The emotional fatigue of liberation work

October 13, 2017

Sometimes I have to remind myself of my own advice. When we are trying to be allies or accomplices in liberation movements that are not about our liberation, there’s gonna be some big bumps in the road. It you’re a man who cares about smashing sexism or a white person who wants to dismantle racism, don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms as the great savior. I advise people to be prepared for uncomfortable situations and let folks know that they’re going to be mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Just stay on the path.

Most of my classmates at Emory University went off to Wall Street, or law school, or medical school and are now making six and seven figure incomes and probably vote Republican. I chose a different path. My road has been to dedicate my life to unmasking and upturning forms of oppression in my world. It started the day I turned my back on the Klan town I grew up in and really took off when I began my undercover research in the white supremacist subculture. That path may have earned me a PhD and some media notoriety, but I’ve also got over 30 years of committed racists threatening to kill me and attacking me in ways that have severely impacted my family.

A white activist friend recently said we do this anti-racism work because we have to and she was exactly right. This work is woven into my being now, but I still have a lot to learn. For my senior high school ring I chose Mother of Pearl for the stone as a subtle nod to the “white power” vibes in my school. That was 1981. By 1984, I was working on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. I just needed that first sociology class to help me understand how I had become an agent of others’ oppression. I cast off that yoke but all these years later, there is still more to learn and it gets hard at times. I can’t count the number of racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, agist, classist (and whatever the body-shaming “ist” is) things I’ve done or said over the years.

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To do this work is to deal with emotional fatigue because you never “win.” There’s always another battle and you wonder (especially with a president who today is speaking at a conference of an actual hate group) if any progress has been made. I was at the Portland Max train station last a May after the brutal attack by an alt-right racist that left two men dead and a third clinging to life. I was taking in the candles, flowers, and messages in what had become a makeshift memorial to these three Portland heroes. I suddenly was overwhelmed with desperation. What was the point of my decades of work on this issue if people are still being murdered by Nazis? Had I wasted all this effort? I was going to be a dentist. It was 2017 and the hate mongers were stronger than ever with an ally in the White House. I walked towards some shadows so I could bawl my eyes out.

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I do regular educational tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. We put a bunch of people on big Blue Star bus and drag them on a tragical history tour of Portland. Here’s where the black community was redlined, then displaced by “urban renewal” and gentrification. Here’s where Japanese-American men, women, children, and babies were imprisoned as “enemy aliens” after Pearl Harbor. Here’s where a community of working class people were wiped out by a catastrophic flood. We visit the spot where Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat by racist skinheads in 1988, and around the corner is the Hollywood Max station, site of the 2017 version of the same damn thing. We finish at Clyde’s Prime Rib, the great jazz bar and restaurant that in the 1940s was the Coon Chicken Inn. After the four hour tour, half of the bus riders look like they want to slit their wrists. It’s draining and deflating.

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In this work, I’m used to being attacked by people on the right. It comes with the territory. White supremacists have labeled be a “race traitor” and were doxxing me long before that was even a word. Conservatives call me a “libtard,” and a communist and are convinced that white privilege is a hoax and that discussions of implicit bias is a liberal tool to generate a false white guilt.

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It’s the attacks from the left that are more debilitating. It’s very in vogue for self-proclaimed radicals to bash “white liberals” these days, and much of it (as a self-proclaimed radical) I must say is deserved. As James Baldwin once said, “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” But my work is about bringing people into liberation movements, so I worry attacking the people who are trying to be part of the solution will have an opposite effect. The (young) left can be very dogmatic and humorless, not allowing people to find the most effective path for themselves on this collective path. “Oh, you made an inappropriate comment? You’re out and I’m going to get my righteous posse to kick your ass out the door. Whose streets? Not yours.”

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I was on a panel this week for an amazing program called Race Talks; monthly community conversations about issues related to race and racism. This month’s talk was about how to be a white ally. The organizer called me and asked me to participate and who else should be on the panel. I suggested a young African-American activist who had recently been on my podcast. His position on the issue was provocative but important. My interview with him really helped me grow. So I was excited when we were all up on the stage together in front of a crowd so big they had to create an overflow room. I was prepared to talk about lessons learned about being a white ally and how to take a back seat in others’ liberation movements. I even wrote some notes. I never got to use them.

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Instead of the the woman who organized the panel moderating the discussion (as she had planned), our one black panelist, the young activist, decided he would ask the questions (in what could be framed as an act of male privilege). Questions like how the white people on the panel had burned people of color with their efforts to “help” and what reparations were we paying to make amends for our white privilege. I told you he was provocative. And these were important, valid questions. I’m not sure how it helped the standing-room-only crowd learn to be racial allies (in fact it probably scared a few folks away from the whole idea), but it certainly gave me one of those uncomfortable situations I encourage people to put themselves in.

One of his points is that his time is valuable and he should not be expected to help white people with their racism without compensation. I totally agree. Before the event, I messaged him and said I was looking forward to the panel. I wanted to thank him for taking the time to  be on my podcast. In the South we do that by buying folks beer.

Me: I owe you a beer. Let me buy you one tonight.

Him: I don’t drink. I accept cash though!

Me: How about a salad. LOL

Him: I find salads offensive.

I thought the cash line was a joke so I made a joke about the salad. Apparently, I offended him. He trotted out this interchange to the packed room (and streaming on line) about “this white man” offering him a salad. I apologized for the offending comment and took it as a cue that I should probably think about my use of humor, something that has gotten me in trouble before. (I tried to acknowledge his point by getting out my wallet that only contained 3 bucks, which I placed on the table in front of him. In retrospect, that was probably seen as being a bit rude.) After the talk, I went to the ATM and got out $20 to give him because I really do think his point about being compensated for his efforts is valid. As the crowd thinned, some of the older African-Americans in the audience asked if I was okay. One said it was unfair that I had been ambushed like that. But I want to grow on these issues, so I’m trying to not go into a defensive mode and take everything as a learning experience.

I was still bruising when I got home and in true Trump fashion turned to Twitter and posted something that I would have not posted if I’d gone straight to bed.

“Tonight I learned my white guilt cost $20.”

He screen-shotted it and posted on his Facebook page and it became open season on me from his fan base. But I engaged in the conversation that lasted into the following morning. I learned a lot, including about the meaningful discussion of reparations. The income gap between whites and blacks due to generations of oppression is real and continues to widen. I believe that any reparations should come from the government (the collective “us”). It’s unfair to expect some poor white person to shoulder the responsibility. But there are lots of ways white people can participate that are meaningful.

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I mentioned that I would address this issue in my blog and included a link to a recent blogpost on white privilege. I desperately wanted these fellow ant-racist activists to see I was not the enemy, just in a parallel lane on this journey. I got accused of invading a “black space” to promote my blog. It seemed anything I did or said, I was already convicted of being the bad guy. I was trying to understand their landscape, but I was somehow now the enemy. I offered to link my interview with this young activist to his PayPal account in hopes that people that listened would consider supporting his work through contributions. He said no. “I have been severely traumatized by your self-promotion over the last few days,” he wrote.

Sometimes you feel like you just can’t win. It sucks not being perfect in the eyes of others who apparently are perfect. Sometimes you are tempted to give up and let others do the work. When I was in grad school, I almost did my masters thesis on Appalachian quilt makers instead of Nazi skinheads. Think how different my life would be. Think of all the quilts I would have! But this is my life’s work, so I soldier on, learning from my mistakes.

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In the last few years I’ve learned the concept of “self care” and that it’s okay to be mindful of how hard this work can be and sometimes it’s okay to take a day off the fight and gorge on ice cream. One of the other panelists from that night, No Hate Zone founder Sam Sachs, called me to make sure I was alright after the panel/Twitter/Facebook public thrashing I got from my friends on the left. He told me my work is vitally important and has changed lives. It was just what I needed to hear.

To all those engaged in the struggle for human liberation, it is important that we keep each other’s feet to the fire, so we come from a place of empathy and not ego. It is also important to remember that we are all imperfect in our humanity and in our path to our common goals of equality, so treating each other with kindness and love is key. I am not one to suffers fools gladly, even when that fool is me. We can be hard on ourselves for our imperfections and mistakes and our failures. The moral arc of the universe is long, but we’ll get there. Give us a break.

And since this will likely be picked up by some of those young radicals who will confidently accuse me of being a “self-promoting” asshole, let me just say I love you and will see you a little further down the road.

Super important endnote: No matter how much fatigue a white person feels doing this work, it’s always going to be more fatiguing to be black in America. People of color don’t get to take a “self-care” day off.

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A Time to Refrain from Fighting

14 July 2017

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Tuesday afternoon I had just completed one of our weekly civil rights bus tours of Portland. I’m a presenter for the Fair Housing Council of Oregon ride through our state’s tortured racial history. My part of the program is about hate crime that now links the 1988 bludgeoning death of an Ethiopian immigrant by racist skinheads to the brutal attack by an “alt-right” lunatic on a Portland Max train last May. The bus rolls from the street where Mulugeta Seraw was murdered to the Hollywood Max station where three heroes were stabbed for standing up to hate, two of them paying for it with their lives. I try to connect the dots and have yet to do so without choking back the tears.

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I end my part of the tour by talking about the difficult work of reaching out to the haters and leading them to the side of love. That that’s where the true justice is. I talk about an organization called Life After Hate, a group of “formers,” who used to be members of white supremacist groups and now do important anti-racism and de-radicalization work. I mention how this group was awarded a $400,000 grant by the Obama Administration that was just rescinded by the Trump Administration. (Gee, why would Trump want to stop the work of a group that drags people out of right-wing hate groups?) And I talk about the 16-year-old girl with the swastika tattoo who, in 1988, handed her skinhead boyfriend the bat used to bash Mulugeta Seraw’s skull in. She’s now one of my most cherished friends. She served her time, befriending an African-American girl she was locked up with, and now speaks powerfully about what sent her down the ugly road of hate.

Tuesday’s tour was for a group of fresh-faced graduate students at Lewis & Clark. Afterwards a young woman approached me and said, “I’m a radical feminist anarchist and I think these people should be attacked, physically attacked.” I tried to explain to her that that approach only pushes them farther into their little Nazi boxes, making them into the victims of another kind of hate. That it makes more sense to try to make a connection with them and bring them to our side. That I’ve been doing this work for almost thirty years and this is the only thing that actually works to reduce the hate and threats of violence. She was having none of it, harumphed, and stormed off.

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I’ve been reflecting on that interchange this week. One one hand, I don’t think she understands the concept of “radical feminism.” If you think the appropriate response to a social problem is more macho violence, then you are not a radical feminist. On the other hand, I get it. If someone had knocked the crap out of Jeremy Christian before May 26th, maybe he would have thought twice about opening his hate spewing mouth on a crowded train that afternoon.

And I was thinking about it last night. Andrea and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary at a great new jazz bar in Portland called The Jack London Revue. The Jim Beam was settling into my veins as the Mel Brown Quartet played. I looked at my wife in the dimly lit club and thought of how lucky I am to be her husband. We are a team on multiple fronts: parenting, home-maintaing, creative projects, financial struggles. We’re in this together. And we’re stronger when we come at life as a partners instead of rivals. There are fights, when somebody is convinced they are right. I would love it if she rinsed her plates and I’m sure she would love it if I stopped thinking farts were “funny.” She’s very Antifa on that one. (Anti-Fart)

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But there’s another way. I jokingly think of it as “feminist husbandry.” There’s a challenge when we are so committed to our position that there must be a “winner.” My charge is to just stop. Just stop. Lose the ego and remember we’re a team first. My job is to take care of my partner, not win an argument. We can find our common ground. I don’t always do it, though. It’s easy to let the anger win and just want to (like my “radical feminist anarchist” rider) attack. That’s why I’ve put little reminders up in our house. Signs that say,  “appreciate,” “acknowledge,” and “be loving” are taped up on walls. (It’s cheaper than getting them tattooed on my hands.) There is time in life to take a breath and remember what the mission is.

One of my favorite songs growing up was The Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The lyrics are actually from the Christian Bible; Ecclesiastes 3. There is a time to fight, but also a time to refrain from fighting. Love wins out over hate. Ultimately, we are all on the same side. That includes the haters and those that hate the haters.

Please support Life After Hate here (click). Maybe someday I will form Life After Farting.

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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(Re) Making the case for hate crime laws in Trump’s America

March 15, 2017

Earlier this week a neighborhood in Southeast Portland was covered in spray-painted swastikas. Swastikas on cars, fences, trees, and sidewalks. It’s been part of a rash of similar graffiti in the metro area this winter, including “Kill niggers” and other racist scrawlings at Lake Oswego High School and a swastika with a “Heil Trump” tag in men’s room at Portland State University. A report released today by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism-California State University, San Bernardino found a 22% increase in reported hate crimes in 2016 in ten large cities across the country (including Seattle). Is this the new normal in Trump’s America?

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I spent the morning testifying at the Oregon state capital in support of Senate Bill 356, that would refine the state’s hate crime law and add gender and ethnicity to the protected statuses. It was a chance to explain to our state’s lawmakers the “greater harm” of bias motivated criminality and why the nation started passing these laws in the 1980s. I began my testimony with the story of a woman named Loni Kai, who was born a male named Lorenzo Okaruru. Kai was brutally murdered in 2001. She was last seen hitchhiking on a main thoroughfare in Hillsboro, Oregon. Her body was found in a  nearby field the following day with her head caved in from a savage beating. At the time, the case could not be investigated and prosecuted as a hate crime because gender (and gender identity) were not included in the state’s hate crime statute. Almost 16 years later there still have been no arrests in the murder of Loni Kai.

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Since election day there has been a dramatic increase of hate crimes and hate incidents around the country. Hate incidents are acts that protected by the Constitution as free speech but are still hateful. After the election, there were numerous reports of high school boys telling Muslim and Latinx students that Trump was going to get them. It’s not uncommon to see cars and trucks in Oregon with swastika placards. Hate crimes are things that are already illegal (vandalism, assault, murder, etc.) that are committed because of a bias motive towards the victims perceived demographic membership. Yes, this includes kids who get beat up because they are white.

Hate Crimes as a form of terrorism

If I had the dollar for every time somebody asked me, “Isn’t every crime a hate crime?” I’d be a rich sociologist. Most crimes are motivated by financial gain, so I’d like to hear your argument that stealing a bike is a hate crime or burning down the business for insurance fraud is a hate crime. Hate crimes focus on the motive, a common thing in criminal prosecution. That’s why there is a difference between homicide and manslaughter. Did that guy break into your house to steal your gun or to just take a shower? Those are two different crimes.

Why don’t we consider the September 11, 2001 attacks 2,977 cases of homicide (or one case of homicide with 2,977 victims)? Because all of America was the target. And those who were around on that day can testify that every single person was affected. (I had an irrational anxiety about crossing large bridges for months – a real problem in Portland). The goal wasn’t to kill just the people on the planes, in the Pentagon, and in the World Trade Center. The intended victim was all Americans. Terrorism is a message crime targeted at entire populations. A swastika spray-painted on a Jewish family’s car is going to impact more than just that family. This is why these laws exist. Greater harm.

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The research is clear. Hate hurts more. Nobody wants to be a victim of a crime. It straight up sucks. But hate crimes tend to be more violent, like baseball repeatedly bashing a skull violent. Like Osama bin Laden, hate criminals want to send a clear message to a larger population. Get out of my land. If hate crime victims survive, they are more likely to need reconstructive surgery and long term-therapy compared to other victims of violent crime. We know that hate crime victims have deeper psychological scars and suicide attempts. When someone beats you for your gender identity, it’s deeper than someone beating you because they want your debit card. Victims of hate tend to withdraw and then the cavalcade of problems continue; at their job, in their family, and with their community.

It doesn’t end there. The target community also suffers. Who is going to be the next victim? Is this attack a reflection of wider beliefs? If there is a gay bashing in Portland tonight, all members of the LGBTQ community in Portland will experience the wave of anxiety and impulse to withdraw. The 1988 murder of Mulugeta Seraw in Portland by racist skineads created a wave of fear in the city, and not just among the local Ethiopian community. Many people of color shut their doors and focused on their and their children’s safety. Like how Americans felt after 9/11, but just think of a 9/11 after 9/11 after 9/11.

Wait, there’s more! Researchers have found that whole communities suffer after a hate crime. People start wondering what side their neighbors are on. Vibrant networks are strained as distrust grows. Yusef Hawkins was a 16-year-old black boy who was murdered by a white mob in Bensonhurst, New York in 1989. In the aftermath, the community erupted into months of racial conflict and violence. To this day, you can’t hear the name “Bensonhurst” and not think of how bad we can be to each other.

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That leads to the last harm, the place itself. Like Bensonhurst, what do you think of when someone says Jasper, Texas or Laramie, Wyoming? There’s a good chance you recall the brutal 1998 murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard. Places become stigmatized by the hate crimes that occur there. Many people across the world still think of the Seraw killing (29 years ago!) when someone says “Portland, Oregon.” I’ve had numerous people ask me, “Is Portland safe? I’ve heard about these skinheads.” And pity the poor state of Idaho. Nobody is looking at brochures from the Chamber of Commerce these days. They’re using Google and guess what they find when they look up Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

I am not your white person

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In the Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, the late African-American author James Baldwin asks us to take a real look at the state of race in America. Not a Hollywood version, but a real hard look. And by “us,” he really means white people because everybody else pretty much knows what’s up. I’ve learned that most white people don’t like it when a person of color holds a mirror too close to their face. They’ll call them “racist” for trying to show them their own unstated racism. They’ll accuse them of “stirring up trouble” (as a white friend from Georgia said on my Facebook page today about Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. John Lewis). Looking is uncomfortable. The airbrushed version of myself is so much prettier.

The ugly reflection is that hate crimes are on the increase in America. Bomb threats at Jewish Centers, Muslim-Americans being assaulted and told to leave the country, Latinos being beaten by self-styled vigilantes, gay and trans kids being bullied, and, yes, even some white folks getting beaten up just for being white. This is the civil war our current president has no interest in rectifying. In fact, he has only fanned the flames of hatred.

In Oregon, we are trying to take a stand against both the history of oppression and the current effort to take us back to “again,” when, for some people, America was “great.” Never again. I’m proud to be a part of that effort.

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Watching the Wheels turns 2 and can use the potty!

November 23, 2016

Well, when they say “time flies,” they really mean it. Two years ago, Cozy was an infant, Andrea was off to work at Planned Parenthood, I was enjoying my parental leave from Portland State University and the country seemed in good hands. Now, Andrea is working at a great law firm, Cozy’s hanging with her posse at daycare, I’m looking to return to academia and the country is about to be handed to a buffoon who wants to use the White House to build his anemic hotel empire. A lot has changed since I started this blog.

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I’ve had a productive year as a writer. My second short story was published in an amazing collection called A Journey of Words, forever linking the words “ants” and “Uranus.” Most significantly, my new novel, The Dream Police, is out and currently being read by actual people. The first few reviews on Amazon are wonderful. It couldn’t have happened without the amazing support I got on Kickstarter. As if in a dream, when people asked, “What do you do?” I’d just say – writer.

The real great leap forward has been Cozy and her brain. Like last year, we celebrated her birthday on Isla Mujeres in Mexico. She turned two and her verbal skills just went though the roof! We went from a limited vocabulary (in both English and Spanish) to full sentences in a flash. Her brain is connecting concepts and linking them at lightning speed. Instead of “hat,” it’s now “Cozy’s hat” or “Mama’s hat.” Possessives! That’s huge! Pretty soon she will be jamming on verb tenses. It’s an exciting thing to watch evolve.

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I think any new parent will tell you, one of the best parts of this phase is that the kid can tell you want they need. When she was a screaming baby, we’d wonder, “Is she okay or does she just need a boob?” Now she can say, “Tummy hurt” and “Where is it?” (Which usually refers to Rocco, her beloved pet rock.) It’s liberating to be able to have actual conversations with this former-baby.

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She’s off to daycare now a few days a week and loves going to “school.” She puts on her little backpack and heads off for a day of art projects, Spanish lessons, and walks around the neighborhood, including past “the big castle” (aka St. Andrew’s church). When she gets home she goes to her books. “I’m reading!” she exclaims. My nerd in training. Have I mentioned her love of The Beatles yet? Just ask her to sing, “Hey Jude.”

This blog has been a great place to explore her development and the development of the world she is inheriting. I’ve tried to keep the focus on issues related to gender and feminism, but my work is also about racism and the abuses of power, so how could I not discuss Trump, Black Lives Matter, and yoga pants? The blog has had over 400,000 visits. The pieces on Trump have been most popular but my blog on breast feeding dads continues to get creepy viewers by the score.

There is definitely a parallel between Watching the Wheels and Cozy Blazak. Both can walk on their own and are learning to talk in world where it’s not given that we’ll just get what what we want. How will liberals advance in the Un-united States of Trumpland? How will a little girl grow up safe in a country where voters elevated the symbol of rape culture to the highest office in the land? There will be plenty to write about in the next year as we guide our daughter through this backward moment in out history.

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The biggest change this past year has been in me and my desire to get back to work. Andrea and I were in New Orleans last week for the annual conference of the American Society of Criminology. I was reunited with my colleagues who do research on hate crimes and terrorism. It was a reminder of how important my scholarly work is, especially now as we see hate crimes on the increase. I was just on a program on Al Jazeera discussing the climate of hate in Trumpland. It was a tap on the shoulder, reminding me that I am a global voice on this issue. I’m incredibly proud of how The Dream Police turned out but it’s time to get back into the trenches.

So come along for a ride on this 2-year-old toddler of a blog. You KNOW there’s some good stuff coming. At least before Trump shuts down the free media.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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.

STFU

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.

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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