Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Existing While Brown or Black in America

In light of what happened yesterday in Ferguson, Missouri, and the numerous comments I saw about how the police would never harass or harm anyone who wasn't doing something wrong, etc., etc., I'm reposting a blog I wrote for Writers Who Kill immediately after Michael Brown was killed.

In all the turmoil around #Ferguson, Missouri, right now, I notice the inevitable outcries from parts of the white community that the police wouldn’t shoot and kill Michael Brown for nothing, that he must have brought it on himself in some way by his own lawless behavior. Perhaps. We haven’t had a real investigation yet, and only when a stringent, trustworthy investigation has been made will we know all the facts of the situation. From the facts we do know, however, it looks unlikely that Brown did anything so major that it would have warranted taking his life. But to many white, middle-class people who are never hassled and threatened by police as they move through daily life, it seems that surely Brown and all these other unarmed African American, Latino, and Native men killed by police every year must have brought it on themselves through some fault of their own.

So allow me to tell a little story from my own life. In Kansas City, Missouri, where I live, the police used to be as undisciplined and out of control as the Ferguson and St. Louis police. A crisis finally forced the city to crack down, bring in a strong police chief to rebuild the force, and reorganize the police force around the motto of “Protect and Serve.” It’s not a perfect police force now, of course, but it’s plagued by less racial profiling and unnecessary civilian deaths than most urban forces today.

Back when Kansas City’s force was like the Ferguson and St. Louis departments we’re seeing on the news right now, pointing loaded rifles and screaming obscenities and death threats at unarmed demonstrators and reporters, I lived with my late first husband, Michael Rodriguez. Mike was a decorated veteran of Vietnam, married to me with two little kids, working a white-collar, full-time job as manager of a printing supply company branch, going to college at night, and the most non-violent and non-criminal person anyone could imagine. A fire station stood on the corner of the block where his company offices were, and several of the firefighters who were also Vietnam veterans had made friends with him since this was when no one in this country wanted to hear what these guys had gone through. This fact later saved his life.

 One evening in winter when twilight came early, Mike was the last one out of his office, as usual, since he locked up at night and opened up in the mornings. He found his car’s battery had died and called a cab to come take him home. While he stood outside his own offices, dressed in a business suit, waiting for his cab to arrive, two policemen pulled up, got out of their police cruiser, and started harassing him. They shoved him back and forth between them, called him racial slurs, searched him, and found nothing but his wallet, keys, and a tube of prescription ointment for psoriasis in his pockets. One then told the other, “We could shoot this motherfucker and say we thought that was a gun.” Kansas City police had just shot a fourteen-year-old African American boy three days before, claiming they thought the comb in his pocket was a gun—and they got away with it.

Mike thought he would die on that spot, leaving me a young widow with a baby and a toddler and no way for his kids or anyone to know that he had never done anything to deserve it. His firefighter friends had seen what was happening, however, and came out calling his name and asking what was going on and if he needed help. The cops told them to go away, but the firefighter veterans stood there watching until Mike’s cab came, and he got safely away.

If you talk with people of color, you will hear story after story like this. A friend of mine who is a well-known white mystery writer married to an African American (extremely successful) artist just went out and bought all new dress business suits for her husband who, like most artists, normally wears jeans and T-shirts to work in, in the hopes that this will keep the New York City police from stopping and harassing him as he must travel through her city from home to his workplace and back. He must dress up for the commute, only to change into jeans and T-shirt at work, and then reverse the process to go home. White people don’t face this kind of treatment by law enforcement in their own lives, and it sounds so crazy and unreal to them that they assume people of color are exaggerating or making it up out of whole cloth, understandably, but this kind of harassment, threat, and fear is a part of daily life in communities of color all over this country.

Racism is a fixture of American life, but if allowed to flourish openly and unchecked, it won’t stop with communities of color. With the rising militarization of the police forces of large cities and small towns, I would caution my white friends to learn from our experiences. If this kind of behavior is allowed to continue and grow, it will eventually overflow into the white communities, beginning with poor and working-class communities and eventually moving up the socioeconomic ladder. It’s a matter of power and control, even beyond the matter of race and ethnicity.

Whether we know it or not, all of us in the United States have a vested interest in the Ferguson situation. Americans need to have a thorough, unbiased investigation of the Brown killing first, but then we need a reorganization of the Ferguson and St. Louis police forces and other similar departments, such as New York City, like the one Kansas City went through, and we also need a national discussion of the growing militarization of our police departments, large and small, and what we as citizens want to do about this growing threat.

REPLIES TO COMMENTS because Blogger won't let me comment on my own blog:

Anonymous, thank you! I'm glad this helped you to see a different perspective. It's what I was hoping for. I think the actual bad racists are a small minority. I do think that most white people are sheltered by their own unseen privilege (for which they are not to blame since they didn't ask for it, but from which they have benefited) from seeing the realities people of color live with daily. My experience is that, when they learn what is really going on, many white people join in the fight against racism and for equality.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why I Can’t “Get a Sense of Humor” about Racist Jokes

From my post on The Stiletto Gang today. http://thestilettogang.blogspot.com/

UPDATE: Handler has come out with a real apology that acknowledges the racist content of his remarks and is now matching the next $10,000 donated to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks fundraiser. https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/we-need-diverse-books

I congratulate him on actually dealing with what he did.

Wednesday night, the National Book Awards took place, and a multiple-New-York-Times bestseller and hugely successful white male author of children’s books, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), was the host. During the course of the night, he made several racist jokes, including bemoaning the fact that he hadn’t won a Coretta Scott King Award (for African American children’s book writers or children’s literature showcasing African American life--both categories together make up less than 3% of the field), calling two African American nominees for the award in poetry “probable cause,” and topping off his whole night of micro-aggressions with a major watermelon joke directed at African American writer, Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the award in children’s literature.

Here’s the entire event on C-Span. You’ll find the watermelon joke just after the 40-minute mark.

The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, NPR, and a number of other mainstream news outlets covered the awards the next morning and complimented Handler’s performance as emcee without ever mentioning any of these remarks. Just as the overwhelmingly affluent white audience laughed and applauded.

Not surprisingly, people of color and white people of good conscience were upset by Handler’s behavior at one of the most prestigious book award ceremonies in the United States. Articles and blogs were written. Twitter came alive over it. Finally, Handler apologized on Twitter with the usual non-apology—“my failed attempt at humor.” People rightly asked, “In what world are these things supposed to be funny?”

Then, the defenders came out. Online comment after comment after tweet after Facebook post after blog post of “What’s the big deal?”, “race-baiting,” “Get a sense of humor.” I’m used to them. We all are. Every time someone wealthy, famous, and white (and usually male) says or does something racist or misogynist, the defenders come out in force with these same comments. The comments include many that are much worse and sometimes downright foul, but I won’t detail those here because they’re from real trolls, while I think the comments I have listed are sometimes, at least, from people who genuinely don’t see or understand the racist or misogynistic content of the controversial remarks.

People try to explain why these remarks are offensive. I know I have many times. Usually without success. Perhaps it will help if I spell it out this time, looking at the watermelon joke, which caused the most uproar because Handler dragged it out for several minutes and included Cornell West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama. Woodson is a gifted young writer who has twice before been a finalist for this ultimate award. Winning it should have been a pinnacle point for her entire career. At that moment, this wealthy, successful, white male writer in her own specific field (children’s literature) reminded her publicly that, no matter how much she achieved, she would always be Other and lesser in his and everyone else’s eyes.

When you face these kinds of insults and injuries in little and big ways every day—even if the people who say or do them are truly unaware of the offense (and let’s be honest, they usually know quite well)—it takes a toll on you. Then, if you object, if you try to say, “This is wrong,” others who share the offender’s views tell you not to take it so seriously—“Get a sense of humor.”

I want to turn that back on them. To all those people who think it’s funny to insult and stereotype people of other backgrounds and genders, you get a sense of humor. Learn what’s really funny and not just cruel and embarrassing and referencing for fun traumas that have been inflicted on whole peoples. Grow some intelligence and wit, instead of making watermelon jokes when someone wins one of the highest awards in the American literary world.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ferguson—What Kind of a Nation Do We Choose to Be?

I have been watching events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, the past few days, as has the world. I know that troubled suburb of St. Louis, have a friend who recently moved there, have driven past or through it many times.  Ferguson and St. Louis occupy the northeastern corner of Missouri a straight shot across the state on I-70 from where I live in a similar area of Kansas City in the northwestern corner of the state.

I live on the “wrong” side of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, the poor side, the dark side, of this street that divides this city, racially and socioeconomically. The people in my neighborhood and the neighborhoods around us were suffering severely for at least three years before the economic crisis hit the stock market and was finally declared. It seems we only worry about the economy when it adversely affects the well-off. What does that say about us as a country?

Where I live is similar to Ferguson where Michael Brown was killed, a street with a strip of businesses surrounded by working-class homes on all sides. I know what it’s like to have a SWAT team pull up and cordon off my neighborhood and block my driveway while armored and assault-weapon-armed men sweep through our backyard because of something that happened at a business up on Troost. I can imagine the plight of the people who are being teargassed in their own driveways and yards because they just happen to live where something happened. That’s something I think people forget.  It’s mostly homes around there. Many of those people gathered around the body of Michael Brown when the police came in so hard and heavy that first day with guns and dogs were actually standing in their own or their neighbor’s yards. This is a whole community under siege by its own police force.

When the white men at the Bundy standoff, armed to the teeth, pointed loaded assault weapons at police and threatened them, no one shot them, and no one teargassed them. Apparently, that kind of behavior is saved for people of color in this country.

I remember the riots of the 1960s. More people would do well to remember them. If you’re not old enough or weren’t aware enough when they occurred, google them. And imagine them now, with the population in many cities much larger than it was then, with automatic weapons in the hands of much of the population, as they were not at that time. There is frustration, hopelessness, and anger of that immensity that is building in this country right now.

The riots of the 1960s were a wake-up call for the United States. As a country, we set up programs to deal with the poverty and hopelessness and racism that brought them about—programs that brought more people of color and people from poor backgrounds into the middle class than ever before, programs that brought medical care, nutritional care, education, job training and many other good things to what were essentially bad places to live one’s life.

In recent years, we’ve been dismantling the structure of safety-net services and programs that we set up after those riots, even as racism has become ever more overt and in-your-face in this country. Things have been peaceful through the decades of greed. No one’s been pitching bottles or breaking windows, though poor people and working-class people and people of color and women have been suffering. So we take—and take and take—from the poor and the working class and, now, even the middle class, and give it all to the wealthy and the corporations. We militarize our police forces and allow too many of them to think of the streets on which we live as a war zone in which they have the right to act as if they are an occupying army.  We allow racism, which had been forced underground at least, to rise up and blossom in front of us, on our television sets, in our state legislatures and governor’s mansions, in the United States Congress and Supreme Court. We don’t listen when people protest. The country turns its back.

My husband once knew someone who was writing a dissertation called “Violence Works.”  I’d like to think his friend’s analysis is wrong, but reality is slapping me in the face right now. People trying to peacefully protest a young man’s brutal death, with hands held high in the air, are teargassed and have their lives threatened by a police force that views them as enemy combatants.  If you look at the U.S.’s history, you’ll see plenty of proof of that dissertation’s thesis, as well. Basically, it is when people can’t take it any longer and erupt in violence that we, as a country, wake up and do something to improve the situation. Most of our social improvements have followed that chain of events.

When we wipe out program after program designed to help people pull themselves and their families out of poverty, we are playing with fire. When we ignore the damage the economy sustains from short-sighted greed until the damage spreads to the wealthy—and then provide bailouts only to the powerful—we say something about what kind of country we are and what we value. When we allow wealthy white men to threaten law enforcement officers with loaded weapons with impunity while teargassing unarmed African American mothers and children in or near their own homes, we say something about what kind of country we are and what we value. And that something is sour to the taste and bitter to the heart for a country founded on the ideals this country still claims to hold as its own. Maybe it’s time we took a look at what we truly value versus what we say we value. What kind of a country do we want to be? We are creating the future now.

REPLY TO COMMENTS ( because Blogger):
Sara Sue, thank you. It's terrifying to see this. Everyone should read about all the militarization of police forces in this country and the attitudes their leadership publicly espouse about our neighborhood streets being a war zone. In a time when violent crime of all types has dropped to its lowest levels in decades, they are arming for battle and treating the citizens whose taxes pay their salaries as enemy combatants in an occupied territory.

Mary, thank you for reading it and thinking about it. What we need now is people who will stop reacting in a knee-jerk, visceral way and instead think seriously about these things.

Yes, Reine, and Fox News and their ilk were proclaiming outside agitators in the first hour after Brown's death. I think there are some people there now from both outside and from Ferguson itself who want to provoke conflict. Any time you set up a powder keg someone always seems to want to play the spark. But I know some folks from KC who drove across the state to support friends and relatives who were residents and were demonstrating and being treated abysmally. Someone in power needs to take control of the militarized police and ease back the intensity so negotiations can take place. Unfortunately, a number of drastically bad decisions have made that prospect look dim. When police force Amnesty International observers, who are wearing clearly identified shirts and are trying to leave with hands held high to show they're harmless after being told to leave or be arrested, to kneel on the ground for no reason other than to exert power, when a policemen aims his rifle at people with hands in the air and with obscenities threatens to kill them, etc., unfortunately etc., chances of peaceful outcomes look distant and unlikely.