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.
Tuesday night, antisemites on Twitter attacked me in a particularly visceral and disgusting way, and I want you to know about it.
I believe that each of us who shows up for love and justice should be able to come as we are, fully owning our ancestors, our multiple identities, and our personal choices. I’ve been involved in Jewish social action for a long time, chiefly in my role as president of The Shalom Center, led by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a beloved and inspiring teacher in the prophetic spirit, rebuking injustice and directing attention to the moral grandeur of which human beings are capable. A foundational principle in our work – and in all the interfaith work we engage – is respect for heritage and willingness to renew tradition so that it speaks directly to the present.
So when I stand up for justice, I show up as myself: a first-generation American Jew of Eastern European heritage who takes very seriously the exhortation from Amos 5:24 to “But let justice well up as waters, And righteousness as a mighty stream.” When Dr. Martin Luther King quoted that passage in his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, he acknowledged a shared point of connection, evoking a primary text for both Jewish and Christian human rights advocates, a ground to stand together. In my own small way, I have discovered that showing up as myself often opens the possibility of connection with people from other faith traditions – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, practitioners of indigenous traditions and more – who also draw strength from the teachings and traditions they have inherited.
What is scapegoating?When a man opens assault-weapon fire at a gay nightclub and murders more people than any lone assassin in U.S. history, and before more than a smattering of information about his life and motives surfaces, politicians rush to outdo each other in attributing his deranged and evil act to his religion. (See The New York Times for a concise account of Trump’s fear-mongering, and sadly, see Politico for a glimpse of Clinton’s jump onto the scapegoat bandwagon.)
What is scapegoating?When a Baptist preacher in Sacramento, a man of Latino heritage, applauds the deaths of nearly 50 individuals whose sole crime was dancing while gay and Latino, saying, “I think Orlando, Florida, is a little safer tonight. The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die. I’m kind of upset he didn’t finish the job.”
Singling out one facet of identity to blame for whatever the scapegoater detests is always – and I mean always – vicious, untrue, and damaging. Anyone who doubts this needs only shift the practice onto categories normally considered immune in this society. Friday is the first anniversary of the Charleston church massacre, in which a lone gunman killed nine people at a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church. The shooter, Dylann Roof, maintained a website of white supremacist and neo-Nazi material, along with a manifesto with separate sections for “Blacks,” “Jews,” “Hispanics,” and “East Asians.” He said he attacked the Emanuel parishioners because he wanted to start a race war, commending himself on his “bravery.” He belonged to a Lutheran Church.
Imagine Donald Trump – for that matter, imagine anyone – the morning after Roof’s crime, holding a press conference to condemn “Lutheran terrorism.”
Each hour since Omar Mateen opened fire in Orlando has added more information, more complexity, to the story. Witnesses described Mateen’s having previously visited the night club he later attacked, and also being an active user of a gay dating app. Is it possible he was ashamed and conflicted – especially given the violent homophobia of his father, an outspoken Taliban supporter – and acted out his self-hatred and ambivalence on others as a perverse and horrific attempt at redemption? Fariba Nawa, herself an Afghan-American, offers a deeply felt and thought-out essay on the PRI website in which she explores this question and asks her community to acknowledge and interrogate the pervasive homophobia that has resulted in beatings, ostracism, broken lives – and perhaps, in Omar Mateen.
Earlier this month, the Guggenheim Museum announced it had received a “a major grant from the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation to support Guggenheim Social Practice, a new initiative committed to exploring the ways in which artists can initiate projects that engage community participants, together with the museum, to foster new forms of public engagement. As part of the initiative, the museum will commission two separate artist projects, one by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and one by Jon Rubin and Lenka Clayton, which will be developed and presented in New York City in 2016 and 2017, respectively.”
The museum curators who conceived and run this initiative join a growing cohort of gatekeepers at institutions and foundations creating programs shaped by the aesthetic and ethic I’ve started to call the Game of Ones. To play it, you create a competition (whether public and visible or private and quiet, the form remains a contest) which richly rewards – with funds and fanfare – a small number of winners from within a large field of practice.
The Guggenheim has chosen three artists who taken as a group deflect some of the criticisms of the category “social practice,” which has accumulated resources in direct proportion to its trendiness. (For a little background, check out “Artification,” a piece I wrote about it a few years ago; the title comes from Rick Lowe’s quip that “social practice is the gentrification of community arts.”)
To counter the accurate charge that most artists who identify with the label are white and disconnected from both ground-level social realities and the movements for social justice that drive community-based collaborative arts projects, the Guggenheim has chosen an African American artist deeply rooted in community-based work (Joseph) and two white artists from Rust Belt Pittsburgh whose work touches on issues such as international conflict (Rubin) and feminism (Clayton).
My concern is not with the artists chosen, nor with their willingness to undertake the selected projects. Congratulations to them! If I were anointed with a “major grant” from the Rothschild Foundation, I’d take the money – wouldn’t you? I’ve got a few books queued up to write and a bank account that reflects a lifelong addiction to social and cultural activism, so if anyone is considering nominating me for the next fellowship or prize, feel free!
The bone I want to pick is with the institutional aims and values that have produced the Game of Ones, a framework that ratifies the social order we sum up nowadays with a phrase: “the one percent.”
There’s been a big discussion about “burnout” among activists lately.The people I’ve been hearing from use that word to mean many different things: physical maladies of overwork; depression, a sense of futility – or at least a pervading doubt that one’s efforts matter. Exhaustion, emotional and intellectual.
Some of the discussants are immersed in high-pressure races to a finish line that may be elusive (think presidential campaign organizers). Others have been at their work for a very long time and fear they have little impact to show for it. Some start to fatigue at the relentlessness of it: always a crisis, always a deadline, always an urgent need to do something. They are young and old. They see their individual and collective challenges as amplified by the obstacles society places in their way: working long hours for a cause one holds dear can stress anyone; if you are also coping with the social injuries inflicted on account of race, gender, class, immigration status, sexual orientation – the stress amps up.
I wouldn’t say that burnout is my problem at the moment: I’m not forcing myself to keep on, rather pursuing aims I have chosen and choose still. I’m not exhausted, just a bit tired. But just under the surface of my days runs a red thread of desperation that sometimes loops up to catch my spirit.
What tugs on me? Most frequently, a constellation of feelings about aging. God willing, my health and strength will hold, my brain will stay sharp, and I will have many more years to explore the questions and experiment with the answers that draw me close. But more than at any prior time, I am aware that life is finite, that in choosing to devote myself to this, I may foreclose that, simply because there isn’t enough time to do both. I am not in burnout, but I can see that if I don’t find a way to hold this differently, I could eventually land there.
I think about it a lot. What are the moving pieces? Sometimes my brain holds its own little magical-thinking festival, where it rains money. If I won the lottery, I’d spend some if my winnings supporting other people to do the tasks that don’t engage my passion or pleasure. I would have time to write and do the parts of my activism that seem especially well-suited to my skills and desires. It’s not just me. If the movement – by which I mean the aggregate of all the people and organizations working in this country for social and environmental justice – were adequately funded, there would be more people to share the work and everyone would have at least the opportunity for balance. Instead, most of us constitute a force driven by imbalance: fueled by self-sacrifice, addicted to doing at all costs, living with the perpetual sense of having fallen short of what’s needed, what’s possible. If money equals time, my imagination tells me we’d be positively wallowing in all of those things I am craving: reflection without a deadline, listening without an agenda, belonging without a struggle. Rest.
If I asked you to name a prodigiously talented, extravagantly flamboyant, African American, sexually fluid musician with a body like an exclamation point and a taste for the rococo whose premature death left the world a little grayer, of course you’d say “Prince,”and you’d be right. Or half-right.
Every since Prince’s April 21st death was reported – ever since a tidal wave of mourning began to gather force, leaving testimonies and tributes and tall tales in its wake – I’ve been thinking surfing the Zeitgeist, thinking about James Booker.
If you don’t know Booker’s music or his story, start with the 2013 film Bayou Maharajah (it streams from all the usual sources), which traces the pianist-singer’s life from its 1939 start, his coming up in the home of Baptist-minister parents in Bay St. Louis, Louisiana, to its sad, sorry end in an emergency room waiting-area in New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, where he was born. His story is full of twisted luck and uncanny moments: the film’s sequence where a dozen friends relate contradictory stories of how Booker lost his eye. The sequence where Harry Connick, Jr., demonstrates Booker’s baroquely syncopated piano technique, which Connick as a child studied firsthand (Connick, Sr. was a New Orleans District Attorney who traded Booker a get-out-of-jail-free card for his son’s piano lessons). The sequence where a young guitarist struggling to keep up with Booker onstage describes how the musician maintained his almost unfollowable pace – more notes than any ten fingers could possible play – all the while trying on a succession of glitter-studded eyepatches, hoping to find the one that most appeal to a man in the audience he hoped to attract.
After his 1954 debut as “Little Booker,” he played with just about everybody from Fats Domino to Freddy King, Aretha Franklin, even Ringo Starr and the Doobie Brothers before issuing an amazing string of live and studio albums, many solo. Booker taught Dr. John to play the organ. He studied classical piano as a child. He played a version of “The Minute Waltz” (dubbing it “The Black Minute Waltz”), a ton of standards (I love his “Angel Eyes,” for instance) adaptations of pop songs (Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue”), classic blues like “St. James Infirmary,” and original songs like the mysteriously allusive “Papa Was a Rascal,” opened and closed by these lines:
There was a sweet white woman down in Savanna GA
She made love to my daddy in front of the KKK.
You know we all got to watch out for the CIA.
Booker’s addiction to opiates started in childhood, in the aftermath of a terrible and traumatic auto accident. In 1970, he spent time in Angola for drug possession. The rest of his life he rode a surreal roller-coaster: successful gigs in the U.S. and Europe; throwing it away by ditching recording sessions to get high as soon as he got paid; worshipped by astounded fellow musicians; treated like dirt by every racist, homophobic institution that crossed his path. Knowing how good he was made it all worse. By Booker’s last years, he was seeing the CIA around every corner, tapping into not only his deeds but his thoughts. You can call it paranoia, and it would be hard to argue with that, except to say that the thicket of everyday hostility a black, gay, one-eyed, drug-addicted musician would be expected to hack his way through in mid-twentieth century America could make it very hard to see the world as a welcoming place.
Ed Carroll, a friend in Europe, sent me a query:”How come there was not one mayor in the USA that was prompted to submit an application to the Agenda 21 for culture? … The absence on the Map is quite extraordinary.”
My reply? “What a good question!”
“The map” is a graphic on the international award page for cities and regional and local governments that have adopted cultural policies “linking the values of culture (heritage, diversity, creativity and transmission of knowledge) with democratic governance, citizen participation and sustainable development.”
This time around, 83 cities and local governments submitted proposals.As you will see when you click on the map, not a single one came from the United States.
You could say this is unsurprising, since no U.S.-based local government association takes part in the sponsoring organization, the committee on culture of the world association of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), “the global platform of cities, organizations and networks to learn, to cooperate and to launch policies and programmes on the role of culture in sustainable development.” Its mission is “to promote culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development through the international dissemination and the local implementation of Agenda 21 for culture.”
At the Indiegogo site for The Boys Who Said NO!, a film-in-progress directed by my old friend Judith Ehrlich, you can read producer Chris Jones’ 1967 letter from his draft board in San Jose, warning him of the penalty for refusing to register with the Selective Service System. A week before, Jones had sent this note to the draft board:
My non-cooperation by many will be considered traitorous. But I assure you all that it is the only course of action which I can conscientiously take. My beliefs are founded in a deep love for America, for the democracy it can be, for the lasting peace and prosperity for all people, and for the joys of little children which force me to say: Stop the war. End the draft. I refuse to register.
With a glad heart, Christopher Jones
I anticipate the film will live up to the inspiring clip they have posted for prospective donors,and hope that many others will join the folks who’ve already contributed nearly half the target amount in exchange for perks provided by the filmmakers and key characters such as Joan Baez, Daniel Ellsberg, and David Harris. The footage I’ve seen features a wonderful conversations between Harris, founder of the The Resistance and deeply committed to nonviolence, and SDS/Weather Underground veteran Mark Rudd, who now wishes he had chosen a similar path. I saw plenty of familiar faces interviewed and kept scanning the crowd scenes for more.
You see, I worked for years for a draft counseling service in San Francisco. It started out as an activity of the associated students at San Francisco State University, then got pushed off campus during the 1968 strike, settling a block or so from Mission High in San Francisco. The people who did this work of counseling young men facing the draft had different motives: one man’s conscience had been awakened while on active duty, and he wanted to help others avoid paying the same price; others were lifelong pacifists; some opposed the war on political grounds and wanted to make it impossible to fill induction quotas. I’d started out helping my husband apply for conscientious objector status and discovered it was something I could do for others. And to a great extent, we were successful: protests were massive; it indeed became impossible to fill draft quotas in the Bay Area; widespread refusal and disruption cost the system a lot; and by 1973, the baroque structure of deferments mostly gave way to a lottery as the war wound down.
No matter how we draft counselors came to the work, we all recognized a responsibility to disrupt the class and race biases that ran the system; and we all saw something sacred in these encounters with men who had been forced to interrogate their consciences, knowing that the choices they made could affect not only their own futures but the future of this country.
In a debate in Flint, MI, on Sunday, Bernie Sanders, asked to describe his “racial blind spots,” said this:
“When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto – you don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.”
The Clinton campaign quickly mobilized to condemn him for a raft of implications, saying that not all Black people live in ghettos, that not all people who live in ghettos are Black – many are immigrants who belong to other racial categories, for instance. Some people objected that not all white people lack understanding of racism’s impact, others that there are plenty of whites who know poverty firsthand.
This is a rehearsal of politics-as-usual, of course, in which each faux pas is ammunition, and huge edifices of argument are loaded onto the usage of a word or phrase, (in Bob Dylan’s immortal words) “just like a mattress balanced on a bottle of wine.” It will happen again before November, many times. I doubt many of my progressive friends would take exception to Sanders’ underlying point – however poorly expressed – that many white people have not experienced overt discrimination and harassment on account of their race and may therefore lack adequate empathy and understanding.
I have no objection to holding candidates to a high standard of speech, so long as the standard isn’t double. But as for me, especially when it comes to elections, Dorothy Day of Catholic Worker fame is my guide: “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” (I have earlier written about why I choose Sanders’ actions over Clinton’s words.)
Someone who shares the Clinton campaign’s condemnation posted Sanders’ original statement and subsequent attempt at clarification to a progressive e-list I take part in.One response focused on calling an “old white male” to task for communicating badly on race. Another noted the word “ghetto” originally referred to areas restricted to Jews. (To be precise, the term in Venetian dialect was ghèto and came into usage in 1516 to formalize the boundaries on Jews’ residence and rights.) And that Sanders’ own family history reflected this experience: his father had emigrated from Poland, while many relatives who stayed behind perished in the Holocaust. Sanders attributes his own politicization to awareness of these events.
The “old white male” commenter retorted that “Jewish refugees from Europe were probably white. Just sayin’.”