Living with hate in Portland

June 1, 2017

It’s been a long time since my city had such an emotional week. Maybe in November 1988 when three skinheads murdered an Ethiopian immigrant named Mulugeta Seraw, ripping the scab off the supposedly liberal wonderland of Portland, Oregon. It showed us the ugliness underneath that had been there since Oregon was founded as the nation’s only “whites only” state in 1859. Last Friday that wound was opened times three.

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A local “patriot activist” named Jeremy Christian had been bouncing around on the fringes of the alt right movement. He had been seen seig heiling at a “free speech” rally earlier in the spring and around town going on racist, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant rants. His Facebook page was all over the place, hoping Trump would be his new Hitler, idolizing the Oklahoma City Bomber, briefly defending Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton, and, most recently, wanting to kill those who perform circumcisions. He was an equal opportunity hate machine. And as the world now knows, last Friday that hate became lethal.

I used to ride Portland’s Max train a lot when I was single. It was often a source of free entertainment and a bit of sociological research. It’s a busted circus train where the human zoo gets to mingle. It might be obnoxious teenagers trying to size up an elderly woman dressed like she just climbed down from the Russian steppe. Or maybe a suave hobo trying to make small talk with a tightly-pressed banker. It’s never the same and always seasoned with a dash of risk. At any stop the anti-Christ might step on board and take the train to hell.

That’s what happened Friday when Jeremy Christian got on the Green Line on my side of town and started harassing two teenage girls who had gotten on the wrong train on their way to the mall. Homeless Christian started ranting that it was his train because he paid taxes and they should leave his country. One of the girls was black and the other wore a hijab, so Christian launched into a racist, anti-Muslim tirade. The poor girls had nowhere to go. Three passengers, Ricky Best, Micah David-Cole Fletcher and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, tried to get the maniac to back down and Christian quickly pulled out a knife and stabbed each man in the neck, killing Best and Namkai-Meche.

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On Friday afternoon, while this was happening, I was on my way back from the University of Oregon in Eugene where I had attended a workshop on implicit bias. My thoughts were on beating the traffic to pick up Cozy from daycare. My mind drifted to my wife’s new job at an immigration law firm and the family of squirrels that had made a home in my attic, threatening to chew through our home’s wiring. While I was trying to pick which lane would get me home the fastest a man my same age, also a father, was laying on the Hollywood Max platform, bleeding to death and thinking his last thought. There’s a good chance I had met Ricky Best. He worked for the city and we often take city employees on our Fair Housing Council bus tour where we discuss Oregon’s dark history and encourage people to stand up to hate. Our bus driver is sure that we was one our riders.

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Those three men were the best of Portland; a Republican army veteran, a recent college graduate with a new job, and a PSU student who did spoken word poetry about Islamophobia. They were white men, not girls of color. They could have just thought, “Hey, this is not about me.” But it was about them. It was about us and how we stand together against the darkness. Riders on the train took off their clothes to try to stop the blood gushing from their necks while Christian, waving his knife, ran away. As Namkai-Meche gasped for life he managed to say, “I want everyone one the train to know I love them.”

When I first heard the news, I went into “official” mode. As the chair of Oregon’s Coalition Against Hate Crime I had to alert the network of community partners and start talking to our contacts in the Portland Police Bureau and the Department of Justice about an appropriate response. There were vigils to speak at and interviews to give to put this horrific crime in context, including on NPR’s All Things Considered. The “hate crime expert” hat was on and there was important work to do.

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On Tuesday, I told a CNN crew I would meet them for an interview at the growing memorial at the Hollywood Max station. That’s when my expert hat fell off.

The Max station is now covered in chalk messages of love and tolerance, flowers, candles, and pictures of the stabbing victims. It was overwhelming, this complete coming together in an outpouring of collective grief and appreciation for these heroes. Two little girls were drawing chalk hearts on the pavement with Rick’s, Michah’s and Taliesin’s name in then. I thought about how much Cozy loves to chalk on the sidewalk and I broke down. How do you explain this kind of hate to a child? The next two interviews I gave they had to stop because I broke into tears in the middle of them. This wasn’t academic anymore, this was my community.

We’ve made so much progress as a society. All the measures show kids are much more tolerant than previous generations. HR departments have equity managers and police departments do trainings on implicit bias. Even in the middle of Trump’s wink and nod to our worst qualities which has unleashed a new permissiveness for hate and bullying, we’re still better than we were. Trump and his thugs are a passing fad. The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends away from bullies.

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At the memorial, I wept because I forgot that. I thought my 30 years of work on this issue amounted to nothing if hate mongers were still slaying good people on commuter trains. But all the work we do has paid off. We are better. There will always be monsters like Jeremy Christian, who see themselves as righteous patriots. They will fall through the cracks no matter how small we make them. Let us stand up to them each and every time. We’ve come to far to turn back now.

I got home from a series of interviews last night and saw that our cat had killed one of the parents of the baby squirrel that was living in our attic and just felt the weight of the grey Portland sky.

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An Anarchist and a Cop Walk Into a Bar

May 4, 2017

Little Beirut: It’s not completely untrue that May Day in Portland, Oregon is more celebrated than Christmas Day. May Day marches can bring thousands to the streets to show support for workers’ rights around the globe and whatever issue has people’s collective goat that spring. My first Portland march was in 1996 and there were some signs protesting Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence and Bill Clinton’s deregulation of the internet mixed among the calls for worker solidarity. I had my union card in my pocket and probably a Smashing Pumpkins song in my head.

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Portland has long skewed left-of-center. If you’re a registered Democrat, you’ll likely get sneers, not from registered Republicans, but kids in Che Guevara t-shirts. The city was dubbed “Little Beirut” in 1990 by a member of the George H.W. Bush administration after Vice President Dan Quayle came to town for a fundraiser at the Hilton. There had been several anti-Bush demonstrations between 1989 and 1991, but this one unfolded in true Portland style, with Reed College students vomiting in red, white, and blue up-chucks and a man taking a dump on a picture of the Vice President. Now that the city has a rad nickname, each generation of radicals feels the pressure to raise the bar.

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The first May Day of the Trump Administration put Portland back on the CNN map. An initially peaceful protest Monday was quickly hijacked by Black Bloc anarchists, garden-variety trouble-makers, and probably a few agent provocateurs. By afternoon there was a fire burning in the middle of 10th Street, the windows of a cop car had been knocked out, and some 22-year-old  “revolutionary” smashed out the window of the downtown Target and threw a lit flare into the store full of people. I don’t think this is what Karl Marx had in mind when he wrote that capitalism “sows the seeds of its own destruction.” The Portland Police Bureau declared the formerly permitted march a “riot” and most peaceful protestors got the hell out of the sustained barrage. Even Portland State cancelled some evening classes, perhaps depriving some students from a lesson on what anarchy actually is.

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Look, I get the excitement. I have all Rage Against the Machines CDs and used to play them really loud and scream along. “Fuck you, motherfuckerrrrrrs!” I was a punk in the early 1980s and spray-painted my fair share of anarchy symbols around Atlanta, including on a daycare facility. (I’m so sorry about that.) I even took a swing at a cop once. It was after a Clash concert in 1982. After the show, a brawl erupted in the sweaty summer street in front of the Fox Theater between members of the Revolutionary Communist Party and some Nazi-wannabees. Everybody else, charged up by the combat rock (The Clash’s final song was “I Fought the Law”), jumped in. Peachtree Street was full of punks and cops on horseback and 18-year-old Randy, who thought punching a police officer was the appropriate thing to do in such a setting. Luckily, I missed the guy who had more serious threats to attend to and I went off to the punk club and bragged about rioting in the streets to anyone who would listen.

There is a psychology of these events. Lord knows how many we’ve had over the decades. Social scientists have long looked at how angry mobs take on a life of their own and how a “herd mentality” emerges. When a like-minded crowd, excited about roughly the same thing and dressed similarly (whether its sports fans or black-clad anarchists), get together, there is a tipping point where the rational individual mind shuts down and the emotional collective mind ramps up. This is especially true when there is outside confrontation, usually with the cops. And it has to be added that most of the rioters are males acting out a hyper-masculine script in their “us vs. them battle.” I’ve seen it first-hand plenty of times and have been pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed for my observations. “Smash the state! Quick, lets get a selfie first.”

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Monday’s riot took Little Beirut to a different level. It seemed to be motivated by a hatred of the police. Law enforcement officers had everything not nailed down thrown at them, including rocks, bottles, and fireworks. Besides the shop windows that were smashed and the bike tires that were slashed, “KILL COPS” was spray-painted on a street sign. I know these folks are opposed to the militarization of the police, but they’re pretty much encouraging the militarization of the police. It makes you think some of these supposed radicals are on the payroll of a defense contractor.

If you’ve read this blog you know that I’m anti-fascist. And the Trump presidency has moved this country closer to fascism than it has ever been. I also think intellectual anarchists, like Noam Chomsky, offer a path away from oppressive social systems. I get the antifa philosophy of “countering” fascism directly. (The FAQ on the Rose City Antifa website fairly clearly articulates their positions on the matter.) My whole life has been dedicated to countering neo-Nazis. I risked my life for years studying Nazi skinheads to learn how to do this. And I learned the best approach is to turn a Nazi into a former Nazi, not beat them into submission. That tends to have the opposite effect.  I’ve been to Klan rallies, Aryan Nations meeting, and had a couple of skinheads plan to severely beat me in a Portland strip club. I know Nazis and the Portland Police are not Nazis.

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Like most metropolitan police departments, The Portland Police Bureau has had its share of issues, including the shooting of unarmed African-American citizens. (Every time I pass the spot on the Skidmore Bridge where Kendra James was killed in 2003, I get a chill.) And there was one officer who was probably a little too fond of Nazis, which didn’t help the matter. In 2000, the city commissioned a panel to study racial profiling and found, surprise, the bureau did engage in racial profiling. In 2012, the Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city because of police interactions with mentally ill civilians and the Portland Police are currently engaged in reforms based on the DOJ settlement. That’s a good thing. We’re moving forward together.

There’s no doubt that racism is an issue woven within the institutions of our society, including the various institutions of law enforcement, that devalues non-white lives. Based on our actions, the evidence is clear; all lives don’t matter. But there’s a seriously wide continuum between old school Bull Conner racist cops and harm done by seemingly invisible implicit bias. Post-Ferguson Report, these issues are now out in the open. Although, I don’t have much hope that our new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, will continue the reforms being made in police oversight.

I know an awful lot of Portland police officers who don’t go to work every day to prop up capitalism or put down the little guy. The officers I know have more of a social work approach to policing and probably have more in common with the core values of true anarchists than the “boys in black” might guess. (I will exclude the “Anarchy!” thugs who just want to “fuck shit up” from this observation.) Sgt. Pete Simpson is the Portland cop you always see on TV talking to the local media. He’s a friend and former student of mine and I asked him what he would want the anarchists to know about his line of work:

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“I have been a police officer for nearly 23 years and I have worked with cops from all across the United States. Never once have I met one that said they look forward to going to work to support corporate America and oppress minorities. Quite the opposite really. Most officers I’ve ever been around want to go make their corner of the world slightly better every day — and a lot of those corners are occupied by local businesses and people of color who officers work to protect and serve. At a core level, officers might philosophically agree in some ways with “anarchists” about the things that are wrong in the country — but police officers have a different approach rather than to slash and burn.”

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I also know many anarchists and former-anarchists. They are on their own journey to make sense of the world how to most effectively address the serious problems we face. Like the Nazi skinheads I’ve studied for 25 years, some get pulled into a simple world of black and white with a subsequent action plan of “destroy everything and hope something beautiful arises from the ashes.” When I was 21, that seemed incredibly appealing and romantic. As a 53-year-old parent, I know the black and white analysis (“Capitalism is always evil!”) is problematic, at best. (Starbucks is not 100% evil. I’d say only 40-60% evil, depending on my need for caffeine.) I also know it’s better to get inside the machine and “fix shit up.” Maybe I’m just an optimistic 50-something, but I believe real reform happens.

There was a moment before one of the many Portland marches against George W. Bush’s pointless 2003 invasion of Iraq. We were making signs in the Park Blocks and a young anarchists with a red bandana over his face asked the crowd for some good quotes for his signs. I offered a few. “Government is not the solution to the problem, government IS the problem,” “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” and a few others. He scribbled them down furiously. “These are perfect! Who said them?” he asked.

“An anarchist named Ronald Reagan,” I said. He was not amused.

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Anarchism is a legitimate and important philosophy. I’ve taught its basics for years in my Contemporary Theory class. I’m guessing the rocket scientist who tried to set the Target on fire on May 1st would not pass the test on the subject. When people hear the word “anarchist” now they just think of violent thugs who want to murder the members of our community who work in law enforcement. Black Bloc might not all be agent provocateurs on Trump’s payroll, but they sure are reinforcing Trump’s narrative about the “violent left.” Not the best strategy of creating support for social change. Cool, in a Rage Against the Machine/rebellious youth sort of way, but not effective in reality. The 25 “protesters” who were arrested in the riot can only claim to adding fuel to the fire driving the drivel on Fox News. Capitalism remains unfazed.

On May 2nd, I was having an email chat with PPB’s chaplain. He had a little anecdote that said so much about the situation. “This morning at coffee I had a conversation with a young women who is friends with many of the Antifa people, and who was asking about racism and police brutality.  I think, from a honest position, her friends claim that there is out of control police brutality. And that none of the things the police claim are true, like destruction of property, aggressive actions, etc..  She came over to me and the officers seated at coffee with me and just didn’t know who or what to believe anymore.”

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What if we got the anarchists and cops in a room together? What could they learn from each other? It might serve to humanize both sides. I was on one side of the “battle” until I started actually listening to people I thought I was somehow fighting. Turns out we’re all on the same side. As someone who has pretty much read everything Karl Marx has written (The picture of me at his grave in England in 1991 will surely surface if I ever run for office), let me end with a quote; “Let us seek our salvation through solidarity.” I promise that’s from Karl and not Ronald Reagan.

POSTSCRIPT: I realize this blog post might annoy some police officers AND sone radicals. If that’s so then my mission as a teenage anarchist is complete. Now dig this song.

Butterflies for the Children of Aleppo

December 1, 2016

What can we do? Can we dance while the children of Aleppo are being slaughtered? Can we smile while the last doctors pull the ball bearings from Russian-backed Syrian regime cluster bombs out of the spines of toddlers? The monarch butterfly only lives for six months. Do we have a right to enjoy its beauty knowing that its wings will soon be broken against the wheel? What can we do? What did you when you saw little Omran in the ambulance? What will we do now that we have seen him?

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The siege of Aleppo continues unabated. The once bustling city has been hollowed out by Syrian and Russian jets dropping barrel bombs that spread explosions of shrapnel which decapitate children every single day. The innocent civilians cry to the sky. “Where are you, world? How are you letting this happen to our loved ones?” And the world Tweets something clever, indifferent. #WeirdBathroomConvos

History will ask where we were in 2016 while this horror happened. Just like it asked where where were in 1994 during the Rawandan genocide and where we were in 1975 during the mass killings in Cambodia. We are always in the same place; dancing with our eyes closed.

In 1993, I was in eastern Europe, doing my dissertation work on new fascist youth movements. The civil war in Yugoslavia was in full swing and Bosnian refugees were streaming out of the country with horror stories beyond belief. I tried to make it to Sarajevo, but the city was under a murderous siege and all travel in was closed.

It was a sunny day in Prague so I went to Josefov, the old Jewish quarter, to soak up the sun and some relevant history. There was an exhibit about the internment of Jews in the German concentration camp in nearby Terezin. Toward the end of the war, Hitler didn’t want the world to think his camps were so bad, so he invited the Red Cross to tour the camp in Terezin. The barracks were cleaned, prisoners that were sickly were quickly shipped off to Auschwitz, and the children were given art supplies to show the kindness of the Nazis.

What kind of art would children in a Nazi death camp create?

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The exhibit had some of their art preserved over the decades. The art was their escape. Amid certain death they drew pictures of red birds and green butterflies flying though perfectly blue skies.

Later that day I was in the Old Town Square in the Staré Mesto part of Prague. In an abandoned storefront people had created an exhibit about the war in Yugoslavia to raise awareness about the violence nearby in the Balkans. The exhibit included art by Bosnian Muslim refugee children whose parents had been killed by Serbian soldiers.

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When kind of art would the children of ethnic cleansing create?

Crayola crayon drawings of red birds and green butterflies flying through perfectly blue skies.

I walked outside and wept that this was happening again. And this time it was happening on my watch. I sat down in the Charles Bridge over the Vlatava River and wrote this.

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Kids in cages, kids in camps

Kids on TV, kids on maps

Crayon dreams of simple pleasures

A blue bird and a yellow sun

cross with grey sketches

of a brother being hung

Playground mortar shell

interrupts an afternoon soccer match

Late night round up

Out of bed shouting family snatch

The innocent monsters of childhood

are traded for the nightmare monsters of mankind

Kids in cages, kids in camps

Kids on TV, kids on maps

Twinkle, twinkle, night lights off so far

Doomed by the brands of moons and stars

Red rockets fly from mountain tops

Yellow bayonets from ghetto cop cars

When I grow up I want to be alive

I want to be married to a brave prince

with Mommy and Daddy smiling

But instead I go to Srebrenica or Auschwitz

“Never again” is an empty cry as Sarajevo’s children

relive the genocide plans of the ruling mind.

I wonder what type of art the children of Aleppo are creating now, in those precious moments between bombings and siblings dying. I imagine drawings of red birds and green butterflies flying through perfectly blue skies.

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Andrea and I have been crippled by the images of Syrian children creeping into our mundane lives as parents in America. How can we look away? We are somehow complicit as “strong leader” Putin continues to bomb civilians. What can we do? Could butterflies help?

Andrea made the decision to use her artistic shoulder to slow the wheel. She is doing a series of  paintings of Monarch butterflies, the symbol of her home in Michoacan, Mexico and symbolic of the great migrations we make to live and reproduce. She will be debuting them at my reading at Music Millennium on Saturday. All proceeds go to UNICEF Aleppo Relief. They will also be available on her website (andreabarriosart.com) for only $40 (they come with a little easel). It’s one way relieve an ounce of the suffering of children who do not deserve the hell of adult politics.

In addition, 10% of the sales for my new novel, The Dream Police, are going to UNICEF Aleppo Relief. It’s not much but if the book does well, it might be.

I think of all the places that children suffer from the actions of adults; Syria, South Sudan, Chicago. I think about food contaminated with plastics and guns in schools and lead in water. I think about how much we don’t think about our children and I want to turn into a butterfly and fly away.

Please help UNICEF help Syrian children by donating here: UNICEF

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Owning My White Privilege: Stories I won’t (have to) tell my children

Sept. 21, 2016

The beauty of privilege is that is invisible. If you’ve got it, it’s really hard to see. A right-handed person might not feel they have any unearned privilege but just talk to a left-handed person about that subject. Being privileged does not mean you are a bad person, it just means you have been given an advantage. And there is nothing more real than white privilege. It’s evidence is a dead father in the middle of a lonesome highway in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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There’s a whole army of white people who want to deny the existence of white privilege. “I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve got!” they crow. “There are black people with a lot more money than me and a black man in the White House!” they’ll point out. “It’s a liberal plot to make me feel guilty!” they’ll bleat. These folks don’t understand the concept of white privilege. They may or may not be racist, but they’re definitely ignorant and ignorance can be fixed. We’re all ignorant about things, especially things that are invisible.

There are a lot of folks who have written about the daily experience of white privilege more eloquently than I have, people like Peggy MacIntosh and Tim Wise. Although my next book project is a tome on privilege called Recovering Asshole, so maybe I can join their ranks. The daily stuff is like just turning on the TV and knowing I’m going to see people who look like me or knowing that when people see me, my race isn’t the first thing that registers. This post is about the privilege that keeps me from being killed when my car breaks down.

I always tell my students about a local news broadcast I saw about two separate sexual assaults in Portland in which the attackers were still at large. In the first story, the wanted man was 6’1 with brown eyes and long dark hair. In the second story, the wanted attacker was 5’10, black with brown eyes and short dark hair. See the difference? The white man was colorless, because white is the “normal” race. You don’t even have to mention it. If you say “a person,” it’s just assumed to be a white person.

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There’s a lot assuming that goes with race. Assumptions that Asians are good at math, and Mexicans want to steal somebody’s job (How is that even possible?) and, of course, that African-Americans are naturally violent and animalistic. This last one has gotten a lot of unarmed black men shot by police over the years, because, well, you know, we don’t know what any of them might do. Meanwhile, there’s an “open carry” white guy on the side of the road who thinks cops are agents of the ZOG (that’s the Zionist Occupation Government for you non-right-wing extremists), but let him pass. He has rights!

White “Sovereign Citizens” are America’s top cop-killers.

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The shooting of Terence Crutcher by police last week next to his broken-down car in Tulsa is such a textbook case. We don’t know what the police were thinking as the father of four, heading home from a music appreciation class, held his hands up as instructed. But we do have audio from the police chopper as it circled over head. “That looks like a bad dude, too. He could be on something,” they said. Why would they say that? Because they were playing the race card. All you need to be a bad dude is black skin.

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If I were to breakdown on an Oklahoma highway, I am willing to bet my life that police would never unholster their weapons in the first place, let alone shoot me, even if I ignored a few commands. Because I’m white. Just because I’m white. My whiteness gives me the benefit of the doubt. And there are countless examples of this every day. Just ask how police dealt with Dylann Roof, the white guy that shot 9 people to death in a black church in Charleston last year. He got the benefit of the doubt. Instead of shooting him, the police got him some food from Burger King.

It’s called implicit bias and you don’t have to be a white supremacist to have it. Pretty much everyone does. Research has shown that white people have been successfully taught to fear minorities even though most crime is white-on-white and committed by someone known to the victim. African-Americans get the brunt of this insidious lesson. When I was a kid and we drove into Atlanta, as soon as my mom saw black pedestrians she‘d lock the car doors. “They will snatch you right out of this car, Randy.” (I grew up thinking black people collected white kids.) So I leaned that lesson, too.

CLICK HERE  to take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test but be prepared for your results!

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Implicit bias is precognitive. It happens before you have a chance to think about it. As a criminologist, I know that the overwhelming amount of property crime is done by white people (especially in Portland) but if a black guy is near my car there’s a little switch that goes off in my head. It was put there by a nation steeped in white privilege that very clearly whispers in your ear, year after year, that black lives matter but just not as much. Police officers, being humans, experience the same implicit bias. Before any rational thought it says, BLACK MAN = THREAT!!!! When the officer has a gun, that message can have disastrous results, as we add another unarmed black man to the body count. “Well, we couldn’t be sure what the true threat was.”

Let me say that I know a lot of good cops and they will tell you that every police interaction is different and there are often factors in some high profile cases that the community doesn’t see. (Was Crutcher on PCP? Am I on PCP? White people need a defense!) I’ve also done a “use of force” training with the Mutlnomah Sheriff’s Department and know that a momentary hesitation can get innocent people killed. (I tried to tell a gunman that I was going to shoot him in the crotch if he didn’t put the gun down. Instead, he hopped in my police car with my rifle in and sped off to do more killin’. I should mention that this was SIMULATION.) But the reality is that even the most fair-minded police officer is up against the same racist messaging that says that, when it’s a black guy, better to be “safe” than “sorry.”

So here’s one example of my white privilege. I won’t have to explain to my light skinned children that the police, who are sworn to protect them, might accidentally kill them. Even if they have their hands up.

Again, if you want to say, “All lives matter,” you need to prove it, because it doesn’t look like it to me in 2016. The first step, if you are white, is stop being defensive about your white privilege. Secretary Clinton said this very clearly this week. “We white Americans need to do a better job of listening when African-Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face everyday. We need to recognize our privilege and and practice humility, rather than assume our experiences are everyone’s experiences.” I don’t care what you think of her. I want you to care about this truth, in this crossroads in our history. We can tear down this wall.

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Here’s Why Saying “All Lives Matter” Makes You Sound Racist

July 12, 2016

Let me get this out of the way first – Rudolph Giuliani is a first class idiot.

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If you are white, I’m going to ask you to turn off your defense mechanisms and think about the value of empathy. Please, just try.

This has been a rough week in America’s tortured history of race relations. Two years after Ferguson (one of the first things I wrote about in this blog), we thought we’d be a little further down the road; not living through even more stories of police, caught on camera, killing black men. And then Dallas happened, a massacre that could only described as a hate crime. What is happening to us?

A lot of white people are freaking out. They think it’s suddenly open season on them or “their” police. They are desperate to blame Obama, or Black Lives Matter, or civil rights, or Beyoncé. They bleat, “No, ALL lives matter!” perhaps not realizing that they are only adding fuel to the fire and making things worse. Many of these people don’t actually care about all lives. If they did, most of these root problems would be long gone. These are the same people who think saying “Happy Holidays” erases Christmas. Yet they are willing to erase the real lived oppression of their fellow non-white Americans. Confronting the complexity and history of racism in 2016 America (and their role in it) is too hard and scares them right down to their tighty whiteys, so they bleat about “all lives,” like they give a rat’s ass about what is happening to black lives and the very real trauma of endless systemic racism.

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Hey, if I say, “Northern White Rhinos matter!” it doesn’t mean that other types of rhinos don’t matter, but there are only 10 white rhinos left on the whole fucking planet. You get that, right?

A lot of white people hear “Black lives matter” and their fragile egos hear, “ONLY black lives matter.” Either they’re suffering from delusions of persecution or a fear that the hell foisted upon minorities in America is coming back to haunt them. Stop. There is no “only.” It’s all in you messed-up mind.

The Point of BLM

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The point of “Black lives matter” is that all lives matter, including black lives. But those black lives have been devalued since the founding of this country. First it was slavery. Then it was Jim Crow. Now it’s the institutional racism of the criminal justice system and the informal racism of bigots, like Giuliani (and plenty of liberals), who pretend to be colorblind.

Any social scientist will tell you that every major institution in America suffers from racial bias. Just Google, “predatory lending and race.” We dump our toxic waste in black parts of states and defund job training programs in black parts of cities. Racism permeates the education system, the financial industry, housing, urban development, hiring, Hollywood, and, perhaps most of all, the criminal justice system.

Every step of the justice system demonstrates racial inequity. From who gets pulled over, to who gets arrested and when force is used. It’s in who prosecutors charge and how they charge them. It’s in who judges sentence and how long they get sentenced. There is racial bias in corrections and in parole. Every single step of the way. Whether were talking drug sentencing or the death penalty, there is no debate that blacks get it worse. Dr. Devorah Pager’s famous 2003 study found that whites with a criminal record had an easier time finding a job than equally qualified blacks without one. I could show you a hundred studies like that.

Every single African-American understands this. Most white Americans either don’t or choose to somehow justify it.

This racism knows no class boundary. Just ask a rich black guy who drives an expensive luxury car how many times he’s been pulled over. Of course, if you can afford a good lawyer, you might avoid the rest of the criminal justice nightmare.

So I’m thinking this is a good time to think about some other folks. I’m thinking about black friends, and, after Dallas, I’m thinking about my law enforcement friends. And I’m really thinking about the two worlds my black law enforcement friends navigate. I don’t want to listen to people try to rationalize the killing of Alton Sterling or Philandro Castile. (“They were thugs!” If police can kill thugs without due process maybe we should start telling them about the thugs on Wall Street who are robbing us blind.)

I’m thinking about the black father who has to have “the talk” with his 16-year-old son. The one about how to act if the kid gets pulled over by the police so he doesn’t end up dead. You know, the one white fathers don’t have to have with their sons.

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Look, anytime you have hyped-up males in the mix, you’re gonna have some problems, whether they’re hyped up because their sports team won or hyped up because their race has been systematically and violently oppressed for centuries. Yeah, there are some male folks who scream about “killing cops,” and one or two who have thrown a brick at public safety officers who are just trying to make it through another day at work. That’s not the true face of the nonviolent Black Lives Matter movement, but you’d never guess that watching Fox News. (As it turns out, the brick throwers were not BLM activists, but outside dickwads.)

It’s Getting Better All the Time

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First, some good news. I know there are fear-mongers in the media and on the campaign trail that want to tell you that everything is getting worse and what we need is some old fashioned “law and order.” Sorry, Chicken Little. The crime rate in this country has been dropping steadily for over 20 years. That includes a dramatic drop in gun violence. The shooting of police officers has also dropped. That might not be much comfort to law enforcement folks who are understandably on edge right now. The only thing that is up is fatal shootings of blacks by police. And there it is. We don’t need more “law and order.” We need real justice and education.

What’s changed in those 20 years is the public eye. In kind of an upside down version of Orwell’s 1984, it’s not just Big Brother who is watching. It’s nearly every little brother and sister. It wasn’t the 1991 police beating of Rodney King that changed things. Shit like that went on and goes on all the time. It was that it was caught on video and still the cops were acquitted. Now with cell phone cameras, more and more of these incidents are caught and even live-streamed. It only seems like things are getting worse. Technology is just letting us see things as they’ve always been. When people carry tools to document social injustices in their pockets, things are bound to get hot.

The Life of a Cop

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After the Rodney King riots, I wanted my students to better understand the world of the police officer and how even well-meaning public servants can end up in a situation that can go FUBAR in seconds. I’ve brought officers, detectives and FBI agents into my classroom to address some of the hard questions about the thin blue line they stand behind.

The life of a cop is extremely stressful. While being a public servant can be highly rewarding, law enforcement officers have higher rates of divorce, alcoholism and death from heart disease. It’s one of the few occupations where every time you walk out the door, you are well aware you might not walk back in at the end of your shift. To serve and protect. The kevlar vest is hot and heavy and shot to the face doesn’t care if it’s on your back or in the back of your cruiser.

So maybe we can dial back the simplistic rhetoric that police officers are secret Nazis, with shrines to Hitler in their backyards, or fronting for the KKK. Police departments recruit from the human department and they reflect that mix. You’re gonna get cops who are rude, or dealing with anxiety poorly, or are garden variety dickwads. But also plenty of men and women who get into policing because it seems like an effective way to make their community a more livable place for families like and not like theirs. I guarantee you for every avowed racist with a badge there’s a truckload of liberal social work-minded cops who voted for Bernie. I can give you names.

One of the lessons the Johnson Administration’s Crime Commission in 1967 was that police departments needed to look like the communities they policed. White cops coming into black neighborhoods, like in Detroit and Watts, with all their white baggage, inflamed the “us vs. them” tensions and cities burned. Now, about a quarter of all police officers are minorities. But that still means that mostly white police officers are patrolling black communities. Room for improvement.

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Where the racism is real is in the very real mindset of implicit racism. In a racist society, all of us (including African-Americans), have been brainwashed into thinking black men are dangerous THREATS (while we let Bernie Madoff slip by). It’s an unconscious form of racism. Dr. Kimberly Kahn, a professor in the Portland State Psychology Department, completed a fascinating study that found white motorists were less likely to stop for black pedestrians than white pedestrians. Do you think those white motorists truly believed “all lives matter”?

So that white cop may go for his (any her?) use-of-force toolkit more quickly with a black male based on same “threat assessment” toolkit the rest of us carry with us. There’s plenty of “open carry” white guys walking around that probably wouldn’t be right now if they were black. They are labeled “2nd Amendment Activists,” not dangerous thugs.

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black-lives-matterSo don’t tell me, “all lives matter,” if toxic waste incinerators in black areas or the defunding of black schools or health care discrimination or drug sentencing and use-of-force disparities are not on your “things to abolish” list. You’re talking shit and black America knows it. They are in the street telling you the expiration date on your white bullshit has passed and you better listen because there is no going back.

I know you think that when Obama was elected, he snapped his brown fingers and any vestige of racism disappeared (and now he’s just “dividing us”) but reality begs to differ. If anything, Obama has helped to reveal the depth of the problem of race. But don’t worry, the next president will be white. So, for now, if you are telling us, “All lives matter” and you are not actually doing anything to stop the devaluing of black lives, I am going to politely ask you to shut the fuck up.

Here’s the challenge. If you are not black, be quiet for a bit and listen to the concerns of your fellow citizens who are. Actually listen. And if you are not a cop, be quiet for a bit and listen to your fellow Americans who are. Don’t tell us about “them,” just sit with the information for a little while and then ponder how you would walk in those shoes.

I’m going to ask you to turn off your defense mechanisms and think about the value of empathy. Please, just try. Even you, Rudy.

The Man Way: The stupidity of fighting terrorism with more terrorism

July 6, 2016

I don’t know who first said, “War is terrorism with a bigger budget,” but it seems profound these days. Smart bombs away! Boys love war. They’ll lead wars against poverty, against crime and drugs.  And don’t forget the war against terrorism. All of which have been miserable failures. And yet boys think more war is the answer.

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When I was a boy, I loved war too. I played with G.I. Joe and my plastic machine gun. I did school reports on Sherman tanks and studied the dogfights of World War 1 pilots. I watched John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Green Berets. Like John, we boys played Vietnam War in the Georgia woods, only this time we won. I wondered what war I would fight in when I grew up. I imagined I’d be an Air Force pilot, safe above the clouds as I dropped bombs on the faceless enemy below. When I was 16, Ronald Reagan was elected on the promise of more and better wars and my testosterone pumped. Iran, Afghanistan, maybe even Mother Russia herself. But suddenly the 4 O’clock movie started to look like a reality and I began to have second thoughts about the thrill of war.

Then I grew up. In college I read Gandhi and Martin Luther King and The Gospel According to Matthew. And my love of war began to fade.  I met some of those soldiers I had romanticized and the dream of war became a nightmare. Over the years all the warriors I’ve met have told me tales of dead friends, sleepless nights, long waits at the VA, and 4th of July fireworks triggering PTSD. I haven’t met John Wayne once, just men and women who need support in managing the effects of politicians playing soldier.

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So you will excuse me if Mr. Trump’s talk of “bombing the shit out of ISIS” just makes me want to puke. We’ve dropped countless bombs on the middle east and people are still being killed by terrorists in cafés and nightclubs. The war in Afghanistan is in its fifteenth year and the place doesn’t look that much different than when we showed up in 2001.  And today we learn that 8400 US troops will remain in Afghanistan in the war without end. (But war profiteers have made billions of dollars so don’t expect it to end any decade soon.) George W. Bush’s (and Tony Blair’s) idiotic invasion of Iraq that opened the door for ISIS and Obama’s “clean” drone strikes in the region have only made us less safe while funneling trillions of dollars out of the American economy. Do you think those dudes sing along when they hear Mavin Gaye ask “What’s going’ on?” Maybe they just giggle at the “War is not the answer” part.

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The Obama administration released a report last week about civilians killed in drone attacks in Africa, Yemen, and Pakistan. They believe that between 2372 and 2581 “enemy combatants” were killed between 2009 and 2015. We trust that these “enemy combatants” were sociopathic terrorists who want to blow up shopping malls in Kansas and not kids who were forced into someone else’s jihad. For the same period, the administration estimates that between 64 and 116 non-bad guys (men, women, children, doctors, aid workers, etc.) were accidentally killed by our drones. Investigative journalists think that count may be ten times higher. And this does not include civilian deaths from the drone strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria that are a daily terror. By the way, the going price for a remote controlled MQ-9 Reaper drone is $12, 548,710.60. (The 60 cents is for the pine scent.) And we wonder why we can’t “afford” free college or health care.

I think if I was a young man in Yemen and one of those 116 “non-enemy combatants” killed was my child, I might be a little angry. In fact, when I found out my child was killed by some American sitting in an air-conditioned office in Colorado, manning a flying robot bomb with a joystick, I’d want revenge. I’m like that. I’d find Al-Qaeda or ISIS, or whoever was screaming the loudest in my village and ask what I could do to strike back against these terrorists. Strap a bomb to my chest and walk into a crowded European airport? No problem. And I get to see my child again. I want them to hurt the way I’ve been hurt. It’s the cycle of pain that war perpetuates and we are all guilty.

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It’s easy to talk about how Presidents Bush and Obama and Prime Minister Blair (and Secretary Clinton) have blood on their hands, but there’s plenty of blame to go around as we fan the flames of war in somebody else’s backyard. We don’t want to be accused of not “supporting the troops” as a another generation of young warriors gets sent into the meat grinder only to become the next generation of old vets standing on an offramp asking for spare change.  They’re keeping us free, right? Why should we stop that?

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So that brings us to Mr. Trump. After the mass shooting in Orlando, Trump renewed his calls for an all-out ban on Muslims entering the U.S.. Omar Mateen, the shooter, was born in Queens, New York, just like Trump, so I’m not sure what his ban would have accomplished. He repeatedly tells his crowd that his strategy will be to “bomb the hell out of them” and his sub-moronic loyalists scream in approval. The problem is the recent attackers in Turkey and Bangladesh (and Orlando and San Bernardino) did not come from the battlefields of Syria. Like Mateen, they were most likely radicalized online. So I guess Trump’s plan is to bomb the hell out of every Muslim with a laptop or a smartphone. Gee, I wonder what the unintended consequences of that type of genocidal violence might me.

Do you think President Trump might end up creating more terrorists than he kills? You could make the case that lesson should have been learned by Bush, Blair and Obama. Oh, never mind. His fans love war. Trump is John Wayne! More bombs! That’s the answer! Today, a sister of one of the British soldiers killed in Iraq called Blair, “the world’s worst terrorist.” Tony has some competition for that honor. (4,486 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq.) Maybe President Trump can win that title. Winning!

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Of course, Trump wants to make this about Islam and not the conditions that push young men into war. (Our war on their terrorism or their war on our terrorism.) The attacks this week in Saudi Arabia should prove that ISIS is not a real Islamic organization any more than the KKK is a real Christian organization. What could be more anti-Muslim than blowing up Muslims in Medina on Ramadan? (Wait, is ISIS a Trump front?)

Scholars have described the bulk of the rank and file members of these jihadi groups as being either illiterate or barely literate. They’re not reading the Koran; somebody is telling them what it says. Sort of like that backwoods Pentecostal preacher telling some hill person that dancing with a poison snake will make Jesus happy (and killing gay people is God’s will). You don’t stop their anger at the world with more bombs.

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“So what are we supposed to do, Professor Blazak?” Here’s the part you don’t want to hear. Terrorism is a complex issue, with a lot of moving parts (including a military part). But in an election year,  Americans want simple, bite-size solutions. Most could care less about the difference between Sunni and Shia followers of Islam. Just bomb the hell out of all of them. Am I right? Maybe not. Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the face by the Taliban, famously said, “With guns you can kill terrorists. With education you can kill terrorism.” But what does that kid know? And old guy in rural Georgia knows that our bombs can beat their bombs. “More war! (As long as I don’t have to go,)” he bleats.

Look, can we have a moment of national honesty? We’ve finally admitted that the War on Drugs was a horrible waste of lives and tax dollars. Republicans and Democrats actually have some agreement on this. Can we just admit the war on terrorism is sucking the soul of America dry and making the world less safe with every “smart” bomb we drop. Are we ready for a permanent state of world war or are we intelligent enough to imagine a more effective strategy? Just maybe war is the problem, not the solution. The answer is probably not going to come from a boy (or a girl who acts like a boy). I might listen to Malala. Just sayin’. War is over, if you want it.

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Ode to a Gay Bar

June 15, 2016

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On Monday afternoon I was walking along the Mall in Washington, DC, looking at all the flags at half mast in remembrance of the massacre in Orlando. It was powerful to see our nation’s capital honoring 49 people killed in a gay club. But I don’t think the weight of the thing really hit me until the following day. I was listening to a story on NPR about how the city had hired Spanish translators to explain to the parents of some of the victims, who had been killed at “Latin Night” at Pulse, the city’s biggest gay club, what had happened to their children. Many of the parents were confused at why their “straight” child had been at a gay bar. The fact that the victims had to come out after their murder was like an emotional sledgehammer. Such a common story.

I could talk all day about the shooter and the reactions from the bitterly gun-obsessed, Islam-hating right-wing narrative inventors. But I want to talk about the crime scene. More specifically, the importance of the gay bar in America.

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Friday will be the one year anniversary of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina where another hate-filled man killed nine black worshipers. A black writer that admire (I can’t remember who), penned a piece about the meaning of the racist killer invading a space that was sacred to many African Americans in more ways than one. The black church is historically a sanctuary from the racism outside the church doors, a place to be in the majority and bond over common struggles. Dylan Roof invaded a safe space that had been invaded many times before.

Omar Mateen did the same thing.

As a kid in rural Georgia, there were stories about gay bars in places like San Francisco and New York City. (We didn’t know about the Stonewall Inn, just Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”) It wasn’t until, at age 16,  I started going into downtown Atlanta to hang out in punk rock clubs, like 688, that I discovered the thriving underground world of Atlanta’s gay bars. When the rock clubs closed at around 2 am we had a few options; Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon Avenue (“Hot Doughnuts Now”), the Majestic Diner, also on Ponce (“We never close but we’re often rude”) or the gay dance bars that seemed to serve drinks until dawn.

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In the early 1980s, that was mainly Backstreet in Midtown, set back far enough from Peachtree Street that it felt like a secret mission just to find the door to get in. I first went with a bunch of friends in 1981. I was 17 and still schooled in the homophobia of the South but also aware that I never fit in that Southern culture. It didn’t take long to learn that the “queers” were a part of my tribe of misfits. That was the beginning of the end of my homophobia.

All I knew was that the cool kids were at the gay bar, dancing to Two Tons of Fun or Grace Jones, smoking cigarettes and bitching about rednecks. That first night I was sure I was gonna get hit on as I entered the door with my crappy fake ID. By the time I left I wondered why I didn’t get hit on. Did I not rate? I felt insulted but welcomed at the same time. One one hand we were the straight crowd invading somebody else’s space but I always got the feeling that it was appreciated that we were loose enough to be there without starting some stupid shit.

It felt dirty and dangerous and liberating. It was clear people were risking life and limb to be there, to find a community in the shadows. There were cops and hustlers and straight thugs and repressed thugs all itching for a chance to play Smear the Queer right outside of the bar’s door. Just a block away, “straight” men from the suburbs and the sticks were cruising Juniper Street for a quick gay hook-up. (Georgia license plates have the county of registration on them so when you saw Mr. Coweta County on Juniper, you knew what was up. They just kept it on the down low.) There was an air of constant danger. And my mother always thought I was staying over at a friend’s.

Maybe most important was the simple fact that people there could be who they actually were. So many LGBT people are forced into double lives. Their true sexual selves and the persons their religion or community demands they must be. This was certainly true of the 1980s Bible belt and I am quite sure it was the case for Omar Mateen. For many, all they had or have is the gay bar on a Saturday night and then it’s back to the big lie Sunday morning. You felt like you were in an oasis of sanity and disco lights.

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But it was in those clubs that a movement from the fringe to the mainstream was born. Like at Stonewall in 1968 and Pulse in 2016. This was the flash before AIDS changed so much. It became the routine to see the Now Explosion (Atlanta’s even gayer B-52s) perform at 688 then follow the crowd, Ru Paul leading the way, to Backstreet or Weekends and dance until our legs gave out.

I’ve written about how I worked at the Turtles Records in Ansley Mall next to Piedmont Park (where it was more than rumored that gay men were having sex in the bushes). I thought I’d ask co-worker Ronnie Holland what those days were like. In many ways he my translator of Southern gay culture in the early 80s.

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Backstreet was a safe haven.  It didn’t feel safe getting there, in the early days of 79/80, we would park off site on the side streets cause we didn’t want the police to get our tag numbers and the streets weren’t particularly safe either, but once we got inside, it was total freedom.  You were accepted, regardless.  Now, that didn’t mean there wasn’t attitude and cattiness and cliques, but everyone just dealt.  To have grown up thinking you were different and strange and somehow wrong, and not ever being able to talk to anyone about it, to find a “tribe” of people who had similar experiences was “otherworldly”.  You didn’t have to explain the journey, it was a common one.

I would have to say that, for my group, the bonding was intense.  Drugs probably helped with that, but the experience of being in a group of people on the dance floor with the music building to a frenzy and everyone being a part of the same experience, was very similar to a sort of “religious” frenzy.  The music and the closeness of the bodies and people losing inhibitions and the lights and the joy……I can see how people would feel a comparison to a church like experience.  It became tribal and transcendental. You lose yourself into the group.

The gay club became an extension of our underground scene and it grew as the climate evolved. By the 1990s, Ru Paul was hosting events at Velvet, a club in the heart of downtown. But it was never completely safe. In 1973, a gay club in New Orleans was the target of an arson attack that killed 32 patrons. In Atlanta it was the bombing of The Otherside Lounge on Piedmont Road in 1997. The lesbian bar was the targeted by Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, a “Christian patriot” who used a bomb full of nails to maximize the carnage. Fortunately, no one was killed but the terroristic message was clear. You can’t even feel safe in your safe spaces.

I was listening to Washington Post writer Justin Torres talk about the Orlando shooting two days afterwards. His first thought on seeing the news was, “Oh, my God. These are my people.” Then he spoke, in almost reverent terms, of the gay club severing as a “queer church” that rejuvenates souls. “So when you walk into the club, if you’re lucky, it feels expansive. Safe space is a cliche, overused and exhausted in our discourse, but the fact remains that a sense of safety transforms the body, transforms the spirit. So many of us walk through the world without it,” he said.

To have your church attacked by someone who had been welcomed into it with open arms, just like what happened in Charleston a year ago, is a deep wounding that cannot heal easily. Where can you feel safe if not there? And for every big city gay club with armed security (a lot of good that does) there is a small town gay bar hoping to survive a firebombing or having its patrons followed home and harassed. Can a brother and/or sister just have a drink in peace?

I have a friend named C. Ray Borck. Besides being a much loved sociology professor, he is transgender and came of age in the gay clubs. He posted a powerful homage on Facebook to those clubs less than 12 hours after the news about Orlando broke, writing:

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I have been remembering the countless nights I’ve spent in gay clubs, especially the Latinx ones, and I keep discovering moments of solace in the memories and magic of those places, as early as last week on Cherry Grove. A gay dance party is always a good time. The sexy lighting and incessant beats. Excessive drinking and cigarettes after everyone else had kids and quit. Loud fashion and incisive wit. Watching men be tender with each other and feeling like that’s the revolution. Sweating and yelling and laughing. Telling coming out stories, stories about our youths and our parents, our backwards communities and schools, having found each other in the city streets.

I didn’t need the gay bar because my heterosexuality was celebrated in every corner of my world. But I did need the gay bar for other reasons. Not because it was a “safe space” for “gender non-conforming” kids like me and my punk rock gang. Yes, we were the target of gay-bashings as well. (A guy once drove up next to my car on Piedmont Road and said, “You look like a fag from England,” and then started whacking my Gran Torino with a 2 X 4). We needed it for our friends so they could simply have a space to breath and dance and not be “gay,” but be human beings. Some were gay outside the club and some did their best performances of a “heterosexual lifestyle,” but the either way, their guard was always up. That must be why those clubs are open so late. Just one more dance, please. One more song before I have to again hear how gay people are going to burn in hell or that gay people need to be killed. And make it the extended disco mix.

Wherever your local gay bar is, you don’t have to patronize it but protect it. People you love need to be able to breathe.

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