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Jamil Smith: Ted Cruz Is Using a Black Man’s Death to Entice Voters

The Texas senator is exploiting the death of Botham Shem Jean, a black Dallas man killed by a cop illegally entering his apartment

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas as he and Democratic challenger and US Representative from Texas Beto O'Rourke (R) meet during the first of three debates before the US Midterm elections on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, USA, 21 September 2018.Texas Senate Debate Cruz O'Rourke, Dallas, USA - 21 Sep 2018

Sen. Ted Cruz

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On Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his wife Heidi had reserved a table at Fiola, a fancy Italian spot on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks from the White House. Before the senator could even take his coat off, demonstrators disrupted his date night.

“We believe survivors!” they chanted, protesting Cruz’s support of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. None of them mentioned Botham Shem Jean’s name, despite their presumed affiliation with an Antifa faction called Smash Racism DC. The group later posted the video online with a caustic statement directed partly at Cruz. Oddly enough, Jean’s name was absent from that, too.

I say that because only last Friday, Cruz’s campaign all but asked racists to vote for him — exploiting the shooting death of Jean, 26, in the process. Yet nothing from the anti-racism group on that. Alas.

Perhaps they didn’t see the tweet. During Cruz’s first debate with his senate challenger, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), Cruz’s campaign posted this:

In the clip, O’Rourke is inside a church speaking before a predominantly black congregation. He discusses Jean’s September 6th shooting at the hands of Amber Guyger, who was then an officer with the Dallas Police Department. “How can it be, in this day and age, in this very year, in this community, that a young man, African American, in his own apartment is shot and killed by a police officer?” O’Rourke asks.

The applause builds, and attendees begin to rise from the pews. “And when we all want justice and the facts and the information to make an informed decision, what is released to the public? That he had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen.” He’s referring to the Dallas PD’s attempt to sully Jean’s character with a search warrant showing that he had 10.4 grams of marijuana in several baggies inside his apartment. That would have meant something if Guyger had a warrant for that weed. Instead, she illegally entered his residence, later claiming that she mistook it for her own. Guyger then fired twice at Jean, striking him once in the torso.

“How can that be just in this country?” O’Rourke demands, surely knowing the answer. Everyone is standing by now. “How can we continue to lose the lives of unarmed black men in the United States of America at the hands of white police officers? That is not justice. That is not us. That can and must change. Are you with me on this?”

When the tweet appeared, so did the jokes. Cruz, running for his second term in the Senate, is the prodigal schmuck. He is barely able to act like a typical human being, let alone portray himself as likable. He is one of the most recognizable conservative politicians in America in the same way you remember that dude in college who wore a suit every day to class. I’ll never forget standing among the Texas delegation at the 2016 Republican National Convention as Cruz refused to endorse Donald Trump, and seeing a bevy of dismayed faces beneath those cowboy hats and cowlicks.

The church video looks like a political ad for O’Rourke, and a good one. It wouldn’t have been strange to hear his voice at the end saying that he “approves this message.” Theoretically, Texas Democrats could be using it to help turn out the African American vote.

However, it is how Cruz uses this video that matters most. On its face, the clip is a brazen appeal to outright racism and little else. This is not Cruz dodging the question of systemic bigotry, as he had done four days before the debate when he told Houston’s Fox affiliate that O’Rourke was too quick to “always blame the police officer” and that Jean “ found himself murdered.” Actually, it was right when the moderator asked Cruz about that bewildering reaction to the Jean killing that the tweet dropped. While Cruz was stumbling through his all-lives-matter-ish answer, his campaign was promoting a message that a white politician talking about the value of black lives is a bad thing.

I fully expect Cruz’s strategy to work. This is Republican politics now, full of racial dog whistles amplified by bullhorn. Cruz had the nerve to (falsely) accuse O’Rourke of calling law enforcement officers a “modern day Jim Crow” right as Cruz’s social media team was asking the senator’s followers to ridicule O’Rourke’s stance on Jean’s death. As much as Republicans like Cruz complain that being called a racist is the Actual Worst Thing Ever, they sure don’t mind asking their voters to cast their ballots with racial issues in mind.

I understand why Cruz is so desperate. In an election in which the president has provoked a renewed fervor on the left, new Democratic stars like O’Rourke keep emerging. The Texas Senate race is polling as a statistical dead heat less than six weeks before election day. O’Rourke raised more than $9 million in August alone, compared to Cruz’s $4.1 million for the last quarter. Trump, who once accused Cruz’s father of being part of the plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy, will headline an October rally in an effort to save the seat. And Cruz will have to take all the abuse he merits for doing so, much as the Cuban-American senator takes part in this Southern Strategy for dummies, supporting law enforcement so blindly that he willfully ignores the disproportionate effect that police violence has on people who look like me and Jean (and even Cruz). Critical thinking be damned, it’s time to win an election.

I expect candidates like Cruz, a strong supporter of voter-ID laws and a Trump enabler, to engage in this sort of rubbish. Cruz and his party have nothing to sell: as Paul Krugman noted this week, the tax cut for the wealthy is a transparent scam, Trump’s tariffs are a bust with rural voters suffering in their wake, and Republicans are behaving as if they give a damn about insuring Americans with pre-existing health conditions. It is infuriating and inexcusable, though, to see Cruz use Jean’s death as fodder to incite bigots to vote for him. This exploits Jean’s death after the fact, excusing police violence to earn favor with voters inclined to do the same.

Here is the strangest part of all this. A criminal justice system that typically insulates cops from consequences of their violence is actually functioning as it should in this case. The officer involved has been arrested, charged with manslaughter, and on Monday, was fired. These are the minimum outcomes we should be able to expect when a cop does what Guyger did to Jean. The least we should expect of a politician, even Cruz, is to recognize Jean’s murder as an unqualified injustice. He hasn’t even done that yet. Much like most of Cruz’s behavior, this is a basic failing of humanity, let alone his responsibilities as a United States senator. That he sees opportunity, not crisis, in black death should disqualify him from further public service.

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