Saturday, January 17, 2015

MLK D.A.R.E – Why I Will Be Marching On Monday

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

Am I Crazy or What? Reflections from a Trip to a Gun Show on the Day Two Officers Died

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 a
weapon 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. Bryans 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]