“I want to see positive change in the country”: In conversation with Amani Wells-Onyioha
The 28-year-old political organizer on Texas politics, progressive values and more. Plus: Biden speaks on US-Russia relations a day after Putin’s invasion.
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FIRST THINGS FIRST
IN CONVERSATION WITH AMANI WELLS-ONYIOHA — As the November midterms approach, I spend a lot of time talking to young grassroots voters, operatives and activists who are working to elect more progressive politicians to local, state and national offices later this year.
It’s to be determined if the palpable energy I feel during every conversation will translate into votes. But there’s no denying that it’s refreshing to see an emerging generation of youthful leaders creating the change they want to see.
One of those leaders is Amani Wells-Onyioha, a Dallas-based political organizer and expert who has worked for the Democratic Party in Dallas, a Texas state representative race, Dallas district attorney races and Beto O’ Rourke’s 2018 US Senate bid.
Now, she works for Sole Strategies — a woman and minority-owned organization built by a team of political experts who specialize in strengthening grassroots campaigns at the community level — as its operations director, keeping the team impassioned and ensuring all operations run efficiently. (And in a wonderful coincidence, she’s also the cousin of one of my closest friends from college and a graduate of my sister’s alma mater.)
In between tracking the latest developments on the Russia-Ukraine crisis (more on that below, of course) and learning what I can about President Joe Biden’s upcoming Supreme Court nominee, I caught up with Amani over the phone this week for a wide-ranging conversation about Texas politics, progressive values, how to close the youth voter participation gap and what’s next for her.
— A few highlights from our conversation:
On how she defines a progressive: “What that means is I want to see positive change in the country. I don’t believe that conservatism is the way. I don’t believe that we should preserve certain values of our nation because it’s been very systematically oppressive to lots of groups of people.”
On how to connect with young voters: “We should start talking directly to things that affect the youth so that they can feel a personal connection to these issues and not hear it from a standpoint that they can’t really connect to themselves.”
On how not to connect with young voters: “It’s the pandering for me. There are ways to talk about issues without using lingo in order to communicate your point. For instance, if you want people to be activated around free college then you need to just simply say, ‘I believe that nobody should go into debt to get an education.’ That’s a simple statement that will get a lot of young people on your side versus you making a tweet that says, ‘Yaaass, girl, no debt!’”
On money in politics: “It’s easy to corrupt people because money talks. So until we put different guidelines in place or just don't allow donations over a certain amount — there’s a lot that we could do to skirt this so that the line isn’t so blurred. Because at this point, it’s not even blurred. It’s very clear what’s happening. American politics is very transactional and we need to end that.”
On how she stays energized: “I definitely try to keep myself on a routine. So I wake up in the morning, I go to the gym every morning and I just treat myself. I will have my glass of Cabernet Sauvignon every night if that’s what I gotta do to stay sane. [Laughs] And I just continue to enjoy my life. This stuff is my life — and happily so — but I still give myself those mental breaks that I need whenever my body calls for it.”
BIDEN SAYS US-RUSSIA RELATIONS ARE IN A “COMPLETE RUPTURE” — President Joe Biden spoke to the nation on Thursday afternoon less than 24 hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked and unjustifiable attack on Ukraine.
“He has much larger ambitions in Ukraine. He wants to, in fact, reestablish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about,” Biden said of Putin. “And I think that his ambitions are completely contrary to the place where the rest of the country has arrived.”
When asked if Biden responded: “There is a complete rupture right now in U.S.-Russian relations if they continue on this path that they’re on.” He also said he has no plans to speak to Putin in the near future.
— About those sanctions: As expected, Biden laid out another round of sanctions in partnership with the leaders of other European countries and American allies.
What the sanctions do:
Sever the connection to the US financial system for Russia’s largest financial institution and its 25 subsidiaries
Place a full block on Russia’s largest financial institution and its 20 subsidiaries
Set a full block on three other major Russian financial institutions and 34 subsidiaries
Carry out new debt and equity restrictions on thirteen of the most critical major Russian enterprises and entities
Add a full block on seven Russian elites and their family members
Apply restrictions 24 Belarusian individuals and entities for the Eastern European country’s support of the invasion
Lay down restrictions to impair Putin’s military capabilities and strategic ambitions
What the sanctions don’t do:
Punish Putin directly. The White House says this option is still on the table, but there’s no guarantee they would be effective since the government may not know where Putin is hiding his assets. (Singh declined to comment during Thursday’s briefing when asked if the administration has an idea of the location of Putin’s money.)
The goal of the sanctions: Choke Russia’s economy so tight that Putin feels compelled to deescalate the attack.
Biden told Cecilia Vega of ABC News that the sanctions weren't imposed to prevent Putin from invading Russia.
He said they are designed to show the resolve and unity of the US and its allies and partners so he knows what's coming and so the people of Russia know what he’s brought on them.
Biden said the sanctions would weaken Russia into a future as a second-rate power and Putin would have to ask himself if that’s something he’d be willing to accept.
One more thing as you judge Biden on the sanctions: For them to work, the sanctions have to be coordinated with partners and allies. So the US may want to do some things that other world leaders don’t and vice versa.
— Additional takeaways from Biden’s speech:
Biden once again conceded that Ukraine is pretty much on its own: The White House disputes this characterization. But just read Biden’s words: “The next few weeks and months will be hard on the people of Ukraine. Putin has unleashed a great pain on them,” he said. “This is a dangerous moment for all of Europe, for the freedom around the world. Putin has committed an assault on the very principles that uphold global peace.” (FWIW, Bloomberg reported that the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv was expected to fall to Russian forces late Thursday night, as Ukraine’s air defenses have been effectively eliminated.)
Biden again tried to reassure Americans who are anxious about the domestic impact of the sanctions: “I know this is hard and that Americans are already hurting,” the president said. “I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump. This is critical to me.” On the other hand, Biden said that Russia’s aggression couldn’t go unanswered or America could suffer worse consequences than the potential economic pinch you could see at the gas pump.
Biden is playing the long game: “Some of the most powerful impacts of our actions will come over time as we squeeze Russia’s access to finance and technology for strategic sectors of its economy and degrade its industrial capacity for years to come.” This seems to conflict with the administration’s previous message that the sanctions were about deterring an invasion.
— NATO will convene a summit today: The event will bring together the leaders of 30 allied nations and close partners to affirm their solidarity and to map out the next steps it will take to strengthen its alliance.
“As I made crystal clear, the United States will defend every inch of NATO terriority with the full force of American power,” Biden said. “And the good news is: NATO is more united and more determined than ever.”
Related: “NATO leaves little room for diplomacy: How the war machine upped the ante in Ukraine” [Norman Solomon / Salon]
— Tell us how you really feel: Andrew Bates, deputy White House press secretary had this to say about Putin and Donald Trump, one of his biggest fanboys:
— This should help: Associated Press is fact-checking all the info coming out of Ukraine in real-time so you can avoid consuming misinformation. Follow AP’s coverage.
FL HOUSE PASSED THE “DON’T SAY GAY” BILL — The Florida House of Representatives on Thursday passed the controversial legislation in a 69-47 vote.
It would ban certain discussions about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools, providing one less safe space for queer students to explore and express their full individuality. Read Supercreator’s previous reporting on the legislation.
The bill will now go to the Senate where, as Brooke Migdon at The Hill reports, a similar piece of legislation is already being debated.
COULD THIS BE A SIGN? — Lawyer and journalist Katie Barlow noted on Thursday that the DC Circuit court released an opinion yesterday, a departure from its standard drop on Tuesdays and Fridays. Read Katie’s tweets.
This is an (unconfirmed) signal that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who sits on the court, could be Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
There’s recent precedent, as Barlow explains: When then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, the DC Circuit published a rare Monday opinion prior to the nomination announcement.
President Biden is expected to announce his selection by Monday. But Vice President Kamala Harris canceled a scheduled trip to Louisiana fueling speculation that the announcement could come as soon as this afternoon.
— UPDATE (9:25 AM): President Biden has nominated Jackson to the Supreme Court.
THE 3 OTHER GEORGE FLOYD OFFICERS FOUND GUILTY — J.Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, three former Minneapolis police officers, were convicted on all counts by a federal jury Thursday of depriving George Floyd of his constitutional rights during his killing at the hands of fellow officer Derek Chauvin nearly two years ago, Rochelle Olson and Andy Mannix at the Star-Tribune report.
They reportedly showed little reaction as the judge read the verdict, but Olson and Mannix wrote that Lane slightly shook his head and shrugged as he looked at his attorney.
The jury — all of whom were white; eight women, four men, from all over Minnesota — took about 13 hours to reach a verdict.
Chauvin was convicted in state and federal court and is serving his sentence in a Minnesota correctional facility.
President Biden entered office with a policing reform bill in Floyd’s name at the top of his list of legislative priorities. But lawmakers in Congress couldn’t negotiate a deal and there has been little indication that meaningful talks are still taking place. Read the backstory on the George Floyd Act.
—Related: “Ex-officer charged in Breonna Taylor raid begins trial” [Dylan Lovan and Michael Warren / AP News]
TEXAS’S HIGH COURT HEARS ABORTION-BAN CHALLENGE — Abortion providers challenging a Texas law that bans abortion after six weeks presented arguments to the nine-justice state Supreme Court on Thursday, Eleanor Klibanoff at Texas Tribune report.
The 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals asked the Texas Supreme Court to weigh on a question of state law before it rules on the case.
It’s one of several state laws in Republican-controlled states that restrict abortion access for people of color and those with low income.
The Senate is expected to vote on a bill when it returns from recess next week that would codify the right to an abortion.
— Related: Abortion bills now account for more than half of all abortions [Kylie Cheung / Jezebel]
— And finally, a couple of interesting (but unsurprising) recent survey findings:
Fewer than half of Black Americans say they have a three-month emergency fund, and some have taken multiple jobs to make ends meet. [Khadijiah Edwards / Pew Research Center]
Have a great weekend!
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TODAY IN POLITICS
— President Biden will meet this morning with NATO heads of state and government in a virtual summit to discuss the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Then he will receive his daily intelligence briefing.
— Vice President Harris will participate virtually this morning in a meeting with leaders of the Bucharest Nine (B9) group of the US’s eastern flank NATO allies to discuss Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the group’s collective response. Participants include leaders from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and the European Union.
— The House is out.
— The Senate is out.
READ ALL ABOUT IT
Lately, Leonhardt has served as a sort of Rorschach test for liberal America. For those who are healthy and ready to move on with their lives — or those who, by choice or necessity, already have — his message is comforting and authorizes their behavior, their exhaustion, and even their resentment toward those who still insist on caution. For others, Leonhardt is a dangerous font of wishful thinking: a Pied Piper leading the nation’s liberal elites into a self-satisfied state of necro-normalcy in which thousands of lives are disposable. These disagreements are as much about how we should regard all this suffering as they are about how we may prevent it. The pandemic has dealt unspeakable damage, but our social system has evinced a remarkable capacity to metabolize mass death and to acquiesce to more and more morbid definitions of normal. For Leonhardt’s sharpest critics, this appetite for normalcy is a disturbing sign of our callousness; for his defenders, it’s the only way beyond our despair.
— John-John Williams IV on the surging demand for Black art:
In this time of racial reckoning, a renewed emphasis has been placed on the Black aesthetic — whether in the form of Black art and designs or the talents brought to a project by Black creatives who are colored by Black culture. The range of expressions is vast, from ancient African design, tribal nods and animal prints, to contemporary pieces that include photographs, abstract art and every imaginable creation in between.
— Jerusalem Demsas on what happens when Americans stay in the same house forever:
At the end of the day, it’s about balance. It’s not that everyone should be moving all the time, but that they should always have the option.
If the psychologists are right and individualists overwhelmingly want to leave small towns and rural America, it could severely unbalance the country. And not just unbalance the country because the nonconformists have all fled for the superstar cities, but because it’s often only the better-off mavericks who are able to leave. This type of economic residential segregation can have serious consequences for the children who grow up in disinvested communities.
While stability can sound great in theory, what it means in practice is different depending on the circumstances. A stable white-picket-fence suburb could be great for some people, but if “stable” means trapped in a high-poverty neighborhood, that’s a policy failure. Research has found that while declining interstate mobility may be due to changing preferences for white Americans, Black Americans are increasingly unable to move when they expect to.
— Taylor Trudon on the couples who got married on 2/22/22:
On this overcast morning, couples began lining up outside the courthouse steps an hour before it opened. Some wore white dresses and held bouquets of flowers while others gripped umbrellas in anticipation of potential rain showers. Inside, the waiting area was abuzz as the brides- and grooms-to-be excitedly — and nervously — perched on their seats, designated witnesses nearby with iPhone cameras ready, each waiting for their number to be called and their turn to say “I do.”
— Roxana Hadadi on why Abbott Elementary should let Principal Ava stay terrible:
Abbott Elementary is clear from the beginning that Ava is “bad at her job,” as Melissa exasperatedly says during a talking-head interview, and “just the latest in a long line of people who do absolutely nothing,” according to Barbara, and the principal’s ineptitude serves two functions. Broadly, any realistic depiction of an American workplace needs a bad boss, and specifically, positioning Ava as an id-like figure causing mayhem at Abbott also avoids any possibility of mistaking the school’s students as the teachers’ burdens, irritations, or enemies. The long-running hardships faced by the faculty and staff come from bureaucratic and systemic failures outside of their control, and the series is realistic in its quiet observations that much of this, from outdated textbooks to produce-lacking school meals, is unfixable from the bottom up. But the day-to-day chaos manifested by Ava’s immaturity and spontaneity? That’s easier for the teachers to solve, and Abbott Elementary’s episodic format allows James to charm as an ever-flowing fountain of mayhem while the other characters get sketched out through how they grapple with her actions.
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