Archive for the ‘Crime and Criminal Justice’ Category

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

A Family at Christmas!

December 15, 2014

I am so happy! The website I created after the workshop I facilitated for men in transitional housing included their work, their names, their photos. Today I heard from the daughter of one of the men who’d made the deepest impression on me. She had been searching for her father for decades. They are now in touch, stunned, thrilled. I’d say that’s some of the best work I’ve ever done.

Children with Incarcerated Parents: Just Collateral Damage?

December 6, 2014

On Tuesday I attended a remarkable summit meeting in Long Beach: Children with Incarcerated Parents: Trauma, Toxic Stress & Protection. This article just published in LA Progressive offers only a taste of the powerful presentations and discussions.

Feasting or Fasting?

November 27, 2014

I don’t like this holiday but later today I will of course go up the hill for dinner with family.

What are we celebrating? Indians fed us. Then we killed them.

Instead of stuffing ourselves we should be fasting.

The last Thursday of November should be a national day of atonement.

The Outdoor Assemblage Sculpture of Noah Purifoy

November 20, 2014

Just months after I moved to Los Angeles 17 years ago, I first saw the work of artist Noah Purifoy when the California African American Museum curated a retrospective of his sly, inventive and visually arresting assemblage sculpture. Purifoy was a leader in the Los Angeles Black Arts Movement and co-founder of the Watts Tower Arts Center. He was at the Center when the Watts riot/uprising broke out in 1965. He wandered the streets, trying to make sense of it all and collected charred debris which he later, with fellow artist Judson Powell and others, turned into a traveling exhibit of art born from the ashes.

At the time of the CAAM exhibit, he had relocated to the high desert in Joshua Tree where there was space enough to create large assemblages. His work fascinated me but it didn’t occur to me you could just head out to Joshua Tree and visit.

Noah Purifoy died in 2004. It was only recently that I received an email that the Cultural Landscape Foundatino (TCLF) had named the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum as one of the most endangered cultural sites in the US. His work covers acres in the high desert, simply sitting there, waiting to be viewed, and the Noah Purifoy Foundation is deeply grateful for contributions to protect the site. For now, you can just show up. As the website doesn’t give directions–but the internet reveals all–I did find the address and will share it below. The website has much better photographs than these!

bikes

purifoy 4

purifoy 3

purifoy joshua tree 29 palms nov 18.19.2014 029
Some bits and pieces of the Kirby Express, assembled from household items. It was part of the CAAM exhibit and is too large to fit into a single frame.

part of Kirby Express

Kirby Express 1cropped Kirby

Most of his work isn’t overtly political. But here’s WHITE/COLORED. (The labels don’t show well here.) It may take explaining to the younger generation. Not only because it refers to the ugly past in the South when blacks were barred by custom and law from using the same facilities as whites, including water fountains–but with today’s bottled water and Sparkletts demijohns I’m not sure younger viewers will recognize the object on the left as a water cooler.

WHITE.COLORED

At the site, you will find salvaged objects that were once part of people’s daily lives and artwork that is deteriorating,

disintegrate
disintegrating, clothes so affected by years of desert heat and wind and thunderstorm that the shredded tissue-thin fabric looks like something coughed up by bad plumbing.

According to the brochure available as you enter, Purifoy used perishable materials because he was interested in seeing Nature participate in the creative process. Change and transformation over time were part of his vision. So would he want his assemblages protected and preserved?

What is ethical here? Do we respect the artist or the physical art?

Noah Purifoy worked as a social worker and it’s reported how disturbed he was by mental patients left to live in the street, by the poor, by the dispossessed. He made his sculptures out of society’s discarded things. But I believe he always thought, too, of the discarded people. I’d like to think if his work is preserved, it can be a declaration that no human being in the end is disposable.

Directions:

welcome

Heading east on 29 Palms Highway in Joshua Tree, CA, turn left (north) at the light at Sunburst. The road stays paved for about 3 miles. Continue about a mile on gravel to Aberdeen. Turn right. Aberdeen is paved–for awhile. You’ll reach the intersection at Center, just before Aberdeen becomes a dirt road. Turn left on Center (also dirt) and go a short distance to Blair. Right turn and you’ll see acres of Noah Purifoy’s art coming up on your left. A little further on you’ll find a small designated parking area on your right.

Enjoy! and then spend the rest of the day at Joshua Tree National Park to see Nature’s assemblage art.

Joshua Tree 001purifoy joshua tree 29 palms nov 18.19.2014 064JTpurifoy joshua tree 29 palms nov 18.19.2014 079purifoy joshua tree 29 palms nov 18.19.2014 081purifoy joshua tree 29 palms nov 18.19.2014 073

James Lawson: A Sense of Urgency

October 3, 2014

Back in 2008, I interviewed Rev. James Lawson, Jr., veteran (still active) activist for civil rights and social justice, for many hours over the course of several days. The full interview has been too long to publish anywhere, but an abridged version appeared in The Believer in March/April 2013 and I included a link to the piece in this blog. Now I’ve just seen the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published another version, duplicating some of The Believer interview and included material that wasn’t published before. Here’s the new link.

Sheriff, Supervisors, and LA County’s Most Vulnerable

March 15, 2014

My article in today’s LA Progressive:

There have been more Popes elected than LA sheriffs in the last 80 years.

This year, progressives need to choose carefully in the LA County June election. Not only will we be voting for sheriff but will also fill the supervisory seats currently held by Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavky in the First and Third Districts. There may be low turnout and low interest for these contests but at the March 13 general meeting of the LA Regional Reentry Partnership–”LARRP”– I learned why these offices matter to anyone concerned with social justice, public safety, or the rational expenditure of taxpayer money.

But first, here’s what else I learned.

LARRP brings together service providers, government agencies, advocates, and clients all concerned with the reintegration into the community of the formerly incarcerated in ways that are humane and consonant with public safety.

The first time I attended a LARRP meeting, back in July, executive director Peggy Edwards pointed out, “Our reentry providers haven’t looked at themselves as homeless providers and our homeless providers haven’t looked at themselves as reentry providers.”

That has changed and collaboration is now the order of the day with open communication and computerized and filtered lists of clients and services.

Hazel Lopez of the Lamp Community, which provides services on Skid Row, said, “Reentry and homelessness are not separate issues. People coming out of prison are without housing and that is the definition of homeless.”

Danielle Wildkress of the Corporation for Supportive Housing explained, “The Skid Row Housing Trust didn’t think of themselves as reentry providers, but it turned out 60% of the people in their housing were on probation.”

Lopez described a new initiative, the Coordinated Entry Systems-Access to Housing, which has been funded in part by the United Way, while Wildkress explained the workings of the new Jail In-Reach 2.0 program which seeks to end recidivism and the cycle of homelessness.

On Skid Row

On Skid Row

Both initiatives follow similar models:

“Housing First“

Don’t expect clients to be stabilized physically, mentally, and free of substance abuse before offering them housing. Experience now shows that once people are actually living in permanent supportive housing, it becomes possible for them to get stabilized.

But where is such housing to come from? LA has nowhere near enough to meet the need. Troy Vaughn, also of Lamp, acknowledged, “There’s limited capacity to do development projects” for permanent supportive housing and even when a project can be funded and approved, “it doesn’t get up fast enough.” In the past, he explained, people assumed there had to be a single facility where residents and wraparound services could be housed together. Now Lamp is trying a new approach. Through negotiation, the owner of the Alexandria Hotel agreed to set aside 60
units for chronically homeless people coming out of the hospital. Ten have already moved in. Lamp agreed to find all the supportive services the residents need. Service providers will travel to the client. Vaughn hopes if the program is a success and the residents in the Alexandria remain stabilized, other property owners and landlords will join the effort.

Foster collaboration and streamline services

In LA County, as in many urban areas, people in great need often go without help as they find themselves unable to find their way through a landscape of scattered services and no unified effort. Both of these programs identify clients through street outreach or in-reach into hospitals and jails where they can begin work with a vulnerable person before discharge. Each client is paired with a “Navigator” who helps with documents and ID and makes connections to all appropriate and available supportive services. The Navigator makes sure there’s a bed available–even a temporary one–while actively working toward the goal of permanent supportive housing. When people leave jail, their own Navigator is waiting at the gate to greet them and remains a familiar, friendly presence in the client’s life until new relationships are built with the post-release team.

Put decision-making in the clients’ hands

Navigators offer options but clients are never coerced and are free to accept or reject housing offers. Every step of the way, clients explain what kinds of help they want and need. For example, Kelli Poole, an employment specialist with Chrysalis, who works with Jail in-Reach 2.0, recognizes that many people would write off her clients as unemployable. She said the clients themselves, however–far from wanting to rely on handouts–consider it a priority to prepare themselves for getting and holding down a job.

Prioritize the most vulnerable.

“Usually when a new building comes online in Skid Row,” Lopez explained, “people start lining up 2-3 days in advance to get an application.” Obviously–and as a survey confirmed–it’s almost exclusively the younger and healthier Skid Row residents who get the applications and housing.

People who are chronically homeless, repeatedly incarcerated, and disabled with physical, mental health, or substance abuse issues tend to be excluded. With the new programs, they are the priority. Not only is their need the greatest but, as constant users of ambulances, emergency rooms, hospital stays, jail and law enforcement resources, they are the greatest drain on public funds. Providing the most vulnerable with intensive and extensive services can save lives while saving money. A study of a similar program outside LA found that a chronically homeless person cost $67,376 in public taxpayer monies in a year while housing that person and providing full wraparound services cost only $19,399.

Which brings us to one of the reasons why we need to vote carefully for County Supervisors: What will the Supes do with such considerable savings? Put the money back into housing and reentry services or stash it elsewhere, continuing a tradition of neglect?

Lynne Lyman, the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance and LAARP co-chair, Policy and Advocacy, cited other reasons for dissatisfaction with the current board.

Thousands of people in LA County jails have not been convicted of any crime and languish (at considerable taxpayer expense) behind bars only because they can’t afford bail. While the sheriff has stated his willingness to release some under supervision after a careful risk assessment, he does not have the authority to do so without approval from the county supervisors. It has not so far been possible to get a majority vote granting this authority.

While the supervisors were given $750 million by Sacramento to cover some of the realignment costs involved in sending prisoners back to the county from the state prison system, only a small percent was allocated for reentry services. Much of that small amount doesn’t even make it to the service providers and goes unspent.

Then there’s the plight of LA county’s Three-Strikers. In November 2012, California voters recognized the unjust and unintended consequences of life sentences handed down to nonviolent offenders. With Prop 36, they approved a measure that would offer the possibility of release. A year and four months later, 700 Los Angeles county Three-Strikers who are eligible for release remain incarcerated because they have not yet been afforded a day in court to show they have a place to go and a reentry plan. For men and women with chronic medical or psychiatric conditions–which have often been exacerbated during a decade or more in prison–or who have special needs such as wheelchair-accessible housing, a feasible reentry plan can remain out-of-reach, especially because the board of supervisors (unlike their counterparts in other counties) have refused to allocate any funding for Prop 36ers.

As for the race to fill the sheriff’s office, as voters consider the large field of candidates, it’s important to note that while the department has cooperated enthusiastically with the In-Reach program, here, too, there is a struggle over funds and an underutilization of community-based diversion programs.

Lyman notes that 40 women were released under an alternatives to incarceration program but though community placement is considerably less expensive than jail housing, the sheriff’s department money retained the savings and refused to pay anything for the beds. The alternatives program can reach only a limited number of appropriate individuals as long as nonprofits, already operating on austerity budgets, have to offer their full services for free, relying on fundraising and grant writing while the sheriff’s department holds onto all funding.

Lyman and co-chair Peter Laarman of Justice not Jails, suspecting that county officials really had no clue as to the level of professionalism and effectiveness of community-based residential programs, have led people from the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office on eye-opening tours of the Amity Foundation , the Tarzana Treatment Centers, and other programs that should be trusted and funded by LA County. A bed with full wraparound services at the Amity Foundation would cost the taxpayer one-tenth of the what the
sheriff would currently prefer to pay in sending prisoners to Kern County.

The sheriff and the supervisors continue to favor a $2 billion jail construction and expansion plan over the fiscally sound use of split sentencing and community-based programs that offer offenders realistic opportunities to turn their lives around.

There are two chances coming up to hear all the candidates vying for your vote for the office of sheriff.

The meeting concluded with a presentation by Pamela Jordan of A New Way of Life about her work as Housing Coordinator for the Reentry Family Reunification pilot program which now serves 25 formerly incarcerated individuals. The goal is to make it possible for the soon-to-be-released to move in with willing family members in Section 8 housing under the program of the Los Angeles City (not County) Housing Authority.

In the past, even families that very much wanted to welcome a member back home were held back by fear. Could they manage the person’s behavior? Would they be risking eviction if their loved one relapsed or committed a new offense?

The pilot program makes sure that their family member gets all necessary supportive services. The system will also sever culpability, so a law-abiding family will not be penalized if the person they’ve offered a home to should happen to reoffend.

What all three innovative programs–CES, Jail In-Reach 2.0, and Reentry Family Reunification–have in common (besides changing lives and neighborhoods for the better) is that they are small scale and underfunded with no guarantees they can continue.

This is why progressives need to ask direct questions of the countywide candidates well before the June 3rd election. When we simply let an offender out the gate with no place to go and no resources, we are often guaranteeing that he or she will reoffend. Continuing an emphasis on punishing people after the fact of crime instead of devoting resources to preventing crime and reducing recidivism serves no one. Good reentry programs benefit all of us. We need to know which candidates are ready to take an ethical and rational approach to homelessness and reentry and which are determined to continue a system that’s proved itself to be inequitable, ineffective, and unsustainable.