Thursday, December 31, 2009
"If we don't change direction, we're going to end up where we're headed."
Monday, December 21, 2009
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Yes, he could have made different choices. After all, lots of people suffer all over the world without ever robbing anyone. But why is it that we demand as a society that no matter how attacked their psyches are on a daily basis from birth, young Black men must never demonstrate any response to it? While we're busy wanting to hold them responsible for their decisions, when are we going to consider -- at the very least -- the responsibility, as well, of people in a society that hangs these young men out to dry, no matter how hard their families try to come between them and the pain they drown in?
I've been thinking this week that maybe I should have some small cards printed to hand out when I run into White people who ignore what they secretly know and sanctimoniously judge African-Americans, while preening in what they perceive as their White superiority. You know the type. Like the ones commenting on the article about the robbery and the subsequent deaths of two young men and the nightmare of mothers and families who will grieve every Christmas for the rest of their lives. The cards will read simply: "May you be born Black next time."
Saturday, December 05, 2009
I work hard at my posts. They take me hours to write and I often re-write them for days. For me to throw them in a trash heap is the strongest statement I can make. Shame on you, sir. This is not a change. And why am I not surprised?
Friday, December 04, 2009
I dropped out of mainstream society myself in the spring of 1970, just a few months after a Chicago police officer put two 38-caliber slugs in the top of Fred Hampton's head, while he lay helpless to move because he'd been drugged by an FBI Cointelpro informant who had infiltrated the Party and gotten close enough to Fred to set the whole thing up. I didn't hear about the murder, even though I first hit the road, as it were, in northern Illinois, just a few hours from the apartment where Hampton took his last breath. And the next few years of my life were dedicated to the prison abolition movement, so one would think that I would have tuned in to the Panthers at some point. I certainly had opportunities. But I didn't.
Still, as I read, mesmerized, through Haas' account of just how ruthless Those-Who-Have-The-Power-To-Define can be in resisting any possibility of having that power compromised, I couldn't help putting myself in the context of the story. A good author will make you go there and Haas can be very proud of the volume he has produced. Because I've been so long invested in prisoner struggles, I understood many nuances I am seldom caused to recall. So I'll admit that I may not be a good judge of this work. I may, quite frankly, rave too much about it for my judgment to be taken seriously.
The fact is that it reads like a John Grisham best seller, only better, because the reader knows that every word is true and therefore riveting. It was, for me, a stroll down memory lane in many respects, giving me informational details about things I should have been more aware of when they were happening had I not been so involved in the struggle elsewhere. But it's such a good read that even if you never dropped out or you're much too young to remember the sixties first hand, you may enter this book only curious, but you'll leave at the end transformed.
I've written about Fred Hampton before here and here, if you'd like some background. And Hans Bennett's state-of-the-art review of this book is already all over the internet, including at Toward Freedom, where it appeared first. So I'm free to just write the things I most want to tell you about Haas, the assassination of Fred Hampton, and this meticulously researched and, I think, crucially important book. Why do I think it's crucially important? Because of the story it tells, for one thing, which absolutely must be remembered to mark Hampton's place in history. But also because we are entering a time in this society, I fear, wherein what happened to him and the way it was carried out and covered up -- as horrible as it was -- will become a more common occurance. And we better recanize.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Sometimes we think love only has to do with big red lips on a movie screen or particular body parts. Most of us have been socialized -- at least in this culture -- to imagine that love only appears in certain forms, is unpredictable and unavoidable (like a car wreck), instinctual and manifested only as lust or motherly hormones.I believe love is the breath in our bones, deeper than space, as multifaceted as life itself, and more amazing than rainbows. No matter how dense the darkness, the smallest candle can light the way. And nothing, nothing can erase its truth or its effect.
I choose to love. In the face of all greed, ignorance and cruelty. In the face of all the sorrows of the past -- personal and historical. In the face of all Power. I see love in the eyes of humans and animals, in the branches of trees, and in the ring around the moon. I dance to love in music, drink it in the form of colors, celebrate it in stillness and will it to surround and sustain all who suffer.
Our campus has been blessed this semester by a healthy contingent of Nepalese students and I have seven or eight of them in classes. One day at an exam review session, I asked them to teach me a Nepalese greeting and they replied "Namaste," putting their slightly cupped hands together under their chins.
"Oh, yes!" I responded. "I read somewhere that 'namaste' means 'God in me recognizes God in you'. Is that correct?"
They considered this for a moment and then suggested instead that their translation might be more like: "You are so beautiful, I want to make my hands into a flower and give it to you."
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Sometimes private prison companies will go out in the country somewhere where people are desperate for jobs, build a big prison on spec and then go to the government and say, "We got a whole empty prison out here. You need some cells?" The government, of course, takes them up on the offer and in no time at all, the place is not just full, but overcrowded, with four men in a two-man cell, prisoners living in tents, and three tier bunks in the gym. The result is nightmarish, but these guys -- or women -- should've thought of that before they stuck up the 7-11, right? That is to say, if they actually did something to be there. Because they may not have. Or they may have committed the heinous crime of having a crack stem in their pocket or drinking a beer on parole or showing up at their probation appointment on the wrong day because they moved and didn't get the letter or not having enough money to hire a real lawyer.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
It’s not the case alone, however, that keeps me so focused. Rather, it’s what I see happening to our children when they get to me at the college level that holds my gaze and makes me willing to get more and more and more involved in the process of trying to raise consciousness about this here. Or anywhere else it’s applicable, for that matter.
I say “our” children despite the way I look because, for starters, I have a bi-racial daughter who just turned twenty-nine a couple of days ago and that’s been a real adventure from time to time (no matter where we were living). But she’s made the journey from being on welfare as a child to having an apartment in Manhattan and I almost never worry any more that the socially-constructed political notion of “race” could yet rear its ugly head in her life, even though her significant other is a European-American man and some folks still have a real problem with that.
I say “our” children, however, because I see them daily, standing in the doorway of my office at the university. African-American parents and leaders in this community count on people like me to catch them as they’re crashing through the gates of Hell, so many of them so ill-prepared educationally, psychologically and emotionally for the task before them.
They grin and shrug because they don’t know what to do. The schools many of them attended are calculated to produce exactly that result. They make sure children of color cannot compete with children educated in other, better schools. Equipment, activities, enrichment programs, even the physical structures are invariably given short shrift as compared to those schools that are visibly committed to providing a different experience. One hardly has to be an expert to recognize it. A quick drive-by screams the collusion. And watching the young people entering or leaving the buildings at the start or the end of the day will demonstrate in no uncertain terms to which group the differences have been applied.
Some of the teachers and administrators at the less well funded institutions are highly trained and skilled. They are often talented, adept and committed to their task. But it’s hard to hang in there when the setting is depressed and depressing, when the basics are not provided, when the children are likely to be struggling with issues of poverty and a process of socialization that teaches them to see themselves as incapable, inappropriate and unworthy of success. And, whether we like to admit it or not, many of the teachers and administrators over these kids are absolutely convinced that they really are incapable and they communicate it both subtly and overtly all day long and for as long as it takes to make the child buckle.
By the time the students get to me, they cry.
My colleagues ask, “How many of those kids are you failing? You’ve got them in your office crying all day long.” But I’m not failing them. I’m telling them the truth. They’ve been robbed. They’ve been the butt of a bad, mean-spirited joke. It’s a set-up, an okey-doke. They’ve been infected with the virus of internalized oppression and it’s so wide-spread and effective and ignored, nobody’s told them.
The result? Only one African-American student in six, by current numbers, will graduate from the university where I teach.
“My baby’s in college,” a local parent will boast proudly.
“My grandbaby’s a college man,” I hear reported at community meetings.
But the bulk of the students of color on our campus are freshmen. They appear every fall, dressed to the nines by and large, hanging with each other, eating Popeye’s chicken at lunch and swilling frappacinos just like the others. But the gay abandon is a little desperate, a little studied; the laughter is a little forced. Because they’re scared they’re not going to make it. They’re scared to tell their folks or anybody else what they secretly fear. They’re even afraid to face their fears themselves. Because they’ve been taught to believe they’re inferior and their greatest fear is that this is the truth. That college is not “for them,” that they do not deserve and should not expect to make it. And I’m confident that this is not unusual among most majority White college campuses in the U.S.
I look out into the classroom and I see them taking notes. Or not. Sometimes I see them staring into space or at the desk, hundreds of years of sorrow in their eyes. Sometimes I see them nod off with the strain of staying awake after working to all hours at night to pay for tomorrow’s gas for their forty-minute commute. Sometimes I see them texting each other, maintaining the relationships that keep the fears at bay, that create the illusion that all is well because there’s a plan in place for the evening that will help them forget for a few hours the glaring grin on the face of a society in which they are only marginalized characters at best.
A young Black man taking one of my classes his first semester on the campus finally allowed the tears to stream down his cheeks mid-conversation in my office. I had just finished explaining to him that he could do it or he wouldn’t be there. I said, “It isn’t a personal problem. You’ve been taught to believe you can’t do it, so you'll stumble, so you won’t try, so all the goodies will go to folks who look like me. And then they can blame you for what you don’t achieve.”
I explained the in’s and out’s of campus life. How to take notes, how to study for a test, how important it is to communicate to teachers (though many may be racist to one extent or another), how to juggle time and set priorities, and above all, how to find and identify allies among the student and faculty populations. And then he started to weep.
When I asked him why, he replied, “I never believed there was hope.”
This particular young man is half-way through his junior year now. The last time I saw him, striding across campus, head high, I said by way of greeting, “Hey! How ya doin’?”
“Excellently!” he shot back, grinning, as he charged off to his next class.
But I can’t catch them all.
The result of this process to socialize children to see themselves as inferior manifests itself tidily in the U.S. Census figures. African-Americans in this parish average half the income of people that look like me.
So, somewhere in this parish tonight, a young woman will put her children to bed hungry because she was under-prepared to provide for them. Somewhere in this parish tonight, a young man will risk his life to sell drugs on a corner because he thinks there’s no other path for him, even if the one he’s on is guaranteed to send him to Angola – maybe for life without parole. Somewhere in this parish tonight, a woman will put on make-up and go to a club because being baptized in lights and music is the only way she knows to forget the bleak existence that constitutes her life (and besides she needs help with her light bill). Somewhere in this parish tonight, a child will sit on his bed trying to figure out how to get the supplies he needs to produce the project due at school on Monday, but which his family can’t afford to buy.
The week rarely goes by that I don’t hear at least one African-American student say, “Well, it’s always been this way and it’s always going to be this way.” I counter that it’s only been this way for about five hundred years and nothing is ever going to be any particular way forever. Social change is constant and inevitable. It may make things worse, instead of better. It may move us in directions we don’t want to go. But change will come. And if we want to see a future we can be happy about, we need to plant the seeds that will produce it.
Those with the power to define and make the rules in this parish have made it clear that this is no accident and they intend to continue these practices. On a grander scale, the tack we take in the U.S. that denies the existence of this problem has the same exact effect as if we cold-bloodedly intended for it to continue. So what are we going to do about it?
We have the ability to demand that life in this parish and in the United States changes whether those with the power to define want it to or not. These are precarious times economically and many of us are doing our own struggling. I drive a car I’m embarrassed to get into. But I’d be even more embarrassed to face our children on my campus not having done everything I can to keep them from falling off the cliff from which they have been pushed.
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
I've been ranting about the socially-constructed, political notion of race in four of my classes over the past week and talking about rape in the other one. I only got two sentences into my lecture last Thursday before a White male student leapt up, grabbed his books and stomped out.
During this same week, my dog developed a fixation on my presence so strong that he couldn't bear to be without me for even a short time, resulting in his chewing up a whole bunch of stuff and ultimately necessitating my breaking my own heart by giving him away to avoid caging him whenever I'm gone -- something I won't do.
So now, of course, I'm alone with a brain full of darkness, convinced that I'm going to die old and alone in a world of chaos and pain. I got the blues. Maybe this 1970's film clip of Buddy Guy will help me feel better.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
NYC Mayoral Candidate Bill de Blassio & family
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Thursday, October 22, 2009
by Tom Burghardt
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The first piece I've chosen is by author and activist Jim Ridgeway, who is currently the Senior Washington Correspondent for Mother Jones magazine and has been around even longer than I have, which is saying something. I began communicating with Jim about a solitary confinement watch project and wound up reading the following on his blog, Unsilent Generation. He was kind enough to allow it's re-posting here. Prepare to be aghast. Once more.
The Hidden History of Katrina*
by James Ridgeway
Confronted with images of corpses floating in the blackened floodwaters or baking in the sun on abandoned highways, there aren’t too many people left who see what happened following Hurricane Katrina as a purely “natural” disaster. The dominant narratives that have emerged, in the four years since the storm, are of a gross human tragedy, compounded by social inequities and government ineptitude—a crisis subsequently exploited in every way possible for political and financial gain.
But there’s an even harsher truth, one some New Orleans residents learned in the very first days but which is only beginning to become clear to the rest of us: What took place in this devastated American city was no less than a war, in which victims whose only crimes were poverty and blackness were treated as enemies of the state.
It started immediately after the storm and flood hit, when civilian aid was scarce—but private security forces already had boots on the ground. Some, like Blackwater (which has since redubbed itself Xe), were under federal contract, while a host of others answered to wealthy residents and businessmen who had departed well before Katrina and needed help protecting their property from the suffering masses left behind. According Jeremy Scahill’s reporting in The Nation, Blackwater set up an HQ in downtown New Orleans. Armed as they would be in Iraq, with automatic rifles, guns strapped to legs, and pockets overflowing with ammo, Blackwater contractors drove around in SUVs and unmarked cars with no license plates.
“When asked what authority they were operating under,” Scahill reported, “one guy said, ‘We’re on contract with the Department of Homeland Security.’ Then, pointing to one of his comrades, he said, ‘He was even deputized by the governor of the state of Louisiana. We can make arrests and use lethal force if we deem it necessary.’ The man then held up the gold Louisiana law enforcement badge he wore around his neck.”
The Blackwater operators described their mission in New Orleans as “securing neighborhoods,” as if they were talking about Sadr City. When National Guard troops descended on the city, the Army Times described their role as fighting “the insurgency in the city.” Brigadier Gen. Gary Jones, who commanded the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force, told the paper, “This place is going to look like Little Somalia. We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”
Ten days after the storm, the New York Times reported that although the city was calm with no signs of looting (though it acknowledged this had taken place previously), “New Orleans has turned into an armed camp, patrolled by thousands of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers, as well as National Guard troops and active-duty soldiers.” The local police superintendent ordered all weapons, including legally registered firearms, confiscated from civilians. But as the Times noted, that order didn’t “apply to hundreds of security guards hired by businesses and some wealthy individuals to protect property…[who] openly carry M-16’s and other assault rifles.” Scahill spoke to Michael Montgomery, the chief of security for one wealthy businessman who said his men came under fire from “black gangbangers” near the Ninth Ward. Armed with AR-15s and Glocks, Montgomery and his men “unleashed a barrage of bullets in the general direction of the alleged shooters on the overpass. ‘After that, all I heard was moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped. That was it. Enough said.’”
Malik Rahim, a Vietnam veteran and longtime community activist, was one of the organizers of the Common Ground Collective, which quickly began dispensing basic aid and medical care in the first days after the hurricane. But far from aiding the relief workers, Rahim told me this week, the police and troops who began patrolling the streets treated them as criminals or “insurgents.” African American men caught outside also ran the risk of crossing paths with roving vigilante patrols who shot at will, he says. In this dangerous environment, Common Ground began to rely on white volunteers to move through a city that had simply become too perilous for blacks.
In July, the local television station WDSU released a home video, taken shortly after the storm hit, of a local man, Paul Gleason, who bragged to two police officers about shooting looters in the Algiers section of New Orleans.
“Did you have any problems with looters,” asked an officer.
“Not anymore,” said Gleason.
“They’re all dead,” said Gleason.
The officer asked, “What happened?”
“We shot them,” said Gleason.
“How many did you shoot?
“Thirty-eight people? What did you do with the bodies?”
“We gave them to the Coast Guard,” said Gleason.
Gleason told his story with a cup of red wine in one hand and riding a tractor from Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World.
Although the government’s aid efforts were in chaos, those involved in the self-generated community rescue and relief efforts were often seen as a threat. Even so, Common Ground, founded in the days after Katrina hit, eventually managed to serve more than half a million people, operating feeding stations, opening free health and legal clinics, and later rebuilding homes and planting trees. But they “never got a dime” from the federal government, says Rahim. The FBI did, however, recruit one of Common Ground’s founders, Brandon Darby, as an informant, later using him to infiltrate groups planning actions at the 2008 Republican National Convention.
And while the government couldn’t seem to keep people from dying on rooftops or abandoned highways, it wasted no time building a temporary jail in New Orleans.
Burl Cain, the warden of the notorious Angola Prison, a former slave plantation that’s now home to 5,000 inmates, was rushed down to the city to oversee “Camp Greyhound” in the city’s bus terminal. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the jail “was constructed by inmates from Angola and Dixon state prisons and was outfitted with everything a stranded law enforcer could want, including top-of-the-line recreational vehicles to live in and electrical power, courtesy of a yellow Amtrak locomotive. There are computers to check suspects’ backgrounds and a mug shot station—complete with heights marked in black on the wall that serves as the backdrop.”
In the virtual martial law imposed in New Orleans after Katrina, the war on the poor sometimes even spilled over into the war on terror. In his latest book Zeitoun, published in July, Dave Eggers tells the story of a local Syrian immigrant who stayed in New Orleans to protect his properties and ended up organizing makeshift relief efforts and rescuing people in a canoe. He continued right up until he was arrested by a group of unidentified, heavily armed men in uniform, thrown into Camp Greyhound, and questioned as a suspected terrorist. In an interview with Salon, Eggers said:
Zeitoun was among thousands of people who were doing “Katrina time” after the storm. There was a complete suspension of all legal processes and there were no hearings, no courts for months and months and not enough folks in the judicial system really seemed all that concerned about it. Some human-rights activists and some attorneys, but otherwise it seemed to be the cost of doing business. It really could have only happened at that time; 2005 was just the exact meeting place of the Bush-era philosophy towards law enforcement and incarceration, their philosophy toward habeas corpus and their neglect and indifference to the plight of New Orleanians.
Through all the time that the federal and local governments, in concert with wealthy New Orleanians, were pitching their battle, there was virtually no one fighting on the other side. Reviewing the “available evidence” a month after Katrina, the New York Times concluded that “the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations.” The reports of residents firing at National Guard helicopters, of tourists being robbed and raped on Bourbon Street, and of murderous rampages in the Superdome—all turned out to be false.
But the truth of what happened in New Orleans—vigilantism and racially tinged violence, a military response that supplanted a humanitarian one—is equally sinister.
*For links, see the original posting at Unsilent Generation.