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Posts Tagged ‘social justice’

Last night, as part of the VA Festival of the Book, Bob and I attended a program at the Paramount Theatre; a gorgeous art-deco building that once had African Americans sitting in the balcony, a la To Kill a Mockingbird. We were there to hear Bryan Stevenson speak about his book, Just Mercy, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/just-mercy-by-bryan-stevenson.html?_r=0 …and about the injustice of the criminal justice system in our country.

Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law, lives modestly, and runs the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. He has been called America’s Nelson Mandela, and last night I was a witness in a very spiritual way to his testimony.

The statistics tell only a fraction of the story, but they are a good place to start. In 1970 America imprisoned 300,000 of its citizens. Now it imprisons 2.3 million people. A quarter of a million children have been sent to adult American jails in that time, including 3,000 sentenced to life without parole. One in every three black male babies born today can expect to be incarcerated (for the white population it is one in 15). In some states, including Alabama, a criminal record means disenfranchisement for life. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/01/bryan-stevenson-americas-mandela

He said some pretty provocative things. For instance, he told us that today Germany is placing memorial stones at the places where Jews once lived; Stevenson would like to see us place stones under the trees where Blacks were lynched. The problem is that we have erased, or denied so much of our Jim Crow history, we just don’t even know where all these killings happened.

Did you know that in Alabama MLK day is officially recognized – probably because it is now a national holiday, mandated by law – and called  “Martin Luther King/Robert E Lee Day?” What if Germany decided to have a holiday and call it “Dietrich Bonhoeffer/Joseph Goebbels Day?” Think about that – a dissenting theologian and a Nazi general.

I have likened our privatized prison system to apartheid before, but Stevenson thinks we can actually change things. By changing our war on drug policy to a public health model, by not privatizing our prisons, by ending capital punishment and appointing, not electing judges…and more. I wasn’t taking notes like a good journalist, because I was actually listening to every word.

As a country, he said, we haven’t gone through a Civil Rights era “truth and reconciliation” period, like Rwanda and South Africa, as evidenced by the fight over the Confederate flag. Many Southern White people see that flag as a symbol of their heritage. All Black and Brown people see it as sign of bigotry and hate. We need to confront the awful truth of enslavement and institutionalized segregation and racism in order to heal as a country.

Listen carefully next week while the Charlottesville City Council fights to remove the statue of Robert E Lee in one of our most beautiful parks, Lee Park. “Robert E Lee never came to Charlottesville and was never part of our local history. This statue was erected for the sole purpose of celebrating the Confederacy and establishing the supremacy of its cause. It has no place in our community.”

Stevenson has gone into the belly of the beast in Alabama, and he is still fighting for social justice. How can we treat children as adults in our courts? He has to be “brave, brave, brave,” as King’s widow once told him.

“We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society . . . by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”   Photo: Caleb Chancey-Tireless-advocate--Bryan-010

 

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Purely speaking, we all know money can only get us so far. The finer things yes, like cars and homes and private schools. But I always thought it can’t buy you happiness. Rich people can be just as miserable in their second home as somebody in their rented walk-up. Optimism is available to one and all. And I like to think we can all still aspire toward that American Dream with enough hard work and luck!

What money certainly can buy you, in this country, is legal representation should you screw up.

Which is exactly what happened to Ethan Couch, that “Affluenza Teen” in Texas. How many of us have done something dreadful, used poor judgement in whatever shape or form, at the age of sixteen? Admit it. Bob has often said he would never get away with some of things he did then, if his sixteen-year-old self tried them now.

My point is that the Texas teen may or may not know right from wrong when he royally screwed up, killing four people while driving drunk. His parents hired a great legal team that came up with that defense, and he was tried as a juvenile. Which is as it should be, we’d all want our child to have a second chance at life. To find redemption eventually once his brain stops growing at around age 25. To become a mensch. We are a country that believes in second chances.

But let’s face it, Couch received probation because he came from a wealthy family. Let’s think what might have happened to a poor boy of color. In Texas.

I thought a lot about him while I was reading this article in The Atlantic at the gym: “The Silicon Valley Suicides” http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/12/the-silicon-valley-suicides/413140/ It was all about the stress of top tier high school students wanting to go to Stanford, taking lots of AP classes, not sleeping and some are jumping in front of trains. In fact, they have a second cluster of high achieving teen suicides in Palo Alto, California. What I found fascinating was a secondary Yale Psychiatry study that was referenced.

In the inner-city school, 86 percent of students received free or reduced-price lunches; in the suburban school, 1 percent did. Yet in the richer school, the proportion of kids who smoked, drank, or used hard drugs was significantly higher—as was the rate of serious anxiety and depression. This anomaly started Luthar down a career-long track studying the vulnerabilities of students within what she calls “a culture of affluence.”

The researcher, Suniya Luthar, found that in comparing students across the board along socio-economic standing, she came up with a statistical U curve, ie the poorest students and those from the wealthiest families had the highest incidence of discipline and behavior problems. Aha, so someone actually is researching what’s going on in our schools! But surely it’s not ALL about the money.

To paraphrase F Scott Fitzgerald, the very rich are very different from you and me. I would only add because they can afford a good defense. Why should we expect their children to hold any better virtues, to have a moral compass,when their parents do not? A mother who runs to Mexico with her fugitive son, and pays his tab at the strip club, deserves our sympathy. And maybe some counseling while she sits in a jail cell awaiting her right to due process.    5p0fkm-L

 

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When we first moved to Virginia, I heard about a police shooting in our community from the EMT who responded to the scene. The black person who was shot in the back, made the unfortunate choice to try and rob a house and then kill the K9 dog who was tracking him. The dead dog got more press than anyone else attached to the incident. The criminal didn’t die, but he was paralyzed for life and though I’ve lost track of that case, I’m pretty sure we taxpayers are now paying for his incarceration and medical bills.

“Blacks are about 12 percent of the US population. But 41 percent of UNARMED people killed by police.”

This was the Tweet I woke up to this morning from Nate Silver referencing the South Carolina murder of a black man running away from a policeman. Was he stopped because of his tail light, was there really a struggle over a taser, or was he shot in the back because he was guilty of driving a Mercedes while black?

Ten years ago, I remember thinking that NJ/NY police would never shoot someone in the back. Was I naive? I thought Amadou Diallo was an aberration, a one-off. http://criminaldefense.homestead.com/diallo.html

I’ve been laid low by a spring virus courtesy of my sweet grandson. Between naps, and a runny nose, I heard that the police chief in SC is calling for more body cams on police officers. Let’s face it, if that guy didn’t whip out his smart phone to record the latest shooting, we would never have heard of Walter Scott, a 50 year old father. That officer would not have been arrested. And technology trumps justice again.

But technology, body cams are not the answer. If you belong to a race that is 3 times more likely to be killed by a cop; a race  the DOJ says one of every three men can expect to spend time in jail; a race that is 60% of the prison population, akin to apartheid in our country, the facts are in. The Ferguson factor is real. Michael Brown at least wasn’t shot in the back. That is cold southern comfort.IMG_2438

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It’s that time of year again. Time to cook with apples and honey. Time to walk to the river and throw our sins away, symbolically of course. Time to make a fresh start, before the Book is closed on Yom Kippur.

Yesterday I drove into town for a haircut. IMG_1149My stylist, Christopher, is a wizard, who wears his scissors in a tool belt like a hipster cowboy. One of his clients brought him a bottle of Grey Goose, I usually only bring yellow cherries. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, our hairdressers are like priests; we tell them everything in exchange for making us feel beautiful. If only until the next shampoo.

It was an overcast, rainy day with satellite trucks placed strategically around the Historic Downtown Mall. News outlets from all over the world are waiting to hear if  our outstanding Police Chief, Tim Longo, will find Hannah Graham. She will be missing for 2 weeks this Saturday. The Person of Interest, JL Matthew, is being held in Galveston, TX since last night. Our Chief must have found some evidence in his home or car since he is now being charged with Abduction and not just Reckless Driving. http://www.click2houston.com/news/suspect-in-hannah-graham-case-in-custody/28238756

This new year, I wonder if we can begin to understand how words help shape our culture.

Calling something “domestic abuse” is ridiculous, it’s shorthand for what it really is – assault. If a man pinned another man against a wall in a bar, choking him and threatening to kill him, why I believe he’d be in jail soon enough. If a man punched the lights out of another man in an elevator, well, you get the drift.

When we tell our young women to “Never walk alone,” to “Watch what you wear,” or “Don’t drink too much,” which is what many are saying around the Hannah Graham case, and I previously didn’t even want to go there, but what they are saying is, “Get Back,” don’t display yourself, don’t ask to be raped. We blame women, we say as our college President has said, “Don’t put yourself at risk” – which is putting the blame on the victim, the woman, again and again.

Because we would never tell a man what to wear, not to drink or when he could go out alone.

This Saturday women are gathering around the country at house parties for “V to Shining V” – a Lady Parts Justice initiative to get women out to vote and supporting our reproductive rights. I’m liking this new breed of feminist, thank you Sarah Silverman. It’s not enough to burn bras and knit nipple shaped hats for our nursing babies. We need to elect legislators who know what we’re talking about, who don’t want to go backward. http://ladypartsjustice.com Here are some reasons to join in the fun:

Because women decide elections and if we get together, blow this shit up in a smart and funny way, we just may be able to get folks to sit up, take action and reverse this erosion of rights.
Because neanderthal politicians are spending all their time making laws that put YOUR body squarely into THEIR hands.
Because extremist goon squads exist in EVERY statehouse in America and are sneaking in tons of creepy legislation. We’re staying on top of this shit so you can stay on top this shit.
Because you use birth control.
Because you like sex and it’s not all about having babies. Think about it, if it were there would be no room to stand.

It’s like a second women’s consciousness raising group, only better because it’s huge thanks to social media. I couldn’t wear pants in the streets of Boston, or obtain birth control when I was in college. Look at us now. Let’s take back our language, let’s guard against the erosion of our human rights.

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I’ve resisted writing about Ferguson. Mostly because 12 days later we still don’t have all the facts about the shooting death of Michael Brown. Was he gunned down with his hands raised in surrender, or had he fought over the officer’s gun and charged him in the street? I heard an NPR reporter ask an ex-police detective what exactly are police taught about pulling their guns; when is it OK to shoot a suspect? He dodged a little, then he said if he/she feels there is the threat of imminent harm to them or the public.

According to a Jewish African American food writer and historian, Michael Twitty, yesterday was “…the 395th year after “twenty and of odd Negroes” were brought from Angola by way of multiple stops to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Bought to raise tobacco, they were the genesis community of Black life…and slavery…in mainland British North America. Many were Christian–before they left Angola– some became freedmen with servants and land, but within a generation all rights gained were permanently lost.” 10580102_719753931430543_3376970479745154356_n

So that’s where it started, slavery right here in VA in 1619. I had no idea. But where will it end? When will black boys not be followed in stores, when will they stop hearing car locks as soon as they cross a street?

Because I am white, I cannot speak with authority on black life here and now, but I did work in the black projects on Fremont Street in Jersey City when I was younger. I was a Head Start teacher and I knew that the moms I spoke with wanted only the best education for their children. And that they didn’t trust the police. If the cops were ever called, they would not even show up, or if they did it would be hours later. Which made me think of that boy’s body lying in the street for hours under a sheet with its river of blood.

I do however believe in the power of non-violence to create social change, in Gandhi and Dr King. And I believe in the power of words, and the the way an education, one that can lead to meaningful work, can transform a life.

We are at a tipping point. Do we whites just sit back and watch the dismal graduation rates of our “urban” high schools? Do we complain about the militarization of our police forces and cross the street when we see a bunch of black boys approaching us in black hoodies? I wish we had seen St Louis white people marching or better yet sitting in for social justice. It would be so easy today, a Tweet from the right celebrity, or maybe the right white church or synagogue could organize a group.

We don’t really know yet what happened when that police officer approached Michael Brown who was blocking traffic, holding some cigars in his hand. What we do know is this secondary reconstruction isn’t working in Ferguson, or in most of our cities. 395 years and a black President later, and we’re still uncomfortable talking about race.

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