What I learned from Ferguson: Now’s the time to get the tanks off our streets and the money out of politics

    As the story in Ferguson continues to evolve, one thing has become clear to me… Now is the time to move against the increasingly militarization of America’s local police forces. The public awareness has never been higher, and, for the first time, I feel like momentum is on our side.

    Before we get into that, though, quite a bit has happened in Ferguson, Missouri since we last discussed the killing of Michael Brown. Not only do we now know the name of the officer who shot and killed the unarmed 18 year old, but we also have an increasing number of firsthand eyewitness accounts of the shooting. And, as of this morning, we have an autopsy report, which says that Brown was shot at least six times from the front, with the last shot entering through the top of his head, likely as he fell forward, toward the officer who was shooting at him.

    We also know from preliminary autopsy reports that Brown had marijuana in his system. In and of itself, that may not mean much, but, taken together with the fact that surveillance camera footage has surfaced which appears to show Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store and roughing up one of the store’s employees just prior to his altercation with police, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a growing acceptance of the fact that he wasn’t just a good kid walking to his grandmother’s house a few days before heading off to college, as we’d originally been led to believe. This isn’t, of course, to say that he should have been shot down. It merely adds a level of complexity to the story, which didn’t exist late last week, when the people of Ferguson began to rise up, only to be beaten back down by a police department equipped for war.

    As it stands, at least from my perspective, it would appear that the officer in question, Darren Wilson, likely acted out of anger, chasing Brown, and shooting at him, in spite of the fact that he was not in any immediate danger. (According to witnesses, Brown was fleeing the scene when the officer, who had been fighting with him through the window of his squad car, exited his vehicle and continued shooting, causing Brown to turn around, at which point he was shot several more times in the head and neck. (The shots to his arm, which can be seen in the medical examiner’s drawing below, were likely received as the two men fought through the window of the car.)) Of course, as of right now, no one really knows what happened. Hopefully, however, the investigation will be both thorough and transparent, and we’ll soon have a better sense of what took place that afternoon, and why. In the meantime, there are a few things that we know right now to be true.

    We know that a young, unarmed, black man has died at the hands of a white cop in a city that, despite being 67% black, only has three black police officers on a force of 53… a city in which 47% of young black men between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed. Furthermore, we know that the police of Ferguson, Missouri have been known to abuse black men in the past. And we know, since the shooting, that Ferguson’s police force has been hostile to outside observers, first keeping news helicopters from areas of citizen protest, and later going so far as to arrest reporters without cause and fire tear gas at news crews. Oh, and there are also the stories of the police threatening violence against reporters and denying access to reporters of color. And it’s all of these things, in my opinion, that are keeping the grass roots movement in Ferguson going. It’s not just about a young, unarmed black man being shot anymore. It’s about the growing income inequality in in this country, the growing disenfranchisement of the urban poor, the rise of the American police state, and any number of other things. Brown’s death may have been the spark, but it’s not what keeps the fire burning. If this were just about Brown’s death, I doubt we’d be reading today about how Amnesty International, for the first time in their history, made the decision to deploy trained observers within our country. This could well be the start of our Arab Spring, and the folks in power know it. And that, I suspect, is why the National Guard was called to Ferguson today.

    Here, with more on the broader context of the uprising in Ferguson, is a clip from the New Yorker.

    …The conversation here has shifted from the immediate reaction to Michael Brown’s death and toward the underlying social dynamics. Two men I spoke with pointed to the disparity in education funding for Ferguson and more affluent municipalities nearby. Another talked about being pulled over by an officer who claimed to smell marijuana in the car as a pretense for searching him. “I’m in the United States Navy,” he told me. “We have to take drug tests in the military so I had proof that there were no drugs in my system. But other people can’t do that.” Six black men I spoke to, nearly consecutively, pointed to Missouri’s felon-disfranchisement laws as part of the equation. “If you’re a student in one of the black schools here and you get into a fight you’ll probably get arrested and charged with assault. We have kids here who are barred from voting before they’re even old enough to register,” one said. Ferguson’s elected officials did not look much different than they had years earlier, when it was a largely white community.

    …More than one person in the streets of Ferguson has compared what is happening here to the chaotic days of the Birmingham desegregation campaign in 1963. And, like that struggle, the local authorities, long immune to public sentiment, were incapable of understanding how their actions reverberated outside the hermetic world where they held sway—how they looked to the world. That incomprehension was the biggest asset the protesters in Birmingham had. Michael Brown was left lying in the street for hours while a traumatized community stood behind police tape in frustration, grief, and shock: an immobile metaphor for everything that was wrong in Ferguson, Missouri…

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    Everything came together in Ferguson. To use a much overused analogy, it was the perfect storm. When you have an increasingly poor and desperate community under the authority of an increasingly militarized police force, it’s only a matter of time before there’s a clash. And, given the shifting demographics of America, it’s something we’re likely to see more and more of in this country. Fortunately, there are a few things we can do to make that less likely in the future. First, we can ensure that working people make a living wage. Second, we can roll back the tax breaks on the wealthy so that we can once again make education a national priority. Third, we can enact laws that incentivize companies to stay in the United States and create jobs here. And, fourth, we can stop our local police forces from becoming quasi military units. And, here, with more on that last point, is a clip from Vanity Fair.

    …As protesters around the country march in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, Missouri, politicians and the media are suddenly railing against the long-developing militarization of the American police force. But a revealing vote this past June shows just how uphill the battle is to stop the trend of turning police into soldiers. On June 19, progressive House Democrat Alan Grayson (FL) offered an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would block the “transfer” of “aircraft (including unmanned aerial vehicles), armored vehicles, grenade launchers, silencers, toxicological agents, launch vehicles, guided missiles, ballistic missiles” from the Department of Defense to state and local police forces.

    The amendment attracted the support of only 62 members, while 355 voted against it (14 didn’t vote). Included among those voting against it was Rep. William Lacy Clay (D), who represents Ferguson. Clay was joined by every senior member of the Democratic Party leadership team, including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (CA), Steny Hoyer (MD), and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (SC). Democrats did form the bulk of support for the amendment (with 43 votes in favor), with 19 Republicans supporting as well—led by libertarian-conservative Rep. Justin Amash (MI), who lamented that “military-grade equipment . . . shouldn’t be used on the street by state and local police” on his Facebook page…

    Biden was the author of the 1994 crime bill, which vastly increased the numbers of police on the streets, eliminated Pell grant access for prisoners, expanded the death penalty, and increased Border Patrol presence. This criminalization and militarization of Americans’ public-safety concerns has continued under President Obama. As Radley Balko writes, the Obama administration has increased the budget for Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and Byrne grants, both of which finance local police departments in their efforts to wage heavy-handed drug and crime war operations.

    All of this provides a windfall for both security and arms companies and police departments, who are often enormous spenders against reforms that would curtail the militarization of public safety. Hoyer is one of the two members who have received thousands of dollars from the National Fraternal Order of Police (F.O.P.) in this campaign cycle. As tensions continued to mount in Ferguson, F.O.P.’s executive director Jim Pasco defended the militarization of police officers. “All police are doing is taking advantage of the advances of technology in terms of surveillance, in terms of communication and in terms of protective equipment that are available to criminals on the street,” Pasco told The Hill on Thursday…

    Fortunately, we may have another chance to do the right thing. Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) is presently drafting a bill that would limit the transfer of military goods to America’s police forces. Here’s a clip from the Associated Press.

    …Johnson said city streets should be a place for businesses and families, “not tanks and M16s.” He said a Pentagon program that transfers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement has led to police agencies resembling paramilitary forces.

    “Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent,” Johnson said. He said his bill would limit the type of military equipment that can be transferred to law enforcement, and require states to certify they can account for all equipment received.

    The bill targets a 24-year-old military surplus program that transfers equipment from blankets to bayonets and tanks to police and sheriff’s departments across the country. An Associated Press investigation last year of the Defense Department program found that a large share of the $4.2 billion in surplus military gear distributed since 1990 went to police and sheriff’s departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime…

    Maybe I’m naive, but this seems to me like something that the Liberals and the Libertarians of America should be able to come together on. I know our politicians like the financial contributions that keep coming in from the military industrial complex, but I’d like to think that even they can look at the events in Ferguson and see that a line’s been crossed… No one, regardless of party affiliation, should want to see an America that looks like this.

    ferguson-missouri-9

    I know it’s a tall order, but it all comes back to campaign finance reform. That’s the key to it all. Until we can get the money out of politics, the heads of the Hydra we’re fighting will just keep growing back. For now, I’d be happy to have legislation passed that keeps military grade hardware out of the hands of America’s local police forces. In the future, though, we need to aim higher. We need to remove the money from American politics so that our elected officials begin to legislate with our interests in mind, and not those of the ruling 1%, who have an interest in selling military arms, closing down public schools, killing unions, and all of those other things that we’re so used to discussing on this site. I know it’s difficult, but we need to step back from the fight for a moment and focus on the money that keeps the Hydra alive, and not just the immediate threat posed by each of its heads. To you the analogy of Grover Norquist, we need to take a page from the conservative play book and starve the beast.

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

    The family photo that could get me into Congress

    This is the best picture we’ve ever taken as a family. Our friend Leisa Thompson took it about a year ago. For reasons that still aren’t quite clear to me, we were hanging out inside a giant piece of sculpture at the time. We had a print of it made, and it’s hanging upstairs, about six feet from where I’m tying this now. I’ve never thought seriously about running for public office, but it’s hard to look at it and not think, “I could win a Congressional race with this.”

    AnonymousFamilyPhoto2013

    I wonder if anyone’s ever run for office just because, by some quirk of fate, they’d taken an incredibly good family photo. I suspect they have.

    Even if I’d wanted to run for office, I couldn’t. I’ve said too much. Just a few weeks ago, I was standing in a group of a dozen or so people, explaining to them at there was nothing so ugly in all the world as an all-white baby. I was only half serious, of course, but I can see how my opponents might be tempted to take something like that and run with it. And then there was that unfortunate stretch, about ten years ago, when a shockingly large percentage of the posts here were about ball shaving. And I’m sure that’s just scratching the surface. If someone was really motivated to destroy me, who knows what they might find by digging through the archives of this site…

    update: On a whim, I spent ten minutes going through the archive, looking for things that could possibly derail a political career, and found, among other things, evidence of me begging a porn star to find me a writing job in the industry, and a watercolor that I’d done of my penis, which I referred to as majestic… So, no need to worry Debbie Dingell, you’re safe this time.

    update: I didn’t, by the way, obscure the eyes of my wife, son and daughter in the photo above because I was embarrassed of them. I did it because I was embarrassed for them. It’s one thing to ruin one’s own political career by posting about being thrown off of Romper Room for spitting and having a fetish for Mary Todd Lincoln. It’s another, though, to have one’s political career thwarted in middle school by a father intent on over-sharing in public.

    Posted in Mark's Life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

      It’s now scientifically proven… You have no voice. You have no power.

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      According to The Hill, the fall 2014 edition of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics will contain definitive evidence that, statistically speaking, you and I, as average Americans, have “virtually no impact whatsoever on the making of national policy in our country.” Here, with more on the findings of Princeton University’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page, who together authored the article, which is titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” is a clip from The Hill.

      …The analysts found that rich individuals and business-controlled interest groups largely shape policy outcomes in the United States.

      This study should be a loud wake-up call to the vast majority of Americans who are bypassed by their government. To reclaim the promise of American democracy, ordinary citizens must act positively to change the relationship between the people and our government.

      The new study… examined survey data on 1,779 national policy issues for which they could gauge the preferences of average citizens, economic elites, mass-based interest groups and business-dominated interest groups. They used statistical methods to determine the influence of each of these four groups on policy outcomes, including both policies that are adopted and rejected.

      The analysts found that when controlling for the power of economic elites and organized interest groups, the influence of ordinary Americans registers at a “non-significant, near-zero level.” The analysts further discovered that rich individuals and business-dominated interest groups dominate the policymaking process. The mass-based interest groups had minimal influence compared to the business-based interest groups.

      The study also debunks the notion that the policy preferences of business and the rich reflect the views of common citizens. They found to the contrary that such preferences often sharply diverge and when they do, the economic elites and business interests almost always win and the ordinary Americans lose…

      Ordinary citizens in recent decades have largely abandoned their participation in grassroots movements. Politicians respond to the mass mobilization of everyday Americans as proven by the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But no comparable movements exist today. Without a substantial presence on the ground, people-oriented interest groups cannot compete against their wealthy adversaries…

      Earlier this year, in an interview with the policy and advocacy group Demos, Gilens explained that this significant imbalance illustrated the need for reform. Here’s what Gilens had to say.

      …My work shows that when the preferences of the middle class, or of the poor, diverge from those of the well off, that the poor and the middle class have virtually no influence over government policy outcomes. Policymakers seem to respond to the preferences of the well off, not perfectly, but to some significant degree, and little or none to the preferences of the middle class much less the poor, and we see that across many decades and many sort of issue domains. It’s not just economic issues, but with regard to social issues, and so on.

      (When) we can reform our political system so that politicians, political candidates, and policy makers are less dependent on money from affluent donors and corporations then we will be able to shift policy in directions that will be sort of more broadly beneficial to the less well off in our society…

      In related news, billionaire Charles Koch a few days ago invoked the name of Martin Luther King in a USA Today op-ed in which he instructed the poor to endure their lot in life with dignity. “If a man is called to be a street sweeper,” Koch quotes King, “he should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

      Posted in Civil Liberties, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

      Riot police and protestors clash for the fourth straight day in Ferguson, Missouri over the killing of a young, unarmed black man… Anonymous promises to hold police force responsible if immediate action isn’t taken

      This video was posted just minutes ago by Patricia Bynes, Democratic Committeewoman of Ferguson Township, Missouri. It shows police officers in the city of Ferguson launching tear gas and stun grenades at protestors. This is the third night in a row that police and protestors have faced off in the northern St. Louis suburb.

      It is real out here

      Here’s the background, for those of you who haven’t been following the news.

      This past Saturday afternoon, at approximately 2:15 PM, an unarmed, young black man by the name of Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer in the middle of a Ferguson, Missouri street. To hear police tell it, Brown, who, had he not been killed, would have begun college today, reached for an officer’s gun through the window of a police cruiser and was killed in the ensuing struggle. According to eye witnesses, however, Brown was gunned down in cold blood, as he stood, hands raised, facing the officer, asking him not to shoot.

      According to Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, who was with him at the time of his killing, it all started when a police cruiser pulled up alongside the two young men as they were walking down the middle of the street. “Get the fuck onto the sidewalk,” the officer said, according to Johnson. When they didn’t immediately comply, the officer, who had driven past, threw his car into reverse, and pulled back alongside them, seemingly intent on escalating the incident. To hear Johnson tell it, the officer attempted to open his door, but, when it hit Brown and bounced back, he, instead, grabbed Brown by the neck, though the window. At that point, things apparently went to hell, as the officer pulled at Brown, and Brown attempted to pull away. A shot was fired, Brown was struck, and, as he began to stumble away, he was pursued and shot several more times by this same officer. As of right now, it’s hard to know what really happened. This is especially true as the police officer who killed Brown has not made a public statement. What we do know, however, is that Brown’s body was more than ten yards from the patrol car when he was shot the last time, which would indicate to me that he wasn’t killed in a struggle through the window over the officer’s gun.

      As Brown’s body lay in the middle of the street for hours, word spread and a crowd formed. Protestors, with their hands raised, began chanting “Don’t shoot.” And, over time, the largely black St. Louis suburb descended into violence. (Much of the coverage the first night focused on instances of looting, but it would seem, for the most part, the protesters have been peaceful.)

      It’s worth noting at this point that, of the more than 50 officers on the city of Ferguson’s police force, only three are black, despite the fact that the city itself is 68 percent African American, according to U.S. Census data.

      Furthermore, the police are behaving, in the eyes of many, as though they’re more interested in shutting down the investigation than facilitating it. Not only have they refused to release the name of the officer who killed Brown, but they’ve forced the media from the protest areas. (There is presently a no-fly zone around the city, which is keeping news helicopters from covering the conflict.)

      In response to these recent developments, both U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the NAACP have called on outside monitors to ensure that the investigation is carried out in good faith. And, earlier today, Anonymous came forward with a promise to monitor the situation as well. “We are watching very closely,” the faceless band of activist hackers said in their familiar electronic voice. “If you abuse, harass or harm in any way the protesters in Ferguson, we will take every web-based asset of your departments and governments offline. That is not a threat. It is a promise.” (Anonymous also said that they would release personal information on every single member of the Ferguson police department, should anything happen to a protester.)

      Here is the video from Anonymous.

      Here’s a clip: “Anonymous will not be satisfied this time… with simply obtaining justice for this young man and his family. Anonymous demands that the Congressional Representatives and Senators from Missouri introduce legislation entitled ‘Mike Brown’s Law,’ that will set strict national standards for police conduct and misbehavior in the USA.”

      While I appreciate the sentiment, and like the idea of national standards relative to police conduct, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I approve of what Anonymous has done thus far. Earlier today, for instance, they posted photos of the Police Chief’s house and his children… No, I’d prefer my justice dispensed in a courtroom, at the hands of a jury… Still, though, given the rising tide of police abuse we seem to be experiencing in this country, I’m sympathetic to their cause… I just don’t like lynch mobs… With that said, though, I like the fact that we’re seeing outside pressure exerted on the powers that be in Ferguson. They need to know that our eyes are on them, that we won’t be distracted, and that we demand answers.

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      update: There was apparently another police shooting in Ferguson this morning.

      update: One good thing that Anonymous did today… They released police dispatch audio from the day of the Brown shooting. I don’t know if there’s much to be learned from listening to it, but I like that it’s now in the public domain.

      update: It’s being reported that a Huffington Post reporter was roughed up by Ferguson police. Here’s a clip.

      The Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly and the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery were arrested Wednesday evening while covering the protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer last week. The journalists were released unharmed, but their detentions highlighted the town’s ramped up police presence, which has left numerous residents injured by rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas during protests held every night after Brown’s death.

      SWAT officers roughed up the reporters inside a McDonald’s, where both journalists were working. Reilly snapped a photo, prompting cops to request his identification.

      “The officer in question, who I repeatedly later asked for his name, grabbed my things and shoved them into my bag,” said Reilly, who appeared on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” shortly after his release to recount the arrest. “He used his finger to put a pressure point on my neck.”

      “They essentially acted as a military force. It was incredible,” Reilly said. “The worst part was he slammed my head against the glass purposefully on the way out of McDonald’s and then sarcastically apologized for it.”

      [Read more about the rapid militarization of the American police state.]

      update: From BoingBoing: “The protests were peaceful for many hours, and turned chaotic when police shot rubber bullets, tear gas (or another form of noxious gas), used an LRAD sonic weapon to blast the crowd with painful sound, and assaulted protesters.”

      update: More footage from this evening’s police assault.

      Posted in Civil Liberties, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 86 Comments

      Michigan’s failed experiment with for-profit charter schools gets national attention

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      It’s nothing new for us. We’ve been talking for years about Michigan’s failed experiment with for-profit charter schools. Now, however, it would seem that word is getting out to the rest of the country. The following clip comes from today’s Washington Post.

      Charter schools were originally conceived as centers of experimentation and innovation where educators could try new approaches quickly on a small scale with a minimum of paperwork. Many charters have lived up to that promise, but that same openness that allows new ideas to flourish may also have left the sector vulnerable to a dangerous level of corruption.

      For decades, Michigan and Florida have been on the cutting edge of shifting public education into the private sector. These policies were based on a deeply held and often explicitly stated belief that choice and market forces could net only solve education’s problems but could also alleviate much of the need for regulation.

      Now recent investigations from the Detroit Free Press, South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, and the Florida League of Women Voters have painted a troubling picture of two out-of-control charter school systems.

      Starting under the administrations of former governors John Engler and Jeb Bush, both Michigan and Florida have been early and enthusiastic backers of the charter school movement and have been particularly receptive to for-profit management companies. While many states prohibit full-service, for-profit companies from running charters, Michigan, and to a lesser extent Florida, has encouraged the model.

      “Michigan has one of the least restrictive environments for charter schools in the entire nation,” said Casandra Ulbrich, vice president of the state Board of Education,” …“We basically opened the door to all types of different charter schools, most of which are run by for-profit management companies, and it’s led to a lot of issues, primarily… financial oversight and transparency.”

      …(F)aith in the ability of market forces to supplant regulation and oversight was so strong that lawmakers in both Michigan and Florida deliberately chose to forgo conventional oversight. Governor Engler made this point clear when he explained why, despite mounting scandals, the Michigan Department of Education does not need more authority over charters.

      “The oversight is ultimately the parent, just like it has always been,” Engler said. “The parent moved if (the traditional school) wasn’t working, but that was limited economically. It’s a question that misses the broader point: What goes on in schools should be the focus. The whole focus should be on education… The structural questions, frankly, are missing the point.”

      This philosophy contributed to extraordinarily opaque systems in both Michigan and Florida. The Detroit Free Press reports:

      Management companies insist — without much challenge from the state — that taxpayer money they receive to run a school, hire staff and pay suppliers is private, not subject to public disclosure.

      Quisenberry, the president of the Michigan charter schools association, said school expenditures are “appropriately public” while “things that would be related to the company itself and its internal operations are appropriately private.”

      And, guess what? Without oversight, the corruption has become rampant, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. Here’s just one small example from the list, which is growing longer by the day.

      …Michigan’s largest charter school management company, which also has extensive real estate holdings, charges the state so much in rent that it gets a 16 percent rate of return on its investment, roughly double the return for comparable commercial properties.

      As John Chamberlin, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Michigan, said: “When you say, ‘Line up here and you can scam the state,’ you shouldn’t be surprised if people line up and scam the state”…

      I don’t know about you, but I don’t much like seeing my home state held up in front of the rest of the country as a cautionary tale. I mean, I’m glad that the rest of the country has an opportunity to learn from our mistakes, but I’d really rather it was Texas or Arizona serving as the cautionary tale, and not Michigan, the state that gave us the sit down strike, the 40 hour work week, and the middle class.

      Sadly, though, over the past 20 years, we allowed this to happen.

      Despite the clear warning signs, we allowed private companies to loot our public coffers at the expense of our children.

      We allowed the Republican legislature to remove the caps on for-profit charters, while reducing oversight.

      We sat by and watched as our public schools were shuttered and replaced by for-profit entities with no allegiance to our communities.

      We voted for candidates who aggressively sought to pull for-profit charter companies into our state, to the point where, today, one quarter of our nation’s for-profit charter schools are here, in Michigan.

      We watched passively as the profession of teaching was first attacked and then systematically dismantled.

      Convinced by the likes of the Koch brothers that it was greedy teachers, with their “gold-plated benefits,” that were sucking our communities dry, we allowed union protections to dissolve.

      We looked on silently as experienced educators were forced from their classrooms only to be replaced by young college graduates given the impossible task of reading scripts and handing out tests to ever swelling classes of disengaged kids.

      And now we’re paying the price.

      Our most promising young people are fleeing our state as soon as they’re old enough to, and new families aren’t coming here to take their places.

      We should be ashamed of ourselves.

      Posted in Education, Michigan | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

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