Of Bathrooms and Boogey(wo)men

By any reckoning, these are strange times … we  have a reality tv star, appealing to people’s basest instincts, and yet winning the race for the Republican presidential nomination.  The guy who recently dropped out, had already picked a running mate, though –on that, PLEASE see Charles Blow’s reaction, if you have not, already–that privilege is usually left to someone who has already won the nomination.  Maybe privilege is the submerged issue of our times … so much is affected by it, yet we spend precious little time identifying it, much less calling it out.

That brings me to the other thing we seem to be talking and posting about too much lately.  And by that I mean: 1) North Korea is testing missiles, 2) almost every day, there is another natural disaster or act of terrorism to confront, 3) we have a massive drug heroin addiction/abuse problem in this country, and the identification of it as a public health problem and approach to solving it could not be more different than was the case with the crack epidemic (are we talking about why that is?!?!?)  and yet, in downtown America, we are inordinately preoccupied with who’s in the “wrong,” bathroom and peeing in the stall next door. To say that our priorities are misplaced is to make an understatement of near epic proportions.

Predictably, we are starting to see stories (some real, some not) about bathroom policing.  As predictably, perhaps, the self-appointed policers are getting it wrong, and crossing the very  boundaries “we claim,” –in this regard, I am not among the we, and I am also concerned that there is daylight between what has been identified as the problem, and what the very real and scary agenda is– to not want breached.  Let’s unpack further here:  law enforcement does not always, “police,” well . When the public’s bias fueled fears get the best of them –particularly in a society where guns are fairly readily available — people get hurt or killed. See, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, or this article about a guy shot dead in church— this same phenomenon is starting to crop up in bathrooms.  In the first legit report we have, some guy bursts into a bathroom on a woman he thinks doesn’t belong there … let me repeat, a guy takes it upon himself to enter the women’s room to question someone who is in fact a woman about her presence there … Sooo, in addition to men dressed as women in the bathroom, we now have to contend with men who –1) are … protecting us?  (did we request protection?), 2)who have no more right to be in there than the hetero men they claim are in there pretending to be trans women –in the women’s room.  Does this mean that I should now feel empowered to pursue “suspicious looking,” men into the the men’s room? Does this illogical craziness have any logical end? And does this do anything to solve the legit fear I have of sending my boy child into the men’s room alone lest their be child predators in there?

So, anyone who’s met me knows a few things:  1) i have a very deep voice for a woman; 2) i am somewhat androgynous looking, particularly when my hair is shorter.  To that list, let me add a few more facts, 1) i get called, “sir,” on the phone A LOT when I, for instance, call customer service for my utilities or credit cards; 2) fact #1 means that because i would rather not deal with being called, “sir,” for the millionth time, i avoid making such calls where I can and I have a raft of self-deprecating jokes to quell the customer service folks’ paranoia. Frankly, I shouldn’t have to make jokes at my own expense to check on a charge to my credit card, but there it is. That brings us to fact 3)  i have been visited by the “bathroom police.”  Twice, in fact.

The first policing incident occurred in a bathroom (natch!) in Williamsburg, VA. After hearing me trying to coax my then 4 year-old into using an auto-flush toilet (at nearly 8, he still hates them!) at  Busch Gardens, some women’s room fellow traveller took it upon herself to report me to park security.  I was apprised of this fact as I was just about to prevail in my persuasions, and was interrupted by a knock on the stall door.  In response to knock, I said, “Yes,” in my normal tenor voice, and was informed that I was in the women’s room.  I answered, “and you’re telling me this because … ” I have to hand it to the somewhat flummoxed security person, who fairly apparently, had never had to do an “intervention,” like this one. They handled it as tactfully as they could. Next, they sought to inform me that the park had family restrooms whereupon I — wanting to wrap up my bathroom business with no further interruptions — offered to show the guard my c. section scar, if s/he wanted to wait around.  S/he did not, but did let me know that they were responding to a report. Is this really the road we want to go down, folks? Is this gonna keep up until I or someone else is actually going to have to pony up evidence that we are in the “right,”  restroom, or can we just take a step back and realize that these laws aren’t solving any problems, nor are they creating them.  That is, any guy who was gonna try to dress up like a woman and go into the women’s room was doing that before the law, and didn’t need its permission to do so.  Similarly, there are no stories of trans women doing anything other that using the toilet and fixing their make-up (if they use it) in the women’s room, so there is no problem to fix.

As it turned out, I had a second “bathroom police,” encounter at the end of the same vacation … only in Virginia, or North Carolina, I guess. Alex and I were starting our drive home and stopped for gas in Hampton, VA.  It was an older gas station, and the “one holer,” bathroom had a door that was swollen from the humidity, so it while the door was closed, you couldn’t get it to lock. It was mid-day and mid-week, and I was anxious to get on the road to avoid bad traffic close to home. Alex was having none of that and was dithering around, so I nudged him toward the toilet with my knee.  He jerked away, causing the not well enough bolted toilet to move a bit … remember I mentioned that he doesn’t l like auto-flush toilets .. he wasn’t wild about a moving toilet either, and started to howl.  At this point, I was pretty much done:  I spun him around, sat him on the toilet and said, “would you please PEE,” then withdrew, folded my arms and leaned on the sink.  Seconds later, the door flew open and a guy stuck his head in, presumably to check on noisy Alex.  Seeing me leaning on the sink, he intoned, “oh, my bad …,” then left. I was not entirely sure what had just happened, but got Alex cleaned up, and we headed out to the car.  When we passed the counter, the two sister friends at the cash register outed themselves as the reason that the guy had burst in:  “we’re sorry, we heard the baby.”  In the anti-violence world, what happened to us was what we call, “bystander intervention.”  Someone thought Alex was in trouble and sent someone in to check on him … Do I love having someone burst into the bathroom on us? Of course, not, but am I totally cool with the fact that it happened because someone had a legit reason to think a kid might have been in trouble? I 100% am.

Let’s review:  in my first story, I got hassled in a bathroom because I am a woman with a deep voice. If it happened to me before the passage of the NC law, what do you think would happen if the NC law was not about to get put on ice — note:  the US Department of Justice sued NC today to get them to rescind the law as parts of it violate Title VII (bars employment discrim. based on sex), Title IX (requires equal access on the basis of sex of all schools receiving federal funding), and provisions in the Violence Against Women Act that bar discrimination based on, among other things, gender identity.

Two points in closing, no one needed a new law to either: 1) knock on my stall door when they thought a guy was in the women’s room or, 2) burst into the restroom when they thought my kid was in danger. BUT, if my privacy was — however occasionally — getting invaded before the passage of such laws, how much more frequently would the passage of these crazy laws in NC and MS (so far) mean that I and a whole lot of other CIS and trans folks minding their own business would have to deal with self-appointed bathroom police barging into the women’s room at will.  Cuz seriously, I don’t want to encounter the bathroom version of a George Zimmerman who, I assure you, is out there and armed and will tell the cops, when someone starts to beat him up once he accosts them, that he was in fear for his life, which is why he shot them.  Because that, I assure you, is where this will end up.

 

 

We Say Black Lives Matter [AGAIN] because …. It’s Groundhog Day

Back for more:  July 15, 2016

I wanted to further update my post after having had a chance to listen to both the remarks of both Presidents Obama and Bush at the Dallas memorial service.  Some have extolled Pres. Obama’s remarks, while others have found them to be political, and I wanted to hear for myself.

Some of my friends who are current or former law enforcement, or close to folks in those communities felt like what President Obama said was too political in some regards. As he spoke, the President was flanked by two Dallas officers, both white, one male and one female.  The male officer mostly applauded politely, but really seemed to connect with the President when he said (at minute 11:25) that the killing of the 5 Dallas officers was, “an act not just of demented violence, but of racial hatred …”   I hope that with time, we will all come to understand that that feeling alluded to by the President, and articulated by me here: “They hate us; they are targeting us for who we are,” is how many Black folks feel when they learn of the death of another Black person in a traffic stop, while fleeing law enforcement — which as I have previously pointed out, is a sane act of self preservation, given how frequently things go awry once you get stopped — or in custody. The same is true for my LatinX peeps, and my Native peeps. It was that feeling of being under siege again — I belive, anyway — that caused the Dallas shooter to act.  I don’t condone his actions, obviously, but I am stressing that what he did was a direct consequence of what he saw happen earlier that week in Louisiana and Minnesota. That is thread that ties all three places together and that is why the President spoke as he did, and rightly so, in my opinion.

I’m going to close this out with excerpts of the end of President Bush’s remarks.  He was speaking directly to the families of the 5 Dallas officers, but could have, as I excerpt them, have been speaking to the Sterling and Castille families as well.  However we go forward from this, let us try to be aware that all 7 families suffered grievous and irreparable loss last week.

President Bush:  “Your loved one’s time with you was too short.  They did not get a chance to properly say goodbye.  … Your loss is unfair; we cannot explain it …We can stand beside you, and pray that God will comfort you with a hope deeper than sorrow and stronger than death.”

Ground Hog’s Day edition July 12, 2016:

I often find it hard to write at moments like these because there is precious little to say that I haven’t said already.  It’s true today, but I want to reflect on a few articles that I’ve seen because they are evidence of a dangerous reaction to the events of the last week. There’s this one about the Kansas cop who threatened a little black girl who he does not know and got fired, there’s this one  about the Columbia fire dept. captain who got fired for threatening BLM protestors, and this one about law enforcement walking off the job because the MN Lynx, the WNBA team, wore t-shirts that demanded justice for all that transpired last week: the deaths of the Dallas police officers AND the deaths of 2 black men at the hands of law enforcement. And finally, there’s this:  Rudolph Giuliani thought privacy was an appropriate response for his daughter’s run-in with law enforcement, but had the temerity to be all over the air waves this week lecturing people of color about how to raise their children.

I have a “book shrink.” A family psychotherapist whose books and wisdom I turn to frequently (Harriet Lerner, author of the “Dance of … ” series of books)  She has a name for the situations that are described above: “change back.”  Change back is what happens when you raise a concern or issue, and someone else pushes back because they are used to the relationship the way it is.  It’s what happens when you tell your parent their belittling you is hurtful and they say, “get over it,” or accuse you of being thin-skinned.  It is also what happens when people say #Black Lives Matter, and are greeted by #AllLivesMatter.  Face it:  only those who don’t have to teach their sons to fear law enforcement could embrace #All Lives.  Because #All Lives is already true for them. Thus, it makes it difficult for them to see what Black Lives Matter means, on many levels, is “Black Lives Matter, TOO” versus “Black Lives Matter MORE,” which is a common misunderstanding.  Thus, they might respond, “Black Lives Matter is … divisive, or anti-law enforcement, etc.”

I continue to be in the posture that I talk about below: #All Lives is aspirational.  We are not there. Nor can we get to where we want to be: a society that equally values the lives and perspectives of all, whether Black  folks, or others of color, LGBT people, law enforcement, people of different political perspectives, or women without doing the hard work that I have seen start on social media in the last week.  Of course, that begs the question of whether the perspective I just described is something that we all subscribe to. Frankly, I think it’s harder for some than others to wrap their heads and hearts around … I’ve seen it said that when one enjoys a position of privilege, then being challenged, or ceding ground to the demands of others for equality can feel like a loss.  Let’s be frank for a moment:  in this country, law enforcement has enjoyed a position of privilege. They have also put themselves in harm’s way daily, and had to consistently deal with people at their worst.  That said, the privilege has been abused by some.  A few examples include: 1) the detaining and lengthy questioning of Philando Castile’s girlfriend; 2) the widespread use of stop and frisk policies in communities of color; 3) the preying on vulnerable citizens, as Oakland police did when several sexually assaulted a 16 y.o. sex worker, or as Daniel Holtzclaw did when he made poor Black women with criminal infractions that he blackmailed them with submit to sexual assault, and 4) see additional stories below.

When a group has not been historically subjected to the demands for accountability that the BLM movement makes on law enforcement is hit with such, the result is, “change back,” behavior. Change back is not easy, it is not pretty, but it gives people committed to a process something to work with because at least you pretty much know where you stand.  Please don’t stand on the sidelines.  There is much work to be done. Self educate, show up and be an ally  (and don’t let the title of this article throw you). Our kids deserve better:  we need to give them a world better than the one we inherited, after all, our parents did that for us.

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October 2015

Prologue:  I started this post about a month ago, then got busy.  I am prompted to post it now because of a video that went viral yesterday when a school resource office in South Carolina high school threw a young Black woman out of her chair then dragged her across her classroom for what, I’m not entirely sure.  It is pretty clear that she was putting up zero resistance to the cop, so that his reaction was about 50 clicks past overblown. In one account, a young woman who witnessed what happened said that the resource officer was called because the young woman in question was not participating in class.  My first thought was that in watching this supposed officer (not worthy of the badge, and previously sued twice federally) mistreat this young woman so callously, it is entirely clear how Freddie Gray ended up dead in Baltimore.  Neither was treated as if they had any rights, any dignity any personhood worthy of respect.  My second thought was that all my FB friends, the ones who periodically post about “All Lives,” or “Cops Lives,” mattering have gone to ground … <<crickets>>  It’s probably too much to hope that they have shed those sentiments altogether, but perhaps this video has helped nudge them along.

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We’ve been at this for a year or more … a year if you count back to Michael Brown’s death, more like 3 if you reach back to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.

The more there were protests and marches and die-ins, and challenging of political candidates, the more widely we saw the use of the term that describes the movement, “Black Lives Matter.” Increasingly, but particularly in the last month, following the murders of several law enforcement officers, I’ve seen an increased use –judging solely by the very subjective measure that is my Facebook feed, and the responses of some politicians — of “All Lives Matter,” or perhaps, “Cops Lives Matter.” I want to take a moment to talk about why it’s important to say that “Black Lives Matter,” and why everyone should be able to get behind that.

I think this article tells the story very well. In short: 1) a Black woman who’d been taken into custody (context is not shared in the article) expresses her belief that the arresting officers think less of her, and think that she is an animal because of her race.  She says she will sue the department for discrimination; 2) one of the arresting officers attempts to tell his supervisor what transpired during the arrest, including what the arrestee said; 3) he’s interrupted by his boss, who opines that Black people are, in fact animals, and begins imitating a monkey, saying “that’s what they deserve,” (no explanation is offered for what he meant, but in this context, it’s fairly clearly nothing good) and singing, “Look Away Dixieland,” which is regarded by some as the anthem of the Confederacy; 4) the officer is bothered by the behavior, and later expresses his intent to file a complaint against the chief to a second officer who also witnessed the chief’s behavior. The second officer agrees to join in the filing of the complaint; 5) the two officers let their sergeant know about their intent to filed the complaint, and he initially says nothing.  He later tells them that he doesn’t think that anything will come of filing the complaint and says several times that he thinks that the city will make life hell for them if they file the complaint.  The officer indicates in his complaint that in his view, the sergeant was trying to dissuade them from filing the complaint.  6) the complaint is filed; 7) the chief decides to retire before the investigation is concluded; 8) the city council permits this, and the 9) the mayor expresses the community’s gratitude for a job well done upon the chief’s retirement.

A few things bear pointing out here: lest you think that the chief’s behavior was unusual,or isolated, I share this article about 7 racist e-mails shared among members of the Ferguson Police Department and highlighted in a report issued by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Note that one of the e-mails compared President Obama to a chimpanzee.  What was remarkable in this situation was the determination of not one but two officers to do something about the chief’s behavior.  The sergeant’s response to the two officers — silence, initially reluctance to get involved, attempts to dissuade them from filing — are much more consistent with what some call the “blue wall of silence,” where law enforcement officers maybe afraid to come forward for all the reasons that are apparent in this situation:  1) the racism is coming from a superior; 2) other superiors are trying to keep them from filing a complaint and 3) they endure harassment after filing the complaint.  In this instance, one of the complaining officers indicates that he has faced retaliation, that his wife has been forced off the road several times and that people in the community have yelled racial epithets at him.

In this instance, the question of whether the Black woman suffered any discrimination at the time of her arrest– from the author’s perspective, anyway — is far less concerning than the 4 instances where her concerns and her person were demeaned or dismissed, with multiple layers of state personnel:  the police sgt., the city council and the mayor doing nothing to hold the chief accountable, and in the instance of the city council and mayor, basically letting him off the hook with a pension and a “thank you.”  Clatskanie, Oregon where this story takes place is not a model of diversity: non-white races combined total less that 10 percent of the population.  However, it’s about 60 miles from Portland, so not in the middle of nowhere … not that being in the middle of nowhere should excuse either the chief’s actions, of the subsequent inaction of the sgt., the city council and the mayor.

I told a friend of mine the other day that, “All Lives Matter,” was an aspirational statement and that it in no way reflected my reality.  Stories like this explain what I mean by that:  An “All Lives Matter,” world is one where the arrestee’s complaint is investigated, and not dismissed or mocked, much less in overtly racial ways.  An “All Lives Matter,” world is one where the officers who file a complaint against their chief are given support from their immediate supervisor (note: the officers who filed the complaint say they did not receive any assistance from their immediate superior, and that they felt that his several statements the the city would make their lives hell should they choose to file were intended to dissuade them from doing so).  In an, “All Lives Matter,” world, law enforcement officers are not penalized, harassed, threatened or worse, for doing what I hope we can all agree is the right thing: calling out the bias that infects their workplace. (See also this piece re:  NYPD officers’ complaints that they were retaliated against after refusing to meet ticket quotas in of color neighborhoods, and in which one officer alleges that he was told that the Puerto Rican residents who lived within the precinct where he worked were animals.)

To sum up, we say #BlackLivesMatter, not because we don’t believe that all lives should matter, but because we know that not only is that not the case everywhere, but also that some workplaces are stuck because their leadership does not believe that, “All Lives Matter.”  My point is simply and unapologetically  this:  if you are a first responder, and you don’t believe that all lives matter (see also, this story re: a racist fire chief), either be prepared to leave that attitude  in  the  parking lot when you come to work or get another freakin’ job.  Because you are not more entitled to your job than I am to be treated with simple human dignity.

On Mass Shootings, Mental Illness and More …

Crazy is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Every time there is a mass shooting — and what kind of country is this where this sentence rolls easily off the page and reader’s back because such shootings are ridiculously commonplace — we start talking about people with mental health challenges. As a practical matter, we can be but so concerned because all we ever do is talk.  No proposals materialize:  not in response to the mass killings or in response to the many times that someone who has mental health challenges ends up dead after an encounter with law enforcement (see, e.g. the cases of Natasha McKenna and Michelle Cusseaux).

This cycle of dismissing mass shooting episodes as the work of people with mental illness is both dangerous and wrong.  It’s wrong because even as we dig further into a particular shooter’s background and discover that they did not have mental health challenges AND that there were motivations for the shootings, we don’t go back and correct the narrative. Neither do we dig deeper to find that typically, the perpetrators of these crimes are disaffected white males who feel wronged by a particular group of people (Elliot Roger blamed women who were not interested in him socially, Dylann Roof professed to want to start a race war), and therein lies the danger:  we repeat this syndrome where we act as if the tragedy resulted from the “one off,” action of someone with mental health concerns, and in so doing, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to make guns less available, generally, and to challenge the dangerous and problematic notions of masculinity that often underlie mass shootings.

So, let’s change the narrative.  Let’s stop repeatedly going to a place of assuming some psychosis on the part of the shooter.  I spent a lot of time in a psychiatric facility when I was growing up:  my dad worked there, my mom volunteered there twice a week, and when I was not in school, that’s where I spent my Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons alongside my mom. There was one building that housed the “criminally insane.”  John Hinckley lived there for years.  But, there were many other buildings.  Translation:  the proportion of people with mental health issues who act out violently is a lot lower than we are led to conclude every time a mass shooting happens, and this baseless speculation about the shooter’s mental health begins anew.  We stigmatize without basis a bunch of folks who are already the subject of too much of it.  We must BE better.  We must DO better.  That means that if our mental health system needs improving — which it surely does — we need to do more than talk about it every time a mass casualty event happens, then let drop as it drops from the front pages of our newspapers or the lead stories on our favorite on-line reads. It also means that we have to do far more about the masculinity culture, and about the guns — have you noticed how many mass shooters have posted or taken pics of themselves with their guns beforehand. Not at a shooting range — as friends of mine have been known to do — but out in public somewhere or in their homes or in places that bespeak some kind of dangerous preoccupation.

When these events happen, and there is no response — beyond acknowledging that they have happened again— we subscribe to the doctrine of acceptable loss. Meaning it’s not a question of whether such tragedies will happen again, but when they will. Given the proliferation of guns and the zero percent likelihood that anything our government could or would be willing to do would begin with retrieving guns that people already had — unless they were in illegal possession, e.g. a domestic violence abuser who a court had determined should surrender his/her firearms — we must acknowledge that this tragedy will happen again.  But, if we can pursue strategies that would make this less likely to happen or make it more likely that interventions could be pursued before they did, I don’t see how we can’t opt for that.  Seriously. More doing nothing means waiting for another tragedy.  Are you ok with that outcome?  Because I know I’m not.

A Few Thoughts on Baltimore …

So, it’s been a little bit since I blogged … rest assured, my agitating continues in ways both big and small, as I was reminded recently when Alex asked where biracial people sat on the bus during segregation!

A few things have moved me to write today. One, I was asked by a friend what I thought of the video that’s making the rounds … the one where the Black mom is giving her son — who appears to have been out in Baltimore up to no good … and I say this because her son is wearing a ski mask — a hard time and dragging him away. As someone who grew up in a “spare the rod, spoil the child,” culture but, who grew up to be a domestic/sexual violence advocate, I see both sides … should she have given him a hard time? Yes. Did she need to be smacking him in order to get her point across? Maybe, maybe not … But I have the same caution on this mom’s reaction that I have on the Baltimore issue, writ large:  All I know about this woman is what I saw on the video. Sister Helen Prejan of “Dead Man Walking,” reminds us that none of us is merely our worst moment (and she was talking about death row inmates at that point). I’m a single mom. I don’t hit my kid. And, I take him to peaceful protests … If I saw him out there — and he is going to grow up to be a black man who is over 6′, God willing — behaving recklessly, and foolishly in a way that endangered him and was unlikely to bring about change, I would go after him. Whether I’d be sane and non-violent or start with, “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?!?!?!, and go on from there depends on the circumstances. Given that none of us (I presume) truly knows that woman’s circumstances, I would suggest that we are not in a position to judge, nor should we speculate. 

I have, predictably, been chatting up friends and friends of friends about Baltimore today.  I started out by tweeting NPR, though.  NPR had rather shallowly assessed that the Baltimore riots arose solely in response to Freddie Gray’s death, so I tried (in 160 characters or less) to set the record straight.

The bottom line, though, is this … this issue is complicated.  It’s not just about Freddie Gray and what happened to him, or the reactions of some fringe folks who burned a CVS,  it’s also about who was deemed important (the O’s fans who were told to shelter in place when the first unrest broke out on Saturday), what they deemed unimportant (at least the ones who were chanting “we don’t care,” in response to protestors walking by chanting, “Black Lives Matter,”) and what people do out of hopelessness born from years of societal neglect or indifference to their declining opportunities and standard of living.

It’s also about putting aside our own privilege and no longer making excuses when cops go berserk.  I have spent a lot of time until now talking about the fact that there are good cops (I still believe this), and the fact that I have cops (both city and federal) in my family.  But no one of good conscience should be making excuses for either what happened to Freddie Gray or the stunning lack of humanity that led the cops to ignore his need for medical assistance thereafter. In case you are still of a mind to cut the cops a break, let me give you a rundown of a facebook conversation I had earlier. A friend posted about the futility of resorting to violence to protest the cops’ violence. A friend of his posted a link to something that was allegedly Freddie Gray’s rap sheet.  I tried to point out that regardless of what Gray had done, he didn’t deserve to have his spine severed.  I was met with comments like, “Don’t act like an a**hole, and you won’t be treated like one.”  Herein lies a very common strand of reactions to cases like these, “well, if he hadn’t been doing anything wrong …” This, in my line of a work as a domestic/sexual violence advocate, is called victim-blaming.  It’s what happens when Michael Brown (or Trayvon Martin) leaves home to walk to the store, and doesn’t come back … then folks start trotting out their rap sheets to justify their murders, as if their rap sheets were in any way known to their assailants, or could by any stretch justify an extrajudicial execution.

But let’s return to the “don’t act like an a**hole,” line of argument.  Again, this is designed to suggest that the person who ended up dead did something to bring it upon him/herself … was this true of a 130 lb. woman in a cell by herself, in handcuffs and shackles who was tasered to death by Fairfax County police? Was it true of John Crawford who was shot to death in Walmart while holding a toy gun and talking on the phone?  The bottom line is this:  until we start holding law enforcement responsible for their excesses starting with the deaths that occur when people are fleeing — seriously? with the excess of law enforcement driven homicide on display in any given week, fleeing is actually an act of self-preservation, even if it ends up not serving that purpose–we will not begin to dig into the many thorny issues presented by the Baltimore unrest, nor we be able to get close enough to standing in the locals’ shoes to understand how angry outbursts in the face of callous indifference might be an appropriate response. 

I want to end by pointing out that as “victim blamers,” we can sometimes be as good about indicting the living as indicting the dead.  That is what happens when folks deflect the need to have that very uncomfortable conversation about privilege –i.e. the “we don’t care” ability to ignore what is happening to others — and lawless law enforcement by pointing to the fact that some segment of folks are looting, or rioting, etc. The rioting followed an inexplicable homicide.  Scores of them actually … and does not lessen our moral obligation to work like hell to insure that these things stop happening … so stop deflecting, stop victim blaming. Get in there and do the work. Feed the kids of Baltimore who rely on free lunches but did not get one today because their schools were closed.  Volunteer to be trained as a legal observer. Figure out where the next protest is and show up.  SHOW. UP.  It’s time for us all to do that.

#BlackLivesMatter

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Black (Women’s?) Lives Matter: Microaggression and the Erasure of Violence Against Women of Color

Closing out 2014 with thoughts on the need for inclusion of violence against women of color in the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Psychology Benefits Society

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This is part of our ongoing series of blog posts about race, racism and law enforcement in communities of color.

By LisaLyn Jacobs, JD (Vice President for Government Relations, Legal Momentum)

On a recent December Saturday, I hurried from the Metro train with my 6 year-old son trailing behind. We were joining friends and colleagues at the Justice for All March in Washington, DC.   We had endured a dismal series of weeks in late November in which grand juries had refused to indict law enforcement for the killing of unarmed black men, and an African American domestic violence survivor had agreed to a plea agreement that included a return to prison after she’d already served three years for firing several warning shots to scare off her abusive husband.

I was eager to join the crowd, to put my hands up, and to engage in the healing of collective resistance

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We Who Believe in Freedom — Though Overwhelmed — Cannot Rest

If the fall of 2014 had a theme song, surely it would be the theme from “Jaws.” Seriously: every time you think it might be safe to scan the headlines, scroll through Twitter or FB, it’s incoming bad news. And not the random unrelated to you kind that you shake your head over for a second or two before moving on.  The unrelenting, “please make it stop,” kind. Searing wall to wall coverage of intimate partner violence, and child abuse among major league sports players. Rising almost every day to see more colleges and universities under investigation, or students and alums demanding accountability from same for their failure to investigate and respond appropriately to allegations of sexual assault on campuses across the country. Case after case — John Crawford,  Michael Brown, and Eric Garner — where law enforcement snuffed out black lives — in two instances, on videotape — yet were not indicted by grand juries.  A litany of sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby brought forward by a staggering number of women.   The Cleveland Police Dept. being cited for abuse by the US Justice Dept. days after a police officer deemed unfit for duty in his previous position gunned down a 12-year old.  Then to top it off this week, Rolling Stone, having done a piece on sexual assaults at UVA that was monumental enough to cause UVA’s president to suspend all fraternities until early next year, decides to express reservations by throwing the sexual assault survivor under the bus.

In the midst of all the immensity and the weight of all this, I find some things frighteningly familiar, but others providing reason from some optimism happening:  while there appear to be more men talking about the wall to wall sexual assault and domestic violence coverage, beyond the folks I’ll term the “usual suspects,” there aren’t an inordinate number of white folks — though you do have to give Bill O’Reilly credit (of all the folks I never would have expected to atta boy on my blog!) credit for weighing in.  I’ve begun to read articles about how blacks and whites actually talk differently about race issues, in particular.  In 2014, I think it has a lot less to do with black and white than how various communities — immigrant, LGBT, Latino, Asian, Black —  relate to law enforcement — see a piece I wrote a few months ago that goes into some detail on this point.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the notion that people of different experiences could be literally talking past eachother on issues like the Garner grand jury verdict until I read Mayor De Blasio’s remarks.  He spoke personally to what it’s like to be the father to a bi-racial son (DeBlasio’s wife is African-American) with a huge afro (my description there, not his).  Never have I seen more clearly the tension that is sandblasted into the color line in this country than in reading the mayor’s comment, “because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”  The entirety of his sentence makes sense, perhaps, to whites, many of whom are less likely to be suspicious or mistrustful of law enforcement.  But to communities like Ferguson that have a lengthy history of poor relationships with law enforcement, De Blasio’s suggestion that law enforcement exists to protect his son, or anyone who looks like him rings hollow … seems naive.   At least that’s the perspective of this African American mom who is raising a son who — absent the Angela Davis ‘fro — is likely to look a lot like Dante DeBlasio as he grows up … If we can’t even look at our sons and view the threats to them through the same prism, we have miles to go before we sleep …  My suggestions:  get walking and get talking.  On the walking:  there are protests and community actions going on nationwide:  engage.  On the talking:  get out of your comfort zone … start a conversation with someone you know, or someone you work with who might have a different view, or with whom you’ve not engaged about these issues before.  By that I do not mean to declare your unequivocal convictions in a way that will shut down the discussion.  I do mean ask folks what they’re thinking … DeBlasio’s statement might be a good jumping off point. Whatever you do, don’t sit back … Engage … “until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons.”

 

 

 

Is Past Prologue?

Everything old is new again, including Ferguson, and a post I wrote 6 months ago about the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty.  As I look at Ferguson, and think about Selma, and Birmingham and the struggles of the people of Mississippi summed up by Fannie Lou Hamer’s epic, “sick and tired of being sick and tired, “I think about how just over 50 years ago, southern law enforcement was complicit in the repression of black people’s struggles for freedom.  With dogs, and firehoses, and brutality and bullets.  Then I look at Ferguson, MO in 2014 and see little difference when tanks, and rubber bullets, and tear gas and military grade weaponry are on parade as the local cops try to put the genie back in the bottle.   But,  the genie is out:  “In Ferguson, Missouri, blacks outnumber whites by more than 2-to-1 … [But,]  from January to April of this year, there were 27 whites arrested in the city compared with 217 blacks, or about 8.1 times as many black arrests as white arrests.”  It’s been suggested that the racially disparate nature of traffic stops may be connected to the ways in which the local municipalities are funded.   A key difference 50 years on is the difference that cell phones and twitter make in telling this story …  Where the mainstream media seems to be missing, misrepresenting, or not addressing the issue in a sufficiently nuanced way,  journalists on the ground local and federal officials are filling in those gaps in real time, making it possible for us, whoever and wherever we are to see the video, hear the affected people and make the assessments and judgements for ourselves.

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But should we bother?  Looking at the video footage, listening to those for whom the Mike Brown tragedy is not a media story, but lived experience, make the assessment about what the role of law enforcement has been in this community?  Should it matter to us, why, and if so, what should we do?

  • It should matter every bit as much as the bitter conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis that demanded our attention, until this tragedy happened and hit closer to home.
  • It does matter because the place where Mike Brown breathed his last, on his knees and begging for his life, is a place that we as a people pledged to move away from, and to reject 50 years ago.
  • What should we do?  As Fannie Lou Hamer exhorted, “we’ve got to bring in justice where there’s been so much injustice.”  First, we have to stop ignoring it.  Whether or not you’re a person of faith, you’re a person that matters to someone, and Mike Brown was a person who mattered, too.  We must not allow him to have died in vain, which is precisely what continuing on “business as usual,” will do. Finally, we need to check our own privilege and use it for good.  Our ability to engage or not, care, or not, is a privilege that the folks of Ferguson, some of whom have been arrested for sitting in cars in their driveway smoking cigarettes, do not have. We have the ability to dismiss this, “as not relevant to the concerns of middle class people,” as someone in a position to make a difference did in the story I tell in the 4th paragraph below the ****.   Recognize that your privilege, whether SES, race, geographical or otherwise enables you to walk away, but make a different choice, a better choice, a decent choice, a human choice.  Use your privilege for good (my previous blog on this is pasted in below the  *****).
  • We can decide to make a difference:  1) self educate.  if you’ve not been following the stories, here is an amazing set of pictures that sets forth a chronology and lets you see the folks of Ferguson, and how this has affected/is affecting them. Missing from those pictures is the notable sidebar story of several journalists who were covering the Ferguson story being detained and arrested.  2) if and when you start to read, do so critically.  Read multiple sources …. Mike Brown died one week ago (8/9).  The responsible officer’s name was not released until last Friday, and they still have not released the autopsy report or the incident report. So when the same folks who seem to have problems being candid with key info. do things like, a) release convenience store video they were told by the Justice Department not to release; b) tell you that their bullets, their tear gas etc. were prompted by the actions of others, and c) fail to read their own reports as the Ferguson police chief has ‘fessed up to not having read the incident report, be skeptical.  BE VERY SKEPTICAL. 3) contribute to the Mike Brown trust fund, or other groups doing good work,  3) sign a petition If the government call afford to give all this military hardware to local police, it can figure out a way to make sure that police cars, and officers have cameras.  Not that all cops are bad, by any stretch, but cameras cause the bad ones to clean up their acts, and stop giving the good ones a bad name, 4) check here to see if any supportive  activities are taking place near your home. If not, plan one. 5)  Devise your own action plan, but act.  Martin Luther King could well have been talking about Ferguson when he said the following:  “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

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I’m starting this post the way I ended one about 6 1/2 months ago:  by affirming my belief that difference makes a difference.  The post ended this way:  “Diversity  is even more crucial for this reason:  so that we recognize the basic humanity of “the other.”  If a judge has no exposure to, or understanding of the background, experience and perspective of the people whose cases s/he is called upon hear, how close to rendering justice can he or she come?  And how much stock should we put in the fairness of courts and competence of schools, legislatures and government offices if the people who work there don’t bear some resemblance to us and our communities? That post was focused on the differences that diversity of race and sex can bring to the table.  What I want to explore here –in the shadow of the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty –is the difference that economic diversity brings.  I was struck last week as I read articles on the War on Poverty to learn that Lyndon Baines Johnson had been poor growing up.  He knew what it was to live in fear of losing your home, and to not have food in the house.  And although Johnson as President was implementing a determination that President Kennedy had made to focus on poverty issues, it was his personal experience of poverty that led him to declare war on it.  Fast forward

50 years and we have a U.S. Congress that is disproportionately occupied by millionaires.  That Congress is having an extraordinarily difficult time making simple commitments to helping those who do not have enough to eat, or those whose unemployment insurance has or is about to run out.  Whether or not that is because of merely philosophical differences, or because there is some (dis)connect between socio-economic status and the ability to empathize, I cannot say.  I can advert to having seen some pretty disturbing articles in recent days including:

  • A Republican candidate for Senate (thankfully not the leading one) in North Carolina likening receipt of SNAP benefits to slavery;
  • Members of Congress suggesting that low income students should have to sweep floors in order to learn the lesson that “there’s no free lunch,” while expensing thousands of dollars worth of free lunches themselves;
  • Members of Congress attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act for the what?  The 45th time?  I’ve honestly lost count.
  • Members of a House Judiciary panel focused on denying tax benefits to small businesses that provide health insurance that includes coverage for abortion;
  • But wait, there’s more on the abortion front:  At a hearing on an anti-abortion bill last week, one Congressman opined that ensuring that more babies were born was about job creation.

While I write with a decidedly partisan bent, let me be clear:  I think it’s entirely possible to be Republican, compassionate, and capable of empathy.  When then Vice-Pres. George Bush said you don’t have to have cancer to be able to understand what that’s like, he was credible, and I believed him.  But honestly, it feels like some of these folks on Capitol Hill are missing a gene or something as people go hungry and contemplate losing their homes while  members of the House engage in another pointless Obamacare vote, and hold hearings about abortion. It just feels like we talk past as much as to each other these days.  What is the disconnect?  Is it lack of shared experience?  Background?  Belief?  Why is it so hard for us to find the other person’s needs and priorities worthy of consideration and respect?  Is there something about the relatively privileged nature of our leaders that makes them unable,  unwilling,  uninterested in acting on behalf of constituents that are different than themselves?

As I look back over this blog, I see that I began it by talking about privilege, and that it’s a theme that I’ve returned to repeatedly.  I’m feeling impelled by this congressional impasse, among other things, to go there again.  I want to start by giving a concrete example of how privilege works.  The example I’m using is from a conference that I attended last week.  Onstage were a moderator and 3 panelists, and the subject matter was being addressed in a pretty nuanced way.  One panelist, an African American man, was talking about how low income black men may be more interested in discussions about co-parenting because a significant number aren’t custodial parents, and have diminished access to their kids. It was the oppression they experienced as a result of their poverty, he argued, that led them to create the space to have a discussion about rights or gender equality, or oppression.    He further suggested that the need or inclination to have such a discussion was missing among middle or upper class men.  The panel moderator contended that middle class families were experiencing conflicts around their roles as well.  The African American panelist then proceeded to describe how group oppression and domination work:  People of color, he argued,  talk about undoing racism, but spaces are  not being created for whites to get together alone to talk about racism, straight folks are not getting together or creating spaces to talk about heterosexism  That, he argued, is how privilege works, i.e. although society needs discussions about undoing racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. to occur, the people who are benefitting most, and best placed to dismantle these structures are not talking about the advantages they enjoy as a result of the way society is structured.   Then “it” happened.  The very thing the African American speaker had been talking about occurred during the panel:  the moderator, in response to what had been laid out, said that while he agreed, that the factors that had been laid out were not  “relevant to all middle class people.”  In so doing, he basically gave a pass to all people who are benefitting from structural inequality, and excused them from the African American panelist’s call for everyone to have the discussion.  What happened next was equally interesting:  the panelist seated closest to the moderator, himself a white male, “got” what the African American panelist had been trying to say, and offered his own experience of how difficult it is  for white people to have a discussion about white privilege even when that is the explicit goal. (The entirety of the discussion I’ve described can be viewed here by clicking on the link “What About the Men?,” at beginning at the the 23 minute mark).  So why should people care about having such conversations?  Because once privilege is visible to the person who has it, they are much more likely to prioritize moving in the direction of fairness and equity, and to spend a lot less time blaming others for their poverty, joblessness, etc. when factors like these are often heavily impacted by the advantages that individuals do (not) have.  Here’s a good read on privilege from a person who, when told that she was privileged, began from the perspective that “[her] white skin didn’t do shit to prevent [her] from experiencing poverty,”  but who went on to write this pretty comprehensive piece on privilege.

So, how does my segue through “privilege made visible” connect to either the War on Poverty or today’s Congress?  Quite simply, actually:  1) Lyndon Baines Johnson never forgot where he came from or what it had been like to be poor, so even as he ascended to the heights of political power where it would have been easy, and perhaps expected for him to dismiss the concerns of the poor with a “this is not relevant” to the concerns of the [American] people, he did not.  To the contrary, he sought to redress the difficulties he knew that poor people experienced through no fault of their own; 2) We are now confronted with a Congress that because of its disproportionate wealth, its political views, or both, is very disposed to not only dismiss as “not relevant” the concerns of those who are struggling financially, but also to blame people who are facing financial hardships in the middle of an economic downturn for their own misfortune.  If there’s anything I hope that we’ve all learned in this economic crisis, it’s “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  Who among us does not know someone who’s been laid off, or had their wages or hours reduced?  Yet, despite all this, the punitive measures keep coming, the latest of which is Sen. David Vitter’s proposal to require people using a SNAP EBT card to buy groceries to show an i.d.  Senator David Vitter … google him if the mere mention of his name does not evoke the eye rolling, and bold assertions that he who is with sins should be the last to cast a stone that it does on Capitol Hill from advocate and Hill staff, alike.  That, my friends, is how privilege at its worst can operate:  it can permit a David Vitter to commit gross moral transgressions, and yet continue to stand in judgement of others as a U.S. Senator, and to heap indignities upon those whose greatest crime is not to have the wherewithal that he does.

So what does it look like to use your privilege for good?  In my mind, and the minds of many, the use of privilege for good will always look like the late Senator Ted Kennedy.  It is undeniably true that Sen. Kennedy had his faults or, to move closer to what I said about David Vitter, engaged in acts for which he’s had to answer to the deity, however, it is undeniably true that Sen. Kennedy recognized that he came from an extraordinarily privileged background, and that he felt it was his obligation to use his privilege for the common good, which he did innumerable times on the Hill whether he was fighting to raise the minimum wage, to enact a fair pay bill, to strengthen civil rights laws, for universal health care or a host of other things he secured so that all of us, and not just a privileged few, could have a better tomorrow.

Just as both of these men knew that helping to press forward on civil rights, for the poor, for the unemployed, and for so many others was the right thing to do, we know that the time for victim blaming, finger pointing, and “not relevant” — if there was ever a right time — is long over and our future and our children’s hangs in the balance.  The politics of obstruction and destruction must cease.  That’s a tall order indeed in an election year, but the fact that it is an election year holds incredible promise for us to right the listing ship.  We have to stop sending to Washington people who are supposed to carry out the will of the people, but who instead, do anything but:  obstructing, grandstanding,  and politicizing. We have to hold people accountable and refuse to send anyone to Washington who does not have a solid record and history of fighting for the common good.

I close by pointing out that in President Obama, we have a man who has known what it is to struggle, and who gets the need to address inequality.  Excerpted below are two key parts of his recent speech on income equality:

  • “I take this personally.  I’m only here because this country educated my grandfather on the GI Bill.  When my father left and my mom hit hard times trying to raise my sister and me while she was going to school, this country helped make sure we didn’t go hungry.”
  • “The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.  …  A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top.  A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top.  He’s 10 times likelier to stay where he is.”

Fifty years later, there’s still a war to won won whether you talk about poverty or inequality.  Our challenge is to use our privilege for good, and to send the President (by way of the Congress) people who are willing to do the same.  There are too many crucial things that need to get done:  immigration reform, unemployment insurance extensions, voting rights reform, and reauthorization of the SNAP program just to name four. Ask yourself today, as we reflect on the legacy of Dr. King, and every day, how you can use your privilege for good.