Friday, April 10, 2015
Many people have found the writings of Ann Lamott to be insightful, humorous, irreverent yet inspiring. This past month has been extremely stressful for me, and recently a friend sent me this Ann Lamott reflection on the eve of her 61st birthday. As one who will be 61 for a few more months I found these words remarkably relevant. However, I suspect that one could find them helpful at 21, 31, 91 or any age. So let me share these words from Ann Lamott's Facebook page. I find them all helpful at this time, but especially #2 and #4. Enjoy.
I am going to be 61 years old in 48 hours. Wow. I thought I was only forty-seven, but looking over the paperwork, I see that I was born in 1954. My inside self does not have an age, although can't help mentioning as an aside that it might have been useful had I not followed the Skin Care rules of the sixties, ie to get as much sun as possible, while slathered in baby oil. (My sober friend Paul O said, at eighty, that he felt like a young man who had something wrong with him.). Anyway, I thought I might take the opportunity to write down every single thing I know, as of today.
1. All truth is a paradox. Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It has been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It is so hard and weird that we wonder if we are being punked. And it filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.
2. Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.
3. There is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of last way, unless you are waiting for an organ. You can't buy, achieve, or date it. This is the most horrible truth.
4. Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe. So try not to compare your insides to their outsides. Also, you can't save, fix or rescue any of them, or get any of them sober. But radical self-care is quantum, and radiates out into the atmosphere, like a little fresh air. It is a huge gift to the world. When people respond by saying, "Well, isn't she full of herself," smile obliquely, like Mona Lisa, and make both of you a nice cup of tea.
5. Chocolate with 70% cacao is not actually a food. It's best use is as bait in snake traps.
6. Writing: shitty first drafts. Butt in chair. Just do it. You own everything that happened to you. You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart--your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it's why you were born.
7. Publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and sometimes nearly-evil men I have known were all writers who'd had bestsellers. Yet, it is also a miracle to get your work published (see #1.). Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesey holes. It won't, it can't. But writing can. So can singing.
8. Families; hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be. (See #1 again.) At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal, remember that in half of all cases, it's a miracle that this annoying person even lived. Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants. When Blake said that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love, he knew that your family would be an intimate part of this, even as you want to run screaming for your cute little life. But that you are up to it. You can do it, Cinderellie. You will be amazed.
9. Food; try to do a little better.
10. Grace: Spiritual WD-40. Water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Dick Cheney and me exactly as much as He or She loves your grandchild. Go figure. The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and our world. To summon grace, say, "Help!" And then buckle up. Grace won't look like Casper the Friendly Ghost; but the phone will ring, or the mail will come, and then against all odds, you will get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness, even if you are sick of me saying it.
11. God; Goodnesss, Love energy, the Divine, a loving animating intelligence, the Cosmic Muffin. You will worship and serve something, so like St. Bob said, you gotta choose. You can play on our side, or Bill Maher's and Franklin Graham's. Emerson said that the happiest person on earth is the one who learns from nature the lessons of worship. So go outside a lot, and look up. My pastor says you can trap bees on the floor of a Mason jar without a lid, because they don't look up. If they did, they could fly to freedom.
11. Faith: Paul Tillich said the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. If I could say one thing to our little Tea Party friends, it would be this. Fundamentalism, in all its forms, is 90% of the reason the world is so terrifying. 3% is the existence of snakes. The love of our incredible dogs and cats is the closest most of us will come, on this side of eternity, to knowing the direct love of God; although cats can be so bitter, which is not the god part: the crazy Love is. Also, "Figure it out" is not a good slogan.
12. Jesus; Jesus would have even loved horrible, mealy-mouth self-obsessed you, as if you were the only person on earth. But He would hope that you would perhaps pull yourself together just the tiniest, tiniest bit--maybe have a little something to eat, and a nap.
13. Exercise: If you want to have a good life after you have grown a little less young, you must walk almost every day. There is no way around this. If you are in a wheelchair, you must do chair exercises. Every single doctor on earth will tell you this, so don't go by what I say.
14. Death; wow. So f-ing hard to bear, when the few people you cannot live without die. You will never get over these losses, and are not supposed to. We Christians like to think death is a major change of address, but in any case, the person will live fully again in your heart, at some point, and make you smile at the MOST inappropriate times. But their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you. All truth is a paradox. Grief, friends, time and tears will heal you. Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate you and the ground on which you walk. The first thing God says to Moses is, "Take off your shoes." We are on holy ground. Hard to believe, but the truest thing I know.
I think that's it, everything I know. I wish I had shoe-horned in what E.L. Doctorow said about writing: "It's like driving at night with the headlights on. You can only see a little aways ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way." I love that, because it's teue about everything we try. I wish I had slipped in what Ram Das said, that when all is said and done, we're just all walking each other home. Oh, well, another time. God bless you all good.
Saturday, April 04, 2015
Today on this Holy Saturday, the day between the death of Jesus on a rough Roman cross and the glorious celebration of his rising from death to new Life and Hope, we also remember the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. The night before he had risen from his sick bed fighting his own frustration and depression at the struggle in the movement for civil rights and economic justice to deliver his final sermon. He went to a church called Mason Temple in midst of a wind and rain storm where a filled-to-overflowing crowd awaited his message. In that sermon he called people to act in solidarity with the sanitation workers who were protesting their deplorable working conditions. He reminded people of the struggles that led to thehard fought victories that had been waged and won in cities throughout the South. Then, he ended by calling to mind the image of Moses who saw the Promised Land to which he had been leading people but which he did not enter saying
“…I’ve been to the mountaintop….And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land ….”
Dr. King did not see his vision fulfilled as he was killed the next day while joking with friends on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. He did not reach the Promised Land, nor have we. While we did not necessarily need to be reminded of it, recent events in Ferguson, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement have made clear that we have not yet arrived. We are still striving, praying, and pushing toward that vision.
Thus, it seems wholly appropriate that the anniversary of his death would fall this year on Holy Saturday, a day set between the reality of suffering and the fulfillment of hope. It is wholly appropriate that his death would fall on the first full day of Passover, that event which marks the beginning of the Hebrew people’s journey to the Promised Land to which Dr. King alluded. It seems wholly appropriate that today thousands will march in Philadelphia (and I suspect elsewhere) for economic justice, to advocate that the minimum wage be raised to $15 per hour. It is wholly appropriate for this is a holy day, a day set apart for remembering and recommitting to the journey where Dr. King’s vision, and the dream of millions that racial and economic justice can be achieved.
Saturday, March 28, 2015
Recently, as a belated Christmas present, a friend gave me a Bullshit (BS) Button. Similar to the Staples patented Easy Button, this button says “Bullshit” in about five different ways. Now I am not a person who curses a lot. Yes, an occasional “damn” does come out, and I do reserve the right to call someone who cuts me off on the highway an “a**hole,” but rarely do I use profanity. However, there are times when a good swear word is the only thing that is appropriate to say. The BS button is a tool for just such special moments --- like the state of Indiana’s recent passage of a law that allows business owners to discriminate against LGBT folks on the basis of religious beliefs or convictions. In essence the bill states that if a business owner is charged with discrimination, a legitimate defense of such an action is his/her religious belief. While the bill does not specifically mention gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered folks, the intent of the bill (much like the HobbyLobby decision of the Supreme Court last summer) is to justify discrimination against LGBT folks on religious grounds.
Criticism has been swift and strong from the business community, including the CEO of Apple who is openly gay, and the NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis and will hold its National Basketball championship there next week. Even those businesses that choose not to discriminate will be hurt by those that do, so the bill makes no sense from a business perspective. Moreover, one has to wonder about the logistics of enforcing an anti-gay policy (“How will you be paying for that Sir? Cash or credit? Gay or straight?”). But for me the issue comes down to a simple issue of justice. In the same way not allowing Black people to eat at lunch counters in the 1960’s or requiring poor White and Black voters to take special literacy tests before they could vote I the 50’s and 60’s, such bill is just plain wrong. As Martin Luther King makes clear in his “Letter from a Birmingham jail” there are just and unjust laws; this one is unjust. It deserves a push of the BS button.
However, I realize that the impact of this recent development hits perilously close to home and that is why it bothers me so much. While my local church, West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship, is open and fully affirming of LGBT folks in all aspects of church life, the Mennonite denomination of which we are a part is in a “discernment period” over whether or not to take a stand for or against same sex relationships across the denomination, and whether churches like mine that have taken an affirming stand should be allowed to stay in the denomination. Even closer to home, my employer, Eastern University, a faith-based institution historically related to the American Baptist Churches USA, has become engaged a process of learning and discussion after the president of the university joined the heads of several other Christian colleges and universities signed a letter to President Obama requesting that faith-based schools be allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in its hiring practices on the basis of the separation of church and state. When news of the president’s action became public, the reaction from many alumni and faculty was swift and strong, and caused the president to call for a time of discussion. I am serving on a task force set up to organize and guide the learning and discussion process.
Those who want to somehow restrict the presence and/or behavior of LGBT folks in these situations seek to frame the discussion as a moral issue based on fidelity to certain Biblical texts and church tradition. However, for me the flimsy Biblical evidence (which is clearly rooted in ancient beliefs about human anatomy and culture) is far outweighed by the Biblical call to love all people and to seek justice on behalf of those who are marginalized or oppressed. More than that, the impulse to discriminate denies the contributions of LGBT folks (open or closeted) to the church and society in general. As for church tradition, anyone reading church history knows that many times the church has gotten it wrong on a host of issues (war, racism, anti-Semitism, slavery, women, child abuse, etc.), and that this too is one of those times. Basing one’s prejudices against LGBT folks on the basis of the Bible, church tradition or the separation of church and state is….. well, I am tempted to hit the BS button.
There have been some denominations like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and
Recently, David Gushee, a Christian ethicist from Mercer University spoke at Eastern and contended that within church circles, we are living in “a moment of transformative encounters with God and people leading to paradigm shifts” that in the next 15 years will lead to greater openness in the Christian church to LGBT folks. I hope he is correct. However, as I look at what happened in Indiana and listen to the tired moral arguments seeking to justify discrimination, I must counter that this is not an issue of morality but of justice. And amidst these internal Christian debate, while I have resisted to this point, I must admit at times I am tempted push the BS button.
Saturday, March 07, 2015
Today (March 7) thousands of people, including several members of Congress and President Obama, have gathered in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, in which thousands of courageous individuals marched 50 miles demanding Voting Rights for Black people in Alabama. On this day 50 years ago a much younger John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette led a group of about 600 folks lined up two by two over the Edmund Pettis Bridge leading out of Selma. Before they could even cross the bridge, they were met by a phalanx of
While anyone who has seen the recent movie “Selma” knows the outline I just shared, there is so much more to the story, then and now. Eighteen months ago , while on a Civil Rights bus tour led by Dr. Todd Allen, I was in Selma and met Rev. Fredrick Reese, a pastor, school teacher and local organizer, who had been leading marches demanding the right to vote to the Selma City Hall for years before it came to national attention. Our tour through Selma was led Mrs. Joanne Bland, who when she was 14 years old joined hundreds of other young people who march to the court house demanding their parents’ right to vote.We saw Brown Chapel where people gathered as they prepared to march on Bloody Sunday. We walked over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, drove the 50 miles between Selma and Montgomery, and stood in front of the state capital in Montgomery where Dr. King proclaimed:
I know you are asking today “How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long because truth pressed to earth will rise again.
How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, because you will reap what you sow.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Five months later the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, assuring all people, regardless of race, the right to vote.
determined) telling the stories of White people in U.S. history who worked alongside People of Color
for racial justice. Two of the stories I have written involve Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, two of the hundreds of White people who joined their Black brothers and sisters in Selma. During the evening following King’s stirring Montgomery speech, Viola Liuzzo was killed by members of the KKK as she was driving between Selma and Montgomery after having driven some marchers back to Selma so they could begin their trek home. On our trip to Selma, we also paused at a memorial to Viola Liuzzo, which was erected at the spot where her car was driven off the road and she died. Having spent weeks learning and writing her story, for me pausing at the monument was a moving and solemn moment.
In my research I also reviewed the story of Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister who was beaten by who was beaten by some angry White thugs before the march began. In a recent New York Times article, Rev Clark Olsen, who was with James Reeb the night of his death, and who also was beaten but survived, shared his reflections of that night and of the march itself. Rev Olsen struggled for years with “survivor’s guilt, ” but also recognized that racism was even at work in the way the country, and especially President Johnson, responded to Reeb’s death. While the march was precipitated by the death of a Black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, it took the death of a White man, James Reeb, to get the nation as a whole to act. Following Jackson’s death, there was no national media coverage, but Reeb’s death was front page news, and precipitated marches all over the country and over fifty phone calls to the White House demanding the president act in some way. Shortly after Reeb’s death, President Johnson went before Congress to propose the passing of the Voting Rights Act. In his speech he mentioned Rev. Reeb, but not Mr. Jackson.
Many Black activists today are rightly critical of White activists who use their White privilege to call attention to their efforts to fight racism. Despite the legitimacy of this charge, as a White person at times I have found that privilege is thrust upon me without my consent or knowledge. So too James Reeb; he did not ask for this attention, nor did Viola Liuzzo, but unfortunately it took their deaths to wake White people across the nation to the horrors of racism. Unfortunately, not much has changed in fifty years. The “Black Lives Matter” movement that has emerged following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has come about because just as Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death was not valued as much as James Reeb’s, so too the deaths of young Black men today too often don’t spawn the outrage that the death of White folks do.
The march from Selma to Montgomery addressed issues that are still as relevant in 2015 as they were in 1965. Like in Selma, today there are thousands of ordinary people working and marching for racial justice. Like in Selma, today there are public officials who need to be confronted with policies and laws that dehumanize People of Color. Like in Selma, today the media places higher value on White lives than Black lives. Like in Selma, today the struggle continues, as we trust in Dr. King’s vision that “the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice.”
[Photos by the author and from Google images]
Thursday, February 12, 2015
Last night I attended a community meeting at Catalyst for Change Church in West Philadelphia entitled “Philadelphia After Ferguson: A Meeting to Discuss Policing, Politics and Perception”. An impressive group of leaders including representatives of several activist groups, an editor for the Philadelphia Daily News, and representatives of the SEPTA police and the Philadelphia police Department made up a panel that was supposed to engage one another and the crowd in a dialogue. However, it quickly became evident that the event should have been entitled, “Philadelphia’s Own Ferguson: The Case of Brandon Tate Brown.”
Brandon Tate Brown was a 26 year old Black man who was shot by a police officer in the head on Dec 15, 2014. The name of the officer involved has not yet been released nor a copy of a video that was taken of the incident. Brown’s mother, Tanya Brown Dickerson, spoke to the packed sanctuary of several hundred people about the death of her son, and described the ordeal she went through, even trying to find out what had happened to him. She told how throughout the night she called her son’s cell phone and did not learn of his death until it was reported on the news the next morning. She asked for information about the officer who killed her son and a copy of a videotape that was taken of the incident.
Then the moderator and media personality Chris Norris, instructed the crowd that the proceedings would follow a question and answer format designed to encourage dialogue among the panelists and the gathered crowd. However, almost immediately a group of Tanya Dickerson’s supporters began demanding that Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel “release the tape” and the name of the officer. Bethel responded in bureaucratic-ese saying the “investigation was ongoing.” He apologized to Ms. Dickerson that her son’s death had not been reported directly to her by the police (instead of the morning news), but beyond that made no promises to meet her requests. This only enraged her supporters more, and what was supposed to be a “discussion” turned into a shouting match.
As the event continued, the embedded racism in both the conduct of the police and the media became clear. While the name of the officer is being protected by the police department and the police union, Brandon Tate’s name and past criminal record were in the news even before his mother knew he had been shot. While police officers are able to hide behind the “blue code’ where no one reports a corrupt officer, community members can be arrested for obstruction of justice if they don’t “snitch” on a neighbor who has committed a crime. Kelvyn Anderson, president of the Police Advisory Board, a community group supposedly established to review such incidents, has gotten no information and told how it took over a year to get a meeting with the Police Commissioner when he first was hired. Thus the anger and frustration of the mostly Black crowd was palpable and understandable.
Yet I also don’t think much of anything productive was accomplished. There was a lot more shouting than listening, with members of the Brown advocacy group shouting over panelists even when they agreed with them. Moreover, the organizers of the event either were unable or unwilling to rein in the proceedings and abide by the very ground rules they had set. Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME and a leader in POWER, at one point compared the event to the SRC meetings where people come and vent and nothing changes. People who supposedly were in support of each other’s positions were interrupting and shouting over one another. After nearly two hours, the pastor of Catalyst for Change, called the meeting to a close, and surprisingly everyone abided by his call for a moment of silence in memory of victims like Brandon Tate Brown, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others. Then the meeting ended and I doubt anyone went home any wiser or feeling heard or satisfied.
While the process was supposed to be a question and answer dialogue, I was struck by how few people actually knew how to ask good questions. Most of the questions asked were rhetorical; that is, they were statements disguised as questions, and even when someone tried to address a question, there was no willingness to hear anything other than the answer the questioner wanted, which in most cases were details about the Brandon Tate Brown case the police were not willing to release. As a result, instead of engendering greater understanding, the proceedings hardened people’s positions and raised defensiveness and distrust.
As one of the few White people in the room who was not a reporter or a police officer, I listened and watched. I sat next to a young East Asian man from the neighborhood, who at one point asked me if I thought he should try to speak; I rolled my eyes with a “good luck.” Several others tried to get a chance at the mike and also went unheard.The few who were able to speak pointed out that the local community had a responsibility as well, and that depending on politicians to address all problems was shirking their own responsibility. Thus, I think there were far more perspectives present than the few that made themselves heard, and that was unfortunate.
I have thought and written a lot about what it means to be a White ally in recent years, and as I sat there last night, I wondered what it meant to be a White ally in that context. In that contentious setting my role as an ally was very unclear. The injustice is real, and the anger, frustration, grief and fear many Black people hold in many neighborhoods are understandable and real. As one of the police officers on the panel acknowledged, while violent crime has gone down over the last several years, mistrust of the police has sky-rocketed. Last night that mistrust was evident, and to be honest I don’t know how they can get it back if “Philadelphia After Ferguson” is any indication.
[Pictures taken by the author; and Philly.com)
Saturday, January 17, 2015
On Monday, January 19 POWER, the interfaith social justice organization of which I am a part, along with several other social justice and labor organizations have organized a march called MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment. The march will focus on racial justice in three areas: education, employment and criminal justice. We will be demanding a fair and full funding formula for public education and local control of our school board (which has been under partial state control since 2001); we will be demanding a raise in the minimum wage to $15/hour and the right to form unions; and we will be calling for an independent citizens review board to work with the police and an end to “stop and frisk” tactics used by police. We are expecting at least 10,000 people from across the metropolitan area to participate. I intend to be one of them, and those of you who live near or in the city, I urge you to be there too.
This march is an extension of the many actions that have occurred over the past couple months since the decisions to not indict in the highly publicized Ferguson and Staten Island cases. However, this march also marks the coming together of several organizations that have been working for a much longer time on their own campaigns and that recognize we share the same struggle for equity and fairness for all, just in different arenas. Further it recognizes that there is an ongoing process of dehumanization against poor people and people of color occurring in this country, and that the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not isolated events, but symptomatic of a deep and pernicious ongoing process of injustice. Furthermore the march recognizes the deep divides between the privileged and the oppressed, the haves and the have-nots. As the “Call to Conscience” statement written for the march states:
“Philadelphia is more divided along race, class and gender lines than at any time in recent memory. We are two cities, one of privilege and wealth, the other of poverty, police brutality, low and poverty wages, collapsed schools and collapsing neighborhoods.”
The march also recognizes that the memory of Dr. King itself has itself been sanitized, in that we remember him only as a great servant of oppressed people. However, as the recent movie "Selma" so clearly depicts, Dr. King was also a modern day prophet whose words not only challenged the powers of his time, but speak to the powers of our era as well. As the “Call to Conscience” also says:
“It is time to break the silence about what Dr. King called the triple evils: racism, poverty and militarism. These forms of violence, indeed terror, exist in a vicious cycle, deteriorating hope, progress and opportunity, as a result of humankind's depravity toward its own.”
I am among those who are privileged racially, educationally and economically for whom this society “works” in terms of more than providing for my basic needs. However, over 40 years ago I first gained a glimpse of racial injustice as I walked the segregated streets of Durham, NC where I was attending college. Since that time I have sought to apply my mind, my heart and most importantly my body in working for the beloved community about which Dr. King spoke so eloquently. Though I am continually reminded I can choose NOT to care and be involved, over those 40+ years it no longer feels or seems like a choice I could ever make. I have developed friendships and heard stories of people who have suffered under the racial inequities that our society’s institutions propagate. These stories and relationships have worked their way into my soul such that I see their liberation as part of my own.
However altruistic and noble this may sound, there is a more selfish reason I am going. At a recent anti-racism training sponsored by POWER, I learned about a Zulu greeting that in English means “I see you.” And the response that is given is “Then I am here.” In the context of the workshop, this greeting was used to illustrate that some people in our society are not seen, that their needs and desires are invisible when it comes public policies regarding education, health care, employment, criminal justice, housing and the like. However, as I have reflected on that phrase, I have taken it also to mean something very personal for myself.
Over the years I have attended many trainings on anti-racism and have involved myself in organizations headed by people of color working on reconciliation and justice issues. However, because I look like the middle class, white male that I am, many times I have been challenged by people of color for my lack of empathy and understanding, and criticized for actions and decisions that people who look like me have done. In my mind I understand why this is so. Despite the election of a Black president, and the modest advances by people of color in corporate and public institutions, our society is still largely dominated and run by White guys like me. Furthermore, often the women and people of color who do get to those positions of power must play by the White man’s rules in order to get there. For instance, many, including me, have been critical of Pres. Obama for not speaking about more forcefully and consistently on racial issues, but could he have gotten to where he is, if he had? Conventional wisdom would suggest not.
So I get it – White guys who look like me and the institutions they run, are responsible for the inequities that exist – not solely, but largely. But I am not one of “those guys”. I am an ally and in every way I can think of I try to be an ally in solidarity with those who struggle against injustice. So, in a very selfish way, I am marching Monday, because I want to be “seen” as an ally and not a perpetrator of injustice.
Author Parker Palmer, recently said in an interview on a podcast I heard that the most radical thing we can do is to show up with everything and as everything that we are. That is what I intend to do. I am deeply aware of my racist tendencies and behavior patterns, and the privileges I enjoy, and the fact that I am ignorant of other things I do that perpetrate the racism I abhor. I am all those things, and as that person I am going to show up and march with others Black, White, Latino, Asian and Native American and by our presence seek to be and work for the beloved community for which we all long.
If you are able, I hope you will join me.
Thursday, January 08, 2015
On the Saturday before Christmas, Bryan Miller and I attended the Philadelphia Gun Show in Oaks, PA. Bryan is the executive director of Heeding God's Call (HGC), a faith-based organization dedicated to gun violence prevention. A major focus of HGC's work is to attempt to influence gun shop owners to sign a code of conduct, which if enacted can reduce the practice of straw purchasing, a process by which legally purchased guns find their way to the illegal gun market. Illegal guns are almost always guns used in violent crimes committed in communities.
However, we did not attend this particular gun show to call attention to our cause but rather to learn a bit about the gun culture that continually resists any common sense efforts to change laws and adopt policies that would help reduce the presence of illegal guns used in violent crimes in our communities. I asked Bryan to go with me because of his vast knowledge of guns and gun culture from his 20+ years as a leader in the gun violence prevention movement. To say the least our experience at the Philadelphia Gun Show was both illuminating and chilling.
As we walked into the convention center, we were met by two police officers who were checking to make sure that we were not bringing loaded weapons into the facility. When I said "We have no weapons" one of the officers quipped: "Well make sure you come out with some!" I found this to be a jarring reminder of how deeply guns are embedded in our culture, and a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Imagine a building the size of two football fields with long tables running the length of the field. Then picture that on those tables laid side by side are every kind of firearm imaginable: tiny handguns, pistols of all shapes, automatic rifles, double-barreled shotguns, antique rifles and even high powered military style machine guns and rifles. This is what we encountered as we entered the convention hall. Now imagine that the aisles between the tables are jammed with white males from ages 10-75. There were very few women, and most were behind concession tables, and out of the thousands of people we passed while we were there, I only noticed two persons of color. As two middle aged white guys in blue jeans and baseball caps, Bryan and I fit right in. Even so, I felt like I had entered a strange space, where everyone looked like me but spoke and thought in an entirely different language. I understood the words, but they made no sense to me.
We mostly just walked, looked, and asked the vendors about their wares. Occasionally I picked up aweapon and held it in my hand. I was surprised by the weight; these were not the toys of my youth when we played cops and robbers. We came across guns colored pink, a clear effort to attract the female customer, an apparently growing clientele for the gun industry. In addition to guns there were tables dedicated to other accessories including targets with life size replicas of various kinds of haunting figures (thugs, terrorists, thieves), hunting and military apparel, ammunition and books. In the middle of one section was located a booth, advertising itself as the Tea Party filled anti-Obama, anti-liberal and pro-gun propaganda and bumper stickers. However, the most disturbing was a sniper rifle we saw, which had the capacity and accuracy to knock out the side of a building from several thousand feet (see this gun at the top of the page). All of this was on sale for those who had the cash
and could pass the minimal criminal background check.
While I did not see or hear anything that was overtly racist, the clientele was at least 95% white males. I can't imagine that there would too many people of color who would feel comfortable in a setting where there were thousands of white guys with guns.for three weeks . Furthermore, there was nothing I heard or saw that indicated any awareness or empathy for the demonstrations that had been going on since the grand jury non-decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. Moreover, there was a sense in which what we were experiencing was entirely normal for those gathered there, and that any effort to engage folks in a conversation about responsible gun legislation to reduce gun violence would not be tolerated. I kiddingly said told Bryan that we should set up our Heeding God's Call booth right across from the NRA Recruiting booth. Bryan’s only response was to point out that the location I had indicated was close to the exit, which we would need when we got run out.
After about an hour we had taken in all we could stomach and headed home. When I expressed interest in visiting a future gun show, Bryan told me I was on my own from then on. I get it; he has suffered the loss of a brother to gun violence and has been the object of voluminous hate mail from pro-gun folks. To even go one time was a personal sacrifice and a gesture of friendship. He has no need to see any more than he has.
After dropping Bryan off I thought my gun experience for the day was done, but I was mistaken. That very afternoon two NYPD police officers were murdered by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who claimed his action was in retaliation for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. As I watched the news that evening, I was reminded yet again that no one, not even armed and trained police officers, are immune from gun violence. News commentators and op-ed pieces focused on the connections to the post Ferguson/Garner demonstrations, and conservative commentators such as Fox News sought to place the blame for the murders on NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio, Rev. Al Sharpton, Atty. General Eric Holder and President Obama, even though each of them had repeatedly and consistently condemned any acts of violence during the demonstrations.
Yet, no one asked about the gun that was used. It was as if violence and the presence of a gun in the hands of troubled young killer were givens. Two innocent men, who happened to be police officers, died because we as a culture have failed to fully question those givens. A few days later the NY Times reported that the gun in fact was purchased illegally in Atlanta, GA thru a straw purchasing process. Laws regulating the purchase of guns in Georgia are far more lax than in New York, so it makes sense that he would not have gotten the gun in New York. Pro-gun advocates take incidents like this as justification for people becoming more fully armed; i.e. to protect themselves. That logic goes out the window when we remember that the deceased officers were armed and trained. Perhaps we need to reframe the issue and ask why a gun would be so available to commit such a heinous act.
It was an interesting juxtaposition to experience in one day: a gun show celebrating our gun-crazed culture and the deadly reality of that culture's effect on human life. I have refrained until now from writing about this day partly to allow the funerals of the two officers to take place. However I have also waited because I have been trying to make sense of why we continue to think we can literally shoot our way out of gun violence. Many conservative critics and law enforcement organizations want to pin the blame on the post-Ferguson demonstrations against police brutality (and obviously that played a part in the killer's mind), but in my mind such discussion deflects attention from the larger cultural mentality we have that the way to resolve tensions is by resorting to violence, especially with firearms.
As I have gotten older, I have come to trust my instincts, such that one principle I have adopted is "If something looks crazy, feels crazy, sounds crazy, it is probably crazy." Our inability as a nation to constructively address our fascination, even addiction, to guns and violence seems crazy to me. Yet my visit to the gun show soberingly reminds me that there are many people, especially white guys who look like me, who think I'm the crazy one for even considering such things.
So I am caused to wonder....Am I crazy or is this whole scenario a little bit too insane?
[Pictures by Drick Boyd]