Tag Archives: black lives matter

Tsouris, Tikkun Olam, Teshuvah

Another week, another shooting of an unarmed black man by police.  Three, actually: in Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charlotte, North Carolina.  The kid shot in Columbus was carrying a BB gun; you can understand why that could put a cop on edge.  The cop who shot the man in Tulsa has been charged with manslaughter.  That seems just, except it’s a female cop.   She may be guilty, but I think some of the officers involved in previous shootings (all men) were as well, and most were never charged.   Is a woman seen as easier to prosecute?  No one can agree whether the guy in Charlotte was carrying a gun or a book.  A book.  I think even I could tell a book from a gun.  It’ll be interesting to watch these investigations unfold.

It is emerging that no one who should be collecting statistics on police shootings has been doing so.  The best source seems to be the Washington Post.  Its running list illustrates something similar to the situation I’ve written about in our prisons.

Of the 1,500 people killed by police between January 2015 and July 11 of this year, 49% have been white while 25% were black.  Whites comprise 62% of the US population and blacks are 13%.  Does that mean blacks commit more crime, or that they are singled out and treated differently by police?  That’s impossible to know unless all the white people who have committed crimes and gotten away with them step up and admit it.

There were also two terrorist incidents this week.  You probably heard about the man who planted four bombs in New York and New Jersey.  The police managed to take him alive, even though he actually had a gun and was firing at them.  Hmm.  Ahmad Rahami was born in Afghanistan, came to the US when he was seven, and was apparently radicalized after visiting Afghanistan.

In St. Cloud, Minnesota, where my son Vince was incarcerated for six months, a man attacked nine people with a knife. Dahir Aden was a Somali born in Kenya and also came to the US when he was seven.  He was apparently radicalized by online ISIS propaganda.

People were injured but no one died in either episode except Aden.  To paraphrase a blog post Vince wrote about the St. Cloud attack, we needn’t live in fear of terrorist attacks, because these guys are incompetent.  The ones who should live in fear are African American men.

So much tsouris in the world.  That’s Yiddish for suffering.

As I’ve written before, Vince and I have been getting involved in Jewish Community Action’s campaign to reform the criminal justice system, including mass incarceration.  On Monday night we’ll attend a phone bank event where we’ll call ex offenders to make sure they know they may be eligible to vote and to tell them how to register if they are eligible.  Vince may not be able to vote, but he can help others to do so.

Next Thursday, we will speak at a JCA event hosted at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture.  A CVT psychotherapist will talk about the psychological effects of imprisonment.  A CVT volunteer physical therapist will speak about the physical effects, and Vince will talk about the fallout on relationships.  If you are local, please join us for either or both or other events.

So much tsouris.   I feel my share of despair and helplessness, but doing something helps.  I’ve been estranged from organized Judaism since Vince’s troubles began, when our rabbis were less than supportive.  Lately, I’ve felt pulled back toward the community by my involvement in JCA.  That’s because the essence of Judaism is tikkun olam, or healing the world.  Doing something to right injustice, even if progress is slow.

Last week I took a big step and went to my old synagogue because I heard there was a new prayer book that acknowledges doubters and atheists.  I went to a study session with one of the (new) rabbis was a dead ringer for my aunt.  I don’t believe in signs, but this did make me feel like I was literally returning to the family.

Justice, Sweet and Sour

Summer is over, and so is my break from blogging.  In my last post, I listed all the things I was going to do with my extra time: sit outside in the morning with my coffee and listen to the birds, plan a fall trip, and figure out how to publish the first year of the blog as an e-book.  Oh—and write a novel.

I sat outside with my coffee once.  I am planning a fall trip to Italy, Malta, and Spain.  I didn’t write a novel, but Vince and I have started working with an editor on the e-book.

Mostly, I’ve tried to live in the moment.  Summer is so brief.  There were fun moments.  At a family weekend at a cabin, someone brought a Donald Trump piñata (Made in Mexico, appropriately).  I fostered a litter of seven kittens which drew visits from friends and family.  Vince and I went to the State Fair where, at the FabBrow booth, he insisted he wanted a uni-brow.  The makeup artists got back at him by making him look like a community theater actor.

pinatakittens

fabbrow

I spent a lot of time outdoors.  There were hikes and bike rides, and one day a friend and I spend hours making jewelry down at the river. Other times I packed a book and a beverage and biked to some quiet spot at a lake or the river.

The big local news this summer was of the killing of Philando Castille by a cop.  Castille was black.  The cop, Jeronimo Yanez, was Latino.  Castille was pulled over for a broken taillight.  He had a gun in his glove compartment, and believed that the proper procedure when interacting with a cop was to inform: “I’ve got a gun, and I’ve got a permit to carry it.”

I suppose Yanez didn’t hear anything after Castille said “I’ve got a gun.” Blam!  Shot point blank five times and left to bleed to death.  Castille’s girlfriend live streamed his last moments on Facebook.  I have not watched that video, but hundreds of thousands of people have.

I live within walking distance of the Governor’s mansion in St. Paul, where the inevitable protests took place. Traffic was blocked off by the police for a month and I was kept awake a couple nights by helicopter noise.  The protestors blocked off the nearby interstate and either police were patrolling with helicopters or it was news media copters, but they were loud.  Not that I’m comparing my minor inconvenience to the Castille’s family’s loss.

govs-mansion

This week marked one year since Vince was released from prison.  He is doing so well.  He just started a new job in catering, and he’s excited.  In a month he will go off intensive supervised release, which means he’ll be able to stay out past 10:30 or go to Wisconsin to visit cousins.  Best of all, he won’t have ISR agents showing up day and night asking him for urine samples.

Another event prompted me to write this post.

In 1989, an 11-year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a stranger at gun point in a small town in Minnesota. He was never found.

Vince was the same age as Jacob.  Vince became a Bar Mitzvah, got his first job, moved out, turned 20, had a serious girlfriend, had serious drug and alcohol problems, went to jail, got clean, relapsed, turned 30, moved to Lanesboro, went to prison, got out, and has two years of sobriety.  In a few months he’ll be 38.

This week, a man confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting, and executing Jacob Wetterling by shooting him in the head, then burying him—and returning a year later to move the remains.  Lying handcuffed in the last moments of his life, Jacob asked the man, “What did I do wrong?”

Vince was sentenced to over four years in prison for drug possession.  Because the statute of limitations has expired, Jacob’s killer will get 20 years on a child porn charge.  He’ll be a cho-mo—the most loathed prisoner among prisoners.  According to Vince, they are also considered a “protected class,” by officials, perhaps to prevent prison vigilantes from meting out real justice.

Death, Doom, Darkness, and Dinner

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Lynn and I dumped our bags in our room at the Quality Inn, then headed in to central Oxford. Since visiting the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, I had thought it would be a nice bookend to visit the University of Mississippi campus where James Meredith was denied entrance as the first African American student.  Riots ensued, and two people died before he was finally allowed to enroll.

After passing another five miles of chain stores, we turned a corner and suddenly it was like we had entered a portal into ye olde tyme worlde. The old town square was compact; we walked around its circumference in 10 minutes.  There were the usual plethora of gift shops and upscale women’s clothing stores.  Maybe because it’s a university town, there were also two good bookstores.

Ox Town Sq Sq Books Bookstore

I had finished reading Memoir of a Geisha.  I won’t claim it was Great Literature, but it was a good story.  At the end of the first chapter I had already been thinking, “Oh no!  I don’t want this to end!  What will I read when I finish it?”

At Square Books, I found Geisha, a Life by Mineko Iwasaki, who the author of Memoir of a Geisha had interviewed extensively for his book.  Apparently she was so unhappy with how he portrayed geisha life that she decided to write her own side of the story.  I was a little leery of how well it could be written, since she’d had no academic schooling and I don’t believe she speaks English.  But it turned out to be every bit of a page turner as the first book.

At Rebel Bookstore I bought The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty whom I’d never read.  Believe me, it’s not optimistic.  Southern writers tend to be dark and slow paced and there’s always a funeral.  Faulkner is the best example.  I enjoy a good Faulker, but you have to be in the right frame of mind.  If you are depressed when you attempt to read As I Lay Dying, it might put you over the edge.  Lynn had never heard of Faulker, who grew up in Oxford.

In case you’re wondering, other famous Southern writers—at least to Americans—include Kate Chopin (The Awakening), Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men), Katherine Anne Porter (Ship of Fools and many short stories), Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood), Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), William Styron (Sophie’s Choice), Anne Tyler (The Accidental Tourist), Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible), Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire), Ernest Gaines (A Lesson Before Dying), John Grisham (The Firm), Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides), and James Dickey (Deliverance).  If you’ve read any of these, you know most of them are about themes like child molestation, racism, death, rape, adolescent angst, murder, poverty, and of course, vampires.

One of my all-time favorite novels is Their Eyes were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American writer who was born in Notasulga, Alabama.

There are two major exceptions to the rule that southern writers pen morbidly dark tales.  One is Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone with the Wind.  The other is Mark Twain, author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

After buying our books, we searched for a place to eat and found a steakhouse.  Lynn treated.  I rarely have steak (ha ha!) and it was delicious.  We had a long conversation about mustards and in the end, agreed that brown was superior to yellow.  This was not as boring as it sounds.

Then we drove through the University of Mississippi campus looking for a memorial to James Meredith, which we never found.  I don’t know if there is one.  If there isn’t, there should be.  What we did see was one fraternity and sorority house after another.

“We don’t have them in England,” Lynn said.  “Were they formed to keep Black students out?” Lynn asked.  I had no idea, but we would find out in St. Louis.

Creole, Cajun, Casserole

This continues a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

We had the same conversation every morning:

“What do you want to do today?”

“I dunno.  What do you want to do?”

“I don’t care.  I’m up for anything.”

“Okay then, let’s go!”

I had been to the city before.  One of the most memorable things I had done was a tour of a Creole plantation called Laura.  It was about what you’d expect: a wide lawn, big house, antiques, and vignettes of how people lived 150 years ago.  The house was a different style from Tara, the plantation you might recall from Gone with the Wind:

Oak Alley

This is actually a photo of Oak Alley, another plantation near New Orleans on which Tara was based. I think. Don’t quote me on that.  Anyway, it’s built in the English style, symmetrical and staid.  Built to impress.

By contrast, here is Laura:

Laura

Very French, don’t you think?  Because that’s partly what Creoles are—a people of French or Spanish descent, sometimes with Afro-Caribbean or Native American mixed in.  They speak Creole, cook Creole, and make Creole music.

I was enjoying the tour of the plantation.  Then we stepped out back to the slave quarters and it was like everything turned from brilliant color to grey.  We “toured” a restored slave cabin, but only two or three of us could fit inside at a time.  Meant for a family, it was about half the size of a boxcar, made of rough-hewn wood and sparsely furnished.  Next we gathered outside so the guide could talk to us all at once, and that’s when I happened to turn and notice this behind me:

slave_list

You don’t need to read French to know this is a bill of sale for people.  My eyes welled with tears.  I’m teary right now.  The poor woman at the end of the list is a “lunatique.”  What did that mean?  Was she schizophrenic?  Autistic?  Rebelious maybe? Would someone have bought her because she was cheap?  For what purpose?  Ugh.  Double ugh.

I passed around the brochure about the tour and told Lynn, Molly, and Christine about it.  No one wanted to go.  Maybe I should have left out the part about the lunatique.

When I was younger I would have pressed and wheedled until I guilted everyone into going, because I thought it was an important, historically significant tour.

But I got it.  Lynn and I had spent half a day in the civil rights museum learning about slavery and lynchings and Jim Crow.  Molly is a head start teacher whose kids live in trailer parks and whose parents are in jail or on drugs.  Christine works for Oxfam, which aids people in disasters and wars.  I got it.  We didn’t need to be “sensitized.”  And we were on vacation!

You may be wondering, “What’s a Cajun?” since I wrote about Creoles above.  Cajuns are descendants of Acadians, who lived in eastern Canada and the Northeast U.S.  When the British took over this region, the Acadians, who are French and Roman Catholic, refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the crown.  They wound up in Louisiana, either voluntarily or forcefully exiled, and that was a much better fit for them.  As with the Creoles, the Cajuns have their own food, music, and language.

So there’s this theme in Louisiana of cultures coming together—French, English, and Spanish; African, Caribbean, and American Indian.  It seems like they mostly got along, although that may be because they stuck to their own territories.  In New Orleans, for instance, Canal Street marks the boundary between the old English and French parts of town.

Back at the B&B, we had our own little cultural casserole.  The English couple avoided the Germans, who were sour faced but friendly in their serious German way to the Dutch pair. The French couple seemed anxious about everything while the Scotts and Canadians were outgoing.  I had two free bus tour tickets and offered them to the group.  The Germans recoiled as if I were trying to hand them a rotting fish, while the Dutch couple eagerly grabbed them.

Jim Crow, Old and New

This is the latest in a series of posts about a road trip from St. Paul to New Orleans that starts here.

If you don’t learn something about yourself when you travel … well, that’s okay—I’m not going to sermonize—but I was pleased to learn something important about myself in Memphis.

In the morning, Lynn and I took a walk along the riverfront, which is beautiful:

memphis_riverfront

We walked back to Beale Street, found a restaurant, and ordered breakfast. We were excited to try southern foods like grits and biscuits.  We waited, and waited.  You could say this restaurant put the “wait” in waitress.  She kept coming by and giving us a dose of another southern treat—calling us “honey”, “sweetie”, and “darlin’” as in: “Your food’ll be up in just a minute, darlins’”

It seemed like half the morning passed away before we got our meals, then we wolfed them down and headed over to the National Civil Rights Museum.

It was difficult to find—there was no signage—but then we turned a corner and there it was, the former Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  I recognized it immediately, having seen it a hundred times in iconic photos.

TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES - APRIL 04:  Civil rights leader Andrew Young (L) and others standing on balcony of Lorraine motel pointing in direction of assailant after assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lying at their feet.  (Photo by Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

And this was the beginning of learning something about myself, because I got so choked up I had to turn away so no one would see me in tears.

I have been to Holocaust museums in Washington, DC; Jerusalem, Berlin, Prague, Chicago, and elsewhere, and they’ve been tear-filled experiences too.  But then, I’m Jewish.  Were my tears only because the story was about my people?  That fear—that I only felt empathy for my own kind—was laid to rest in Memphis.

Can a Man

I wiped my tears away but they welled up continually inside the museum, which was one long, sad horror show that traced the abuse of African Americans from slave days up through the assassination in 1968.

There was a large group of school children, mostly African American, going through with docents.  I wondered what they felt seeing Africans in chains, the police dogs, the fire hoses?  If it was my kid I would want to be on the tour to put my arm around him.  There was the usual laughing and fooling around that any group of kids will exhibit, but I wondered if they would have trouble sleeping that night.

I commented to Lynn, “A coworker of mine at Oxfam used to find every opportunity to mention, ‘the UK never had slavery’ in a superior tone.”

“We may not have had slaves in the country, but we certainly benefited and participated in the system,” Lynn replied as we read a display about how global the slave trade was.

And of course it didn’t end with the abolition of slavery.  “Jim Crow” was the system in the southern United States from reconstruction up through the civil rights era in the 60s that kept “negros” in their place.  Here are a few of the ridiculous laws from that time:

Baseball Law Mulattos Checkers

Really?  Checkers!?  Who knew checkers could subvert the social order?

Then we marched slowly through exhibits about bus boycotts, lunch counter protests, and strikes.  Then there were the cross burnings, lynchings, and bombings by white racists; somewhat counterbalanced by the support of white and other allies (including Jews).

Lunch Counter I am a Man Bus Boycott Activists

I watched a video about James Meredith, the first black student to be accepted to the University of Mississippi, in Oxford Mississippi.  Of course he hadn’t mentioned his race in his application, and when he showed up to enroll all hell broke loose.  After weeks of rioting by whites, which resulted in two deaths, he was reluctantly let in, and as Lynn read later, he did graduate and lived a normal life afterwards.

The museum was really well done.  There was a second building that explored African American activism post 1968, but after three or four hours in the first building we had to leave.

Last week Vince and I talked to a group about mass incarceration.  One of the audience members referred to it as the New Jim Crow.  I agree, although in my opinion it’s about poverty, addiction, mental health, and class as much as racism.

Updates

Travel, addiction, prison … sometimes I feel I have to justify why I write about these seemingly unrelated topics. How about this: they all fall under the meta theme of “feeling trapped, or just bored, and wanting to escape.” There—does that explain it?

I was at a big work meeting and we were discussing human rights in the countries where we operate in the Middle East and Africa. Someone said, “What about solitary confinement? Shouldn’t we be advocating against it?” Everyone clamored in agreement. As far as I know, I am the only employee with a family member who has actually been in solitary. I was tempted to raise my hand and make a speech about how, if we decided to advocate against solitary confinement, we’d damn well better include the United States. But I didn’t feel like being a spokesperson for prison reform that morning.

Vince is off lockdown, after a month of confinement to the house except for work and AA meetings. It may not sound that bad—after all he had Facebook and phone to communicate with friends. He could binge-watch movies and cook real food and look out windows and take a shower without 50 other guys around. He had a pretty good attitude toward it, but I know he was really chaffing toward the end. He had steadily been earning freedoms after his release, then they were all taken away. The offense was so petty compared to the consequence. Most of all, he just had no power or choice about his comings and goings.

Regardless, it’s over now, and today we are doing a make-up birthday outing for me—going to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play the entire score of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, accompanied by some Finnish choir. I expect it will be either fantastic or dreadful.

Nothing has happened with the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 in the five weeks since I wrote about it and about how Republicans are using its bipartisan popularity to shove in language making it harder to prosecute corporate criminals.

Then there’s the controversy swirling around The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which is being blamed for creating mass incarceration. Bernie Sanders says he only signed it because of the good stuff in it, even though he disagreed with the sentencing parts. Hillary has been confronted by Black Lives Matter activists about ruining millions of Black people’s lives because she voted for it. Bill Clinton has disavowed it—his own law. I give him credit for that, even though it may only be a political tactic. Ugh. I would have to write five more posts to get to the bottom of that one, if I ever could.

Anyway, a poll from Pew Charitable Trusts shows that all Americans—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, men, women, Latinos, African Americans, seniors, young voters, and even law enforcement households agree we need to fix our broken federal prisons system. If you’re an American and you agree, please sign this petition urging Congress to pass the Act now. These are all the celebs who are endorsing the call for reform.

new_Cut50_Celebs-04_REVISED-900px

A lot of what I do in my job involves raising funding from foundations. I was happy to see that 42 foundations have banned the box on their employment applications that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” This is really only symbolic, since foundations have abysmal records of hiring people of color or even just people who aren’t wealthy and well connected. But they are calling on all philanthropic institutions to follow suit, so maybe it’ll catch on.

Anytime anyone speaks out in support of ex offenders I am thrilled. The president of the Rosenberg Foundation, in announcing the foundations’ move, said, “It is time to end the pervasive discrimination against people with past criminal records. The era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs have done severe damage to families and communities, with an enormously disproportionate impact on people of color. Everyone deserves a second chance and the opportunity to compete for a job.”

A Cell is a Cell is a Cell

ANNE

Is there such a thing as prison-phobia? If so I’ve got it. After nearly two years of thinking, reading, talking, and writing about prison, I have an irrational fear of ending up in inside myself.

Just for the record, I have not broken any state, federal, or international laws.

However, just last night I was reading the novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin. In it, a character is minding his own business when a two robbers being chased by the police come running along and stand next to him, catching their breath. He is arrested with them and beaten mercilessly in an attempt to get him to confess, which he doesn’t. He is eventually released, but he slits his wrists the next day because he is so traumatized by the experience.

Did I mention he is black and the cops are white? Does this sound familiar? The book was published in 1953. Sadly, some things don’t change.

So that scenario is not likely to happen to me, but phobias are irrational, not rational.

I was also freaked out by the third season of Orange is the New Black. I won’t give away what the last scene of the last episode sets up for the inmates, but it had something to do with crowding/lack of privacy and it really hit a nerve.

My cousin, Molly, and I have talked over the years about buying a piece of land overlooking the St. Croix River and building a retirement community of tiny houses. You know, these are the 250- to 400-square-foot houses (75-122 square meters) made of beautiful woods and lots of clever features to store stuff and make the most use of the space. The idea is, you can have a paid-off house, live in the country, and feel good about yourself because you aren’t destroying the planet by consuming as much as the average new home built in America, which as of 2013 was nearly 2,500 square feet (762 square meters)!

Then Molly sent me this article, “Dear People Who Live in Fancy Tiny Houses” and it killed my dream:

What if you’re having a shitty day and you just want to be alone? You can’t be alone, right? Because your partner or children are sitting two to ten feet away from you at all times. Don’t you feel like a rat trapped in a cage? Don’t you ever want to turn toward your lover or spawn and shout, “Get out! Get out of my tiny house!”

The condo Vince and I are sharing is 800 some square feet. So it’s not the tiniest, but there are privacy issues. When the other Molly—Vince’s girlfriend—is over, I’m sure he wishes I would disappear. I wish I could kick back on a Friday night and watch my geek-ola shows like the PBS News Hour and Washington Week in Review with a couple glasses of wine, but I can’t.

On the whole, things are going well with us, at least from my perspective. But I have mostly lived alone since Vince left home 20 years ago, so it’s an adjustment.