Indeed, it’s like a giant family reunion picnic. You don’t know most of the faces but you’re all linked. It’s our Woodstock.

“This is It, This is It”
Though removed from the pomp, circumstance and fanfare we’re still participants in this ritual and reverie. We angle within 25 yards of the screen, our eyes fixed on the ceremony. The mood, upbeat and solemn. Respectful. Swells of cheers and muffled applause rise as Michelle Obama and Joe Biden are intro’d. Aretha Franklin’s soulfulMy Country, Tis of Thee sets it off again. Biden’s oath of office elicits a big response. Rick Warren’s invocation is well-received. The buzz for Obama’s oath grows. When a classical musical interlude ends the crowd senses what’s next. “This is it, this is it,” a mother tells her girl, holding her tightly. The swearing-in rates a huge response, chants of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma” lifted up. Many folks hold cameras aloft to steal away what they can for posterity. Others share the moment with friends and loved ones on their cells. Tears well up in Katrina Adams’ eyes. Mine, too. Hugs and kisses.

The love-in’s repeated again upon Obama introduced as the 44th President of the United States. People’s faces betray awe, joy, pride. His address merits rapt attention. He hits all the right notes with his call for resolve, common purpose and a new era of responsibility, moving the crowd to shout out approval.

At “Thank you and God bless you” another crescendo, more words invoked, the Star Spangled Banner, and then it’s over. In the afterglow people don’t quite know what to do. Many, including our troupe, tour the Lincoln Memorial, lingering to soak in the panorama. One more tangible link to this moment. Much picture-taking. We do the same at the Vietnam War Memorial. The procession out of the Mall an orderly exodus. Even two hours after the inauguration the people file by.

Some of us get separated in the human stream. After the long walk back getting inside the Foggy Bottom stop takes an hour due to the logjam of people. We’re exhausted, chilled, overladen with souvenirs but still of good cheer.

Impressions from our members:
Janette Jones
“It was exhilarating. It was not so much the fact of him being black, it’s just the point America has come together for the first time in unity, and that’s what his message was all about — unity. It was very inclusive.”
Daryl Hunt
“I feel like I’ve made it to the top of the mountain. It’s an awesome feeling.”
James Freeman
“It gives everybody hope because the door has been opened and so now we can come in.”
Katrina Adams
“It’s confirmed, it’s done, he’s safe, his family’s safe, and we’re going to be OK. I can’t feel my fingers but I’m happy.”
Andrew Gaines
“I’m ecstatic. I feel very hopeful we’re going to experience a new resolve as a country — to reenergize, refurbish, redevelop, reexplore…to make this American Dream we have more of a reality. I’m excited for the future. I’m engaged now.”
Omowale Akintunde
“Wasn’t it beautiful? We actually have a black president. It means we’ve evolved as a nation. You can literally feel the weight lifted. I’m amazed.”
Seth Quartey
“I feel real proud. I know with this change everything’s going to be alright.”

We all make it back to the Carrollton station and bus. Akintunde leads us in singing the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and the Star Spangled Banner. Linda Briggs offers a prayer thanking God for seeing us through. At dinner that night the event-filled day’s relived over and over. It’s a blur. Sleep comes easy.

Jan. 21-22
The Day After – Get on Home
The enthusiasm’s waned some. We’re still recovering, still digesting. The trip home is long but we have the satisfaction of achieving our mission. James Hart gives thanks for our being delivered back where we started. The bus empties, the cameras record. Goodbyes said.

Postscript
Joining the enormous throng for this slice of Americana gave each of us a personal stake in history, in something far greater than ourselves. Whether riding the human waves on the Mall, milling about the masses on monument row or navigating the gridlock in the Metro, we found ourselves literally and figuratively carried away. No matter how small, we played our parts in this celebration, culmination, commemoration. We made this more perfect union and fervent prayer sing. Hallelujah!

%d bloggers like this: