Tagged with " human rights"

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 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.

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.

10 Things My 30s Taught Me

On December 28, I turned 40. This came as no surprise, even to one as math-impaired as me.

It’s virtually impossible to throw a birthday party on my birthday, since everyone is exhausted from Christmas and saving up energy for a big New Year’s Eve blowout (if they’re even in town). There’s even an Old English word for it: symbel-werig. It means “feast-weary,” and that’s what everyone is on my birthday.

The worst it ever got was my 18th birthday. My parents had dinner theater tickets, and my brother was at his friend’s house (after his birthday, the day before mine. No, really.). My sister and I were home alone. She made a Pyrex bowl of raspberry Jell-O and stuck a taper candle in it. We watched Schindler’s List. Whoop-de-doo.

For the big one this year, though, I decided that nothing said “me at 40” like riding rollercoasters. Thanks to Nickelodeon Universe, the indoor theme park in the middle of the Mall of America, it’s actually possible to do this in a Minnesota winter. Also, yay for half-price unlimited ride wristbands from 5-10pm. There was the entertaining possibility that I’d get a mall security escort because I’d been a marshal at the #BlackLivesMatterMOA protest two weeks earlier. I planned to lure him onto rides, in case I felt like chanting anti-oppression slogans on the loop-de-loops. Alas, no joy.

Rolling over the odometer also made me think about what can happen in just one decade of living. I don’t feel older, or even different, just more like the person 30-year-old me hoped to be eventually. Still, I learned a lot of lessons in the last 10 years, so here’s the top 10 lessons I learned in my 30s.

1) Having a second child is nothing like having the first. I had my first son when I was 28, and my second one when I was 32. Instead of throwing up 20 hours a day for 5.5 months, I threw up 24 hours a day for 7.5 months in my second pregnancy. My labor couldn’t have been more different, too. And you needn’t look any further than this blog for how different the boys are from one another. Motherhood: what a weird, wonderful ride.

2) The key to my kid is the key to myself. When I was a kid, my parents and teachers told me I was “socially backward” because I was intellectually advanced. Slamming doors and balloons popping gave me migraines. I preferred the company of adults. And I recognized a lot of these traits in my older son; we joked that he inherited those traits. In fact, what we both were was autistic. Learning that unlocked memories and mysteries that plagued me my whole life, and understanding those helped me translate the world for my kid. We’re all so much better for knowing ourselves.

3) Intersectionality is everything. I’ve felt this way forever, but didn’t know there was a word for it until I read a Flavia Dzodan blog post that introduced me to the term, coined by UCLA prof Kimberlé Crenshaw. I also didn’t realize it was such a controversial idea until I started advocating it. How is this difficult for people to understand? We are all so many different people, and all of our selves are bound together when it comes to liberation. How can you be a feminist who excludes trans women? How can you be anti-racism and simultaneously suppress the contributions of women? How can you demand an end to oppression but hold planning meetings that are inaccessible to disabled people? In Flavia’s words, “My activism will be intersectional or it will be shit.”

4) Don’t move without a safety net. I learned this one the hard way. In Minnesota, you have to be a resident before you can apply for state health insurance. We had paperwork ready to go the day we moved, but we encountered a four-month wait. We’d saved money for an appointment to get me set up with bridge coverage for my fibro and depression. What I didn’t do was research doctors—the one I went to refused to continue the treatment plan I’d had for over a decade. The decompensation that happened without my prescriptions resulted in a summer lost to pain and despair, ultimately landing me in the hospital. Lesson learned? You cannot overplan for your medical care when moving–your life literally depends on it.

5) Family is what you make it. I grew up so close to my family that I refused to even consider moving to New Zealand to be with my Darling Husband, because I couldn’t imagine going so long between visits with my parents and siblings. But after I called out my family about 4 years ago for treating my autistic son like crap and undermining our parenting, everything changed. My brother and sister still won’t talk to me for hurting my mom, even though she and I are fine now. Thankfully, we’ve built a family of friends, old and young, near and far, who more than make up for the love lost. All that’s left to mourn is the continuity.

6) Sharing knowledge is more than the letters after your name. My grad school department kicked me out in 2005 because my area of study didn’t match their idea of subjects that build a “world-class history program.” Despite that, I have 15 years of teaching experience, and knowledge that I use everyday—with my kids, with other kids, with other adults, and in my organizing. Teaching is my vocation, plainly put. Even if the flood of post-recession Ph.D.s makes it unlikely I’ll get a college job again, I’m always looking for ways to share what I know in engaging ways.

7) Caucusing is hazardous to your health. Until we moved to Minnesota, I’d always lived in states with primary elections, so I was extremely excited to attend my first caucus on February 2, 2012. It was weird and idiosyncratic and strangely wonderful; I was too hyped about democracy to sleep until midnight. At about 1:00 AM, I woke with abdominal pain. By 5:00 AM, it was worse than labor, and Darling Husband took me to the ER. I had acute pancreatitis, caused by a gallstone. I spent a week in the hospital, and they surgically removed a bag of rocks from my gut. I now view caucuses as highly suspicious and potentially life-threatening.

8) I am committed with my whole heart and soul to equity. This isn’t about rights, or even history. It’s about empathy. If anyone’s potential is oppressed for who they are, then my potential is also less. I see the beautiful humanity in everyone, and want for them the joys I’ve found and the opportunity to be all of themselves. And yes, I’m willing to block traffic, invade public spaces, and commit civil disobedience to make this happen. I consider it a sacred duty.

9) Together, we win. I’ve never been very competitive, and I always plan for failure so that, as Lloyd Dobbler wisely advised, “…everything’s kind of a pleasant surprise.” But with the campaign for marriage equality, and against Voter ID, and for a new anti-bullying bill and a higher minimum wage, guess what I discovered? I like to win. I like it almost as much as the conversations and organizing it takes to come out victorious. These efforts and the folks I’ve met in them evaporated any cynicism I had about the potential of people power. I highly recommend it to everyone.

10) It’s never too late. I didn’t intend to really go balls-out for the last year of my 30s, but I accidentally did. I learned and performed burlesque dance, even in this imperfect body. I got two big tattoos, the first I’ve ever had. I went to a national convention for community organizers. I shut down highways, corporate offices, and the largest mall in America. I made my kid’s middle school change their negative, reactive response to common autistic behaviors, and re-centered them on positive reinforcement that nourishes all children’s education. All this with my physical and mental limitations. It’s never too late to do important things, and if you forget that, just ask me for a reminder.

Dec 15, 2014 - Physical Ed    No Comments

No One Left Behind

A lot of the social justice work I do is about making spaces–everything from housing to the whole of Minnesota–more welcoming to people whom society often forces out. Sometimes, that’s practical stuff, like urging schools or cities or events to offer gender-neutral bathrooms where trans*/gender non-conforming folks can feel safe. And sometimes, it’s more abstract, like working against police profiling and brutality toward people of color in their own homes and neighborhoods.

The basis of that work is education and empathy. I read, I listen, I ask questions, so when I walk into a new space, I see the ways that place values and welcomes all different kinds of people and their needs. And I also see the ways those spaces exclude and isolate people, which makes a good starting place for effecting change.

So I’ve attended community meetings, planning sessions, trainings, and seminars. I regularly participate in protests, which might include rallies, marches, and sit-, stand-, or die-ins. And the saying in the groups where I organize is that, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth debriefing,” so I’m learning how to observe what does and doesn’t work well, and share constructive feedback.

But it’s possible for a space that’s been engineered with great intention to include a typically excluded group to unintentionally exclude a different group. Some feminists say they don’t feel safe from patriarchy and misogyny if trans* women are included in the space (I happen to think they’re wrong, for the record). Often, queer people of color feel uncomfortable in the largely white LGBTQ activist movement. Class barriers manifest often in community meetings, where those with more income and education assert themselves as more worth listening to than their less privileged neighbors. We all need to do better, even if we think we’re doing the right thing just by showing up.

As I see intersectionality championed in the powerful, new spaces we’re constructing, though, we’re missing the mark on disability. I’m physically and neurologically disabled, thanks to the Wonder Twins, fibromyalgia and autism. I’m not the most restricted person at a gathering, but I do face barriers that others don’t. I’m also used to being in the company of someone with more intense disabilities, though, so I’m attuned to obstacles so I can help them negotiate our environment.

And the new movements need to do more. I’ve had to choose which breakout session to attend based on which didn’t require me to climb a flight of stairs. I’ve had to leave valuable trainings early because the bright lights and unchecked noise level wore me out. I’ve also sat through meetings which taught me nothing because I couldn’t hear or see the speakers. And I’ve both hurt myself trying to keep up, or just fallen out completely, with marches that followed a route and went at a pace that left all but the able-bodied behind.

And I’m full-sighted. I’m not in a chair. My lungs and heart are strong. I have 40 years of coping skills to manage sensory input. I hear exceptionally well. If I can’t keep up, who else is bejng left behind? And what knowledge and wisdom are we losing when they’re abandoned?

I have a lot of thoughts about accommodations and modifications to make the spaces where real, radical, revolutionary change is happening accessible to all disabled people. I’ll probably break them into separate posts.

But I’m asking each of you who reads this to spend a bit of time thinking and examining your surroundings with renewed curiosity. Think of the physical gestures that literally embody the movement: raised fist, raised hands, bodies marching and lying down. Imagine that you can’t make those gestures in solidarity. Think of the speaker whose voice and insights you most want to hear in the world. Imagine the flight of stairs that keeps you from getting to see them. Imagine seeing that person but not knowing what they’re saying.

How welcome would you feel? How valued? How powerful?

If the answer is “not very,” well, the revolution’s got to change.

A World of Hate

I knew Griffin had a bad day by the way he walked in the door after school Monday. Slow shuffle, hangdog expression, sad sad puppy eyes. “Rough day?” I inquired gently. He nodded, took his folder out of his backpack, and handed it over without a world.

I wasn’t surprised by the discipline slip. But I was absolutely flattened by what it said: “Griffin called another student the ‘n-word.'” I felt a wave of horror and nausea that it’s difficult to describe, which can’t be anywhere close to  how it feels to be on the receiving end of that slur.
“Griffin,” I demanded, “what n-word did you call someone?”

Eyes filling, lower lip trembling, he sobbed out, “NOOB!” before dissolving into a mass of tears and remorse in my lap.

I had to restrain my reflexive laughter in that moment, but I held him away from me for a second. “You said noob?! That’s what this is about?” He nodded, and collapsed against me again. I stroked his hair, and told him we’d get this straightened out, that “noob” isn’t really a bad word, though calling anyone any name isn’t a nice or friendly thing to do.

I went on to question him from a half-dozen oblique angles over the next half-hour, trying to figure out if he even knew the actual n-word. The kid isn’t above trying to lie to save his skin, but he’s pretty terrible at it, and the look of blank incomprehension at my suggestions were more telling than anything he might’ve said.

Finally, I asked him quietly, after a long silence, “Griffin, have you ever heard the word ‘nigger’ before?” He frowned and shook his head. After a few quiet moments, he asked in a whisper, “Is that the bad n-word?” I nodded and said, “You cannot ever, ever say that. It’s the most hurtful word there is.”

I got in touch with the school, seeking resolution. The staff and teachers there are outstanding, and they know the DH and I as the first line of enforcement when there’s any kind of behavior issue. We’ve been unfailingly cooperative, and they’ve been unfailingly kind and loving toward our kids. When we went in to talk this over with the principal and the cultural specialist, I expected that they would’ve found what we did.

But they said they’d questioned the kids present at the incident, and several of them said that Griffin did, in fact, use the real n-word, including one of Griff’s buddies, an African-American kid who couldn’t even say the word aloud when asked.

There is nothing about this incident I don’t hate to the core of my being. I hate that I cannot reconcile what I saw in Griffin when I talked with him about the name-calling, and what the school’s investigation found. I hate having to mistrust his narrative. I hate that I don’t think this will be able to be one of those funny stories we laugh about in the decades to come.

I hate that I was forced to speak a word to my child that I would never, ever say for any reason. I hate that someone might have already introduced him to it–maybe through a YouTube video of game play, maybe on the schoolyard.

I hate that I have to talk to a seven-year-old boy about racism in specific terms. I hate that the fact that he has more friends of color than white friends apparently didn’t protect him from this kind of violence. I hate that he may have made one of those friends aware of his own race and the sickness of heart that comes with it.

I hate that my personal and our family’s real lived values about equality and kindness frankly don’t count for anything in this situation. I hate that this happened in the middle of the most intensive racial equity work I’ve ever engaged in, work that’s made me feel like a soft, naked thing in a world of hedgehogs with quills of bias and bigotry and privilege that constantly draw blood on my aware, exposed heart.

I hate that I don’t know how to be a good parent in this situation. I hate that apparently, I haven’t known how to be one for longer than I imagined.

Aug 26, 2013 - Social Studies    4 Comments

Breaking the Alliance

I’m in the midst of a fundamental transformation, and it’s time for me to say to all the people whose rights I’ve worked to protect and expand:

I am not your ally.

This may come as something of a shock, given all the hours I’ve put in at phonebanks and lobbying and trainings and rallies. Yes, those are your bumper stickers on my car, your emails in my inbox, your scripts still invading the dreams in which I try to persuade talking dogs to call their legislators.

And no, I’m not giving up on activism. Far from it–I’m more committed than ever to bringing new people into the movements for safe schools, racial justice, gender equity, livable wages and housing, quality health care, and all the other things I care about.

But I’m not your ally anymore.

See, if I were your ally, I wouldn’t have a stake in these fights. I’d only be working for others; that work would have no appreciable impact on my own life. And it may seem like that to some of you who watch me flail around for the common good. After all, I married the person I love with no legal impediments. In fact, I even helped him immigrate, with no risk that he would be questioned or rejected or quota’d out of consideration. I’ve only had two, thoroughly planned pregnancies. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have reasonably affordable health insurance coverage for all but four months of my life. I’m white. I’m highly educated. I’m employed.

I am the veritable picture of privilege. So why can’t I be your ally?

I can’t embrace that title anymore because it’s mistaken. It suggests that I don’t benefit from the changes I help create. And that just isn’t true.

Better wages improve my economy. More affordable housing in safe, diverse, closely knit communities improves my family’s living conditions. Schools that foster the dignity and abilities of every child improve my kids’ education. The dismantling of the prison-industrial complex lifts an unfathomable burden from my society. High-quality, truly accessible health care keeps me alive. Environmental conservation preserves my planet, and by extension, the most sacred part of my soul. Broad civil rights for communities of color and LGBT people protect my own rights to vote, to speak freely, to exercise my most fundamental human aspirations. Autonomy, safety, and respect for women’s choices, bodies, and lives guarantee my own ability to live fully into myself.

I’m not an ally because your rights are my rights. Your liberation is my liberation. Your safety is my safety, and that of all I love.

I don’t know the word for what I am, but I am in this with you all the way. And I won’t stop working until we are all free and whole together.

UPDATE: A darling friend from church came up with what may be the correct answer to my dilemma: the word “ubuntu.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines it thus: “Indeed, my humanity is caught up in your humanity, and when your humanity is enhanced mine is enhanced as well.” You can read more of the interview that yielded that quotation here. Yes, I know it’s also a computer term, but apparently the name was chosen deliberately to claim that friendly, collaborative, interconnected effort. So, ubuntu, y’all.

Love > Fear

I’m going to summer camp this year. Not as a parent or a teacher, but as a student at the Leadership Institute run by National People’s Action. This opportunity is dearly bought with the love and financial votes of confidence of many friends, as well as the perseverance of the Darling Husband, who’ll get his share of single parenting back from all those cons he’s attended for work over the years. And I’m determined to use this camp’s resources to level up my skills and be a stronger leader for the causes I feel strongly about. I know it’s going to be a challenging, agitating, soul-searching experience–I’m ready for that.

But today, I was faced with a view of my activism that I’d never, ever envisioned. A beloved friend suggested that I might be on the path toward the kind of activism that harms and terrorizes other people. And I found myself replaying all the marches, rallies, phone calls, planning meetings, training sessions, and conversations I’ve had. I searched them from the outside looking in, scanning for visions of myself as frightening, threatening, angry, or intimidating. And, of course, my vivid visual imagination got straight to work manufacturing reflections of past scenes or shadows of future selves in which I’m furious and self-righteous, intolerant of other viewpoints, but blind to the faults in my own.

But those pictures aren’t real, and the rest of my memories yield images I can’t associate with terror. I speak clearly and fearlessly, yet with respect, to anyone who’ll listen. I work hard, but I goof off too and distract my friends for a few laughs in brief downtimes. I sing, I clap, I chant, I dance. I’ve cried with both joy and grief in the halls of power and in the streets.

I don’t know how these things are scary.

I do have the clarity to see that parts of my activism might provoke a negative response in some people. I may appear to have a rigid sense of what’s right and little tolerance for other positions. My voice can be strident when I try to make it heard over those who try to drown it out. I’m not a small person, and when I raise a fist of power or link arms in solidarity with others, I probably look unmovable. I talk a lot about the actions I’m taking, because they take up a big part of my life. I retweet too much.

It IS radical, what I do. Maybe I should get used to that statement: I am a radical. I believe in radical things, like the worth and dignity of every single person on this planet, and the power of a single person’s action joined with others. I do radical things, like give my time and energy and voice to causes that do not directly benefit me at all, just because they seem worthwhile and I recognize the power that comes with my privilege. I try to offer radical acceptance to every person I meet, by acknowledging that every life is a journey, and we’re not all at the same place on the path at the same time–judging or criticizing another person for being where they are on their path accomplishes nothing.

The internal conflicts I weather as I work through the evolution of my beliefs and the consequences of my actions aren’t visible to most people, so I’m sure I seem like another cardboard cut-out liberal rabble-rouser. I don’t talk with everyone about why some causes get my attention and others don’t. Part of that is embarrassment at the inexplicable, emotional reasons for some of those decisions. I have internal boundaries among the issues and tactics of activism that don’t always come from a sensible place.

But I hope my primary motivations are clear as day: I want everyone to feel the same love and enjoy the same rights I do. I love learning and free will and self-determination, and I believe everyone deserves equal access to them. Because that’s what moves me, I’m categorically opposed to tactics designed to frighten or deprive anyone of something that’s rightfully theirs.

And here’s where I’ll make the only qualification in this whole screed: disproportionate political or financial power is not a right. Those are things you earn, and if you use them to take away the rights and freedoms of others, then you have to be ready for the same people who gave them to demand them back. If you’re the one in power, the idea of losing that position might be frightening. It shouldn’t be, because power over others isn’t a right, but nobody likes to lose control. I can empathize; I’m a control freak too.

But one of the founding principles of democracy and human rights is the power of a group of people to rise up peacefully, speak their piece, and create change in society. Sometimes, the language of this right is misappropriated by people who want to use that power to take away others’ rights (often, that exact same right they’re exercising). But the truly great moments in history largely correlate to times when individuals have stood up for their rights in the face of overwhelming disparity in power and force.

It takes guts and advice and practice and support to do that and not falter. It takes the sight of other people to the left and right of you, whether it’s in a parade or a phone center cubicle or a line of jail cells. That’s who I want to be for others who are fighting for a better world. That’s what I want to be trained to do. And if my faith and conviction in the possibility of change toward greater freedom makes  someone feel afraid of me or bad about themselves, all I can do is say that I love them and where they are in their journey. I’m just trying to be my whole, powerful self and make room for others to do the same.

May 31, 2013 - Political Science    No Comments

The Big Debrief

No more phonebanks, no more trainings. I’m home most nights of the week now. My feet have stopped aching from the Capitol’s marble floors. I’ve mostly caught up on sleep.

This is what victory looks like.

I attended my first training session to fight the hurtful anti-marriage amendment proposed for the Minnesota state constitution a full year before it appeared on the ballot in November 2012. Early the following spring, I attended my first phonebank and began my role in the massive conversation that reworked this state’s understanding of love, marriage, and commitment. I stepped into successively greater volunteer leadership roles as the next nine months played out.

And then we won. Minnesota became the first state to defeat an amendment banning same-sex marriage after 30 previous states had passed them. Jubilation isn’t too strong a word. Strangers in stores asked if they could hug me when they saw the campaign stickers on my coat. “I’m just so proud of my state,” they said, and I agreed.

A lot of people left everything on the field in the effort to send that amendment down to defeat. So when the campaign announced early in the new year that it would ride the momentum to take a shot at winning marriage equality this year, the crowd of people I worked with changed. Many beloved friends stayed to change a No to a Yes, but there was a shift, and I fumbled a bit to find my place in the new order.

Burnout wasn’t an unexpected guest after 15 months on the case, but I was still disappointed in myself to have lost the rhythm of self-renewal. I questioned the assumptions I’d built up in the previous campaign, that I was made for this work and the work itself gave me back more than I put in. But I’d grown enough as a person to know that this was a natural cycle, and that it called for reaching out for support, not withdrawing into myself.

CapitolMessaging2And then, like the birth of every good and wonderful thing, came the Big Push. It required no exaggeration to convey the urgency of every single phone call, every email, every lobby visit. Thousands of us in orange and blue crowded the capitol on the day of the House vote. I worried that I would feel useless as a tiny cog with no sense of the great machine, so instead of simply accepting that, I asked for something specific I could manage. That’s how I became the clearinghouse for the hundreds of paper messages we sent directly to the legislators’ hands as they sat in session. Every time another stack was ready for the pages, I would say “Fly, little bundles of love!” like some manic Witch of the West.

I was surprised by the flood of tears that joy brought as the freedom to marry passed first the House, then the Senate. Sure, I cry with joy or beauty sometimes, but the sobs I tried to contain shook me with an unexpected force. One part was surely a release of tension coiled tightly over more than a year. Another part, though, was the crashing wave of love and possibility that swamped everyone who’d fought or longed for this most basic freedom.

No good campaign skips the big debrief at the end–the veterans are repositories of wisdom on what worked, what didn’t, and how to do it better the next time. So I need to take an inventory of what this movement has done to me.

I can both teach and be taught better than before. I listen more actively and empathetically. I’ve refined and reaffirmed some of my deepest moral and spiritual beliefs. I believe action can work. I can build unlikely coalitions. I found my true calling in issue politics. I can set effective boundaries to preserve my own resources, and I can defend them when challenged by a new, sudden need. I know more about community organizing and legislative politics. I have a base of beloved, lifelong friends. I feel perfectly comfortable in the halls of power. I have made Minnesota my forever home. I learned that our own personal stories can change the world.

And I’m ready to start making some wedding gifts.

FreedomToMarrySign

Feb 21, 2013 - Psychology    10 Comments

Not Worth The Ink

This’ll be a flash blog post, because I’m flash freaking mad.

I try not to get triggered into red-haze, blinding rage by every awful thing about autism that comes across my Twitter machine. But this was just too much to ignore.

You wish your kids had cancer?! And you’re willing to say that? Not just in the privacy of your own twisted mind, or the quiet of a deep night of self-loathing insomnia, or even to a spouse who might recoil in disgust that you would ever give voice to such a repellent thought, but ON THE COVER OF A GODDAMNED BOOK?!!

Autism is not an illness. It’s not even a disorder–it’s an overabundance of order. Neurodiverse people have difficulty engaging with a world that’s too harsh for their acute senses.

We Are Not Sick.

Autism Is Not A Death Sentence.

But parents like you who hate their autistic children so much, they’d prefer it if they had a devastating disease that requires even more devastating therapies with lifelong effects and increased risks including (most cruelly of all) more cancer, you are a death sentence. Parents like you kill their children because they don’t see the person–they only see the work and therapy and bills and grief. So they push those children under the bathwater and don’t let go. They wrap plastic bags and blankets over the angelic faces of children who are so much more than autistic. Sometimes the parent ends their own lives too, but more often than not, they just shake the Etch-A-Sketch and try to conceive a more “wanted” child who’ll give them the fulfillment of all their dreams.

And your book is going to come up in Google searches. Vulnerable parents, fresh from the shock of diagnosis, will see that title in the results. Some may even buy it from the greedy, vulture-like vanity press that put your despicable words into print. And they will think their child would be better off dead.

You. You did that. To the parent, to the child. You did that.

But you also did one other thing, one you didn’t expect. You made me mad.

ConnorJessSafeSchoolsSee, I’m autistic, and so is my ten-year-old son. We are (and I don’t make such claims lightly) rather amazing. Our memory, our keen senses, our vast imaginations, our complex thought processes, our rapid-fire senses of humor. Our capacity for unconditional love and good work. And we’re friends with other autistics who inspire and motivate and enrich and encourage us every single day.

I haven’t given up a single dream for either of my sons, the autistic or the neurotypical. Why should I? They may achieve those goals in unexpected ways, but they can do absolutely anything in the world.

How do I know? Because I have. I’ve graduated, made lasting friendships, participated in government, found and married my one true love, worked toward justice, invented things, created works of beauty, overcome adversity, and mothered two beautiful boys. I’m autistic, and my life is (sometimes uncomfortably) full of meaningful work and relationships.

ConnorJessAlFranken

Me, Senator Al Franken, Connor, and a fellow healthcare activist

I’ve been doing a lot of work on health care reform here where I live. In fact, I’ve been testifying at the state capitol about the importance of comprehensive mental health coverage as the state designs the new health care exchanges required by the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). City Pages published an outstanding article about the fight to enact the Mental Health Parity law Senator Paul Wellstone fought for from 1990 until his tragic plane crash in 2002. Parity means that medical providers and insurance companies will be required to treat mental health by the same standards as physical health. The article is full of horrible examples of discrimination by insurance companies: a woman with an eating disorder was diagnosed to need an inpatient program by four doctors, and her insurance company, United Behavioral Health, rejected her claim nine times for such reasons as “‘There are also religious groups who fast and that is not psychopathology.'” The woman’s lawyer commented, “‘Imagine telling someone with breast cancer to try harder.'”

Mental health parity looks like it’s finally about to happen. If enacted, it’ll help 114 million Americans, but cost less than 1 percent of the total healthcare expenditure under the ACA. When President Clinton enacted parity for federal employees’ health plans, it actually ended up saving the government money. Parity makes good economic, medical, and human sense.

Someday soon, dear author, your autistic kids will be able to get the help they need without a major fight. The only obstacle to them unlocking their full potential will be you. When they get around you–and they WILL get around you–you’ll be the only one left who needs mental help. Won’t you be grateful for good mental health coverage so you can get over your poisonous, miserable ideas about parenting?

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