Friday, July 07, 2023

County "Leaders" Failed the Test

There has been a kind of local systemic political failure this past month that I find myself thinking about a lot. It is such a microcosm of our county's politics.

In Montgomery County, Muslim groups egged on by rightwing Christians have protested twice recently because MCPS does not let them opt out of classroom readings of storybooks with gay and trans characters. Students can opt out of some sections of the sex ed curriculum, as required by state law, but you can't opt out of English class when there's a gay character in a story. Some parents at some schools had worked something out so their kids could leave the room while LGBT+ stories were read and discussed, but there was no formal process in place for that. In March the school district issued a clear statement that opting out was not a choice for those classes.

This was enough to stir up a protest on June 6, before a school board meeting. It was peaceful, not very big, and though the protest was promoted by, and attended by, the Christian nationalist group Moms for Liberty, participants were almost all Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox. A number of the protesters spoke in the board's public comments session. It was fine, they said what they had to say. There were many misrepresentations but the board is not considering a new policy or anything, this was simply people complaining. There was a bigger demonstration later in the month -- I'm taking about the first one.

The last speaker in the board's public comments session was County Council member Kristin Mink. I am not really a very political person, and I didn't know who she was when she sat down. I didn't hear her name, and wouldn't have recognized it if I had. She was talking off the top of her head, with lots of "uhs" and "y'knows," backed up and started again a lot of times, but her comments were exactly perfect. It was a moment of heroism; she showed up on her own initiative, talked personally to the protesters to understand their point of view, and then sat at the board table with the video cameras rolling, to support our LGBT neighbors and tell the protesters that the school district was not going to change its policy, and why. A transcription of her statement can be viewed here: Kristin Mink comments 6-6-23

Mink was the only official from any level of government who showed up for the event. She said she has worked with the Muslim community on various community matters ("housing, and welcoming immigrants, and feeding our neighbors, and providing healthcare, and all of those sorts of things.") and knows a lot of them. And she said something true in the board meeting, which is the only thing anybody talks about. She said, "This issue unfortunately does put some, not all of course, some Muslim families on the same side of an issue as white supremacists and outright bigots. However the folks who I talked to here today I would not put in the same category as those folks, although it's, again, complicated, because they're following the same side of this particular issue."

Break it down. Room is full of Muslims. They are there as Muslims because they do not want their children to learn about homosexuality, because of their religion. Are they on the same side as white supremacists and bigots? Well, yes, and in fact these Muslims are literally allying with Moms for Liberty, a white hate group; that group posted flyers and they attended the protest, and one of their leaders literally spoke at the protesters' press conference. Kristin said she would not put these people in the same category -- though it's complicated.

She got tons of backlash from the press and the Democratic establishment and ended up apologizing. CAIR and some of the Muslims, plus the whole world of rightwing media, accused her of being Islamophobic. Cowardly Council member Evan Glass found a reporter and said “I have spoken with Councilmember Mink about her comments and have expressed my profound disappointment.” Mink's comments were offhandedly referred to as Islamophobic and "a disaster." Because she said what needed to be said and she said it without being afraid to step over somebody's line in the sand.

I want to dwell on this for a minute.

A good friend will tell you when you've got a booger hanging out of your nose.

Okay, that is all.

Moms for Liberty set a trap here for liberals, who totally fell for it. M4L placed the cheese and set the trigger, but we're the ones who created an environment where you can't criticize a minority group. Kristin Mink spoke with sincerity and truth at the board meeting. She held the line on school district policy and proposed the only kind of solution that can work; the public school teaches facts and science, and religious values should be taught at home. She did not generalize about the nearly two billion people who participate in the Muslim faith worldwide. She talked about the group that protested, who were clearly self-identified Muslims advocating a rightwing position on sexual orientation. They are on the same side as our homegrown American bigots. It's complicated, if you grant that these were not actually horrid people like the Moms for Liberty that they associate with.

There was nothing that could be said about this situation that will not invite an attack. Of course they accused her of Islamophobia -- that's all they've got. They couldn't argue that her point was incorrect, or that her solution wouldn't work. But look, we have seen real Islamophobia. Years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing but American Islamophobia. Trump's Muslim travel ban was pure, unadulterated Islamophobia. After 9/11 Islamophobia was the default American attitude. People on the right have repeatedly implied that all Muslims are terrorists and if you say they are Islamophobic they shrug and go, so what? This group of people came to the school board to advocate a position that is normally advocated by white supremacist, rightwing bigots. But they don't seem like bigots themselves, if you know them. It's complicated.

You know what is worse than saying something that can be twisted into something it is not? I'll give you a minute. Okay, the answer is: saying nothing.

Yes it's a trap, it's a lion's den, and you have to be brave to walk right into it and speak your conscience in a way that is empathetic and also unswerving. You didn't see the County Executive, any of the other members of the County Council, any official of the Democratic Party, at the board meeting, and you did not see them back up their colleague when she came under attack. They should have queued up behind a microphone in Veterans Plaza or the Executive Building and taken turns saying: "We love our Muslim neighbors but some of them are on the same side as white supremacists and bigots on the issue of LGBT storybooks in school." They could have taken turns saying, "Kristin is kind of new at this game, God bless her, and she has not yet learned to talk out of both sides of her mouth. I remember when I first ran for office [goes into self-aggrandizing story of a not-really-embarrassing gaffe]." They could have said, "I know Kristin Mink and, whatever she is, she is not an Islamophobe." They could have said, "The MCPS policy is that you cannot opt-out of storybook readings, and I support that policy."

Nobody backed her up. All of our Democratic "leaders" hid, except for one. Kojo got Elrich and Jawando to talk superficially for a total of three or four minutes on WAMU, that's about it as far as I have seen. Oh when some Pride flags got burned later that week, every local politician in the county found a TV crew and expressed outrage in appropriately shocked tones of voice. But when our gay and trans neighbors actually came under direct attack, for real, in the school district where it counts, and when one of their colleagues stood up to directly address the situation, and there was some risk of being criticized for saying something, they hid. When we needed their leadership, they were not there.