2019
October
07
Monday
Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Welcome back. Today we look at competing values in the high court’s new session, Cory Booker’s love-forward candidacy, a big moment for separatists in Spain, black women making important inroads as U.S. mayors, and an effort to help both birds and big cities.

First, from Hong Kong to Iraq to the U.S., the world seems ablaze in clashing interests. 

Quieter acts of compassion support a more hopeful view. 

One athlete helps another in the Qatari heat. “My thoughts were to help him finish,” said Braima Suncar Dabo of Guinea-Bissau of his Aruban competitor Jonathan Busby. “That is the point of the race.”

A Chicago teacher tells a parent who wanted to read to her child’s class but couldn’t read English, “Come read in your language.”

Refugee women from different cultures form tea circles in Sicily to grow strength from unity. 

“We can change this world right now,” wrote Sharif Abdullah in his book “Creating a World That Works for All,” “by shifting our consciousness and our values from a foundation of exclusivity to one of inclusivity.”

How much of a shift would that require in a U.S. culture where it seems to mean a lot to “win,” and where winning seems a zero-sum game? Maybe less than we think. 

A study by Gallup and the think tank Populace finds that respondents’ definitions of “success” are quite different from what they judge society’s definitions to be. Learning, human relationships, and character – all pro-social pursuits – formed the individuals’ top three. Together they edged out what respondents perceived to be the most important marker in society’s view: “status” built on acquiring advantages over others. 

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1. In new term, Supreme Court conservatives poised to make their mark

A coming wave of hot-button Supreme Court decisions is set to crash into an especially volatile political environment. We explore how the cultural impact could extend to the court itself. 

Michael A. McCoy/Reuters
Activists rally outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's house, Oct. 6, 2019, one day before the Supreme Court starts its new term in Washington.

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It may not feel that way, but the United States Supreme Court has stayed fairly quiet over the past four years.

To be sure, there have been a few big decisions – perhaps most notably the 5-4 decision in June that the federal courts can’t place limits on partisan gerrymandering. Rancorous partisan battles to confirm two new justices have also dominated the headlines, but when it comes to the court’s main job – interpreting the toughest statutory and constitutional questions – significant developments have been few and far between since Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016.

That could be about to change, and quickly.

And public confidence in the court – now arguably more reliably conservative than at any point since at least the 1970s – could be in danger as a result, experts say.

This will be the first full term for the new five-justice conservative majority forged by President Donald Trump. And the court’s docket is already loaded with potentially landmark cases on LGBTQ rights, abortion, religious freedom and school choice, and protections for young unauthorized immigrants.

“We’re going to have a court that lurches right this term,” says law professor Steven Schwinn.

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In new term, Supreme Court conservatives poised to make their mark

It may not feel that way, but the United States Supreme Court has stayed fairly quiet over the past four years.

To be sure, there have been a few big decisions – perhaps most notably the 5-4 decision in June that federal courts can’t place limits on partisan gerrymandering. Rancorous partisan battles to confirm two new justices have also dominated the headlines, but when it comes to the court’s main job – interpreting the toughest statutory and constitutional questions – significant developments have been few and far between since Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016.

That could be about to change, and quickly.

And public confidence in the court – now arguably more reliably conservative than at any point since at least the 1970s – could be in danger as a result, experts say.

This will be the first full term for the new five-justice conservative majority forged by President Donald Trump. Justice Scalia and the moderately conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired last year, have been replaced by the more reliably conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and the court’s docket is already loaded with potentially landmark cases on LGBTQ rights, abortion, religious freedom and school choice, and protections for young unauthorized immigrants.

“We’re in an [unusual] position now with so many justices who” share similarly conservative judicial philosophies, says Kimberly West-Faulcon, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “I have no reason to believe that all five of them have any interest in laying low for a term.”

“Fair share” of big cases

The new conservative majority has not been seen much to date. Last term only seven of the Supreme Court’s 72 opinions split 5-4 along partisan lines. One of those was the landmark decision to not place limits on partisan gerrymandering, but so far it has been more common to see different coalitions.

Justice Gorsuch joined his liberal colleagues in four 5-4 cases last term, for example, and Chief Justice John Roberts – widely considered the ideological center of the court – did the same in the 5-4 decision striking a citizenship question from the 2020 census.

“We don’t go about our work in a political manner,” Chief Justice Roberts told an audience at the Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center in New York. “When you live in a politically polarized environment, people tend to see everything in those terms,” he added. “That’s not how we at the court function, and the results in our cases do not suggest otherwise.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court’s senior justice and one of its most progressive, concurred. The justices agreed “considerably more often” than not last term, she said in a July interview. Yet Justice Ginsburg added that this term “I can safely predict that we will have our fair share of closely-watched cases.”

On the second day of the term, the justices will hear three cases regarding whether federal civil rights law protects gay and transgender people from employment discrimination. Next month, the court will hear a case questioning whether the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – which gave a measure of protection from deportation for unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as children – was lawful.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Cathy Haggstrom from Odessa, Fla., right, joins anti-abortion activists in front of the Supreme Court, Oct. 7, 2019, in Washington.

In December, the court is scheduled to hear a case challenging a New York City gun control law. (The law has since been amended, however, meaning the justices could dismiss the case.) The court has also agreed to hear a case over the constitutionality of using state tax-credit scholarship programs at religious schools, as well as a case concerning congressional appropriations for the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.

As with last term, court watchers say, the five conservative justices are unlikely to be in constant agreement.

“It’s pretty clear the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court is more coherent and united than when Justice Kennedy was on it,” says Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

“But by no means is it a monolith,” he adds. “On some of these cases there will be one conservative justice who does something we don’t expect.”

Where that could happen is unclear, however. Justice Kennedy, while mostly conservative, was a pivotal vote affirming gay rights. And while he often joined his conservative colleagues in supporting religious liberty, the current court could take an even broader view of the Constitution’s religion clauses.

“We’re going to have a court that lurches right this term,” says Steven Schwinn, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, John Marshall Law School.

“It’ll be a slow drift in some ways,” he adds, but with the LGBTQ rights argument “right out the gate in October [it’s] going to feel like a big lurch.”

Election-year drama?

The most potentially volcanic cases of the term may not yet be scheduled, or even in the court system.

Last week the justices voted to hear an appeal to a Louisiana law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. While the court voted 5-4 last term to block the law while it was being appealed – with Chief Justice Roberts joining his liberal colleagues – the law closely resembles one enacted by Texas that the court struck down 5-4 in 2016. The deciding vote then? Justice Kennedy.

Perhaps the only issue more politically divisive than abortion at the moment is the president of the United States, and the justices could encounter several Trump-related legal battles.

The administration is already fighting lawsuits challenging a new rule barring asylum applications from migrants who traveled through another country to reach the U.S. – a policy the justices allowed to go into effect last month pending appeals. Meanwhile, California and 22 other states sued the administration last month over its decision to revoke the Golden State’s ability to set its own tailpipe emissions standards.

Most explosive of all (and anxiety-inducing for someone, like Chief Justice Roberts, concerned about the institutional integrity of the high court) is the prospect of the justices ruling on a case related to an investigation of President Trump or his administration – in particular the ongoing congressional impeachment inquiry.

But a case related to impeachment would be especially fraught for the court now, not just in the context of the hyperpartisan Garland and Kavanaugh nominations, but also President Trump’s attacks on “so-called” judges and “Obama judges” and the surprising regularity with which his administration is making “emergency” appeals to the Supreme Court.

An upcoming study found that in President Trump’s first three years in office, the government has filed 21 “emergency” motions with the court, compared with six in eight years during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies. “Historically, the Government has made this kind of request rarely; now it does so reflexively,” noted Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a dissent to the court’s asylum ban ruling last month.

Any subpoena case involving President Trump “is going to be a really hard question for the court, in particular the five conservatives on the court,” says Professor Schwinn. “If the court [sides] with the administration ... I think that’s going to increase the perception that this is a politicized court.”

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A deeper look

2. With love, Cory Booker. Inside one long-shot bid for the White House.

When Cory Booker talks about love, our writer notes, it’s not sentimental. Is it enough to lift his candidacy?

Elise Amendola/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker takes a selfie with people at a campaign event Aug. 17, 2019, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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Can Sen. Cory Booker win the White House with exhortations to love one another, especially as the nation heads into a divisive impeachment inquiry?

While the African American senator generates impressive enthusiasm from crowds, he’s still polling in the low single digits. At a time when many Democrats are furious with President Donald Trump and looking for a different kind of fighter, the son of civil rights activists is trying to convince them that love is in fact the mightiest weapon with which to combat the nation’s challenges.

“I was raised by parents who did not flinch in telling me about the wretchedness of life, about the bigotry, and hate, and violence,” he says in a phone interview. “But they taught me that you don’t combat that by abandoning your virtues, but by doubling down on them, and that that is in fact a harder way. ... It takes a toughness and a strength. But ultimately it’s the best way to heal, to empower, to strengthen, to overcome.”

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With love, Cory Booker. Inside one long-shot bid for the White House.

The first time New Hampshire state Sen. Martha Hennessey heard Sen. Cory Booker speak, he reminded her of a Baptist preacher. “He was so ‘love and hope,’” she says. “Frankly, I was almost in tears.”

At the same time, she thought to herself, I’m not sure America is going to like this. This might be a little touchy-feely.

Senator Hennessey and her husband hosted the presidential candidate overnight in early summertime, as part of his circuit of homestays to get to know the state. When he arrived at their home in Hanover, she was still driving back from a late session at the statehouse. It was up to her husband to figure out what to feed an ex-football star turned vegan. The verdict? Rice cakes with freshly ground almond butter. 

The next morning, as the couple’s Maltese-poodle mixes climbed into Senator Booker’s lap, the 50-year-old bachelor chatted with them and, at his staff’s urging, told them about his new girlfriend, actress and activist Rosario Dawson. “It’s like he was a friend that was visiting us from college,” says Senator Hennessey. But while she enjoyed the visit, the New Hampshire Democrat – who’d been hoping to endorse a female nominee – wasn’t ready to commit. 

In this season of political courtship, many voters so far seem to see Senator Booker as “friend” material. “He’s not the one that they have a romantic interest in,” says Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey, who has been following the senator since he first ran for mayor of Newark in 2002. The latest Monmouth poll shows Senator Booker in a five-way tie for 8th  place among Democratic candidates, with 1% of the vote.

Many Democrats are furious with President Donald Trump, and looking for a fighter to lead them; one voter even asked the athletic New Jersey senator to punch the president in the face. But Senator Booker is trying to convince them to take a different approach. Over and over, the son of civil rights activists, who for nearly two decades tested his ideals in Newark’s grittiest neighborhoods, insists that love is the mightiest weapon with which to combat the nation’s challenges.

“I was raised by parents who did not flinch in telling me about the wretchedness of life, about the bigotry, and hate, and violence,” he says in a phone interview. “But they taught me that you don’t combat that by abandoning your virtues, but by doubling down on them, and that that is in fact a harder way. ... It takes a toughness and a strength. But ultimately it’s the best way to heal, to empower, to strengthen, to overcome.”

“The best proving ground”

If it weren’t for a white New Jersey lawyer moved by the 1965 showdown between civil rights protesters and police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Senator Booker may have never become the nation’s ninth African American senator.

That lawyer, who couldn’t afford a ticket to join the protesters in Alabama, decided instead to offer pro bono legal work for the Fair Housing Council. Several years later, he played a role in helping Cory Booker’s parents buy a home in predominantly white Harrington Park despite the virulent opposition of the real estate agent involved.

From that community of relative privilege, young Cory was able to springboard to Stanford on a football scholarship, then on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and finally to Yale Law School. But it was in Newark that he found – and honed – his sense of mission. He moved into Brick Towers, an apartment complex in the inner city that had fallen into disrepair and was turned over to Newark’s housing authority several years later. The elevators were often broken and the stairwells littered with drug paraphernalia and feces.

It was a neighbor, Virginia Jones, who helped him see the potential of the city and its residents. And it was she who held him when he emerged one morning, devastated by the murder of a young man whom he had tried in vain to save the previous night.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Chloe Armstrong (center), of North Conway, New Hampshire, cheers during a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey before the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Ms. Jones, who years before had lost her own son to a shooting, urged him through his tears: Stay faithful.

“For me, Newark was the best proving ground because I ... saw just awful, awful realities,” says Senator Booker. The experience, he says, made him understand the impulse to hate or the desire to lash out. “But what I also realized was that in the times where the most challenging, hurtful, painful things come forward, you actually see the greatest of human spirit, the greatest of human potential. I saw people who were able to ignite the best in others. And that’s the model of leadership that I think we need at this time in America.”

Ugly realities

While Cory Booker may talk about love, he harbors no illusions about the ugly realities of life – or politics. He knows what it’s like to have a dirty diaper thrown at him as when, as city councilman, he was leading a 10-day hunger strike to protest inadequate policing of drug dealers. Or to be called a Republican and a “[gay slur] white boy” by Newark’s five-term incumbent Mayor Sharpe James, who also alleged that his challenger was taking money from the Ku Klux Klan.

In that 2002 contest, featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Street Fight,” Cory Booker lost to Mr. James by 6 percentage points. Four years later, he came back to win by the largest margin in Newark’s history. As mayor, he teamed up with Republican Gov. Chris Christie to secure a $100 million investment from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in the city’s schools, and raised $300 million more through other philanthropic efforts.

As much as he did to champion Newark, some saw his ambitions – for the city and himself – as eclipsing the less-glamorous parts of the job.

“It’s great to paint a house, but he didn’t care at all about the plumbing and the electric,” says a Democratic operative in New Jersey. “But honestly before him, nobody cared about anything in Newark.”

The city has continued to attract development since Senator Booker left for Capitol Hill in 2013, but it has also become engulfed in a lead water crisis due to corroding pipes. The Booker campaign has vociferously denied that he bears any responsibility, noting that city water tests two years after he left still bore no signs of elevated lead levels. 

In his book, “United,” Senator Booker admits he too often tried to solve things personally. He famously went into a burning building to rescue a woman, and shoveled residents’ driveways during a blizzard. Critics have accused him of staging such “stunts” for political gain. But whether he was moved by ambition, genuine care, or both, he has lived the problems of inner city America in a way that few presidential candidates have.

“There are a lot of places Cory Booker could have gone to be more powerful,” says Herb Jackson, a veteran New Jersey political reporter who covered his Senate campaigns. “He is motivated by these things, I think sincerely.”

Now, in what Senator Booker calls “a moral moment” for the country, he is highlighting that experience in an effort to persuade voters that he knows best how to unite the country around shared ideals.

“I am here right now because a white guy on a couch, at a time of moral trial in our nation, did not just sit there,” he tells a crowd in Bedford, New Hampshire, on a late September morning. “He did not even know that I would one day exist, but he stood up for the ideals of America. And why am I running for president? Because they’re in peril. Our dream is in trouble.”

A civic gospel

Over the plinking of forks at Politics & Eggs, a staple on the New Hampshire campaign circuit, Senator Booker preaches his civic gospel.

In thundering tones, he transports the crowd from the colonial charm of the Bedford Village Inn to a memorial in Memphis, Tennessee, erected at the assassination site of Martin Luther King Jr.

Elise Amendola/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey reacts as he is introduced at a campaign event, Aug. 17, 2019, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Behold, here cometh a dreamer ... let us slay him and see what becomes of his dream, reads the plaque, quoting from the biblical story of Joseph, who was thrown into a pit by his envious brothers. Senator Booker, a Baptist, sees it as a metaphor for the state of the nation.

“America, we are in a pit right now,” he tells the crowd. “We are in a pit right now when we hate each other just because we vote differently.”

Some might call Senator Booker himself a dreamer – and not in a good way. With 10 days left in September, his campaign told supporters he might quit the race if they couldn’t raise $1.7 million by the end of the month. He wound up exceeding that goal by nearly half a million dollars, bringing his total haul for the third quarter to $6 million. But that’s still less than a third of what Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, raised, and a fourth of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ total.

“A message of inclusiveness and cooperation isn’t something that either party wants to hear right now,” says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

Still, he adds, that could change before the New Hampshire primary, expected to be held Feb. 11. As the primary draws near and more voters start paying attention, he says, Senator Booker may see his support grow, “because then you’re getting away from the activists, and getting down to regular rank-and-file voters.”

Some 40% of the state’s voters are independents and are allowed to vote in the Democratic primary. Nationwide, only 9% of Democrats say they have made up their mind.

Jon Morgan was the first New Hampshire state senator to endorse Senator Booker. “We need more people like Cory Booker to be involved in rebuilding our country after the damage of the past several years under this current administration,” he says in a phone interview.

“Hold on one second, my 1-year-old is trying to kill himself,” he adds, as wailing can be heard in the background. “The 2020 results are incredibly important to me, but ... I’m more worried about the trajectory that we’re on for the next generation of Americans – my kids included,” he says, noting the increasing animosity between those with differing political opinions.

In mid-September, Senator Hennessey followed suit. In endorsing Senator Booker, she noted that he champions many of the same progressive ideals as his fellow Democratic presidential contenders – “Medicare for All,” gun licensing and an assault weapon ban, equality for LGBTQ people, and creating a White House Office of Reproductive Freedom for “advancing abortion rights.” But it was his different tone, she says, focusing on unifying the country rather than pouring fuel on the anti-Trump bonfire, that clinched her support.

“I would love to just talk about all the things I can’t stand about the current administration ... but I’m not finding it very productive,” says Senator Hennessey. “I need hope, I need myself to believe that not only can we get all the great progressive measures but also that we can learn to think about each other again and care for each other again and somehow put hatred aside.”

Back at Politics & Eggs, as Senator Booker is building to a crescendo, phones start buzzing as official Washington begins blowing up over the just-released whistleblower complaint that has prompted an impeachment inquiry against President Trump.

Undeterred, the senator goes on.

“What will become of our dream? ... Will it become divided against itself? Or will we stand up and say, not on my watch,” he asks. “This election will not be about one guy and one office, it will be about reclaiming the dream. And if we do that, watch out America, watch out the world, we will rise.”

And then the well-coiffed crowd of businessmen and state legislators does something that rarely happens at Politics & Eggs. They rise, one by one, and give their guest a standing ovation.

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The Explainer

3. The Catalan Trials: Explaining Spain’s prisoners’ dilemma

Dealing with the legality of one of Europe’s long-running secessionist movements will come down to how the roots of the divide – and reactions – are framed. We look at the perspectives.

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Pro-independence supporters wave Catalan flags in San Sebastian, northern Spain, Oct. 1, 2019, two years after a banned independence referendum that shook Spanish politics.

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Ahead of Catalonia’s independence vote in October 2017, a Spanish court ruled the referendum illegal. When the Catalan government proceeded anyway, a trial was inevitable, says Sofia Perez, a political science professor at Boston University.

Spain’s Supreme Court is set to rule on the country’s “trial of the century” within weeks. The dozen defendants face charges varying from misuse of public funds to rebellion, over their roles in the referendum as politicians and activists. Potential penalties range from a temporary ban on holding public office to a maximum of 25 years in prison.

The separatist saga has polarized Spain’s politics, and the trials have been a lightning-rod issue for separatist sympathizers and a resurgent far-right. Some say the country hasn’t been so divided since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. 

“One thing it certainly won’t do is to bring people together,” says Gemma Sala, a professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa. “There’s a winner, a loser, or no one. Conciliation won’t happen through courts.”

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The Catalan Trials: Explaining Spain’s prisoners’ dilemma

Spain’s Supreme Court is set to rule on the country’s “trial of the century” within weeks, deciding the fate of 12 activists and politicians from Catalonia. The defendants are on trial over their involvement in the region’s Oct. 1, 2017, independence vote, which Madrid considered an act of rebellion.

The separatist saga has polarized Spain’s politics, and the trials have been a lightning-rod issue for separatist sympathizers and a resurgent far-right. Several observers say the country hasn’t been so divided since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. 

Regardless of the court’s decision, it is almost certain to frustrate one of the two groups. The court and country are caught, as the old Spanish saying goes, between the sword and the wall.

What are the charges? 

Ahead of the 2017 independence vote, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled the planned referendum illegal. When the Catalan government proceeded anyway, a trial was inevitable, says Sofia Perez, a political science professor at Boston University.

The dozen defendants face charges, varying from misuse of public funds to rebellion, over their role in the referendum. Controversially, some are being held in “preventive detention” and will have spent two years in jail by the time a decision is announced. Potential penalties range from a temporary ban on holding public office to a maximum of 25 years in prison.

Crucial to the Supreme Court’s ruling will be how it frames the independence vote. Protest or coup d’etat? Separatists call it the first and Spanish nationalists the second. To choose between the two, experts say, the judges must decide whether the ensuing violence came from the referendum’s organizers or the state police.

Why do Catalans want to secede? 

Since Spain’s 15th-century union through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, Catalonia has often chafed at its role in the Spanish state. With a distinct language and culture, it has tried and failed to divorce its Castilian partner multiple times. The region is now home to about 16% of Spain’s population and produces a fifth of the country’s GDP.

Until recently, most Catalan nationalists focused on autonomy – increased ability to self-govern – rather than outright separatism, says Dr. Perez. A shift to secession, she says, comes from myopic policy on both sides.

In 2010, Spain’s constitutional court voided a new Catalan autonomy statute – essentially a regional constitution – that would have increased regional autonomy. The ruling enraged Catalans, sparking large protests and radicalizing many of its politicians. 

Around the same time, Spain’s economy crumbled in the financial crisis, during which unemployment reached 25%. In periods of austerity, many Catalans felt they were propping up Spain’s poorer regions, paying in more than they were getting out. 

Before the referendum, says Dr. Perez, separatism was just a threat meant to win concessions from Madrid. But Madrid and Barcelona eventually settled into a zero-sum game of chicken in which their positions became entrenched. From the start, almost no one wanted the legal battle that the conflict has brought, she says.

“The more radical elements on both sides ... made this situation much worse,” writes Sebastián Royo, a professor at Boston’s Suffolk University, in an email. “They fed each other.”

Still, even at the independence movement’s peak in October 2017, just under half of Catalans supported secession, according to polls from the Catalan government. A poll in July indicated that number had fallen to around 44% as the separatist movement loses momentum and fractures. 

What will a ruling mean for Catalonia and Spain?

Spain has other regions that have sought independence before – most notably the Basque Country. Catalonia seems the least content at the moment, but Madrid isn’t taking any chances. Charging secessionist leaders is one way of keeping other independence movements in check, says Gemma Sala, a professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Decisions deemed too harsh from Spain’s top court may invigorate the faltering separatists. Softer verdicts could energize Spanish nationalists, eager to call the state too cavalier. Whether outcry will come from Madrid or Barcelona, there is little chance everyone walks away happy. 

“One thing it certainly won’t do is to bring people together,” says Dr. Sala. “There’s a winner, a loser, or no one. Conciliation won’t happen through courts.”

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Point of Progress

What's going right

4. Black women take US mayoral reins in record numbers

Having elected officials who represent a diversity of backgrounds fortifies democracy. Here’s a cohort that’s in a special position to make city governance more equitable.

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In 2013, just one black woman was mayor of a major United States city. Today, however, black women run seven of the nation’s 100 largest cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington.

Black women’s political leadership has long been manifested in their involvement in the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements, says Andrea Benjamin, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. What’s new is the form of black women’s leadership.

Vi Lyles is one such person who took on a new role. She worked for the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, for nearly 30 years and retired from that career in 2004. But almost a decade later, when the city descended into a nasty political debate over the streetcar, she knew her experience and skills as a facilitator could help her community. She won a city council seat in 2013 on a campaign of collaborative leadership, and she became mayor in 2017.

“What’s significant for me is the recognition that black women have always worked hard,” she says. “It’s just that perhaps this time we have the ability to show our strengths to a broader audience.”

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Black women take US mayoral reins in record numbers

When Lori Lightfoot took office as mayor of Chicago in May, she became the city’s first black woman executive, as well as its first openly gay leader.

“Every child out there should know this: Each of you, one day, can be the mayor of Chicago,” Ms. Lightfoot said in her April 2 acceptance speech. “Want to know why? Just look right here.”

Black women have historically driven the American political agenda as organizers and as voters. Now, an increasing number are leading the biggest cities in the United States. In 2013, just one black woman was mayor of a major U.S. city, but black women today run seven of the nation’s 100 largest cities, including Washington, Atlanta, and San Francisco.  (Women of color were also elected to lead in three Californian cities: Bakersfield, Chula Vista, and Fremont.) Their election victories and accomplishments in office mark a step forward in the push for equitable governance, experts say.

“What’s significant for me is the recognition that black women have always worked hard,” says Vi Lyles, the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, and the first black woman to hold that office there. “It’s just that perhaps this time we have the ability to show our strengths to a broader audience.”

Black women, who largely vote Democratic, went to the polls at higher rates than any other demographic group in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. And they played a key role in deciding 2018’s midterms. “We are now demanding a return on our voting investment,” says Glynda Carr, who co-founded Higher Heights, an organization that provides training and support to prospective black women candidates who identify as progressive.

“What we’ve demonstrated is that we don’t go to the polls alone,” Ms. Carr says. “When you fire up a black woman she brings her house, her block, her church, and her sorority.”

Black women’s political leadership has long been manifested in their involvement in the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements, says Andrea Benjamin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “In their view of politics, the first thing isn’t ‘Oh I’m going to run for office.’ Their first inclination is ‘How can I serve? How can I help solve this problem?’”

What’s new is the form of black women’s leadership. Having officeholders with diverse backgrounds is a key component of a healthy democracy, according to Ms. Carr. “We make better decisions when our decision-making tables are diverse,” she says, adding that voters get excited to see candidates who look like them, as well as encouraging others of similar backgrounds to run.

Ms. Lyles says Higher Heights “really stepped up” in putting her and other black women candidates on a national platform in 2017. She also worked closely with Emily’s List, a political action committee that works to elect Democratic women in favor of abortion rights. The influence of black women candidates that year made enough waves to spark headlines like HuffPost’s “Is 2017 The Year Of The Black Woman Mayor?

Black women candidates still face obstacles such as being outspent by their opponents, Ms. Carr says, although early endorsements usually help their campaigns. Representation still lags in statewide and federal offices, opponents of minority candidates often make “implicit appeals” to racial stereotypes, and voting still sometimes falls along racial lines, says Matthew Tokeshi, an assistant professor of political science at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

But University of Florida professor of political science Sharon Austin says it is encouraging to see that black women have won even in cities like Chicago, where political structure has been “oftentimes very hostile toward African Americans.”

“I don’t think necessarily that the challenges are lessening,” says Dr. Austin, who is editing “Political Black Girl Magic: The Elections and Governance of Black Female Mayors,” forthcoming from Temple University Press. “I just think that these are women who are in positions of leadership [in their communities] and have been for many years, and they really care about these cities.”

Ms. Lyles retired from her first career in 2004, after nearly 30 years working for the city of Charlotte. But almost a decade later, when the city descended into a nasty political debate over the streetcar – proponents said it would help development, and critics said it was unreliable and costly to build – she knew her experience and skills as a facilitator could help her community. She won a city council seat in 2013 on a campaign of collaborative leadership, and since becoming mayor in 2017, she has worked to restore police-community relations and create affordable housing through public-private partnerships.

She says black women’s impact can continue to grow as they lead in communities of all sizes, whether as elected officials or otherwise.

“Maybe they don’t want to be in government,” Ms. Lyles says, “but if you can influence policy, if you can influence philanthropy, if you can influence government, we can change the way people see and view equity in this country.”

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. ‘A place of refuge’: Bird-watching takes flight on Chicago’s South Side

Nature and human settlements are often (and often fairly) cast as adversaries. This is a case study in making them mutually beneficial.

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As a young girl growing up in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, Sherry Williams struggled to find nature. She lived on a busy street that had no backyards or front yards. The nearest park was across a tacitly understood racial line: Black people weren’t welcome. 

That lack of access to green space led Ms. Williams, as an adult, to reclaim and transform under-used parks on Chicago’s South Side. More than 15 years ago, she also created the first “Afrobirding” group, which meets monthly, often at one of two bird sanctuaries she helped create.

In the process, she’s diversifying and broadening a pastime known for its narrow demographics. Despite the typical birder stereotype of older, white people, Ms. Williams says it’s a hobby that fits naturally with African American heritage. She often begins bird walks by pointing out to people the parallels between the Great Migration that many African Americans, including her grandparents, made from the rural South to the urban North and the migration that so many bird species make every year.

As Ms. Williams points out, “Both birds and humans come for the same thing – a home, a place to raise their families, a place of safety, a place of refuge.” 

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‘A place of refuge’: Bird-watching takes flight on Chicago’s South Side

When Sherry Williams arrives at the Douglas Tomb State Historic Site in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, she has her 13-year-old granddaughter with her – and an assignment. “Find three different bird species before we leave,” she tells Shanti.

It’s fitting, given the importance that Ms. Williams’s own grandmother played for her, particularly when it came to the natural world.

“She taught me birds and trees and bees and bugs, she taught me sunrises and sunsets, constellations, to name the stars,” recalls Ms. Williams, from beneath the dual shade of a catalpa tree and her big, floppy, white hat. “I then passed that to my daughters.”

And she’s been passing it on to others in her community too. More than 15 years ago, Ms. Williams created the first “Afrobirding” group, meeting monthly in her neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, often at one of two bird sanctuaries she helped create.

In the process, she’s diversifying and broadening a pastime that’s often known for its narrow demographics.

Despite the typical birder stereotype of older, white people, Ms. Williams says it’s a hobby that fits in naturally with the heritage of many cultures – particularly that of African Americans. She often begins bird walks by pointing out to people the parallels between the Great Migration that many African Americans, including her grandparents, made from the rural South to the urban North and the migration that so many bird species make every year.

“Both birds and humans come for the same thing – a home, a place to raise their families, a place of safety, a place of refuge,” says Ms. Williams. It’s a story that resonates with many immigrants whose families came from other countries too, she says.

Rebeccah Sanders, senior vice president of states with the Audubon Society, remembers getting that message when she first went on one of Ms. Williams’s bird walks. Ms. Williams had created a migration path around the site, with wooden stakes featuring laminated photos of both birds and local community members, recalls Ms. Sanders. Each photo had a paragraph about its “migration story” and how it – bird or individual – came to Chicago.

"The invisible church"

“She connected people’s stories to nature stories,” says Ms. Sanders. “When we think about birding or the conservation movement, it’s about meeting people where they are, recognizing that we all have a shared interest in having a healthy environment, but we all may have different entry points to how we get there. Someone like Sherry has opened that door to a whole bunch of different stories.”

Ms. Williams’s family’s migration story started with her grandmother, who brought her daughters north to Chicago from Inverness, Mississippi, in 1942. On annual summer treks back south, Ms. Williams learned from her grandmother about their history in that state, about why her grandmother felt the need to move, and about the systemic racism and abuse that her family and other sharecropping families suffered. Her family had established a church in 1904, but for her grandmother, says Ms. Williams, nature offered a sort of “invisible church” all around, freed from the constraints of an oppressive ideology, with roots in remembered heritage from Africa.

“She wanted me to understand more deeply about the invisible church. She’d take me to those creeks and those bayous and all of the trees, and she’d show me and identify what they are,” recalls Ms. Williams. “I began to understand the goodness and grace of God in those alone moments.”

Back in Chicago, Ms. Williams struggled as a young girl to find nature in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. She lived on a busy street that had apartments above the storefronts, but no backyards or front yards.

The nearest park was across a tacitly understood racial line: Black people weren’t welcome. The closest one Ms. Williams could use was a mile away, and that was only open to her at certain times.

Not having access to that green space is a big reason why she decided, as an adult, to start reclaiming and improving some under-used parks on the South Side, turning them into places welcoming to both birds and people.

“The term now is called ‘occupy.’ I didn’t ask permission,” laughs Ms. Williams. “I thought, if we build bird oases, that could very well represent some of the remnants of the ‘invisible church,’ but at the same time we’re reflecting and recognizing and celebrating our survival.”

She had noticed that birds were attracted to the debris around the old Pullman clock tower, which had been damaged in a fire and had a flourishing weed garden. Ms. Williams got materials from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about local birds, and started inviting friends to show up weekly to the Pullman site for her newly created “Afrobirders club.”

One member made a huge breakfast buffet every week to lure people out of their beds early. Ms. Williams and other volunteers helped people find inexpensive binoculars, and created paths on the site, including the photos and stories that so enthralled Ms. Sanders.

“The original intent here was a burial ground for Stephen A. Douglas,” Ms. Williams says, looking around at the paths and flowers around her, including trees and shrubs and native species that volunteers planted. “I’m looking at sites beyond what was intended.”

A grant allowed Green Corps volunteers to plant more than 100 trees and shrubs at the Pullman site, and in 2012, Ms. Williams became an Audubon fellow, which gave her more funding that went to improving the Douglas site: planting white oaks, black oaks, and other native trees, shrubs, and flowers. 

Bridging historical gaps

As she looks around the Douglas site now, Ms. Williams is disappointed. She’s been largely absent for a year, getting a masters degree in library and innovation sciences from the University of Illinois, and the state has hired a manager. The gates are now closed at night. Some of the benches are stacked up. Signs she created are missing. 

“Stuff like that shows me there’s a disconnect,” she says, shaking her head, and vowing to get changes made.

She’s eager to get back to regular Afrobirder gatherings, and hopes they can help advocate, again, for better access to sites like the Douglas park. And she’s pleased to see that her granddaughter, as she’s been talking, has found several birds, including crows and robins, Shanti’s favorite.

Many of the birds that come to her bird oases are common ones but that doesn’t make Ms. Williams treasure them less. As a conversation starter, she often asks people what their favorite bird is, and hers is clear: the crow. “He’s so intelligent it’s mindblowing,” she laughs, as she spots a crow light on the ground near her. “I don’t mess with them.”

The oases Ms. Williams has created are small, but in a city, those tiny spots of green can be important for both birds and people, says Ms. Sanders. “Someone like Sherry can help bridge the historical gap between communities that don’t see themselves reflected in these outdoor spaces, and she provides that path for them,” she says, adding that the only way people start to care about nature – whether huge biosphere reserves or local parks – is by experiencing it.

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The Monitor's View

How a splintered country plans to mend

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Ever since post-apartheid South Africa created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, nearly 40 nations have tried to account for past wrongs with forgiveness. Now it is Ethiopia’s turn. Its attempt, which began this year, could help answer an open question: How does a nation heal after violent trauma?

Ethiopia knows it faces a steep task: dealing with brutality from recent authoritarian rule. The East African state is home to more than 80 ethnic groups, often at odds. After Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office last year, his reforms unleashed long-repressed ethnic frustrations. With a national census and an election next year, many fear a return to bloodshed – thus the importance of unity.

The new commission has begun its work of giving voice to victims and placing a long history of human rights abuses in context. The aim is not revenge or retribution. Instead, the commission seeks a narrative for past injustices, to find their root causes and to illuminate them in the hope that understanding will bring forgiveness.

The seeds for unity have been sown – now reconciliation only need take root.

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How a splintered country plans to mend

Ever since post-apartheid South Africa created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, nearly 40 nations have tried to account for past wrongs with forgiveness. Only a few have succeeded.

Now it is Ethiopia’s turn. Its attempt, which began this year, could help answer an open question: How does a nation heal after violent trauma?

Ethiopia knows it faces a steep task: dealing with brutality from recent authoritarian rule. The East African state is home to more than 80 ethnic groups, often at odds. After Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office last year, with a welcome release of political prisoners and a revival of democracy, his reforms unleashed long-repressed ethnic frustrations. They even led to a coup attempt. At this year’s world track championships – an event that should have unified Ethiopians around a national pastime – fans spent more time shouting down each other than cheering on their country’s athletes.

With a national census and an election next year, many fear a return to bloodshed – thus the importance of unity. This February, Mr. Abiy, who has a Ph.D. in conflict resolution, formed the country’s first reconciliation commission. It has begun its work of giving voice to victims and placing a long history of human rights abuses in context. The aim is not revenge or retribution. Instead, the commission seeks a narrative for past injustices, to find their root causes and to illuminate them in the hope that understanding will bring forgiveness.

As its mandate says, the commission will promote “values of forgiveness for the past, lasting love, solidarity and mutual understanding by identifying reasons of conflict, animosity that ... occurred due to conflicts, misapprehension, developed disagreement, and revenge.”

Or as Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained about South Africa’s approach: Forgiveness “involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them.”

Reconciliation is one thing and identity another, but in Ethiopia, the two may develop together. Unlike many surrounding countries, Ethiopia never had a long struggle with colonialism, meaning that other than a long war with Eritrea, it didn’t unify in opposition to a foreign conqueror. Human rights abuses have been mainly internecine – whether it was during a monarchy, a junta, or single-party rule.

Unlike other countries that created similar commissions, Ethiopia’s attempts at reconciliation come from the inside out. There was no far-reaching regime change when Mr. Abiy took office. The party in power is being reformed, not replaced.

Strengthening national identity may follow a similar path. With so much division, Ethiopia needs uniting values. Love, forgiveness, mercy – those championed by the reconciliation commission and Mr. Abiy himself – offer a starting point. The mission is to create a narrative from decades of abuse, and do so with intent to forgive. This can help recast what it means to be Ethiopian. Perhaps the commission will help change concepts of Ethiopian nationhood from division to unity – unity, that is, around love for fellow citizens.

The commission is not without its challenges. Its mandate comes top-down from the government, rather than bottom-up from the people. For it really to take root, it will need mass acceptance. But the separation between government and people may not be so stark. Mr. Abiy is Africa’s youngest leader in one of its few real democracies. If ever there was a chance to redefine nationhood, it is now, with new generations unencumbered by a troubling past.

Mr. Abiy has made strategic missteps in his short time in office. Ethnic infighting is up in a country already with one of the world’s largest number of people displaced by internal conflict. While he increased the country’s freedom, freedom doesn’t cure resentment. Reconciliation does.

A sudden leap toward democracy has challenged a divided Ethiopia. The commission’s job is to help cool the masses. “Loving each other and casting away the spirit of hatred and revenge” are Mr. Abiy’s stated goals. If the country can embrace those ideals it can reconcile. Divided in conflict or united in love? Ethiopia may be closer to the first but seems ready for the second. The seeds have been sown – now reconciliation only need take root.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Overcome uncertainty about the future

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When an injured foot raised concerns about her upcoming plans, a woman found powerful reassurance in the Bible’s promises of God’s goodness and love. The result was healing – not only of her foot, but of general trepidation about the future.

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Overcome uncertainty about the future

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When reading or listening to the news, there is much about the future that seems uncertain. We may also feel a sense of uncertainty about our own lives. Is there a way to overcome such fears?

As I’ve considered this question, I’m grateful for the Bible’s promises of God’s goodness and love. They have consistently helped me overcome “what if” fears about the future, reassuring me that no matter what happens, we can never be separated from God and His love for us.

I especially love this passage from the book of Romans, from the J.B. Phillips translation of the New Testament:

“Can anything separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, pain or persecution? Can lack of clothes and food, danger to life and limb, the threat of force of arms? ... No, in all these things we win an overwhelming victory through him who has proved his love for us. ... Neither death nor life, neither messenger of Heaven nor monarch of earth, neither what happens today nor what may happen tomorrow, neither a power from on high nor a power from below... has any power to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord!” (8:35, 37-39).

I recall a time a few years ago when I faced uncertainty about my own immediate future. I began experiencing significant discomfort in my foot. Walking for any distance was painful. In addition to hindering my day-to-day need to get around, this also raised concerns about an upcoming trip that would include hiking in a national park.

Since I have often found peace and cure of physical problems through prayer, I naturally turned to God for help. My prayer was an affirmation that we can never be separated from God, and therefore can never be separated from the source of true goodness, joy, and health. We always have been, are now, and always will be one with God as His spiritual image, just like the image in a mirror is the inseparable reflection of the original.

I also affirmed that God’s purpose for me – and for all His creation – is entirely good. Our purpose is to glorify Him, and God supplies whatever is required to do this, including safety, intelligence, grace, and love.

While the problem with my foot raised concerns about my immediate future plans, I realized the broader issue was that I was feeling trepidation about my future in general. I was afraid to move forward in life and was clinging to the safety and comfort of the status quo. This wasn’t like me!

So I expanded my prayers, mentally yielding the fear and human outlining about my life to a deeper sense of God’s goodness and love for me. Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, describes God’s care for us in an article called “Angels” in her book “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896”: “God gives you His spiritual ideas, and in turn, they give you daily supplies. Never ask for to-morrow: it is enough that divine Love is an ever-present help; and if you wait, never doubting, you will have all you need every moment. ... This sweet assurance is the ‘Peace, be still’ to all human fears, to suffering of every sort” (p. 307).

The life and work of Christ Jesus proved this to be true in situations where positive outcomes seemed far from certain. Among other things, he fed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, stilled a storm, and healed various illnesses through understanding our inseparability with God. He told his disciples, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). I realized that if Jesus could prove the presence of God’s supply of good in such large-scale situations, surely I could feel and trust the goodness of God in the midst of the more modest challenges I was facing.

Soon, not only was my foot completely healed, but my general fear of the future lifted, too. At no point during the very active trip did I experience a problem with my foot. This healing has remained permanent.

Any time we begin to feel concerned about what the future may hold, whether for ourselves or the world, we can remember that at every moment our Father-Mother God, whose will for us is always good, is present. We can let His love lift us out of fear and light our future.

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Welcoming committee

Willy Kurniawan/Reuters
Students wearing Indonesian traditional costumes talk with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a welcoming ceremony for Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the presidential palace in Bogor, Indonesia, Oct. 7, 2019.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( October 8th, 2019 )

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Come back tomorrow. Technology has been a big talking point amid the auto industry’s ongoing labor dispute. But even as Silicon Valley plays a rising role in car production, Laurent Belsie reports, the industry’s Michigan roots are deep.

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