Tag Archives: voting rights

In the Monastery

I waited on the platform for the train to Gokurakubashi, from whence I would take a cable car, and then a bus, to the monastery.  It was unclear to me, and still is, why I would take a cable car—not a train—directly to Koyasan station.

I had to hold myself back from jumping onto a waiting train. I must not have been the only one to feel this impulse, because a recorded announcement kept repeating in English, “Do Not board the train on platform x.  If you are going to Koyasan, there will be a later train.”

The monastery registration had stated that “visitors must arrive by 5:00 pm.”  It was only 3:00, so I wasn’t worried.  Who am I kidding?  My mind was busily generating worst-case scenarios.  But then the train came, and the scenery was vertiginous and spectacular, and I forgot to worry.

These signs were everywhere.  I’m not sure to what they referred.

I had imagined a rickety old gondola creaking and swaying up the mountain.  Instead I boarded a sleek, very expensive-looking car—as it should be, since it held dozens of people and their luggage.

In five minutes, it lifted us up a thousand feet. Or maybe it was 300.  I have no idea but it was steep and high. Whee!

The station at the top was decked out with glass globes and strips of paper fluttering in the breeze—maybe for the Tanabata festival?

Spiffy uniformed guides waited at the exit and efficiently pointed us to our respective buses.  Twenty minutes later I stepped into the monastery, where a man in black led me on a march around the facility.  In staccato English, he pointed—“Shoes, no!”—then point elsewhere—“Shoes okay!

“Meals seven in morning, six thirty evening.  You come down.  Women bath open, four to seven.  Gates close nine o’clock.  Meditation six a.m.  Yukata, no!”

This last part I would screw up the next morning.

He led me to my room which was up a steep flight of stairs.

The room was quiet and spacious and there was a view of the koi pond.  The man in black left me and I inspected the features.

There was a sink!  This small amenity would save trips down the hall to the shared bathroom area to fill the kettle, and I’d be able to wash my clothes, which by now were crunchy with dried sweat.

But why, why couldn’t pink champagne come out?

The internet was easy and fast, and there was a bean bun snack.  By now I was famished, and the snack fueled my hunger.  I rooted around in my suitcase, wondering if maybe I’d forgotten I had a pizza in there.  I came across a gift box of yuba, the specialty tofu I had been toting around since I left Nikko two weeks before.  It was heavy, so why not do myself a favor and just eat it now?  Turned out it was heavy because it was vacuum packed in broth.  I wolfed it down.

The best food is when you’re really hungry, which most of us aren’t, very often.

Several hours later the man in black served me dinner in a private room.  As someone who loves fruits and vegetables and beans and tofu, I was almost so enthralled I forgot to eat.  Except I didn’t, of course.

I tucked in to the 15 foods in 24 dishes.  The food was fab but I felt a bit isolated.  I had imagined a communal dining hall where I would meet interesting fellow travelers.  I could hear a pair of Aussies talking on the other side of this screen.

But never mind.  I had exploring to do.

In real time, I attended a training last night to volunteer as an election judge. I didn’t realize that part of it could involve “challenging” people who may not be eligible to vote, including felons.  I felt very sad, imagining anyone with a record caring enough to vote, then being questioned in front of dozens of his fellow citizens.

I hope I don’t have to do it, but if I do, maybe I am about the most empathetic person for the job.

needs and NEEDS

In real time, last weekend I spoke at a synagogue about my son’s incarceration and its aftermath.  There were about 20 people in attendance and I was nervous.  I rarely speak in front of groups, and this was a sensitive subject.  But it went fine.  Unfortunately, I know my stuff when it comes to being a prison mom, and authenticity carried the day.

They specifically wanted to know about challenges of re-entry into society. I described them in detail: housing (few landlords wants to rent to an ex con), employment (ditto, although some employers are known for be open minded), social support (many ex-offenders have been written off by family and friends), mental health and sobriety (it’s hard to stay on a healthy path when your housing is precarious and you can’t afford food, etc), medical and dental care (thank you, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, for discount care!) and finances (prisoners net about 25 cents an hour in their jobs; Vince had amassed $300 after working full time for a year).

Supervision makes all of the above more difficult. A revolving door of agents can shop up at the ex-offender’s job or house anytime, day or night, and demand a urine sample.  Vince lived with me, and I had to have a landline installed because the Department of Corrections is not operating in the 21st Century yet.

The agents strictly enforce rules one day and let things slide the next; the capriciousness of the system is enough to drive anyone mad.

“What about voting rights?” someone asked.  It is thought that most ex-offenders would vote Democratic if allowed to vote.

“To be honest, that’s the least of their concerns, for sure when they are first released,” I replied.

Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Ex-offenders are struggling at the bottom.

A few days later I was at a friend’s house.  She and a neighbor agreed they want a Democratic presidential candidate who will bring about drastic—not incremental—change. Free college education.  Reparations for slavery.  Medicare for all.  Green New Deal.

I think about my coworkers at the YMCA.  They’re a racially diverse group of mostly blue collar young people who will probably vote Democratic—if they vote.

In nine months since I’ve worked there, none of them has ever talked about climate change, institutional racism, voting rights, or gender-neutral bathrooms.

Their concerns are: Where can I get the best deal on snow tires?  Should I make tacos or spaghetti for dinner tonight?  Should I color my hair red or get highlights or keep it black?

My coworkers aren’t at the very basic level of needs, but I worry.  If the Dems choose a candidate that Trump can paint as “extreme,” I don’t think ex-prisoners or my coworkers will vote at all.

It’s not that they’re incapable of understanding higher-level issues.  It’s that they have more basic needs demanding their attention and they’re not going to get fired up about a candidate who lectures from a flip chart about emissions trading.

In Nara, I deployed my secret weapon, a stash of five pills leftover from one of my Restless Legs Syndrome prescriptions.  I slept well for the first time in 16 nights and was giddy with energy when I awoke.  Lynn was still asleep so I hung out in the huge bathroom and made coffee with this …

… while I talked to Vince on Facebook.

“I think it must have taken five mechanical engineers to design this,” I said as I demonstrated it to my son.

Vince laughed at the thing.  “Bring me one, will you?” he requested, “so I can show it to my coworkers in the kitchen?”

“Will do,” I replied.  The connection failed so I took selfies of myself in the Nara Hotel yukata.  I never take selfies, so you know I was feeling good.

“Why don’t you just take medication every night?” Lynn asked later.  Fair question.

“Because it works, and then it stops working, and then I need to take more and more, and then it starts to actually make the symptoms worse, and then I have to go through an excruciating withdrawal process,” I explained.

“But for today, I feel human again!”

Showing Up

Close to home, in real time, I attended a news conference at the state capitol about a bill that would restore the right to vote for 52,000 Minnesotans who have a prison record.  That’s right—they’ve done their time, they are out, but they still can’t vote—sometimes for years.

I didn’t want to go.  I didn’t want to go. It was first thing in the morning.  It was cold.  The parking would be a pain.

But I went, and as usual with these events I’m so glad I did.  There were a dozen speakers.  I was there with two other Jewish Community Action members, one of whom is an ex offender, and we stood in the back and listened.

The first speaker was a white guy around my age who I assumed—before he opened his mouth—was an elected official.  He was wearing a suit.  Turns out he is an ex offender who owns a business.

“I pay taxes—a lot of taxes,” he said.  “Our country was founded on the idea of ‘no taxation without representation.’  I’m going to pay my business’s property taxes after this but I am not allowed to vote, even though I’m no longer inside.”

An African-American preacher spoke about redemption.  The head of a nonprofit that helps violent offenders stop being violent spoke about how that’s possible.  A member of the Republican Party’s Independent caucus talked about how this is an issue of freedom.

A fellow who looked like Andy Warhol moved to the podium and introduced himself as “your only State Representative with a prison record.”  He had been an addict and was in jail for burglary when he was thrown into solitary confinement and decided to get clean.  That was 43 years ago.

Both county attorneys spoke in favor of the bill.  So did the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections.  Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul told of speaking with a lifelong St. Paul resident in his office.  The man said, “You all told me to reintegrate when I came home from prison.  You said you wanted me to be part of the community again.  But no one will rent me an apartment.  No one will hire me, and I can’t even vote.  I am shut out of my own community.”

The head of the coalition that’s sponsoring the bill said that one of the reasons it failed last year is the impression that all ex offenders will vote Democrat.  Hey, that’s an easy 52,000 votes for Republicans to keep blocked. But 70% of ex offenders live outside of the cities, and rural and suburban voters tend to vote Republican.

There was mention of how African American, Latino, Native, and poor people are disproportionately represented among the prison population, and therefore the fact that they cannot vote is a new kind of Jim Crow.

Vince, my son, was unable to vote in 2016 even though he’d been out of prison for a year.  I know he’s looking forward to voting in 2020.

There was mention that North Dakota has the same voting language in its constitution but it allows ex offenders to vote.  North Dakota!  Similar to how New Yorkers consider Minnesota flyover country populated only with farmers muttering Uff Dah, Minnesotans think of North Dakota as an empty Nowheresville, populated with a few range-roaming, gun-toting cowboys.  For North Dakota to have a more forward-thinking policy was like a dare.

Ninety-five percent of JCA members live in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Our representatives are as liberal as we are, so they won’t need convincing to vote this bill up.  There’s not much we can do except show up and be bodies at these events.

If you happen to be a Minnesotan who lives in a conservative district, and you “get” the need for this reform, please contact your representative and urge him or her to vote Yes on Restore the Vote.

The event made the evening news, at least on the one channel I watched, but it was overshadowed by much blather over the next impending snow storm.

Prison as Trauma

Most people never get to go to an event about prison.  I went to two in one week.

The first was a phone-a-thon to ex cons.  It felt like a worthwhile use of my time and I would recommend doing something similar if you are depressed, angry, or frightened about some issue.  Like oh, let’s say … a presidential election.

Two nights later was an event I organized at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), and co-sponsored by Jewish Community Action.  It sounds complicated, I know.  What does torture in foreign countries have to do with prisons in Minnesota?

A lot, it turns out.

It was a small event, just 18 of us, but to us Jews the number 18 is a mystical one symbolizing “chai,” the Hebrew word for life.

I was a little concerned that the topic might be a tough one for Vince, my son, who had actually experienced some of the things we would discuss.  My childhood friend whose son is in prison came, and I was worried it might add to her worries.

Our first speaker was a CVT psychotherapist who described quite viscerally how trauma happens and what its effects are.  She had us close our eyes and imagine a baby.  Assuming he has a loving parent who holds him and meets his needs, he learns to trust people and look to them for help in times of need.

Trauma happens to almost everyone, eventually.  It could include abuse and neglect in childhood, a serious illness, the death of a loved one, or a car accident.  Normally, we turn to other humans for comfort.

Torture is intentionally perpetrated by one human being against another under “color of law.”  In other words, it’s authorized or at least there’s a “wink and a nod” from some type of government official.

Usually, there is no one to turn to for comfort because you are locked in a cell.  Your torturers may have your family locked up too; in fact one of the most common forms of torture is to force someone to watch or listen to a loved one being tortured.

Much of the abuse that takes place in US prisons every day—assaults, rapes, solitary confinement—would likely be legally ruled as torture if we ever investigated it fully, in my opinion.

Torture destroys trust.  Rebuilding trust is at the core of recovery.

The second speaker was a CVT volunteer who is a practitioner of Rolfing Structural Integration.  I don’t know jack about rolfing, but she does it for our clients for free and it helps them.  She talked about the physical fallout of trauma, which starts in the brain.  When someone feels threatened, the first thing they do is look for other humans for help, as the psychotherapist had said.  If they are being threatened by those other humans, the right side of their brains “light up” and they go into flight or fight mode like an animal.  I think we’ve all heard about that, right?  What I didn’t know is that the left side of the brain shuts down.  That’s the organizing, verbal, and thinking side of the brain.

And so people who have been tortured, for example, cannot put into words what happened.  On the witness stand they come off as not very believable.

One thing I also didn’t know which I found fascinating was that people kept in small spaces actually stop being able to see beyond the parameters of that space.  Someone kept in solitary for a certain length of time, when they get out, cannot see farther than six feet in front of their face.  They regain their vision eventually, but!

Vince was the third speaker.  He and I read excerpts from blog posts he wrote in solitary, where he was kept after being transferred to Moose Lake—because they didn’t have a regular cell ready.  They told him it would be temporary.  How long would you assume “temporary” meant? Six days, as it turned out. He described the cell and his experience in great detail. I felt myself getting outraged again.  We haven’t talked about it, but I wonder if it raised feelings for him too.

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.

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.