Monday, December 8, 2014

Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark

Image from KollageKit
The events of these past few months, with images of protests from around the country, competing ideas about race and the nature of justice in our political system are reaching us at breakneck speed as a disjointed mosaic. New information hits us daily in a persistent staccato from our media feeds. Some of us struggle to piece it back together as something close to whole and connect it to things of real meaning. But whether or not we succeed in making any sense of it all, this new movement with the refrain #BlackLivesMatter forces us all to look at the glaring truth of racial inequity in this country. Because I’m the child of a Shakespeare professor, it’s this verse that keeps running through my head this year: Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark.

I have read the familiar refrains about personal responsibility, passed around to a mostly white readership on Facebook. One video in particular that is making the rounds is titled “Black Man Issues EPIC Rant to ‘My Black People.’” I don’t dispute this man’s right to his opinion, but the only people that have seem sharing and posting their rapt approval in all caps, are of the fair-skinned persuasion. It’s as if people are grasping at any message that will make them feel like they are not the ignorant beneficiaries of a corrupt system. One can’t seriously make the argument that Akai Gurley, who was shot while walking in a stairwell with his girlfriend should have taken responsibility for his own life, or just kept out of trouble. In other social media circles, the new racist term “thug” has replaced the older more obvious terms of derision, insinuating that if people just stayed out of trouble, they would still be alive. Again, a 12-year-old child is shot while playing with a toy gun within two seconds that police arrived; this was because he was breaking a law? Even in cases where a law might have been broken, are things like traffic violations, selling cigarettes and stealing cigarillos punishable by death without due process now? The protest that has started in Ferguson and turned into a movement isn’t about blaming white people, it is about all of us expressing solidarity with the bereft, acting as witnesses to injustice, and reaffirming the dignity and value of black lives.

Much has been said about economic disparity. This is a more valid point since, according to a study published by the Brookings Institute, between 1974 and 2004 there was no progress in reducing the family income gap between blacks and whites. “In 2004, the median family income of blacks ages 30 to 39 was only 58 percent that of white families in the same age group.” In the state of Missouri a study conducted by ArchCity Defenders and organization devoted to providing legal council to the poor decried the increasing criminalization of poverty. Their clients reported being jailed for the inability to pay fines, losing jobs and housing as result of the incarceration, being refused access to the Courts if they were with their children or other family members. Even before the death of Michael Brown ignited a maelstrom of anger and unrest, this report singled out three courts, Bel Ridge, Florissant, and Ferguson, as chronic offenders that “serve as prime examples of how these practices violate fundamental rights of the poor, undermine public confidence in the judicial system, and create

The words they wrote in their white paper are incredibly insightful and prophetic in the context of ensuing events:

“Overall, we found that by disproportionately stopping, charging and fining the poor and minorities, by closing the Courts to the public, and by incarcerating people for the failure to pay fines, these policies unintentionally push the poor further into poverty, prevent the homeless from accessing the housing, treatment, and jobs they so desperately need to regain stability in their lives, and violate the Constitution. These ongoing violations of the most fundamental guarantees of the Constitution are the product of a disordered, fragmented, and inefficient approach to criminal justice in St. Louis County.

Furthermore, they found that the the amount collected through the municipal courts seems to be inversely proportional to the wealth of the municipality. In the City of Pine Lawn, for example, which is 96 percent black, and has a per capita income of $13,000, the city collected more than $1.7 million in fines in 2013. In the state of Missouri, African Americans are pulled over at a rate 63% greater than expected based on their proportion of the driving population. These statistics shed light on the perception of many African American citizens that the justice system is rigged against them.

This takes place on the national level as well. The Sentencing Project reports that more than 60% of the people in prison are racial and ethnic minorities. For black males in their thirties, one in every ten is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified "war on drugs," two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

I’m not even going to get into gun control legislation, who gets to own firearms legally and the rate of which military gear is flowing into police barracks around the country.

It’s like the perfect storm. Seriously, take a group of Americans who have been hit worse than many during an economic downturn, subject them to harassment, violence, and death by an increasingly undereducated and overarmed, largely white police force, and yeah. It will feel to those Americans like legally sanctioned lynchings. If Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and prosecutor Robert McCulloch had sat down and planned out how to stir up the most anger possible, they could not have done a better job. By the time we learned about the decision not to prosecute for Eric Garner’s death many felt ready to throw up their hands in despair. I know I did.

In 1985 a classmate of mine from Phillips Exeter Academy named Edmund Perry was shot and killed by an undercover policeman in Harlem. The event sparked protest and nationwide debate and I, in all my torpid adolescent complacency, remember mostly feeling numb at the time. It didn’t seem real to me that Eddie, the vibrant, smart football star we saw in school every day was now dead. There was a book written shortly afterwards by the father of another Exeter student, Robert Sam Anson, who after taking great pains to identify his liberal credentials before just restating the police narrative. When viewed in the context of 2014, this version no longer seems remotely plausible. You’re a kid who just graduated from the best preparatory school in the country, you’re on your way to Stanford in the fall, and you mug someone? And for movie money? Something smells rotten to me.

This not about blame, any more than it is about economics alone. This series of protests now constitute a national movement. The challenge of our generation will to confront the horrible remnants of our racist past that persist in our society with honesty and respect. For people saying all lives matter, They do. Human life is a precious gift. Children are amazing miracles, and if all lives truly matter, then we should feel the loss of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Aiyana Jones as keenly as we do the death of any other child. If all lives truly did matter equally, nobody would need to state it. Something is rotten in Denmark and it is too complex for an easy fix, but approaching the issue with unflinching honesty and sincere compassion is as good a place as any to start.

At Blicky Kitty we try to always end with Mandatory Fun (way before it became a Weird Al thing). I'll leave you with Lady Day:

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Art of Protest

There is something deeply compelling about the thought of Anonymous becoming involved in the protest movement in Ferguson, and it goes deeper than just the visceral good feeling of sticking it to the KKK. If you have been following the events, you know that the grand jury is preparing to meet today for what might be its final session. According to law enforcement officials, a decision on whether to charge Wilson in the death of Michael Brown could come today, even as the city negotiates for the officer’s resignation. Whatever decision is reached, it will not even touch the greater injustices that frame the issue. The Pumpkin Festival riots in Keene NH illustrated for all of us how the political protest in Ferguson was was portrayed as 'rioting' by the media and rather than an organized, ongoing movement prompted by a wrongful shooting death of an unarmed teenaged boy. These racist misperceptions are the very thing that bring about the shootings of both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

When the local KKK made threats against protesters, the group known as Anonymous went into action. They donned their Guy Fawkes masks, fired up their computers and successfully unmasked several local klansmen. They were widely criticized for mistakenly identifying the wrong officer responsible last summer and the collective nature of Anonymous means that members act on their own. But I won’t deny that that feels good to hear about someone taking on the KKK. It feels good to hear them called out as a terrorist organization.

Perhaps the part of the story that resonates is the idea of an anonymous person stepping in to protest an injustice that will not be adequately addressed in our present legal system. The power of that idea lies in the anonymity. One of the bleaker aspects of the digital age is the complete absence of mystery. We know more than we wish to know about our political leaders, how they worship, what they eat and who they sleep with. Their public personae are systematically and relentlessly excoriated by a sensationalizing, profit driven media so much that one wonders how many truly effective and well-meaning people have been discouraged from public service. No matter how much we believe in our elected officials when we vote for them, they never cease to let us down when it comes to actual change. The institutions that used to command respect and make us feel safe have ceased to do so; our friendly neighborhood cop has morphed into a highly armed military-like presence in our cities and towns. The idea of and anonymous collective who sticks up for those who have had power taken from them holds a deep fascination in this environment.

The idea has its complement in the art world with artists like the Guerrilla girls arts collective in the 80’s whose fearless imagery of protest took on sexism and racism in the arts and Banksy, who has been able to distill and capture our fears and eroding confidence in institutions and ideals that were once revered in a concise, elegant and easily decodable visual form. Both artists and hackers are linked by a common emphasis on protest through the use of image, ideas and the powerful currency of information. And rumors of Banksy’s capture by London anti-grafitti squads aside, part of the fascination of his imagery lies in its unruliness. It has the habit of showing up at a place and time chosen by its anonymous maker. Banksy's images hold power too because his observations are wise, funny and dead-on.

So we will hope that justice will be served for the community in Ferguson and that protesters will remain safe and maybe even begin the process of healing. We will keep hoping that these events will inspire a larger conversation about the enduring reality of racism in our country, the overarming of both civilians and law enforcement and how the media perpetuates dangerous misperceptions about race. Let’s also hope that this new generation of unknown warriors in the digital age be touched by the angels of their better nature. I won’t lie, I love seeing the KKK unmasked and shamed by the ugly glare of their beliefs, but I wonder if this feeling of righteous schadenfreude does enough to get at the root of the problem. It might be better if we could think of a way to take a cue from Banksy’s iconic image of a protester who lobs a bouquet of flowers instead of an explosive and harness the vast power of information to change minds and inspire us to change those institutions even when they let us down time and time again. But I believe the power of protest and social change and I believe in the people trying to help through the Anonymous group, because quite truthfully, I need to.

I give you, dear readers, your mandatory fun for the day:

Friday, October 24, 2014

A digital cautionary tale

While looking at the iPhone in the Apple store one day several years ago, I was wondering about how one might post to their FB status from this curious new smart device. So I logged in to browse and did what seemed like the most intuitive way to close out; I hit the home button. Unknowingly, idiotically, I had left my Facebook account logged in on a public device.

I remember how wonderful my day at the beach was afterwards, and how much I enjoyed the long blissful summer day with my mom and kids, completely oblivious. As I look back on this, of course, the sheer stupidity makes me cringe, but I had no idea what I had done until I returned home and heard the messages on my answering machine. An old friend from junior high had seen a rather unusual post, assumed I'd been hacked and tracked me down right away. When I logged on, the physical sensation of shame was immediate and all-encompassing as I read "my" status. We at Blicky Kitty like to keep it PG as I do on FB, so won't repeat it. I can say with full confidence that my digital interloper was an adolescent boy, however. It must have seemed too good to be true, and maybe he'd gleefully called a few friends over. "Hey check this out! Some stupid lady left her FB account open on here." During that entire summer day any of my Facebook friends–friends from church, second cousins, professional aquaintances, ministers, old friends, blogging buddies, colleagues of my husband, in-laws and school friends who might have logged in would have read that I am big *&^#*% who likes to take big *%@&$#*'s in my @#$%&. Not only did it provide a brilliant retort to all the Apple Store utopia, which still reliably mesmerizes me, but the pure, unadulterated shame of the experience was so tremendous, almost lovely in it's perfection. It's not like I would ever judge someone  if they chose to be a big *&^#*%, or that I would find anything about *%@&$#*'s inherently shameful, it's just that few would expect a person to discuss them so publicly and with such poorly-inarticulated nuance.

I deleted the post and sent out an apology (pointing out that if I were to disclose something like that to everyone I know, I like to think that I would at least choose to phrase it more artfully) and left it at that. But the range of reactions was truly fascinating. My first impulse was to go running to the Mister, who barely even looked up. Having no connection to social media, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Oh well, don't let it ruin your day." The following morning was church. I sought out one of the ministers who always seems to know the perfect words to comfort: "Oh I know, I saw that and it was so obvious that wasn't you. I felt so sorry for you right away!" My younger, hip cousins were thoroughly entertained. One had gleefully captured a screen shot of it so we could all have a good laugh at the next family gathering–and we did. There was one person who posted a shocked, "Laurel!" under the status, thinking that I had indeed been its author. I deleted the status too quickly to have remembered who it was, but I often amuse myself by wondering. For the most part, my younger acquaintances were more amused than horrified and saw it as a frightening, yet screamingly funny fact of contemporary life. My friends who were closest to my age showed a mixture of empathy and dread. In the end, I guess I just concluded that being open to shame is a trade-off I am willing to make for being open to others in a medium that we still struggle collectively to define.

There is certainly no shortage of articles weighing in on the relative benefits and drawbacks of social media; Facebook in particular. Stephen Marche posited in his article for the Atlantic that, for all of our interconnectedness, and new types of interactions, we are becoming lonelier. Others feel that FB is an artificial window into the lives of others and that comparing ourselves to others makes us feel as though we're missing out. There is no question that as a medium, Facebook is fraught with pitfalls and the ever-looming specter of public shame. I have learned this lesson, not just once, but several times over during the process of learning the medium.

Facebook is a medium, and like any other, if you put dumb and negative things into it, that's exactly what you get in return. There is nothing about Facebook, chat apps, email or skype however, that define our connections to other people in any real sense. If we approach the medium in ignorance we risk not only shame, but feeling hurt, left out, inadequate, or lonely. As my eldest daughter has started to define her own relationship to digital media I have tried to step up my own literacy and my own wisdom on the subject. Here is my stab at a few ground rules that I hope are healthful and helpful for even those who have been less catastrophically careless as I have.

Be as courteous as you are offline
Some days I feel like if I see one more 12-year-old girl on my kid's Instagram feed sticking her lips and tongue out, my head will explode. Would you sit before yout teachers and do that, or would stick out your bum and bend over while you are visiting your grandmother? One truly hopes not, because it might seem a little odd at best. Kids, I say this with love and and respect: please refrain from saying anything online that they would not willingly announce to everyone you know. Something you write during a fleeting moment of poor judgement is potentially permanent if you say it online, so unless you would stand up during assembly, or in a hallway and shout it in a loud voice, you should not be typing it online.

Be as kind as you are offline
I often wonder if people who leave cruel screeds in online comments say things like this to members of their family, or friends. Maybe so. Interacting through a screen removes us from the ability to perceive subtle expressions on the human face. Adolescents need time away from screens to learn how to treat each other with kindness before they start spending large amounts of time online. I know, this is counter-cultural and I am a mean, mean parent for limiting time online.

Be as wise as you are offline
I...umm...can offer no guidance in this area.

Use social media to find wisdom and beauty in others
I know it sounds nerdy, but I think the reason I keep coming back to FB despite moments of abject shame and public mocking is that I am inspired and awed by the amazing things that people do and the insights they post online. People disappoint us, yes, but people are also amazing and they often astound us with their talent, their brilliance and their goodness. Amanda Palmer's TED talk nails this aspect of modern social media interaction. When we give ourselves over to the kindness of others there is a way that people rise to our high expectations. 

Use social media to enrich the connections you already have
It's no substitute, but if you have five minutes a year to talk to your third cousin who might even live on another continent. It's really cool to know they they also love the tUnE-yArDs, or that they are planning a trip to an Italian city where you once lived, or even if they have had an illness in the family. Perhaps the interaction you end up sharing will be more direct and more authentic as a result.

Cultivate the art of being away from a screen

I am not convinced I love the term "unplugging" because it implies a physical dependence on social media that is somehow at the core of our nature. Being social is in our nature. But nature is also in our nature, and we will all unwind far more if we take a walk outdoors, get a little bored, let our minds process our day by conjuring up the random little thoughts that float through our fatigued grey matter like clouds. My own mind needs to experience things like the pungent odor of decomposing fall leaves interspersed with the cloying scent of ripening wild grapes, the sight of migrating birds, stopping for a rest and the sound of something other than chimes and alerts to feel truly centered and real.

That's all I have to offer today, gentle readers. I'm off to go *%@&$#*.

I'll leave you with this offering of mandatory fun: