Nikolai Mather

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Editorial: Free Writers, Free Press

Journalism in the era of fake news and clickbait often requires a choice between personal integrity and money. You want to make money doing something you love, but your publisher might require you to hit meaningless “click” quotas or espouse harmful, extremist, or just plain stupid ideas. So you become a shill: just another talking head whom the nation’s great-uncles quote at Christmas dinner. Or you want to write about the things you’re passionate about, but your publisher doesn’t like what you say or how “unpopular” your stories are online. So you become a freelancer, doomed to wander from alternative lifestyle blog to alternative lifestyle blog until you give up and start working in a cubicle like your dad.

Not every writer experiences this. Some of us are lucky enough to find a company that allows us both: to do our jobs ethically and to get paid well. But this tension is a constant source of fear for journalists everywhere, particularly with the harder-hit regions of the industry, like local and alternative media, which is part of the reason why the sudden demise of Creative Loafing, Charlotte’s only alternative weekly, was so profoundly painful for the Niner Times staff.

On October 31, the entire staff of Creative Loafing was fired by Charles Womack, the owner of Womack Newspapers, Inc. Womack, who also owns the Greensboro paper YES! Weekly, made an executive decision to sell CL to his 28-year-old son and terminate the print edition, stating: “The media industry is moving fast and furious into the digital age, and that is where Creative Loafing needs to be.” The former staff was not given any severance or even time to figure out their next line of work. Womack walked into the newsroom and gave them five minutes to pack up and leave.

Creative Loafing Kiosk by Nikolai Mather

Here at the Niner Times, we rest easy knowing that our publication isn’t just a paper: it’s a university institution. No matter what we may write or how many Retweets our pieces get, we retain fierce support from a network of full-time staff members, student organizations, academic departments and community groups. But we know that one day we will graduate, and if we choose to continue our careers as journalists, we may be subjected to the same treatment our friends at Creative Loafing received. After all, Ryan Pitkin, the former editor-in-chief of CL, was once our A&E editor. With local news and alternative weeklies being swallowed whole by press giants, we are faced with an increasingly urgent question: how do we survive in this new media landscape?

We don’t really have the answers, but we do have a story. In an interview, Pitkin talked about the immediate aftermath of his staff’s dismissal. They all trooped down to Solstice Tavern in NoDa, where they “drank and processed” the events of that afternoon. Within a few hours, their Tweets about the incident blew up, rapidly gaining hundreds of Likes and Retweets. Pitkin let his followers know where they were and linked his Venmo for folks to donate to their bartab. For the rest of the day, they received visitors from all over Charlotte to thank them for their work — artists, creatives, writers and diehard fans — and they were sent approximately $1,100 in donations from people all over the United States. Later that week, someone on Facebook suggested a benefit show for the writers; hundreds of people commented asking how they could participate. It eventually culminated in RIP Fest, a showcase of local bands, bars and restaurants that helped crowdsource the funds needed to launch the former staff’s newest project, Queen City Nerve, an independent paper led by journalists, not publishers.

Maybe local news is less entertaining than CNN or less fun than Buzzfeed, but Pitkin saw how the city of Charlotte felt about their work. “We realized even before RIP Fest just how much we had meant to the community and how much we needed to fill that void.” Though the former staff had toyed with the idea of creating a new publication, they didn’t seriously consider it until investors came to them asking to start anew. His answer? “Let’s do it. Like, this is an opportunity of a lifetime; to actually start an independently-owned newspaper, and do it the way we want to do it, and not worry about the publisher and whether he’s gonna invest in things that we need.”

The Niner Times staff believes that the key to creating a world with just ethical news is letting journalists lead the way. Only by giving them the respect and self-determination they deserve can we keep the press truly free. Yes, we should adapt to an Internet-based platform, but no, we should not sacrifice the livelihoods and legacies of talented reporters in pursuit. The independent press was born to inform the public, not entertain, prey upon or deceive it. We should all trust local journalists like Pitkin and his staff to adapt to this brave new world and provide that information. Not because we know them well or follow them on Twitter, but because that’s their job. And they’re really, really good at their job.

The Niner Times editorial board stands with Queen City Nerve in its mission to provide quality coverage of the Charlotte area and empower its staff to determine their needs and their careers.

No free rides: Should Charlotte’s public transit be free?

For the past year or so, my favorite place on the Internet has been a Facebook group called New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens. It’s a forum of about 124,000 public transit and urbanism fans who post memes about everything from Amtrak to hostile architecture to Uber. It’s where I discovered a particular nexus of Charlotte-based transportation nerds, who have extremely strong opinions on the state of our local transit system — particularly the LYNX Blue Line, which opened March 2018.

We’ve discussed a lot of the Blue Line’s flaws: its careless disruption of historic neighborhoods, its bumbling security officers who stay armed to the teeth, its lack of integration with other transportation depots (like the airport and the Amtrak station) and so on. But I’ve never heard any criticism for the “honor system” of ticket payment for the light rail. In fact, many of the people I’ve met in this Facebook group like this system because they believe that public transportation should be free.

The reasoning behind this concept is relatively straightforward:  people already pay taxes to create and maintain our systems of public transportation, so why should they pay extra to reap the benefits? Proponents tend to point out that government subsidies already cover 29 to 89 percent of operating costs for light rail and metro systems in the United States. Here in Charlotte, the federal government paid for about 50 percent of the Blue Line and Blue Line extension’s construction, the state government paid 25 percent and the remaining fees were covered by local taxes and other funds. So free-ride advocates ask a valuable question: are fares necessary for a sustainable system?

This query is especially relevant as the threat of climate change looms. Greenhouse gas levels are higher than ever, and one of its major contributors is the sheer number of cars in use. And if that doesn’t scare you, then maybe Charlotte’s traffic will. A study by the transportation analytics company Inrix Inc. estimated that Charlotte commuters spent an average of 24 hours sitting in traffic last year. Some analysts have posited that offering free rides will coax people out of their cars and onto the light rail platforms.

I spoke to Nadia Anderson, an Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design and the Director of the City.Building.Lab, about whether doing away with fares would be a good plan for Charlotte. She questioned the effectiveness of a completely free system. “It’s good for people to have a little skin in the game,” she stated. “A lack of fares may cause the system to be taken for granted.” A report from the National Center for Transportation Research showed that fare-free rides tended to attract the “wrong” crowd — namely rowdy teenagers whose trail of vandalism and graffiti required costly repairs and maintenance. In fact, several case studies have shown that making public transportation free doesn’t usually entice people with cars; people who are already using alternative methods, like walking and cycling, tend to take advantage of fare-free systems.

The argument is fascinating, but based on the multitude of case studies and reports, I don’t think that making our public transit free is the best method for increasing ridership. Our city — our whole state, really — is extremely dependent on cars. Doing away with fares will likely not make public transit more popular simply because our current transit system is not robust enough. 

But whether you’re an urbanist meme creator or just a student trying to get around, I think it’s important to keep having these conversations about improving our public transit. There are other ideas that deserve consideration, like reduced fares or employer-sponsored tickets, and if we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint and make our city more integrated, we need to explore these options together. Anderson agrees; she believes it’s time to get out of the car and engage with the Charlotte area. “What you encounter along the way is just as important as your destination. That is what makes for a vibrant city fabric.”

Five ways UNCC can (and should) support trans people

Last week was rough for transgender people. On Oct. 21, the New York Times released a memo from the Trump administration detailing new definitions of sex and gender, which, if implemented, would initiate a massive rollback of federal protections for transgender and nonbinary Americans. This memo was followed by a number of other political attacks on trans rights. On Oct. 24, the Department of Justice told the Supreme Court that it ought to be lawful to discriminate against employees based on gender identity, and according to the Guardian, U.S officials are pushing to remove the word “gender” from United Nations human rights policy, in what they characterize as “vague and politically correct language.”

As a transgender person, I’m frankly horrified by these developments, but I’m not at all surprised. The federal government has always preyed on trans and nonbinary folks and the few political gains we’ve made in the past couple years were contingent upon Obama’s executive appointments. Unfortunately, Donald Trump really can execute these policies. With that being said, there are still plenty of opportunities to combat this egregious assault on trans and nonbinary folks, and we can start right here at home. According to Campus Pride, a nonprofit that scores colleges based on how LGBTQ+ inclusion, UNC Charlotte has only three out of five stars. We could drastically improve that score — and provide vital support for trans people — by making concrete commitments to the following demands:

Hire transgender and nonbinary people. According to a 2015 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality, the rate of unemployment for transgender people is 3 times that of the general population. Trans people need jobs. If they’re academics, they need tenure, and trans students need mentors. The few trans faculty and staff I’ve met at UNC Charlotte have provided invaluable guidance to me and other students. They play an important role in a precarious but absolutely necessary support system that helps trans and nonbinary students realize that we can not only survive past our thirties, but become smart, successful individuals. As the old saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Let people list their preferred pronouns, name and gender marker in the University system. The number of hoops trans people have to jump through in order to get called our actual names is ridiculous. Every semester, I have to send out a mass email to my professors telling them my name and my pronouns. Because I’m fairly open about my gender identity, this process is kind of frustrating for me, but for trans people who are not “out,” it can be unsafe. Furthermore, it’s confusing; people don’t understand why my email address gives one name, but my email signature gives another. It would be so much easier if we had the option of adding our preferred names, pronouns and gender markers to the University information systems. Trans people would no longer have to “out” themselves every day, and professors wouldn’t be scratching their heads wondering why the male grad assistant is registered as “Sarah” in Canvas.

Create better housing for trans and nonbinary people. Trans people should not be forced to live with the wrong gender. At best, it’s dehumanizing; at worst, it’s dangerous. I’ve been assigned roommates who asked me invasive questions about my genitals, who asked me to bleach the shower every time I use it, who screamed at me and called me “sinful” all because I’m a trans man. Most of the cisgender people I’ve roomed with are wonderful, but there are still plenty who’d put hand sanitizer in your milk on account of your identity. UNC Charlotte needs to have a comprehensive system that gives better housing options to trans and nonbinary people. Let trans people room with their actual gender or pair them with other trans folks.

Make restrooms more accessible. Do y’all know how much of my life revolves around bathrooms? Most days I have to walk ten minutes just to find a bathroom I can use — time better spent in class. There are far too few all-gender restrooms on campus, and those that do exist are still labeled “family” (even though there are definitely more trans folks on campus than “families”). It’s such a simple fix; all we need to do is get new signs for single-use restrooms. It would make a world of difference for trans and nonbinary people. Besides, everybody benefits from all-gender restrooms. Cisgender women would no longer need to sneak into the men’s toilet when the ladies’ room is occupied. Since both would be gender neutral, we can all just pee free.

Promote inclusive norms and behaviors. This one is for everybody, not just the administration. In addition to advocating for all of these causes, you can support transgender and nonbinary people by making small changes to your daily routine. Introduce yourself using your name and your pronouns. Get some cute pro-trans bumper stickers. Don’t make assumptions about other people’s identities. Call out transphobic behavior — not just with the religious protesters on our campus, but with your friends, your family and your coworkers. Go to inclusivity trainings, and for the love of God, donate. Trans folks, particularly trans people of color and young folks, are extremely vulnerable to homelessness and poverty; they need far more than just a supportive Tweet.

We live in a terrifying political moment, but we cannot let our fear lock us into inaction and indecision. The marginalized members of our community are counting on UNC Charlotte’s leaders to stand up for them when the nation’s leaders won’t. Because if we don’t take action, then who will?

Change the name

If we engraved our buildings with quotes of those they honor instead of their names, what would our campus look like? Popp-Martin Student Union might say, “I stand on the shoulders of giants.” The Cone Center might say “This too shall pass.”

Jerry Richardson Stadium might say, “Show me how you wiggle to get those jeans up.”

Largely regarded as a hometown hero, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson faced public outcry in December 2017 after Sports Illustrated reported that he exhibited “inappropriate workplace comments and conduct.” Four former employees described a workplace culture rife with sexual harassment, where women were propositioned, groped and leered at by Richardson. On “Casual Fridays,” when Panthers employees typically wore jeans to work, Richardson made a habit of walking through the office and making female employees stand so he could “admire their backsides.” He would offer back rubs, foot massages and to personally shave female employees’ legs. Richardson’s conduct, which was described by a former employee as “wackadoo,” created a hostile environment for women.  As one employee put it, “It was a power culture. You did what [Richardson] said, when he said it.”

In addition to these allegations, Richardson was also reported to display racist behavior. In 2016, Richardson “released”—fired—Toronto Argonauts safety Marcus Ball after Ball, a Black man, prayed and pointed a finger to the sky during the national anthem. Richardson is also said to have preferred Black football players not wear dreadlocks, and to have assumed Cam Newton went “crazy” and got tattooed after being drafted. And according to the NFL investigation, Richardson directed a racial slur at a Black scout for the Panthers. Richardson’s racism is especially unsettling in a city touted as a bastion of the New South; despite the Carolina Panthers’ statements on “diversity,” Richardson has evidently neglected these commitments.

This misconduct was enough for Richardson to be fined a record-breaking $2.75 million by the NFL. But apparently, it wasn’t enough for UNC Charlotte. Recently, the Board of Trustees announced their decision to keep Richardson’s name on our stadium. Richardson’s contract with the Athletics Department demands his name be used as an identifier for the stadium “in perpetuity;” supporters often note no morals clause preventing this. Plus, this contract, worth $10 million, helps sustain the University and its athletic program.

However, UNC Charlotte legal policy states that if an individual whose name is honored by UNC Charlotte is convicted of criminal behavior or “engages in conduct that, in the sole discretion of the University, is injurious to the reputation of the University,” the naming contract can be rescinded. Furthermore, any donations already made would be retained by UNC Charlotte. Richardson, whose donations come in annual $1 million increments, has already fulfilled $5 million of his contract with UNC Charlotte.

But the dilemma is not whether UNC Charlotte can change our stadium’s name. It’s whether they should. I want to point out that this kind of issue—the moral quandary of honoring misogynistic, racist or otherwise discriminatory and predatory individuals in our universities—is not at all unique to UNC Charlotte. In 2014, Duke University’s Board of Trustees chose to rechristen a dorm named for a white supremacist after students petitioned for its removal. In 2016, student activists at Harvard scored a decisive victory when Harvard announced that it would retire its usage of the Royall family crest, in part due to its deep ties with slavery. And last month, activists in Chapel Hill finally pulled down Silent Sam, UNC’s most visible monument to the Confederacy. Students everywhere no longer buy the flimsy excuse of “honoring our history,” so long as it means honoring the architects of oppression and violence.

The Board of Trustees watched these events unfold, some firsthand—yet it insisted upon keeping the name. Why would it cling to Richardson? He never went to school here. He was never employed here. And he clearly rejects UNC Charlotte’s values. You could argue that we need the contract’s funds, but what we lose in this transaction is incredibly disheartening. If we are willing to trade the comfort and sense of belonging of women, victims of sexual harassment and people of color for only $5 million, what does that say about our university? Why should marginalized people be burdened with his racist, misogynistic and sexually exploitative reputation?

We cannot claim to champion inclusion, diversity and accountability if we continue to honor Jerry Richardson. Until we remove his name from our stadium and properly address racism, misogyny and sexual harassment on campus, we are just paying lip service to the struggle of oppressed people. If we used quotes instead of names, Jerry Richardson Stadium wouldn’t need to display Richardson’s comments. It could just say “we don’t care about you.”

Photo by Nikolai Mather

The Fight for Inclusion

I was sixteen years old when Blake Brockington died. I remember the feeling in my chest when I heard the news; I remember writing a few lyrics about it after reading the articles; I remember seeing the photos of him in that green “Legalize Trans*” t-shirt. I remember feeling this kinship to him; though I had never known of him up until that day, much of the weight he had to carry was similar to mine. Two trans men growing up in the Carolinas, struggling to make a life out of so much strife.

Blake became this concept in my head. He was someone–or something–for me to fight for. He was woven into the story of my activism: Blake Brockington, homecoming king, organizer, figure in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights. Since I’ve moved to Charlotte, I learned that no matter how strong this kinship feels, I will never know Blake the person. My friends have tried to fill in the gaps. He was a music major. He had two cats. His foster mom was named Rachel. He could argue with someone about Frank Ocean day and night. No matter how hard they try, their stories and memories and love cannot replace Blake the person.

Now that I know this, I can’t help but look around and I see my friends through the lens I once had for Blake. Aimee, the figure. Folks would frame her as this sweet person who just wanted to live her life in peace. I’d remember her as the girl who took me sledding on a folding table by Craver Road; who took up space and demanded all that life could give. Asha, the figure. Folks would frame her as this kind person who fought for queer people of color. I’d remember her as this loud, rude Aries who liked Odd Future and Cookout; who always had just the right reaction gif to whatever dumb comment someone made in the group chat. Sometimes I think about me, the figure. How would the living frame me if I had taken Blake’s path? Would I be a fierce advocate with a heart of gold? Or would I be the guy who liked The Room way too much, who never shut up about his mom and played the banjo?  Then I stopped to consider: why am I thinking about my memorial in the first place?

Death is ever-present for queer and transgender people. 41% of transgender folks attempt suicide. Queer youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide as straight youth. You’d be hard-pressed to find a community that hasn’t lost a queer and/or transgender individual due to homicide. Death is present here in Charlotte, where two Black trans women were murdered in 2017, where two trans men committed suicide in 2015. It’s present in the way that Nada carries their keys between their fingers the night after a sexual assault. It’s present in the way that Joe hides pepper spray in his pockets after a man followed him home one night. It’s present in the way that we travel in packs, that we check in with each other every single day, that when one of us is looking down with fists clenched, we ask, “you okay?” even if we barely know them. Death is here, and it’s queer.

It shouldn’t be that way. It is 2018, yet there are still hundreds of folks in Charlotte who show up at school board meetings spewing vitriol about “the homosexuals.” It is 2018, yet folks still find it appropriate to refer to me as “it.” It is 2018, yet my high school pals are still dealing with their principal canceling LGBTQ+ Pride Day because it’d be “too political.” Homophobia was supposed to end with gay marriage being legalized. Transphobia was supposed to end with the repeal of HB2. But they’re both still here.

So people continue to die, and dear friends with hobbies and interests and quirks and flaws are made into these impossibly perfect martyrs. I try to be strong when it happens, but I hate it. I hate wandering through a graveyard full of dead people with dead names. Making these people into figures makes me want to pull my hair out. They were so much more than that. They are so much more than that.

I think that’s what guided me in starting the UNC Charlotte LGBTQ+ Coalition. Blake Brockington was a student here. He could have been anyone: Aimee, Asha, Nada, Joe, me—it can be anyone, and it can happen again. So what can we do to prevent it? What will we do to prevent it?

I asked these questions at the inaugural meeting of the Coalition. Here’s what we came up with:

Shelby Williams thinks a home would help. “I wandered this campus for two semesters with no space to exist without judgement or explanation. It’s been so lonely.” Isolation, even on busy college campuses, is incredibly common for queer and transgender people. We fear that those we meet won’t understand us, or that they might object to our identities. Having a space where we can sit and talk without that constant fear would work wonders for those cut off from the community. Not only that, but having a space where LGBTQ+ people can actually meet one another can help build this community. “I had no friends who were like me until last week,” says Shelby. A center would ensure that no one feels alone.

Gabriel Cartagena agrees. “To combat that isolation, and to allow our queer community to thrive, I think the least the school could do is provide us with our own space.” To some folks, an LGBTQ+ center may be nothing but a room, but to the queer clubs and groups on campus, it’s so much more than that. “There are so many queer organizations on campus that don’t have a regular meeting place.” And for those dozens of groups—whose aim can be anything from giving out scholarships to LGBTQ+ students to hosting weekly game nights—that lack of space leaves them in a very precarious situation. Growth and development almost always hinges on having a good home base, and if your “home base” is a study room you can only reserve for an hour each week, it’s incredibly difficult to take your group to the next level. So many clubs and groups have died out because there isn’t a space for them. A center would ensure that these groups would not only survive, but thrive, and improve the campus climate for LGBTQ+ people.

Aria Jadzia Rose thinks that having cohesive access to resources would help fight homophobia and transphobia. “[With a center], students can recognize themselves and start new projects.” Aria and I helped found a campaign for gender-inclusive restroom signs back in January, and it was incredibly difficult getting things off the ground without funding or support from a university office. An LGBTQ+ center would link the community with resources from all over campus, and ensure that scholarships, grants, and job openings do not go unused or unfilled. It can also provide aid—monetary, strategic, or otherwise—to community members seeking to start new projects and meet community needs. “Just having this center would mean that more opportunities are waiting for our community.”

But the one thing that united our coalition top to bottom was simple: to keep this community alive. We do this work for many people. Some of us knew Blake. Some of us knew Ash. Some of us knew Sherrell, or Derricka, or Leelah, or Matthew. But most of all, we know one another. We do this work because we don’t want to watch our friends get turned into political figures. We do this work because we don’t want to watch our friends die.

Homophobia and transphobia are big problems with deadly consequences. We believe that UNC Charlotte has the power to challenge them. We believe that LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff deserve safety and respect. And we believe that an LGBTQ+ center is a great start to meeting those needs. I will never get the chance to meet Blake Brockington, and tell him how much he means to me. Now is the time to meet the queer and transgender individuals of this university, and show them how much they mean to us.

Pay Her: Stripper’s Rights

There are two phases unique to the college experience: one, accepting party invitations from randos on the only_49ers Snapchat story; two, feeling so frustrated with one’s grades, coursework, and student debt that less conventional career options feel more acceptable. By that I mean: at one point or another, everybody has slammed a book shut, slid down in their chair, and thought: “Screw this, I’m gonna become a stripper.” And who could blame them? Thanks to party boys flexing on Instagram to wild stories of 2 Chainz & Drake dropping $2 million at one Atlanta club, stripping is widely seen as an easy way to make fast cash. We tend to make the assumption that all that cash manages to make it from the dancers’ G-strings to their bank accounts. And that is a dangerous assumption to make, because not only is it untrue, it jeopardizes the safety and livelihood of arguably the most vulnerable class of wage earners: strippers and sex workers. Recently, five strippers filed a lawsuit against Cameo Nightclub for flouting labor rights laws by failing to pay salaries and overtime. The dancers allege that they are treated like employees—the club owner, Damon Woodlums, and “house mom” (identified only as “Sirinity”) determine who gets to dance, when they get to dance, where they get to dance (in VIP or in regular sections), and how they get to dance. Cameo has restrictions on what the dancers can wear and how they’re allowed to do their makeup. Dancers are required to pay a house fee and various, sometimes hefty fines for otherwise insignificant mistakes (such as missing a stage cue). Though the DJs and staff receive their own salaries, strippers are required to pool their money and split the tips with them. There’s nothing wrong with being treated like employees. The problem is that here in North Carolina, strippers are not legally defined as employees. They’re labeled as “independent contractors.” Essentially, independent contractors are self-employed workers. They’re typically hired as outside help for a short period of time, and by and large control their own employment circumstances, including when and how work is completed. It’s an industry norm to label strippers as independent contractors; in fact, because so many dancers enjoy the creative ownership and empowerment the term lends, it is favored. “If given the choice,” says Angelina Spencer, spokeswoman for ACE National and former stripper, “most dancers prefer the independent contractor model.”

But when an industry is forcing its “independent contractors” to obey the rules and do the work of an employee—without the salary of an employee—then something is amiss. There’s a couple of things we can do to fix this. For one, it’s about time we start respecting strippers and other sex workers for selecting and mastering an incredibly difficult line of work. Despite sex work being the oldest profession in history, those who work in that field have been ridiculed, ostracized, and brutalized for centuries. So enough with the dead hooker jokes, and educate yourself on the challenges sex workers face on a day-to-day basis. Cardi B didn’t fight her way out of the Bronx just so you could hate on women stronger and cooler than you. Two: if you’re upset because you think that strippers aren’t “empowered,” then maybe you should try and empower them. I don’t mean “rescue” them from the industry, because believe it or not, most folks choose this line of work, and their choice must be respected. But if you see a lady in seven inch platforms at the next women’s march, maybe pass her the mic. Let sex workers lead the way to their own liberation; support them in whatever way you can. Three: if you’ve read this whole article and are still chortling about the fact that it’s about strippers, this is for you: PAY HER. Next time you and “the boys” roll up to a gentlemen’s club, keep in mind that you’re not only paying the dancer, but also her boss, the bartenders, the DJs, and the house mom backstage. Don’t be that guy with a fifty in his pocket. Who knows, you might meet the next Amber Rose?

The Lie of Gerrymandering

I’m a political science major, and I’ll be the first to admit that gerrymandering is an extremely dull topic. Congressional redistricting just isn’t as sexy as other issues! But with the recent verdict from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, understanding its ramifications is vital, now more than ever. Gerrymandering essentially means the construction of a congressional district in favor of one’s party. It was coined by the Boston Gazette in 1812 to describe the appallingly contorted districts of Massachusetts. Clearly, it’s not a new issue, but for North Carolinians, it is by far the most concerning. Before Republicans took the House and Senate, Democrats packed right-of-center voters into squiggly splatters of districts in order to keep their legislative seats. And when Republicans took control, they redrew the districts in order to dilute the influence of all kinds of folks: progressives, centrists, even unaffiliated voters who just happened to be people of color. The shapes of the districts were unbelievably ridiculous: District 12 stretched from Gastonia to Durham and was in some places no wider than a single car lane, District 2 curled around 4 in a sort of swollen U shape, and District 13 appeared to be more of a squashed Keith Haring figure than a congressional district. These shenanigans have left many a voter without a voice. It has unfairly allowed Republicans a 10-3 advantage over Democrats in the federal government, and blocked people of color, particularly Black folks, from an equal sway over the elections. Remember the 14th Amendment? Good, because apparently our representatives don’t. Thankfully, our state has been ordered by the courts to scrap the old district maps. However, the panel is leaving it up to the legislature to decide who gets to redraw our congressional lines. Which begs the question: how do we go about completing this contentious, tedious process?

Typically, the privilege is left up to the majority party, but the Supreme Court has struck down Republican drafts as unconstitutional over and over again. As a matter of fact, the only thing restraining them from gerrymandering even further, as Representative David Lewis (R) put it, was because they “[did] not believe it [was] possible to draw a map with eleven Republicans and two Democrats.” Clearly, Republicans have too much at stake to redraw these maps sans partisan intent. Then should we leave it up to the minority party? Absolutely not. Democrats have proven themselves quite capable of dishing out some fishy districts as well. In 2003, when they held the majority, they drew a map that consistently elected majority Democrats. Former Speaker Jim Black (D) stressed the importance of Democratic control of the district redrawing, and gave an awfully patronizing response to claims of racial bias in the new maps: “I personally believe African-American citizens will be better off with Democratic leaders for the next 10 to 20 years.” This cycle of gerrymandering in our state has been brewing for decades. New technology can give lawmakers the names, ages, and political registrations of folks down to the city block. And legislators on both sides of the aisle have demonstrated time and time again that they are incapable of making these important political decisions when their jobs are on the line. So why in the world do we continue to hand the responsibility of congressional redistricting back to them? Why give the task of drawing nonpartisan election maps to folks whose very livelihoods rely on their continued partisanship and election? Republicans would like to hang on to their seats, I’m sure. But 2018 is an election year, and if the #Resistance manages to stumble into the polls come November, all y’all are in deep trouble, gerrymandering or no. And you know what? The rest of us would be, too! Once the pendulum swings right again, we’re gonna be plagued by Matthew Shepherd truthers and pro-slavery conservatives (again). If we don’t break this toxic pattern of gerrymandering, we’re going to be playing tug-of-war with constituents for the next century. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to a happy medium? Where we’re discussing nonpartisan issues like school funding and childcare instead of going for the jugular every session? Then we have GOT to fix this stupid problem. And the only way to do that is if we (all of us!) come together and get our legislators to knock it off. So give your reps a call and tell them you want a nonpartisan, nonlegislative group on the case; if not for party, then for country.

The Right to Protest

You’d have to be living under a rock (or maybe University Crossings) to not know who they are. Two skinny white guys in khakis and tucked-in t-shirts, a girl in a bonnet and an ankle-length cotton dress, all toting a couple kids and some very, very graphic signs. They make a habit of standing in front of the student union and shouting Old-Testament-based vitriol at passerby. I saw these folks at Charlotte Pride. I did my best to ignore them then. But when a midday trip to Wendy’s necessitated passing by them and listening to their anti-gay rhetoric, I elected to give them exactly what they wanted: attention. I called two of my roommates, Grey and Michael, and asked them to haul my six-foot rainbow flag down to CHHS. What resulted was seven hours of bafflingly inane protest: we danced, we had picnics, we chanted, we practiced geography with a couple of vloggers, we got free ice cream, and pet several dogs. It started out as just us and a couple friends eating pizza at the protesters’ feet; it ended with a full-blown group shout-fest, with attendance clocking at about forty or fifty. As Tuesdays go, it was pretty bizarre. This truly silly experience prompted a much more significant ideological conflict: how welcome should protest be on college campuses? With violent hate speech on the rise and an increasingly polarized political environment, the risk of having extremist adherents on campus may prove to be greater than universities are willing to bear. Take UC Berkeley: in February, ultra-conservative and self-described “internet troll” Milo Yiannopoulos planned to give a speech sponsored by one of the university’s student groups—and was met with violent opposition.

Photo courtesy of Abbey Mormon

And this isn’t just a Berkeley issue: schools around the country have seen fights break out between students and protesters. UNCC is no different. On Tuesday, one student (who wishes to remain anonymous) had a very intense confrontation with one of the protesters. We were positive that the argument was about to get physical, so we separated them and pulled the student off to the side. They were so frustrated by the encounter that they cried for about ten minutes afterwards. “He just wouldn’t listen,” they recounted. “It was as if he couldn’t even hear me.” I’m no conservative. I’m no liberal either. And I’m not even halfway through my first-year Comparative Politics class. But I don’t think it takes a degree in political science to see that protests like these get us nowhere. Free speech, as the founding fathers intended it to be (and as our university system interprets it), is supposed to foster intellectual improvement. People are supposed to walk away from these events feeling curious and more open-minded. And while a couple folks seemed to enjoy debating with these people for a few minutes, the vast majority of those I spoke to throughout the day seemed to hate it. Christian students would dash over between classes and apologize profusely for the behavior of “these so-called disciples.” War veterans passing by found the gory image of a dismembered child extremely disturbing. And the rest of us were just tired of hearing medically inaccurate descriptions of gay sex. Very few of us walked away feeling as though we had a productive, positive academic discussion; most of us were just sunburnt, exhausted, and feeling as though we had dodged a bullet.

 

As one junior put it, “It’s really hard to keep your temper in check when they’re screaming at you, and you know that if you make, like, one wrong move, like even just poking their wrist, then you’re getting sued or beat on.” That’s not to say it wasn’t manageable. Next time I see those guys, you can be sure that I’ll be bopping around their fire-and-brimstone signage chanting “all dogs are gay.” Not because it was fun skipping classes, but because they will return. Since UNC Charlotte is a publicly funded university, the First Amendment can be exercised anywhere on campus public spaces. As long as they’re not using speakers or attacking one person in particular, every zealot and his mother can carry a baby-corpse sign and yell about lesbians. From now until the United States collapses; liability and student health be damned. So if you’re still feeling raw about all this, here’s my opinion: don’t go cursing the chancellor, don’t go printing out nice and accepting Bible verses to read out to Crocs-and-socks preachers, and do NOT let these people get to you, because believe me, they’re going to outlast you. My own mother remembers seeing these guys traipsing around UC Davis in the 90s—an online petition sure as heck isn’t going to change that. What we can change is our attitudes. I don’t mean convert to Nazism, I mean, appreciate how ridiculous this situation is. These folks clock in at 9, scream about abortion, and clock out at 5. They’re paid to be jerks. How crazy is that? They’re out here looking like extras for Little House on the Prairie . Their kids are running barefoot on the concrete in 90-degree weather. What’s up with that? And then maybe, when you’ve had a laugh about how ludicrous the Year of Our Lord 2017 is, join us in being louder and more ridiculous than them. Because if they can do it, why can’t we? As my roommate Michael said, “If we’re annoying enough, maybe they’ll leave!” Go on, UNCC. Dust off those picket signs and get a little silly. There’s plenty of ice cream and chants to go around.

 

Broken Promises

Last year, as he was vying for the presidency, Donald Trump made a stop in West Virginia for a campaign rally. During his stump speech, he praised the coal miners of Appalachia and vowed to revive the stagnating coal industry— to the point where miners would be “working their asses off.” In a show of solidarity, he slapped on a hard hat and mimed shoveling coal. The crowd went wild. This wasn’t the first or last time he made such promises to coal miners. At a campaign rally in Virginia, Trump lamented the regulations on coal companies, which, as he saw it, limited job opportunities for miners. At a campaign rally in Phoenix, he announced an end to the war on coal. Snappy slogans like “Trump Digs Coal” have shown up on t-shirts, signs, and banners since he joined the race for the presidency in 2015. Mr. Trump has been incredibly outspoken about the importance of coal industry and the lives it affects. That sentiment is sorely needed by miners. The industry has been declining for decades as natural gas and renewable energy grow increasingly favored over coal. Not only that, but as mountaintop removal and workplace mechanization have become more common, scores of workers are being laid off, often with minimal employee benefits and residual health issues.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Programs like the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration have already been instrumental in assisting current and retired coal miners, but their efforts have not been enough. After all this talk about coal, there was hope: for the miners, for their kids, and maybe for the future. So it is pretty disconcerting to see Donald Trump’s budget cut funding for the ARC and eliminate the EDA altogether. A couple months ago, he was cheering on Appalachia and promising to bring back jobs; now, folks all over the region face job insecurity and unemployment due to his actions. Why isn’t he looking out for them? Often, politicians will conflate the coal mining industry with the actual coal miners, believing that if you help one, you help the other. Mr. Trump has made quite the effort to buddy up with industry magnates.Take his cabinet and core influencers, for example: his secretary of commerce is Wilbur Ross, the chairman of International Coal Group and Bob Murray of Murray Energy was a close confidante of Trump’s on the campaign trail and remains a very good friend to this day. But these partnerships don’t mean that he is helping the actual miners. International Coal Group is the same corporation that allowed for the deaths of twelve workers in the Sago Mine disaster and Murray’s exploitative mining practices led to the implosion of the Crandall Canyon Mine, which killed six miners and three rescue workers. Nevertheless, Ross remains Secretary of Commerce. And Murray was present at the signing of an executive order rolling back environmental restrictions on carbon emissions.

Trump sure hears a lot from these folks, who jeopardize the safety of their workers just to save a buck, but how much is he hearing from the actual miners? How much does he truly understand this fraught situation? Not enough, it seems. Instead of preparing workers for the inevitable collapse of coal and giving them the resources they need to train for new careers in a new market, Trump seems to be pouring money into a dying industry. And no matter how much he gives and how much he repeals, it isn’t working. Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, claimed in June “since the fourth quarter of last year until most recently, [the Trump administration has] added almost 50,000 jobs in the coal sector.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that statement is just not true: closer to 1,300 jobs were created and an untold number were laid off. What Mr. Trump needs to realize is the coal industry is phasing out. There’s nothing he can really do about its death. What he can do is listen to those most affected by it: coal miners and their families. Appalachia backed him in the 2016 race hoping he would bring economic development to the region, not fewer restrictions and riskier careers. If he’s truly a populist president, it’s high time he listen to the people, and not just industry executives.