Silence and noise

I’ve been silent for a long time. Especially here, where my much neglected blog gathers Internet tumbleweeds and spam comments advertising exotic boner pills. In general, though, I have largely shied away from political commentary, or pretty much anything that could result in elevated blood pressure for any participant. When my co-workers, largely older conservatives from the suburbs, gather around my desk (always my desk!) and weigh in on issues with stances that I disagree with, I shut my mouth and put in earbuds rather than try and rock the boat. In my thirties I have become more conflict averse, and chicken shit.

I have been writing in general for my column over at Hobo Trashcan, but to be honest I am kind of embarrassed by my last column, an attempt to write about the situation, written after a couple of sleepless anxious nights with information overload. So many others have written better, more comprehensive and thorough reactions to the events unfolding in Baltimore. And so many have not had their voices heard, for so long. Do I really need to add another privileged white perspective to the mix? (And yes, for all intents and purposes here, in spite of elevated melanin content I am white. I am from Kansas and I listen to indie rock, so brain-wise I am lily-white like a Kleenex.)

Increasingly, though, amidst a backdrop of voices in unison shouting for justice, and constant oversight by hovering helicopters booming at everyone to “go inside immediately!”, I am finding silence untenable. Yesterday’s announcement regarding charges being pursued against officers for the extralegal killing of Freddie Gray was unprecedented. Momentum is on the side of change and reform, but it can’t happen if we all just go back to sleep after the news cycle dies down.

“No justice, no peace.” I’ve heard the calls too. I’m ashamed that people had to resort to rioting in order to get me, and others like me, to hear them.

This Health Department report describes the conditions in which residents in Sandtown-Winchester, a neighborhood away from me, live every day. No, I am not responsible for these problems. And I couldn’t solve them even if given Miss Marvel-like powers and fifty uninterrupted years. But no longer can I just blithely go about my business, thinking of this as “someone else’s problem.”

The little things I can and resolve to do: volunteer with food drives. Go to meetings with people from the next neighborhood over from mine. Listen. Pay close attention to the news. Recognize my privilege and figure out a way to leverage it for good. Advocate for my viewpoint to others who may not agree with me in a calm, reasoned manner. Above all – speak up.

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Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie

Yes, I am writing about Paris again, but in the genres of both non-fiction and horror.

Artwork by my wonderfully talented friend Leah Hoelscher.

Aghast at the butchery of satirists, like almost everyone in the Western world with access to social media, I updated my Facebook status to echo the current hashtag of solidarity: “Je Suis Charlie.” Since the initial hashtag started to trend, the conversation has shifted and other variants have popped up, the best one being “#JeSuisAhmed,” for the name of the Muslim policeman who perished while defending the lives of those who drew crude pictures of his revered prophet making out with dudes and sundry. Several convincing op-eds have come come out – most notably, by Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker – calling out the majority of us dilettantes who took up the #JeSuisCharlie slogan:

We are not Charlie, in other words, because we risk so little for what we claim to value so much. We are not Charlie, too, because most of us are relatively inoffensive, whereas Charlie, like so many liberating pioneers of free expression—think not only of Lenny Bruce and Mad magazine but also of Gandhi and Martin Luther King—were always glad to give offense to what offended them. And we are not Charlie, today, because we are alive.

Gourevitch is completely right. I am absolutely, positively not a Charlie. I am a bonafide conflict-averse Midwesterner, who will walk miles out of my way if it means avoiding awkwardness or potential confrontation. If it were me in this situation, it would have to take place in an alternate universe. In this incarnation, I just wouldn’t do something offensive, particularly if it hurt someone’s feelings in such a disproportionate amount to the benefit that I received. It would be inconceivable.

This world is in desperate need of peacemakers. The climate darkens in France, and one frighteningly realistic fear is that this incident is exactly the catalyst needed to propel the neo-fascist Marine le Pen and her followers into major power. We need fewer hotheaded reactionaries, and more people who are willing to sit down and resolve conflicts in a calm, rational manner.

But along with those peacemakers, this world needs Charlies. We need satirists, we need clowns to push boundaries and stand up to powerful people and institutions. We need our Charlies to be alive, and yes, sometimes we need to hear their obnoxious, braying voices. We need them around to instigate conversation, incite doubt, and spur us out of complacent comfort. If we object to what they are saying, we must learn how to voice our dissent without resorting to bullets and bloodshed.

Stephane Charbonnier was no Stephen Colbert. The satire produced by his agency is sophomoric and wantonly offensive. Ultimately, the most resonant quality about Charb is that he was, much like the terrorists who killed him, so dedicated to his mission that he was willing to die for what he believed. Unlike his murderers, however, Charb came armed with only courage and a pen.

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Snap Judgment

Michael Brown never had a chance to receive a trial, but in many ways the Ferguson case turned him into a defendant, post-mortem. Here are two competing images of the victim:

michael brown
One image of Michael Brown, according to those who knew him: a sweet, angel-faced big boy, who occasionally smoked weed and always played video games, like most teenage boys growing up in America. He got along with everybody. He was visiting his grandmother the day he was shot six times. He wrote fairly amateurish rap songs instead of doing his homework on time. Sometimes he did dumb things, as again, most teenage boys hopped up on testosterone and peer pressure are wont to do. But he was never known to be a fighter, despite – or maybe because of – his size: he typically “tended to use his size to scare away potential trouble.”

Unfortunately, this tendency may have contributed to Michael’s death. Here’s the image of him from Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony:

…Brown looked up at him “and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up.”

via NPR

Officer Wilson knew none of the context of Michael Brown’s abbreviated life. All he came armed with was a lifetime of images of angry black men, negative reinforcement from interactions with previous suspects, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Oh, and a loaded gun.

It is during rapid-fire moments like these, when prejudice becomes fatal.

I don’t know what to do about institutional racism. It’s a problem far beyond me, or the scope of my generation, a problem that has been brewing ever since the first slave ships arrived on the shores of this fledging country. Time heals most wounds, but not these – a dark and shameful past reechoes itself in modern-day iterations of Jim Crow.

What time can do is potentially save lives. In their official statement to the press after the verdict, the family of Michael Brown called for a “campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.” One of the many reasons for this being that police, feeling the extra layer of supervision and accountability from being filmed, will think twice before deploying what might constitute excessive force. Cameras alone cannot solve the problem of black men being disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. But they have been shown to deescalate situations on both sides of a law enforcement interaction (reality TV notwithstanding, people tend to be on their best behavior when cameras are rolling).

On that hot, fateful August day, the presence of a camera might have slowed things down enough to spare Michael Brown his life. It looks as though prevailing sentiment is on board with body cameras, with police departments around the country in process of adopting them into their routines. More studies should be done to definitively assess their effects. And no camera, no matter how Google-advanced, could capture all subtleties and nuances brought to the table in a hostile police encounter.

But if the widespread adoption of these cameras can avert needless deaths, simply by virtue of psychological effect, then perhaps the death of this young man will not have been totally in vain. There is currently a police body camera bill set to become law in Baltimore City — unless Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issues a veto, which she is likely to do. Time to hit the streets?

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In Defense of Marriage

Been busy as a recently “funemployed” person, watching endless games and commentary about the NCAA tournament. (Rock chalk Jayhawk! Go KU!) Will return to India postings in between rounds, I promise.

Today, the Supreme Court will begin to hear arguments both for and against state and federal level gay marriage bans. This marks a big day in the history of American civil rights, in the midst of a sea change in American society at large. Let’s look at the year on the calendar (2013, in case you needed a reminder. 2013!), and hope that the outcome of these hearings puts America on the right side of history. Go marriage! Go freedom! Go America!*


*I may still be in relentless cheering mode from this weekend. Ahem.

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From my fingertips, to your eyes: