Just A Quick Post Election Note From A Bernie Supporter

Photo by Paul Udstrand

Photo by Paul Udstrand

Clinton Lost. Trump is the next president. Those of us who wanted to keep Trump out of the White House are in various degrees of shock, but we’re not all totally surprised; some of us recognized the danger of nominating Hillary Clinton months ago. Some of us knew that if anyone could lose an election to a train wreck like Donald Trump, it was Hillary Clinton. We knew Trump was going to get the nomination and if we wanted to keep him out of the White House democrats would need to show up with their “A” game and we were right on both counts. Let me say that again: We got it right.

We tried to warn democrats and our fellow liberals and in return we were greeted with insults, derision, condescension, and marginalization.

“I told you so” doesn’t even begin to convey the frustration and anger some of feel at this point. But I’m not writing a recrimination here, I’m actually asking for some understanding.

It’s incredibly frustrating to be insulted and degraded in the first place. It’s even more frustrating when those insulting us pretend be morally, intellectually, and politically superior in some way. Add to this the fact that those deriding us were so completely and utterly wrong and the frustration is driven off the charts.

From our perspective Clinton liberals put Trump in the White House. Clinton didn’t get the nomination because she was the best candidate; she got the nomination because those democrats decided it was her “turn”. That decision put Trump in the White House. We tried to warn them but they just wouldn’t listen and now we’re all stuck with Trump.

You may agree or disagree with that perspective but you can’t deny that if you thought Clinton was going to win, and if you thought she was the candidate to win… you were wrong. You can’t dismiss those of us who got it right as naïve, sexist, Bernie Bro’s who didn’t or don’t have a clue and don’t know anything about “electability”.

And don’t even try to tell us that NO ONE could have beaten Trump because he was just THAT good.

None of us can really know how things would have been different if Sanders had got the nomination, but folks who got it flat out wrong are certainly in no position to declare that no other outcome was possible. Clinton supporters need to realize that their credibility is strained to say the least. They are simply in no position to issue declarations regarding “electability” or political and social reality. They got it wrong, that’s not a recrimination, it’s simply an historical fact. It’s actually important to recognize that fact because we need to get it right next time so they had better listen next time.

What’s done is done, and we’re going have to come together and fight for decency in America. Emotions are raw right now, and frustrations are beyond “high”. Still, we need to try to treat each other with respect. For Bernie supporters I think that means resisting the urge to recriminate. I know it’s hard, especially when people we think are clueless continue to pretend they’ve got the monopoly on reality and political wisdom. But let’s hold onto that and save that capital for the next nomination fight. For Clinton supporters I think it means cutting us some slack, and recognizing that like it or not, you were wrong and we have a right to be frustrated. We’re all kind of hurting right now. We will move beyond this but a little humility on both sides could go a long way towards healing these wounds.

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President Trump? A Message Of Hope On A Truly Bad Day

Photograph by Paul Udstrand Copyright Paul Udstrand 2013

Photograph by Paul Udstrand Copyright Paul Udstrand 2013

A couple months ago I managed to resign myself to the notion of Donald Trump being the President of the United States. This morning I’m trying to remember how I did that.

I remember at that time a BBC report hit me like a bolt of lightning, it was just a typical campaign update but like so many others it was dominated by story after story about Trump while Clinton was… well I don’t know where Clinton was. Trump dominated the headlines every day, so that wasn’t so unusual but it was a clip from his speech that hit me like a ton of bricks. All he said was something like: “If I’m elected I’ll always be for America and Americans”. That was it, simple, clear, positive, and who could be against being for America? When you remember the fact that the typical American voter doesn’t do or even know how to do any kind of detailed fact based analysis it becomes frightening clear that a guy like Trump could win with that message; if he stuck to it. The danger became all too real when you considered the fact that Clinton never did produce a clear agenda or campaign theme beyond simply being Hillary instead of Trump. In the end I think the Clinton camp simply gave up and choose a campaign strategy that assumed Trump would defeat himself and they could just show up and collect the votes.

So here we are. Clinton lost. I wish I could say I’m surprised. The last few weeks I’ve allowed myself to hope for a Clinton victory, I mean what else can you do? I bought into the Nate Silver band wagon even though I’ve always had my doubts about his statistical magic. The problem with complex predictive statistical analysis is you can’t know if you’ve got the right data set or how reliable the data is. When you’re predictions are right it looks like you’re a genius… until you’re wrong. Well, the predictions were wrong, the data turned out to be junk.

So here I am looking back to a time when I was actually less hopeful in an effort to scrounge together some optimism… what was I thinking back then and how does it reflect on Trump’s victory today?

Take heart dear liberals. Clinton’s loss is not an indictment of progressive liberalism or ideas. Clinton didn’t lose because she was too liberal, she lost because she failed to give progressive liberals and independents something to vote for, something to support enthusiastically. Clinton is basically a moderate republican so her loss cannot be an indictment of liberalism. Liberals still have the only workable and truly popular solutions. Liberals just need to find a party that will champion their agenda.

Take heart dear feminists. Of all the reasons I ever thought Clinton might lose, I never thought (nor do I now think) she’d lose simply because she’s a woman. To be sure sexism is alive and well in America but Clinton lost because she was a weak candidate with too many liabilities and too many people simply didn’t want to vote for her. Even if she’d been a man I think she would have lost. Listen: Do you think a black man would have won back in 2008 if he’d been disliked and distrusted by more than 50% of the population? Obama campaigned on change. Bill Clinton said: “Change? Give me a break”. If Obama had been a hugely distrusted and disliked candidate who wasn’t offering something compelling to vote FOR, could we have said he lost because he was black? I think Americans are ready and willing to elect a woman as president, but she’s going to have to be a great candidate that sparks hope, energy, and enthusiasm, not a candidate that tells people their hope, energy, and enthusiasm are naïve and unrealistic. Clinton’s loss might give feminism the jolt it needs to re-examine its discourse and progress. I think it’s possible that Clinton’s loss might provoke a renaissance of feminist activism that goes beyond the celebration women in positions of power.

Take heart dear democrats. While this is a stunning and catastrophic loss, it’s also an opportunity to jettison the tepid Neo Liberalism that captured the party in the late 80s and has led to sooooo many other stunning defeats. Republicans don’t win because they’ve got great ideas and candidates that everyone loves. Trump will be the most unpopular president to ever step into the White House, and the majority of people who voted for him actually said they didn’t really want to vote for him.  Democrats lose because the conservative democratic elite that have been running the party since the late 80s refuses to nominate populist progressive liberals that people want to vote for. Obama barely got nominated and the elite clearly decided they weren’t going let something like THAT happen again. This is a chance to rebuild as an honest to god liberal party.  The myth that the democratic elite know who’s “electable” and who isn’t has surely been exposed as utter delusion. That’s actually not a bad thing; it means democrats have a chance to change their mentality and nomination process so that truly electable candidates can get the nomination in the future. Surely democrats can’t conclude that Hillary was too liberal, so it’s time for a little revolution within the party. If democrats champion, pursue, and enact liberal policies rather than function as a firewall against them, they’ll have popular candidates that people want to vote for, and they’ll win elections, and that’s a good thing.

Take heart America. Don’t forget that Trump is going to become the most unpopular and distrusted president to ever take the oath of office. Although Trump’s election represents all kinds of stupid, he actually lost the popular vote and he has no mandate. He also has no plan and doesn’t seem to even know anyone who does have a plan so his ability to actually govern, much like his “amazing” casinos, will probably never materialize. We know that his fellow republicans have no idea how to govern either, they seem to think refusing to govern is a new form of governance. Furthermore remember that Trump isn’t actually ideological, in many ways he’s not actually a republican. While the democrats managed to suppress their populist anti-establishment candidate the republicans failed. That means that Trump takes office in front of a party that’s so deeply dysfunctional, distracted, and toxic that they’ll likely continue to implode despite their electoral victories.

In many ways the nomination of Trump was a predetermined disaster for republicans whether he won or lost. His loss to Clinton would have been a humiliating defeat, but his victory is a repudiation of their core strategy and values. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to unite behind Trump, and even if they do, republicans have shown us over and over again that even when they unite and get into power, they can’t get anything done.

Take heart. If we lose Obamacare we’ll come back with single payer. If they try to privatize social security they’ll be out in two years. If they try to stomp on women, GLBT’s, or emigrants, they’ll simply accelerate their own demise. Trump will be a bad president, but we’ve had bad presidents before, and we have another chance to vote in two years.

Maybe I’m being naïve but I don’t believe Trumps election is about making America a bigoted and hateful safe harbor for sexism, racism, and antisemitism. This is just another installment of American stupid.  If anything, Trumps America will reawaken the slumbering forces of peace, justice, diversity, tolerance, and reason. Americans can only try stupid so many times before they realize it’s always a bad idea. Perhaps now tepid liberalism will be jolted out of its complacency. In a strange way, maybe THAT’S how Trump actually will make America great.

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The More Things Change… Standing Rock Is Just The Latest Fight To Save Our Water In “Indian” Country

Some of the 600 police officers involved in the eviction of demonstrators at the Hiawatha Free State 1998

Some of the 600 police officers involved in the eviction of demonstrators at the Hiawatha Free State 1998  Photo by Paul Udstrand


As I’ve watched a militarized police force confront peaceful protesters at Standing Rock I can’t help be but reminded of a past but similar confrontation that in many ways presaged the confrontations we’ve witnessed in recent years. The militarization of our police force and it’s tactics, institutional racism, and environmental assaults under the guise of “progress” and “necessity” were all on spectacular display here in Minnesota during a small but determined effort to save Coldwater Spring and adjacent sacred land in Minneapolis at the turn of the century. In fact, the Minneapolis police action in 1998 was larger in terms of personnel than the current action in Standing Rock. In 1998 authorities reported using over 600 officers to subdue and evict a much smaller protest while around 200 officers are currently confronting demonstrators at Standing Rock.

Hiawatha reroute battle yielded mixed results in Minneapolis; while sacred trees were felled by the bulldozers Coldwater Spring was saved and has since been restored and preserved as part of a National Park system. Another victory of sorts that emerged in Minneapolis was a coalition of Indian of tribes, and non-Indian groups (although on a smaller scale than Standing Rock) that were able to block construction that would have destroyed unique and sacred waters. Perhaps a similar coalition on a larger scale will prevail now in Standing Rock.

With the possible lessons and perspective of history in mind I am publishing my 2003 article about the Hiawatha/Coldwater Spring battle here on my blog. It’s a long article but I hope you find it worth your time.


The Attack of the Invisible People:
Confronting Irrational Transportation Policies in Minneapolis
By Paul Udstrand

The Minnehaha Free StateIn August of 1998, the invisible people struck in Minneapolis. Members of the Mdewakanton Mendota band of Sioux Indians and Earth First!, moved in and occupied several abandoned houses that lay directly in the path of a proposed highway route. They were supported by several local groups who had been opposing the highway for nearly 10 years, as well as thousands of local residents. The activists christened the occupied area the: “Minnehaha Free State” and declared that no drugs, alcohol, violence, or highways would be permitted there.

Three months later, at 4:30am, seven twenty foot Ryder trucks rolled into the Minnehaha Free State with their lights shut off. Inside the trucks S.W.A.T. teams waited for the signal to commence “Operation Cold Snap”, the largest and second most expensive law enforcement operation in Minnesota history. Within minutes of the S.W.A.T. team’s assault, over six hundred police officers accompanied by fire fighters and utility workers, pored into the area. By the time it was over, thirty nine people had been arrested, and the previously occupied houses had been completely demolished. The Occupation and subsequent “eviction” were the most dramatic events in a ten year conflict over one of the last vestiges of highway planning left over from the late 50s and early 60s. This is the story of a fight between residents, environmentalists, and Native Americans, and a state machine bent on pursuing irrational transportation policies. Transportation activists everywhere should take heed of the lessons learned here.

Workers tear down previously occupied houses after arresting and evicting "occupiers"

Workers tear down previously occupied houses after arresting and evicting “occupiers”

So what is the nature of this highway project that the state was willing to go to such lengths to complete, and demonstrators were willing to block with their bodies? Hiawatha Avenue, like dozens of streets, lakes, streams and cities in Minnesota owes it name to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 19th century poem: “The Song of Hiawatha”, a retelling of mostly Ojibwe stories. The road crosses over Minnehaha Creek (Another reference to Longfellow) and connects downtown Minneapolis and the Twin Cities International Airport south of the city. For almost thirty years the road had been allowed to deteriorate badly. Aside from its poor condition, it was quite possibly the ugliest stretch of road in the country as it runs along two miles of industrial property, most of which are old railroad yards and giant grain elevators. At its southern end, Hiawatha had deep ruts and quirky curves which made it dangerous especially in cold and icy conditions.

Hiawatha is one of those roads that is technically two roads. On a map it appears both as Hiawatha Avenue, and Highway 55. Highway 55 was supposed to come in from the west, run through downtown, and cross the Mississippi River on the south side of Minneapolis. In the 60’s and 70’s as far as the Minnesota Highway Department was concerned, Hiawatha was just an unfinished section of Hwy 55. The Highway Department eventually became the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), but the plan for Hwy 55 never changed. The plan for Hwy 55 called for the destruction of 160 houses (done in late 1970’s) followed by a straightening and widening of the road to accommodate more traffic at faster speeds. In order to straighten the southern end of the project the plan called for the road to be moved up to three blocks east. This plan to move the road became known as the Hiawatha Reroute. The reroute would roll right over acres of urban green space, seven houses, and the historical site of the first white settlement in the state, and one of the last stands of native Burr Oaks in the country. It would also destroy a small but valuable patch of sacred Native American land, and has threatened to cut off the flow to a sacred spring that is also the last natural source of clean water in the city of Minneapolis. All in order to complete a highway that was designed decades ago and no longer really made sense.

America’s love affair with the automobile has never been a terribly rational affair. The process of turning the country into an automobile Mecca, with billions of dollars worth of new highways began back the early 1900s. Other industrialized nations preserved and enhanced their mass transportation systems, while simultaneously introducing automobiles. The US however dismantled and defunded its extensive mass transportation system almost as fast as it could. Public transportation funding was diverted from mass transit systems into massive road projects.

By 1940, lack of public funding, and incompetent management had driven all but around 40 urban trolley lines out of business. General Motors through subsidiaries and dummy corporations like National City Lines, bought out most of the remaining street car lines and systematically drove them out of business in favor of bus systems and automobiles. This of course meant gigantic profits for GM, since it created a huge market for GM manufactured cars, trucks, and buses. Of course GM’s conduct was clearly illegal, but the anti trust violations were largely ignored by a government that believed that what was good for GM was good for America.

By the time the cold war reached its height, the pentagon had become primary sources of funding for highway projects. Defense spending was channeled into the: “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”. The rationale was that the extensive highway networks would be needed to evacuate cities and move personnel and material in the event of a nuclear attack. With the Pentagon on board, funding for interstate highways was almost unlimited, in fact during the 60’s the interstate highway system was the single largest and most expensive government project on the books. The combination of defense rhetoric, unlimited funding, dismantling of mass transit, and an American love affair with the idea of free cross-country travel in beautiful personally owned cars, created a juggernaut. For 20 years massive freeways were rammed through almost every city in the US, with almost no public discourse or input. Entire neighborhoods were obliterated, and countless buildings were destroyed. Commuter rail lines and passenger trains almost disappeared completely. It was against this backdrop that the highway 55 corridor was originally conceived.

The transportation scene in Minneapolis Minnesota was no different than the rest of the country in 1960. Nearly 500 miles of street car lines had been abandoned or ripped up in order to provide more space for automobiles. Highway officials in Minnesota laid out giant concrete routes in order to accommodate ever increasing numbers of cars. Unfortunately the emphasis on moving cars instead of people, led to a transportation system that doesn’t move either very well. The idea that you would quickly evacuate major cities via the highways was simply insane. Even in the 50’s common sense would predict monumental traffic jams in the event. Nevertheless, engineers and planners continue to cast all their new road plans as rational, and even scientific responses to congestion and urban sprawl. Accordingly, the “Hiawatha Corridor” has been sold to the public on the pretense that it is a rational response to community transportation needs. As we will see, any serious examination of the project’s claims to rationality quickly reveals severe shortcomings.

The state officials responsible for planning and building the road promoted the project by claiming that it would shorten drive times and relieve congestion without having any adverse effect on the environment. State officials repeatedly defended the reroute by asserting four main claims. First, they claim that all environmental impacts have been assessed, and all alternatives have been examined. Second, they claimed that the community supported the project and had been heavily involved in the planning. Third they maintain that the area is not historically significant. Finally, they claimed that Native American claims regarding the sacredness of the Four Oaks area are illegitimate. Unfortunately, all of these claims turned out to be largely unfounded products of a public relations campaign.

The primary basis for the claim that environmental impacts had been studied was an Environmental Impact Statement or EIS that had been completed in 1985. This document was written in the style and vocabulary of objective science, and it is loaded with data, tables, and charts. Nevertheless the study is riddled with questionable data, and bizarre predictions. The 1985 EIS was charged with the mission of comparing the impacts that different transportation options might have along the proposed route, followed by predictions and recommendations based on the studies findings. Unfortunately the outcomes of such studies can be easily manipulated and effectively predetermined.

One way to manipulate outcome is to control the working definitions that are used for terms like “environment”. In this case the concept of “environment” referred to what the different roads would look like if they were built, and what type and volume of traffic each design would accommodate. If you picked up this EIS to learn what might happen to the air, water, plant and animal life, or to find out what effect the road might have on businesses and neighborhoods, you would be quite disappointed because these things are barely mentioned, if at all. Another way to control outcome is to limit the scope of the study. This study was restricted to the examination of 4 different types of highway designs. Designs that included light rail were quickly ruled out for no apparent reason, and there was no serious examination of the possibility of simply improving the existing road. Finally the outcome can be controlled by simply limiting the actual geographical boundary of the EIS. The boundaries for this EIS were drawn up in such a way that the most ecologically and historically sensitive area in road’s path were excluded from examination. Although the possible effects on Minnehaha Creek were examined, the area containing the stands of Burr Oaks, and Coldwater Spring, were completely excluded.

Consequently the fact that the construction would destroy many of the states last remaining Burr Oak trees was not mentioned in the EIS. Less than one percent of these trees is left standing in the state, and there are precious few examples left in country. Such deliberate indifference to botanical resources is startling at a time when scientists all over the world are urging us to preserve the biosphere’s plant and animal diversity. Likewise, adverse effects that construction might have on Coldwater Spring are not discussed. Coldwater Spring is unique in that it is underground, remains at a constant temperature that keeps it from freezing, and is the last source of untreated clean drinking water in the city of Minneapolis. The spring emerges into a pool at Camp Coldwater, the historical site of the first white settlement in Minnesota. For the Mdewakanton Sioux, it is the dwelling place of the gods, and the path by which the gods travel to and from the world. Obviously, any interruption of the spring’s natural flow, would be a severe insult to Native American spirituality, and a considerable blow to local ecology.

Coldwater Spring emerges from the ground in Minneapolis and has been considered sacred by Indian people for centuries if not longer. Photo by Paul Udstrand

Coldwater Spring emerges from the ground in Minneapolis and has been considered sacred by Indian people for centuries if not longer. Photo by Paul Udstrand

While many detrimental effects on the environment were ignored, the EIS is filled bizarre predictions regarding a variety of other impacts. The EIS predicts that the highway will increase property values, population, and neighborhood cohesion. Anyone taking the EIS seriously would conclude that highway construction is synonomous with neighborhood revitalization. Unfortunately such predictions run completely contrary to nearly 100 years of experience and data on highway construction and urban sprawl. Highways do not revitalize urban neighborhoods and regions. Highways erase neighborhoods, depopulate cities, disperse populations, and fragment communities. Highways do not turn neighborhoods into place’s people want to live, they turn them into places people drive through on their way to work. As for property values, one could argue that highway frontage might be an advantage for some commercial property. But living next to a noisy road or a sound wall certainly does not increase the value of ones home. The only predictions in the EIS that are credible or even relevant are the ones regarding traffic volume and air quality. The amount of traffic with its attending noise would increase almost threefold as a result of the new highway, and the air quality will deteriorate. An obvious boon to real-estate values and quality of life for those living nearby.

Strangely missing from the report however are any predictions regarding traffic congestion. That’s probably because the authors knew congestion would get worse. Reroute proponents claimed that driving time between downtown Minneapolis and the Airport would be reduced by two to ten minutes. This reduction was supposed to result from the increased speed limit and reduced number of stop lights. The prediction however fails to account for the increased traffic congestion that occurs when you funnel more vehicles into a small area at faster speeds. It’s sobering to read accounts of this phenomena from the turn of the century. As early as 1913 observers were noting that the more buildings, hills, and forests they leveled in order to widen existing streets and build new ones to accommodate automobiles, the worse traffic congestion got. Anyone who drives in a city of any size today is familiar with this truism. If you drive the route today your lucky if you get from downtown to the Airport in the same time as you would have before the “improvements”.

In the end, it’s clear that the primary function of the 1985 environmental impact study was to provide a rationale for building the highway, not evaluate the rationality of building it. The scope and focus of the study was restricted in such a way as to produce a desired outcome.

Another point of contention in Four Oaks area has been the possibility of the presence of archeological artifacts. MnDOT officials continually asserted that they already knew that there was nothing of archaeological significance in the area. All three state archaeologists I spoke to unequivocally stated that there were no artifacts of any significance at the site. They claimed that this had been established in previous studies that were allegedly on record at the Historical Society. The problem is there are no such records at the Historical Society, because no archeological studies had ever been done at this site. Ultimately, MnDOT had no actual data of any kind to verify their repeated public statements regarding the archaeological insignificance of the area.

Some of the documentation associated with the EIS actually contradicts the State position and raises serious questions about the company (BRW) that was eventually hired to search for artifacts. In the final draft of the EIS, BRW states that a 1983 memo from the Minnesota Historical Society, establishes that previous surveys have found no Native American artifacts in the area of the four oaks. This statement is completely inaccurate. If you go back and look at that December 2 memo you find that is says absolutely nothing about archaeological surveys, or artifacts. What it does say, is that there are no known sites of historic or archaeological importance in the proposed corridor. The author of the memo now admits that even this statement was incorrect. In fact the area contains the site of Camp Coldwater, the first European settlement in Minnesota. Nevertheless the Historical Society specifically required that MnDOT do archaeological site monitoring during construction, specifically because they didn’t know for sure whether or not the area contained artifacts.

Whether intentional or not, BRW’s characterization of the Historical Societies position on this matter was not only incorrect, but completely misleading. BRW stated that a search for artifacts had already been conducted, and nothing had been found, this was simply not true. At best, this was just sloppy paraphrasing of the Historical Societies memo, at worst it was a deliberate attempt to minimize any possible archaeological significance in the area as early as 1983. This information would be trivial were it not for the fact that this company has been heavily involved in the highway planning since the beginning and has received millions of dollars worth of construction contracts. BRW wrote the EIS and performed 23 of the 32 studies commissioned in order to complete the EIS. They also served as the over-all project manager in charge of agency, public information, and project progress. When the controversy over the possible presence of artifacts erupted, it was BRW that got the contract to conduct an archeological study in order to settle the issue. This was an obvious conflict of interest because the company planned to apply for millions of dollars in future contracts that depended on the project going forward. A discovery of significant artifacts, whether they be from white settlers or Native Americans, had the potential to stop the project and force a dramatic redesign.

The hiring of BRW to conduct the search put the company in the position of having to contradict its own earlier (however spurious) declaration that there are no artifacts there, as well as jeopardizing its own financial interests. This raises obvious questions regarding conflict of interests, but none of the Sate officials I spoke with would acknowledge any such concerns. When I asked MnDOT archeologist how it came to be that BRW got hired to do the study they described an elaborate rotation system that supposedly farmed out state contracts based on bidding process. When I asked to see this process I eventually discovered that for all practical purposes it didn’t exist. There had been no competitive bids, and there had been no rotation, MnDOT just gave the contract to BRW. When MnDOT archeologists finally admitted that this was the case, they assured me that there was nothing illegal about BRW’s selection, and suggested that if I didn’t like it I should get the law changed. As it turned out, legal or not, I’m not the only one who had concerns about BRW’s conflict of interests. The Federal Government eventually threatened to withhold funding because of conflict of interests regarding BRW’s conduct on the light rail portion of the project.

In any event, BRW got it wrong. They failed to find artifacts that were in fact present on the site. One of the reasons they failed was that they simply didn’t dig deep enough. BRW was given instruction to dig small holes called “shovel tests” at fifty foot intervals along a specified path. They were supposed to dig down to some form of bedrock ( that would mean holes from three to thirteen feet deep). However, BRW’s records clearly show that all but four of BRW’s shovel tests were only about one and a half feet deep. When I asked about this at the historical society, they admitted that they had missed it when they reviewed BRW’s report. The historical society explained that BRW had apparently hit rubble that was buried in the area, and mistaken it for bedrock. It’s interesting to note that BRW’s failure to perform the shovel tests as directed didn’t stop them getting paid. The blame however cannot be placed on BRW’s shoulders alone, the Historical Societies design was clearly inadequate. According to Bruce White, an anthropologist who reviewed the shovel test data, they would have been lucky to hit anything with so few holes spaced so far apart anyways. Apparently the Society didn’t put much effort into the design because they didn’t believe anything significant could be found, they were wrong.

As road construction progressed, a number of artifacts were found, and work had to be stopped in order to do more thorough research. The Historical Society eventually declared that the artifacts discovered in the area were not significant because the area was not “intact”. This means that the artifacts were not found “as they fell” or were deposited at the time (1800s). The historical society has a point. The area had been the site of a huge building that been demolished. The artifacts themselves were strewn about and jumbled up. Relatively new items such as bicycle seats were found underneath older artifacts that dated back to Coldwater Camp. Nevertheless the discovery of the artifacts proved that BRW and MnDOT had been wrong all along. The area is the site of Camp Coldwater and the first white settlement in Minnesota, and therefore arguably is historically significant. Although the artifacts had been disturbed, we’ll never know what might have been found there. The requirement of “intact” sites is a subject of debate within the archaeological community, not everyone agrees that sites need to be “intact”. Not subject to debate is the fact that a large part of Camp Coldwater is now buried underneath Highway 55. This despite the fact that the MnDOT and the Historical Society had claimed for years that road would not even come within 400 feet of the settlement’s location.

One could argue that while the site of the first white settlement in Minnesota is historically significant, the spiritual significance of the area to local Native Americans is more important. Four Burr Oaks within the area of Camp Coldwater formed a diamond with trees in, north, south, east, and west positions. Such arrangements would be considered spiritually significant by some Native American tribes, whether they were planted or naturally occurring. Accordingly, the Mdewakanton Band declared that the area around the trees is sacred, and that the trees themselves were also sacred. The band suggested that the trees may have been used as burial platforms and for spiritual ceremonies..

State officials initially discounted Mdewanketon claims on the basis that they were made to recently, as if new discoveries of religious significance are somehow unheard of in civilized cultures. It is true that the Mdewakanton only recently rediscovered the significance of this small area. However, that in no way diminishes the validity of the claim anymore than a recent discovery of another Dead Sea scroll would diminish its religious significance. Native Americans were the target of a deliberate and systematic attempt to erase their culture and heritage. It’s not surprising that some aspects of their heritage have been lost, and subsequently re-discovered.

Most North American Indians preserved their historical consciousness through oral tradition. The tendency to disregard the legitimacy of oral history merely reflects a European bias regarding conditions of validity. In fact there is no rational or scientific basis to conclude that written history is necessarily any more accurate than oral history. Cultures that rely on oral history develop specific social mechanisms and structures to preserve their histories. The stories are very carefully told, repeated, and retold by successive generations. There are numerous examples of the accuracy of such oral accounts of history. Nevertheless when Native Americans produced affidavits from elders who described the four oak’s area as being sacred, the media, the public, and MnDOT tended to reject such accounts out of hand because the band had no documentation or physical evidence to support the claims. Of course the inability and unwillingness of a Judeo-Christian society to understand how something like a tree could be sacred, provides a institutional bias against such claims as well.

When the trees finally came down, the rings were counted and it was found that the trees were 137 years old. This probably means that these trees were not actually used as burial platforms as the tribe had suggested. This fact does not refute the Band’s claims however. By 1830 the entire area had been clear-cut by the soldiers stationed at Fort Snelling. It’s possible that burial trees were cut down in that process, and later replanted by the Mdewanketon for future use. It’s important not to make too much of the actual age of the trees. The age of those trees does not establish the sacredness of the site. Be they twenty-five or five hundred and twenty five years old, the age of the trees has no bearing on whether or not the site was considered sacred for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans on the site. The age of the trees also has little relevance when determining whether or not the site could be considered sacred today. This is the place where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers converge, the entire area is the center of the Mdewanketon universe. Finally, the age of the trees has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not the area was used for burials. This last point is significant because MnDOT and Historical Society officials have repeatedly pointed to the age of the trees and the failure to find human remains on site as a refutation of Mdewanketon claims that the area was used as a burial site.

My father worked as a carpenter building houses in the area ( Not this exact site, but a mile or so north of Camp Coldwater) back in the 50’s and 60’s. Once while digging a foundation for a house, they came across some human remains. The foreman on the job told everyone to just keep working and no one ever notified any authorities because that would have caused a delay in construction. No one knows whose remains my father unearthed forty years ago, or how old they were, the point is that the failure to find Native American remains now, would not prove that they were never there in the first place. A lot of construction and subsequent demolition has taken place in this area over the past 100 years. Undocumented desecration and destruction of remains could very well have occurred on these sights.

Ultimately, state officials simply cannot refute Native American claims of sacredness because they have to no factual basis or religious authority to do so. Instead the state finds excuses to ignore the claims under the pretense of refutation. They put the burden of proof on the Mdewakanton, and focus on the narrow issue of the tree’s age, or presence of human remains. The oral testimony the band produces is rejected not because it’s unreliable, but because it doesn’t conform to European notions of evidence. The fact that the trees are young, and no remains are found is then used to discount claims of sacredness despite the fact that it proves nothing. This is the essence of institutionalized racism.

I must take a moment here to mention a particularly striking example of hypocrisy. In the beginning of the debate over the possible archaeological and spiritual significance of the area, MnDOT repeatedly referred to a memo from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council stating they were not aware of any cultural significance of the area. The Indian Affairs Council eventually changed its position on that matter, and came to support archaeological study of the area as well as its cultural significance to the Mdewakanton. MnDOT’s reference to the Indian Affairs Council memo is revealing because it demonstrates their willingness to accept the validity of Native American oral history when it serves their purposes; but reject it out of hand when it conflicts with their plans.

Throughout the struggle to stop the reroute, the state waged a constant battle to discredit and alienate the opposition. Early on they established strategy of portraying the opposition as irrational, ill informed, and lacking of support from the community at large. The strategy was to render the opposition invisible.

MnDOT officials portrayed those who were opposed to the reroute as a small group of radicals that lacked any support from the community at large. Public statements from politicians and state officials constantly made reference to the tremendous amount of community involvement in the planning of the route, and the decision to build it. Opponents they said, had had their chance, and either missed it or simply didn’t like the results. Now it was time to move on and get the thing built.

As evidence of community involvement, MnDOT pointed to the existence of a Hiawatha Avenue Task Force, and the fact that a number of public meetings had taken place. The task force was set up by the city of Minneapolis between 1972 and 1978. Its mission was to examine the road options, make recommendations, and facilitate community awareness of the project. Public meeting were held at a variety of locations during the fifteen years of construction.

There are several problems with any assertion of community involvement centered on the task force. To begin with, the task force appears to have played a rather limited role in the highway plan. As I’ve already pointed out, their choices were limited to four road designs that had already been selected by a previous group of engineers and planners. This task force did not have the option of exploring other transportation options, or making suggestions of their own. Another problem with the task force, was the small number of neighborhood residents involved. Little record of the task force’s activities remain, but the one set of meeting minutes I could find listed 35 people in attendance, only six of those in attendance were resident task force members. Given the limited range of options and the minority status of resident members on the task force, it appears that the real purpose was to limit rather than encourage community input. The task force gave the project the appearance of having a large base of support, while simultaneously providing officials a mechanism with which to deflect charges of power brokering.

As further evidence of community involvement, MnDOT points out that a number of public meetings were held throughout the process. This is true enough, but the nature of such meetings tended to be “informational” rather than genuine invitations for community involvement. Furthermore, city and state officials employed less than honest methods of recording public comment at the events. When road planners couldn’t actually control the debate, they simply manipulated the recording of it to suit their purposes. For example, at one point along the route, there was considerable neighborhood opposition to a bridge that was to span a major thoroughfare. In 1993 a public meeting was held in local High School auditorium, 200 people attended and a vote was taken on whether or not to build the bridge. The bridge was quite a controversial issue, tensions were high, and tempers flared both for and against the construction. Frank Miller, a local resident who attended those meetings has found that MnDOT has no record of the vote, and no record of the of the considerable public protest against building the bridge. As reported in a local paper, the: “Southside Pride”, Miller found that MnDOT only records 21 people in attendance, and only has two people on record as having made comments. Apparently the court reporter that was in attendance was placed in a different room, thus rendering all the statements made in the auditorium officially “off the record”. In one fell swoop, MnDOT rendered 200 people invisible. Not bad for evenings work.

Of course State officials didn’t shy away from pointing out that anyone who opposed the construction could contact their elected officials. After all, don’t elected officials represent their constituents? Anyone who is suffering from this delusion should talk to Carol Kratz. Carol Kratz and her husband were the last home owners to leave the Minnehaha Free State. Years before, when they found out that their house was slated for demolition, they went to their local councilman who suggested they start a petition. After collecting 2000 signatures in opposition to the new route, their councilman responded: “Listen, you could get a million signatures and it wouldn’t make any difference at this point”. By the year 2000 that petition had over 10,000 signatures and state and local officials were still claiming that they hadn’t heard of any real objections to building the road. Frank Miller had a similar experience with his elected representative regarding the bridge debate. He filled out a ballet card that his local representative had mailed out only to find later that his vote was irrelevant because the decision to build the bridge had already been made. At least Frank got an apology for having been given the impression that his vote might actually count for something.

Local media hasn’t exactly delivered a stellar example of coverage regarding this controversy. They have either wittingly or unwittingly supported MnDOT’s efforts to marginalize the opposition by portraying it either as a conflict between the state and Native Americans, or between the State and radical environmentalists. One local paper’s coverage has been particularly representative of MnDOT’sagenda. MnDOT’s press packet for operation Cold Snap consisted primarily of several of Minneapolis Star-Tribune articles, copied and unedited. The Star-Tribune had done such a good job of presenting MnDOT’s position MnDOT spokespeople didn’t even have to write any material themselves. The result was a surreal media exercise; on the day of “Operation Cold Snap” the press’s own reporting was handed back to them, in the form of a press packet. In other instances, articles with titles such as “Science vs. Spirituality” challenged the validity of Native American claims on the basis that they don’t resemble rational European historical claims. The message to the predominantly white community reading the newspapers, and watching the television reports was clear: this isn’t your problem, you have nothing in common with these people, move along. Unfortunately the campaign to alienate the Mdewakanton by portraying them as irrational Indians has been quite successful because sadly, racism works. The effort to portray other activists as unemployed “tree huggers” was likewise largely successful.

The drive to build the highway 55 re-route was not based on rational assessments of transportation needs, or community interest. The project was not rational, necessary, or supported by the community. The logic was flawed, and many of the “facts” that were been used to discredit opposition were inaccurate or fabricated. People can disagree whether a road should be built, but who would argue that a road should be built the way this one was?

In the end, the Hiawatha re-route conflict is about power, and the illegitimate exercise of state power. This road was built simply because MnDOT said it would be. The danger for power is always that its illegitimacy will be exposed. Although most of the media didn’t cover it, the State’s deceptions and misinformation were exposed here in Minneapolis. When that happens it can create an opening for different conceptions of legitimacy.

If you accept the legitimacy of Native American claims, you validate their oral history. Essentially then, the four oaks area becomes sacred because Native Americans say it’s sacred. Imagine for moment if the power to declare legitimacy were transferred to the people who actually live in a community. Imagine a neighborhood saying: “this road will not be built- because we say it won’t”.

In the last 30 years the power of highway officials to force expensive and unpopular highways through people’s neighborhoods has eroded significantly. The highway 55 opposition is a reflection of that declining power. Like so many other policy decisions made in this nation’s history, transportation planning has been driven by irrational motives and financial interests. The profit motives of powerful corporations and individuals have taken precedent over the transportation needs of communities. The American people, driven by consumer mentalities that value personal choice over the need for sustainable public policy, have enabled the power brokers who design and create these monstrosities.

Resistance is not futile. After the houses and the Burr Oaks came down, and after acres of parkland and part of Camp Coldwater were paved over, the fight focused Coldwater Spring itself. The fight for the spring followed a predictable path. MnDOT had claimed for years that it knew the project wouldn’t effect the spring, and portrayed the opposition as irrational promoters of political correctness standing in the way of progress. Like the archeological and environmental claims before them, MnDOT’s hydrological studies and data turned out to be non-existent or unreliable. Meanwhile the state tried and failed to get the area transferred to a water district that it knew would not interfere while it pressed on with construction. Of course the local media largely ignored the whole issue after the trees came down and the large police actions ended.

The fight to save the trees, green space, and Camp Coldwater delayed construction and bought time for activists. That time was used to get legislators to pass a law prohibiting any local, state, or federal agency, or anyone acting on behalf these agencies, from doing anything that would interfere with the flow of Coldwater Spring. Eventually a lawsuit forced MnDOT to stop construction and conduct a reliable hydrological study. Contrary to MnDOT’s claims (and much to everyone’s surprise I’m sure), the test showed not only that the flow to Coldwater Spring would probably be cut off by the construction, but that it had already been diminished. That was it. After years of demonstrations, petitions, arrests, and political maneuvering, construction stopped. With 99% of the reroute completed, Minneapolis is left with a hundred million dollar dead end.

The fight continues, MnDOT’s current strategy is to get the law repealed but failing that, they will either have to spend millions of additional dollars or completely redesign the last leg of the project. In the meantime, a half finished highway bridge provides silent testament to a community that would not surrender, and a state that would not listen.


Since this article was written the bridge over Hwy 62 has been completed without any further effect on Coldwater Spring, thus bringing the long saga of the Hiawatha Reroute to end. The promised decreases in travel times and congestion within the reroute and elsewhere never materialized. Things got worse when an adjacent light rail line went into operation. Although troublesome stop light timing has been adjusted it still takes longer now to get from downtown Minneapolis to the airport via Hiawatha Avenue. Ironically the big success story of the Hwy 55 reroute has been the public transportation that runs along side it. The light rail line attracted three times as many passengers as were predicted, and all along Hiawatha and transit officials have had to increase the number of trains and their frequency in order to accommodate the additional passengers.

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Hillary Has A Millennial Problem: And I Don’t Think Bernie Can Help

Photo by Paul Udstrand

Photo by Paul Udstrand

As we close in on the November elections it’s becoming increasingly clear that Hillary Clinton will have to gain the White House without a big millennial vote. Two thirds of millennials don’t want to vote for either Clinton or Trump and it doesn’t look like that needle is going to move

Hillary’s millennial problem is persistent and will likely stay that way for many reasons, but the die was cast in the very beginning of the nomination process. Sometimes candidates and supporters simply fall into the trap of seeing EVERYTHING as a reflection of themselves or their candidates. This tendency among Clinton supporters was more overwhelming in this election cycle than I’ve ever seen before in my 35 years as a voting adult. Clinton and her supporters simply could not comprehend that the fact that Sanders’s support, especially from the millennials, was never about Hillary Clinton. Nor was support for Sanders based on any personal infatuation with Bernie.

Not to psychobabble but in many ways the classic process of “projection” (a process wherein someone projects their own mental process onto another) was a serious culprit on a massive level among Clinton democrats. Much of the support for Hillary has always been personal, i.e. people who like Hillary like Hillary and wanted to see Hillary be Hillary in the White House. For this reason they are/were willing to dismiss the myriad of multiple liabilities hanging around Clinton’s neck; persistent liabilities that have become all too clear at this point.

Attempts at rational discussions with many Clinton supporters were frustrated by their inability to understand the fact that support for Sanders was never a reflection of their own support for Clinton. They tended to assume that we felt the same way about Sanders as they felt about Hillary. When Clinton supporters weren’t accusing us of sexism, they were droning on about the “cult” of Bernie. One insult followed another as Clinton supporters made one facile claim after another about the naïve, ignorant, sexist, and foolish nature of Sanders’s supporters. From the beginning many democrats seemed to assume they could insult, patronize, and demean millennials and still get their votes.

The nomination is a done deal but the ghosts of the nomination process still haunt Clinton, and I’m afraid it’s a haunting that can’t be exorcised. I’m not sure it will cost her the election, I hope not, but we’ll see. Bernie is out there campaigning for Clinton but I don’t think it’s going to help because neither Bernie nor Clinton seem to understand the millennial mentality.

In recent conversations I’ve heard about Hillary’s millennial problem on MPR and elsewhere the tendency is to frame the issue as some kind of problem with millennials. Let me tell you, the millennials aren’t the problem. It’s actually quite normal, healthy, and rational to expect or demand a responsive political system when you live in a democracy. There’s nothing bizarre about expecting to have candidates you actually want to vote for. Historically candidates and parties have actually won elections by producing candidates people wanted to vote for, imagine that.

Sanders can run around telling people that this isn’t the time for a “protest” vote but here’s the problem with Bernie: one weakness of his mentality is that it can get stuck in 60’s and 70’s activism mode. Millennial’s don’t do 60’s and 70’s activism. Their vote for someone other than Clinton or Trump isn’t a “protest” vote, it’s just their vote. Millennials want to vote “for” something, not against something. The dirty little secret of the two party system is that the eternal claims of “wasted” votes have always been facile claims. A lot of people like to think that voting strategically is the only “adult” thing to do but the fact is that so-called strategic voting has produced few if any electoral victories and dismal political outcomes for decades. The truth is that once people stop voting for candidates they actually want to vote for, the elite stops providing candidates that people actually want to vote for. It’s no accident that the ascendance of “strategic” voting has led to a situation wherein no matter who wins the election in November, the most disliked and distrusted candidate to ever win a US election will become president. The idea that such a president can be wildly successful is little more than magical thinking. So much for the genius of strategic voting.

When Bernie tells millennials this is not the time for a protest vote he’s talking past them, not to them. They aren’t “protesting”, they’re just voting… or not.

We’re not decades behind where we should be in terms of infrastructure, health care, and public policy because of the millennials. Nor is being decades behind the normal base line for our country, we had an amazingly successful progressive era that lasted for decades. Our current stagnation is the product of a generation that decided not to expect anything from our government or our politicians. Sometimes you get what you expect to get. Millennials may simply have higher expectations and that’s not naïve, it’s actually normal, it’s what citizens in a democracy are supposed to do. Woe is the political party that thinks it can ignore higher expectations or worse, thinks higher expectations are “unrealistic”. Listen: If you thought Obamacare was going to be the last word and the end of our health care debate, YOU’RE the one who was out of touch with reality, not millennials.

I hope Hillary’s millennial problem doesn’t put Trump in the White House, but if it does don’t blame the Millennial’s.  Blame those who thought they could put crappy candidates on the ballot and still get the votes. Blame tepid liberals for settling for the illusion of liberal democracy instead of the agenda that long ago would have settled the enduring but manufactured crises we’ve been living with for decades. And blame our political and economic elite for simply… failing.

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Reality vs. Trump: A Quick Recap

Anti War Demonstrator St. Paul MN. 03/20/04

Anti War Demonstrator St. Paul MN. 03/20/04 Photo by Paul Udstrand 

Just so we’re clear on a few things in our: “Post Debate” environment- Donald Trump issued the longest continuous tirade of bullshit in the history of American political debates (excuse my language but sometime a blunt instrument is the best instrument) .

Just to pick a few:

The two biggest lies Trump uttered were that he was the one who made Obama release his birth cert (four years AFTER Obama actually released his birth cert), and that Trump opposed the Iraq war. Millions of us opposed that war. We marched, wrote, demonstrated and posted our resistance… Trump was NOT among us. When the only evidence you have that you opposed the war is an argument you claim to have had with Sean Hannity, you didn’t oppose the war.
More than 10,000 people oppose the Iraq War in St. Paul Minnesota.

More than 10,000 people oppose the Iraq War in St. Paul Minnesota. Photo by Paul Udstrand

ISIS did NOT emerge from a power vacuum in Iraq. ISIS or ISIL emerged in the power vacuum created by a Civil War in Syria, a Civil War that republicans wanted to join in force. The presence of 10,000 US troops in Iraq would not have prevented events in Syria.

The decision to leave Iraq wasn’t made by Obama, and he could  not have left more troops stationed there because the Iraqi government would not allow it. Any attempt to leave more troops in Iraq would probably have triggered another war.

Trump claims we should have just taken Iraq’s oil. We tried to take Iraq’s oil, THAT’S what the war was all about. Remember, Iraqi oil was supposed to pay for the war? The attempt to “take” the oil failed because it was stupid idea; it was stupid then, and it’s stupid now. Iraq’s oil infrastructure relies on hundred of miles of pipelines that could not be secured in the midst of a civil war triggered by our invasion. Beyond the stupidity of thinking we could just take the oil there’s the fact that invading a country to take their oil is actually an illegal war crime… which is why Bush claimed we were after WMDS instead of telling us were were going to war for the oil.

Anti War demonstrators carry the names of those who've died trying to "take" Iraq's oil. Photo by Paul Udstrand

Anti War demonstrators carry the names of those who’ve died trying to “take” Iraq’s oil. Photo by Paul Udstrand

Trump criticized Clinton for fighting ISIS her life- and failing. ISIS emerged from the Syrian Civil War which began in 2011. Hillary Clinton was born in 1947 and started participating in politics as an adult in the 1960s. The claim that Clinton’s been fighting ISIS her “whole life” or even adult life is clearly fatuous.

Trump can release his tax return any time he wants. When he claims that he’ll release them when the audit if finished, and then goes on to claim that he’s in a perpetual state of being audited he telling us he’ll never release his tax returns. When he claims that he’ll release his tax returns when e-mails that don’t exist anymore are released… he’s telling he’ll never release his tax returns. When he tells he’ll release his tax return against the advice of his lawyers… he’s lying, he’ll never release his tax returns.

Trump claimed that the US isn’t keeping it’s nuclear arsenal up to date. No matter how many generals and admirals endorse the guy, this a ridiculously ignorant statement for a guy who thinks he can be a commander and chief. The US spends more in it’s military than the rest of the world combined and it’s constantly updating it’s nuclear warheads and guidance systems.

In short, the breadth and depth of Trumps ignorance and dishonesty regarding everything from birth certificates to nuclear weapons is beyond breathtaking but something even more frightening emerged from Trumps performance at the debate, and as far as I know no one else has commented on it.

Trump several times mentioned the fact that the United States is “protecting” a number of nations and they’re not paying us. Basically  Trump is declaring that he’ll turn our foreign policy into a vast protection racket. Combined with his claim that the US should have just taken Iraq’s oil it’s clear that Trump intends to form a criminal administration, perhaps modeled on that of Vladimir Putin. In addition to criminal foreign policy Trump is also promising to tear up the Bill of Rights and ignore the US Constitution when he promises to implement “stop and frisk” presumably on a national level. We’ve had criminal administrations in the past but Trump promises to take it to a whole new level. Whether or not he’d succeed would remain to be seen, but do American’s want to spend the next four years fighting to contain Trump’s criminal and sociopathic impulses or do they want to work on the real issues we have before us?

The New York Times published an extensive fact check: Our Fact Checks of the First Debate

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Anatomy Of A Cycling Accident: Part Two

Photo by Paul Udstand

Photo by Paul Udstand

As a lifelong bicycle rider (45+ years) I’ve made some observations over the decades that I like to share on my blog every once and while.

I reckon I’ve put 17,000+ miles on my Gitane 12 speed over the last 30 years. Fifteen years or so ago my wife bought me a Schwinn highbrid and according to my little bike computers I ride at least 1,000 miles a year. Between these two bikes, and my cycling “career” as a child and teenager (I bought my Gitane when I was in college) I reckon I’ve ridden between twenty five and thirty thousand miles over the course of 45 years.

Like the vast majority of people in my generation I stopped riding a bicycle almost the day I got my provisional driver’s license. Unlike the vast majority of people in my generation I started riding again four years later when I commuted to my job at Calhoun Square in Uptown Minneapolis on my new Gitane twelve speed road bike, and I’ve been riding ever since. During the summer I average around seventy five miles a week and my individual rides run from fifteen to thirty five miles. To date I haven’t had any serious accidents or injuries. The only actual collision I’ve been in was when a sir speedy cyclist ran into me instead of hitting his brakes about 30 years ago on the Lake of the Isles bike path.  Note: Just like driving a car, if you rear-end someone on a bicycle it’s YOUR fault.

The only other accident of note I’ve had (again, around 30 years ago) was when I went into a turn too fast on a gravelly surface and went down, the bike slipped right out from under me. That was MY fault and I got a slightly sprained wrist in exchange for my carelessness.

Sure I had several spectacular looking wipeouts as a kid, but those tended to be described as: “cool” by observers and aside from having to bend something or another on the bike back into place my wipeouts never caused more than short delay in the days riding.

I’ve never even come close to hitting my head on anything while riding a bicycle and I’ve never worn a helmet, although I do own one.

I’m not sharing this in order to impress anyone, I’ve ridden a lot more than some people and a lot less than others. The point is you can compare my experience and profile to your own, and you have some idea now where my perspective comes from when make my observations and recommendations.

Speaking of recommendations it’s time to return to my discussion of cycling safety by examining a second collision, also a hit and run.

In my last blog I discussed a hit-and-run accident involving a left hand turn. In this blog I’ll discuss different collision (Edited for continuity):

The cyclists:

“…who lives car-free, hopped on his/her bike and headed west on Lagoon Avenue.

But just as REDACTED was preparing to cross the busy Hennepin Avenue intersection, a blue Ford Escape zipped out of the left side of his/her peripheral vision and made a right turn in front of his/her bike.

‘I didn’t see the car at all until it was turning into me.’

Unable to brake fast enough to prevent a collision, he/she smacked into the back passenger side of the vehicle and fell over, shaken and hurt.”

This is a classic “Right Hook” collision. These types of collisions are somewhat unique to cyclists and one of the most common and deadly collisions cyclists face. Other types of drivers rarely encounter collisions like this unless someone makes a right hand turn from a left lane. Cyclists encounter these turns relatively frequently.

The green line show the intended path of the cyclist. The red line illustrates the path of the car that struck the cyclist. the “X” is where the site of the collision. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Modern cars and trucks can have huge blind spots created by support columns on either side of windshield, and at the right speed a cyclist can be hidden in such blind spots for just long enough to cause a collision.  If a driver has been distracted or inattentive for some reason on their approach to the turn (when they should spot the cyclists regardless of blind spots) you have a recipe for disaster.

Some drivers don’t seem to know that the cyclist actually has the right of way and they’re supposed to yield and delay their turn until the cyclist is clear. I had a guy honk and yell at me a couple days ago as if I’d done something wrong by not stopping so he could make his right turn in front of me. Ignorant drivers may assume that the cyclist can and will stop or yield so they can make their turn, this driver yielded to me, but he didn’t seem to think he should have to do so.

Other times drivers may misjudge their speed relative to the cyclist and mistakenly think they have time and space to scoot around the corner before the cyclist reaches the intersection.

And of course some drivers simply have a careless disregard for the safety of others.

For all these reasons, and more, Cyclists can’t just blow through an intersection, even if they have a green light. Yes, the law gives the cyclist the right of way in this circumstance, in theory you shouldn’t have to exercise so much caution; but laws don’t actually physically prevent collisions or protect cyclists.

Cyclists need to approach every intersection, especially busy ones with more caution than drivers or even pedestrians. Check your 8:00 two or three times during your approach to the intersection and don’t assume that a driver on your left isn’t going to make that right hand turn, or that they will yield to you if they do. Look for turning “behavior” i.e. a car on your 8:00 that’s either signaling a turn, or slowing down as if preparing to turn with or without a signal. Hands should be on the break levers and one should be prepared to stop more or less on dime if need be, which may require slowing down prior to entering the intersection. If there is a right-hook potential slow down to at least 10 mph, that should give you the stopping and maneuvering space you might need. If there is a potential right-hooker on your left don’t proceed into the intersection unless you have a clear indication that the driver is yielding to you.

Now I’m going to repeat this again, I’m not blaming this cyclist for this collision. Despite the precautions I’m recommending it’s possible to still get caught by a right hook for a variety of reasons. My concern here isn’t to assign or reassign “fault”, I’m just suggesting some precautions. Without these precautions I would have been hit a couple dozen times in the last 47 years.

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Anatomy Of A Cycling Accident: Part One

Photo by Paul Udstand

Photo by Paul Udstand












As we swing into the height of summer tens of thousands of cyclists are hitting the streets and trails of America’s most bike friendly metro area (Minneapolis/St. Paul MN). This means it’s time for my annual blog about riding bicycles safely.

Every year I try to address different issues rather than repeat the same advice over and over, although sometimes I return to certain issues to discuss them in more detail or from a slightly different perspective. This year instead of enumerating a list of precautions I’ll discuss two real-life bicycle accidents and the safety issues surrounding them. Both accidents are hit-and-runs from the streets of Minneapolis. I’ll do this in two parts, one accident in the blog, and a second accident in a subsequent blog.

Let me just say clearly at the outset that I’m not in any way suggesting that the cyclist are “at fault”, or responsible for these accidents. “Fault” is a legal question, it’s about liability, I’m not even interested in “fault” (I want to talk about safety) and since I didn’t witness these accidents (the examples are drawn from the web) I’m simply in no position to assign fault or liability in any event. What I can do is look the accidents and see what lessons could be learned in general terms. I’m not offering a judgment of any kind regarding these specific collisions, I’m examining these collisions in general terms.

I’m redacting anything that might identify the accidents or the riders involved because these aren’t personal criticisms of individual riders and I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to rise to their own defense. I also don’t want to turn anyone into targets of derision for those who DO tend to attack cyclists whenever there’s a collision on our streets.

The first accident was a frightening hit and run on pleasant summer evening, as described by an eye witness: (Edited for continuity)

“Based on my Google maps directions, the route (required a one block ride) on Central Ave.

… We turned on to Central, and started to signal to turn left onto REDACTED. We saw an SUV in the distance, but it was so far back they clearly should have seen us as we both had our rear lights on and Central is well lit. We were biking side by side to take the lane before our turn. The SUV sped up.

Before I really knew what was happening, the SUV had hit REDACTED from behind… she and her bike were dragged for half a block. The SUV did not slow down and did not swerve at all. She was tumbling like a rag doll on the ground and the SUV almost ran over her with its back tires. Finally, she came to rest in the middle of the intersection at which we were intending to turn.”

In this instance the cyclist was not seriously injured, and as far as I know the driver that ran her over was never found.

Can we examine this collision and make any safety observations or suggestions for other cyclists? I repeat, the issue we’re considering is safety, not “fault”.

Let’s begin at the beginning with the route selection. You’ll notice that the cyclists used “Google” to determine their route, and their route put them on a major traffic avenue for one block. In previous bike safety blogs I’ve suggested that route selection is a basic precaution for cyclists. As a general rule I’ve recommend avoiding high traffic streets and thoroughfares. Whenever possible use parallel lower traffic streets. Even if there is some specific allowance for cyclists (like a dedicated lane) it might be better to avoid a high traffic route altogether. For instance despite the fact that cyclists are given explicit permission to take the whole lane along some stretches of University Ave., I’d recommend staying off University as much as possible.

I don’t know what kind of algorithms Google uses to determine the best “bicycle” routes, but we may not be able to trust Googles judgment in all cases. If we look at a map of the area we see that there’s actually a more direct route that would keep a rider off of Central except for a crossing (represented by the green line). It might be safer to simply cross a street than ride along and then make a left hand turn.

Map Courtesy of "Google Maps"

Map Courtesy of “Google Maps”

I wasn’t there at the time so maybe the green route wasn’t actually viable for some reason (Maybe it was blocked or tore up for construction for instance) but all things being equal it can be helpful to step back on a map and look the bigger picture rather than focus on the recommended route.  There’s a form of target fixation that can have adverse effects on map readers.

In this particular case I’m clearly picking nits, a short ride for one block on one street or another wouldn’t dramatically decrease any risk in most situations. I’m introducing a basic principle about selecting routes more than making a particular suggestion regarding this particular bike ride. The point is cyclists make choices about routes and alternatives are worth consideration.

We’re told that the riders saw the SUV but judged that it was far enough away as to not represent a danger. The hit and run happened around 9:00pm in the middle of the summer, so while it wasn’t “dark” it might have been twilight conditions.  The only reason I mention this is because human perceptions may have contributed to this collision.

Under the best conditions it can be very difficult to assess the speed of something that’s approaching or moving away from you on a direct line of attack or retreat, especially if it’s a quick glance while you’re turning. You need reference points to judge speed and those can be impossible to locate when something is coming more or less directly at you. This is something to think about because the witness says the SUV sped up; maybe it did but it’s also possible that the cyclists misjudged the SUVs approaching speed.

From the SUV drivers perspective it’s possible that he or she also misjudged the speed at which they were approaching the cyclists, especially if they were impaired (most likely by alcohol) or distracted for even just a few moments by a cell phone or navigation computer etc.

It’s even possible that the SUV driver didn’t realize they had bicycles in front of them instead of a car. If we read the witness statement carefully we know that the cyclists were riding side by side in the middle of the block, in the middle of the lane. You’re actually not supposed to do that in general. Cyclists are supposed to ride as far to the right as is practicable, and in single file.

Note the witness uses the phrase: take the lane, i.e.: “We were biking side by side to take the lane before our turn.” This kind of terminology might be derived from the practice of Vehicular Riding. I’ve written somewhat extensively about vehicular riding, you can check that out here.

I can’t say for sure that these riders were “Bike Driving” based on a turn of phrase in a brief account but I have mentioned in previous blogs that I think vehicular riding is a bad idea that puts riders in unnecessary danger. Vehicular riders would recommend that cyclists ride in the traffic lane rather than next to it on the right. Rather than staying right, and waiting for the SUV to drive by or reassessing it’s closing speed once reaching the corner, the vehicular rider “takes” the same lane the SUV is in (by riding out into it). The theory is that drivers will modify their behavior in accordance with the presence of a cyclist in their lane. In theory this may work… until a driver fails to modify their driving in accordance with the presence of a cyclist in their lane.

So some degree vehicular riding styles are contrary to actual State law which requires cyclists ride as far to the right as is practicable. On the other hand, the maneuver described here is perfectly legal as far as I know because few if any intersections in these United States are designed for left hand turns by cyclists. The lack of any standardized cycling infrastructure within intersections puts cyclists in a position wherein the have to choose the best strategy for any given intersection at a given time.

In the diagram here you can see the red line which represents (although not to scale) the path that our cyclist took. The green line is an alternative that keeps the rider to the right until just before the turn. The Blue line is a yet another alternative using a modified pedestrian style approach that puts you in the correct lane on the corner of the cross street prior to crossing the main thoroughfare. In cases where there’s heavy traffic I would probably use the “blue” alternative, especially if the intersection is controlled by traffic lights.

Left turn on a bicycle

I’m not recommending any particular approach, although I personally would avoid the red route. My point isn’t so much that one method is safer than the other; my point is that cyclists have choices, the best left hand turn method at 3:00 in the afternoon may not be the best method at the exact same intersection five hours later. Safe riding is about making the best choice at a given moment under the circumstances at hand. I’m not saying these cyclists made the wrong choice, I just want to illustrate the number of choices we can actually have, from avoiding a left hand turn altogether to different ways of making the left hand turn.

Returning to the collision we know that the cyclists had red rear lights on, while that certainly should have made them more visible, it might also have contributed to the illusion that they were car or truck, instead of two cyclists riding side by side. We don’t know if the lights were flashing (they should have been) or the flash rate. It is conceivable that an inattentive driver could glance up at the just the right moment and see two red lights in the lane in front of him (at some distance) think they were seeing the tail lights of a car. This could contribute the collision because a car would be traveling at much higher speeds relative to the SUV and the driver wouldn’t expect the distance close nearly so quickly. A distracted or impaired driver would be even more prone to perceptual error and could be on top of the bikes before they realized it.

Again, none of this could possibly transfer any responsibility for this hit and run to the cyclists. No matter where you ride your bike, drivers are not entitled to run you down. And no responsible attentive driver could possibly approach and run over a cyclist in the middle of any road. These riders didn’t dart out in front of the SUV, they were there and visible for blocks. Any driver should see anything on the road in front of them and correctly identify it and avoid a collision, the road directly in front of you is after where your attention is supposed to be directed when you’re driving.

So the general observations I think we can illustrate with this collision are: A) Select routes carefully, don’t over-rely on a cycling app; consider traffic volume and other factors. B) Beware of perceptual glitches that can adversely affect assumptions about speed and time, i.e. you may not have as much time as you think you do. C) Never assume a driver sees you or will see you. Drivers run into to everything from pedestrians to trees thousands of times a day in this country, a person on a bicycle is no exception. And finally: D) “Expert” cycling isn’t about mastering recommended techniques, like “taking” lanes, or using a particular method to make left hand turns. Expertise and safe riding are about choosing the best method or route for a particular situation at a particular time. This collision illustrates that even on a quiet evening with little or no traffic cyclists have choices and alternatives to be considered.

The next collision we’ll look at is a classic “right hook” collision. Stay tuned.

You can browse my previous cycling blogs here

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Bringing My Lai Home: America’s Rifle and Ordinary Massacres

Photo by Ron Haeberle. Official US Army Photograher. My Lai, March 16, 1968.

Photo by Ron Haeberle. Official US Army Photograher. My Lai, March 16, 1968.

According to the script of Francis Ford Coppola’s: “Apocalypse Now”; US troops in Viet Nam practiced a form of mental gymnastics whereby they eased their consciences after shooting someone in half by giving them a Band-Aid. As I watch my country process the latest mass shooting it occurs to me that in a very real sense Americans brought the mental gymnastics and massacres of Viet Nam home in the form of the M-16 assault rifle.

The “civilian” version of the M-16 (AR-15) has become “America’s Rifle” according the NRA and there are more of these rifles in the hands of American civilians now than were the hands of US military personnel in during the Viet Nam war. The killers of Columbine, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, and Orlando used AR-15s and these are our My Lai massacres.

As we prepare to bury another 49 victims of yet another massacre, we’re also busy performing our Viet Nam War mental gymnastics. Our 24 hour news cycle is busy recycling the same shallow “analysis” and viewers nationwide are responding with the same “heartfelt” sorrow but nobody anywhere is or has actually done anything that could realistically prevent such massacres from happening… so they keep happenng.

Once again a crazy person got hold of a assault weapon and used it to commit mass murder. By “crazy” I don’t just mean mentally ill, I think politically or religiously motivated terror attacks are their own kind of crazy whether the attacker is diagnosable or not.

Once again talking heads are all over the media talking about crazy people: Who are they? Where do they come from? How did they get their guns? How do they choose their targets? Were they acting alone? As if asking these questions can or will prevent future massacres, as if we can convert psychobabble into bullet proof vests.

Listen: Crazy people just are, and they always will be. There is no study or screening process, or background check, or database that can or will reliably identify all crazy people. Furthermore a plethora of seriously legitimate problems with any scientific attempt to identify crazy people, not to mention human rights and privacy problems associated with such attempts, make any such project an exercise in futility. The truth is a person can be perfectly sane one year and mad as a hatter the next for a variety of reasons ranging from drug abuse to PTSD, and every “radicalized” person was once… not radical.

When are you going to do your screening and studying and understanding and whom are going to choose to screen, and study, and understand? What are we going to do; screen everyone over the age of ten every six months for their entire lives? Screen them with what? Screen them FOR what? And then what are you going do? You’re gonna create a big national data base of crazy people and put them on exclusion lists of some kind? We can’t even manage our TSA No-Fly lists and you think THIS is how we’re going to stop massacres? Need I remind you that in several of the last mass shootings the murderers either did or would have passed background checks and FBI investigations?

Hey, several science fiction writers just called and they want their plots back.

Studying these attackers and their attacks might have some intellectual value but as far as preventing further attacks is concerned I can tell you what we need to know right now… these people should never get their hands on assault weapons. The difference between England and the US isn’t that we have more crazy people. The difference is that crazy people in England don’t have assault weapons.

The solution isn’t some kind of magic “profile” that we can use to keep assault weapons out of the hands of crazy people. Whack-A-Mole may be a fun arcade game but it’s a poor excuse for security. The solution is keeping assault weapons out of anyone’s hands. The truth is no one actually needs these weapons outside of the military so trying to discern who should or shouldn’t have them is a fool’s errand, no one should have them.  We simply need to ban the sale of these weapons and create a program to buy them back from civilians who realize they don’t need or want them anymore.

The problem isn’t making a sales ban (We had a sales ban, we can make another one), the problem is deciding to make one. All these big crocodile tears, and flags at half mast, and vigils, and moments of silence are just Band-Aids assuaging our collective conscience. The truth is we’ve decided that having assault weapons is more important than the lives of children, dancers, co-workers, clinic workers, and even loved ones.  We’ve witnessed one massacre after another and have done nothing to stop them, we just apply Band-Aids afterwards. Sure massacres are awful, but I guess we can live with them as long as we get to keep our AR-15s and Glocks, that’s the choice we’ve made.

So I have to say I’m no longer impressed with the tears and prayers and other Band-Aids we offer up after every massacre. Hey, you made your choice, so now either make yourself comfortable with that choice… or pull your head out of your ass and make a different choice!

If you’re interested in what the nuts and bolts of a workable assault weapon ban might look like, I’ve outlined an example here.

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Going Off the Rails With the Second Amendment. Part 6: It’s Time to Ban Assault Weapons

Fargo teen's graduation photo sporting gun get rejected. Story Minneapolis Star Tribune. Photo: Melissa Baasch.

Fargo teen’s graduation photo sporting gun. Story Minneapolis Star Tribune. Photo: Melissa Baasch.

It would be nice to say that two horrific and nearly back to back mass shootings the latest mass shooting in Orlando Florida* in the United States recently shattered a national sense of complacency but alas, these shootings have become all too common.

Back in January of 2013 I wrote a five part series on the Second Amendment and gun violence in the United States. It was supposed to be a six part series at the time but being the primary “boss of me” here at Thoughtful Bastards I decided to wave off on the sixth installment. I sensed some fatigue among my readers at the time and frankly, I knew there would plenty of opportunity in the future to write this installment. Sadly, one can always be certain that another mass shooting will take place in the United States if one is waiting for a relevant context to discuss gun control.  If you want to review the entire original series you can visit it here.

This blog is longer than I like my blogs to be, but it’s a complex issue and I can’t figure out how to neatly break it up for several reasons. I’ve written several other pieces that support and dovetail with this writing, but I think it would be disruptive for the reader to have to look to flip back and forth between this article and others, I think a single (an albeit long) stand alone piece rather than collection links is an easier read in the long run. Besides, as long as this is, it’s shorter than all the related blogs combined. Consequently I’ve elected to include short summaries here, with links to the more in depth blogs.

Yet another factor contributing to the length of blog is subject matter itself. The whole issue of gun control and the arguments that revolve around are difficult summarize. For me, this not new territory, I’ve been to this dance before and basic criticisms and arguments tend to arise with all the predictability of the sun’s orbit so I’ve decided to anticipate and respond to the more predictable criticisms rather than battle them out in comments. So without further ado.

Let me start briefly summarize the two most important findings from the original series:

First, it’s important to understand that the NRA and gun manufacturers have had great success in the last two decades creating the false impression that the Second Amendment effectively prevents any serious measures of gun control. This false impression is based on a legal fiction that the Second Amend grants individuals the right to own and use almost any of kind of gun. Unfortunately this legal fiction exists not only in the minds of many Americans but also as a political reality of sorts. Quoting myself:

“The short story regarding the Second Amendment is that it was NOT meant to bestow the individual right to own a gun in the United States. The Second Amendment was about creating and maintaining State Militias and equipping them for the common defense. Primarily the Amendment was about reassuring slave states that Federal government wouldn’t interfere with their ability to suppress slave rebellions. Over the centuries the historical and legal realities of the Second Amendment have diverged. Contrary to the historical reality, the legal reality is that the Second Amendment currently guarantees some individual rights to own guns.  However the exact nature of those rights and what kinds of guns they may apply to remains murky.”

Looking beyond the Second Amendment per se, the sheer number guns in the United State creates a plethora of civilian carnage on a scale not found anywhere else in the world. The most unique and deadly characteristics of the US gun culture is mass murder typically carried out with assault weapons, i.e. weapons who’s primary design was for use in wartime combat. You can read my extensive review of mass killings here. In summary, it’s not the just number of guns, but the type of guns Americans  possess that contributes to the carnage.

It’s important to understand these critical findings because they provide the foundation for effective gun control. The fact is that we’ve long since passed the point where we should have placed an effective ban of some kind on assault weapons in the United State. We did have an assault rifle ban of sorts on the books from 1994-2004 but it was riddled with loopholes and consequently did little to slow down ownership or prevent mass killings. Although one should note that since the US Congress let that limited ban “sunset” in 2004 we have seen a nearly explosive increase in mass shootings and casualties. Even a limited ban can produce significant results.

Before discussing the ban itself I feel the need to point out that assault weapons are not the only deadly problem that arise from our gun culture in the United States. Any discussion about gun control needs to start with the basic realization that guns are in fact incredibly dangerous weapons. If that proposition looks weird in print that’s only because groups like the NRA and the firearm manufacturers have largely succeeded with an incredibly effective campaign that obscures the inherently dangerous nature of guns. Millions of Americans would tell us that guns are actually “perfectly safe” as long as users know what they’re doing. Recent expansions of “Castle Doctrines” like the one that legalized the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012 and the explosion of conceal and carry permits are all based on the premise that guns are inherently safe.

The truth is that guns by they’re very essence are incredibly dangerous and specifically designed to deliver instantaneous and irrevocable lethal force and they do so at an alarming rate. If guns were any other product most of them would have been pulled off the shelves long ago much the same way Lawn Darts were.

The inherently dangerous nature of guns cannot be eliminated with training or familiarity. Whether it be cops accidently shooting themselves in classrooms while teaching gun safety, or lifelong hunters dropping their rifles and shooting themselves in their deer stands, every year thousands of Americans accidently shoot themselves or someone else and hundreds are killed. Guns are dangerous, period. The chances of someone in your home dying a violent death increase dramatically if there’s a gun in the home. Over 80,000 people a year are killed or injured with guns in the US. So far this year 43 toddlers have shot themselves or someone else in the United States, this is a unique American phenomena. If we step back from accidents and look at homicides the public danger of guns multiplies dramatically. According to the CDC 500 people were killed with guns by accident in 2013 while over 11,000 were murdered.

Now the fact that guns are dangerous doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be allowed to have them, lots of things are dangerous, but the notion that guns are “safe” simply has to go away. We cannot begin a rational discussion about guns from an incoherent starting point. We need start with common sense acknowledgement that guns are dangerous. Beyond that we need recognize the fact that some guns are killing far more people in mass shootings than others, and should be banned.

Why Assault Weapons?

If all guns are dangerous you ask, why am I’m focusing on assault weapons? As I pointed out in Part Five of my previous installments the massive presence of assault weapons in civilian hands has led to a dramatic public safety crises that is unique to this country.  The US has at least five times more mass shooting than any other country in the world and accounts for 31% of the worlds mass shootings despite only holding 5.1% of the world’s population. (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 3 2015) Between 1982 and 2012 103 of 142 guns used in those mass shootings were assault weapons (Mother Jones, Feb. 27 2013).

While high numbers of accidental shootings and “ordinary” homicides are certainly legitimate problems, those problems are actually far more complex than mass shootings requiring more complex responses.  Conversely, mass shooting can be attacked with a relatively simple ban of a specific class of guns in the short term.  Other strategies could be developed to reduce other types of gun violence, deaths, and injuries, in the longer term.

What’s An Assault Weapon?

Time to get down to it: Any ban of anything requires a working definition of the thing to banned, and a workable definition of: “Assault Weapons” is critical. One can quickly become mired in miasma of minutiae when attempting to define assault weapons. In fact bogging people down in minutiae has been a favored and successful gun lobby tactic for decades. It’s funny, here we have the most recognizable gun designs in the history of firearms and for some reason gun “experts” can’t recognize an assault weapon when they see one? If you delve into the business of identifying an “assault rifle” for instance online you find a dizzying collection of websites (both pro and anti- gun control groups) discussing everything from flash suppressors, to pistol grips, to magazine capacity. Frankly, I think that’s all a waste of time and that’s exactly what the gun lobby wants us to do, waste our time trying to decide whether or not “assault weapons” fit their latest iterations of mostly cosmetic details.

Assault weapon enthusiasts know that if they limit the definition of an assault weapon to for instance, anything identical to whatever specifications the Pentagon is currently using to purchase guns for the military, no ban can possibly be effective. If we’re serious about creating effective assault weapon bans, we can’t let those who oppose bans define the nature of assault weapons. We need a definition that works, and is enforceable.

My definition is broader than those typically proposed. You notice I’ve been referring to assault “weapons” rather than rifles for instance, that’s because I include semi-automatic pistols, .50 Caliber rifles (other than mussel loaders), and tactical shotguns. So what definition brings all these guns under one umbrella? To wit:

“For the purposes of this ban an assault weapon is any firearm resembling a weapon designed for military combat after the year 1890”

I say keep it simple. The fact is that the primary characteristic that makes these guns so lethal has nothing to do with individual features like pistol grips or large capacity magazines, the primary feature is that they are/were designed to take into combat and kill enemy soldiers in the greatest numbers with the greatest possible efficiency at the time. These guns were not designed for hunting, or personal defense, or target shooting, they are designed for combat and removing a selector switch here or there doesn’t change that fundamental essence.

Individual features gun enthusiasts like to argue about are actually by and large irrelevant. For instance historically a “full automatic” capability has not been a universal requirement for military assault weapons. The Belgian FN FAL (L1A1 battle rifle) is deployed by militaries all over the world, and was the standard combat weapon throughout NATO for over a decade. Some versions of the L1A1 had three round burst options, but most were limited to single shots. Some M-1 carbines had full auto capacity, some did not. Likewise the US M-14 originally had a full automatic option but the gun was so unwieldly in full automatic mode troops were ordered not to use it in Viet Nam and some cases the switches were actually disabled. Even the M16 was frequently limited to semi-auto rather than full auto operation in practice. With a rate of fire of 800 rounds per minute one could almost empty an M-16 clip before getting a finger off the trigger. Unless you want your troops to run out of ammo in the first two minutes of a firefight you don’t let them expend rounds like that.

Its important to remember that our purpose is not to buy weapons for our troops, we’re classifying to-be-banned military style weapons that have few if any civilian applications.

For instance many people may be surprised to learn that the majority if AR-15 (M-16) rifles with the military 5.56mm (.223) chambers (The vast majority of such weapons being sold in the US) can’t actually be used to hunt anything much larger than a wild boar, they’re actually limited for the most part to small game that you could shoot way way way cheaper with a .22. You wouldn’t want to shoot something like a rabbit with AR-15 anyways unless you like to see small animals explode. Likewise while the AK-47 (AK-74) variant’s fire a legal caliber for large game (7.62), these guns are a poor choice for hunting. AK-74s  are not known for their accuracy, they’re cumbersome to carry around in the woods, and big game hunters usually want to kill an animal with a single shot if they can (A bullet ridden hide is not what most hunters aspire to). There’s no practical hunting advantage of a riffle that can fire 20-30 rounds per minute at moose or elk whether it’s a AK-74 or a AR-15 firing a larger caliber round. This is why you see few if any deer hunters carrying assault rifles in the woods and fields of MN, or any other state during hunting season.

Ironically assault weapons are also a poor choice for self or home defense. Any gun enthusiast worth their salt will tell you a decent assault rifle (they may call it a “sport” rifle) ought to be secured unloaded in a gun safe because they’re prime targets for home burglary. An unloaded AR-15 locked up in a safe isn’t exactly going to be at your finger-tips if a “bad guy” bursts through the door and invades your house. Even if you could get to your assault rifle in an emergency such weapons are not well suited for close quarter action like that inside a typical home. Of course one cannot conveniently carry a loaded assault rifle around in public or at work on a daily basis for obvious reasons. The practical effect of owning an assault rifle is to increase the odds of being burgled, aside from simply “having” one, there’s they’re very impractical and expensive guns.

A pistol of some kind would make the most sense for home or personal defense, but here again, a semi-automatic military weapon is the poorest choice.  In theory a semi-automatic pistol could be safer than a revolver for instance because it may require two steps to fire, you have to chamber a round AND disengage a safety. In reality thousands of people a year accidently shoot themselves and others with semi-automatic pistols because they don’t realize there’s a live round in the chamber. Everyone from toddlers to Police Chiefs and DEA weapons instructors ends up shooting themselves because they either failed to clear the chamber after firing or forgot they chambered a round in the first place. Did I mention… guns are dangerous?

Large capacity magazines are more likely to accommodate heroic fantasies than actual self defense scenarios. Any self defense scenario you encounter is likely to last a few moments and be over (one way or another) in short order. The odds of getting into prolonged gun battles with bad guys in your living room or on a street corner are practically nil.

Likewise tactical shotguns, and .50 caliber rifles have no real civilian applications. Hunters have been bringing down ducks and pheasants for decades without 20 round drum fed semi-automatic short barrel shotguns designed for close quarter combat. Nor do hunters need ( or use) a .50 caliber weapon first introduced as an anti-tank weapon by the Germans in WW-I… to hunt elk. Few if any hunters “engage” targets at 2,000 yards (over a mile away).

The point is a ban on these weapons isn’t going to have any kind of detrimental effect on hunting or self -defense in the United States. So even if you’re worried about some ancient right to hunt or defend yourself you’ll have plenty of options, and those other options are actually better suited for hunting and self-defense.

Just a quick note because I know someone will bring this up (they always do);  you can claim we need assault weapons in civilian hands as some kind of “check” against government oppression should the need arise but:

1) That is to admit that these are assault weapons that you in fact intend to deploy in combat against the government if need be. You can’t have it both ways, deny that these are military combat weapons and then tell us you need to them to combat the military should our “freedom” ever be threatened by the government.

2) Democracy and the rule of law protect our freedoms, not guns. Not once in over 200 years has our democracy been rescued by gun wielding civilian freedom fighters. In fact, our constitution specifically classifies gun wielding civilians who attack the government as treason. Do not delude yourself that you and the gun in your closet are, have, or ever will, defend our liberties. There is NOTHING in the US Constitution, or in any court ruling to support the idea that armed insurrection is some kind of “fail safe” for our democracy. The idea that the guy walking around Walmart with a AR-15 slung around his shoulder is protecting our “liberty” is simply an idiotic fantasy.

The Ban Itself

What does the ban itself look like? Here it is:

“The sale or purchase of assault weapons (as defined above) by anyone not legally authorized to take part in such transactions in the United States of America is hereby prohibited.”

Who is “authorized” to buy or sell assault weapons? 1) The US government and State and Local law enforcement agencies. 2) Gun collectors who are licensed yearly, register their complete collections, and limited to no more than two identical examples of the same weapon. Collections need to be securely stored and cannot be transported without permit. 3) Registered gun clubs. The primary appeal of these guns is that they’re fun to shoot, there’s no denying that, so let people shoot in relatively safe and secure environments under some semblance of supervision. Any gun club with assault weapons would need to secure those weapons, keep them onsite at all times, and obtain an annual permit.

How Does This Ban Actually Work?    

First you’ll notice that sales are banned, not ownership. That’s because Millions of Americans have thus far legally purchased assault weapons and I think criminalizing ownership is just too problematic. Criminalization of possession creates a whole new list of issues like whether or not or how to confiscate guns, and I just don’t think we should go there. A ban would almost certainly be challenged in court and I think we’d do well to avoid certain search and seizure issues. What we would do is create a federal buy-back program for those who finally realize how silly it is to have these guns and want to get rid of them. If I had my way we’d pay for it out of the defense budget because I really do think this is a national defense issue.

As I’ve already outlined, this ban is does not depend on definitions comprised of a specific and detailed description of an assault weapon, but rather a straightforward recognition of basic similarities. Recognition would fall on a group of people who would simply make a judgment, a jury of sorts that would determine the status of individual weapons. We already have models for this, the FDA, FCC, SEC, for instance have commissions that enforce legislation. One advantage to commissions is they provide a framework of due process thereby rendering the process Constitutional, you could build an appeal process of some kind into this, but you’d want to set a high bar so gun manufactures couldn’t tie up the process indefinitely with frivolous challenges (something they will surely do if they can). And of course you’d come out of the gate a predetermined list of assault weapons but you wouldn’t be limited to that list.

How does the panel recognize an assault weapon when they see it? It’s actually very simple, it requires no magnifying glasses or list of components, all you really need to do is look at weapons designed for military use, and then look at the gun in question, frankly, anyone could do it…. Look:


Photo: Wiki Commons

Many historians trace the modern assault rifle to this gun, the WW-II German Sturmgewehr 44 or StG 44. Just look at it, this weapon was designed for combat use by the German Army. Photo: Wiki Commons

Does an assault rifle have to have a pistol grip and a big magazine? No.

Here’s a Chinese type 56 designed for combat use by the Chinese Army (And issued to the Viet Cong) Photo Wiki Commons

Here’s a Chinese type 56 designed for combat use by the Chinese Army (And issued to the Viet Cong) Photo Wiki Commons

The US M-14 didn’t have a pistol grip either:

The M-14 started out as an assault rifle but transitioned into a sniper rifle used the US military for decades. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Charles B. Johnson, U.S. Army. (Released)

The M-14 started out as an assault rifle but transitioned into a sniper rifle used by the US military for decades. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Charles B. Johnson, U.S. Army. (Released)

Does an assault rifle have to have a “full-automatic” option? No.

Here’s an L1A1 Belgian Assault Rifle issued by military's all over the world, semi-automatic single shot. Photo Wiki commons

Here’s an L1A1 Belgian Assault Rifle issued by military’s all over the world,  it’s  a semi-automatic. Photo Wiki commons

What about pistols? Here’s a Colt 1911 semi-automatic pistol developed for the US Army next to a Glock

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons









Just in case you think you change the style a little here’s a Colt next to a Lugar:

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

Here’s a .50 caliber rifle, basically an assault rifle with a 50 caliber chamber:

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

You could make a bolt action version but that would be derived from the German Mauser T-Gewehr

Here’s a tactical shotgun:

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

And of course we have the ubiquitous AR-15 (M-16) and current military issue M-4

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

The idea that a manufacturer can produce any of these weapons in a different caliber, without a bayonet mount, or with a different selector switch, or stock, or whatever, and call it a completely different weapon is obviously ridiculous, so we just don’t go there. Furthermore it doesn’t matter whether it’s a carbine, or a rifle, side arm, or shotgun.  Nor does it matter whether or not it’s a “new” design. If it’s a gun that looks like an assault weapon, it’s an assault weapon.  Our definition doesn’t require that a proposed civilian model be “identical” to a military version, just that its basic design be derived from a military weapon.  That derivation is determined by simple observation, not a list of components. If you start seeing “bull pup” designs in the gun shops, you’re looking at an assault weapon, this weapon was designed for military use, not plinking squirrels:

Styer AUG A1 508mm

Bull Pup design assault “Carbine”. Photo: Wiki Commons

These guns are distinctive and their origins are not disputed. No gun derived from any of these designs is difficult to recognize.

Even if (and it wouldn’t surprise me if they did) a manufacturer were to claim that any resemblance between their new gun and military assault weapon is purely coincidental, it doesn’t matter. Our ban doesn’t require that the commission prove “intent”, it just requires a visual comparison. So if you claim that your designers never saw a Bull Pup and came up with the design on their own by coincidence… that’s just an unfortunate coincidence for you and your company.  The commission doesn’t have to prove that designers looked a military weapon and derived their design from it, they simply look at your weapon.

Now a quick word about high capacity magazines; some people think that we could keep buying and selling these guns if we just limited the magazine size to 6 or 8 bullets. I’m not saying smaller magazines are a bad idea but we have to stop playing whack-a-mole. We have millions of these weapons in the hands of millions of Americans, probably billions of rounds of ammunition, and tens of millions of high capacity magazines or (clips) out there. No matter what kind of low capacity magazine you sell with an assault weapon, people will be able to get their hands on high capacity magazines one way or another for decades to come. And if we make manufacturers re-design guns to only accept new low capacity magazines, rest assured that work-arounds of a various kinds will be developed regardless of legality.

Why Now?

I think Americans might finally be getting fed up with these mass shootings and while support for bans waxes and wanes I think we can make a strong argument that people will support. I think the time might be ripe to cut though the NRA haze and have a intelligent and coherent discussion about gun regulations. Furthermore, I think the ban I’ve designed could get passed the current Supreme Court. It’s not an outright ban on all guns and it addresses a clear public health and security problem.

We might draw some confidence from the fact that the Supreme Court recently let stand an assault weapon ban in Highland Park Illinois.

In Columbia v. Heller the Justices wrote:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose…”

The bases of the ban is that assault weapons fall into the category of “any weapon whatsoever” and constitute a public danger that far outweighs any potential benefits related to personal defense. Banning these weapons in no way renders citizens helpless in face of danger, yet the ban may prevent attacks on civilians by people armed with military weapons.

Another advantage to this kind of ban is that we don’t have to wait for Congress, such bans can be fashioned on a local basis and the Supreme Court has signaled a reluctance to strike such bans down.

The gun culture in the United States has created a huge monster that will haunt us for decades no matter what. I would offer no illusions that the ban I’m proposing would produce an immediate end to mass shootings, millions of these weapons are already out there and will be for decades even with a ban. The fact remains that until we fundamentally shift our focus and national discussion from dystopic fantasies that revolve around zombie apocalypses and social disintegration the carnage will continue and accelerate. It’s time to put gun lobby nonsense aside and realize that we have options, we’re not helpless, we CAN actually DO something.

*Note: This Article was originally posted in December of 2015 and has been updated in light of the June 12th, 2016 massacre in Orlando FL.



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Sexism Is More Than An Accusation: Who Gets to Say We’re Sexists?

Photo by George Hodan Public Domain.

Photo by George Hodan Public Domain.

I’ve been watching and participating in the liberal/progressive debate over Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for months. As a Sanders supporter and a writer/reporter I’ve now had many conversations and arguments about the merits of the two candidates over the last few months. I’m not going to re-enact the debate here but I’m prepared to make some observations.

Sanders and his supporters have launched a barrage of accusations most of which have had the staying power of a dairy product, however one accusation that keeps emerging and reemerging is a “sexism” claim, i.e. Sanders supporters are almost inherently sexist. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill recently renewed this accusation by claiming that Sanders would never question a man’s qualifications. In fact I don’t think we’d wait very long before qualifications would become an issue in a general election battle between Trump and Sanders. You can watch the McCaskill/Sanders “Meet the Press” segment here:  NBC News Meet The Press

Previously I’ve refuted the actual charge of sexism as it pertains to Sanders and most of his supporters, you can read that here:  “Are ‘Bernie-Bros’ Really Clinton’s Big Problem?” But today I want to look at a different claim that is related to the charge of “sexism”, namely that only women get to recognize and denounce sexism when they see it. An excellent example of this kind of reasoning recently appeared on my Facebook Newsfeed.

“As a white person I never tell people of color what is and is not racism. I could not even imagine having the audacity to do such a thing. I also recognize that there may actually be situations in which I’m unable to grasp subtle racism at play. I accept the notion that although I may not see it or understand it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. When that occurs, it’s a learning opportunity for me. I am also aware that my white privilege makes me racist. This is something I try to be conscious about. This is why it’s astonishing to me when some men will not only tell me they are not sexist, but dictate to me what defines it and what does not–all without realizing that doing so–is sexism.”

Over last few weeks this proposition has popped up in a lot different ways in various articles and comments, basically repeating a basic premise that we have to remember that “guys” don’t get to decide what “sexism” is. In this case the proposition is buttressed with a comparison to “racism”.

You may notice I’ve been putting “sexism” and “racism” in quotes, that’s because I want to denote the fact that we’re talking about different concepts of racism and sexism, one that is little more than an irrefutable insult to be charged by infallible observers (i.e. women or people of color) but there’s another concept of racism and sexism that civil rights activists and feminist intellectuals have been developing for decades.

One thing is absolutely clear, neither civil rights leaders nor the women’s movement or the feminist project have sought to create a race or gender specific language or discourse that only women or people of color can speak. The idea that the concept of sexism depends on infallible observers (See below) is almost an insult to feminist intellect. In many ways the feminist project has been about creating a genderless discourse that emphasizes inherent human qualities rather than inherent gender qualities. This is one reason that feminists have been out in front of the LGBT struggle.

The concept of sexism replaced other critiques of patriarchy (Such as chauvinism and patriarchal hegemony) in late 70s and early 80s because feminist were dealing with the realization that men are not the only reservoir of patriarchal oppression, consider a character like Michelle Bachmann for instance, or at the time Phyllis Schlafly. By breaking the critique of patriarchal privilege free from gender feminist created a concept that is based on public observations and has the capacity to recognize patriarchal privilege wherever and however it’s expressed. “Sexism” then becomes a concept that can seek social consensus and hence has much more power than a mere accusation leveled by one gender against the other. The whole point of the feminist project is to reveal and dismantle illegitimate gender based power structures, not create a new one based on a gender specific discourse.

While “sexism” is a feminist concept that has obviously been defined by women, it makes no sense to limit the discourse to women alone, and in fact many feminists intellectuals do not try to do that for obvious reasons.

Consider for instance the fact that my responsibility as man in a feminist project is to renounce whatever power or privilege I derive from my gender; how can I do that if I’m not allowed to recognize sexism when I see it? I have yet other responsibilities; I can not only renounce but also denounce gender based privilege, why would you want to prevent me from doing that?

The idea that only women can make such observations relies on the rational fallacy of an infallible observer, i.e. a woman and only a woman can render an observation about sexism. The problem with infallible observers is easy to see: Infallible observer 1. (Wendy) declares that something I’m doing is sexist. Then Infallible observer 2. (Brenda) declares that what I am doing is NOT sexist. There’s no way to resolve that, and feminist intellectuals long ago figured that out. By making sexism a publicly verifiable construct that everyone can recognize, renounce, and denounce, you multiply the number of observers and the socio-political power of the observation.

Consider an example from my personal life. My wife and I used to work at a hospital wherein my wife’s supervisor one day took my wife’s position away and gave it to a male employee. My wife filed a gender discrimination complaint that eventually compelled financial settlement from the employer. This was a blatant example is sexism, why should I not be able to recognize and denounce that and support my wife (or any other woman)? Furthermore, the supervisor perpetrating this sexism was a woman, and the investigator that decided it was illegal discrimination was a man. If we’re stuck with infallible female observers presumably the supervisor will say it’s not sexism and my wife will say it is and that’s the end of that. Again, there’s no way to resolve a disagreement among equally infallible observers.

Finally, we can recognize where this infallible observer language originates, it primarily emerges from a discourse about violence against women and other kinds of “victim” narratives. We have correctly observed that in assault cases and other forms of oppression thems doing the assaulting don’t get to decide whether or not they committed an assault. So for instance a child molester or a rapist doesn’t get to decide whether or not they molested or raped anyone. I’ll just assume we all agree on this.

Problems arise however if we take that principle and try to deploy it in a much broader discussion of sexism. Weird things can start to happen; a guy who thinks laundry is women’s work ends up in the same room as a gang rapist. More problematic is the universal reclassification of all women as “victims” of sexism on an existential level. A lot of feminists would object to that as destructive form of disempowerment. In our society “victims” are sheltered and protected, they receive special care.  Does a narrative that defines all women as inescapable victims empower women? Thanks for sending the women’s movement back to the 19th century. I think you try to apply a universal victim narrative to all women at your own peril, it’s not going to be universally embraced and it can be characterized as degrading under some circumstances.

We could go back and perform the same analysis for racism, but the results are the same. Neither civil rights leaders nor feminists have spent decades trying to create an irrefutable insult they can level at privilege. The whole point is to create a credible concept that expands rather than constricts understanding, recognition, and support.

As to who gets to make sexism and racism claims, it depends on your level of awareness and understanding of the concept, it can’t simply be a function of race or gender. Privilege can interfere with comprehension to be sure, but if you don’t think that people can recognize and renounce illegitimate power and privilege then no society based on equality and justice is conceivable, that might be nihilism, but it’s not feminism.

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