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My Fellow Citizens,

It’s broken. You might imagine that this phrase refers to one of a hundred possible things. I might be talking about… 

Voter suppression. Prison reform. Corporate personhood. Gerrymandered districts. Family separation at the U.S. Border.

Instead I want to share an image that dominated my thinking as I read Will Harris’s writing on Constitutional Resurrection and the Unrepetant Redeemed. It could represent any one of those things listed above and maybe all of them. 

The image is an obelisk. It is broken and inverted. 

Cast in steel, Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” now sits outside the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. Local art collectors had attempted to place the sculpture outside City Hall in 1969, dedicating it to Dr. Martin Luther King’s memory. The imagery proved to be a powerful and discomforting proposition. City decision-makers said no. 

Now located in the city's arts district, Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” still stands as a “potent emotional way to see America after King’s death: the promise denied, the hope shattered, the republic’s very rationality snapped in two.” 

This status of being “snapped in two” might also be the best way to understand the promise of the 14th Amendment and its application to legal questions today. 

In his presentation at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, Will suggested the 14th Amendment marks a moment of true innovation. It introduced citizenship on equal standing regardless of race, ethnicity or birthplace. This idea of citizenship had never been seen anywhere else in the world.

Will’s diagram shows the 14th Amendment looking up while the 13th Amendment looks back and the 15th Amendment looks forward. [Watch Will’s presentation on YouTube]

The 14th Amendment looks up like an obelisk that pierces the sky and dares to lay claim to the realm of the gods. An obelisk is a statement of timelessness and the principles of the 14th Amendment are no less bold. Our history, however, is a story of limiting the reach of those principles, constraining and inverting them.

Our conversation this week created an opportunity to recall the power the 14th Amendment works to make possible. It even felt like we could be part of a future that concerned itself with mending what is broken.

If you were a part of it, thanks for joining us. If you missed it, clear some time on your calendar for thinking and follow these links.

Let's think together soon,
P.S. Is there an image that gets stuck in your mind's eye like this? If it has a civic theme, reply to this email and tell me about it. We're going to focus on a "civic perspective" in January and I would love to hear about the images that resonate with your civic mind. 

Questions of Civic Proportions


What questions in today's headlines make for great opportunities to discuss the 14th Amendment?

Join the Conversation

(share your answers in our learning community)

In a NYT Opinion piece, T.J. Stiles writes about the 14th Amendment as "The Constitutional Amendment that Reinvented Freedom." It's not hard to imagine that many of us rarely talk about the 14th Amendment in any meaningful way and that when we do it somehow sounds historical, flat and fixed. 

The article includes the additional perspective of constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar who refers to the amendment as a revolution, "a broad reimagining of individual rights and federal power." This all gets forgotten when we label it a Civil War Amendment and cast it aside as history. What could be any less relevant to our political discussions today?

One thing that has surprised me about the Politicolor learning community is that the 14th Amendment shows up in the news shared there at least once a week. 

On voting rights:

"During the age of segregation, and increasingly today, some courts read an amendment meant to protect racial minorities as an opportunity for legislation designed to subordinate them. Those meanings are only plausible to those who do not know the story of the amendment’s framing, or the names and lives of its framers."

--The Struggle Over the Meaning of the 14th Amendment Continues by Garrett Epps in The Atlantic

Also see The United States is Becoming a Two-Tiered Country with Separate and Unequal Voting Laws by Ari Berman in Mother Jones.

On immigration and citizenship:

"Those who attack birthright citizenship, as did former Trump official Michael Anton in a recent Post op-ed, often go out of their way not only to misrepresent the plain meaning of the words of the 14th Amendment and those who drafted and ratified it, but also to ignore the racist and bloody history that required it in the first place."

--Those who deny birthright citizenship get the Constitution Wrong by Elizabeth Wydra in The Washington Post

Also see The Fourteenth Amendment Can't be Revoked by Executive Order by Garrett Epps in The Atlantic.

On those in police custody:

"The financial incentive to pick up as many detainees as possible — with few stops for rest, water, food and bathroom breaks — led to unsanitary and unsafe conditions of confinement, in violation of the 14th Amendment, the lawsuit alleges. It also accuses the companies and their corrections officers of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress for denying Kovari needed medical attention."

--Privately run prison transport company kept detainee shackled for 18 days in human waste, lawsuit alleges by Tracy Jan in The Washington Post

Also see In horrifying detail, women accuse U.S. customs officers of invasive body searches by Susan Ferriss in The Washington Post.

My bigger question is how these debates would sound if we started with the 14th Amendment first. Let it be our guide to what is viable or not, what is patriotic or not. If you give that strategy a go the next time one of these issues come up, be sure to let us know how it goes.  
*The "join the conversation" link above will take you to Politicolor's online learning community where you will need to be a member to access the content. It's free so request an invite when you see that option.
Grab an Invite

What's next from the Initiative for the New Constitution?

Good Work--United in Anger: A History of Act Up

With chants of  "Act Up! We'll never be silent again," this documentary about the Act Up movement is a powerful study of what activism can accomplish. It requires us to look back to when AIDS was a stigma that allowed over 50% of Americans to support quarantining those who suffered from the disease. 15% of Americans were comfortable requiring its victims be tattooed to protect the rest of us.

Direct action looks different when the people who act believe the lives of others depend on them. In the film, one activist uses a universally recognized theme to explain what motivated her: 
"It was about people in power not caring about the lives of people who didn't have power.”

As the world comes together to call for action with World AIDS Day this weekend, let's remember those who were lost and needlessly suffered while our government refused to act. Let's look to the stories of  those who took to the street to demand we do better and find courage to confront today's challenges.
Get Questions of Civic Proportions

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