Tag Archives: racial disparities

Calling All Cons

Before I return to writing about my upcoming travel in Italy, Malta, and Spain, I’ll write a couple more posts about my other favorite topic: prison.

I was involved in two criminal justice reform evening events this week.  Normally I hate having commitments like these at night but these were commitments I chose to make.

The first was a phone bank event organized by the Restore the Vote Coalition.  It’s run by Take Action Minnesota and includes Jewish Community Action, a group I’ve written about being involved with.

Here’s why we were there: 47,000 ex prisoners in Minnesota cannot vote.  They’ve done their time but they’re still “on paper”—slang for probation or parole—and they can’t vote until they’re off paper.  Even though Vince has served his time, has been out for a year, has been sober for over two years, is working and paying taxes and rent, and taking his grandma to the grocery and doing all manner of other positive things, he’s not allowed to vote until 2018.

Our job was to call around 7,000 ex offenders who were probably off paper.  Since no sane person enjoys calling strangers—much less ex cons—the coalition tried to make it a fun by calling it a Restore the Vote Block Party.  They had blocked off their parking lot and had booths with a DJ and food, but it rained so we all huddled inside in their basement offices.

There were five or six speakers, including a rabbi and a young woman from Chicago whose father and uncles had been in prison as long as she’s been alive.  It was a very racially diverse group.  A couple guys lead a call and response to get us fired up, then we all dispersed to make calls or knock on doors.

All three of the African-American speakers said something along the lines of, “This is a problem that mostly affects black people.”  While it’s true that African Americans are disproportionately represented in prison compared to their percentage of the overall population, 56% of adult prisoners in Minnesota are white.  As of September 30, that’s 5,228 men and women, not counting juveniles or people in county jails.  I don’t think we do the cause any favors by making it all about race.  Race is a factor for sure, but so are class, poverty, abuse, education level, disabilities, chemical dependency, and many other issues.

There was an elaborate script probably written by a graduate student who’d never been near a prison, which went out the window the moment we started dialing.  We used a really cool online system.  I logged in and immediately a guy’s name came up with his age and phone number and the names of other people in his household.  I said to the leader, “I’d be really creeped out if stranger called me who knew I’d been in prison.”  I was assured that this was public information and that ex cons knew it.

I dialed 72 numbers in an hour and a half and spoke to exactly two ex cons.  About 80% of the numbers were disconnected, busy, wrong numbers, or no one answered.  The two guys I spoke with were opposites.  The first one, who was 28, had researched whether he was eligible to vote, was registered, and was committed to showing up at the polls.  The other guy, who was 56, said, “I ain’t never voted in my life and I ain’t gonna start now.”

I noted their names as I scrolled through the data base—Frank, Damarius, Jason, Katherine, Moua, John, Orville, Krystal, Matt, Jose, Abdi—all typical Minnesota names, all over the state, all ages, all races.  I reached quite a few mothers, which tugged at my heart strings.  They sounded care worn.  A couple said, “I don’t know where he is.”  Ugh.  I’ve been there.  One father told me, “He’s not here,” then, sadly, “He’s in the ground.”  What do you say to that?

“I’m so sorry,” I muttered.  “I’m sorry to have bothered you.  Have a nice night.”

I only reached two guys, but as our group of 80 volunteer callers got pledges to vote from 122 ex offenders.

It may not sound like much, but we did something.

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.

Notes from an Anglo-Irish-German-Czech-American Jewish Atheist

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

Desra gave us a ride back to the Air B&B.  Inside, Lynn said pensively, “If I went to dinner in London with someone who was Afro Caribbean, I don’t think the subject of race would even come up—but we spent the whole dinner tonight talking about race.”

Of course they don’t have African Americans in England.  The race labels were confusing when I lived there, especially who was covered by “Asian.”  In Minnesota, Asians are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Thai.  By far the largest group, the Hmong, are mountain tribes people from Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and China—where they are called the Miao. That’s pronounced “meow.”  Our newest arrivals are the Karen, an ethnic group from Burma/Myanmar.

In England, an Asian is most likely from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh.

Lynn herself is Anglo Indian because her ancestry is English and Indian.  Note that the Anglo comes first, whereas in the U.S., we say “African American” or “Muslim American.”

This labeling is all very fraught with the peril of offending one side or another.

“What if you were having dinner with a Pakistani or other Muslim?” I asked Lynn.  “Would race or religion be a theme in every angle of the conversation?”

“Hmmm…maybe,” replied Lynn. “Yes, that might be it.  It’s not that we don’t have prejudice in the UK.  But I think it’s the Muslim population that’s getting the brunt of the suspicion and animosity, especially since September 11 and seven seven.”

July 7, 2007—the day on which 52 people were killed and 700 injured on the London transport system in an Islamist terrorist attack.  I remember watching it on the news, in Spanish, from my bed in a hotel in Cusco, Peru, where I was vomiting my guts out into an ice bucket after eating some bad guinea pig. That’s a story for another post, but here’s a free tip for you: never use a hotel ice bucket for ice.

We reference so much with these simple dates: 9/11, 7/7.   So much has changed.  In the U.S., half the population—the conservative half—replaced its constant fear of a mass attack by communists with fear of a Muslim attack, which has made possible the rise of a demagogue like Donald Trump.  The strange thing is, they don’t fear the white guy next door with 50 guns who just lost his job and his wife and is acting strangely—just “the Muslims.”

The third major terrorist attack in the west was 11-M, the train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004.  Almost 200 people were killed and 2,000 were injured.  I don’t remember where I was that day.  But I do vividly recall being in Spain sometime after 9/11 but before 11-M studying Spanish.  I was chatting with a British woman and somehow 9/11 came up.

“Now you lot know what we’ve been living with all these years from the IRA,” she said casually about the attack in which nearly 3,000 people died.

Back in St. Louis after a good night’s sleep, Lynn and I were preparing for our last day on the road.

“What do we do with the doughnuts?” she asked.

I carried the box out with us, thinking I would take them home to Vince.  Then I spotted a kid on the porch of the house next door and approached him.

“Hey kid, want a box of doughnuts?”  He was chubby and his eyes said Yes as he also backed away from me toward the door and called, “Daddy!”  The father came rushing outside, looking panicked. I could just picture myself at the police station: “No officer, really! I just wanted to give him the doughnuts; I wasn’t trying to lure him into my car.”

I offered the box to the father, who looked inside to make sure they really were doughnuts (I wonder what else he suspected could be inside?  Snakes?).  He looked up at me with a grin, thanked me, and the two of them hurried inside, where I could hear the boy calling out excitedly, “Mom! We got doughnuts!”

Smoked, with a Side of Shouting

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

Desra was waiting in the Shaved Duck when Lynn and I arrived. I immediately noticed that the music was deafening.  The tiles floors and tin ceiling didn’t help.  There was nothing else in the vicinity and Desra had picked the restaurant so I didn’t want to dis her choice, plus I didn’t want to be one of Those Old People who complains about loud music.

I wasn’t sure what the concept for the Shaved Duck was.  Was it code for something? “Shaved duck” suggested something vaguely naughty.

On the back of the menu it stated that the place was “a smokehouse and gathering place.”  The menu featured Slow Smoked Duck Breast, Smoked Meatloaf, and Loaded Smoked Potato Wedges, which were essentially French fries covered with pulled pork, baked beans, bacon, white cheddar cheese, and Bourbon barbeque sauce.  As is the trend, there was a fancy version of macaroni and cheese, this one topped with duck and jalapeño chili.  I was pleased to see an iceberg lettuce wedge salad on the menu, a classic that’s making a comeback.  The one at the duck added bacon and cherry tomatoes and came with ranch dressing; in my opinion it should just be really fresh, crisp iceberg lettuce with Roquefort dressing.

I had a vegetable and smoked Mozzarella sandwich, and we shared some buttermilk cornbread and crab cakes.  What I really wanted was shrimp ‘n’ grits, but my health-conscious conscience was saying I should ease back into my healthy eating habits. I keep myself on a pretty tight leash.  But I still had two days left of the vacation.  Why couldn’t I just order what I really wanted?  Sigh.

I caught up with Desra, who I hadn’t seen since we finished grad school 10 years earlier.  Her master’s degree was in Urban Planning and mine was focused on Foreign Policy. She reminded me she had run for Minneapolis City Council, which isn’t for the faint of heart.  She then led a nonprofit neighborhood association until she met her husband and moved to St. Louis a few months earlier.  Her husband taught African-American history at a community college and was working on his PhD, which I assume will get him onto the tenure track at a university.

She had a huge, blindingly brilliant diamond ring which I admired.  I sighed inwardly when she mentioned how old she was—the same age as Vince.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if my son could meet such an accomplished, upbeat, beautiful bride?

I  hadn’t realized she was originally from New Orleans, so Lynn and I talked about that—or rather shouted.  I described our visit to the civil rights museum, which she hadn’t visited yet. We talked about real estate prices in St. Louis vs. Minneapolis.  Desra was job hunting and seemed positive she would find something soon.

The duck was packed, and there was a raucous group near us with one woman who kept braying loudly, “Har, Har, HAR!”  Do restaurants crank up the volume to create a festive atmosphere?  Or maybe they want us to hurry up and leave so they can turn more tables?

Sometimes if I am on my own turf I will ask a server to lower the volume.  But again, I didn’t want to be an old fogey.  I also began to worry that maybe I had some early hearing loss.

Much of the conversation touched on race issues.  All the subjects above—from a recent Minneapolis electoral race to real estate to the higher education system.  This brought us to the question of fraternities and sororities.

“Yes,” asked Lynn, leaning forward to make herself heard, “We don’t have them in the UK.  What’s their origin?  Were they designed to exclude black students?”

I could hear one out of five words Desra said.  She hadn’t belonged to a sorority, but there were certainly black sororities and fraternities, so the Greek system wasn’t inherently racist, but of course it depended on the campus.

We exited the restaurant Desra exclaimed, “I can’t believe how loud it was in there!  I feel like I’m deaf now!”

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.

Festival Fever

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

Our last day in New Orleans.

We started the usual way, the four of us out on the street: “Should we go to the right?” one of us would say.

“Are you asking, or do you want to go right?”

“I don’t care.”

“Well I’d like to go left.  I saw any interesting house that way and I’d like to get a photo of it.”

Disappointed look.

“Do you want to go to the left?  If you do, just say so!”

“No, I really don’t mind what we do.”

So we went to the right.

Disappointed look.

There’s a lot of talk about us Minnesotans being passive aggressive.  We hint at things instead of just saying what we want.  I try not to do that, but sometimes I feel I’m being mean just stating what I want.  I’ve traveled a lot; I’ve lived and worked with people from lots of countries and cultures.  Except for the Donald Trumps of the world, the desire to avoid confrontation—even the appearance of confrontation—seems universal.

A Mimosa at 10 in the morning always helps to smooth out bumpy interactions, so we ordered four, then wandered around the French Market.  This is a vast collection of booths with vendors selling everything from Mardi Gras masks and beads, dried soups and artisanal soaps, artwork and Alligator heads.  I bought an alligator head for my six-year-old nephew.  This would secure my position as adored aunt.  I found a voodoo doll for a friend; it was made in China.  Everything was made in China, of course, except maybe the alligator heads.

There was a Tsunami of Stuff.  That’s how the world is now.  I will probably sound old here, but when I was a kid and young adult I don’t recall there being so many shops that sold gifts and other useless things.  There also weren’t as many thrift stores, probably because we weren’t buying knick knacks at gift stores for our friends, who would later secretly re-gift them or drop them off at the Salvation Army.

By now, the fifth day of the festival, the French Quarter was filthy, smelly, and heaving with people.  The weekend brought in a younger crowd.  Molly and I drank beers while we walked along; this is a particular rare pleasure for me.  The only other time I can recall being allowed to do this was at the Notting Hill Festival in London, where I enjoyed a Strong Bow while having my ear drums assaulted by 10 Caribbean steel drum bands playing at once.

In Minnesota, you have to wear a neon wrist band and stand in a corral like a criminal to enjoy a beer at a festival.

We found a place to sit, in the sun, and listened a band called to Cha Wa, which is a “Mardi Gras Indian funk band.”

Cha Wa

They were great.  We walked to the waterfront, which was a 98% African American crowd.  It was great to see, after visiting the Civil Rights Museum, so many people— young and old, families and couples, flocks of teens—just out and enjoying themselves.

We took the streetcar back toward our neighborhood.  Don’t call it a trolley—apparently that’s very important to the natives.  It goes about five miles per hour, but we weren’t in any hurry.  At one point we stopped and the driver got out and wiggled the cable by hand to get us going again.

A few more drinks on Frenchman Street, a few more incredible bands.  It was the last fever peak of the festival before reality hit on Monday morning.  The drunks were sloppy, the streets were greasy, music was everywhere, I saw a guy wearing a green chicken costume, and someone else wearing a skull mask riding a unicycle.

The next day Molly flew north to Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, where her husband would pick her up and drive her home to St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin.  Christine left to catch her flight back to Oxford, England.  Lynn and I headed north in the Happy Mini, also toward Oxford—Oxford, Mississippi.