Chapter Next: Mike Brown is the New Trayvon Martin

   ferg When past is prologue. As many of y’all know, I blog about all kinds of social justice stuff, including the kinds of things that have been taking place in Ferguson this week. I’ve not written a new blog because it’s Groundhog Day … people of color have lived and agonized this repeatedly … It’s a scary thing, though, when my own blog proves prophetic … Last summer, when I wrote about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case, I spent a paragraph talking about how I would share with Alex the fact that the justice system instinctively mistrusts people of color. And I recounted a story of how I’d called the cops for help, then been treated like a suspect when Alex “went for a walk” just short of his 3rd birthday. It’s a year later, and this morning, I shared that very story with him to make the point that in my encounter with the cops and in Mike Brown’s encounter, people of color are often viewed with suspicion by law enforcement. I commend this piece to you now (it’s linked below) .. .and also point out the deja vu of my exhorting folks to attend what I will call rally 2013, when Alex and I just attended rally 2014 last night for the same reasons and at the same park. Insanity is doing the same thing, or (my interpretation) having the same toxic institutional forces visited upon you  repeatedly and expecting different results. We must be the change, folks … we must be the change!!!

Looking Back and Looking Forward: Trayvon & the Quest for Justice.

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Musings of a Discontented Rabbit

So, I haven’t written much lately.  While the world raged about mooching ranchers, and racist NBA owners.  While Afghanistan prepares to vote, while Crimea and the Lord knows what else are summarily annexed.  While planes disappeared, and ferries capsized. While aged windbags pontificated about women needing husbands here, while the world was silent about girls in Nigeria being kidnapped by people who would shortly force marriage upon them.   It has been difficult to summon the urge to write about much of this because it’s not new: it was a little more than 2 years ago that Alexandra Pelosi chronicled federal dole frequent fliers who probably needed it more than Cliven Bundy. Donald Sterling’s contempt for people of color has been a matter of public record for years; Russia is hegemonic, again, not new.  It’s not that I can only write about new things. The issues/examples I will raise later certainly aren’t all that novel.  It’s just that I need to feel like there is something novel to be said, so let’s forge ahead and see if that’s true.

On Abortion

When I started this blog a year ago, it was because I wanted to respond to what I thought was a breach of decorum vis a vis the First Lady.  The protagonist in that story started heckling FLOTUS, then sought to complain about/critique the rebuke she received. Fast forward a year:  last week, CA legislators sought to hold a nonpartisan prayer breakfast, and one lawmaker, feeling the decorum had been breached, walked out after Jim Dobson labelled the President, “the abortion president.”  On the one hand, I agree with her completely.  Political name-calling has no place at a non-partisan prayer event.  On the other, I feel a little like I did about the lady complaining when the First Lady gave her a hard time:  sometimes you get what you pay for.  Jim Dobson is not anyone’s idea of a guy who does apolitical or nonpartisan well, thus I’m not that surprised that he went there.  Maybe a better question is “does that make it ok,” or “is there anything new here?”  I think what’s new is that we find ourselves increasingly in a time where people have lost their filter … their sensitivity …their consideration … whatever it is that has historically prevented us from “going there,” seems to have fallen away, been switched off, whatever.  Is this an inevitable result of the many opportunities for dumbing down, from reality tv shows to a variety of shows whose agenda is more political than factual?  Is it a by-product of the 24 hour news cycle such that so called news like this goes national when, in a bygone era, this would have been passed over in favor of something more substantial?  Or is it something else?10155449_10152136974881275_8880036041511972997_nOn Husbands

Last month, it was this one:  on the heels of the President signing an executive order relating to equal pay, arch anti-feminist, Phyllis Schlafly took it upon herself to opine that women prefer to marry men who make more money than they do, and thus, that achieving equal pay would deprive women of the types of mates that they seek.  Setting aside — as I’m sure Phyllis did and without a second thought — the fact that some women are either already or planning to be married to another woman, Phyllis, as is her wont, failed to take account of economic reality:  1) we’re in a recession, thus many families are happy and lucky to have two people with jobs, if that’s what they’re after, so are unlikely to sit back and cling to some sort of antiquated notion about who should make more; 2) household budgets don’t have the predictability they once did.  In a two-earner household, either spouse could be laid off, or subject to a salary freeze, or a pay cut or any moment, so forgoing income because the spouses want one of them to make more is not a reflection of how things actually work in these challenging economic time; 3) there’s also the idea that many men are perfectly happy to have their wives earn a comparable salary, and the whole thinking around men needing to earn more is one of those, “Mad Men,” relics the President dismissed earlier this year during the State of the Union address. 4) then there’s my category of women that Phyllis alway leaves out of her Father Knows Best panacea: single women-headed households.  It doesn’t matter what our view on men making more than women is.  We are the only source of incomes for our families, despite the fact that many of us were once married, or in a relationship.  And we most assuredly are not in support of the idea that women should make less because for us that means less options about where and how we live, less stability for our families, less savings put away for retirement and less options for our children about whether they will go on to higher education.

On the Trivialization of Rape

Before I get to the “headline,” of this section, let me pause.  As many of you know, I have the great privilege of advocating for laws and policies that better serve, and protect survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and stalking.  It means I get to work alongside some of the most dedicated, hard-working and talented people you’d ever want to meet, much less work with.   Last week, when the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault released their first report, I got to pause and reflect for a moment on the ability of our government to do good, and to strive for better.   The amount of time that my “sisters in struggle,” took to listen to the stories of survivors, to move the federal government to new levels of transparency so that everyone could be better informed about where complaints involving sexual assault on campuses were being filed, to investigate and sort through options and approaches for better equipping survivors to make empowering choices, and to urge colleges and universities — with both the carrot and the stick — to do more and better by their student body, our future, is staggering.  We owe them, their spouses, their kids (2 & 4 legged) a debt that we may not be able to repay, but thank them we must for working tirelessly to eliminate this scourge of epidemic proportions, and ensure that one day, it is no more.

So, what is there to say about rape?  That it is everywhere?  Even as the newspapers filled last week with stories of the Obama Administration’s work to stem campus rape, and of the more than 50 colleges and universities currently under investigation, there were other stories as well … of a valiant 8 y.o. who was killed while trying to fend off his 12 year old sister’s attacker .. of the judge who problematically thought that the appropriate community service sentence for  a perpetrator of sexual assault would be a placement at an organization that serves survivors of sexual assault.  Apparently, the people seeking services from this provider do not merit much, if any consideration. And then there’s the story that vexed me most, to put it mildly  …. of last year’s Heisman trophy winner, Jameis Winston, being disciplined by Florida State U. for stealing crab legs from a grocery store last week.  Why it was not possible for them to summon this level of interest in holding Winston accountable when he stood accused of sexually assaulting a FU freshman in 2012?  I cannot overstate the depth of my simultaneous incredulousness, and outrage as I relate the following facts: 1) according to the survivor, the assault occurred in December of 2012, 2) the FSU athletic dept. knew about the allegations no more than one month later as one of the assistant athletic directors called the police to inquire about it; 3)  despite this knowledge, university officials only questioned Winton ONE YEAR LATER AFTER THE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME in January of this year.  Maybe I’m the only one surprised by this.  Whether or not I am, we all have work to do because this is unacceptable.  On the part of the young man who, the article suggests may have committed sexual assault previously; on the part of the university who seemed content to ignore the situation until after the championship; an on the part of parents who do not talk to their children early and often about this issue generally. My child is 5 — for another few days, anyway — and though he could not tell you the specifics, he knows that relating to law enforcement is complicated, and is mommy’s job, so when a cop approached him and I was not immediately nearby, he ran to me.  He didn’t do that because he overheard me talking to someone about the Trayvon Martin case, or about the several problematic interactions I’ve had with cops in my lifetime.  He got it because he and I talked about it more than once, and the line was clear and he knew what was expected and what (not) to do.  I both expect and fear that when he gets a little older, we’re going to have more than one talk about sex, and many more talks than one about consent.  What I heard from college aged young adults speaking last week on a White House panel on campus sexual assault has left me better equipped to talk to Alex. Consent, one panelist pointed out, is not the absence of a “no,” but the presence of a “yes.” The most troubling piece of the article I read about mishandling of the investigation into the allegations of sexual assault against Jameis Winston came in the description of the account of another young woman who was likely (in my view) assaulted by Winston as well.  She was disturbed enough by her encounter with Winston to have sought counseling from the FSU victim advocate, however she did not describe the encounter as rape, the article suggests, because she did not say no.  Reduced to an equation “Silence” does not equal Yes.” Nor does not saying no.

Conclusion 

Without being entirely clear on the “why,” writing this piece has given me some insight into the “what.”  Somewhere along the way, the individualism so prized by us as Americans, and oft decried by people abroad, has gone on some kind of steroids-like binge.  Clergy take over prayer breakfasts for their own political ends, discussions about women’s inequality are are seized upon by folks with a pro heterosexual marriage agenda, and campus sexual assault is routinely trivialized by administrators who shun bad publicity or worse,ignored by those who put the school’s athletic program above the safety of students.  Part of what’s so troubling, I think, is that alleged leaders are behaving this way:  Senate candidates comparing Food Stamp recipients to wild animals, while at the same time engaging in medicaid fraud; judges finding that the first amendment only protects christians; or permitting prayer in public spaces, while failing to note that Christian prayer is being privileged over that of other faiths.

The revolution is coming my friends.  I don’t mean that apocalyptically.  I always thought that we might ultimately see turmoil and upheaval for reasons economic:  haves v. have nots.  I suspect, though, that the revolution(s) will start for reasons far more simple: respect for human dignity, displays of human decency, and even common sense are fast becoming things of the past, even as guns are ever more easy to obtain.  Through the madness, though, there are seeds of hope.  People around the world have rallied to demand that Boko Haram #BringBackOurGirls  But, there are also seeds of madness as state legislators express extreme indifference –at best– on questions of fundamental importance like our abhorrence — written into the Constitution — for cruel and unusual punishment, while federal legislators, who at least know enough to be ashamed of their behavior, avoid responsibility by avoiding the conversation.  The outcome of this spiraling madness is yet to be known, but it can be influenced by you, if you vote, engage, debate, and take others with you. Otherwise, when November comes and we find that it is possible for things to get scarier and worse, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

On Jordan Davis & Victimhood: Post (Mis)trial Thoughts

Prologue:  I was originally motivated by Michael Dunn’s outrageous statements about rape, and his own victimhood, but as ever, the writing wants what it wants, and I’m pretty much just the scribe.  What the writing wanted was to talk about the real victims, both those above and below ground, and their realities.  A luta continua!

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One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

W.E.B. DuBois – The Souls of Black Folks

DuBois wrote those words 111 years ago, but it’s especially in times like this that I wonder whether we’ve come far from what he was talking about:  our “twoness.”  We are still a people who float around, most of us used to inhabiting two or more worlds, many of us comfortable in either, some of us comfortable in neither, or only one, but completely conversant in others and their version of reality in ways that they will never be of ours.

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It is, as I said to a friend last evening, as if we exist in parallel universes when a white juror in the Michael Dunn case can honestly believe that because nothing was said about race during deliberations that race had no impact on Dunn not being held accountable for the murder of Jordan Davis.  Just as race had nothing to do with George Zimmerman getting off scot free, while a black airman with no criminal record was sentenced to 25 years in jail for defending himself with a gun after being attacked during a brawl where he was a bystander.  And race had nothing to do with Marissa Alexander similarly being denied the protection of Florida’s “stand your ground laws.”  And finally, and shockingly, to be sure, race has nothing to do with the fact that TWENTY SIX … pause and reread that number: 26 children and teens have been killed in Florida, alone, by people who went on to claim the stand your ground defense.

It is privilege, as discussed at length in the post that preceded this one, that permits people at a certain remove — afforded them by race, or class, most often — to have no idea what goes on in the lives of people who don’t share that same status.  And, as someone mentioned to me earlier, we live in a society that privileges the fear of whites over the lives of young people of color.   I mention 24 children and youths killed, in Florida alone, but also point out the recent cases of Jonathan Ferrell in, Charlotte, NC, and of Renisha McBride in a suburb of Detroit, MI.  I do so to point out a number of things: 1) this isn’t just about Florida; 2) it isn’t just about the south; 3) it isn’t just about young black men (though they are disproportionately targeted).

I’m going to close [for now] with one more “it isn’t just.”  I’m setting it apart because it goes directly to the issue of privilege, and does so in a way that might help us all to see things differently in this space of murder, mayhem, and privilege.  It isn’t just about the Trayvons and Jordans who were minding their own business, or doing what kids do.  It isn’t only about the Jonathans and Renishas who were looking for help.  It’s about those of us who may literally be, or just be regarded as, “a little different.”   We know them, we love them, we’re related to them, we are them, and depending on our connection: we fear for them.  Please read the linked story about an African American man who is autistic, and how the atmosphere we live in, one where it’s open season on young African American men, scares his sister nearly to the point of paralysis.  Read, and understand so that it isn’t just us, in our twoness, alone and afraid for our brothers, our sons,  our nephews, our cousins and friends.  So that we are no longer left alone to solve a problem that we did not create, but are victimized by.  Every. single. day.

Leaders? Leaders?? Anywhere?

The picture that’s worth a thousand words … The President travelled to Dallas, TX last week and was greeted by that city’s mayor.  Note the body language of these two: 1) the mayor is motionless, his arm locked at his side; 2) the President is in motion, and has his arm extended; 3) the distance between the two is closing, but only because the President is closing it. Seems like a metaphor for politics lately, and explains a lot.

The Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare is another perfect example of trying to close the gap, and being met with a stiff armed reception.  The Democrats were in control of both houses of Congress when the bill was moving through, but they both wanted, and needed (politically, symbolically, and otherwise) to have a bi-partisan bill.  Many good ideas and options, including the single payer approach, ended up on the cutting room floor, as House and particularly Senate leadership worked toward crafting a bill that both parties could support.  In the end, however, no Republicans voted for the bill, and their opposition to the final product, which contained many of their amendments, became the justification for shutting down the government last month. As someone who spends a lot of time on Capitol Hill, I must confess that I find it increasingly challenging.  You go and talk to a staffer to try to enlist his or her boss’ support on your issue, or your bill, and you get hemming and hawing.  Much more than used to be the case … ‘well, the bill will come out of committee differently, so we’ll keep our powder dry for now,’ or his or her boss has a “complicated” district, such that taking a position will make things problematic back home.

Then, there’s the opposite of closing the gap:  I thought I had seen all kinds of cynical maneuvering in my time, but the guy in Houston who sent out campaign literature giving the impression that he was black, but who turned out not to be totally takes the cake. That is not what leadership looks like. Neither is holding the federal workforce hostage while demanding capitulation to your agenda, and neither is campaigning on the basis of things you’d like to deny people, as Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli did on the gubernatorial campaign trail in opposing the expansion of Medicaid (which, for the first several years would have been entirely paid for by the federal government, by the way).

The preceding paragraph puts me in the exact posture I see too much of these days:  spending too much time talking about what you’re against, or critiquing the folks who are the antithesis. It’s not winter, but I feel spent, out of gas … like I’m running on fumes, and I attribute it very much to what I will call the “leadership vacuum.”  That’s not where I want to be, but when I look at the paralyzed Congress, passing bills that it knows have no chance –this week’s House bill is focused on letting people keep their substandard health insurance — I feel like we’ve lost our compass on the question of leadership, the qualities that comprise it, and what we derive from it.

A leader compromises.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely, it is said, and both parties, when they had control (at the state or federal levels) of both sides of the legislature, have been guilty of excess:  forcing through bills that the other side was not given time to read; not accepting amendments; passing laws that rewarded their supporters too richly.  But the government in Iowa, with a Republican governor, and a split legislature (their congressional delegation is also evenly split, by the way) has figured out a way to work together to benefit all, including passing both income tax cuts and small business tax credits. They have also come up with a non-partisan redistricting process, which may well be the secret of their success.

A real leader exhorts people to cut the crap and get moving.  “You’re elected to be a leader. Then lead. Show us what you’re for, show us what you don’t like, but we’ve got to come to a resolution that makes sense for the entire country, and we need to have a debate in front of the American public.”  These are the words of CA Republican Rep. Jeff Denham who is expressing frustration with the lack of progress on a House immigration bill.  Denham chose to sign on to the House Democrat’s immigration bill, but also appears to be working to get other House members to do something, anything, whether supporting existing bills, or signing onto a letter that expresses commitment to moving on the issue.

Let it not be concluded on the basis of my first two choices that I think that legislatures are chock full of great leaders.  At the same time, things are so paralyzed here, that a willingness to show up and engage can’t go unremarked upon.   Leaders are not always at the top of the leadership chain.  To the contrary, they sometimes emerge in direct contrast to what so-called leadership is engaged in.  As the Senate prepares to vote on the Military Justice Improvement Act, the testimony of women like U.S. Marine and sexual assault survivor, Ariana Klay is a testament to standing up for what is right and just in the face of incredible adversity, and at tremendous personal cost.  This is what leadership looks like. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also deserves kudos for pressing ahead with a bill that some in the Congress and significant numbers in the military have come out against.  Leaders do what they believe to be right, not what is popular, or acceptable or easy. 

True leadership is transcendent.  It has a vision.  Whether or not it reaches the destination, it knows the steps needed to get there and what “there” looks like.  When Nichelle Nichols, known to many of us as Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, decided to quit the series because she felt her character was increasingly being marginalized, Martin Luther King requested a meeting with her.  He told her that she could not quit, that she was in a position to influence popular culture, to change hearts and minds, and to stand as a role model for and to African Americans who had heretofore only been portrayed in ways either servile or sexualized.  Turns out MLK was right; Nichols led change, breaking down barriers and causing people everywhere to see women of color differently.  Listen to a modern day celebrity talk about  what Nichols’ role meant to her, and see how that ripples out more than 45 years after King’s assassination.

Leadership is about doing the job even when you’re not being watched (or think you’re not).   In an era where we are awash in concerns about profiling or misconduct or other less than exemplary behavior by law enforcement, witness the simple humanity of this one officer who not only didn’t know he was being recorded, but unwittingly left this gesture as a model for posterity.

True leadership knows no age.  Witness the actions of this NC 12 year-old who spoke up when the legislature pared back the ability of teens to register to vote at the DMV, and of these PA high school students who decided their school paper should no longer use the term, “Redskin,” the name of their high school mascot.

True leadership keeps at it … as the high school students described above have in the face of opposition from their principal, and as the President has in his efforts to get the Affordable Care Act on its feet, and to secure confirmation for his judicial nominees in the face of significant congressional headwinds.

In closing, I leave you with one example of the antithesis of leadership:  the sad state of affairs with respect to the proposed cuts to the SNAP program, the nation’s leading safety net program that provides food to individuals and families, many of whom are elderly, working, veterans, have disabilities, or some combination of these.  True leaders do everything they can to avoid visiting cuts like these to programs that provide minimal support (which tends to get depleted long before the month is over) to the people who most need it.

Deja vu and Redistricting …

Three months ago to the date, I published the blog piece below.  It has only become more relevant as the events of the federal shutdown showdown have unfolded.  Run, don’t walk, folks to take our government back …

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Unfortunately, what we appear to be reaping at the federal level — in the process, giving rise to a Congress that is on track to be the least productive in history — are the fruits of congressional redistricting.  As the New York Times pointed out last year, “since redistricting gives many members of Congress less competitive, more politically homogeneous districts, it is often cited as one of the factors exacerbating political polarization.”

A quick look at the chart that accompanied the NYT article tells the redistricting tale:  in states where Republicans were in charge of the redistricting process, they won an outsized number of seats relative to their total vote share.   The same was true for Democrats in states where they controlled the redistricting process.   The rub, however, is this:  Republicans controlled the redistricting process in four times as many states as Democrats did. Meh?  Check out the graph, and read on, please.

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From NYT – 12.14.12: Parties Redraw the House Vote

The moral of the chart is pretty straightforward:  when states are redistricted by commissions (presumably bi-partisan ones),  R’s and D’s are elected in a manner and number that’s pretty close to the percentage of votes each party receives. Not so for partisan redistricting processes.  An additional factor (and subject of a future post) is the impact of the Supreme Court’s most recent voting rights decision.

The chart’s cautionary tale for Republicans, who controlled a much larger proportion of the redistricting in 2012,  is  ”when the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.”  While R’s were able to draw a goodly number of safe districts, and thereby strengthen their goal of holding onto the majority in the House for several election cycles, the results seem decidedly mixed where R. incumbents are concerned, and disastrous where the prospects for a productive Congress that works toward bi-partisan ends are concerned.  In the Georgia senate race I mentioned previously, the R. field is being pulled to the right, which in a state with a rising minority population, could open the door for a moderate D. challenger.  Worse yet, if you’re perceived to be an endangered species known as a moderate Republican,  is the fact that groups like the Club for Growth are already targeting for defeat next year, R’s in safe districts who they don’t consider to be conservative enough.   See who they’ve pinned a bull’s eye on here.   Here’s the thing:  I have my own increasingly short list of moderate R’s on the House side, and the ones listed on the website as being targeted, AREN’T ON IT.  Norm Ornstein called one of the folks on the list “very conservative.”  So what we’re looking at is folks being singled out and subjected to some ideological litmus test for trying to carrying out the work of “we, the people,” by being willing to “compromise to get something done.”

And we thought we knew something about the unbearable unendingness of gridlock.  Fasten your seatbelts folks … and run, do not walk, toward any sane people or institutions working on redistricting reform.

A Beautiful Dream in the Neighborhood: You Be the Change

Another strange week in the neighborhood … literally.  Alex’s bus to school has been unreliable, at best, in the morning, so I’ve been driving him there daily.  To say that I’ve encountered strange reactions from the locals about sums it up.  Though it’s a public school inside the DC/MD/VA beltway, only 1% of the kids attending Alex’s school are black.  So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that when I knocked at a cafeteria door one morning, hoping to take a shortcut, two 5th grade girls — given the demographics, you’d be correct to assume that they were white — just sat there staring at me as I peered in the door and knocked, and made no effort to open the door.  Ultimately, a boy from their class came over and let us in.  To be fair, I was knocking the same day that –unbeknownst to them at that point — the umpteeth gunman since Sandy Hook was engaged in a mass shooting at the Navy Yard less than half an hour’s drive from our location, and during the same week that the school held a state mandated lockdown drill, presumably to make sure the kids know what to do.  Still, I’m not wrong to think that race played a role, and here’s why:  incident #2.  As I said, there are a paucity of black kids in Alex’s school.  Such that when I took the kindergarten tour in June, I was almost shocked to see a little black girl in one of the classes.  Thursday morning, the shock was “on the other foot,” as the same little girl saw me standing in the hall with Alex.  She approached us with some curiousity, and asked if I was Alex’s mother.  I very much attribute that to “my kind,’ being pretty scarce in those parts.

What does it say that a black woman taking her son to public school is such a foreigner in a foreign land in her own neighborhood?  The same thing, I fear, that it says when various quadrants of the country FREAK OUT when this year’s Miss America turns out to be an American born Hindu of South Asian descent.  And, it’s the same message that we got this week from Charlotte, NC when a black man involved in a car accident in the middle of  the middle of the night made two mistakes:  1) banging on the door of a nearby house to seek help; and 2) running toward the police thinking that he would receive it.  The same message that was sent by our contemptuous House of Representatives Thurs. evening when they passed a bill that cut $40 billion out of the only safety net program that functioned well during the recession and kept the wolf from many a door; a program that continues to support many a low income working poor person.

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...
Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deutsch: 1964: Martin Luther King Português: Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve rattled off a number of symptoms above.  The disease stems from this simple fact:  not only have we not lived up to Martin Luther King’s aspiration that we would judge people not by the color of their skins, but by the content of their character, we have turned that on its head and made it worse. To judge someone on the basis of their character, you have to get to know them, to take time with them, to invest in them.  Not only are we increasingly unwilling, unable or incapable of engaging to this extent, to the contrary, we reach all sorts of perverse conclusions about people we don’t know.  Witness today’s version of that: where two men who presumably had never met, get into a gun battle because one was allegedly tailgating the other, and both wound up dead.   We’ve lost the ability to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to engage in civil ways with strangers, to be interested in learning people’s stories before we jump to conclusions and decide that they’re not American, or don’t look the part. Moreover, we are acting out violently against people on the basis of who we think they are. Take for instance this account, only the most recent of many that detail Sikhs being attacked because violent individuals believe that their beards and turbans somehow connect them with Osama bin Laden.

The news increasingly suggests that where we may not be failing to engage, we may be engaging problematically by resorting to profiling and stereotyping.  Witness the accounts of the NYPD spying on law abiding Muslims as well as restaurants, communities or clubs where people from 28 “ancestries of interest” were to be found. Additionally, check out both this NPR piece on citizen reporting of “suspicious behavior in CA,” and the reports themselves.  Someone bought a pallet of water, someone showed up at a rally to protest police excessive use of force, someone took pictures of a bridge or a federal building?  And, of course, these reports are generally full of suggestions that the suspicious looking people were Arab or Arab looking … It might be useful before I go on to point out that my brother wears a mustache/goatee and the enlightened citizens of Charlotte, NC were asking whether he was “an Ay-rab” in the days after 9.11.01.  Do any of us really ever “know one [fill in the blank] when we see one?”  I sometimes play a game when I see pictures in the newspaper … I try to guess where folks are from, and I’m rarely right.  And just the other day, I caught myself inadvertently profiling someone by name … Alex’s new vice principal is named Heather Hurley.  The several folks I’ve told this to have said that they’ve rarely heard a more Irish sounding name … and she did come to Arlington by way of Boston.  Imagine my surprise when she turned out to be African American.

So my challenge to you is this … stay open … challenge yourself … challenge others … in my view, we’re kind of past the point where more laws or more civil rights protections are going to help.  We all have a responsibility to push back on the problematic stuff we hear and see … whether it’s a football team with an offensive name, comments on 9-11 like, “Muslims stay home,” racist ridiculousness about Nina Davuluri, the beautiful new Miss America,  or any other ill informed commentary or behavior that threatens to drag us all down with it.  Look for opportunities to turn bad episodes into learning moments like this man did … Become an “ambassador.”  Because if you’re not part of the solution …

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What the ???

Jeers:  Following the Mayor’s veto of bill that would have required Wal-Mart to pay its employees a living wage, the D.C. City Council failed to override the veto.   It is absolutely true, that folks in the poor parts of the District need jobs.  But it’s also true that they need jobs that will enable them to support their families, that Wal-Mart can afford to pay their employees better, and that a disproportionate amount of the already existing Wal-Mart workforce also relies on SNAP, or food stamps.  At least for now … see the next entry.

Jeers:  The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill this week that would cut SNAP, the only decently functioning safety net for the working poor, by nearly $40 billion over ten years.  Never mind all the rhetoric about how able bodied people should support themselves, the reality is that SNAP is a program that disproportionately helps the working poor make ends meet.  Like the above-mentioned Wal-Mart employees who are rarely given enough hours to enable them to support themselves and their families. Also, if there’s a genuine concern about work for the able bodied, how about the House funding some additional job training programs?  Anyone?  Not so much, apparently.

Chapter Next: In Which Alex Meets the Popo …

Alex and I had two conversations about the police — or “la policia,” as we call them – this week before the events described in the last paragraph of this post took place last night.  In the first, he declared to me that “all police are not bad.”  That’s part of a larger and ongoing post-Trayvon talk we’ve been having this summer (more on that here).  Then, Wednesday morning, he pointed out that the “police man or police woman,” did not have the siren on.   The combination of that, and the fact that my father –an Episcopal minister and civil rights activist – attended the March on Washington fifty years ago – has set me to thinking about whether, what and how we have (not) overcome during the ensuing five decades since that march, and the work that remains.

Pew Research is out with some timely data, apropos of the anniversary of the March.  The data is as striking for what it says as it is for what it does not say.   The comparisons are largely along the lines of black/white, or black/white/Hispanic progress and opinions, even as a huge battle over immigration is, with the August recess of the Congress, on hiatus in Washington, DC.  Despite a discussion of both marriage, and family formation and how different things are 50 years on, there’s no exploration of what it means in terms of education, or poverty that nearly 1/3 of white women, 1/2 of Latinas, and ¾ of black women are giving birth while unmarried.  The small section on gender does not look at the issue of pay equity.  There’s also no wrestling with data on, or opinions of single parent households, despite the fact that “half or more of today’s children will likely spend at least part of their childhood in a single parent family.”  And then there’s this: “[Asians,] Native Americans and mixed-race groups not shown.”  That sentence, sometimes including Asians, sometimes not, appears 8 times in the 31-page report. I readily concede that no survey can be all things to all people, and in some instances, the data is unavailable, but it seems to me that even as one wants to compare apples to apples 50 years later, taking serious account of the fact that there are a variety of oranges, mangoes and other fruit in the mix means spending more time assessing the impact that they have had, and the complexity that they bring to any discussion of progress.

© www.PhotographyByAlexander.com

I am a single black woman, born two years after the ’63 March.  My son is bi-racial.  The relative to total absence of people who share our background and experience in the Pew study informs not only my approach to the remainder of this post, but also my approach to raising my Alex.  I have to put the Pew data aside, and turn to other sources to make this report relevant to/inclusive of me.  Similarly, in order for Alex to understand that the police may not always be on his side (an issue on which those polled by Pew and I largely agree), I have to make that issue part of the narrative and not just expect that he’ll somehow get it without my being explicit.   If you’re not intentional, and inclusive about your facts, or about your child-rearing, the result is often a reader or a child insufficiently prepared to grapple with the nuances and complexities of modern life. We are far from having achieved Martin Luther King’s aspiration that we be judged by the content of our character as against the color of our skin, but to get there, we must be inclusive in every respect, from our data sets to how we raise our kids.

A few stats and articles to highlight the need for inclusivity:

  • The Equal Pay Act is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  Thus, it’s important as we heed Dr. King’s call for equality, to make sure that discussions about pay parity for women and minorities are brought to the fore.
    • According to the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, women who work full time earn about 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Because of the wage gap, since 1960, the real median earnings of women have fallen short by more than half a million dollars compared to men. Minority women face a larger wage gap. Compared to white men, African American women make 70 cents on the dollar (African American men make 74 cents); Hispanic or Latina women make about 60 cents (Hispanic men make almost 66 cents).
    • Tied to pay equity is the issue of childcare.  According to a recent New York Times op ed,  pay inequity between the sexes is exacerbated by the cost of child care, i.e. women with children lag behind their childless women peers in the quest for pay equity with men.  Moreover, “child care is the single greatest expense among low-income families in [New York] [C]ity, surpassing both food and housing.”

Without an explicit focus on how the above-mentioned issues perpetuate poverty, particularly among women and minorities, we are no closer to realizing the dream.   Similarly, only if we are explicit with children about how issues of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, culture, immigration status, socio-economic status, and a host of other variables may influence how they, or their friends perceive or proceed in various situations, will we be raising children who are fully equipped to participate in a society that grows ever more diverse.

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In closing, I offer two articles that I’ve come across recently as models of how to parent more inclusively: 1) an MSNBC article authored by an African American man who writes about the parenting of his white mother, and 2) a HuffPo article  by a parent who is white, and talks about how she engages with her children on issues of race.  Both highlight the same thing: instead of unhelpful discussions of color-blindness, which do not encourage children to grapple with the realities of race in this country, the parents in both stories engaged with their kids when issues implicating race arose in school, or chose a diverse neighborhood, or in other ways ensured that they thought, talked, and read about issues of race instead of overlooking them.

Similarly, I’ve tried to make Alex aware of issues of race and gender, among others.  He demonstrated that awareness Wed. morning when he spoke about the policeman or woman in the car in front of us.  Then last night, he got to put what he’d learned from our Trayvon talks into action.  It was twilight, and he’d run halfway down the block ahead of me as I paused to talk to a neighbor.  A police car slowed; the officer was unsure that Alex was being accompanied by an adult.  Having absorbed the lesson that all police are not bad, yet you don’t know the disposition of the one that’s stopped you, Alex not only ran to me rather than engaging with the officer, but was able to articulate why he’d done so.  While it was great to see that he’d learned the lesson so well, it was tragic that 50 years later, even as we prepare to commemorate the March on Washington, I had to teach it to him.  A bittersweet moment on the road to the place where we are all “free at last.”

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What the ???

Cheers 

In fact, cheers only this week.  The only reason my dad didn’t sit in the back of the bus when he attended a segregated seminary in the 40’s in Petersburg, VA was that he — an immigrant and native Spanish speaker — refused to speak English to the driver.  Nearly twenty years later when he attended the March on Washington, he couldn’t have forseen women running for governor, nor women running for school board seats in an integrated North Carolina school system, much less an African American president. We may not have gotten there, my friends, but we are making progress step by step.

This week, I have the privilege of commending to you — and urging you to support — two women who I have the privilege of calling friends.

My friend, Juliette Kayyem announced that she was jumping into the race to be the next governor of Massachusetts earlier this week.

My friend, Monika Johnson-Hostler is running for a seat on the Wake County, NC School Board.

I’ve had the privilege of working with both of them.  They are smarted, talented, amazing women and proven leaders dedicated to making their respective corners of this country better.  In an age when we constantly scratch our heads wondering why people would choose public service, they have both answered the call. I urge you to support them both early, often and to the extent allowable by law!!!

Cheers 

It’s been heartening to see this post from Upworthy making the rounds on Facebook.  As we observe the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, how about a little self-observation?  Are you a beneficiary of privilege of whatever kind?  If yes, and you don’t already do so, use your power for good!!

Breaking Out of the Silo: On (un)Seeing Multiple Oppressions

As someone who’s worked in the civil rights community for many years, I’ve worked on a number of issues.  I name many of them in the beginning of this post.  In one of my many coalitions, we joke frequently about what each of our “t-shirts” says.  By that we mean, what issue does each of us frequently bring up, or what preoccupation do we have with respect to the bill we might be working on.  Often, I say that my t-shirt says the following:  “Silo politics will be the death of us all.”  It can be tough to work at intersections or to acknowledge that, for instance, solving a problem for “women,” does not always a yield a workable solution for women of color, or women with disabilities, or immigrant women or that a coalition that is inclusive of LGBT folks on the one hand, and people of color on the other may nevertheless fall short of comprehensively addressing issues for LGBT folks of color. The vital discussion that took place this week on twitter under the tag #solidarityisforwhitewomen suggests that there is still much vital work to be done not only to ensure that we’re reaching comprehensive and inclusive results in our work, but as importantly to live into and not just give lip service to the notion of being a good ally to other groups in the struggle.

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve heard a lot this week about the misogynist misstep of Russell Simmons who promoted and characterized as “hilarious” a so-called Harriet Tubman sex tape. Not only was it not hilarious, it served to trigger and bring up awful recollections of sexual assault for more than one survivor.  Simmons and his colleagues at AllDefDigital have been rightfully and righteously pilloried for making a video where Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, conductor on the Underground Railroad and the only woman to lead men in battle during the Civil War, is portrayed as a wily seducer, and ultimately, blackmailer of her slavemaster.  The myriad ways in which finding this amusing, much less endorsing it as a form of amusement is misogynist, a perversion of history and wrong in general, much less coming from someone who called Don Lemon to account, defy comprehension.  But it also distracts, crucially, from the other hideous parody gone wrong in the same video.

Although most of the video is focused is on Tubman’s attempts to entrap “massa,” she has an accomplice.  The video opens with her plotting with her cameraman about “the sting,” or entrapment that she’s about to engage in.  Her willing accomplice then hides in the closet with a video camera and assures her that he “won’t leave her hanging.”   While you could dismiss that allusion to lynching without more, you aren’t allowed to do so as the actor playing the accomplice pantomimes tying a rope around his neck at the very moment that he says it.  So, not only are the repeated sexual assaults endured by black women during slavery an appropriate subject for mockery, so is lynching.

Thus, although she features more prominently in this assault on African American women and history, Harriet Tubman is not the only one whose life and times are being parodied.  Ida B. Wells, all that she contributed to the anti-lynching movement, and the nearly 5,000 blacks and whites who were murdered when lynching was at its peak (1882 -1920) are being  mocked and denigrated along with her.

Why, I’m wondering, has there been so much attention to the Tubman part of the parody, but none to the lynching comment?  Was it just overlooked since the video was hastily removed before folks had a chance to review it thoroughly?  Was it inconvenient because what folks really wanted to do was to call out Russell Simmons for sexism in light of his critique of Don Lemon?  Did it render the deconstruction too messy to have to deal with both misogyny and xenophobia?   Was it just disregarded as a one off comment?  It should not have been.  For me, seeing a black man making an imaginary noose in the middle of a parody set in slavery times was nothing short of chilling.  

All of my theories about why everyone seems to have missed the lynching issue are both unsatisfying, and slightly disturbing because we’re reduced to having only one part of a broader discussion.  That video was most certainly about misogyny, but it was also about the deepest most destructive kind of self loathing there is.  The kind that can find any humor in extra-judicial murder.  The kind that fails to understand that lynching was simultaneously an instrument of repression and terror, even as the event of a lynching was often treated as a social occasion and spectacle to which people would bring their children and picnic baskets.  Also the kind that fails to understand that many communities, black, brown, LGBT, immigrant continue to live in terror in 2013.  Continue to fear that they could be tasered by cops, stopped for no reason, murdered while walking home from 7-11, or repeatedly see their children taken out of state and put into adoption proceedings in contravention of state and federal laws.  To overlook the justifiable terror of many communities as you satirize them for fun and cash is profiteering at its worst.  But we must do our part to hold profiteers accountable for all the damage they do, not just the most visible or easily attacked aspects of it. 

What the ???

Cheers   

Credit where credit is due.  Despite wreaking havoc in everything from more restrictive abortion laws, to voting rights restrictions, the Gov. of North Carolina,  Bill McCrory, did the right thing yesterday when he vetoed a law that would have imposed drug testing requirements on some welfare recipients.

Jeers

To the GOP Super PAC that thought that a video game that slapped Hillary Clinton for speaking was in any way appropriate.

What Price, Privilege? A Closer Look at the Zimmerman & Baby Veronica cases

I take the law seriously; maybe seriously enough is a better phrase given my bygone love affair with a little blue sports car.  I’m a member of several bars, including that of the U.S. Supreme Court, and I’ve raised my hand and sworn to defend and uphold the Constitution.  But this is truly the summer of my discontent, where I have spent a lot of wondering if truly, “the law is an ass.”  Maybe George Zimmerman’s lawyer had it right when he started the trial by cracking jokes.  Maybe the system is one big joke.

Look at what is being passed off as justice this summer:

George Zimmerman was let off by a jury even as one juror is on record as saying she felt that he was guilty, while another — she of the now dead book deal — fully acknowledges that he went “beyond what he should have done,” because he “wanted to catch these people.” (italics mine)  How does it happen that someone concludes that a man who took a human life is guilty only of bad judgement?  Welcome to the the very scary — never more than when it rears its head in a criminal court — world of privilege.   What do I mean by privilege?  We could be here for quite a while.  Privilege is a status that you enjoy that enables you to do things that others in circumstances similar to yours can’t.  Privilege can be based on race, or perceived race , status, sex, religion or a variety of other factors.  As I talked about in my first post, privilege is what gave the woman who heckled the First Lady the notion that it was ok to do that.

Privilege can also assert itself in law:  witness the laws of apartheid, or Jim Crow.  Now that that legally enshrined privilege is largely a thing of the past, privilege can be more difficult to see.  A friend has described it as the water the fish swims in, such that the fish is largely unaware of its existence even as it is one with it.  Sometimes instantly accorded, privilege can be accompanied by the invocation of a code.

Two Zimmerman related examples suffice.  To any people of color reading this:  have you ever been stopped by a cop and:  a) avoided directly answering his/her question, or b) told him/her that you have a gun in the glove compartment even if you were carrying it legally.  No?  Me neither.  Because we’ve been killed for infractions much more minor than that, say minding our business while walking home with a can of iced tea and a bag of skittles. But then, none of us belongs to the George Zimmerman club.  Stopped for speeding last week, Zimmerman tells the cop he has a gun in his glove compartment, won’t tell the cop where he’s going and when queried, says, “you didn’t see my name?”  Having literally gotten away with murder, Zimmerman tells the cop he has a gun, and succeeds in not only not having to tell the cop where he’s going, but doesn’t even get a ticket.  This is privilege on parade. Behaving as if you’re untouchable and having law enforcement go along with it.  “You didn’t see my name,” is a pretty in your face invocation of privilege.  But it doesn’t always work, even when it should.  Note this story of a 3-star police chief in New York City, the city’s highest ranking African-American who, while sitting in an unmarked police car, though wearing NYPD i.d., is not accorded privilege when he says, “don’t you know who I am?,” almost identical to what Zimmerman said. Instead, they order him from the car with their weapons drawn, and question the validity of his i.d.  Though the black cop has the greater indicia of status or privilege in this set of examples, Zimmerman, who some have pointed out is Hispanic, is characterized by the cop who stops him as “white” when he radios in to check his i.d.  And who gets the deference and club membership?  Not the 3-star African American NYPD police chief.  It also bears pointing out, given all the recent attention to the Marissa Alexander case, that women of color who defend themselves, stand their ground, or engage in similar acts reserved for the privileged, are dealt with very harshly by the system. 

In the second Zimmerman example, one of his lawyers subtly threatens the judge with reversal (i.e. appealing to a higher court to have the verdict reversed) if she does not go along with his approach to the jury instructions.  The judge then agrees with the defense and thus, in one writer’s view, the “jurors were told only about the parts of Florida self-defense law that benefited [Zimmerman], without knowing anything about the most relevant potential limitation.”   This both explains why the jurors who felt Zimmerman to be guilty could not find any grounds on which to find him so, and defines the essence of privilege.  Defense counsel had basically bullied the judge into ruling their way. The temerity, or chutzpah, if you will, to tell a judge she should see things your way or be reversed reeks of privilege.  In this case, it’s privilege heaped upon privilege:  George Zimmerman’s retired judge father (1) both knew who to hire (2), and the means to do so (3).  Three strikes and you’re “not guilty.”

Elsewhere in the valley called “miscarriage of justice,” is the Baby Veronica story.  Child custody cases rarely end up in the Supreme Court, unless they involve questions of federal (or international) law, in this case the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) or unless one of the key figures is represented by someone with connections to the Chief Justice.  But, I’ve gotten ahead of the story.  At the center of this story is Dusten Brown, an Iraq war veteran, and member of the Cherokee Nation who has never stopped fighting for custody of his daughter, Veronica.  Brown was engaged to Veronica’s mother when she discovered she was pregnant.  He offered to marry and support the mother, Christy Maldonado, but she broke off the engagement and would not respond to his texts or calls.  When Veronica was 4 mos. old, and Dusten was on the verge of shipping out for Iraq, he learned of Maldonado’s plans to give his daughter up for adoption.  She had neither consulted him, nor gotten his permission.  She had asked him to give up custody, and he had reluctantly done so, thinking that she would be raising their daughter.   Dusten tells his story here.

If this country has a dark history involving peoples of African descent and slavery and Jim Crow, it has an equally cruel and destructive history where Native Americans are concerned.  The history involves forcibly removing and resettling Native Americans from their land largely in the name of  “progress.”  The history also involves trying to destroy Native peoples and culture by removing Native children (often forcibly) from their homes and families, and sending them to boarding schools.  The idea was to divest the Native children of their language, their culture. Abuse was rampant.  An Army officer described the goal this way:  “kill the Indian in them, and save the man.”   Removal of Native Americans from their land, and their children from their homes was every bit as violent and rapacious an exercise of privilege as slavery and Jim Crow.   It was as a direct result of this history that the U.S. Congress passed ICWA in 1978.  It sets out federal requirements that govern state adoptions involving children who are, or are eligible to be members of federally recognized tribes. 

Though the attorneys for the S.C. couple that wanted to adopt Veronica filed initial papers within days of her birth, Veronica’s father was not served with papers for 4 months, just before he deployed to Iraq.  Over two years, three successive courts ruled in Dusten Brown’s favor.  After losing in the S. Carolina Supreme Court, the prospective parents — many articles I’ve read suggest that the adoption had not been finalized, though Veronica did live with them for some time — so the use of adoptive parents is inappropriate, in my mind– took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This is where we hit the left turn from Albuquerque.  By the time the case gets to the S. Court, Veronica — by virtue of the 3 court rulings in his favor — is living with her father, stepmother and older sister.  Leaving the law aside for a moment, it’s hard for me to understand why the prospective parents, with 3 losses under their belt and having lost custody of Veronica, could not put a stop to things.  Surely, it is not in her best interest to be taken from not only her father, but the family, including her sister that she’s been living with for the better part of 2 years?  This is when you start to believe that this case must be about something else … My guess is that the something else is the rights of adoptive families, esp. since Chief Justice Roberts, who has a very problematic role in all this, is himself an adoptive parent.  Of course I support adoption in general, but there appear to be several problematic things  at work here.  It comes back to what I was talking about in the Zimmerman context:  privilege.  Though ICWA exists to prevent Native children from being adopted away from their Native families, the Supreme Court disregarded it, and held part of it invalid.  In so doing, it opined about how Indian Veronica was and found her to be 1.2% Native.  Not only is that not the issue, it wasn’t for them to opine about her whether she was a member of the Cherokee Nation or not.  The Constitution recognizes many Native nations, including Cherokee as “domestic dependent sovereigns.”  Thus, it was up to them to make a determination as to whether Veronica was a member, and they decided she was.  End of story.  Unless someone decides such facts are inconvenient to the way they wish to decide a case. in which instance they proceed as they like, disregarding simultaneously, the sovereignty of the Cherokee nation and the reasons that Congress created ICWA to begin with.

Justice Sotomayor makes clear how out of line the majority is in this part of her dissent:

“[T]he majority openly professes its aversion to Congress’ explicitly stated purpose in enacting the statute. The majority expresses concern that reading the Act to mean what it says will make it more difficult to place Indian children in adoptive homes, see ante, at 14, 16, but the Congress that enacted the statute announced its intent to stop “an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families [from being] broken up” by, among other things, a trend of “plac[ing] [Indian children] in non-Indian . . . adoptive homes.” 25 U. S. C. §1901(4). Policy disagreement with Congress’ judgment is not a valid reason for this Court to distort the pro­visions of the Act.”

Thus, despite the fact that the U.S. Congress, recognizing the terrible and destructive history of this country in adopting Native children away from their families, passed a law to protect Native children, and prevent this from happening, Native people have no rights that the U.S. Supreme Court must respect.  Or, at least, that’s my take away.  It’s also worth pointing out that Chief Justice Roberts attended the wedding of the birth mother’s lawyer:  she’s married to one of his former clerks.   This is what I refer to as “privilege on parade.”

The battle continues:  A  S. Carolina court has moved to finalize the adoption, but has not ordered a hearing as to what’s in the best interest of the child, despite the fact that this is required by ICWA.  Dusten Brown petitioned the Supreme Court to put the enforcement of the S. Carolina court order on hold until such a hearing could be held, and Chief Justice Roberts, who hears the emergency petitions from the 4th Circuit of which SC is a part, turned the petition down.  Again, methinks this case has long been about something other than the best interests of Baby Veronica.  The case will now move to Oklahoma, where Veronica lives, and the courts there will have to determine how best to enforce the order issued in S.C.   With luck, they will see wisdom in determining Veronica’s best interests before proceeding.

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What the???

Cheers  To the many responsible for keeping the heat on in FL, until their legislature agreed to review its  Stand Your Ground law.  While reviewing the SYG law is a good start, things should not end there as a number of recent articles found here and here suggest that black men of all ages have as much to fear from FL law enforcement as from gun wielding citizens.

Jeers Cong. Reid Ribble of WI.  At a House hearing on poverty last week, Ribble took on a Catholic nun (mentioned in a previous post of mine) who was speaking about the positive role that federal programs like SNAP and Head Start play in the lives of people struggling to make ends meet.  RIbble asked, “What is the church doing wrong that they have to come to the government to get so much help?”

Jeers To the Ocean City Police Dept.  What transpired initially is the subject of dispute, however, an altercation occurred between the police and some beachgoers — their names sound African to me. They could be from anywhere really, because what the police saw was skin color not ethnicity.  At some point, the police threw a pregnant woman to ground and held her there.  Ultimately, she had to have an emergency c-section.  Seriously?

Cheers I highly recommend the article, The Fight for Black Men, by former White House advisor Joshua DuBois.  It’s wide-ranging, and he interviews many thoughtful people for the article, none more so than Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly who says, “If there’s one thing that’s missing in our country, it’s an acknowledgment of the broad humanity of black folks. Racism—and anti-black racism in particular—is the belief that there’s something wrong with black people … and I mean something in our bones.”

Looking Back and Looking Forward: Trayvon & the Quest for Justice

mother child

People who know me know that I am not a particularly emotional person.  I’ve been known to raise my voice in the work context, but more often because I am not being heard than in anger.  Though I have had moments … those could be the subject of another post. Believe me, though, when I say that last night’s verdict was devastating.  Devastating to someone who has spent most than two decades working for justice:  for women, for immigrants, for people of color, for lgbt people, for Native people, for survivors of domestic and sexual violence and stalking, for people with disabilities, for poor people.  But more than that, it was personally devastating because I am the mother of a black son, and the proud aunt of 3 black nephews.

I guess I’m this upset because I unwittingly drank the Kool-Aid.  Some of my friends and colleagues have been saying for weeks, actually, that the trial was already over and that Zimmerman would go free.  I couldn’t believe that.  I simply could not let myself believe it.  To do so would be to negate my son’s simple humanity; his right to exist.  As he often does, Alex asked me this morning, “are you alright, mommy?”  “No,” I answered him … “no, I am not.”    And I began to explain how our judicial  system  failed us yesterday.  In all honesty, though, it’s impossible to explain to a 5 year how awful, how terrible, how unjust and simply inhumane yesterday’s decision was.  I take this decision very personally, not only as the mother of a little black boy, but simply as a mother.  Because I was holding out hope that the women on that jury who were mothers could  see that they shared a common badge of motherhood with Sybrina Fulton.  Could give her some small measure of peace despite the fact that no decision they made would ever give her the one thing she truly wanted.  But I was wrong.  We’ll likely never know what those women saw, or thought or believed, but it is pretty apparent that did not, would not or could not bring themselves to acknowledge that the case was centrally about the murder of someone’s child, someone’s son.  I’m not sure they acknowledged Trayvon’s humanity at all.  What they did do was to ratify the lawless vigilante mentality that is enshrined in a stand your ground law.  They made it ok to kill a young unarmed black boy because you find him threatening and believe that he has no business walking through your neighborhood, even if he lives there.  They made it ok, to stalk and confront these “threats” in the middle of the night, then claim victimhood for yourself when an altercation ensues and you take a human life, even after you’re told to stay in your car.  They made it ok to devalue the life of a kid, who was doing what kids do — coming home from the store after getting a snack, and talking on the phone.

A friend asked if I was okay last night, and I responded that I wasn’t.  I’m still not.  Not only because Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton were denied the simple measure of justice that they deserved, but because I fundamentally do not know what I am supposed to tell my son, and how I am supposed to keep him safe. Don’t get me wrong.  There is quite literally a near formula  for what you tell young black males about how to carry themselves, how to stay out of trouble and show respect for authority, and how low the expectations of the justice system — particularly in the south– are where they are concerned.   But I feel that I won’t have told him enough if that’s all that I share.

I won’t have done my job well until Alex knows that the justice system itself — the system represented by justice blindfolded– is a system that was designed to mistrust him, label him, and to protect others from him.  I will have to tell him about how, when he was two, he let himself out of our townhouse in suburban Virginia.  How I discovered our front door ajar and him nowhere to be seen.  How five minutes later I, saw and flagged down a police officer just as I was about to dial 911.  As it turned, out, she was responding to a call from someone who had found him and taken him to their apartment.  Ultimately, I found myself explaining to a second officer  that I had been getting ready for work while Alex, who I’d left playing in the living room, had let himself out and that, no, it hadn’t happened before. And then “IT” happened.  The “it” that I will have to impress upon Alex over and over until he understands it reflexively.  The very “it” that happened in the Zimmerman trial happened to me as I stood on the sidewalk talking to the policeman.  I, the person who had sought his help, who had thought that he was there to help me, became the suspect.  The suspicious party.  The person on trial.  The policeman suggested that I had been negligent, had let Alex wander away, and added to that that I was not behaving as the many other mothers in similar circumstances with whom he’d interacted had behaved.  I had not only become a bad mother, I had become the anti-mother, someone who had wronged her child, rather than someone who had sought his help.  Given that I was standing in northern Virginia having this tete a tete, you may imagine that the majority of the other moms to whom he referred were white.  And here I was, being told by the people to whom I was looking for assistance that not only had I “allowed” Alex to escape, but that I was failing to react the right way.  Until and unless I can drive home with Alex that this is the skepticism with which people of color generally, and in particular young black men are greeted by law enforcement, I will have failed him.  I note with some irony that women are often taken less seriously when they react hysterically or emotionally, but that I was being viewed suspiciously by the cop precisely because I was not reacting that way.  Until he understands that as in that situation, cops are not there to protect us, but to protect others from us, my job will not be done.  Let me be clear:  I have cops in my family.  My point is not that all cops mistrust, or mistreat, or violate their oaths to the public (a la Rodney King, the LA rampart), but that you have no way of knowing which one you’ll get, so you must meet and treat them with equal parts of suspicion and respect. It’s worth pointing out that the cop in this story was black.  So, if he wasn’t able to see my humanity or to see me as a worried mother despite the fact that I wasn’t falling apart, I’m not sure who would have been better placed to do so.

trayvon emmit

As I said to a friend last night:  “Tonight, we grieve.  Tomorrow, we plot a revolution.”  And tomorrow is upon us, good people, so it is time to rise and make our voices heard so that Trayvon, Emmit Till and the thousands of other Trayvons and Emmits whose names we will never know, will not have died, been profiled, or stopped and frisked in vain.  We do this first by showing up. Show up when Planned Parenthood clinics are being picketed, when Donald Trump is meeting with the RNC , when Arabs and Muslims are being profiled and harassed on planes, or when trans folks are being harassed about which bathroom they use. And be clear:  if you are silent, you are saying you are ok with the status quo.  If you are silent about NC, then you are ok with domestic and sexual violence survivors being at risk if NC’s bigotry costs survivors access to the services that the Violence Against Women Act requires be made available in a non-discriminatory way.

Most importantly, show up by embracing community and acknowledging that if the George Zimmermans of the world have carte blanche to harm Sabryna’s child, then mine is not safe; if LGBT people in NYC are being profiled, then injustice against them is injustice against me;  and if a survivor of violence can be jailed for 20 years for firing a warning shot into a ceiling to defend herself against an abuser against whom she had a protective order, then none of us is safe; if brown people in the southwest can be stopped on suspicion of “looking foreign” then all our rights are at risk; if Arabs and Muslims, and South Asians are being harassed because they are “deemed” to be a threat to security, then no one is secure.   The next thing we do is organize, organize, organize so that the rubber stamps who keep mindlessly enacting these dangerous stand your ground laws gets voted out of office, and someone with an encompassing vision that sees us and embraces our communities gets elected, instead.

As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.”  The time for talking the talk is long over.  Where and how will you be counted?  When your children, your nieces, nephews, grandchildren or community ask for your help, what will you say?  When they ask what you did after the Trayvon verdict, what will your answer be?  Stand up and be counted as if our children’s lives depended on it … because they do.