Sometimes, words and more words are not only not enough, they are trouble. They are the trouble. Sometimes, when atrocities slash our eyes open, even if only because the dead was people like us, talking new policies in response to the gash of violence is wrong. It channels energies down the drain of no change. When denial has gripped most of society for generations, every word that proceeds from its mouth, every policy proposed, changes the subject, like an addict trying to talk about who does the dishes when his partner wants at last to tell some truth.
What is the sound of the scream, a keening flooding the flatlands with a fury that sends people to higher ground, to moral ground, from which they can see some truth?
A sound like that to amplify the facts of unrelenting murder of black people by police sworn to protect them. A sound to resound above the nightly news of citizens slaughtered by any person equipped with a deviated mind and an assault rifle from the local hardware, or a semi-truck and speed. A sound at once deep and immense enough to answer the murder of police, the most visible symbol of the state – against whom assault is assault on the purpose for which a state exists. What sound?
August 9th will mark the 71st anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nakasaki. Activists and concerned citizens will stand with survivors of nuclear weapons and all those harmed by nuclear technology by gathering at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, in conjunction with Chain Reaction: a global action for nuclear disarmament, a nonviolent global movement encouraging nuclear disarmament actions by governments and the United Nations.
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a branch of the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Although managed by the University of California, the lab is under contract with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and has outgrown its status as branch laboratory to become a national resource in nuclear weapons development.
The participants in the Livermore event, called Disarm Now: We Stand with Nuclear Survivors for Global Justice, are scheduled to meet on August 9th at the Livermore lab and demand that the lab cease developing new nuclear weapons for the U.S. arsenal and instead divert funds from their nuclear weapons budget (which makes up 86% of their total funding).
You are not obligated to complete the work,
but neither are you free to abandon it.
Do not be daunted
by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
- Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers)
For the past few years, I have ended my classes at UCLA with a reflection with my students about this excerpt from a poem by Rabbi Tarfon and its significance for them. Many of us who work for social justice often work on organizing campaigns with short timelines, with little resources, and moving on all pistons at a grueling 24-7 pace. This extreme pace can consume the important things in life that contribute to a person’s well-being. It’s a kind of martyr’s code that measures a person’s commitment to justice by their willingness to sacrifice personal time, health, and relationships.
We mourn all the victims of violence, including the large volume of violence against people that goes unreported and underreported, including poor people and people of color, but also we mourn for the very few police officers who have been hurt or killed by those outraged at the way police have been harassing or murdering members of their community, their people, their race, etc. EVERY HUMAN LIFE IS PRECIOUS. None of the violence is ok. Not black on black violence, not white on black violence or black on white violence, not police violence, not acts of violent retribution. A hard message to get across in a society that responded to the horrendous killing of 3,000 plus Americans on 9/11 by engaging in assaults (both military and economic) on Afghanistan and Iraq that caused the loss of lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Yet violence continues to produce more violence. So the violence we delivered in the Middle East engendered ISIS/ISIL, and so it goes throughout history, and today in our own country. But for us in the religious world, the ongoing violence normally ignored by the media and genuinely not known or understood by most Americans is a spiritual, religious, and ethical emergency that deserves the attention of all people in every country of the world.
With her bright blue scales, yellow tail, and sleek build, Dory is one good-looking fish, and Finding Dory, Pixar’s latest moneymaker, serves as a 105-minute animated broadcast of constant cuteness about her, a type of Indo-Pacific surgeonfish that is called a blue tang. It may seem harmless enough, but unfortunately Finding Dory has the potential to cause environmental destruction, all because a large swath of consumers in the United States are often incapable of seeing something they like on screen without wanting to possess it. Some marine biologists warn that if people flock to pet stores after seeing Finding Dory to buy blue tangs it could add significant strain to already over-taxed coral reef ecosystems and could seriously harm the blue tang as a species.
Scientists and researchers have precedent for being worried. After the 2003 release of Finding Nemo,clownfish flew off the shelves at pet stores worldwide, despite the fact that the movie is specifically about why fish belong in the ocean and not a tiny aquarium in a child’s bedroom. The movie’s moral stance on keeping fish as pets cannot be mistaken or overlooked. The movie is made for children and it doesn’t deal in subtleties, yet the clownfish was all the rage after its release. In research published by National Geographic, Andrew Rhyne, an assistant professor of marine biology at Rodger Williams University, estimates clownfish sales went up thirty to forty percent after Finding Nemo came out. The spike in clownfish popularity led to the organization Saving Nemo, which works to keep clownfish in the wild and out of fish tanks.
Donald Trump is revealing inconvenient truths about bullying and American culture.
Adult bullies shape bullying by kids. Political leaders and major national institutions encourage bullying values. Despite the anti-bullying programs in schools, and the controversy about his own bullying, Trump’s success shows how deeply bullying influences kids and resonates among major sectors of the general adult public.
According to a major 2016 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), teachers across the U.S. are reporting an alarming rise in bullying by school children against Latinos, Blacks, Muslims and other groups targeted by Donald Trump. Teachers say the bullies “seem emboldened” by Trump to taunt and insult while the bullied kids are terrified that they will be walled off, deported, or even killed.
The SPLC study did interviews with 2000 teachers. They received 1000 comments reporting heightened incidents of bullying explicitly in response to Trump’s rhetoric.
In New Hampshire, one high school teacher wrote that “A lot of students think we should kill any and all people we do not agree with. They also think that all Muslims … want to kill us.”
A Wisconsin middle school teacher wrote that “At the all-white school where I teach, ‘dirty Mexican’ has become a common insult … Before election season it was never heard.”
A Michigan junior high teacher reported at a school assembly on bullying: “I had students tell me it [insults, name-calling, trash talk] isn’t bullying, they’re just ‘telling it like it is.’”
My thought experiment turned on abolishing the police as they now exist and replacing them with something that would not have the mission James Baldwin characterized thusly in 1966: “to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests.” I excerpted arguments that have come from key figures such as Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza, then asked this: “Reading the last few paragraphs, what was your response to the idea of drastically cutting – even abolishing – policing as it now exists?Did you think, “That’s crazy! Who will protect me?” If so, there is a colonizer in your head making you believe it is in your interests to perpetuate the system.”
The person who has this specific thought is on the other side of the line from the person who fears the police. Do I see myself as someone whose interests the police are here to protect, or someone who is in danger from the police? That seems like a pivotal and illuminating question in this moment, a powerful shot of self-knowledge and social knowledge. The balance of the essay advocated separating “from a system of white supremacy through word and deed.”
I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our citizens, our black citizens—if you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand. [No one stands.]
You didn’t understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society, stand.
Nobody is standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.
In less than a minute, Elliott demonstrates two profound and terrible truths. First, as she indicates, everyone knows that Black people as a group face far more hostility, danger, and discrimination than white people. And second, as a group, it is easy for those whose skins insulate them from this treatment to ignore the price others pay for their ability to move about safely and comfortably.
Elliott is best-known for a behavioral experiment called “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes.” In a classroom or other group setting, participants are divided by eye color. Those possessing blue eyes are treated as inferior—reprimanded, made to repeat tasks arbitrarily, made to sit in a corner for minuscule infractions, and so on. In a remarkably short time, the members of that group begin to doubt themselves, stumble over simple tasks, find themselves living into the experimenter’s diminished version of themselves.
This is the response of the defenseless. By and large, blue-eyed people haven’t had a lifetime of practice resisting oppression, ejecting the oppressor’s voice from their own hearts and minds. They just succumbed. But when this sort of treatment is meted out over time, the dignity, righteous anger, and resilience of the oppressed grow, and they fight back.
You and I aren’t in a room together, so we’ll have to settle for a thought experiment. To take part, read the next few paragraphs, then answer the questions I pose.
Right now, in the aftermath of a week of assassinations—first Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA; then Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul, MN; then five police officers in Dallas—people are calling for drastic cuts or even dissolution of policing as it now exists. Mychal Denzel Smith’s eloquent April 2015 polemic in The Nation quotes James Baldwin fifty years ago expressing a so far enduring truth:
In 1966, James Baldwin wrote for The Nation: “…the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.” This remains as true today as it was in 1966, only now we have bought into the myth of police “serving and protecting” wholesale. What do you do with an institution whose core function is the control and elimination of black people specifically, and people of color and the poor more broadly?
You abolish it.
Smith points to the fact that the average police officer uses only about one-tenth of work time on the clearly criminal matters that fill the scripts of TV series, and the rest on enforcing elements of conduct that present no threat to public safety, but give police official reasons to detain anyone they wish. Eric Garner was killed for selling cigarettes, Sandra Bland for driving while Black, Oscar Grant for being in a BART station. Every day, people are detained, arrested, beaten, shot, or left for dead whose only crime is exercising the right to exist.
Real total government spending on the criminal justice system grew by 74 percent between 1993 and 2012, to $274 billion. Similarly, in 2012, real per capita criminal justice spending was $872 per year, up 43 percent over the same time period.
When it comes to policing, there’s a lot of talk about bad apples. But when the barrel gets this full of rot, you have to stop and ask whether it’s time to toss the whole thing out and switch to oranges.
In a July 8 interview with Essence, Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza advocates cutting police budgets by half:
…[I]t’s important to note as well that we are so enraged, in particular at the lack of serious action to defund police departments that continue to wreak havoc in our communities. We are enraged at the lack of action towards demilitarizing the police to make sure they are not carrying weapons of mass destruction to test and experiment in our communities. And we are outraged that we are not having serious conversations at the legislative level about slashing police budgets.
And certainly, we have to make sure our police forces do not have weapons of mass destruction with which they can terrorize our communities. I think if we’re able to focus in some of those areas, we’ll be in a much different place than we are right now.
So here’s the thought-experiment: Reading the last few paragraphs, what was your response to the idea of drastically cutting—even abolishing—policing as it now exists? Did you think, “That’s crazy! Who will protect me?” If so, there is a colonizer in your head making you believe it is in your interests to perpetuate the system Alicia Garza describes so clearly:
Why are we paying tax dollars to departments that continue to murder our people? I don’t want to pay for people to kill us, and I don’t think anybody in our communities want that. What’s also really important is what you just said, that’s so fantastic: there’s not enough people inside of these departments that are seeing what’s going on, speaking up and speaking out. And so, we’re at that point now, and we’ve been at that point for a while, where we have consistently said: ‘What side are you on?’ And if you’re quiet, knowing that there’s a culture of racism inside most police departments, and you’re not saying anything, you are on the wrong side of history.
Those who’ve historically benefited from this system at the expense of Black people and others targeted by the police have a simple choice right now. Separate yourself from a system of white supremacy through word and deed. Or maintain your loyalty to that system and the perks it provides, turning a blind eye to the costs it exacts. Then wait and see how well it protects you when the violence festering at every level of American society—from street-level policing to Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric—explodes.
Fania Davis, who knows what she is talking about, makes a powerful argument in Yes! Magazine for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an essential step, starting with Ferguson. We need all the truth we can get.
Print: Amos Paul Kennedy Photo: Gina Athena Ulysse
There is a mini-poster by the journeyman printer Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. on one of my bookshelves. This black block print on cardboard contains an equals sign with the caption “Equality is a special privilege for Blacks these unitedstatesofamerica.” The USA is spelled out in lowercase (as presented), as a single word, bracketed by the stars and stripes upside down ― a signal of distress. I also keep a copy in my office where I teach to look at everyday as a crude reminder that in the eyes of the law, Whiteness is supreme, we (Blacks) were never equal, and know full well, we still are not.
We live in a market economy, where the value ascribed to Black bodies remains high only when we reinforce the state of our original conditions as human chattel. Property. Slaves. We were restricted by a system of codes, rules that managed our behavior and manners back then. In a sense, we still are. Lest we were to forget, or if and when we dare to question this order of things, the price for our disruption is a lashing of one kind or another from the seemingly benign, to the fatal. In her award winning book, Citizen: An American Lyric, the brilliant poet Claudia Rankine puts it this way, “because white men can’t police their imagination, Black men are dying”. The fact of our Blackness to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, is non-negotiable, since our belonging in this society has always been provisional. Human chattel. Property. Slaves. As the great James Baldwin once wrote, “we could hope to arrive only by imitation.” We are rewarded in the myriad ways we are accorded opportunities to uphold and re-inscribe White supremacy. So the message, just in case we didn’t get the memo, is clear: This is a White world. The story of our existence therein is one of inequity that, at the least, requires our infantilization to thrive, and at best, our absolute submission to survive. There are no boundaries and protection. Respect is exclusively reserved for Whites only. It is their birthright. We must stay in our place.
I woke up too early this morning and broke my own rule by going to social media. I inadvertently saw Lavish Reynolds’ livestream video of the police killing of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, on my Twitter feed. Caught up, in a sense of outrage, disbelief, and shock, I tried to suppress it. I was still processing Alton Sterling as another victim of police violence days before, trying to decide whether to write about it. I decided against it (because I can), and also pondering like Roxane Gay ― what more could be said that has not already been said? My vocabulary does not need to expand to rephrase what members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have been demanding in three words: Stop Killing Us!
I avoid these videos. There’ve been so many. They stay with you and threaten to desensitize you. They are numbing us to the spectacle of Black death according to Jamil Smith. More evidence of the normalization of a civilization predicated upon the near annihilation of a people and the fortification of a nation intimately structured with violence. That’s always been the hypocrisy in our moral values. We remain cavalier in our practices of discard and ‘so aghast’ by the racist rhetoric of he who shall not be named.
My FB feed contains continuous advice from folks warning each other to avoid encounters that will further aggrieve this trauma. Human chattel was always disposable. Property’s value depreciates. Slave need to be dominated. Each hashtag memorial, and media report that reverts to stereotypes, become new trigger points. Reminders of how White Power works. Last summer, the incessant assault on Black Lives prompted @eveeeeezy to suggest a more vigilant approach to self-care. It may have been delivered with comic relief, but “Calling in Black” was a cry of “Enough!”
Indeed, the devaluation, embodied or otherwise, takes its toll. #BlackLivesMatter made its way into the Ivory Tower with the student uprising last fall. Institutions, not made in our image, were forced to confront their Whiteness and their cultivation of “exclusionary practices.” Centuries later, we did not, and could not, escape the fact of our history. It has simply been digitized.
As an educator in an historically white institution, inspired by Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I have been confronting this dilemma personally and pedagogically. I have been reorienting myself interrogating notions of belonging to figure out collective and sustainable ways to deploy my intellectual knowledge in a manner to be of service to a greater good. That is the story I tell myself knowing the greater good often subsumes us and leaves Black folks behind. I have gotten more involved in institutional matters with a mature awareness of the potentials and impossibilities of some interventions. We can’t keep running away from the past. Besides, social media has assured we can only run so far; the brutality that used to happen in private is now ever so public. My optimism wanes and my patience continues to be tried with each new extra judicial killing, each exoneration. Each one is more confirmation of the deep rootedness of our inequality. We bear the weight of history so unequally. It is written on our bodies and etched in the color of our skin. Human chattel. Property. Slaves. That is the undue burden, the inequity we live with, that simply cannot be undone unconsciously. Its transformation, if that (I am not naïve), requires so much more than will. To bring about a modicum of change we must not only intentionally attempt, but also be determined, to shift. It will not happen par hazard. Because history has seen to it that the exchange, use, and sign value ascribed to Black lives remains unequal to that of Whites. We are differentially positioned and invested.
What story do you tell yourself to assuage the comfort you find in the social luxury of being in an unmarked body. Your silence is your complicity. Where is your outrage as we all bear witness to this moment?
During the G. W. Bush years a friend of mine lamented, “We have a war President, a war economy, and a war culture.” Yes on all three; but he might have gone on to add, the key is culture. If our culture did not promote violence the way it does we would not elect a war president, we would build our economy on very different, sustainable and just principles; we would find ways to avoid conflict and use robust, creative ways of dealing with it when it surfaced. In all this our belief system, or mindset is the key three-quarters and there are signs that we’re beginning to notice it.
I have been teaching, writing and speaking about peace for close to forty years; I founded a non-profit that long ago to educate people about nonviolence. I therefore do not make this statement lightly: I feel that we are beginning to see a breakthrough. If we widen the crack there may actually be a silver lining behind the mass shootings that took place last week in Orlando, the latest and worst we’ve yet endured.
The new awareness I’m referring to is admittedly slight, but it’s enough to make a three-quarter difference if we seize the opportunity it represents. Two examples showed up in my local paper, the Santa Rosa Press Democratic on June 13th: the editorial board writes, tellingly, that nothing will stop these massacres “unless something changes in our culture, our conscience or our Congress.” On the same page, a cartoon by “Venn Detta” from theWashington Post shows Uncle Sam bowing his head (in grief ? shame? both?) before three circles labeled “Terrorism, Homophobia, Islamophobia.” They intersect a central circle called “Hate,” and the caption explains, “What ties it all together.” Why do I say that these might be signs that we’re turning a corner? Because up to now the responses to every one of these tragedies has followed a script, almost ritualized, and the one thing they have never included is any look at our culture or any attempt to probe some of its underlying forces. They have been at best irrelevant and at worst a sure way to provoke the problem. Most of them, to be sure, still are: statistics, “This is the largest number of victims in a mass shooting;” details, “Here are the names of the victims,” “Police are reconstructing the timeline,” and labels, they are “searching for the motive” so they know what kind of label to slap on the event, thus shielding us somewhat from its emotional impact. We’re being lead to relive the massacre instead of understand it.