Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fruitvale Station-some thoughts

Fruitvale Station, the story of Oscar Grant’s tragic death, is out in wide release now. I saw it last week it’s a beautiful movie that tells the story of his last day, death, and brief aftermath of his family and friends grief. The movie is quiet, almost European in the way it lays out Grant’s story, which for me brought to mind other movies and cultural touchstones.

The movie is very much a celebration of family-the one we are born with and the one we make with our community and friends. The majority of the characters are people of color, and while there certainly are conflicts there is such overriding feeling of love and concern that I could not help being reminded of.  .  . the TV show The Cosby Family. I know that Bill Cosby is considered to be persona non grata for many in the black community for his emphasis on “personal responsibility” and one can take apart The Cosby Show in all kinds of ways. But I think it needs to be said the show was a milestone of sorts-a highly (the highest for years) rated TV show with an exclusively black cast (in terms of the main cast) doing the same kinds of things and facing the same kinds of issues that white people faced.  It certainly showed a middle-upper class existence but it was an incredibly positive image of blackness that white people do not see enough of, not to mention that the cast itself off-camera served as positive role models as well. I was thinking this when somebody retweeted to me a picture of the black men in her family, sons, husband, and brothers with the reminder that they were precious. If anti-blackness is a problem, there needs to be more pro-blackness, in all shapes and forms.

The theme of family also made me think of “The River Runs Through It” based on Norman McLean’s novel of the same name. “River” is the story of two brothers in Montana who would take very different paths, one tragically.  It takes place in an entirely different culture, time, and location. But family is family, and just as Norman’s brother kept aspects of his life at arm’s length from his family, so does Grant. The movie portrays Grant at a key point in his life, making significant decisions, just beginning to open up to the ones he loves. Not completely, however, as he shields them from important issues in his life. “River” is heavy with these themes as well, as Norman’s father says towards the end of the film, it is the ones we are closest to us that elude us, but we can love them completely, without complete understanding.

The final movie that came to mind is “Clockers” a Spike Lee movie based on the Richard Price novel. I have not seen “Clockers” since it came out more than ten years ago but what I remember was a story of a black man trying to move up and out-and being pulled down by a variety of forces. The story is technically about a murder, but really I found that secondary to the stories of the characters themselves, and how they were managing. Some the problems were certainly systemic in nature, but some were personal. I want to make it clear I completely agree with the narrative that if we want to improve impoverished communities of color we need to talk about broad-based, economic solutions. I know it doesn’t matter what a black man wears if the operating assumption is that he is a criminal, and that parenting skills are of no use if the parents can’t get jobs and truly support their family.

But, there are few things you can do, like show up to work on time. I remember watching “Clockers” and finding the main character reminiscent of the young black men I treated in rehabilitation, post-spinal cord injury. Most had been in gang related activity, I am sure some committed crimes. They were generally friendly, hard-working, nice guys. It was easy to imagine them doing positive things with their lives, it was also easy to see how their own demons pulled them down.  You just wondered if they had somebody just to provide a little bit of guidance, and little bit of toughness, could they make things happen. Because you know they have the ability, they are not lacking in intelligence. I understand the greatest problems come the outside, but still you just wish they could pull it together just a bit more.
The movie has Grant at this point-ready to move forward. But of course it was not to be, which is why every scene is touched with a little sadness, as you know it is the last time that thing will happen. The pitch-perfect cast helps the simple, straightforward narrative.

It’s subtle, and not fleshed out, but the role of prisons is also in the movie. It is only in two scenes but it both vividly illustrate the dehumanization of the prison process itself, and how difficult it is to truly leave even when technically you have. It is the violence of these scenes, partially real, partially implied, set against the quiet meditative aspect of most of the movie that make them stand out and stick with you.

Finally there are the police. The obvious question is how does an unarmed, non-threatening person (it’s clear Grant was not aggressive in any way during the police encounter) get killed by a police officer? But in the movie, it’s frustrating simple to see how this happened. I have always thought that a characteristic of a great story with a major conflict (or conflicts) is that there are no villains. I think Fruitvale Station accomplishes this, because, while not excusing the actions in kind of way, I did not see the police as villains. They are not presented as monsters-I think it is completely believable that they did not want to kill Grant and regretted the death. But it is painfully clear, to me anyway, by the way the police chose to manage the situation, the outcome was not only inevitable it was logical.  What is seen as the “villain” is the system, which resulted in the process that led up to the death. It is impossible not to ask yourself how could have this been done differently? It really isn’t about the people; it’s the larger issue of how as society we have allowed things to get this point. If we want to live in a world where this kind of thing happens, and probably happens regularly, we need to insist that changes, at every level, happen, and the word reform is really not enough. There needs to be a complete overhaul and everything needs to be on the table.

It’s worth noting that justice, of a sort, was achieved in this case. Major figures resigned, the offending officer did go to jail, if for a short period of time. As imperfect as this was, I can’t help comparing it to Chicago where similar cases have not led to any changes whatsoever. As people grapple with the Zimmerman verdict, as more people come to the understanding that increasing economic inequality hurts people of color disproportionately I can only hope that art like Fruitvale Station can expand people’s consciousness and lead to change. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

White people and “Justice” Thoughts and a Request post-Trayvon Martin Verdict

I came to twitter last night about 20 minutes after the verdict was read. The response, as you might expect, was fast and furious.  There was anger, sadness, and resignation-because most people, especially black people, who had been following the trial, were expecting acquittal. This was in large part to the high burden of proof that a guilty verdict would have required. It is important to remember that the only reason that there was a trial is because of serious protests. As Andrew Cohen writes there are real limitations to the court system-regardless of the case or racial overtones. Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that as unpleasant as the reality is, the jurors did not have much of a choice.

But I feel safe in saying that even for those who predicted it, is still comes as harsh, cruel reminder that for all the allure of idea that we live in a “post-racial” world, where we are treated equally we do not.  As many in my twitter feed stated, the (criminal) system did “work”. That the “system” itself is, by design, an instrument of power. People of color are not, and have never been, part of that power.  When we talk of “institutional racism” this is an easy example.  It is simply the idea that the institutions that make up our civil society were wholly conceived and implemented by white people, usually white people with money. It has only been in the last 50 years or so that PoC (people of color) have been allowed in. Specifically, they had to protest, boycott, put their lives on the line (many did not get those lives back) and raise hell to get those doors to open. Even when those doors were open it has been a relentless fight to stay there, to “prove” they should be there.

It is interesting to note that while many (white) people easily comprehend the idea that we have an economic system that favors the few, that is not “fair”, this does not translate as obviously to the criminal justice system. Broadly speaking it is a certain group of white people who really, really, wanted a guilty verdict, to be able to say the “system worked”.  The narrative of “justice for all” is powerful, it is ingrained in the Western psyche-it goes back to the foundations of the West.  It is like breathing. It is hard for those of us to who have the privilege of not being targeted for the color of our skin to leave it behind. It has served us well.

But, if we really say we care about humanity, we need to recognize it is killing our brothers and sisters, literally and figuratively. You can pick any criminal statistic you want, any amount of similar cases you like, the evidence is clear. Blackness is a crime. People fighting for prison abolition, reforms of the criminal justice system, wonder why so few white people are not there. It’s very simple, white people live in an alternative universe where the same things that happen to black people don’t happen to white people.

I don’t pretend to know what to do right now. I feel new to this particular fight, I feel right now I need to listen to those who have been on the front lines, those who have had to fight every day just to survive. The 40+ years of indoctrination I have been subjected to are of no help right now. There are many people out there who have been working on these issues; they will not be on CNN or on any television set. They will be where the people without power always are, in the cracks and margins. You can find them if you try. It is my suggestion, to other (white) people, that you try to find these voices, listen to what they have to say. Consider what is going on in your own sphere of influence, and try to imagine something different than your whiteness.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Blogging through Dirty Wars, Chapter 12, Anwar Awlaki update

Chapter 12 takes us back to Awlaki’s story, in 2003 beginning in the UK and ending in Yemen. Awlaki was just as successful in Great Britain as he was in the US.  He also was becoming more militant, and he had a very receptive audience.

Scahill does not get into this at all but it is my understanding that Muslims in the UK tend more toward radical ideas. Many dissidents I think (and by dissidents I mean from all ends of the spectrum) from Arab countries wind up there. A long time ago (10  years maybe?) there was an entire Frontline show on Saudi Arabia dissidents.  Personal story, a friend of mine who came from a Muslim family in India described to me how her brother became much more conservative after a stay in Britain. Like most Indian Muslims my friend and her family, while religious, were fairly mild-mannered which probably has to do with the unique history of Muslims in India. Anyway my friend’s brother, an engineer, fell in with a certain crowd, and next thing her family knew he was talking a lot about religion (and how they should change). It actually made marriage arrangements more difficult for because most female Indian Muslims were not down with the full body coverage, walking behind the husband, and no pictures.

Why is this the case? It is my understanding (translation: not claiming any expertise) that the UK society is more exclusionary; in essence there is more racism. For all the problems in the US, it is the rhetoric that everybody is an immigrant (to some extent), everybody has an equal chance, and our diversity is our strength. This is not exactly true of course but it is the mantra. Most white people completely accept it, and I really think many people of color, especially immigrants, buy in to it to some degree.  It’s a strong narrative. Honestly I think you can see evidence of this by the fact that we have not seen a real “home-grown” terror plot by US Muslims. (I’m not counting the ones that the FBI basically made up.)

While Awlaki was careful not to call for actual violence, his words and sermons came very close. The movie “Dirty Wars”, which I saw a few weeks ago focuses a lot on the Awlaki story. A lot of pictures, a local TV (!) clip of his family (the all-American Muslim family) and extensive interview with his father. And his father describes the shift, from the time when Awaki seem to have real faith that he could be a Muslim in America, and personified the American Dream, to the place where, if in his heart at least, he decided to wage jihad.  Even in his jihad calls however, from what Scahill reports, there was nuance to his criticism. He quotes Thomas Friedman:

. . . the hidden hand of the market cannot survive without the hidden fist. McDonalds’s will never flourish without McDonnell Douglas . . . ” Awlaki continues to describe a “global culture . . . that gives you no choice. Either accept McDonald’s, otherwise McDonnell Douglas will send their F-15s above your head. It is (a) very intolerant culture that cannot coexist with anything else
Awlaki defines Islam, as the only force to take on the “global culture” Awaki’s pitch was that if only Muslims could take over all would be right. While he condemned Christians and Jews even here he was particular:
The important lesson to learn here is never, ever, trust a kuffar (a non-Muslim” . . . Now you might say . . . my coworkers are fabulous people . . . but brothers . . . this person that you know is not the one calling the shots . . . when the Quran talks about the ‘nonbelievers’, it talks about their leaders . . . those who are pulling the strings.

First, that Friedman quote is the most truthful, insightful thing that man has ever said. It does not excuse the enormous amount of crap he has written, but that line is as good as any linking imperialism (i.e. US foreign policy) and capitalism. Absolutely, capitalism needs an army to back it up; there are no US foreign policy entanglements which do not have a corporate component.  As somebody who really believes in equality, in people and religions, I do not believe Christianity is to “blame” for capitalism any more than I “blame” Islam for terrorism. I think that power can corrupt Muslims as well as Christians and you don’t have to look far to see this.

But, no questions there is truth here, substitute “US corporate interests” for “global culture” and there you go. And I find it fascinating that he took the time that, even when discussing the godless heathens (non-Muslims), he took the time to note it was about the power. In spite of his success Awalki returns to Yemen to be with his family.

Reading these passages make me think, again, back to that time post 9-11 and how different things could have been. At the time, I was fairly full of myself, but have to ask what did people do to reach out to American Muslims at that time? I of course did nothing special and I remember stories here and there but was there any serious, political overtures? Maybe there were and I missed them, maybe they would not have been welcomed anyway. It is really a failure of the West, that is supposedly all-inclusive and enlightened that any major group should be so removed from society they would feel called to wage war.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What Part of “My Body” Don’t You Understand, Thoughts on Reproductive Freedom

If you are a woman, a significant part of your existence is focused on your “ladyparts”. This is regardless of whether you plan to use your uterus for its intended function or not, as a woman’s reproductive system is set to the “on” position from roughly ages 12-45, if left on its own.  Even if no sperm makes a visit, you still have to, on a monthly basis, take care of things. So the idea of essential reproductive rights—that is the ability to control one’s own reproductive system—is never far away.
Nevertheless the predominance of these necessary rights changes throughout one’s life-for myself, as I got older, out of college, established in my career, an unintended pregnancy lost the scariness that it had when I was in high school. In high school, even college, it was the worst thing imaginable. When I got married and wanted to have kids I had very different reproductive concerns.
“Reproductive freedom” encompasses much, a 12 year old getting a papillomavirus vaccine, a 19 year old contemplating an abortion, a 25 year old gender-questioning woman, a 28 year Native American woman being encouraged to undergo sterilization (probably by a white doctor) an 18 year old African-American woman sterilized against her will for “lack of intelligence” (again, decided by a white man), a 41 year old considering a hysterectomy and breast removal to avoid cancer, a woman in her 50s contemplating her best treatment for menopause. All of these can fall under the rubric “reproductive rights”, and I would also add women’s childbirth choices and early childhood/infant choices. All of these rights can be covered by one simple rule; a person has right to make her/his health decisions about her/his own body.  A person has the right to research-based medical advice, essential reproductive health care-be it an abortion, homebirth, surgery or no surgery.
This is inherently a women’s issue, or more specifically anybody with a female reproductive system because frankly, the male system is not much, and the only time it *does anything* is when it interacts with the female reproductive system. And once it’s in the female reproductive system that is all. I know an embryo has half male DNA but the ENTIRE birthing process, from prenatal through early infant care, is completely female. It is the female who has to bear the pregnancy, which can have real health consequences, the birth process-which has a higher mortality rate than abortion, and really, the child-rearing process. We can talk all we want about shared parenting, men have come a long way and that’s great for everybody.  But the simple fact is by design the post-natal process, named the “fourth trimester” by some is really about the mother.  To a large extent in most families mothers by choice, do the majority of child-rearing even after the immediate post-natal period. Frankly, I think this is hard-wired to some extent, part of nature’s way of continuing the human race. Women have to choose this, not have it forced on them.
People who claim to be “pro-life” have a rather narrow view of “life”. In their eyes “life” is most precious at the prenatal stage, when arguably, it is not life really at all. “Life” does not extend to the pregnant mother-whether her health is a concern, whether the process to create the thing inside her was by her choice, or that her life with a new child might be impossible if her financial situation is precarious. I heard little outcry regarding the case of Reyna Garcia, who miscarried while working under unsafe-for her pregnancy-conditions. More than 3,700 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the EEOC last year, in spite of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. Because of this continued discrimination, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act was recently reintroduced to address these issues. You’ll be shocked, shocked, to know that the House Republicans, while having time to pass a bill to restrict abortions after 20 weeks, do not have time to pass a bill aimed to protect pregnant women.
Having a child is expensive, and raising a child is expensive. Women who are denied abortions, because they do not have the money or missed the magical 20-week point-of-no-return deadline suffer in terms of health and in terms of financial status. And by financial status I am not talking about a car payment, I’m talking about food, housing. Do you know who the poor people of the world are-they are women and children. Yet “pro-life” politicians are generally the same politicians who want to cut food stamps and limit health care access-either by restricting Medicaid funds and/or limiting Medicaid expansion under the ACA. Again, it’s funny how important that “life” is when it is inside a woman. Once it gets out, not so much.
“Pro-lifers” have no qualms about forcing a child on a woman, and make no mistake when you make contraception education non-existent, contraception, and early abortion alternatives such as plan B or RU486 difficult to get, and/or expensive YOU are forcing a child. This one of the many reasons pro-choice woman simply cannot take “pro-life” people seriously. If you really want to limit abortion it’s not difficult.  You educate young people early; you provide safe, reliable, affordable contraception. If you want women to have babies maybe you could strengthen the “safety net” instead of constantly cutting it. Let’s be clear, these restrictions will only hurt the most vulnerable women. White, wealthy women will always have a doctor to help. They always do.
As somebody with no current reproductive worries I have not been very emotionally invested in this issue until recently, when apparently with no other pressing concerns, the collective legislatures of Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina decided that restricting a woman’s right to her body was necessary. With more than 100,000 people I watched the You Tube stream of a huge crowd demanding to be heard on the right to choose. No matter what happens in Texas, and odds are the anti-abortion bill will pass in some form or another, that kind of organization is incredibly inspiring and will hopefully lead to good things in some form or another.
Why these battles have to be constantly fought is a question those of us pushing reproductive freedom have to ask. I think a part of it, as I alluded to earlier, is broadening the coalition. Freedom of your reproductive system includes many things, including forced sterilization, which has been a larger issue affecting women of color. North Carolina, while seeing fit to punish woman who desire to end pregnancy, have not done justice to the thousands of women sterilized against their will. Addressing health access broadly, and not allowing controversial issues to be isolated, linking reproductive freedom with the many issues it crosses paths with, could this help?
To those of you “pro-lifers” please JUST.STOP.ALREADY. Please freedom-lovers, give us our freedom-nobody has ever explained to me why liberty ends at my uterus. In West Texas where the fertilizer explosion was that leveled the town, there was no fire code, hence no sprinkler system or firm alarms (via @MikeElk). So while safety regulations are too much, apparently there is no end to the restrictions to what a woman can do with her own body. We can’t regulate corporations but uteruses? Yes, yes we can.
As for the “life” question. -I do not question what is inside a pregnant woman is “life”. But yeast is “life”, so is a tree, a mushroom, a cat. We do not treat all form of life the same, and the concept that the mass of differentiated cells inside a woman’s body should preempt that woman who is an independent, living breathing fully formed person  . . . no. You can show me all the dismembered fetuses you want, you can tell me all the Kermit Gosnell stories you want-it does not matter. Because what I see is a women’s choice to protect herself, to maybe even save herself. Every child a wanted child, and every woman’s life is more important then what her body makes. Period.