You wanna talk climate change? Just step outside in a place like the Philly suburbs where it’s a frigid 45 degrees one day, a balmy 70 the next, and where orange leaves are still up in the trees in mid-November, wondering if it’s cold enough yet to take the plunge. Nothing that emerged from the Glasgow climate summit has convinced me I won’t someday be raking leaves in January.
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Commissioners in Pa.’s Trumpiest county branded LGBTQ meeting a ‘hate group.’ Then came the blowback.
Most people only see Fulton County as a 75-mile-per-hour blur of hills on the Pennsylvania Turnpike while driving west from Philadelphia toward Pittsburgh. To the not even 15,000 souls who actually live in the state’s fourth least-populous county, the Fulton County Library on North First Street, in the county seat of McConnellsburg, is a kind of a metaphorical turnpike to a wider world, offering computer terminals for locals lacking internet access and meeting rooms for an array of community groups, while trying to acquire the latest books on its shoestring budget.
Last week, library leaders — who’d seen a small county subsidy (just under 4% of its budget) slashed in half during the Great Recession — sent the Fulton County commissioners a request for an additional $3,000 in the new year, which would bring its total stipend back up to $15,000, or what it had been in the 2000s.
But the two Republicans who wield majority power on the three-member panel said absolutely not, and — according to the account of the meeting in the local weekly, the Fulton County News — they were blunt in explaining why: The library had over the summer given an OK for a proposed new support group for Fulton County’s small, largely invisible LGBTQ-plus community to hold biweekly meetings in its public space.
According to the article by local journalist Cassidy Pittman, GOP commissioner Randy Bunch (no relation, as far as I know), who’s gotten widespread publicity in the Washington Post and elsewhere for the massive 8-foot-high portrait of Donald Trump on the wall of his construction company on McConnellsburg’s main drag, said he believes the LGBTQ community is a hate group.
“If we support them, we have to support Proud Boys and Black Lives Matter,” said Bunch, one of the 85.3% of Fulton County residents who voted for Trump in 2020, the highest percentage in Pennsylvania. The other Republican commissioner, Stuart Ulsh, agreed with Bunch and offered a seeming non-sequitur in defense of his position.
“Do we want Muslims moving into our county?” Ulsh asked, before citing an internet conspiracy theory — thoroughly debunked by Snopes.com — that a Muslim man had been arrested on U.S. soil with a 30-year blueprint for taking over America. After the vote to deny the library the extra $3,000, his colleague Bunch elaborated to Pittman: “I don’t hate anybody. I’m just saying that LGBTQ and any of those organizations make people upset. I personally think none of them need any part in Fulton County. I don’t dislike anybody; I just don’t want something that’s going to create friction between people.”
With that, the latest outrageous salvo in an increasingly bitter American culture war — with the right wing on the offensive against books, teachings, or discussions around race relations or LGBTQ subjects — had been fired in south-central Pennsylvania.
The county commissioners’ attack on the LGBTQ community may have sounded like an echo from the 1950s, but it’s also very much of a piece with a nationwide crusade from Texas to Virginia of conservative activists looking to ban certain books from schools or libraries. This happened just two weeks after Republican Glenn Youngkin rode rural and suburban discontent over anti-racism education in schools to victory in the Virginia’s governor’s race, and just days after school board members in Spotsylvania County, Va., suggested that a couple of LGBTQ-friendly books not only be banned but burned.
But in and around Fulton County, a handful of progressive-minded folks are writing a very different ending to this story — one that should show Democrats who seem on their back heels these days how to fight a culture war and win, and that can offer a ray of hope to anyone alarmed at a growing climate of intolerance in 2020s America.
The blowback started with a local activist Emily Best, who ran in 2018 as a Democrat for state senate when she led an organic farmers’ co-op in McConnellsburg, but recently moved to a neighboring county with her nearly-5-year-old son. Best told me she’d been appalled when she heard late last week about the political flap over the library, which had almost been a second home during the years she’d lived just a few doors away. She’d loved the collection of toys and puzzles that her son — who’d even held his 2nd-birthday party at the library — could play with, the quirky collection of books that included Mennonite romance novels. She said that it seemed a welcoming space in a community that can be distrustful of outsiders. Said Best: “I personally felt very safe in the library.”
That same open-to-all vibe was apparently on the mind of a library patron who approached library director Jamie Brambley earlier this year and requested space for biweekly meetings of an adult LGBTQ-plus Fulton County support group that was being launched in conjunction with TrueNorth Wellness Services.
“There’s really no other place for that community to meet in the county ... to have a safe comfortable meeting place,” Brambley told me on Monday. But apparently flyers promoting the support group over the summer riled some locals, including the two commissioners.
But Best had an idea for how to push back on the culture-war battlefield. She launched a GoFundMe page that hoped to raise $12,000 — or four times the denied request — for the Friends of the Fulton County Library, pleading, “Don’t let the hateful ideas coming from leadership be the only voices heard in Fulton County!”
Over the weekend, Best’s plea for support on Twitter circulated among a community of progressive activists, and it gained steam when a social-media heavyweight — Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a 2022 Democratic candidate for the open U.S. Senate seat — adopted the cause. She also learned of a similar campaign that had been launched on Facebook as a response to the commissioners’ comments about the LGBTQ community. By Tuesday morning, Best’s GoFundMe page had raised $14,495 from 382 donors, while the Facebook drive has raised more than $9,000, or more than eight times the additional dollars sought from the county commission. That total is sure to rise as the controversy gets more publicity.
There’s no immediate plan for how that new money will get spent, but Brambley told me the library would love to add to its current collection of 25 almost-always-out internet “hot spots,” expand its on-site community resources such as 3-D printers and sewing machines, and add to its growing collection of expensive but increasingly popular e-books.
Those upgrades will be fantastic, and one of these days I’d love to get off the Turnpike and see it. But the real value of the Fulton County library fund drive is both intangible and worth far more than $24,000 — the notion that political hate and ignorant intolerance can be beaten back, even in Pennsylvania’s Trumpiest county.
Yo, do this
The Trump years and America’s ongoing slide into autocracy were a wake-up call for the nation’s elite media. So why are they still pretty much asleep? That was the underlying question as the 21st century’s leading critic of our stale journalism norms — NYU professor Jay Rosen — held court for roughly an hour with historian of right-wing movements Nicole Hemmer in the most recent edition of the New York Times’ Ezra Klein Show podcast (the host is on paternity leave). Rosen is the best at explaining why tepid “both sides” journalism usually trumps truth-telling, and how to defeat that.
There are good reasons why Nikole Hannah-Jones won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for her lead essay and work on the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which showed how the original sins of slavery have remained embedded in the American experience for more than 400 years. The idea made the right so crazy that several states have effectively outlawed teaching it to school kids. Today marks the publication of the book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story — edited by Hannah-Jones and three others. It updates the original 11 essays and adds seven new ones, showing the straight lines between slave patrols and “stop and frisk,” or how the New Deal was often a raw deal for Black Americans. Ron DeSantis doesn’t want you to read this book, which is all the more reason to buy it.
Ask me anything
Question: Why can’t the press be happy for Biden? — Via Mary Ann S. (@MareOfMedia) on Twitter
Answer: Many Ann, you should know by now that the press is congenitally never happy. That said, the elite Beltway media is in a weird place in 2021. Although the media could have done much more to amplify the danger to democracy posed by Donald Trump, reporters seem to feel guilt about those times they did venture out of their narrow-minded comfort zone, such as referring to Trump’s many lies as “lies.” Thus, bashing Biden is a return to a cynical “normalcy” that many crave, even if it means exaggerating the bad (like a few days of chaos in the long-overdue Afghan withdrawal) and ignoring the good, including an aggressive vaccine policy, falling unemployment, and passage of COVID-19-relief and infrastructure bills. Sad!
PS: Avid readers know that I am always looking for questions for the Ask Me Anything section. Send me an email with your questions and it could be featured in a future newsletter. Also, I promise to respond to you personally.
If you’re looking for a feel-good story over the last couple of years, the Philadelphia Police Department is not the place to search. The department’s response to the 2020 George Floyd protests, including the tear-gassing of peaceful marchers on the Vine Street Expressway, was more than disappointing, especially when you consider that during the 2010s, the Philly police won kudos for a successful approach to unrest. At the same time, homicides are on a pace in 2021 to shatter the all-time record. That’s why it’s surprising to learn — via the plugged-in New York Post — that Philadelphia’s police commissioner, Danielle Outlaw, is one of three people on the short list of New York’s ex-cop Mayor-elect Eric Adams for the highest-profile job in American policing, running the NYPD.
Outlaw deserves praise as a trailblazer — the first Black woman to head the departments in Portland, Oregon, and now Philly — amid a thin blue line that mightily resists the blazing of any and all trails, but her actual on-the-job record is deeply disappointing. A move to NYC would be a win-win for her and for Mayor Kenney, who would get a do-over midway through his second term. He could try again to do what should have happened in 2019: bring in a real innovator, who could walk the walk of reducing murders and chew the bubble gum of police reform at the same time, here in the lab of America’s sixth-largest city. The racial reckoning of 2020 was a challenge to our cities to find ways to keep everyday citizens safe without the human-rights disaster that U.S. policing has become. Saying goodbye to Outlaw could be the trigger for Philadelphia to finally begin that hard work in earnest.
Inquirer reading list
After my year-long immersion into the intersection of higher education and politics in America, it’s hardly surprising that I had some deep thoughts on last week’s news that right wing public intellectuals and a few big-bucks backers are launching the University of Austin (UATX) to address what they see as the real problem with college today: excessive “wokeness.” In my Sunday column, I wrote about the actual problems that UATX’s founders don’t seem to care about, including how millions of young people in regions that vote for their favored Republicans lack access to the educational opportunities they need.
These are anxious times, and much of America’s angst is focused right now on our troubled legal system. Two high-profile trials — for teen vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse and the killers of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery as well as the slow-mo probe into the January 6 insurrection — will show the nation whether or not 2020 was a real reckoning with racial injustice and creeping authoritarianism. As I wrote over the weekend, the stale state of the American justice system has been exposed, from a runaway judge in Wisconsin to a nearly all-white jury on the red former Confederate soil of Georgia.
I’ve been writing about injustice in my home city of Philadelphia on and off for 25 years, and one name always loomed large: former assistant DA Roger King, who sent away dozens of murder suspects and hung their pictures on his office wall, writing “Death” across the images of the condemned. This happened despite evidence that some of those convictions were tainted — a storyline that seemed to end when King died at age 72 in 2016. Last week, The Inquirer’s Samantha Melamed — in an ongoing probe of Philly’s wrongful-conviction regime that should be a national scandal — dug deep into seven King convictions that have been overturned for prosecutorial misconduct, amid mounting evidence that other injustices are still out there. King may be gone, but those still living with the consequences need an advocate. When you subscribe to The Inquirer, you are supporting this important work.