Browsing "Social Studies"

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.

The Long Con

This is the second in a series of posts about my recent struggles with mental health. You may be interested to read the first post first.

Real Lottery Gravity Balls

A psych ward is a funny place. About the only other places you get such a random assemblage of people, stuck together for so long, are jury duty and prison.

The mental health unit has characteristics in common with both. Drawn from a surprisingly broad cross-section of society, the hand on the lever of this lottery is mental illness. Once you’ve “registered” in this particular Powerball, it’s only a matter of time before failures in the medical system, stress, and coincidence bring your number up. Some people try not to accept the summons, but you can only put it off for so long.

And like prison, those in the ward have very little control. Doctors abide by the same scheduling habits as cable installations. Meals show up around regular hours, but orders are skimpy and frequently wrong. Sometimes this reaches the realm of comedy, such as the guy who randomly got four—count ‘em FOUR—prune juices with breakfast. One guy said, “It’s enough to make you laugh,” to which I replied, “Dear gods, don’t make him laugh!”

If you need or want anything, plan early and ask often. Ask before you actually want it, in fact. What distinguishes the veterans from the first-timers is how they get what they need. They know exactly when to get louder, talk more, pace faster, move objects. This is classic agitation at its finest. The rest of us who aren’t willing to trade the shreds of our civility for what we need look on in an awkward combination of embarrassment and admiration.

Anything that helps kill time is a valuable commodity, but residents aren’t working with a full bank of options. No cigarettes for those whose days tick down ash by lengthening ash. No freedom of movement—the whole natural world is look-but-don’t-touch beyond glass windows, and without fresh air, we all pale, cough, and itch in the dry, controlled environment. I asked for yarn and a crochet hook to keep my fingers from being fidgety, but security measures mean that even dental floss only comes in six-inch increments. When I pointed out that you couldn’t do much with six inches of anything, one lady cackled until I got the joke and blushed.

We talk to each other because there’s nothing else to do. Some people are desperate to tell their stories; once the floodgates are broken, the pain of their lives flows out, carrying the flotsam and jetsam of broken relationships, fractured trust, crushed hopes. Others fold in on themselves, all raspy paper angles, like grim, silent origami. The staff tries to draw these shy ones out of their shells, but it ends up being a ridiculous commercial on TV or a silly conversation among the more gregarious inmates that prompts them to eventually break the silence. And what they say often surprises us with its unexpected dry wit or snappy observation.

The truth is, there’s no way to know what’s the truth about anyone in here. Some stories, told with wild gestures as misplaced punctuation that breaks sentences in odd places, can’t possibly be true. People adopt credentials they never earned, claim other people’s whoppers as their own. There’s no fact checkers, no Snopes, no common acquaintance to call out a lie.

One guy has set himself up as a kind of professor, soliciting consultations at group meetings, so he can share his accumulated wisdom and expertise. What he doesn’t impart to others (in his too-rich language, full of ten-cent words misapplied and mangled) goes in notebooks that curl with the force with which the words were pressed from the pen. Another woman swears that she’s a trained law enforcement officer. Her stories start out plausible, with all the right jargon, but veer unexpectedly into obvious delusion before swerving back to the reasonable. Her timing doesn’t match her storytelling, either; she interrupts other conversations mid-stream, holds forth for a few minutes, then paces away rapidly before she finishes the sentence she started.

Next to these folks, I sound just as braggadocious when I mention that I used to teach college, or that I’m fluent in French, or that I ran for school board. I could claim that I earned my Ph.D., that I travel the world, that I have 100,000 Twitter followers, and it would sound no more or less true than anything else I claim. Experiences are hollowed out to just the visible shape, the lives outside our ward far away and nearly irrelevant to the problems that landed us here.

Whatever stories we’re telling, whatever tales we’re selling, we’re all con artists on the ward. We’re on the grift, we’re looking for the next score. But the get-rich-quick schemes we’re peddling promise a healthy life instead of riches.

We know the real road to this treasure is long, hard work, but the wait seems impossible. With the zeal of newfound converts, we’re sure the new meds are going to do the trick: stop the jitters, feed the craving, push back the dark, deliver blessed sleep. We profess our dedication to the routine of self-care and reflection. We vow to sidestep gaudy temptation and all her lures—so seedy and threadbare by sober daylight, but delicious, seductive, irresistible in the dark stretch of night.

We call family and friends, throwing out line after tenuous line into the river, trying to catch anything secure enough to weigh us down against the relentless current. Even estranged, unhealthy bonds look good enough to hold in here, though you heard them spill the numb-lipped story of damage done by the same person with whom they’re now cuddling and caressing the phone handset.

Practical, long-term solutions feel like magical thinking here. It’s clear that none of us can wait long for real improvement, not when the next drink, the next hit, the next catastrophe might show up before we even get home from the hospital. Logic demands that we cook up something faster, and so we mastermind the new scheme for a windfall of happiness and safety.

Too bad the house cheats. Too bad we’ll never make it out the door with our stolen goods. At least, in this place between folly and failure, we’ve got plenty of fellow grifters to appreciate the beauty of the plan.

Ocean's 11 at the Bellagio

Sep 9, 2015 - AV Club, Social Studies    3 Comments

Expanding the Universe

I saw Star Wars for the first time when I was two years old. I perched on a stack of phonebooks in the front seat of our Ford pickup, and the drive-in theater screen enveloped my whole world. I don’t remember what must have been the poor, crackly quality of the sound—the expansive visual feast polished the music and dialogue to match.

I fell instantly, deeply in love.

Nerdy kidStar Wars was all I wanted to talk, or even think, about. As my mom changed my newborn sister’s diapers, I fed her whole scenes of dialogue—memorized on contact from that first viewing—so I could have an acting partner. I roamed over our backyard swing set with tiny fists full of action figures, so many I had to stick some in my mouth to climb the slide ladder. Forgetting to take them out again resulted in the premature decapitation of several first-run figures as I bit down when my feet hit the ground. I had Star Wars bedding, Star Wars towels, Star Wars records, and one sad misfire of a Star Trek pajama set from a well-meaning grandparent.

I played Star Wars with my preschool classmates and neighborhood friends—but only the boys. The other girls weren’t interested, and I quickly learned that inviting them into our lightsaber battles and X-Wing flights earned me their scorn. So many of my gendered ideas about who I preferred to be friends with came directly from this experience. Boys shared my passions, and didn’t expect me to navigate social minefields. We came, we saw, we blew up the Death Star. Simple.

I wouldn’t have a significant group of female friends until I was in college.

And as the only girl, of course, I got to be Princess Leia. As an undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome kid, I must grudgingly admit that I was probably more like C3P0—pedantic, oblivious, anxious, always interjecting irrelevant, self-centered observations. But Leia was everything I wanted to be—dashing, brave, imperious, powerful, efficient, and beautiful. Her role let me direct the play scenes in her bossy, self-assured voice, and I used the authority she lent me to muscle my way into even more action, assigning her piloting skills and a lightsaber before the Expanded Universe would.

The only time Star Wars got complicated was when more than one girl wanted to join in. As my sister grew up and I dragooned her into play, the absence of another female role led me to assign her to the only non-gendered main part I could find: R2D2. Artoo was the perfect little-sibling role—non-verbal, swept up in the action, useful as a tool but without the need for much consideration. In our thirties, I would joke about all this at a family dinner, only for my sister to narrow her eyes and growl with long-held bitterness, “I WAS ALWAYS THE DROID.”

I was shocked by that reservoir of resentment, but thinking about it more, what else were the options for two girls in the Star Wars cinematic setting of the 1970s and ‘80s? Women weren’t visible on the command levels of Empire starships; their numbers were infinitesimally better in the Rebel bases. Stormtroopers and aliens were ungenendered to the untrained eye. So what’s left? Those two goth chicks with the water pipe in Mos Eisley Cantina? Mon Mothma or the dancing slave Oola in Return of the Jedi? Sy Snootles?

Shows like Star Wars Rebels, books like Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, and all the trailers for Episode VII: The Force Awakens represent a hyperspace jump forward in representation for kids of all kinds. Children of color get action heroes to play; so do girls. Even queer kids get heroes that just five years ago would’ve been unimaginable in a mainstream media juggernaut like the new Star Wars universe.

I have no patience for alleged fans who can’t see how this is a good thing. Their pristine fandom was never fair or representative of all the people who loved its stories; we shoehorned our way into the drama through sheer force of childhood creativity.

The simple fact of the matter is this: The future we can imagine grows from the present we live in. As I stood at the bus stop Tuesday for the first day of school, I looked at the crowd of 15 kids, all neighbors and friends of my sons in our apartment complex. It’s as varied as it gets: white, black, Latinx, Somali, Japanese, boys, girls, genderqueer, disabled, neurodiverse. The more of them who see reflections of themselves in visions of the future, the more of them will have the confidence to follow their dreams to create the real future we’ll live into. That world can’t help but be better for the diversity of lives it values.

Mar 2, 2015 - Social Studies    1 Comment

Road to Selma: Why I’m Going

Wednesday morning, I leave for Selma, Alabama.

I’ve had this dream for longer than I could remember. I saw grey pictures of its arching bridge in LIFE magazines at my grandparents’ house, magazines that were already old before I was born. The people in their prim, archaic clothes were darker grey than the bridge, darker than the pavement on which they fell when beaten and gassed by racist police.pettus

I didn’t understand why walking would get them beaten. They looked tired and strong and wise and full of grief. And the white people—the people who looked like my family and my neighbors and my teachers—looked enraged. I didn’t understand at all.

Selma135 years later, I’m not sure I understand any better. I still fail to understand why white people treated them with disdain and cruelty and brutal indifference. I fail to understand why white people still treat black people that way.

I mean, I know. In my head, I know all the reasons: the history, the psychology, the structural imbalance, the crackpot pseudo-science. And I know it comes down to power. I’ve read, I’ve listened, I’ve studied, I’ve debated, I’ve considered. I’ve even done something close to praying, praying for insight like a lens I never owned.

If I understand anything, it’s why the marchers braved that bridge. I’ve been moved to take up the middle of the street with other people, insisting on being seen, shouting truths that had to be said. I’ve locked arms with people as different from me as possible, yet the same, and refused to be moved until we felt heard.

But I’ve never been as invisible, as endangered, as unvalued as the people in those black-and-white pictures. That’s my privilege.

So why am I compelled to walk in their steps on this fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday? The atmosphere there couldn’t possibly be more different—it’ll be a re-creation of that march in geography only. The road won’t be grooved with the weight of their footsteps, like pilgrimage stairs furrowed by centuries of the faithful. City and state leaders will be there in support. Police will block cars, not bodies. No one will be injured. No one will risk their lives to be there.

But the names of men and women killed by racism are fresh in our mouths today. Explosions and gunshots and dying words ring in our ears right now. Social and economic pressures choke communities of color into slower submission, and still white people refuse to see the oppression that parades in front of us at this very moment.

So, like a white woman named Viola Liuzzo, I ride south to answer the call. Like Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. James Reeb, I go with those of my faith who place justice for the living on the same altar as reverence for the dead. But I’m not a Freedom Rider or any other brave person doing dangerous work. I’m not trying to expiate white liberal guilt. It’s not about me.

I just want to look out from that bridge, through the crowd of strong shoulders, and see the water and trees that stood there 50 years ago. I want to be a witness to the powerful flow of history, and its maddening intransigence. I want to take pictures in full, living color of black and white people marching together to remember, to resolve, to recommit to the necessary work of being fully, fairly human to one another. And I want my grandchildren to see those pictures, and know that I was there.

Oct 17, 2014 - Social Studies    2 Comments

Wade in the Water

Last Sunday, I attended a training for white folks who do racial equity work. The organizers called it “Solidarity Training,” and that’s as good as anything, but what it really meant was this: “How not to be a racist asshole as you try to improve things for people of color.”

You’d think that would be easy—every person in that room was there because they have the very best of intentions. We were all pretty far along our own personal journey from ignorance that white is even a race, toward leveraging our privilege to help dismantle systemic racism. Many of us had been doing that work for years, some even for decades.

But the hardest thing for people who are in the group in power is to realize that intention is not enough. Just because you *meant* it to be flattering when you tell a woman she’s sexy as she walks by doesn’t make it so to the women who experience unwanted street harassment every day. Just because you *meant* it to be a compliment when you tell a young black man that his speech was “so articulate and inspiring” doesn’t mean that won’t feel condescending to men who meet with surprise every day when they show that they’re educated. Intention does NOT get the job done.

But it can be surprisingly difficult to tell the difference between fighting the system and benefitting from the system. One of the trainers, the inspired and inspiring Ricardo Levins Morales, used an analogy out of the physics world to explain how we can be oblivious of something so pervasive. When you jump out of a plane at 30,000 feet, he says, you feel like you’re falling at first. But after a bit, the feeling changes to be something closer to floating, because you’re falling at the speed of gravity.

So it is with racism. White people are born onto a nice, big, comfy raft that floats atop the stream of racist oppression. Because we’re on the raft, we don’t feel the constant pressure of the water that wears down the hearts and souls of our brown and black siblings. We don’t feel the struggle. And even if we climb off that raft and join hands and weather the stream together for a bit, somehow—maybe it’s with a job referral from a friend, or a previewed house listing before it’s really “on the market”—we find ourselves back onboard, despite our best intentions.

The raft ride has been particularly bumpy at various points in history—now, since Ferguson, is one of them. It happens because some people in the water try to climb on the raft. At the same time, some of the raft’s riders are trying to dismantle the raft itself, or jump into the water in solidarity. And the people who never even knew they were on a raft of history and privilege get nervous and frightened at having why they thought was a solid, level surface become so unstable.

Naturally, this made me think of GamerGate.

See, sexism is another river, and patriarchy is another raft. Movements like GamerGate and the MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) exist in a moment where the rather splendid vehicle created by cisgendered, heterosexual, white patriarchy is under attack from all sides. Its riders didn’t notice that the river around them was rising, or that the ship’s own crew was changing. The new crew wants to park that vessel for good, and move everyone to a bigger ship with room for all the groups who’ve had to struggle upstream for centuries. That must feel terrifying to people who thought they were on solid ground, riding as they were at the combined speeds of so much privilege.

The fact is, though, that the river’s already flooded its banks. There are too many oppressed people, and allies who prefer to be in the water, to float along in ignorance anymore. Women have been in games for a long time, and all the yelling and threats in the world can’t make that river flow upstream.

Toward the end of the training, Ricardo announced that he would be distributing cards. I could see the little deck in his hand, but I had no idea what he meant to do with them. A surprising, somewhat unnatural ripple of excitement spread through the crowd, though; I wondered if they knew more about the cards than I did. When I got mine, it had a piece of art on one side, with a slogan from the disability rights movement: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” On the other side were some check-in questions to help us stay grounded when we feel compelled to act in a racially charged situation: “Why do I feel an urge to act/not act?” and “Who will benefit from my action/inaction?”

The ripple quieted down as people examined their cards, and I wondered if the people who’d been a-flutter with excitement were disappointed by the card they got. I wondered if the one they’d wanted would’ve just said, “I’m one of the good ones.” That’s what white people doing racial equity work really want, after all—a card that credentials them as not racist, as a proven ally. The problem is, it doesn’t work like that at all. “Ally” isn’t a title you earn; it’s a status you have to prove over and over again, mainly by just continuing to show up for what matters to communities of color. And nobody’s going to give you a cookie for doing the right thing, just like nobody’s going to give you a free pass when you mess up (and you WILL mess up, over and over).

I know a lot of guys in the world of games who probably wish they had that a “One of the Good Ones” card too. If I had them to give out, I can think of dozens of people who deserve them for living and working and playing by the guiding principles of inclusion and equity.

But that’s not how it works. Nobody gets a free pass; nobody gets a laminated card that’s good forever after. We climb off the raft, and we join hands with the people in the water and weather the current for as long as we can. At the same time, we accidentally get back on, and sometimes even block others from climbing aboard with us.

Maybe the card we really need is the one that says, “Time to get in the water again.”

Aug 20, 2014 - Social Studies    1 Comment

Why We Fight

Gen Con is always hard work and outstanding fun. When I first started going over 20 years ago, my days were filled with back-to-back games. But over time, long hours with friends from all over the country overtook games. These days, work for Atlas Games and speaking engagements mean no games at all, and lots of friends mean bigger parties and shorter visits. All the same, I’ve got to say: it’s still a week with some of my favorite people, all in one place, and the love is bigger than our host city.

The mental dissonance was strong, though, for many of us. While we reunited with old friends and played new games, many of us were distracted and upset by news from Ferguson, Missouri. Conversations frequently went something like: “Hey, it’s great to see you! How have you been? Man, it’s messed up, what’s happening in Ferguson.” We felt outraged and helpless, and often uncomfortable at having to keep doing what we were at Gen Con to do.

There are other things I’ll probably write about as I process this year’s experience, but two things really stand out as unusual and fantastic (and they’re actually the same kind of thing). Two friends got engaged to smart, beautiful, graceful women in public proposals at Gen Con this year. One was a cool scene in the convention center’s hallway performing area; the other, a large, orchestrated affair at the ENnie Awards ceremony. Both women accepted enthusiastically, and in both cases, the onlooking crowd went wild. Here, don’t take my word for it: watch and (if you’re like me) cry-clap.

But almost immediately on Twitter, people began accusing the couple who got engaged at the ENnies of insensitivity, because they were happy while horrific events were happening in Ferguson. How dare they choose that moment to celebrate? How could they be so selfish as to think of their future, when the future of Mike Brown had been cut so terribly, unfairly short?

Here’s the answer, though: You celebrate when you can precisely because life is uncertain and short.

People in war zones know this. Love and babies and anniversaries all happen in places of oppression and violence. People go home from protests and watch dumb movies. People have sex in between airstrikes. Life keeps going on.

The people fighting for justice and racial equity in Ferguson probably know this better than those of us who haven’t had to fight systemic racism every day of their lives. We got the phrase “jumping the broom” because, even during slavery when families were torn apart everyday, African-Americans still fell in love and got married, defying the laws that said those marriages were illegal. To this day, some black couples choose to honor this tradition and jump a broom to seal their wedding vows.

Terrible, terrible things are happening in Ferguson, and Gaza, and Ukraine, and Syria, and Iraq, and other places too. If it would be even remotely helpful for me to go there and support the protesters fighting for immediate and lasting justice in their community, I’d be on the next Greyhound bus. I’ll keep turning out for those goals in my own community—no justice, no peace.

But everyday things are happening in those places, too, because the thing they’re fighting for is the right to live an ordinary life, unencumbered by oppression and strife. A lot of people are fighting that battle in other ways, every single day.

What the people who criticized my friends may not have known is that we almost lost one of them to suicide this year. As soon as I finished hugging and crying on him after the proposal, my first question was, “What’s today’s number?” He answered, “192,” and I replied, “Well, that’s your magic number now, isn’t it.” 192 is how many days it had been since he’d almost died. How many days he’d survived and kept fighting depression, in the hope of living himself into all the things that make life worthwhile.

His marriage proposal wasn’t in ignorance of the tragedy and brutality happening in Ferguson. It was in direct defiance of the despair and violence that almost cost him his own life. There’s not a thing wrong with celebrating the kind of progress that looks in every way like resurrection and restoration. We fight for hope, in many ways, everyday—on the streets of occupied American cities, and in the dark corners of our own minds. No, they’re not the same, but the goal is: to find love and meaning in peace.

Feb 10, 2014 - Social Studies    2 Comments

Denial of Service: A Modest Proposal

I’M GOING TO FIND YOU AND KILL YOU.

I WILL RAPE YOUR WIFE AND MURDER YOUR CHILDREN.

YOU SHOULD DO THE WORLD A FAVOR AND COMMIT SUICIDE.

It’s not hard to find violent online threats these days. In fact, it was much harder for me to make up examples without the filthiest language humanity can conjure. Whether it’s a sports player who misses a critical play, a programmer speaking honestly about misogyny in the tech industry, or a woman of color pointing out convergence of sexism and racism in society, critics—often people with no discernible stake in the subject—spew the vilest threats and insults. It’s not always men, and it’s not always anonymous.

The cost is too high. This behavior drives valuable voices out of the public conversation, along with the perspectives they might bring to important discussions. We lose their stories, their insights, even solutions for situations that damage us all.

“What can we do, though?” people ask. “It all comes down to freedom of speech.” In this, as has been pointed out by many people, most folks are mistaken. The First Amendment to the US Constitution only guarantees the right to speak freely against the government, without fear of arrest or other retribution from the State. Freedom of speech in no way guarantees freedom from consequence. Sure, we’ve expanded this right to free expression to cover some of the most grotesque public statements, such as those by the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan. But people have learned that the best way to exercise their own rights against them is to to create effective counter-protests. From the Angels whose wings block out the sight of hateful signs to miles-long biker escorts for soldiers’ funerals, we’ve found ways to allow hateful speech but deny its effectiveness.

So that’s what I’m proposing for online abusers. Every person who sees someone use threatening, terrorizing speech online should take a moment to reply, message, or tweet a simple phrase questioning that behavior. If just ten people responded in this way every time, to each user they see engaging in uncivil behavior, it would send the clear message that the Internet is not blindly permissive or a safe shield for violent behavior.

It does not need to be profane—“What is wrong with you?” It does not need to attack them personally—insulting their race, gender, parentage, or sexual orientation only lowers you to their level. It does not need to perpetuate harmful stereotypes of mental illness—“If you think saying these things is okay, you’re totally wrong” is just as effective as “You must be a psychopath” or “You must be crazy”.

There’s only one catch: You can’t pick and choose when to do this. You can’t wait until it’s someone whose politics you disagree with; we must be even more critical of our allies as we are our enemies. You can’t leave certain areas alone, with the excuse that “that’s the culture there”. If people are willing to say horrid things in one place, there’s a high likelihood they’re willing to do it elsewhere. And you can’t wait for other people to do this for you. If you want online spaces to be better, it has to start with you.

Good people can deliver a Denial of Service attack on people who cannot follow basic rules of human-heartedness. With enough people doing this, not only will there be plenty of voices against every hateful speaker, but there’ll also be plenty of the emotional support that’s needed when you look darkness full in the face. It’s not a perfect solution, but it couldn’t be much easier to start. If you’re receiving threats, share them publicly, so we know who to respond to. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and give it when requested. Remember your own compassion when you do.

Maybe I’m sounding too much like Pollyanna here, but the Internet doesn’t have to be a cesspool. So many of us have met wonderful people who enrich our world there. Let’s use that community to support those who suffer its inhumanity.

Meltdown in the frozen north

Our rental managers at Como Park Apartments stepped up to offer day-long activities for the apartment complex’s kids when school closed this week. This came as very welcome news, as our car remained resolutely opposed to starting in the sub-zero temperatures. Big-hearted community efforts like this keep us here when, to be honest, we could use a little more room—there just isn’t anywhere else with neighbors and management who give each other such close-knit support.

Monday was grand, and the DH and I got loads of work done while the boys played the day away at the party room. They came back with tales of new friends and pizza-sauce stains on their faces. Tuesday seemed to be headed the same way, but at 2, my cell phone rang. “I need you to come down,” our neighbor said. “Connor’s having a meltdown.”

When we got there, he was sitting in a corner with two of the staff who were talking calmly despite his sobbing. I helped him up and hugged him tight, despite his wet swim clothes, then convinced him to come sit with me so we could talk more easily. I held him until his breathing and tears slowed, then we started to dissect the series of events that left him so upset. A scare from some horseplay in the pool, combined with embarrassment over his friends seeing him cry, kicked it off. But it was the clever liar of depression that told him everyone hated him, that he was a waste of space, and he should just die.

While it was good that the DH and I were home so we could reach him quickly, the neighbors and staff had done everything exactly right. That’s far from guaranteed when it comes to folks who don’t deal with autistic or mentally ill kids every day, and I wanted to take a moment to write about what they did and how it might have made the difference between a bumpy patch and a potential disaster.

First, the adults recognized that he was starting to meltdown. In my experience, this looks different from a regular episode of angry or sad crying; instead of falling apart, getting limp, or long wailing, a kid in meltdown usually winds tighter, with shallower breathing and critical self-talk in an escalating pattern. They may lash out at people who try to get close, or even throw things, but they’re generally not interested in hurting anyone but themselves. The best case scenario is to derail the meltdown, and distraction is the best way to do it. Give the kid something to play with, like a fidget or craft—one friend kept knitting in her bag when she worked with a child who found the motion soothing. Strike up a conversation on a common interest, ask questions. If they’ll accept a hug or something heavy for some comforting pressure, that helps too, but it’s rarely the right move to force physical contact.

If you can’t de-escalate, safety is critical. Thoughts that hurt as much as the ones that bubble up in meltdown make a person want to flee, and they may bolt for the door, or try to hurt themselves, or both. Connor had been in the swimming pool, and tried to drown himself when his self-loathing got so heavy so fast. Once they had him out of the water, he wound his scarf around his neck; they got it away from him. He ran to the far end of the balcony, and they sat with him. Location, tools, and support—they had the bases covered.

Third, they stayed calm. Kids in meltdown are loud, and sometimes they’re saying things you don’t want to hear: dark things, angry things, scary things. The temptation to talk over them, to force reason atop their disorder until both of you are screaming, is powerful. But it doesn’t help. Even your silent presence, steady and resolute if non-communicative, is better than pushing them toward a brink they might not otherwise approach. Mostly, they just need to spill. Don’t silence, don’t argue—the storm will blow itself out if it’s not being fed.

We’re grateful for many things on the good days, but sometimes a bad day turns up a cause for thanks too. I can’t say enough good things about the compassion and quick-thinking our neighbors showed in a situation that’s hard to manage even with years of experience. The same factors, managed with indifference or inattention, could have yielded tragedy I can’t bear to think about. Every parent knows that sending a kid out into the world on their own is to live with your heart beating outside your own chest. Having the right understanding of a meltdown situation can equip you to handle other people’s hearts and children with care.

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