Apr 13, 2018 - Physical Ed    No Comments

Still Shocking

CONTENT WARNING: physical abuse and torture

GED device like the ones used by the Rotenberg Center.

On Thursday, April 24, 2014, the FDA held a hearing to decide whether it’s okay to shock autistic people into submission. They held another hearing in 2016. It’s 2018 now, and the shocks haven’t stopped.

The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center In Canton, MA administers strong electrical shocks (60 volts and 15 milliamps) as part of its “aversive therapy” to prevent students from self-harm and aggression, though in reality, records show that they’re applied for as little as blowing spit bubbles or standing up. Children as young as nine years old receive this torture, which Dr. Ivar Lovaas saw as a logical extension of his ABA therapy, which many autistic people already consider a form of torture.

Still shot of video showing Andre McCollins being shocked.

The Center has been subject to a number of scandals, including the deaths of several patients in the 1980s and ‘90s. In June 2012, videotape was released to the media, showing JRC student Andre McCollins being restrained for over seven hours. In that time, he was shocked 31 times for infractions such as “tensing his body and yelling.” JRC spokespeople maintained that it was part of his court-approved treatment plan, but it left him hospitalized in a catatonic state for five and a half weeks. The UN later ruled that the incident fit their definition of torture.

The JRC claims that aversive therapy produces marked behavior modification. They maintain that, “Without the treatment program at JRC, these children and adults would be condemned to lives of pain by self-inflicted mutilation, psychotropic drugs, isolation, restraint and institutionalization—or even death.”

Ultimately, the FDA advisory panel recommended that all of these devices be banned. Some suggested that there should be a six-month period for “tapering off,” as if electric shocks are a medicine from which you must withdraw slowly or experience severe side effects. Even this qualified decision was a narrow one: only 60 percent of the panel approved the ban recommendation.

One of the most disturbing parts of the FDA panel in 2014 was the amount of time spent addressing the question of whether autistic people feel pain the same way as “normal” people. After all, if they can with stand repeated 60-volt shocks—sufficient to inflict second-degree burns to their skin—they can hardly have a “human tolerance.”

At the heart of this whole hearing, and indeed the story of the Judge Rotenberg Education Center, there lies a fundamental question: are autistics really human like the “rest of us”? Othering is a necessary component to any system of training or discipline that requires cruel and inhumane punishment. It’s okay to beat that slave, rape that woman, lock away that crazy person, or exterminate that ethnicity—they’re not the same as us. They don’t even have the same feelings that we have. They’re no better than animals; if we could only train them to be like us, we wouldn’t have to apply such tortures.

An ad in the “Ransom Notes” series issued by NYU.

And the problem with the dominant rhetoric surrounding autism right now—promoted relentlessly by groups like Autism $peaks—is that the autistic is silent, incapable of communicating from their self-imposed mental prison. An autistic child is a changeling, a dummy replica of the stolen, beloved, “real” child. This heartless thief leaves grieving families in suspended animation, and it must be combatted like anything that would abduct our children.

An ad by the National Foundation for Autism Research (NFAR).

It stands to reason that anything that might recover a lost child is worth a try. But there’s a fundamental disconnect between the “lost one” and the object on which “therapies” as bizarre and inhumane as bleach enemas, severe emetics, and electrical shocks are applied. The object being treated must stay “other,” or those desperate parents must face the reality that they are physically and mentally torturing their own child.

Except that all of this is a lie. There is no other son, no lost daughter—the children in front of us are real and human. They can communicate, and they can most certainly feel. They will not fare that much better in the world if parents or therapists abuse them until they stop flapping their hands or raising their voices. In fact, they’ll do just as poorly as any physically or mentally abused child. Because that’s what they are when treated with restraints, sensory deprivation, and electrical shocks—victims of torture.

It’s offensive that it took a special hearing in 2014 to decide whether administering shocks to human beings was a legitimate form of “education.” It’s infuriating that the FDA felt the need for more hearings in 2016. And it’s utterly disgusting that in 2018, the patients of the Judge Rotenberg Center are still waiting for the torture to end.

What you can do:

Visit the extensive living archive about the Judge Rotenberg Center, compiled and maintained by Lydia X. Z. Brown.

Take action to urge the FDA to finally enforce the ban they recommended in 2014.

Spread the word using the hashtag #StopTheShock.

Feb 23, 2018 - Social Studies    No Comments

Whose Safety?

CONTENT WARNING: school violence, suicide.

They say more guns in school will protect our children. I’m trying to figure out whose children they mean.

Because it sure isn’t black and brown children. We’ve got a list of names that’s way too long of children who are dead because a cop or an armed white guy thought that their skin color is an existential threat. That weapon can’t be taken off, it can’t be countered by good behavior, and they carry it night and day from the moment they’re born. Black children are almost four times more likely to be shot and killed than white children.

It sure isn’t our mentally ill and disabled children. Teachers are inadequately trained to recognize and deal with mental illness, and most training to deal with neurodivergent or disabled kids trades in misconceptions, ignoring the basic rule that every disabled person should be approached with an assumption of competence.

Mentally ill and disabled students already receive a disproportionate amount of attention from school resource officers—18 percent of disabled secondary students nationwide get suspended, versus 10 percent of the non-disabled students. School staff often read escalating emotions as threatening. My own autistic kid got agitated in a class headed up by a substitute teacher. He was taken down to the ground and handcuffed by the school guard, when a few minutes outside of the room to cool down would have achieved the desired effect.

We also know that children as young as five years old can be suicidally depressed and make attempts to kill themselves, often impulsively. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth between ages 5-24. Access to firearms increases the likelihood that a child will attempt suicide; with a gun, they’re much more likely to be successful. In fact, youth are 60 percent more likely to commit suicide with a gun than they were in 2007. How safe are our schools if they increase access to guns for suicidal kids? What kind of horror would it be if “suicide by teacher” became a thing?

And it sure isn’t children who exist where these issues intersect. The majority of US teachers are white women, and implicit bias research shows that, despite training and intention to reach cultural competence, black and brown students are perceived as larger, older, and more aggressive. Add in the unpredictable behavior displayed by mentally ill and disabled students, and the chance of teachers misinterpreting their actions as threatening skyrockets. Disabled students of color are already suspended more often than any other group—1 in 4 for boys, 1 in 5 for girls. Add guns, and the stakes become unbearably high.

In a country where teachers assume the cost of the most basic classroom supplies like books and paper, we’re also increasingly expecting them to lay down their lives in a school shooting scenario. I don’t know a teacher who wouldn’t already do that, to be honest. But in situations where trained, experienced gun users fail to offer a viable defense against a shooter, teachers would be expected to protect the lives of their students as if they were cops or soldiers. That doesn’t even address how law enforcement would react upon entering a school with an active shooter and an array of other people brandishing guns, some of whom could be as young as 22 and of any race or gender.

So again I ask: whose children are safer if we arm teachers? It sure isn’t mine, and it sure isn’t yours.

Jan 4, 2018 - Geography, Psychology    1 Comment

The Year of the Volcano

I left for New Zealand with a conundrum packed in my carry-on: how I could I celebrate the winter solstice my soul needs this time of year in a place where it’d be the summer solstice? At first, I thought Midsummer’s Eve would be the answer, but the short night isn’t deep enough to sink into. Even in the dark, the smell of green things and the fresh sunset would puncture my illusion. My body would unfurl like a leaf in the evening warmth; no curling in to protect my blood-hot heart from the winter chill.

Rangitoto Island, Auckland, New Zealand

Two days before the solstice, I did something that the telling of which still feels blocky and foreign in my mouth: I climbed a volcano. Guarding and menacing the Hauraki Gulf, in the curve of Auckland, stands Rangitoto Island. It’s visible all along the North Shore, a compass point of dark green above the water. Locals like to remind visitors that dormant Rangitoto is overdue, like a spun-out pregnancy.

Rocks and flowering trees on Rangitoto Island

The landscape is both lush and austere: blooming trees and thick foliage growing around fields of hot black volcanic rubble. The higher you climb, the fewer basalt fields there are, and the jungle-like nature arches all around. The massive caldera looks like an Alpine valley.

Rangitoto Island caldera

But as I stood, looking down into that crater, my insight shifted and I saw living fire beneath that quiet forest floor. The rolling, arcing, molten center enfolded me just as the nourishing dark earth did, all in the same place. I felt grounded and explosive. I felt firm and strong and liquid and volatile. I was held in solid rock at the edge of heat so intense it melted both rock and body.

The barrier between these forces may seem stark. But the whole thing—the volcanic core and the blackness of rock and fertile soil—exist to create. The cataclysm that cracked the sea floor with fire and steam raised Rangitoto into being. What destroyed and choked and covered the sun in ash created a point on the surface of this planet that wasn’t there before. And atop that cooling land, rocky and barren, the nutrients that had churned in fire grew a vibrant diversity of plants, a biome that drew the lively creatures that formed the orchestral theme as we climbed. The island breathed in sea water around its porous edges, and filtered the gulf to turquoise clarity.

Another eruption is due. Rangitoto will destroy and create again. The destruction is not malicious; the creation is not joyous. But they will both be powerful and life-changing, no matter how small the event. Until then, the island is a vessel of potential. They call that dormancy, but there is nothing sleepy or restful about Rangitoto. It is patient. It waits. What looks like doing nothing couldn’t be further from the truth.

This is how I will create. The need to be still allows my fiery heart to fill and melt impurities. I cannot produce without this preparation; I am not losing time as I conserve my resources. Making changes that clear away old growth and connections is not cruel or unloving. Transforming stale material and ideas makes me stronger and more authentic. And I have the power to raise the earth and make something this planet has never known before. I am the volcano.

The author with Rangitoto Island

PS: This picture of me and Rangitoto was taken atop another volcano I climbed. I’m a volcano-climbing fool.

Oct 28, 2016 - Political Science    1 Comment

Disabled, Not Disempowered

headbands-masculinas-06

The flop-preventative “sleevie” headband. If you weren’t alive in the ’90s, I can’t help you.

I’ve been an activist since high school. Administrators made a rule that t-shirt sleeve headbands we used to hold back floppy skater hair were the same as hats (and therefore forbidden) when worn by boys. We organized a direct action to have all the girls wear them for one school day, and we delivered a letter to the front office threatening a Title IX suit for gender discrimination.

They reversed the policy.

I’m also a political junkie. I prefer issue politics, which build bridges of common values across otherwise insurmountable obstacles, to electoral politics. But my values compel me work in that arena too.

Here’s my problem, though: I have a chronic pain disorder, as well as various mental health issues, which combine to keep me from being as present physically as I want to be. Marches and rallies, door-knocking and phone-banking, they can all be too much for my health. Missing those things leaves me feeling ineffective and isolated from the people and experiences that contribute to a sense of connection that’s even more of a reward than the actual work.

But there are things that people with physical and mental disabilities can do to contribute meaningfully. Here are some of the ways I try to have an impact with what I’ve got.

disabilityprotest

1) Advocate for disability accommodations in political and activist spaces. There’s a real effort right now to make social justice movements intentionally inclusive. Elders and youth share power and responsibility more evenly. Folks commonly state their pronouns during introductions. Translators are frequently available. But disability issues are often left out of consideration.

So contact campaigns and groups and find out if their meeting places are disability accessible, to make them aware of barriers like stairs and narrow doors (common in churches, which provide cheap locations for large groups). Reach out to protest organizers to request march details so you can participate at the beginning or end locations. Help them devise routes that are safer for low-mobility attendees. Convince them to provide sign language interpreters and crisis support for folks who may be anxious in large crowds or triggered by the presence of aggressive law enforcement or counter-protesters.

2) Share information and messages in social media spaces. Some people brand this as “slacktivism,” but there are countless movements that wouldn’t have the global reach and organizing power they’ve achieved without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr. Share livestreams, amplify hashtags, invite people to events, and aggregate links and facts so people can find centralized information.

3) Volunteer from home. It’s still standard for people to go to a central location to make calls in support of a campaign, but there are plenty of tools out there now that allow people to do the same work from home with a laptop and phone. Even patch-thru phonebanks, one of the most highly effective tools for getting people to take a simple action like send a message to their legislators, can be done from home. If it’s difficult for you to get to an office, ask the campaign to set you up to work at home. Data entry is equally valuable and accessible at home.

4) Raise money for the cause. This one feels impossible sometimes, because disabled people are so often under- or unemployed, or on a fixed income. But we have the same networks of friends, family, and acquaintances, and the values we share with those people can motivate them to donate. Surprisingly often, the only thing that keeps them from doing that is that no one has asked. Explain why you think it’s important, connect it to your shared values so they see their self-interest in it, and ask them for an amount that would be meaningful. Sure, some will say no, and that shouldn’t make you shame or failed. But you can’t know unless you ask, and people will surprise you all the time.

5) Create things. Your contribution to an effort can be measured in time, treasure, and talent. If the first two are difficult because of your physical and financial resources, you need to know that the third is just as valuable. For example, an army moves on its stomachs, as the old saying goes. Campaign workers and volunteers basically live on junk food, pizza, and coffee, and anyone who brings in a crockpot of anything healthy and homemade becomes their favorite person.

Art is just as important. Striking graphics, clever memes, and meaningful signs and banners are essential to the visuals that move people to action. Stories are the most compelling tool we have change hearts and minds on an issue, so write about why these things matter so much to you. And if you’re gifted enough to draw, paint, stitch, or craft objects that others might want, you can accomplish more of #4 with your skills.

Apr 21, 2016 - AV Club    No Comments

Good night, sweet Prince

I went numb from the tips of my toes to the roots of my purple hair today when I saw there’d been a death at Paisley Park.

“It’s a big place,” I told myself. “People in and out of there all the time. Could be anyone.”

But I didn’t really believe it. 2016’s been like that.

I managed to hold it together as I rushed around getting last-minute birthday presents for my big, amazing, ten-year-old Griffin. And I’m determined to be cheerful tonight. My kid deserves that, and more.

But when The Current played the first chord of “Purple Rain,” the tears started rolling down. Purple Rain was the first R-rated movie I ever saw, at the tender age my youngest is turning today. A friend’s family had HBO, so when I slept over, we were determined to watch whatever was on just to feel grown-up. Instead, I sat stunned, thrilled, utterly changed.SVOD-DI-Purple-Rain-DI-to-L10-dupe

Prince was sex before I knew what it was. Not the biology, but the essence of sexuality. The breathless moans. The hitched breath. The sudden, ecstatic screams. They punctuated his songs, created a separate rhythm that scrambled my pulse in ways I couldn’t understand. His liquid dark eyes, casting a look back over his shoulder at you alone, asking if you had the courage to come along for the ride. Pure, tempting transgression on a purple motorcycle. prince-2013

Later, in college, my heart would race to “Darling Nikki” for another reason—we had to skip the track when we played the album in the record store where I worked. The stereo was at the front of the store, and many a time I did a flat-out sprint through the store to hit fast-forward before the line Tipper Gore never liked. My pulse speeds up in the first three bars to this day.

Prince was queer before I knew what it was. I sang along quite innocently as he breathed, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something you can never understand.” And to be honest, I didn’t question it. His whole self was confirmation of that statement. My autistic perseveration as a child was history, and I especially enjoyed historical fashion. Prince was a museum of styles on parade. He had it all: Marie Antoinette’s beauty mark, Cleopatra’s kohl liner, Lord Byron’s carelessly tumbling curls, Cab Calloway’s finger waves, George III’s frothy lace jabot. Prince displayed a fearless feast of gendered signifiers, embracing and rejecting them all at the same time, sparing no one the intense focus of his seduction.1f739fa7955c0f4ab96c522841adc3c4

Prince was the musical descendant of ancestors before I knew them. You name it: Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Otis Redding. Now that I’ve heard so many more seminal black artists, the more I hear their riffs and imprints. And now there are the artists who bear his stamp: Lenny Kravitz, Janelle Monaè, Kendrick Lamar, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and so many more. The genealogy is lavishly rich above and below. Prince even met the gold standard of performers in my book: he appeared on the Muppets. Okay, well, Muppets Tonight, but he wrote one of my favorite of his songs for that appearance (starts at 6:13).

It’s been a dream of mine, since we moved to Minnesota, that maybe one day I’d get to see Prince perform in person. As Paisley Park started to light up for late- and little-announced dance parties—some of which turned into impromptu concerts—I watched my inbox for alerts. Some were more than my body could handle; an 11pm start is tough even with maximum spoons. Others were more than my bank account could handle; $50 doesn’t seem like much, but it is to us.

And, of course, I thought I had time. We all did.

A woman with short purple hair and a black t-shirt with a cartoon of Prince sits with her head bowed.Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet Prince, 

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! 

~Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, Lines 359-360

 

Mar 11, 2016 - Physical Ed    5 Comments

This Belly

 

A white, fat, woman's belly

This belly is fat, and it’s mine. I own it. I earned it.

And I hate it.

I feel it around me like sandbags as I walk and sit and lie down. It oozes over my waistband. It forms doughy rolls inside my shirt. It pushes clumps of flesh into folds on my back. It rubs my skin against itself until constellations of tiny skintags form in protest. I look at tintype photos of the distortion of bone and organ caused by Victorian corseting, and I calculate how breathless I could stand to be to force that belly out of sight.

 

L0038404 Illustrations to denounce the crimes of the corset Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org 2 Illustrations to denounce the crimes of the corset and how it cripples and restricts the bodily organs in women. Engraving 1908 Published: - Printed: 10th October 1908 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

This belly comes from my ancestors. I was never cuddled by skinny, bony mothers or grandmothers. All my people are soft and jolly and restful to exhausted children at the end of a day’s play. That gentle flesh came from Ireland’s oatmeal and Poland’s potatoes. It weathered diet candy chews and scales and low-fat, no-fat endurance tests—this softness is stronger than them all.

My mother never said a kind word about her body in my entire life. When I admired her beauty-queen crown, she told me how her thick ankles almost cost her the prize. When I asked her how she danced to the music she taught me to love, she whispered how a ‘60s shimmy with her young, large, innocent breasts got her kicked out of the YMCA dance. When I told her I thought she was the best secretary in the world, she bemoaned her broad hips and butt, shaped by years of day-in day-out office chairs and Diet Coke.

I was barely five when people started exclaiming how much I looked like my mother. Now when I look in the mirror, I see her body, the one she taught me to despise. And I do.

This belly comes from my survival. I wasn’t small as I grew into adulthood—5’10” by the time I graduated from high school, size 12 in my wedding dress at 21—but I wasn’t terribly big either. The first semester of grad school gave me crushing tension headaches; doctors prescribed an antidepressant that was supposed to help. It helped more than I knew, masking symptoms of oncoming fibromyalgia until the day the medication suddenly, mysteriously stopped working. By that time, I was 75 pounds heavier. The male doctor who prescribed it didn’t think to mention that severe weight gain was common.

Fibro triggered depression; physical and mental anguish became hopelessly tangled. The medication that kept me afloat, active, alive layered fat over my bones. The harder I have tried to be well and happy, the heavier I have grown. I’m told that exercise and getting outdoors more would help my mood, but this belly keeps me from venturing out as much as my pain does. The irony is not lost on me that the medication I take to be happier in my mind makes me unhappier about my body.

This belly comes from my children. One of my midwives told me that babies are very efficient parasites, in and ex utero. She meant to comfort me when I was in month 4 of throwing my guts up 20 hours a day, 7 days a week. I remembered it when my second pregnancy had me sick 24 hours a day for seven and a half months, when I was in the ER for fluids when I couldn’t even keep down water. I only had six weeks to balance a pint of Ben and Jerry’s on the top of my belly, between my breasts, and feel like a proper mother-to-be. I don’t have any of those sideways pregnancy pictures–they didn’t look different enough from my non-pregnancy pictures to be worth taking.

Because I was always tall and heavy, I never had a baby belly that could stop traffic as I crossed the street. Nobody inappropriately rubbed my stomach and asked questions, because none of them could be sure it was pregnancy that stretched my shirts tight. I felt like I needed to be working off my baby weight while I was still pregnant because obesity was on every list of risk factors I was given. And if I couldn’t lose weight when I was throwing up non-stop, losing that baby weight after the boys arrived seemed beyond hopeless.

And my belly comes from food, of course. Bread and tortilla and baguette and pita and bagels. Soup and stew and stroganoff, shawarma and spanakopita. Cheeses: Comté, Cheddar, Delice d’Affinois, Chèvre, Port Salut, Gouda, Midnight Moon, curds so fresh they squeak in my teeth. Pasta, pesto, palak paneer, pho. Dumplings of every gods-given nation on this planet. I adore the craft and kindness of food, its intimate introduction to every kind of culture, the warmest embrace of caretakers everywhere. If I could trade my belly for the world of delicious flavors and spices and surprises, I doubt I’d take the deal.

 

A fat woman in teeshirt and skirt lounging on a couch

So this is my belly, and all the things that made it. It’s where I feel things first–anxiety, relief, fear, welling joy. It presses against snuggling children and beloved friends when they accept my preferred forms of greeting and delight. It catches splashes from the pots and pans where I stir up nourishment and comfort for anyone I feed. It hikes up the back of my shirts when I bend down to garden, giving me unexpected sunburns. It rules out pretty dresses and fashionable clothing. It makes me keep the lights off if I want to feel sexy, even alone.

It’s not going anywhere, if I’m going to be honest. I want to believe people who say I’m beautiful like I am. But I don’t know that I’ll ever make peace with this belly. Like so many things about myself, I can’t love it. But it’s undeniably me.

A fat woman in a life vest, teal hair, and sunglasses, rowing a canoe

Lights of Resistance

Hanukkah candles lit in a diagonal row.

Photo by Amit Erez/iStockphoto.com

Hanukkah has a gloss on it, a festival of light like others this time of year. Part of that gloss has developed in proximity to the flash and dazzle of Christmas, but before that, much of Hanukkah’s attraction was the chance to delight children with candles, dreidels, chocolate, and wonderful practical gifts like socks and pencils.

But another aspect of that gloss comes from the effort to avoid examining the complex origins of the holiday. It’s what comes before the miracle of the oil in the Temple that spurs on such frantically cheerful celebration. The destruction of the Temple that made its rededication necessary followed a bitter civil war within the Jewish community. Jews who wanted to keep Jewish culture pure and separate fought against Jews who wanted to give up some of their Jewishness to join the dominant Greek culture that seemed like the flagship of progress and prosperity.

When Jerusalem was annexed by the Seleucid rulers of the eastern Greek kings, the Greeks and their Hellenized Jewish followers desecrated Jewish holy sites, killed fellow Jews, and forced others to break the laws of the Torah by eating pork or getting “uncircumcised,” a process about which I wish to know nothing at all, since circumcision itself is a removal of skin. Many Jews died rather than submit to these rituals, but many others submitted in hopes of assimilation into the wider Hellenic society where opportunity lay.

This conflict, and the uprising by the Maccabees that delivered two decisive military defeats to the forces of Antiochus and drove Greek troops from Jerusalem, are filled with questions we’re still struggling with today: “How does a community maintain its identity in relation to the broader culture? How much should outside influences be resisted, and how much embraced? How much do we depend upon God to save us and how much upon ourselves?” (1)

I see these themes playing out in a different context recently, that of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter seeks to empower black communities and individuals after 400 years of dehumanization and systemic racism. There’s an effort to lift up and honor the ways black culture is unique, and value its resilient manifestations in a society that constantly seeks to dominate it through force and privilege.

As with the Maccabees, this is a fight that springs not only out of the oppression imposed by the state, but also in opposition to the forces of assimilation, respectability, and appeasement from others in the community who see success and respect in the dominant culture as the only way to get ahead in society and avoid punishment by the state. This was cause for civil war among the Jews, and the conflicts between parts of the black community over the strategy for freedom can become nearly as heated.

These complicated issues of resistance, solidarity, and freedom have been on my mind for weeks now, during and following the occupation of the 4th Police Precinct in North Minneapolis. It followed yet another incident of state violence, the police killing of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man. Instead of just marching once or twice in symbolic protest, then burying the injustice with the victim, leaders from Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, Black Liberation Project, and the Minneapolis NAACP decided on a strategy of resistance to raise tensions in an effort to procure justice: a Federal investigation of the murder, the release of the names of the two officers involved, and the public release of the video surveillance tapes from a variety of angles around the crime scene.

Tents sprang up, then food service, then winter clothing giveaways. Sisters Camelot pulled their bus right into the camp and unloaded hundreds of pounds of fresh produce over the days of the occupation, most of it flowing out into the community. Some days, the lines of cars stretched for over a block, each one pulling up to donate firewood and propane to keep protesters warm day and night.

Old woman with native drum and man in shadow  by a campfire; a Black Lives Matter banner hangs in the background

Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP

For eighteen days, campfires burned in a line down one block of Plymouth Avenue. They were carefully tended: logs laid in careful formation, coals stoked to a new blaze, water and sand at the ready nearby, ashes diligently swept away. The miracle of this string of lights wasn’t the fuel needed to keep those fires burning; it was the community that formed to keep the whole occupation bright and steadfast. Just like Hanukkah, there were stories and games and songs and food to push back the cold darkness of racism and defeat. Hanukkah means dedication, and that’s what kept the 4th Precinct Shutdown going: dedication to the neighborhood, dedication to the people, dedication to the idea of freedom and equality.

In the wake of the city’s destruction of the camp, Minneapolis police cars are pulling people over, trailing them far beyond their jurisdiction, just for having shown up on that battleground. Police retribution is a real fear for Northside residents, and efforts to procure a promise against retaliation and continued police violence have been met with silence. This form of oppression resembles the German tactic of “collective responsibility” in the face of resistance. “This retaliation tactic held entire families and communities responsible for individual acts of armed and unarmed resistance. The fact that thousands did fight back is remarkable.” (2)

If the lights of Hanukkah are meant to give hope, so were the lights on Plymouth Avenue. And if the resistance of the Maccabees is meant to inspire us to band together in the face of oppression, so was the 4th Precinct Shutdown. And if lighting other candles from the Shamash is meant to give us courage to be the kindling light in others’ lives, Black Lives Matter calls on us all to be the beacons that shine love and light into the shadows of our society and make it better.

A diagonal row of campfires down a city street, people clustered around each.

Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune.

“Chanukah, 5692.

‘Judea dies’, thus says the banner.

‘Judea will live forever’, thus respond the lights.”

— Rachel Posner, Nazi Germany, 1933. (3)

Nov 23, 2015 - Social Studies    No Comments

Scouting at the Shutdown

While the Boy Scouts Movement has creepy, eugenicist, imperialist, moderately fascist origins, the Girl Scouts have no such conflict attached. The values of community, commonality, friendship, and service pervade the Girl Scouts’ ethos, along with a focus on developing practical skills to make girls feel strong and self-sufficient. Even that most dangerous of developments—the Girl Scout cookie—fosters an entrepreneurial spirit in its purveyors.

I grew up steeped in Girl Scout values, even if I dropped out when I was only a Junior Scout. I never made it to one of the international Girl Scout/Girl Guide lodges in foreign countries that I dreamt of as a kid already obsessed with other cultures and travel. But my grandma and my mom were both long-time Girl Scout troop leaders, and even if I didn’t get a badge sewn on my sash for them, so many of the skills they taught me came from that curriculum of skills and values.

I learned to sew, cook, camp, and navigate in nature from both of my mother’s parents. Whether it was a trip to the North Woods of Wisconsin or a weeklong wagon train adventure in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, a lot of my memories of them involve forests, campfires, and practical problemsolving. Whenever I see birch trees, or smell pinewood smoke, or rub apart the silky seeds of a milkweed plant to give them a boost in spreading, I feel their steady presence around me.

I became involved with the occupation of the Minneapolis Police Department 4th Precinct following the police killing of Jamar Clark. Of course you did, you may be saying—where else would I be in these years of racial justice work? I was there, marshaling, the first night, when the crowd marched between the 4th Precinct and the Minneapolis Urban League to call out and disrupt the mayor and police chief who were offering the same unsatisfactory rhetoric of moderation that Dr. King skewered in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I was there, chant-leading for 3.5 hours without a bullhorn in the pouring rain, and later holding down the west gate as witnesses and allies pressed large tarps to the chainlink fence to protect themselves from the pepper spray the cops deployed.

Red circle with a flower in the center, circled by words "Ladies' Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society."But I was there, too, on the peaceful days. On a rainy Tuesday afternoon when we sat under the covered entryway and formed a sewing and knitting circle that reminded me of the old “Ladies’ Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society” buttons (though, times and trolls demand that I say that the only people acting in a terroristic way at the 4th Precinct have been the cops themselves). On a chilly Friday night when we gathered, a thousand strong, for a candlelight vigil demanding justice and transparency. On the next Sunday night, while people of color from the Northside met elsewhere to plan next steps, with my boys along so they could say they saw this all someday.

People gathered around a crackling fire in a metal fire pit in the middle of the street in front of the Minneapolis Police 4th Precinct

AP photo/Jim Mone

The encampment has reminded me of my grandparents and my Girl Scout origins so powerfully, it’s given me sensory flashbacks at times. I’ve told stories around pinewood fires that smoke and spit. I’ve sung songs in wide circles of shared strength and faith. I’ve hugged strangers, and taught skills (some I wish I didn’t have to, like how to safely wash eyes stung by tear gas), and eaten food cooked with love for a crowd. Every picture of a red, crackling fire and nylon tent takes me back to my childhood.

Other things have added new associations to my memories of camping and community. When the music starts up, people dance, old and young. When it’s time to link arms and chant, we don’t choose the neighbors on either side—we just form an unbreakable, committed chain of bodies and voices. When we need supplies of one kind or another, we post Google Docs, tweets, Facebook posts, and group texts. When comfort and consolation are called for, people drive up in cars with heaters and warm seats and sometimes even kittens to cuddle.

This encampment obviously isn’t infinitely sustainable—winter is coming, as Ned Stark would say. But that doesn’t mean it was pointless or ineffective. It has radically changed the narrative of what the North Minneapolis community can do, among people who don’t already know: serve one another, sustain a peace among rivals, clean and feed and provide for people of every age and background. These things take work and discipline civic-mindedness and good faith, things that the narrative of white supremacy says are beyond the ability of communities of color. They can defend themselves in the face of gross brutality, as we saw repeatedly throughout the week. They can build intersectional relationships, with groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and labor unions, that will pay dividends in the future as we work toward the combined goals of racial justice, economic justice, and environmental justice.

I’d like to think that the founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low, would’ve approved of the 4th Precinct Shutdown. I’d like to imagine that current and former Girl Scouts lace the crowds that have gathered to defend the prolonged protest. I’d like to know that the communal sharing has spread skills and gifts in a way that will serve the Northside residents and others for years to come. And I’d like to believe that, in the seasons to come, the smell of woodsmoke and the feel of yarn and the sight of tents and the greetings of new and old friends will remind everyone of what the uncommon, beloved community we built together at the 4th Precinct.

Nov 19, 2015 - Social Studies    1 Comment

In the Trenches

[These are only my experiences and observations. I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else, especially not people of color, for whom this fight is literally life or death. Take this caveat for what it’s worth.]

I’m making fair progress on my pulp action novel, and I need to write a flashback scene about the main protagonist’s father. Since the book is set in the Harlem Renaissance, I decided that the father had fought in World War I.

Naturally, this raises problems because of the racial segregation of the U.S. Armed Forces at the time. But in my research, I came across the 369th Infantry Regiment: an all-black unit that enlisted to fight in the Great War. They’re little known compared to more famous units like the Tuskegee Airmen, but no less impressive. They faced significant racism in the town where they trained for only a month before being deployed to the front in France. Once there, they were reassigned to the French 16th Division, because white American soldiers refused to fight side-by-side with black American soldiers. U.S. Army superiors even issued a cautionary pamphlet to French leadership, warning them that black men couldn’t be trusted not to defect, flee battle, or rape women.

B&W photo of a dozen black men in WW1 uniformsThe unit acquired a number of nicknames in the course of its service—the Germans called them the “Harlem Hellfighters.” They were also known as the Black Rattlers and the Men of Bronze. By the end of the war, 171 members of the 369th were awarded the Legion of Honor or the Croix de Guerre, including Pvt. Henry Johnson, who was the first American ever awarded that highest French military honor. They spent 191 days under fire, and never lost a foot of ground.

NCheshire regiment living in WW1 trenchesaturally, research on the Great War led me to descriptions of trench warfare. Rather than mere ditches, the trenches were an incredibly elaborate, highly tactical system of earthworks. None of this, however, reduced the horrors of living and fighting in them for years on end. Water constantly flooded the trenches, sometimes as deep as knee-high, requiring pumping crews to drain as much water as possible. The constant wetness led to miserable conditions such as trench foot, and the close quarters meant that vermin were an endless problem. Letters from the front describe rats as big as cats among the millions of rodents that infested the place. By day, soldiers lay low as artillery pounded their positions; by night, both trenches and the No Man’s Land between them sprang to furious action under cover of darkness. Mustard and chlorine gas attacks were common; soldiers practiced holding their breath for six seconds, to cover the four seconds it took to put a mask on.

How morale could be anything but abysmal was entirely beyond my imagination.

With all this research fresh in mind, I headed down to the 4th Precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department, located just three blocks from the spot in North Minneapolis where cops shot an unarmed, possibly handcuffed man named Jamar Clark on early Sunday morning. Community members and activists against police violence gathered Monday to protest yet another extrajudicial killing of a black man. Members of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis occupied the front entrance, and a little camp sprang up around the precinct.

Camp occupation of MPD 4th Precinct

photo by Chris Juhn

The rain started in earnest on Tuesday, and by the time I got there to join a knitting circle at the occupation, things were pretty swampy. I brought some wooden pallets to lift supplies out of the mud, as well as hand warmers, hygiene supplies, and some cocoa butter and hair grease (the revolution will not be ashy). Campfires in metal braziers smoked in the drizzle, and tents, tarps, and plastic ponchos offered a little protection from the weather. The foyer of the precinct was a cozy nest of blankets and pillows for the half-dozen people holding it down.

Despite the weather, despite the constant threat of escalating violence, everyone was cheerful. We all had a purpose, even if it was just to be part of the crowd. Those who couldn’t stay brought welcome deliveries of hot food, dry socks, and coffee. Folks stopped by our little craft spot and took knitting lessons, or looked over my shoulder to read the message I was cross-stitching as gifts for friends. The sense of community and purpose was unmistakeable.

A blue haired woman in a black motorcycle jacket scanning a line of people with linked arms

photo by Emily Terrell

That community felt very different yesterday, when people rushed to reinforce the occupation after Minneapolis police literally threw the people in the foyer out onto the pavement, then attempted to trash all the tents and supplies. I got there as soon as I could, and went right to work as a chant leader for the next three and a half hours. Sometimes I screwed up, and everyone laughed along with me as I joked, “White lady can’t chant.” Between upbeat chants I gave lessons in how to use milk or antacid to wash pepper spray from their eyes, as police continued to escalate tensions.

B&W picture of people holding a tarp up to a fence

photo by Chris Juhn

We blocked access points, raised tarps in front of gates in an effort to protect against possible chemical agents, and kept chanting. The rain poured down; SWAT teams circled the block in vans with armed officers hanging out the cargo doors to intimidate. The smell of tear gas from other parts of the occupation hung acrid in the air.

And yet, while sometimes angry and confrontative, the crowd remained mostly peaceful. My fellow marshals grinned fiercely when we crossed paths. The demonstrators stayed relentlessly cheerful. At the west gate where I was marshaling and directing traffic, a dozen young protestors traded chants for freestyling and dancing. A young man came around with a huge tray of spicy fried chicken that bolstered everyone’s spirits (important lesson learned: I don’t look very authoritative while directing traffic with fried chicken in hand). A grandmother kept bringing her golf umbrella over to me, protecting me from the rain while she lectured me about going without a hat.

And suddenly, I knew how those soldiers in the trenches kept their morale up. The power of sharing even miserable experiences with people who stand for what you stand for is almost intoxicating. As rough as it gets, as uncomfortable, as frightening, you know you’ll be able to say where you were when people ask you what you did when the crucial moment arrived. Even if it’s just to hold an arbitrary line, you did something indispensable. We’ll have the stories of the mud and the rain and the campfire smoke and the camaraderie.

Long line of people standing with arms linked in the rain

photo by Chris Juhn

Nobody’s going to get a Croix de Guerre out of this. Most likely, none of us will end up with a badass name and reputation like the Harlem Hellfighters. But we’ll always know we fought for our value, even for our country—the country that values black lives as much as white ones, women as much as men, queer as much as straight, poor as much as rich. And that’s better than any medal.

Nov 2, 2015 - Uncategorized    No Comments

An All Souls’ Prayer for the Near Misses

In this season of remembrance,

as the world prepares for the long sleep of winter,

our hearts draw closer to the ones who’ve gone before.

We open the bundles of grief

whether thickly wrapped by the years

or jagged edges poking through new, thin cloth,

glimpsing the missing who walk at the blurry edge of vision.

 

But not all we mourn has passed on.

Our hearts sometimes rattle with the terror of near misses,

when the almost-lost are still this side of the thinning veil.

We see their ghostly pictures on the ofrenda.

We see friends and coworkers, and imagine what they’d wear to the wake.

 

We give no time to recover from these brushes with loss

Of deaths so narrowly averted, our knees still quake

and we listen to their breathing in the night

and imagine how different the house would sound without it.

We wash the clothes they wore the day we almost lost them.

Our hands are drawn like magnets to rub the scars.

We drive out of our way not to see the cursed-blessed place.

 

Accidents and attempts, panics and scares, on days so near

we might still turn to those pages in our planners.

And when we cry our tears of terror and relief on All Souls’ Day,

when we are pressured toward gratitude instead of grief,

the hundred thousand living specters squeeze the breath from our lungs

at the graves marked but not dug.

m.5111_all-saints-day

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