Monday, July 27, 2009

Fight Human Rights Violations Today

Over the last year or so, I've nearly always posted something on human rights on the 27th of each month. Today, it's going to be short and to the point. We have two human rights related opportunities to act on today.

The first involves Leonard Peltier, the Native American who was sent to prison in 1977 for the killing of two FBI agents even the government now admits he didn't kill. He comes before the parole board tomorrow, so gear it up, readers! Watch this, if you have time. But regardless, visit this site, and then call, fax and email your congressional representatives, the warden, whatever today. Let's bring him out of there and return him to his family and friends that have sustained him during his ordeal.

The second action we're being called to take is in support of Francisco Torres, the remaining member of the San Francisco 8 who still has charges that have not been dropped. The case involves a group of former Black Panthers who were framed for the killing of a police officer back in the 1970's after several of them were tortured mercilessly by the police in New Orleans (why am I not surprised?). All of the accused have either had their charges dropped or pled no contest to greatly reduced charges, so for them, the nightmare is -- for the third and hopefully final time -- over. Torres, however, needs our help and the plan is to read up on the case and then call (916-322-3360, ext. 7) and fax (916-323-5341) California Attorney General Jerry Brown today.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

School's Out (Of Whack)

I've mentioned from time to time the re-opened school de-segregation case in the parish where I've lived for the past two years. I'm still neck-deep in this effort and considering that the original court order in the case was issued in 1979, I'm not anticipating a major shift any time soon. Apparently, the gears of the Courts (even the Federal Courts) in Louisiana grind slooooowly indeed.

I certainly don't want to run the risk of putting my two cents so far out there as to compromise the best interests of the case, which is why I don't discuss it more often. And besides, there's a continually updated website that gets half a million hits a month, so it's not necessary for me to chime in. But there's an issue that's been unfolding of late that I think has more general applicability and that's what this post is about.

What you need to know about the case to understand what I'm going to write is that the defense (the parish school board and its appointed administrators) have drafted a plan that will supposedly de-segregate the schools enough to satisfy the Court's order. It should be obvious to even the unpracticed eye that anybody who unapologetically maintains a system demonstrated to damage the psyches of children (of whatever skin tone) for more than thirty years after they were ordered by a Court to change their ways is NOT going down without a fight. And fight they have.

First of all, they've drafted a plan so full of bells and whistles even an expert might miss the many ways the "new" is really old. For one thing, The Plan is heavily imbued with "magnet schools" that we are encouraged to believe will pull little White children from all over the parish to avail themselves of these special opportunities. Skip the fact that magnet schools have not been demonstrated to de-segregate schools successfully anywhere else. Skip the fact that they built into The Plan conditional acceptance criteria such as that those who qualify for free or reduced lunches (many, if not most, of the children of color) will be last on the list for inclusion in the magnet schools or precluded from entrance at all. And skip that, in any case, magnet schools still lock in a dual system that marks some children as worthy of "better" and some as worthy of "less," a designation that has always been made graphically clear to African-Americans of every age for five hundred years to the present in every area of our society.

And then, of course, my personal favorite aspect of this unmistakeable boondoggle is the simple fact that they have caaaarefully left "certain" schools either untouched or even Whiter than they were before (as if that would be explainable in any type of reasonable terms). One of these schools, already 94% White would actually become 97% White under The Plan...! And apparently, we're expected not to notice that this is the case when -- ostensibly -- the whole point of this debacle is to de-segregate. the. schools. Their excuse: that by law a "de-segregation plan" doesn't actually have to de-segregate ALL the schools or in this case, the schools where the little kiddies' Whiteness is already being most protected intact.

The Court, as might be expected, has asked both sides to consider what a "settlement" of the case would look like, which sounded to me like, "How little would you be willing to accept and still call it enough?" I, needless to say, wrote "Justice?" on my legal pad and the lawyer scribbled back, "That's why there are Appellate Courts." But why, after thirty years -- and fully fifty-five years after Brown v. the Board of Education -- should we be discussing "settlement" at all? In a just society, the men and women who've unapologetically maintained a racist system of relegating Black children to inferior schools to make sure they eventually "prove" their own inferiority belong in jail! I'm just saying is all.

Anyway, none of this, odious as it may be, is the real topic of this post. It is rather that the plaintiffs (who are lobbying to see implemented a fairer system of education) have somehow gotten off on a jag of pressing the Court to make comprehensive, state-of-the-art vocational schools part of The Plan. Now, on the surface, this would seem to be a no-brainer. Why not have vocational schools for all those students who, for whatever reason, "choose" not to go to college? (And the stats, of course, document that few of the youth in our parish opt to do the latter.) What bothers me about this, however, is that I see only too clearly how this can be used by the jerks who put this racist system in place back in the covered wagon days to keep Black youth (and even poor White youth) from taking the only track guaranteed to offer them a decent life in the future.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not invested in the idea that everybody wants to go to college. For example, I didn't. Or at least I didn't have a vision for myself that included college once it was made clear to me that I wouldn't get "one red cent" for college because "women are for sex and cooking." (I kid you not. In those words.) It took me twenty years to get over than one. And even then, I didn't enroll because I wanted to. I enrolled because it became apparent to me that I wouldn't be able to get a job good enough to support two children without a college degree of some kind. And that was in 1986.

The fact is that the United States has a number of values on which it operates as a society. One is White Supremacy, of course. And one, as I just explained, involves the Patriarchy. But another is a practice sociologists call "credentialism," which means requiring formal educational "credentials" for better jobs. And believe you me, they're not talking about high school diplomas or vocational school certificates any more.

When my father graduated with his Bachelor's Degree in the 1950's, it really meant something because people could still get a good job with a high school diploma. Hell, I myself filled great, highly responsible positions in my twenties and early thirties as only a high school grad. But during the 1980's, when we went from being a manufacturing economy to being a service-oriented economy, things changed. Not only did you need a college degree to get a "decent" job, but those jobs didn't pay enough to cover the bills even if you did have a degree. It didn't have anything to do with what you learned in school. It had to do with that little piece of paper. And today, the process is not moving toward vocational schools. It's moving toward Master's degrees.

I tell my students -- many of whom are struggling as the first college students ever in their families, many of whom are holding down full-time jobs while going to college, a ridiculous number of whom already got shellshocked in Iraq two or three times so they could go to college -- that they're not wrong. They don't have to want to do this. They need to do it. And when I tell my African-American students that Black men are four times more likely to be unemployed than White men at every educational level, I tell them that this just makes their college degree that much more crucial. In fact, in this parish, while European-American per capita income annually is over $20,000, African-American per capita income annually is under $10,000.

Not very pretty, is it?

And yes, it's possible for people to make a living wage with some trades. But that doesn't mean that a certificate from a vocational school is automatically going to put you in those jobs, assuming those jobs remain in place. At ten per cent unemployment -- and rising -- why do we think that there are any magic answers? The bulk of the tracks in vocational training do not provide a living wage in a country where a full-time, minimum wage job will bring in a whopping $237 a week after taxes. And that's assuming that the jobs don't fall to technological advancements or go to people with college degrees who are going to become "over-qualified," but increasingly desperate as the economy gets worse.

But if a well-organized and fully entrenched team of White racists recognize anything, it's how to play both ends against the middle and get what you wanted in the first place. So they're gonna jump on this vocational school bandwagon like, well, White on rice. And when the dust settles, thousands upon thousands of young people -- most particularly African-American -- will be "tracked" into vocational programs with promises that they'll be easier and faster and get them good money and that college probably isn't "for" them, anyway. (I wish I had a nickel for every time I've heard a young man or woman of color say this to me since I arrived in Louisiana. White kids don't say it. Now, why is that?)

Am I trying to push college on a bunch of underprepared children with no self-esteem and horrific work ethics and no vision for themselves or their futures? Well, what do you think? I have to teach these kids. I watch some of them crash and burn (educationally, psychologically, emotionally, and sometimes even physically). I watch some hanging by their fingertips somehow course after course. And I spend literally more time in my office trying to keep individual students from falling through the gates of hell than I do in the classroom. So what is my point?

That -- and I really want to break into capital letters here -- a LOT more children would opt for and be successful in college if they were prepared in schools that gave them a solid basic education. They don't need bells and whistles. They don't need gimmicks. They need teachers who give a shit about them, who believe in them, who are NOT themselves racist (especially without knowing it). They need admininstrators who are educators themselves, highly trained in the challenges that have developed because of their lack in the past and committed to spending money on quality education for all children rather than on inflated salaries for administrators, and who hold teachers responsible, not for front-loading to a standardized exam, but for turning children into learners. Believe me, this is NOT the stretch we're told it is by the racist Powers-That-Be.

Maybe we do need a community college level vocational school or two in this parish to pick up the slack for the thousands of Black and poor White young people who've already been hung out to dry by this school system. But the answer to our greater dilemma -- on-going institutionalized oppression in the name of racism -- will not be addressed and eradicated in this way. And giving the parish school board a get-out-of-jail-free card is NOT my idea of a law suit well won.

77% of the White people over 25 in this parish have a high school diploma (which is something like the national average), while only 55% of the Black residents over 25 are high school graduates. Poor White kids aside, because this is, after all, a racial de-segregation case, suggesting that Black kids "need" vocational schools because they don't "want" to go to college is just one more verse in the same old racist school song.
NOTE: Last night, after writing this post, I was talking with Albert "Shaka" Woodfox (one of the Angola 3) on the telephone and before I even got into what my post was about, he volunteered: "The two primary tactics defendants use in trying to avoid school de-segregation are, first of all, vocational schools and then, magnet schools." Why am I not surprised?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Mountain Comes to Muhammad

Yesterday, I spent the day with Albert "Shaka""Cinque" Woodfox, one of the Angola 3. It took me two hours for one reason or another to make the journey from my front door to the front reception desk at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola where he's been in solitary confinement for thirty-seven years. It wasn’t supposed to take that long, but half of the trip was on a country two-lane road and the construction and farming vehicles were out in force.

I was deep, deep in the prison abolition movement in this country in the early 1970's and I’ve been inside more than a few prisons during that time and since. But it never gets easy. I listened to an audio book -- a detective thriller -- while I drove because otherwise I would have made the entire trip with my stomach full of butterflies and my back teeth clenched and I didn’t want to throw away so frivolously the energy I would need to last the day. We’ve been writing and talking on the telephone for four months now, since I wrote to tell him that the student sociology club I advise threw him a birthday party when he turned 62 on February 19th.

It was a small gesture. We showed “The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation” and ate a cake that read “Happy birthday, Cinque.” That’s the name he took for himself along the way after his comrades had already taken to calling him Shaka. I'd seen him called Cinque on the internet and that’s what his long-time supporters in New York City called him, too, when I met with them, but he signed his letters Shaka. So I wrote and asked him -- with some trepidation, I’ll admit now -- “Albert/Shaka/Cinque, just how many of you are there in that cell?” And he laughed and I was glad because I wanted him to be rational. I couldn’t believe that he would be, but I wanted it.

I became aware of the Angola 3 more than a year ago when Color of Change sent out a call for support because the Louisiana House Judiciary Committee was talking about reviewing the case. I jumped on the bandwagon: blogging, signing petitions, contacting the governor’s office -- the standard drill. Then, in July, Shaka's conviction was overturned. I posted a YouTube video of Richie Havens at Woodstock singing about Freedom. But he wasn’t released. And in October, another hearing didn’t release him either. And the state says it will appeal the Court’s decision anyway regardless. And Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell says he'll handle the case personally because Shaka's the most dangerous man in the world. And Amnesty International says that Shaka and Herman Wallace may have done more time in solitary confinement than anyone ever.

So we asked for a special visit and rather unexpectedly got permission. I hadn’t bothered to prepare myself emotionally for this possibility because I didn’t believe it would be allowed to happen. Even after it was approved, I didn’t believe it would happen. And all the way up there, I still did not believe I was actually going to see him. Back in the day, I sometimes drove four or five hundred miles only to have a visit be denied at the last minute, so I had no illusions. I wasn’t sure if it wouldn’t happen because he's him or because I’m me, but I wasn’t even excited because I didn’t want the crash at the gate when they gave me the word. I ate half of a muffin I had brought and drank most of a bottle of water on the last leg of the trip so my blood sugar wouldn’t dip and add to the likelihood of my losing my cool when they gave me the news.

They let me park without problem. Even that surprised me, I was so convinced that this was all a cruel joke. I went into the reception area, feeling new-girl-conspicuous, and after being instructed to stand in a booth that blew my hair around, I stumbled through the process at the counter. They asked for Shaka's prison number, which I guessed wrong and then right, receiving a broad grin from the woman behind the desk, as if I had just scored well on a pop quiz, the reward for which would be a visit with the matching prisoner. Then, without comment, she handed me a form reading “special visit -- non-contact,” and I was patted down, divested of my lip gloss, sent through a metal detector, and escorted across the street to the close custody building.

Waiting in the office to be further processed and taken upstairs, I watched an African-American woman officer eating watermelon while a boom box blared, “God’s got somebody for you!” The officer didn’t seem to be listening to the program, so I gathered it was like really loud background music, but I couldn’t help noticing that lying next to the boom box was a magazine wrapped in plastic, featuring a Black woman on the cover grinning back over her shoulder while her scantily clad derriere glistened with sweat. I tried not to look over-attentive, but honestly, it was a pretty surreal scene.

Guards came and went, bantering lightly with each other. And eventually I was taken upstairs and deposited in a cheerless room with seven cubicle spaces in front of seven thick screens and there was only one folding chair anywhere to be seen. I claimed it immediately, though ultimately I left at the end of the day, priding myself on having not sat in it for even one minute. Each cubicle had a stainless steel shelf on either side of the screen. I assume this was to rest your elbows or your food on while you were visiting, but it was obvious that sitting in the chair would put the shelf at approximately chin height, leaving the visit to be conducted between two talking heads. So Shaka and I either stood or perched on the steel shelves, barely inches apart despite the best efforts of the Powers-That-Be.

It was a good thirty to forty minutes between the time I pulled up in the parking lot and the moment Shaka entered the tiny room on the other side of the screen. He came through the door in hand cuffs and leg irons and after the cuffs (only) were removed and the door behind him closed soundly, he grinned and slapped his palms flat against the metal mesh and I responded by matching his palms with my own. And it was on.

Five hours and forty minutes later, the guard opened the door on my side of the room and said simply, “All right, ma’am. That’s it.” And after replacing our palms on the screen once more, we turned and walked away without looking back. And the visit was behind us. I had just met a bona fide hero, a man who shakes his head woefully over the responsibility that accompanies receiving twenty-five letters a day, a man who buys other prisoners underwear or shower shoes when they no longer have resources or connections to do so themselves, a man who teaches other men to read through the bars of his six by eight foot cell while rivulets of sweat run down his face onto the letter he’s trying to answer, the most dangerous man in the world.

I know that the “bona fide hero” line is going to make him wince. He's probably as humble as anyone I’ve ever met. “I don’t see myself as others see me,” he says. And I’m sure not. Nevertheless, the letters remind him daily how he appears to the rest of the world. They reach out to him in respect and love, feeding his spirit, holding up a mirror in front of a man who has done thirty-seven years in solitary confinement for being a Black Panther, populating the universe he has created in the iron house he calls home.

He works out six days a week, lives on French fries (not a great idea for a man on heavy-duty medications for hypertension), and prefers to wear sweatshirts when he's out of his cell. He speaks with the richest Black Louisiana accent I’ve heard yet in the two years since I moved here. And his conversations move easily from describing how the GOP should have handled Sarah Palin to advising on the best way to deal with being deposed by a lawyer to discussing a Sister Souljah book with the skill of a trained reviewer. He is equally adept at sharing deeply reflective personal insights or snapping unpredicted jokes. And his class analysis is absolutely elegant. He marveled at our spirited dialogue -- between a prisoner and a professor -- but I assured him that he was driving the conversation; I was hanging on for dear life just to keep up.

When I once asked him how he's maintained his sanity, he replied simply, "It is what it is." And that's what being rooted in stone cold reality looks like. That's what willingness to keep hoping looks like when there's been absolute proof that there is no reason to hope. That's why Albert "Shaka" "Cinque" Woodfox and Herman "Hooks" Wallace have visitors from all over the world and endless letters and telephone calls, why the world has beaten a path to their cells, why I spent the day at the Louisiana State Prison yesterday, and why Shaka and Hooks will come out of the hell holes in which they are presently trapped to walk as free men on the face of the Earth that has sustained them in their most desperate hours.

I wrote Shaka at one point that the reason the Attorney General called him the most dangerous man in the world is that if Shaka had adequately communicated at any point that he was ready to disavow Black self-determination and accept White Supremacy as appropriate and reasonable, he would have been released. But he did not. Consequently, he -- and Wallace -- have, for all practical purposes, made a daily decision to do thirty-seven years in solitary confinement voluntarily. That gives them the power and this frightens the be-jeezus out of White men like Attorney General Caldwell and Warden Cain, who still believe that there is only one kind of power -- brute force. Scared or not scared, however, Caldwell and Cain have already lost the battle because they are recognized far and wide as the misguided monsters they are and they will carry the knowledge and the repercussions of the evil they are perpetrating even as I write to their woebegotten, isolated graves.
For more information on the case, you might want to check out National Public Radio's series, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

And The Students Become The Teacher

It's been a tough week or so. I didn't get nearly enough sleep for one thing. And there's been rather a lot of drama related to the re-opened school de-segregation case as folks on our side have been head-butting senselessly. I just love when that happens. Not.

At least I finally finished my statement for the court on the effects of internalized oppression on children of color "educated" in the segregated school system in this parish. Then, I spent all day Tuesday watching the melodrama that is the court itself. On Wednesday, I started teaching a new course. And after class, while discussing Robert King's book on his life as one of the Angola 3 with a young man I had loaned it to, another young Black man I've been working with over the past eighteen months dropped by to invite me to a spoken word event he was performing in that night.

Now, understand that this man was not doing spoken word when we met. And he has struggled with his unfolding. But two months ago, he found his voice and he wanted to show me. So I went. And not only did he bring the house down, but he did it reflecting my teaching back to me. He took our conversations and turned them into an war cry about what Black people in the United States are up against today. He covered poverty and education and parenting and prison. (My favorite line was "Prison is Fort Knox and Black men are the gold...")

By the time he was finished, I was undone. And then the M.C. took the mic and told the beautiful young African-American audience that he wanted them all to give me props for what I had done to develop my student's mind so he could bring his poetry to the world.

And there I sat -- old, White, exhausted and grinning -- grateful to have the opportunity to be of service, grateful to be changing the world by feeding its children, grateful to be embraced and understood and appreciated for what is utter joy to me.

When he came into my office Thursday to give me the back story -- he's known as Giraffe on the spoken word circuit and if you pay attention, I suspect you'll come across him at some point sooner than later -- he turned me onto Sunni Patterson, another fine young African-American spoken word poet from New Orleans. So even though I don't have time or energy right this minute to make up for my lack of blogging lately, I'm posting this video as an offer of apology.


NOTE: The graphic featured at the top of this post was skanked from the blog of another former student of mine, Omar, who left to write for and be the lead singer for Molotov Compromise. Omar has a new solo cd out, too, which you can check out (and buy) on his blog and his MySpace site.