Archive for the ‘Crime and Criminal Justice’ Category

Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

January 23, 2017

Three years ago I wrote a chapter for a book on mass incarceration. My chapter focused on how disciplinary practices in our schools criminalize too many of our kids. Sadly, the publisher dropped the project when other chapters didn’t get turned in. But today, New Clear Vision was good enough to publish the piece. Maybe it matters more today when we have an administration committed to punitive policing rather than restorative justice.

Here’s the link to my article and I will also paste it below, along with a list of additional resources that didn’t make it onto the New Clear Vision website.

I hope this informs and inspires.

Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

When the Los Angeles Unified school board voted in May 2013 to ban the practice of suspending students for “willful defiance,” the blogosphere roiled with outrage. “Moron” was one of the mildest words used to attack school board president Monica Garcia and her colleagues. Students were referred to as thugs and animals, with black and Mexican American students singled out for particular abuse. Teachers said they wouldn’t be able to teach if they couldn’t remove disruptive students from the classroom. Both candidates for mayor declared their opposition to the new policy.

So why would the board want the distinction of being the first school district in the US to take this step?

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has explained that being suspended triples a young person’s likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system within the year. A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University and focused on a major city in the Northeast found that even a single suspension in the 9th grade doubled the chance that a student would drop out of high school.

It should seem obvious: when kids aren’t in school, they may be left to their own devices in the streets; when they miss class for suspensions and court dates, they fall behind. When they fall behind, they are bored and frustrated in class and more likely to get in more trouble and be punished with more suspensions, incarcerated in a juvenile facility, or to drop out altogether, too often leading to a lifetime of anger, frustration, lost opportunity, and an increased likelihood of criminal behavior.

So suspension rates matter. But while suspension policy got the media attention, it was only a small part of the district’s School Climate Bill of Rights. Over the next couple of years, zero tolerance policies, metal detectors, harsh punishment, low expectations, and school police with the power to arrest kids for any minor infraction would all give way. Teachers and staff would be trained and resources put in place so that schools could be transformed from a foretaste of prison to a welcoming home where all young people are wanted and supported, treated with respect, expected to show respect in return and to succeed.

“School Climate”–rather than “school reform”–is the term used by those seeking to replace the prevailing model of punishment and retribution in our schools with a model of restorative justice that promotes social harmony and healing for the individuals involved as well as their community. While our schools do need reform, unfortunately “school reform” has come to mean the privatization of public education through charter schools and policies that pit parents against teachers and principals, teachers against administrators, with teachers facing arbitrary evaluations and teachers unions being blamed for everything that’s gone wrong in our public schools. School climate specialists see a focus on social justice as a key to solving behavioral problems rather than relying, as the default response, on law enforcement, suppression, and criminal justice.

In Los Angeles, the school board had good reason to believe the School Climate Bill of Rights would make classrooms better, not worse. Members only had to look at James Garfield High School in East LA, in a neighborhood plagued with all the stereotypical problems of poverty, drugs and gang violence. While more than 720,000 students in California’s public schools were suspended or expelled during the 2010-11 school year, Garfield High won national attention by lowering its suspension rate from over 600 per year down to one single instance and then to zero. Far from resulting in classroom chaos, behavior improved, test scores and graduation rates went up. Later in this chapter I’ll consider how this was accomplished.

My own interest in the school-to-prison pipeline–though I didn’t yet know the phrase–was sparked in 2008 when I met a young man I’ll call Claude. He was 19 years old and said he was going to jail. His crime? Being late for school. Claude explained he’d racked up hundreds of dollars in fines for truancy and tardiness. He had no money and so when he turned 18, the tickets generated an arrest warrant and now the police were looking for him. Claude obviously believed this, but how could this be? I started asking around. Middle class parents laughed. Their kids had ditched school to go to the beach and nothing happened. Tickets? No one had heard of these. I asked a few activist attorneys. They had never heard of such a thing.

Then I met Kim McGill, organizer for the Youth Justice Coalition made up of, led by and for, young people in the Los Angeles area who’ve been impacted by the juvenile justice system. This, she said, was exactly one of the problems her group was protesting as a member of Dignity in Schools, a nationwide organization just getting off the ground to advocate for new approaches to student behavior issues. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, with a dropout rate higher than 40%, students weren’t dropping out of school, McGill told me. They were being pushed out—and into the criminal justice system. Youth were being ticketed or even arrested right at the school door, led off in handcuffs for offenses as minor and nonviolent as tardiness.

Los Angeles isn’t unique. In the US, hundreds of thousands of students are arrested at school, often criminalized for minor acts that have major consequences, effectively ending opportunities for high school graduation and continued education, employment, service in the military, and more. A small number of young people are disturbed and violent enough to need more intensive intervention and supervision than an ordinary school can provide—but hundreds of thousands of them?

National studies have shown again and again that black students disproportionately face suspension for “willful defiance”—an extremely subjective offense—when white students with the same behavior get a mild reprimand or a call to the parents. Students with disabilities are also punished severely and at a disproportionate rate. Statistically, therefore, Claude was exactly the kind of kid most likely to be shunted down the school-to-prison pipeline. Not only was he black, he was poor. He grew up in foster-care and besides having a slight speech defect, he’d been diagnosed with severe psychological disability. The only part of his story that was unusual is that his tardiness had not led to his arrest while still in school.

Here in LA, school climate initiatives may seem like an agenda from the left as the drive to implement alternatives to punitive discipline was spearheaded by activist organizations, in particular, those led by people of color demanding equal treatment and equal justice for their children. But when I surveyed the landscape nationwide, I also found support from the United Way; a range of health foundations; Probation and Corrections Departments; universities; business organizations including the Chamber of Commerce in Nashville, Tennessee; and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservative ideals of “limited government, free enterprise, private property rights and individual responsibility.”

It’s a simple nonpartisan idea: that every child deserves graduation rather than incarceration, and that positive outcomes for kids is good news for the US. But how is this to be accomplished?

Trauma-Sensitive Schools and Child Soldiers

Attorney Connie Rice, co-founder of the multiracial civil rights organization, the Advancement Project, has noted that kids growing up in some LA neighborhoods show post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) levels comparable to children in war zones. As for children with a parent absent due to incarceration or deportation, Ann Adalist Estrin, Director of National Resource Center on Children of Incarcerated Parents, notes that this absence feels as life-threatening as a loaded gun. Kim McGill believes youthful gang members, severely traumatized by violence, should be treated as child soldiers and rehabilitated rather than incarcerated.

I thought of them when Nancy Riestenberg, school climate specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, referred me to the research that informs the MindUpTM curriculum created by the Hawn Foundation, aimed at giving children the means to regulate their emotions–and therefore, behavior–in the classroom and in life. Though not a brain researcher herself, Riestenberg helped me understand some of the findings. Sensory information entering our brain goes first to the amygdala which asks safe? or not safe? If the information signals safe–for example, I see a teacher who is smiling at me, so I think it is ok to walk into the room, that information proceeds to the prefrontal cortex and we have conscious thought and learning. If the amygdala thinks the sensory input is not safe–for example, that adult is yelling like people who hit other people, so I better leave! Hide! Fight!, the brain responds with fight, flight or freeze. When that happens, information does not go on to the prefrontal cortex, and there is no conscious thought or learning.

“We know that 1 in 3 children are affected by trauma,” says Natalie Turner, associate director of the Area Health Education Center at Washington State University in Spokane. “In high poverty communities, that number is higher.” By 2007, Turner knew of the work being done in Massachusetts by Susan Cole and others about how trauma affects learning. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study conducted for the CDC by Kaiser Permanente in San Diego—in a mostly white, middle class study group of more than 17,000 respondents—revealed high numbers as well as a correlation between childhood trauma and negative physical health for adults.

Children with high ACE scores also tend to struggle with academics, behavior, and attendance. As AHEC assessed mental health treatment systems for children and looked at interventions for high-risk kids and families, it was clear that the need was far greater than the mental health treatment system could handle. Though a clinician herself, Turner saw a public health approach was needed for an adequate response to children suffering traumatic events.

“Once you’ve been exposed to the information, you can’t un-hear it,” Turner says. “You have to think about your personal role in doing something about it.”

That meant going where the children are: our schools.

“Educators know that kids are coming in with heavy things on their plates impacting their ability in school,” Turner says, “but they didn’t know what to do.” In training teachers and administrators, she stresses that being trauma-sensitive isn’t about a new curriculum or a new tool. “It’s about a process, about getting serious about understanding a child’s behavior. We talk about what all kids need: safety, predictability, and consistency.”

Each classroom is different, but each teacher can reflect on what routines and rituals exist during the class period or school day. What happens during unstructured time, especially during transitions? What about the physical environment? For example, you can help young children manage the perception of danger and the consequent state of arousal if they are able to remove themselves to a quiet place with beanbag chairs or stuffed animals.

Mostly, Turner says, training is about “empowering teachers to look at behavior in a different way,” to recognize that when kids act out, “it’s what they do to feel a sense of safety or control. Once you understand that, you realize that punitive strategies are ineffective for kids who’ve lived in traumatic circumstances.” She believes our ideas about classroom management are flawed: “We are taught to talk to kids about rules,” but when something triggers threat-arousal and danger and puts them back in survival mode, “they can’t hear that. They have to modulate the emotion before you can have that conversation with them.”

Turner works with teachers “on things in their own control, setting up the physical environment, and their own responses to behavior in the classroom. “When we hold a mirror up to our own behavior, we can see how we contribute to the power struggle.”

Turner teaches breathing, relaxation, simple yoga poses and stretching—for teachers to use for themselves, to restore their own calm and balance. They can then teach these practices to the kids to modulate emotions and bring the students’ energy level down when necessary. “As long as they are hyper-aroused, they will not be receiving instruction.”

In a trauma-sensitive school, all teachers and staff receive training, and the approach applies to all students. “You don’t need to know the trauma history,” Turner says. “Don’t pathologize or stigmatize kids. Instead, think about what you can do universally for all kids because you can never know the whole story about families.”
Neither can you understand in depth all the cultures they come from. Spokane is a relatively small city and yet more than 59 different language groups are spoken in homes where Spokane students live.

If an individual child is still having problems, that’s when you get more specialized in your response, Turner says, but “start from the universal approach that sets up the conditions for all kids to be successful. We want to foster resilience. That’s what’s going to help them thrive.”

Schools in other parts of the world also grapple with the issue of child trauma. While working with a nonprofit in Cochabamba, Bolivia I learned about la pedagogía de la ternura, the pedagogy of tenderness, which influences educators in the Andean countries emerging from dictatorship and armed conflict. Decades of violence have made kids hard, distrustful, silenced, and cut off from feeling in order to survive. If individuals are to reach their full human potential and if their society is to move away from war and repression and toward guarantees of fair and impartial justice, schools must become safe spaces where young people are nurtured, encouraged to think and to speak. Resilience—to use Turner’s word—is the goal, not fearful obedience.

Here in the US, if the word “tenderness” is likely to draw accusations that we’re coddling the thugs, it may be more diplomatic and effective to use a decades-old term from American pedagogical theory: the Warm Demander. A teacher can reach students while being strict and demanding high standards if he or she first establishes a warm relationship, always letting students feel they are unconditionally supported.

All of the overlapping and complementary approaches discussed here work best on a school-wide or community-wide basis but Riestenberg is also a believer in what a single individual can do. A teacher might make it a daily practice to stand in the doorway and greet by every student by name. The day that something comes up and the teacher can’t be there? “You can say I’m sorry, I wasn’t able to stand in the doorway today but I’ll try to do it again tomorrow.” It’s such a simple action, and yet for children who may be growing up in an environment in which adults are always inconsistent and never explain themselves, it can make a difference.

“It’s all about relationships, Riestenberg says, “using positive relationship as a means of holding students accountable.”

Social Emotional Learning and Sad and Angry Children<p>

I first came across the term “emotional literacy” in the book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. They contend that “Some boys don’t even have the words for their feelings—sad or angry or ashamed, for instance.” Unable to recognize and name feelings, they can’t contend with strong emotion and are unable to empathize with what other people are feeling. Without emotional literacy, they may fall back on anger and aggression to express themselves. When I mentioned this to a friend in Oregon whose son was sent to prison as a teen, she was startled. Her boy had used almost the same words to describe the men he was locked up with.

The authors of Raising Cain based their book not just on experiences with inner city kids, but boys at prestigious prep schools. Recent media reports remind us that cyber-bullying, sexual assault, and slut-shaming show a profound lack of empathy among some young people—female as well as male—in communities everywhere on the socioeconomic spectrum.

Social skills were traditionally part of what young people learned in school, says Riestenberg. “A school exists within a community. In order for people to complete a course of study and write, they need a certain level of self-regulation and that comes from practicing social skills with each other, learning impulse control, dealing with a certain level of frustration, using words that articulate the frustration that they feel. The individual needs the ability to function in the school and work together in the group.”

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), now offers evidence-based curriculum recommendations to help classroom teachers from pre-K through high school find materials and tools. The Mood Meter, for example, a chart from the RULER curriculum designed by Dr. Marc Brackett of Yale—offers a visual means of recognizing and expressing feelings for those—especially students with disabilities—who struggle with words. Other materials promote a healthy school climate and specifically address issues such as bullying and conflict resolution.

CASEL-approved programs have been shown to promote self-awareness, self-regulation, and respect for others with the result that students are less likely to be disruptive and more able to engage in learning. And teachers who are not overwhelmed by troublemakers are not only able to teach, but can model positive social behavior.

The Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools integrates Social Emotional Learning into the regular school curriculum throughout the city. All adults who deal with the kids receive training, including school bus drivers who are often overlooked though they are challenged with the most chaotic behavior and frequent abuse. Nashville also recognized the larger social justice issues: when students live in poverty or in troubled home situations, social and behavioral health can’t be addressed by the schools alone.

Geoffrey Canada recognized that years ago in New York City. He founded the Harlem Children’s Zone in the 1990’s as a pilot project on a single block to show what could happen if a full range of services addressing all needs were provided to children and their families. By 2010, the well-funded nonprofit had a budget of more than $75 million and had extended its philosophy to about 100 blocks. In Nashville, with leadership and research from the Chamber of Commerce, the city embarked in 2002 on Alignment Nashville—an ambitious plan to do something similar for every child and family in the entire metropolitan area.

Like most cities, Nashville already had a wide range of nonprofit service providers—175 of them. The Chamber’s study found, however, that without coordination, social services were often duplicated or fragmented while many families still couldn’t—or didn’t know how to—gain access to what they needed. Alignment Nashville was launched with input and participation from parents and community members as well as representatives from government, schools, nonprofit organizations and the business community. Every school was then linked with a nearby site at a community center or church that hosted service providers. Some school campuses themselves became the one-stop site for physical and mental health services, food and clothing banks, parent education, and more.

Restorative Justice: Taking Responsibility and Making Amends

Recently, in Los Angeles, a student who mouthed off was required to write a letter of apology to the teacher. The teacher wrote a letter in response and then both of them read their letters aloud to the class. Teacher and student in this way engaged with each other as human beings while affirming in front of the group what behavior is acceptable and unacceptable. When this incident was reported in the LA Times, once again there was outrage over the “coddling” of barbarians.
The student-teacher letter exchange was an example of restorative justice, a set of practices that has migrated from the criminal justice system to some American schools.

This approach might have been the best response when Brandon Serpas was bullied as a gay high school student. He recalls that the teacher ignored it but his Southern California school was supposed to be committed to anti-bullying efforts, Serpas says, and so he went and talked to the assistant principal. The result: the offending boy was suspended–and back in school three days later. Then Serpas—whose complaint had caused the punishment—had more reason to fear harassment.
“Suspension doesn’t help harassment or bullying,” he says. “It doesn’t address the attitudes.”

What would have happened if the school had instead tried restorative justice conferencing?

Restorative justice asks Who was harmed? What are the needs and responsibilities of all the parties? Serpas and the boy who bullied him would have met face-to-face, each with supporters present, in a facilitated conversation. Each would have been able to tell his version of the incident, without interruption. Serpas would have been able to express, one human being to another, how the bullying affected him. The young men would have been able to ask one another questions. Their supporters would also speak, letting the victim know he was not alone. In restorative justice, it’s important for the offender, too, to know that people care about him, that he has not been brought to the conference to be shamed. Someone who has been humiliated is more likely to burn with anger and confusion than to feel sincere repentance and undergo positive change. In a restorative justice conference, the goal is for the parties to reach an agreement for future behavior based on respect.

Restorative justice has roots in all of the world’s major religions. Here in the US, Native American traditional practices such as the council circle have been widely adopted while the Mennonite Church pioneered restorative practices in the criminal justice system. Howard Zehr, the “grandfather of restorative justice,” teaches at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia but has also carried the philosophy and practice around the world, notably to New Zealand where conferencing became an essential part of restructuring the entire juvenile justice system, making it very different from the harshly punitive approach that has characterized treatment of youth in the US over the past several decades.

Anyone who has been a crime victim or has worked in victims’ rights can hardly have failed to notice that even when there’s a successful prosecution and conviction, victims often remain consumed with grief, fear, and rage. Retribution is not enough. Though restorative justice does not replace punishment and incarceration, a victim’s needs—economic and emotional—must also be addressed and an offender needs to make amends in order for community harmony to be restored.

Canada, which had one of the highest youth incarceration rates in the Western world, also became a pioneer in restorative justice practices after recognizing the existing system was shameful—and not working. The same recognition is dawning in the US.

Texas, with one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, turns out to be in the vanguard of restorative justice, having led the way in promoting victim/offender dialogue. While these programs were first intended to bring psychological relief to survivors, they turned out to play a major role in reducing recidivism rates. What Texas learned is that offenders are more likely to recognize the consequences of what they’ve done when they see the impact their crime has had on another human being. Restorative justice, far from coddling criminals, often led to true remorse, empathy, and moral growth. Restorative circles and conferencing have now been used in Texas to address hate crimes and bias-motivated incidents—exactly the sort of intervention Brandon Serpas wished for.

The restorative justice philosophy has step by step migrated from the prisons to the juvenile facilities to the schools—a positive sort of prison-to-school pipeline. In 2011, Texas was able to shut down three juvenile prisons in favor of community-based intervention. Ed White Middle School in San Antonio was perhaps the first public school to try out mediation within the school community and other restorative practices among students and between students and teachers.

In Minnesota, according to Riestenberg, the restorative justice philosophy was also tried first in the criminal justice system “but there was an easy leap to youth and the schools. People who wanted to try out something new went to the softest target.” Instead of trying to work with “somebody who’s been a thief for 35 years, there’s more hope with a 15-year-old first offender.” When kids got in trouble with law enforcement, their cases were diverted to restorative conferencing and when asked who they wanted on their side to help them, they often asked for a teacher. “Teachers are powerful and influential,” Riestenberg says. And when they saw the restorative process in action, teachers also saw how it could be applied to school discipline.

As early as 1998, the Minnesota Commissioner of Education was recommending restorative practices instead of traditional punishment. With federal funding in 2000, the Department of Corrections offered training which people from the Department of Education attended. Corrections wrote a restorative justice curriculum with the participation of Education to be sure it was compatible with schools.

Riestenberg consults on school climate issues around the country, and strongly recommends that programs be implemented schoolwide. Talking about peer mediation programs, she said “Even when you train some kids to be mediators, it only works well if all the teachers and staff and all kids have been taught. You have to start with the adults. Somebody needs to keep track of the training and somebody has to keep track whether people are using what they’ve been taught. Just like everyone in school knows how to read, how to add, how to use a computer, it requires everyone to have a base level of knowledge.”

As author of Circle in the Square: Building Community and Repairing Harm in School, Riestenberg advocates the circle process not just as a way of responding to trouble but of building connectedness and relationship before trouble occurs. The group sits in a circle and the teacher leads the way setting some guidelines and reiterating core values of the group. As a talking piece gets passed from hand to hand, each person in the group has a chance to speak without interruption or objection from the others while the teacher shows interest, respect, and concern for each one. The subject may be seemingly innocuous, such as favorite flavors of ice cream, a way of building on commonalities. Kids may just be asked to “check in” with their feelings and what’s going on in their lives. The circle sometimes offers an assessment tool quite different from testing, as when students express their attitudes toward arithmetic. The circle can ask what it feels like to be bullied, or may have students respond to a specific classroom incident, always with kids speaking from the heart, listening respectfully to others even when in disagreement.

Circles can be used to boost basic academic skills. The Ojai Foundation in California offers lesson plans, for example, giving students index cards on which they write their names. The cards are then passed around and everyone writes words of appreciation for their fellow students under their names. What seems like an exercise in being recognized and in enhancing self-esteem also gets kids to put thoughts in writing.

It should be obvious, however, that if parents are going to lobby for restorative circles in schools, they will also have to address class size and policies that take flexibility and spontaneity away from teachers and instead lock them into daily lesson plans tied to standardized test preparation.

Restorative practice looks at the why of student misbehavior, not just the what, and seeks ways to address the problem. Riestenberg gives the example of a shoving and pushing match that erupted on a long, slowly moving cafeteria line. It turned out some American-born students were joking that the pizza was running out and there wouldn’t be enough to go around. This sent panic through a group of kids who’d come from a refugee camp where being polite and holding back often meant going hungry. Here’s where being “trauma-sensitive” overlaps with restorative justice. In this case, no one was punished. Instead the school realized that when pizza—the most popular meal— was served, there should be more than a single long line.

Riestenberg has written, “Restorative measures provide the way to hold two contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time—a person can be both a victim and an offender, and we need not ignore either fact. Given the multiple experiences some children have with victimization, this notion is enormously useful when a child hurts someone else. We, as community, can acknowledge both truths, and in doing so provide real support and true accountability. We can in the process also hold ourselves accountable.”

Even Minnesota, however, hasn’t seen full and sustainable implementation in the public schools. A matter of resources. For a while, there’s money for community organizations and state agencies. County courts and the probation department get involved as do university faculty members, not just in the School of Education, but the Law School. (In other states, university support has come from other programs including Psychology, Criminology, Health, Conflict Resolution, and Peace & Justice Studies.) But as programs begin to scale up, funding dries up. School administrators, constantly tasked with new programs to implement, find there’s never enough time or personnel. And in our mobile society—maybe more mobile than ever due to budget cuts and public employee layoffs—schools too often lose people with expertise.

But those same people, says Riestenberg, move to other schools and other organizations and carry their passion and knowledge with them.
Which is exactly what happened in Belfast, Maine.

More than 15 years ago, the State of Maine legislated a court diversion program for juveniles. Community groups trained as volunteers to facilitate restorative conferences but implementation faltered when local law enforcement failed to buy in. Several years later, three collaborating groups led a renewed effort. As Barb Blazej of the Peace & Reconciliation Studies program at the University of Maine in Orono recalls, her program obtained funding and so did a similar initiative directed by Pam Anderson at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland. They were joined by the newly formed nonprofit Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast (RJP) in Belfast. When the university-based funding was cut, RJP kept the work going with Blazej, still teaching at Orono, also coming on board to coordinate the Restorative School Practices of Maine division of RJP. Anderson, now retired, continued to consult with the nonprofit.

Just as Riestenberg suggests, RJP became a leader because people with expertise move around. In this case, T. Richard Snyder, Ph.D., former dean at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, had used restorative practices with Sing Sing prison inmates. After retiring to the midcoast region, he joined the board of the Maine Council of Churches, co-chaired the Restorative Justice Committee, and began meeting in Belfast with the Waldo County sheriff. At about the same time, Margaret Micolichek who had learned restorative work in the Boston area also made the move north. The two joined forces in the Unitarian Universalist Church Social Justice Committee. The church was able to provide some initial funding and Snyder began to hold community forums. Over the course of 18 months, he prepared the ground, reaching out to all stakeholders.

“Our focus,” says Micolichek, “has been to really make it be the community itself, to have the community buy into it. We think about sustainabillty and we work a lot with getting other congregations on board to recruit volunteers and for financial support.”

A juvenile conferencing program began with referrals from Juvenile Probation Officers in the local office of the Department of Corrections. Then Snyder worked to build additional positive relationships with local law enforcement by offering something the sheriff wanted—mentors for formerly incarcerated men facing the challenges of reentry—rather than by initially pushing a restorative justice agenda. Micolichek, by then RJP’s executive director, began overseeing referrals and the connections between volunteers and criminal justice. One hundred twenty-five volunteers participated as mentors, all trained in restorative justice philosophy and practice so that they could bring that mindset and those skills to their service. The Sheriff’s Department kicked in funding. With success and a raised profile, RJP began to receive some funding from local banks and businesses as well.

The relationship with the Sheriff’s Department developed even more when the Waldo County Jail was slated to be closed down. Instead, influenced by the presence of the RJP mentoring program, the facility was transformed to a reentry center: county and state inmates spend 6-18 months preparing for release with an intensive program of therapy as well as employment and literacy skills. RJP provides mentoring, as always, but in addition, while in orientation, all residents attend an introduction to restorative justice class with a focus on accountability, obligations, impact, and repairing harm. Micolichek and a co-facilitator began to offer a 7-week class that looked at communications and pro-social activities the formerly incarcerated could do in the community. In this way, the RJP mentor was able to help with the transition to society and the process of giving back.

Taking restorative justice into the schools also meant building relationships. A natural place to start was with the assistant principal of the middle school in Belfast who had experience with peer mediation and was therefore especially interested and open to his school being the pilot project. Within six months of implementation there was a 70% decrease in the number of office referrals resulting in detentions.

RJP continues to scale up and now serves four counties directly. Micolichek, having returned to Maine after restorative justice work in Southeast Asia, is now a consultant. Snyder helped found the statewide Restorative Justice Institute of Maine while trainings are offered by the Peace & Reconciliation Studies Program at the University of Maine, in partnership with the Restorative Practices Collaborative of Maine, a coalition of trainers and facilitators that promotes and teaches the restorative approach throughout the state.

School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: Transforming Garfield

“Reading is the world,” Garfield principal José Huerta told me. “Reading is everything. And 25% of our kids come in at below reading level. We have to start there because if they can’t read, they’re not going to be successful.”

Did I mention? Claude, at age 19, was illiterate.

Rather than waste precious classroom time on testing, reading levels are assessed for incoming Garfield students the summer before they enter the 9th grade. They are then scheduled, as needed, for individualized attention from teachers and through the Read 180 program. Throughout the school, Language Arts instruction was increased from 60 to 90 minutes a day. “We’re not going to make excuses,” says Huerta. “These kids fell behind in reading in elementary school and further behind in middle school. We can’t waste our time worrying about the past. We work with who we have.” Instead of spending funds on iPads and laptops, Huerta hired math and literacy coaches. “In one semester many students begin to read at their grade level. By the end of the school year, they’re all at 9th-grade reading level.”

With confidence—instead of humiliation—in their school performance, Huerta was convinced students were less likely to be truant or disruptive in class. “We took suspension off the table. We can’t teach them if at home. We need them here.” But lowering the suspension rate—which gets all the attention—was just a “by-product” of everything else that was put in place to change the culture of the school. “We now have kids that are connected with their teachers and are engaged in extra-curricular activities.”

When I met him, Huerta had been principal for 3-1/2 years, charged with turning around a failing school in a high-poverty, high crime neighborhood with a student body 99% Latino.

You don’t just throw out an existing discipline policy, he explains, without preparing the ground for the new one. This meant months of meeting with teachers–in large groups and small, with students, with parents, engaging the entire community. All students had to be convinced that they were welcome, that Garfield wanted them and believed in them.

Given the right support, he believes, all kids will do well in school. No student wants to fail. Significantly, he believes that no parent wants their child to fail.

About 80 parent volunteers are on campus each day. When students arrive, they aren’t checked by security guards and metal detectors but by volunteers and school personnel who greet them with smiles. (There is still an armed police officer on the campus, but his mission is strictly to respond to real crime rather than to enforce school discipline.) The day I visited, mothers were concerned because a man in a white van had recently tried to pulls girls from a neighboring school into his vehicle. As a result of that concern, early each morning, the community came together to secure the perimeter of Garfield High School.

Elsewhere in the county, Edward Madison, a South LA leader of the parent group CADRE, said, “Parents—not just kids—get pushed out.” In his experience, when African American parents tried to get involved in their children’s school, they were charged with bad parenting and told the problems were their own fault. Spanish-speaking parents have complained to me their children’s schools lack interpreters and never communicate with them at all.

At Garfield, instruction is not bilingual but Huerta and many other teachers and administrators—as well as the pediatrician who is on campus 20 hours a week—are fully bilingual. Spanish-speaking parents and guardians have their own organization and regular meetings at school to learn about issues affecting their kids—including information about programs for gifted students. They can attend classes on anger management, dealing with teenagers, presentations on asthma, diabetes, obesity.

To accomplish much of this, Garfield—like the Nashville schools—has partnered with local agencies and organizations so that drug counseling and a health clinic (which is available not only to students but to parents and community members) and other services are sited on-campus.

To address discipline, Garfield implemented SWPBIS—School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a process by which the school tracks data on what misbehavior has resulted in what discipline. Each school sets up behavioral expectations for everyone on campus, to be understood and applied fairly and consistently by everyone. Under SWPBIS, there are clear tiers of response to behavior. First, a classroom intervention by the teacher. Next, a referral to a counselor, nurse, or a Pupil Services and Attendance (PSA) Counselor—what we used to call a truant officer—to address a specific problem.

If someone is excessively absent due to untreated chronic illness or bullying, the PSA counselor finds solutions. The PSA tracks families down when they are evicted or homeless and makes sure homeless students have everything they need to stay part of the school—from transportation to school supplies to prom dresses to caps and gowns for graduation. With repeat offenders, the counselor will meet with parents and have them commit to getting their children to school on time. Bringing parents in to meet at the District Attorney’s office is used only as a last resort.

“What does a suspension do?” Huerta demanded. “For not sharpening their pencil, for chewing gum, you’re going to send them to the Dean so they can get suspended? Just to get them out of your life for 60 minutes?”

If a kid acts up in science class, Garfield administrators proceed on the assumption that the student doesn’t understand the lesson. The kid will then spend lunchtime inside with a science tutor. If the problem is indeed that the student needed tutoring, the problem should be solved. If the disruptive behavior had nothing to do with academics, the kid quickly gets the idea that if he wants to spend lunch with his friends instead of with a tutor, he’d better start behaving.

Young people with multiple problems—for example, both physical and mental health, homelessness, drugs—will be referred to a collaborative team to have specialized plans developed to keep them in school and out of trouble.

In California, school funding is based on attendance. With more kids showing up every day, Garfield received enough money so that Huerta could hire more counselors as well as a psychiatric social worker.

When you walk around Garfield High School, you see students paying attention in class or working quietly and intently in small groups. The buildings are, for the first time in recent memory, graffiti-free. There’s no rowdiness at lunchtime when students sit eating and chatting with friends around cafe tables. Over ten years ago, kids used to be jumped into gangs right in the Garfield restrooms. Today, there’s no sign of gang affiliation. “I’m not naive,” Huerta says. “I’m sure students might be involved in gangs or crews, but we don’t see any gang affiliated activity on campus. Once in a while,” he admits, “some students dress a little funny. They’re teenagers. But we call it to their attention that they need to protect themselves by dressing appropriately and not attracting negative attention.”
Gang membership, however, is not something that gets talked about.

This brought to mind something Connie Rice of the Advancement Project told me several years ago. She concluded it had been a mistake when she and others had brokered gang truces. She now believes this sort of negotiation serves to validate the gang identity. Instead, she suggested treating gang leaders as people with influence in the community rather than representing the gang. (I note that her brain child—the Urban Peace Academy which trains gang interventionists—has “Peace” in its name, not “Gangs.”)

So Garfield seems to be getting it right: if students find respect and loyalty and a sense of family at school, they may not feel the need to turn to gangs for connectedness and pride.

When Russlyn Ali was assistant secretary for civil rights at the US Department of Education, she noted that many schools in low-income neighborhoods with minority populations don’t even try to offer quality education. Some middle schools don’t bother with algebra, AP courses are unknown in high school, and so students—even the brightest—are not prepared for college. Garfield is different. The Garfield master schedule affords extra time and attention for algebra, English Language Arts, and offers the most AP courses in the school district. The 2013 graduating class is heading off to some of the nation’s most selective colleges—to Ivy League schools, to MIT, while students from Garfield gained more admissions to UCLA than students from any other high school in the state.

At a recent graduation, Huerta was nervous at first when he saw the young people had decorated their caps with a slogan. Then he read it: Nerd Herd. So much for the negative stereotype by which students of color don’t want to be associated with academic success. At Garfield these days, it’s cool to be a nerd.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Huerta says. “Some people come here and want forms or documents. They want some bylaws or some rules that will tell them what we’ve done to make it work, but it’s not that easy. It’s a compilation of strategies we implemented to change the culture of the school. And it’s all of us working together to achieve student success.”

The Garfield story is still being written. As long as poverty remains the primary determinant of low academic performance, unequal opportunity in the US will continue to mean hurdles for many kids in East LA and elsewhere. But schools like Garfield both raise the bar and lower the hurdles.

Huerta says, “Once you make students believe in themselves and they respect you, and you respect them, it’s just magical.”

* * * * *

What Can You Do?

Find out how schools in your district or city administer discipline, keeping in mind that there may be a great disparity from one neighborhood to another. How many kids are suspended and on what grounds, paying particular attention to subjective offenses such as “willful defiance”? Are police or school police present in the school and what are their powers? Are kids arrested in school for nonviolent offenses? Are they removed in handcuffs? Do records exist breaking down suspensions and expulsions by race? Are young people returning from juvenile facilities allowed to reenroll in the public schools or are they excluded? Are students of color disproportionately affected?

Advocate for a positive school climate, an end to overly harsh discipline, and the introduction of SWPBIS and a program of restorative justice.

Lobby your school board to make trauma-sensitive schools a priority and incorporate SEL into the curriculum if this is not already in place. Lobby your elected representatives, too, to expand school climate initiatives citywide, countywide, statewide–and allocate funding. Your individual voice counts through letters, phone calls, and meetings, but when you act as a congregation, your opinions carry more weight.

Get training in restorative justice practices so that you can follow the lead of the UU Church in Belfast, Maine in launching a restorative justice organization to facilitate conferencing in schools or with youthful offenders.

Partner with a school within walking distance. Does your organization have space to house a food pantry, a clothing exchange? A place where homeless kids can shower before going to class?

Assert your right to speak. You are a stakeholder in your community and our society whether or not you have children in your local school system.

On-Line Resources:

A good place to start is to download the Fix School Discipline tool kit created by Public Counsel Law Center, the largest pro bono law firm in the US. “Fix School Discipline” provides background and overview of all the alternative discipline programs discussed in this essay along with case studies (focused on California) and advice on how parents and community organizations everywhere can promote school climate change.

Trauma-Sensitive Schools

Helping Traumatized Children Learn, the book by Susan Cole (and other authors) can be downloaded free.

More information at The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Social Emotional Learning:

Check out the website of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

Social Emotional Learning: A Resource Guide to Behavioral Health, a document from Alignment Nashville is specific to the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools but it addresses the process of creating the service network and is a good example of what can be done to connect schools and service providers.

Restorative Justice

“Restorative Practices Websites and Resources for Schools,” as compiled by the Minnesota Department of Education (but not just applicable to Minnesota), can be found along with other useful materials.

The Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota has resources and news.

The Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies in Fresno, CA provides information on Discipline That Restores.

The website of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University connects you to the pioneering program in the US.

The Ojai Foundation website has a section dedicated to using council circle in schools.

Here’s a few videos showing restorative justice in practice in cities around the US:

Community Conferencing in Inner City Baltimore:

A problem between football teammates that escalated in East Lansing, Michigan:

An East Oakland high school welcomes back a young man returning from incarceration:

AndLiving Justice Pressis dedicated to publishing books about restorative justice.

SWPBIS (School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports)

When you go to this site you’ll have to wade through a lot of jargon about data and evidence-based practice before you find the specifics of how this approach works, but remember, when you seek out allies and meet with administrators or school boards, data and research will help you sell the concept.

A Black Expatriate Writer and Fear of Hashtags

July 25, 2016

(published today in LA Progressive)

When the review copy of Harbors by African American expatriate Donald Quist came in the mail, I’d been looking forward to it ever since one of the essays in the collection appeared a year ago on the Awst Press website. In it, we find Quist mouthing platitudes on behalf of a South Carolina town during a racially inflammatory police dragnet even as he himself is profiled by cops and only let go when one recognizes “the boy who writes for the mayor.” I kept telling people You’ve got to read this and I certainly wanted more from this man and his hard won perspective.

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But when the book arrived, I was engrossed in the TV production of The People v. OJ Simpson and I was struck by something that hadn’t registered in the past: A Black man suspected of a brutal double homicide evades police. They know he’s armed with a (presumably loaded) handgun. The pursuit brings police out in force. No shots are fired. There are phone conversations and negotiations till Simpson ends up in custody. The OJ television series shows me it isn’t merely that celebrities are treated differently. It’s that when the orders are clear–the suspect is not to be shot, injured, or killed–the police are able to do their jobs while showing restraint.

As we know, this is not what usually happens. I hadn’t lived in LA very long when a Black man with whom I was collaborating on a project was shot and killed in what the police almost immediately acknowledged was a tragic mistake. And now? I’ve been struggling with this essay-review as each time I sit down to write another Black man is killed, more officers are ambushed. It’s easier to watch TV–and be reminded that the OJ case also opened the window on racism and police misconduct in the LAPD. When Simpson was acquitted, those who believed in his guilt–mostly white Americans–should have recognized how their interests, too, were harmed by racist policing. There was nothing simple about the case, its context, its outcome. It was complicated. And as I watched the series, I became weary of how our necessary discussions of race, class, and violence rarely acknowledge what’s complicated or take us past familiar easy categories.

Damn it, we know better. The media has (albeit briefly) told us that the son of Dallas Police Chief David Brown was a cop-killer and was himself then shot dead by the police. I support the Black Lives Matter movement and also rode for months as a civilian observer in the backseat of NYPD patrol cars and some (note I say some) of the officers I rode with were truly there to serve the community and are among the finest people I’ve known. We live in a country where many people have life experience that should make it impossible to see issues and events from only one side.

When Donald Trump says he’ll make America safe, safety means something very different to many people I know. My African friend who fled his country and came here to save his life now sits nervously in the back of the mosque, keeping an eye on the door, wondering if each man who enters is the one who will take out a weapon and kill all the Muslims present. My Honduran immigrant friend didn’t feel safe when stopped by police on the false claim that his car registration was expired. Taken from his vehicle, he was pinned face down on the ground with police officers on top of him. He wasn’t resisting, he explains, but yes, he moved his body, trying to push them back and lift his head because he couldn’t breathe. (Until you’ve felt, literally, the full weight of the law, you are not going to understand why people don’t simply “cooperate” and lie still.)

So I find myself longing for complexifiers, not simplifiers, and then catch myself, somewhat shamefaced, because that’s what Daniel Patrick Moynihan said we needed as, from his elite position, he studied the Black family and then saw his work used to stigmatize and harm. Was that what he intended? Maybe not, but perhaps that’s the inevitable consequence when white people with influence address themselves on the subject of people of color to white people with power.

Now along comes Donald Quist.

DQ

I finally open his slim volume and find the author in all his complex experience and identity. The bullied child who shuttles between his father in low-income housing and the world of his professional, middle class mother–and finally explodes. He’s the eccentric, beret-sporting Francophile communist vampire in middle school intent on becoming a writer who becomes the spokesperson for a smalltown Southern mayor who becomes a restaurateur with a short fuse. He’s the “dirty little secret” of his white girlfriends, then the beloved husband of an immigrant from Thailand with whom he chooses to start a new life in her homeland where he becomes a teacher and graciously answers the sort of questions that would be offensive back here. And he’s got questions: How to make sense of the kindness of people responsible for reprehensible acts, how to recognize virtue and vice. And why is it that in Thailand he at last feels free?–though the country is under the kind of military control that made his father leave Ghana years ago to settle in the US.

But I’m just listing information. This is a literary project: Quist teases out elusive truth by assembling fragments, memories, conversations in which his own words and thoughts shift and run into the words and imagined thoughts of his wife. In one essay I wasn’t always sure who was speaking or what was real as the form of the text itself communicated uncertainty. In Quist’s writing, boundaries get blurred to reveal people in all their complexity and contradictions as well as the shifting lines of privilege and oppression.

Some of these essays have nothing to do with race. The more I read, the more I’m reminded of how little we know of a person when what we see first is the obvious visual: color. And I remember standing before a college class, a sea of white faces, citing works by people of color and speaking up for more inclusion of minority faculty and minority voices and not only is this welcomed by the group, but I slowly learn how many of these white students have a partner, a child, a half-brother or sister, a stepparent of a different race. When you look at people, Black or white, how dare anyone presume to know their life stories or which “side” they are on?

And yet … for all this individual diversity of experience, African Americans–I dare say without exception–share much that puts this nation to shame. Here, Donald Quist speaks for himself, posting on social media during a visit to the US after his book had already gone to press:

1. Every time I return to the States I’m reluctant to drive, because I’m scared of being pulled over by police. 2. Every time I come back to the USA I try to limit the amount of time I spend out in public. When I am outside, I walk fast and try to stay mindful to keep my hands out of my pockets even if I’m cold. I try not to gather outside with friends, unless the majority of the group is white. 3. Every time I come back here, it takes weeks to pack a suitcase. I mull over every shirt and garment to try to ensure my appearance is “nonthreatening.” 4. Every time I return to this nation I’m reminded of the endless concessions I make in order to survive here. I bend and bow and remember to smile even when my blood is boiling, because I’m selfish, because I want to make it to my next flight. 5. Every minute I’m in America I am always afraid–of being made into a hashtag. ‪#‎AltonSterling‬ ‪#‎PhilandoCastile‬,

The hashtag #DonaldQuist should refer us instead to this complex, talented author.

If I learn nothing else from these essays, may I always remember how Quist concludes his visit to Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine: “Press your palms together in respect for what you don’t know.”

* * * *

Donald Quist is co-host of the Poet in Bangkok podcast.

Harbors in paperback can be pre-ordered from Awst Press; free shipping if purchased through 8/9/16. awst-press.com/. It will be on sale through the usual online booksellers and independent bookstores starting 9/22/16. An e-book will follow in December or January and readers placing pre-orders for the paperback by 8/1 will also receive a free copy of the e-book once available.

Transgender in Africa, Rebirth in LA

October 16, 2015

Coming to Los Angeles saved his life.

And for anyone who doesn’t quite understand what it’s like to be transgender, his story is a must.

I just posted it at the SecondChancesLA website where you can read it in his original French along with my English translation here.

trans

Gay Man Deported to Mexico, Assaulted by Police

October 10, 2015

I’ve just posted the latest oral history to the Second Chances LA website. http://secondchancesla.weebly.com/angel.html

It’s an honor to know people like Angel.

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What I Learned from Genital Cutting

August 24, 2015

Thanks to Wendy M. Walker and Tatiana Ryckman at the Awesome Awst Press in Austin, I got to share these ruminations on bringing about change. Including the change we need here.

The essay is inspired in part by a conversation I had many years ago. As I say in the essay: “Another African woman in LA told me that to her, much worse than having been cut, was what happened when she gave birth in a Canadian hospital. Residents and nurses were called over to her bed where they gathered round, gaping at her vagina and expressing outrage, horror and disgust.”

Here’s the rest:

http://www.awst-press.com/library/diane-lefer/genital-cutting

Murder and Mayhem (on the page)

August 9, 2015

A lot of people think I’m so very very serious that the only books I would deign to read are the most high-minded works of literature and nonfiction but when I was sick in bed with pneumonia, I must have read every one of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder mystery and crime novels.

I can blame my low tastes on bad company. Friends like Domenic Stansberry whose Edgar-Award-winning novel, The Confession, had a gratifying and disturbing reception when some readers mistook this first-person narrative of a psychopathic killer as Domenic’s autobiography.
Confession_cover
I love visiting Mona Linstromberg at home in the Siuslaw National Forest, distant from bookstores, libraries and, in fact, anything resembling so-called civilization, but a place well stocked with shelf after shelf of crime novels. François Camoin writes of the mystery of existence, not books of detectives and bad guys, but he turned me on to John Burdett’s Bangkok novels featuring detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.

Besides citing peer pressure, I can justify my love of well written crime fiction this way: The thing about genre fiction–especially of the noir/crime variety–is the way there’s so often a political sensibility behind the dramatic action. Police and judges turn out to be corrupt; the rich and powerful are usually guilty (if not of murder, at least of something), and neighborhoods are gentrified to the detriment of most of the human beings who live there. So today I thought I’d write some short notes about the crime fiction I’ve been reading lately, including a couple of thrillers that actually confront politics and policy head-on.

Like Don Winslow‘s remarkable novel, The Power of the Dog, published in 2005 and covering events from the early 1970’s to 2004. See, I can yak your head off about the misbegotten War on Drugs and what it’s done in Mexico and Colombia (where aerial spraying to get rid of coca instead kills food crops and poisons people and livestock), about corruption and deception on both sides of the border, about CIA (and Reagan and the Bush president #1) complicity in drug trafficking and the rise of the brutally violent cartels–and all my well intentioned talk will bore you half to death. Or you can get the same disturbing information from Winslow in a form that makes your pulse race. I am so grateful that people who never thought about any of this before but do read bestsellers are now exposed to this history.

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I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, The Cartel, that picks up the story of DEA agent Art Keller who risked everything as he tried to make amends for inadvertently facilitating the rise of a ruthless cartel.

My only complaint about the novel: Winslow obviously did much research and has so much expertise, how could so many errors slip through, all of which detract from his credibility? Martyred Archbishop Romero wasn’t Guatemalan. The whole world knows he was Salvadoran. Mexico’s telecommunications industry wasn’t nationalized, it was privatized, and more. Where was the copy editor? Is there so little respect for Latin America that errors like this and more slip right by? But Winslow is so precise, it made me wonder if it wasn’t, after all, the copy editor who was at fault. Someone who doesn’t know as much as s/he thinks s/he knows adding “clarification” and getting it wrong.

Apparently I love books that validate what I already believe. The Interrogator’s Notebook, for example, a novel by Martin Ott, former Army interrogator and critic of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, a/k/a torture. (I came across Ott through his website, but as it turns out, his next book will soon be published by one of my own publishers, Fomite Press.)

ott

His protagonist, Norman Cross, has lost his center. Poor Norman, who used to be unparalleled in recognizing the lay of the land, now blunders through his life. He used to do things (most of the time) the right way–learning all he could about a terrorism suspect, building rapport, getting the subject to trust and open up. But when he fails to control the team around him, he also fails to stop an imminent attack. Now, he makes notes to himself about what it means to be an interrogator–which means being someone who, as it turns out, again and again crosses the line he felt he’d never cross, and who at times shares the torment he inflicts. It means “I turned away from acts of torture and instead ended up turning myself into a deity of sorts….the more I reveled in my power, the more my humanity slipped away.” Cross is progressively more estranged from his family. He earns a living teaching workshops to private security operatives. He never wants to sit down face-to-face with a subject again–until he is pressured into learning the truth about George Stark, a deliciously malevolent character actor who’s been acquitted of homicide. Stark agrees to be interviewed but sets up conditions that put him in control of the bizarre and unsettling interrogation.

This is a fast, sometimes comic, read which does validate my own convictions: “The greatness or smallness of a country is defined in windowless rooms with no witnesses…”

But I also read hoping to be changed. Robert Crais, author of many crime novels set in Los Angeles has a very different take on the power of dogs in Suspect in which a former military dog and an LAPD officer–both in mourning and both suffering from PTSD–partner up. The book is so imbued with dog-love, it should have been a stretch for me, a cat person who is actually pretty afraid of dogs, but I cared and rooted all the way for the cop and the German shepherd.

Of course Maggie, that wonderful K-9, is always ready to rip the throat out of anyone approaching her wounded partner, even if that someone is trying to save his life. So I guess it’s possible to love dogs and still fear them.

And speaking of cats, to celebrate Millie’s moving in (thank you, Amanda Foundation),
Mildred

I’ve started reading the quite violent mystery novels of Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. When I first laid eyes on Millie three years ago, I’d never seen anything like her. I found out yesterday she is apparently a Norwegian Forest Cat, named by King Olaf as the official cat of Norway. Does the US deserve an official cat? (Maybe let’s not go there. We could face a government shutdown with Republicans refusing to pass a budget unless Congress honors the Fat Cat.)

What else have I found out that I didn’t already know?

Sakina Murdock, author of Autotherapy, and I also share a publisher (Rainstorm Press). I’ve met her only in cyberspace where, among other things, she offered advice on how to keep track of the close to 100 flamingos I was monitoring at the LA Zoo. Her own expertise gained through geese-farming didn’t translate, requiring the use of ten fingers, not easy when you’re holding a clipboard in one hand and taking notes with the other. But her novel, featuring dead bodies drained of blood and people with secrets, also taught me stuff I didn’t know (in addition to the resolution of the mystery).

Her writing about genetic engineering (something I know a little about) and the geography of Cumbria (of which, till reading her book, I knew nothing) as well as the way to go about exploring a cave (ditto) is rendered with the kind of authority that convinced me I was in good hands as the bizarre events unfolded.

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As a writer, I was intrigued by the unusual structure Murdock chose for her novel. Most crime/mystery novels maintain forward momentum–this happened and then this and then this–with some flashbacks or backstory. The dramatic action of Autotherapy is told in short sections taking place from 10:00 AM, April 17 through 1:10 PM April 23. Interspersed among these sections, and not in chronological order, we find out what the main characters said and what they withheld when interviewed in sessions taking place between 9:00 AM on April 24 and 3:15 PM on May 1.

After Shelagh Connor Shapiro interviewed me for her radio show Write the Book, I wanted to read her own fiction. Her novel, Shape of the Sky, also has an atypical structure for a mystery but that’s because though it features a homicide, a missing person, and an assumed identity, it’s not really what you’d consider a mystery. I enjoyed it so much, however, I decided to stretch the category and include this vivid picture of life in a small Vermont town. The people of Resolute, Vermont take a big risk in agreeing to host a rock concert. Sure enough, the mini-Woodstock attracts hordes of outsiders who camp outside in the rain bringing some needed cash as well as excitement, music, and opportunity as well as the disaster some townsfolk predicted.

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Shape of the Sky doesn’t progress chronologically because each section gives us chronologically overlapping points of view as lives intersect. Shapiro offers compassionate and nuanced portrayals: a farm wife, a groupie, a town constable, a rock star, the town’s most annoying gossip, and more. The town is a place where a decades-long resident can still be considered an outsider but where newcomer-drifters are quickly offered work and where people take care of each other. Becca, for example, who uses a wheelchair after a car accident, wants to be allowed to do for herself what she can do, but also recognizes how much she still can’t, and how “…the town had healed around her like the edges of a wound.”

What I wish I could learn from Shelagh Connor Shapiro is how to write with such beauty and tenderness without ever crossing the line into sentimentality.

As long as I’m straying from my mission, I can’t overlook Jen Grow’s new story collection, My Life as a Mermaid.

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Though I know Jen Grow to be a very talented writer, I approached this book with some trepidation because of the back cover. Did I really want to read about the dark side of living “happily ever after”? Did I really need another book about housewives, mothers, and cheating husbands? Of course, if that’s your cuppa, yes, you’ll find fiction here about love gone wrong. I don’t mean to put any subject matter down. But really…When I first started leading writing workshops, I can’t tell you how many stories I read about unhappy wives who end up running on beaches only to throw themselves into the ocean and transform into mermaids. That is not at all what Grow’s fiction is like. Her remarkable title story instead vividly and dramatically explores the anxiety of privilege. It’s a story I’ll reread often. And if there’s a fairy tale being questioned in My Life as a Mermaid, it’s the American Dream as when Grow writes in the voice of the wife of a severely injured veteran, and spotlights the fragile communities of the down and out. It’s a moving and memorable collection.

* * * * *

Coming up soon: Cartels, politics, corruption and the US hand in Latin America. After I finally get around to reading Don Winslow’s The Cartel, I’ll write about it along with The Power of the Dog and Vanessa Blakeslee’s Juventud, a coming-of-age novel set in Colombia amid the violence of drug trafficking and civil war.

Juventud+Front+2

Till then…

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Books, Theater, Race Politics, Austerity

July 7, 2015

Thank you, Dick Price and Sharon Kyle of LA Progressive magazine for also hosting LA Progressive Live and inviting me yesterday to say whatever was on my mind.
You can watch the show on Youtube here.

Ain’t We Got Fun: War, Video Games, and the Nonviolence Playbook

July 3, 2015

Thanks to Número Cinq for publishing the essay I wrote late in 2014, inspired by a visit to the Marine’s grad school for combat. Best seen in the magazine here, but I’ve also pasted it below. Now I’m thinking of the Emanuel AME Church. Thinking the killing has to stop. Still trying to figure out how.

One morning in October I waited at the gate of the Air Ground Combat Center Marine training base in the Mojave Desert, Twentynine Palms, CA. I’d been invited with a community group about to take a public tour of what is essentially a grad school for combat. Marines from around the country–units 1,000 members strong–who’ve already completed basic training and are almost ready to deploy come here for 35 days of intensive work, including live-fire training and urban warfare practice in “Little Iraqi villages.”

The mockup of an Iraqi village for training

“I don’t care if you learn anything today,” said the retired Marine who would lead our tour. “I’m here to keep you entertained. At the end of the day, if you don’t have fun, it’s my fault.”

But first, our drivers licenses were collected. Quick identity checks “just to make sure you’re not a terrorist.”

We waited. A woman near the front of the parking lot stared, scrutinizing me.

For a few years, my emails carried an automatic tag at the end: I am a terrorist. By paying US taxes, I provide financial support to State-sponsored terrorism and torture. I don’t remember when I deleted the statement, but it occurred to me my past might have caught up with me.

The woman beckoned to me. “Are you a writer?”

Well, yeah, but I wasn’t there on assignment. A nonprofit I’m associated with was interested in doing outreach to vets and active service members in the area.

“You’re media.” Her definition turned out to be rather encompassing: Anyone with a blog. “You’re not allowed on this tour.”

I hadn’t planned to write about the day but I let her know I would damn sure write about being left outside the gate.

During the 4-hour drive home, I realized what I really needed to write about was the loaded word fun.

Warning sign at 29 Palms

* * * *
Does any culture have as much of it as we do? When I try to find “fun” in other languages, I can’t seem to come up with a true equivalent. I find terms I would translate as amusement, diversion, joke, prank, leisure. None of which to me quite conveys the same meaning as fun.

* * * *
A few days later I’m at one of the monthly workshops on nonviolent action led by civil rights hero Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. We’re considering violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and why governments see no alternative to war. Why is military force the default position? Why isn’t the peace movement effective?

I brought up the Marine base. What did the nonviolent movement for peace and social justice have to equal the promise of fun? To get people’s attention these days, so we have to compete with pulse racing, adrenaline-pumping excitement? The Civil Rights Movement was one of the most successful examples of nonviolence, and I dared to say it drew people to it through the promise of risk and adventure.

I knew the words were wrong, but I was trying to figure something out. What elements made it possible for the Movement to mobilize a whole nation, cutting across lines of race and class and gender?

Two of the Black participants in the group caught me at the break. Maybe it was an adventure for white kids who went to Mississippi for a month or two, they said, but for the Black people who actually lived there, there was no adventure. There was the same violence and oppression they had always lived under.

Of course they were right. And forgive me, insensitive, offensive, I kept talking. Instead of thinking aloud I should have just kept my mouth shut. Instead, I knew they were right so I stopped listening and kept trying to figure out what I meant, trying to account for the difference between suffering the constant threat of violence versus choosing to put your life on the line. There was something galvanizing in the Civil Rights Movement. Something made people embrace the cause and the risk. Wasn’t there excitement at the idea that through people claiming their own agency things might actually change?

* * * *
Rev. Lawson doesn’t often focus on what’s happening overseas. He’s said we must confront the culture of violence here, not over there. The road to peace is justice. Dismantling racism and poverty, stabilizing families by good employment, by health care in the United States–that’s what is critical for the security and wellbeing of the nation. “Only by engaging in domestic issues and molding a domestic coalition for justice can we confront militarization of our land.”

* * * *
“Our job is to engage and go through the enemy. Our job is not to take and hold territory,” said Mike, the ex-Marine tour guide.

I was back at the gate. See, after I gave up and drove home, Barbara Harris, who leads tours in the Joshua Tree area, wrote a complaint about how I’d been treated. The response came from public affairs officer Captain Justin Smith. I had his personal guarantee that I could tour. And he made no objection when I said I would, after all, write about it.

Mike said, “We kill everything that we see and let them (the Army) hold it.”

Mike wears a cap from Disneyland.

* * * *
1200 square miles of desert. Even for someone like me who loves the desert, this barren landscape is hard to love. Marines here are housed (when not out in the field) in small K-Spans, structures that used to be called Quonset huts. Concrete floors, no cell phone reception, no A/C, no heat for the freezing desert nights.

60# of gear.

But foodie-inspired MRE’s? I spot a pouch labeled “Chicken and Pasta in Pesto Sauce”–a far cry from what my father said the mess hall served during WWII: DVOT (Dog Vomit on Toast) and SOS (which I later learned–because he always refused to tell us–stood for Shit on a Shingle). Then I try to picture that grainy green sauce and imagine today’s Marines, too, have come up with a suitable acronym.

* * * *
Mike divides us into three groups to try out the Combat Convoy Simulator. Each group is in a separate room with a fullsize Humvee to drive, with gunners armed with M16s to provide security front, rear, right and left. We are to start off from Camp Dunbar and travel Highway 1 to the village of Asmar. Our mission is to get there and return without getting killed. “Don’t shoot people that are not shooting at you,” Mike warns. “If you shoot the noncombatants they get cranky and everyone will be your enemy.” The whole room becomes a 360-degree video game projected on the walls. We can see the other vehicles. We can see “Iraq” all around us.

iraq all around us

Captain Smith hands me an M16 and I hold onto it awkwardly as I try to put my camera and notebook away. “Here.” He takes it from me and replaces it with an M4– “the girl version.”

The rifles in the simulator fire compressed gas, making a sound like live gunfire. The recoil is just like real.

We’re the first vehicle in a convoy of three. I’m guarding the left side of the Humvee, watching for bad guys as video images move across the wall, and while I know I’m not as strong and fit as a young Marine, I’m still shocked at how much the weapon weighs, how my heartbeat speeds up and adrenaline surges from the mere stress of holding it in ready position.

We drive past market stalls where locals eye us, past fields where men move with their flocks, past kids on bicycles. Mike tells us to watch out for anything that might be a roadside bomb. Watch for people running towards us. They’re the insurgents. You don’t shoot at people running away.

Inside the Combat Convoy Simulator

My group wiped out some insurgents and didn’t kill any civilians. One of the other groups was too trigger-happy. In the end, we’re blown up by a roadside bomb.

Even after the exercise ends and I relinquish the M4, my hands are still shaking.

* * * *
Humvees are obsolete. Too vulnerable to IED’s. Defense contractors came up with the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle–the MRAP. The thing is, to make the vehicle adequately protected, it’s so top heavy that it will roll over even on an incline as gentle as 15-17 degrees. If it does, 8-10 Marines and sailors, with all their bulky gear, have to be able to open the 18″ x 18″ escape hatch and get themselves out, evaluate anyone who is wounded, and establish a 360-degree security perimeter. In 90 seconds.

Eight of us climbed in, fastened (with difficulty) our 5-point harnesses, held tight to our possessions as the MRAP tilted over on its side, and then the other side, back and forth and almost upside down as we screamed with shock and dizziness and delight.

We weren’t asked to escape. We climbed out, disoriented and shaken, asking How on earth do they do it?

Equipment waiting for us at the MRAP
Captain Smith smiled and told of other impossible feats the Marines are trained to accomplish. As we walked on, I thought, but of course! It’s not a race. It’s not every man for himself. It’s about preplanning and teamwork. At least I think it must be. That’s what the training was for, so the men already know who opens the hatch, who climbs out (or gets boosted out) first, and how or if they help others, and where they stand in the perimeter and how the plan adjusts if someone is wounded and can’t perform his role. It would have been interesting to hear how men learn to cooperate. Instead, we had a Disneyland ride.

* * * *
90 seconds to egress an MRAP. 60# of gear.

A young man my niece dated for a while joins the Marines. He wants to serve and I insist he should have joined the Air Force where you get treated better. I don’t understand that being treated better isn’t what some young people look for.

How on earth do they do it?

First the sheer physical and mental endurance, the brutality of basic training. Then Twentynine Palms. I come to appreciate the thrill and the pride that must accompany the challenge of accomplishing acts that seem impossible until you actually accomplish them. Even before they’ve faced threats to life and limb, they’ve had to prove themselves in ways I can hardly fathom.
What do I do–what have I ever done?–that demanded so much of me, that was so worthy of stunned respect?

For an effective nonviolent movement, don’t we need to be every bit as committed? To accept that waging peace is every bit as difficult as waging war and demands just as much sacrifice? In the Civil Rights Movement, people knew they might be injured or killed. Those who were Black were in constant danger of being injured or killed with or without a Movement.

But there’s something Sisyphean about the young Marines.

What is the point of pushing men and women to the breaking point, training them to perform superhuman feats if all we’re going to do is send them off to kill and risk life and limb in unjust, ill-conceived wars? Wars we cannot win.

* * * *
World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 and a century later historians still can’t make sense of it. Millions of lives lost, carnage, destruction, suffering and no one can give a good reason why. The Great War was so horrific, humankind was supposed to have learned its lesson. Instead it turned out to be merely the prelude to more death, more suffering, more war.

To mark the centennial, the Goethe Institut-Los Angeles offered Make Films, Not War, a series of screenings, lectures, and workshops. When Ajay Singh Chaudhary, the founding Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, and his colleague Michael Robert Stevenson presented their work on video games, I was there.

Please credit Chaudhary, Stevenson, and the Institut when I refer to gaming as prior to their workshop, I had never played a video game. I had never watched anyone play, none of which had ever stopped me from talking about how terrible the games are.

My only experience was this: Before Antioch University-LA moved to its campus in Culver City, when I taught there, classes were held in a modest building in Marina del Rey. The floor above us was occupied by a defense contractor developing video war games. A student might be reading her work aloud or we might be translating Chinese poetry or doing a rhetorical analysis of the Declaration of Independence, our words punctuated with explosions coming through the ceiling and walls.

More than 2,000 video war games are on the market. Some of the most violent games young people play for entertainment–for fun–were developed with funding from the Department of Defense.

* * * *
Do violent video games lead to violence? Chaudhary says the studies are contradictory and inconclusive. Wouldn’t they have to be? Every individual reacts in his or her own way.

Years ago I’m sitting in the auditorium at the New York Public Library for a free screening of Buñuel’s film, Un chien andalou. Insects emerge crawling from the hole in a hand and a man in the audience rises to his feet. “That’s what happens!” he cries. “I told them! It’s true!”

This year, while writing this essay, I rush to see American Sniper, sure that it will bolster my argument about fun and entertainment. I don’t even mention it in the early drafts. No point in talking about the politics of the film, I thought, when in spite of the violence, it’s really pretty dull. Such an mediocre movie won’t get much attention, I thought. Shows you how much I know.
While in the meantime, ISIS posts online graphic video of beheadings. Most people are appalled. Some are thrilled. Some conclude ISIS should be destroyed. Others, drawn by the display of raw power, want to join.

Do we have to think about how every conceivable person will react to every conceivable content?

Specially designed video games are being used experimentally, I’ve read, to treat combat veterans suffering from PTSD. Virtual reality puts them back into the extreme situations that caused the trauma. The hope is to desensitize, to let the veteran relive the experience but in safety and with the ability to stay in control. Virtual violence that heals.

We watch a little boy as he plays Call to Duty, his hands flying, his body moving rhythmically with the first-person shooter action. The scenery changes at high speed and the kid is shooting and killing. A dog appears on the screen and for a moment, the little boy stops and just looks. “Dad,” he says, “can I have a dog?”

The game, the fantasy of the game, doesn’t change who you are.

Or does it? You get to choose your weapons. There’s a whole array with all their technical specs. The game can develop some serious expertise about military arms and it seems to me that expertise is something a person wants to use, and using it to play a game may not be enough. When you become confident and expert, won’t you identify with the endeavor? Are these video games excellent recruitment tools for militarization and war?

* * * *
There’s a powerful resistance to killing deep in our moral structure, maybe even in our genes. Up until the time of the US war in Vietnam, most soldiers refrained from firing their weapons or intentionally fired above the heads of the enemies. So, as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman explains in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by the time we charged into Vietnam, the military had developed psychological methods to improve the kill ratio by breaking down this natural resistance. But what happens afterwards? For some soldiers returning to civilian life, violence may no longer be taboo. For others, this sense of moral injury, of having become something he or she cannot even recognize as the self, remains an open wound. We can break down a person’s character. How do we build it back up?

* * * *
Can peace be fun? Well, the Sixties. Sex. Drugs. Rock n Roll. Make Love Not War. But did that bring peace?

How do we compete with kicking down doors and blowing things up?

Video war games have extraordinary production values. They put you right into the action. They are expensively produced, sometimes with funding coming right from the Department of Defense. Many of the pro-peace games I saw use comparatively low-budget graphics. Little more than cartoons. And instead of adrenaline-pumping excitement, they offer earnestness.

We Come in Peace, more sophisticated, uses 3D satellite imagery but apparently even the trailer is no longer available. It was designed so that when you play you see our earth. The goal is to move in on location after location and eliminate the stockpile of weapons. I see how a player can get involved in the task, but you can’t compare it to the excitement of a first or third-person shooter game. Instead it resembles more closely the experience of a drone pilot. Except the pilot is eliminating human beings.

The drone pilot may learn days later that he or she hit a wedding party or a funeral and will have to live with that knowledge. But it’s not quite the same as the player of Spec Ops: The Line who has a mission to accomplish in the Middle East. As the game progresses, you find yourself on a killing spree, women, children. By the end of the game, you realize you are not a military hero but a psycho killer.

Will some players smile with satisfaction? Embrace the identity of a psychopath?

* * * *
I strike up a conversation at the workshop. The guy is Israeli and he tells me about Peacemaker, a game which challenges you to bring about a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians and win the Nobel Prize. You can play as the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister. You are called upon to make decisions in response to events and you then see the consequences of your decisions.

When he played the Israeli side, he told me, it was relatively easy to choose actions that led to peace. But he was entirely unable to imagine his way into the role of the Palestinian president. “Why?” I asked, bristling. I thought he was suggesting that “they” don’t have the same mentality “we” do. No, he explained. From the Palestinian side, he found himself frozen. There was pressure and influence and problems coming from all directions. He’d never before appreciated how difficult and precarious is the situation of a Palestinian leader.

* * * *
If you’re going for true realism, much of military life is boring. Mike tells us that the Convoy Simulator, such fast-paced fun for us, is very boring for the Marines and sailors who use it for training. For 6-8 hours at a stretch, the Marines drive and drive and drive as they practice keeping their Humvees a set distance apart. It’s bad enough if a bomb takes out one vehicle. If you’re driving too close together, it could be two. Drive through the village and back to the base. No insurgents appear on the screen. Hold your weapons ready though most of the time you won’t have any reason to fire. Spot a possible roadside bomb? Stop and call for a security perimeter. Wait.

Staying awake–let alone staying alert–that’s a big part of going to war.

* * * *
The wind howls. The scene is bleak, black and white, and a soldier trudges head down through the snow in the aftermath of a terrible battle.

You are that soldier. Men lie dead and wounded across the field. Some whisper pleas for help. There are bombed out buildings. There’s shelter in the distance and a fire–the warm orange flames the only color in the scene–and your mission is to comfort the suffering, to get survivors to that warmth before they freeze to death. Before you freeze to death with them.

The game, The Snowfield allows you to walk and to pick up objects. That’s all. You can pick up a bottle of whiskey. A rifle (but it seems you can’t fire it). Your movements grow slower and slower and more labored, your footsteps drag the further you get from the fire.

The Snowfield

The action is slow. Very little happens. I couldn’t stop watching.

The scenes are sad, horrific, but the game is created with such an eye to aesthetics, it all has a strange and compelling beauty.

Would a young male used to Call to Duty appreciate The Snowfield?

Could an action game include segments where to advance to the next level you have to slow down, you have to experience boredom, you have to face the ugly aftermath of killing? Of course such a game could be designed but who would bother? Who would market it?

The Call to Duty franchise has sold 139,600,000 games through the year 2013. Admittedly, sales have dropped. In 2013, only 14,500,000 copies of that year’s most recent game were sold.
That’s ten times as many people as actually serve in the US military today.

I look at the empirical study about civil resistance by Erica Chenoweth who was named by Foreign Policy magazine as among the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2013. Looking at nonviolent social movements worldwide, Chenoweth she found that none failed “after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population.” Doesn’t sound like much. OK, take the US population of approximately 316 million. They means you only have to mobilize a bit over 11 million people. A lot, but fewer than bought the new Call of Duty game in 2013.
3.5% can bring down a dictatorship. What can it do in a country where many people don’t recognize their own oppression?

* * * *
We’ve always known we can’t bomb our way to peace. We have to win hearts and minds. We just can’t figure out how to do it, even here at home.

When I bring up the violently misogynistic content of some games. Ajay Chaudhary suggests the greatest danger is when video games “reproduce social inequalities” by reinforcing stereotypes about identity, race, gender that are part of our daily lives.

The Stolen Lives Project documents cases of people killed by law enforcement agents. From 1990 to 1999, they collected over 2000 reports from public records. Most of the dead, people of color.
How much patience can we (of the up until now majority community) ask of people who’ve been waiting centuries for equal protection and equal rights and justice?

I want to get rid of the word “waiting,” as though African Americans have stood by passively. They have not been waiting, but rather working for justice, dying for their rights, struggling for centuries.

* * * *
In the year 2000, I had just begun working on a theater project with a Black actor and director named Anthony Lee. A week later, a police officer shot and killed him. A tragic mistake. I was horrified, heartbroken, angry. But I also believe the officer was devastated.

I attended the trial of Johannes Mehserle who shot and killed Oscar Grant. I saw no remorse. There was not a trace in the statements of Darren Wilson. Is it possible they really felt none?

Self-appointed security guard George Zimmerman showed us only self-pity. Do our legal system and our polarized society encourage self-justification and the angry refusal to accept responsibility?

When you take a life–justified or not–if you’re not a sociopath, you suffer a moral injury. How can it heal if you are not allowed to feel the guilt and to grieve?

* * * *
At Twentynine Palms, Marines drive through the desert terrain, slowly, 15-35 mph on the alert for roadside bombs. Roads signs are in Arabic as they approach and enter one of three mock Iraqi villages.

At the height of training for combat in Iraq, the Marines hired 1,000 roleplayers– men and women of Middle Eastern nationality or descent–whose identities were closely guarded to protect them and their families from reprisal. They were just intended to be warm bodies providing local color. They were given scripts to follow, but according to Mike, it soon became clear they were needed for much more: to teach cultural competence.

Furnished Iraq interior for practising raids

Furnished Iraq interior for practising raids


A Marine goes into a meeting with the town mayor and local notables and within minutes offends all of them.

A Marine passes an Iraqi woman in the street and greets her with a courteous “Good afternoon, Ma’am.” He’s immediately surrounded by a group of hostile Iraqi men, disturbed that an unrelated man has dared speak to a woman.

Surely it’s better to know something than nothing, but how much good did this training do when we were clearly in way over our heads? Marines learn a few words in Arabic, but Mike explains that in Afghanistan there are so many different languages, the military doesn’t even try.

I think of Anand Gopal’s book, No Good Men Among the Living. US misreading of situations and people in Afghanistan had us paying huge sums to dishonest informants, sending innocent men to Guantánamo, jailing Afghan allies because of false reports. However bad you thought it was, read the book and learn it was much much worse.

* * * *
So where do we (the nonviolent movement for peace and justice) find 11 million people?

* * * *
We love action. Video games with cars racing, weapons discharging fire and explosions all happening faster than you can blink. We love kicking down doors and blowing things up.
(But the little boy didn’t ask his father for a weapon!)

This essay is not concise. It meanders. On and on. Will anyone keep reading as I try to think my way forward?

We are addicted to the quick fix. Violence is instant gratification. When you want results NOW, with violence you can cut through the crap, the bureaucratic red tape, the naysayers, the law. But maybe not.

Shock and awe–the bombing of Baghdad by US forces–began on March 19, 2003, the strategy known as “rapid dominance.” We are still there.

Torture. Get a quick answer when faced with an imminent threat. Only the ticking time bomb scenario never actually occurred and torture yielded horrific injustice when we interrogated innocent people with no information to offer and yielded lies and misinformation when we tortured terrorists.

* * * *
CIA apologist Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr. has justified torture again and again by repeating the imminent threat and ticking time bomb scenario. But in his self-serving memoir (Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives) here’s what else he says. Of course they knew that people being tortured will say anything. That’s why, he says, they never asked a single question of the prisoners while they were being waterboarded. The “enhanced interrogation techniques” were intended just to break their spirits. Then, during the months that followed, interrogators hung out with the prisoners. Rented DVDs and watched movies and shared popcorn with them, building rapport and garnering bits and pieces of information over the course of months. His own words then acknowledge there was no ticking time bomb. No imminent threat. No justification.

* * * *
Peaceful methods take patience and time and skill. Violence is the quick fix when a person feels bullied, disrespected, ignored. When a person feels sad.

Only violence can resolve matters in an instant. Only it doesn’t.

After 13 years, the US leaves Afghanistan. Mission unaccomplished.

* * * *
You’ve heard of brainwashing. What if brains aren’t washed, but poisoned? By war, exile, oppression. By toxic stress when family members are killed, incarcerated, deployed, deported; by surviving violence, including the violence of poverty and of racism, the mother’s stress hormones flooding over the fetus during pregnancy. The pain of sexual violence, of torture, of being trafficked and sold. The list goes on and on in endless cycles of pain and abuse, pain and retribution. Can we at least stop contributing to the cycle?

Children growing up in some Los Angeles neighborhoods show levels of PTSD comparable to children in Baghdad during the worst violence of the war. But understand: Not every person who’s been traumatized will grow up violent, without impulse control, likely to self-medicate through substance abuse. Can we maximize resilience instead of vulnerability?

We’re talking about millions of people.

Can we re-humanize our society? I talk about nonviolence and compassion but lose my temper on the phone after 40 minutes on hold trying to resolve a simple problem with the bank. What happens when frustration has left many of us numb and deadened till the rage breaks through?

Know Justice, Know Peace.

* * * *
According to Commander John Perez, police officers in Pasadena feel really bad when they have to kill a dog–an attack dog which is also a family pet–in the process of making an arrest. So they tried alternatives. Foam didn’t work. Pepper spray didn’t work. One officer made a suggestion and was laughed at. He tried it anyway. Turns out at least some of the time, a Milkbone will tame an angry pitbull.

Our culture allows–even expects–police to express remorse over dogs. Out of remorse comes the search for solutions. If officers could be as open with their regret over taking human life, would they learn ways to de-escalate situations instead of relying solely on the gun?

* * * *
If we can get rid of “waiting,” I’d also like to get rid of “police brutality.” Certainly we have too many examples of just that, but going after brutal and sadistic cops won’t stop the tragic mistakes, the deaths of Black men like Anthony Lee and like Akai Gurley, gunned down in a Brooklyn stairwell. Or Kendrec McDade, killed by Pasadena police responding to a 911 call that turned out to be false.

The word “brutality” won’t help us correct a culture in which Michael Brown’s family was treated with offhand disrespect, and which teaches central nervous systems to respond instantly, signaling “Danger!” when a Black man comes into view.

Instead of turning their backs on Mayor de Blasio, officers of the NYPD should thank him. By teaching his son how to conduct himself when faced with the police, the mayor protected his son but also made it less likely that a cop will have to carry the lifelong burden of a “tragic mistake.”

* * * *
“Tragic mistake” = the least damning phrase I can offer for the US bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq.

* * * *
From the immigrants rights movement I learned a principle, expressed in a slogan: Nothing About Us Without Us. The people most affected must be heard. If we’re going to reform policing, communities of color must be at the table. So must the people who best know what the job requires of them: the police.

* * * *
Gandhi wrote, “We win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.”

* * * *
Every small victory proves the oppressive power isn’t omnipotent after all. Every step is one crack in the edifice of unjust power. In the Civil Rights Movement of the Fifties and Sixties, mass marches raised awareness and spirits, created solidarity, forged alliances and suggested the power that might lie behind such numbers. If many white consciences remained untroubled by racism, they were still shocked by the brutal repression of peaceful and dignified resistance. (In those days, unlike now, mainstream media coverage advanced the struggle.) Local campaigns targeted local issues–buses, lunch counters, voter registration. Each local demand was focused but part of something bigger. Each victory, no matter how partial, advanced the larger goal of equal rights and justice without regard to race.

* * * *
Wait a minute. Isn’t that what’s been happening?

* * * *
May Day 2006, millions of immigrants and some of their allies took to the streets in nonviolent protest. No legislation passed. It seemed nothing changed, but as people came out of the shadows, the marches helped organize and mobilize local grassroots organizations and find new supporters for groups that had struggled for decades all over the country. Local groups championed the cause of specific immigrants and convinced judges to use discretion and cancel deportation orders. The young people who became known as DREAMers won executive action that protected them from deportation and allowed them to work. Undocumented immigrants are gaining valid drivers licenses. Some are about to win temporary protection.
Slowing down doesn’t mean waiting. It’s not that sort of patience. It’s about moving forward, step by step.

* * * *
At the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, panelists spoke about considering everyone a “client”–including the government agencies and entities often seen as adversaries. Instead of fighting them, educate them.

The system won’t come to you. You must go to the system. Department by department, person by person.

I’ve seen examples here in Los Angeles. Here’s just one: Community-based organizations that offer an alternative to incarceration won over people from the D.A.’s office after they gave tours of their facilities and programs to show their effectiveness and share information about what they do. Of course it helps that we elected a new, very receptive D.A. Now Jackie Lacey’s office plays a role in educating hundreds of prosecutors, judges, and even defense attorneys who’ve had no idea what might be possible.

Vote in local elections. D.A., Sheriff, School Board may matter to you more than Congress or even the President.

* * * *
On Monday evenings, leaders from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network bring Latino musicians to the street in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center. They serenade the immigrants locked up inside the building awaiting deportation proceedings, offering solidarity and a little joy while commuters, watching the scene from the elevated Gold Line, learn just what is going on in that strange edifice downtown.

So, music. I remember the Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Rhythm is the heartbeat. Voices raised together in song create a force.

* * * *
At the grassroots, people agitate. Allies in law, the faith community, professionalized nonprofits don’t take the lead, but stand in solidarity, lobby, negotiate.

* * * *
I’m sick and tired of marching. There are other ways I can offer my support. No more shifting from foot to foot for an hour or more waiting for the damn thing to get underway. Of the self-anointed leaders shouting through bullhorns and giving each other adulatory introductions. Of every fringe group in existence showing up to push every conceivable agenda.

But then I’m on the phone with Laurie Cannady, educator, Army vet, and author whose memoir of girlhood in the ‘hood–Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul–will be published this year. We’re talking about Ferguson and about Eric Garner and she is convinced this is the tipping point. There’s a new Movement now and we’re going to see change. I’m skeptical. Where was the change after Trayvon? Oscar Grant? Anthony Lee? And now, months later, will we have reached that elusive tipping point with Walter Scott?

I Can't Breathe shirt to protest the death of Eric Garner

* * * *
Laurie came to mind when I heard through social media about a nonviolent march scheduled for December 27th in the streets of LA to protest the killing of unarmed Black Americans. I’d never heard of the organizers. Turns out they keep a low profile not because they have anything to hide but because they are committed to an organization based on We, not Me.

How many more

The march starts with thousands of people, on time, at the scheduled hour of 2:00. The 500 of us who want to join in conversation arrive at noon, seated in an amphitheater, not shifting foot to foot. It turns out to be a youth-led movement, almost everyone under 35. We meet each other, listen to poetry and spoken word and song, not speeches, though we are given rules: No aggressive language, no F the police. No leafletting, no soliciting, no outside organizations. We’re here, said a speaker to “promote healing, peace, and love in order to process pain and anger turn it into effective action.”

I wish Laurie could see this. I can see 3.5% now within reach.

We set off, chanting, and I think I’ve gone about this all wrong, looking for excitement, adrenaline. Having fun is just one way to feel alive. There’s something about fun and games–purposeless frivolity–that breaks through the constraints and tedium that weigh us down and trap us in so much of daily life. But purpose–being engaged and interested, committed and active–is every bit as enlivening.

Hands up! Don’t Shoot!

Millions March LA 042

I used to imagine people marching in silence. Yes, we want to raise our voices and be heard. But I always thought if you could get a mob of people to stay silent, that would be an extraordinary show of discipline and power. That would send a message of serious, unwavering intent. I never thought I’d see it till we stopped and observed 4-1/2 minutes of silence to mark the 4-1/2 hours that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. At the end of the almost 3-hour march, we stood together, no chants, no shouts, no drums, no bullhorns, no words. We stood together sharing a powerful silence.

* * * *
When you play a game, I think, anything can happen. Same with being part of a Movement. You can’t predict the outcome but you play to win.

Solitary Confinement Is Torture

May 14, 2015

I met Ernest Shepard III at a demonstration calling for an end to solitary confinement in California prisons. He was carrying a sign from NRCAT, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

web size Ernest Shepard III

We started talking and I learned he’d spent more than 45 years inside California prisons, including three years on Death Row (where, incidentally, he was interviewed by Truman Capote who gave him a carton of cigarettes and a case of Coca-Cola).

We met a few more times so I could hear his story because as many of you know, I’ve been posting stories of torture survivors from around the world at the Second Chances LA website. But torture doesn’t happen only “over there”. And when Americans torture, it’s not just at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. I couldn’t continue with the website without including a look inside US prisons.

Ernest Shepard III now works for the Fair Chance Project, a movement led by liberated lifers (formerly incarcerated men and women), prisoners and loved ones organized around the demand for just sentencing laws and fair parole practices. Additionally, the group integrates formerly incarcerated men and women back into society enabling them to “give back and to help build strong, self-sustaining communities.”

You can find his narrative at the Second Chances LA website or go directly to his page here.

fair Chance project

KNOW JUSTICE, KNOW PEACE

December 28, 2014

The Millions March LA this afternoon was everything I’ve been hoping to see for a long time and I almost didn’t go. Certainly I wanted to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, with the call for justice and an end to violence, but I hesitate when I don’t know who’s involved. On the invitation I didn’t see any of the usual names or any of the usual progressive organizations. That turned out to be perhaps the best part of the day.

How many more

After decades of protests starting in the Sixties, I have to say I’ve become sick and tired of showing up. (Except for the extraordinary outpouring in 2006 when half a million people marched peacefully for immigrant rights in downtown Los Angeles.) Usually? It’s the same (old) faces, the interminable speeches, the long adulatory introductions as though no one would actually bother to work for social justice without incessant ego-strokes, the tired and predictable rhetoric, the rival organizations with their varied but usual agendas.

Considering how I feel, I wonder what made me attend the pre-march conversation. I am still exhilarated. What I found at noon in the amphitheater at Pan Pacific Park was an entirely youth-led movement. “A social movement led by the young, guided by elders,” said one speaker. Of the 500 or so people assembled, the vast majority were under the age of 35. A significant number had never before been part of a protest.

I can't Breathe
crowd

There were to be no outside organizations leafletting or selling materials. The message was not to be muddied or diluted. Instead of rhetoric, political speech came in the form of spoken word and poetry, including a poem by a nine-year-old girl, with the repeated line We want equality. She got a standing ovation.

We practiced chants and were reminded all chants should be peaceful. If we were to hear anyone being aggressive, we should gently encourage them to chant one of our chants instead.

The organizers had the proper permits and had communicated the peaceful nature of the protest march to the LAPD. A small number of police officers on bicycle rode alongside the march. There was no sign of riot gear, not a hint of aggressive attitude.


I can’t say more without saluting those police officers who do their best to serve with fairness, honor, and compassion within a flawed criminal justice system they did not create. My belief is that change would benefit them as well as the community they serve. I’ve known some great cops and this is entirely sincere that I grieve with the NYPD and all who are horrified by the premeditated and coldblooded killing of Officers Ramos and Wenjian Liu by a deranged individual. I can only hope that the experience of grief, shared in common, will bring people together rather than cause more polarization. I believe we can’t find a way forward–an end to violence–alone.

At the park, we heard the day had three goals:

1. Raise awareness and issue a call to action so that here in LA we can join in solidarity with the Movement across the nation. The march was only Phase One. Organizing for effective action comes next.

2. Bring unity among people who’ve already been involved with people just getting involved in seeking change.

3. Promote healing, peace, and love in order to process pain and anger and turn it into effective action.

By the time the march began, the crowd had doubled in size and more people kept joining along the route.

leaving the park

How did the organizers do it? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. There was some outreach. A woman I walked with for a while was visiting LA from North Carolina and heard about the march that morning when she went to church. The word primarily reached the youthful Black community, but throughout the crowd were signs of solidarity.

ASian americansMuslims in solidarityChicanao solidarity

So often, marches in LA on weekends take place in neighborhoods where everything is shut down and there’s no one to see the action. For a change, we had a route that passed through a park, past outdoor cafes and museums. How did the organizers get to be so smart? They did say their names, but I never quite got any of them. I am in awe of this Movement which is about justice, not personalities. WE, not I.

There was a moment when we stopped short. High above the street, a billboard for Selma.

Selma

Hands up! Don’t shoot! we chanted.

Don't shoot

I did feel some regret that the written page with chants showed NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE transitioning to KNOW JUSTICE, KNOW PEACE. Of course said aloud, the message I wholeheartedly endorse is lost.

I used to imagine people marching in silence. Something very different from the usual bullhorns and shouting. Yes, we want to raise our voices and be heard. But I always thought if you could get a mob of people to stay silent, that would be an extraordinary show of discipline and power. That would send a message of serious, unwavering intent. I never thought I’d see it.

During the march, we stopped and observed 4-1/2 minutes of silence to mark the 4-1/2 hours that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. At the end of the almost 3-hour march, we stood together, no chants, no shouts, no drums, no bullhorns, no words. We stood together sharing a powerful silence.

The Black youth of America have started something and with or without allies they will see it through.

rest in power