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Injustice Persists

Image of American Indian Cultural Center and Museum

The unfinished American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City is fast becoming a symbol of bigotry and right-wing political incompetence as the entire world witnesses the spectacle.

The fact that it hasn’t been completed is a massive embarrassment. State lawmakers, especially House Speaker Jeff Hickman, a Republican from Fairview, are still haggling and posturing over how to come up with $40 million in state money to complete the project. Right now, Hickman is stubbornly refusing to bring a Senate-passed bill that would fund the center to a vote because he says it doesn’t have enough Republican support.

The massive delay in completing the center conjures up the sordid history of government-sanctioned discrimination against American Indians in this country. It’s a history of bigotry, terrible injustice and broken promises. Some people might argue that’s too extreme in this case, but what if the center never gets finished? What if the dominant white conservative majority in the House manages to stop it without even a vote?

Indian tribes have donated to the project, and private donors will match the state’s $40 million, but this is a state-owned facility, and the state needs to make good on its promise for the tribes and for everyone in the state. Construction on the project started way back in 2006 and had to be halted because of funding problems. Now is the time to finish it or come up with a different plan. Maybe it needs to be built in another state, one with people more tolerant of diversity and more appreciative of history.

There’s no question the approximately $150 million center will be a world-class facility, based on Smithsonian standards, which will attract visitors from throughout the world. It’s being built along the Oklahoma River near downtown Oklahoma City. Tourist dollars, which generate tax revenues, will pay for the facility in years to come. It will give some much-needed gravitas and intellectualism to Oklahoma City’s so-called renaissance. Cities and states just don’t open world-renowned museums on a regular basis.

Those are the undisputed sound financial and tourism reasons for completing the project, but the main reason it should be completed is to honor and embrace the rich American Indian history and culture of this country. It’s not even anything close to reparation for past injustices inflicted by white colonizers, but it does allow the stories about those injustices to be repeated and learned by future generations.

Oklahoma, previously known as Indian Territory, seems like the perfect geographical and historical spot for the center, but perhaps its current and intolerant conservative political alignment makes it impossible.

The bill to fund the center would get the $40 million from the state’s unclaimed property fund. The Senate and a House committee have passed the bill and Gov. Mary Fallin said she supports it. Hickman, however, wants at least 51 out of 71 Republicans in the House to support bill. According to one estimate, there are enough votes among all House members to pass the measure right now. All the chamber’s 29 Democrats favor the bill, along with many Republicans, but Hickman says he won’t budge.

So the broken promises and injustices continue.

Environmental Lesson

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If anyone here is still under the illusion that energy companies will always automatically do the right thing when it comes to the environment, look no further than the massive, historic $5.5 billion cleanup settlement arising from actions by Oklahoma’s former Kerr-McGee Corporation.

The settlement was announced last Thursday by the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency. Under the settlement, a subsidiary of Anadarko Petroleum, which purchased Kerr-McGee in 2006, would pay the massive cleanup amount to restore polluted sites dating back to 1928. It’s the largest pollution cleanup settlement ever.

Before Kerr-McGee was sold in 2006, according to the DOJ, it spun off the polluted assets into a company called Tronox and that company was left insolvent and couldn’t afford the cleanup. One U.S. Attorney called it a “corporate shell game,” designed to evade responsibility for the pollution, which includes uranium mines in New Mexico and Arizona.

Kerr-McGee was also the focus of legal and media scrutiny after state resident Karen Silkwood died in 1974. Silkwood worked at Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron Fuel Fabrication site near Crescent. Silkwood, a labor union activist, was allegedly contaminated by the plutonium manufactured at the plant. She died in a mysterious car accident, and a movie starring Meryl Streep and Cher about her life was released in 1983.

Kerr-McGee, once located in downtown Oklahoma City, was lauded in this brainwashing newspaper article published in The Oklahoman in 1999. The article, which never mentions the Silkwood saga or the company’s pollution legacy, begins, “World-class, generous, involved, leaders, company with a heart - words used by Oklahoma City officials and citizens to describe one of their most respected neighbors, Kerr-McGee Corp.” A few years later after this glowing tribute, the “world-class” company was sold to Anadarko, based in Texas.

A larger lesson here is that the Kerr-McGee case gives us every reason to reasonably suspect that energy companies are quite capable of doing massive harm to the environment while trying to evade responsibility for it. That suspicion is why we need strict state and federal regulations governing their operations and an intense focus on developing cleaner, renewable energy sources.

The anti-EPA sentiment in this state, fueled by conservative political dogma and The Oklahoman, is widely misplaced and a major historical error.

Oklahoma is currently experiencing a boom in natural gas production because of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a drilling process tied to water pollution and now earthquakes. Does the $5.5 billion settlement send a clear enough message to oil and gas companies here or will history repeat itself once again?

Snark Attack

Image of Picasso work

Sometimes it seems just too obvious why education funding has dropped in Oklahoma more than any other state in the nation since 2008.

In a Saturday editorial brief under its Scissor Tales column, The Oklahoman weighs in with a bit of snarky criticism about last week’s education rally at the state Capitol that drew around 25,000 people. So this is what passes for reasoned logic around this place:

More than a soupcon of self-righteousness was in evidence at Monday’s state Capitol rally for school spending increases. Participants felt justified in taking a day off (and in many cases forcing their students to take a day off) to provide a teachable moment for legislators, to use a trite expression. Kids don’t have the right to skip school to provide a teachable moment as they define it. Teachers apparently do. With so much crowing about how many people the rally drew, we wonder what the crowd count would have been had the rally been staged during spring break. The Legislature was in session most of that week. How about a Saturday rally that wouldn’t affect the teachable moments that take place in classrooms on most Mondays? Nah. That would depress the participation rate. Like the rest of us, teachers need their weekends free.

Let’s get this straight. The Oklahoman is pretty much arguing that the fact some “self-righteous” and “crowing” teachers took a day off to ask for more education funding is the important issue here, not the fact that school funding has dropped by more than 22 percent since the economic downturn in 2008. Note, as well, according to the newspaper, that those pesky teachers “need their weekends free,” even though I bet many of them were grading or preparing for classes Saturday and Sunday.

In a previous editorial, The Oklahoman opposed a legislative plan that would divert money from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to boost school funding, but it offered no solutions to the problem of inadequate funding.

The newspaper, for years, has taken the position that since education funding receives the majority of the state budget it follows that somehow the state is doing the best it can. The newspaper has also argued that school administrators are never satisfied about the education money they receive from the state even though the premise has never and will never be tested.

Add to this the newspaper’s invalid argument that money has no bearing on student performance and its incessant argument that schools should be given more testing and assessment mandates even as their funding decreases. Throw in some basic snarky criticism of teachers.

These illogical arguments are at the core of the current assault on public education here and elsewhere in the country.

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