more thoughts on Michael Brown

During Washington, DC’s national moment of silence for Michael Brown at Malcolm X Park, the organizers read aloud the names of African Americans who had been murdered for living while black and brown–Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo….each name in this litany was said with great care yet was also such a cruel reminder of their horrific unjust deaths.

Image Source: Jason Aq

Image Source: Jason Aqui. Say Their Names. August 23, 2014.

In an earlier draft of my post about Michael Brown, I reflected on how sad I felt as each name was read. And how I, as a white woman from a privileged background growing up under the impression that police protect and serve all people, first learned about the ever-present threat of police brutality experienced by people of color. I was a teenage bookworm, and one of the many books I read in my adolescence was Jacqueline Woodson’s young adult novel If You Come Softly. The title, I just learned, while doing some background research for this post, comes from an Audre Lorde poem that begins:

If you come softly
as the wind within the trees
you may hear what I hear
see what sorrow sees.

If You Come Softly tells the story of two teenagers who feel like they don’t fit in–Ellie and Jeremiah–who meet and fall in love at a Manhattan prep school. Because Ellie is white and Jewish and Jeremiah is African American, they are nervous to tell their friends and families about their blossoming romance. One night after a date with Ellie, Jeremiah, giddy with young love, starts running through Central Park, and is shot and killed by a police officer, who assumed that he must be fleeing a crime scene. Reading this novel where I so easily identified with Ellie and the world Jacqueline Woodson created, only to have it explode due to racist brutality deeply moved me. I do not want to dramatize the novel’s effect on me, but I truly believe in the power of reading to build empathy and expose people to different points of view, and I do believe reading If You Come Softly marked a first step in getting me to question my unearned privilege from being white and false belief of police as enforcers of safety.

I took this reflection out of my first post because Jeremiah is the son of a famous director and a famous writer. From when I first read this novel, I interpreted his parentage as a way of signifying that fame is not immune to racist violence. But since there has been a lot of discourse about how highlighting Michael Brown as a high school graduate about to attend college frames him as “a black man who didn’t deserve to get shot” as though there are those that do deserve to be killed by the police, I decided to leave these thoughts out. Michael Brown was exceptional though, to his friends and family, to the people who loved him. In a Democracy Now! interview from August 12, Michael Brown’s father described his son, “He was funny, silly. He’d make you laugh. Any problems that’d be going on or any situation, there wasn’t nothing that he couldn’t solve. He’d bring people back together.”

I had also taken this out of my post because I want to be very aware of my positionality as a white ally, and never take it for granted. I want to show up and listen, not make my contributions all about me and my point of view. This past weekend, I talked with a friend about how my earlier post felt unfinished, and my feelings of hesitancy to share all that was on my mind. She listened and encouraged me to not hold back in my writing and express these layers in my thought process. She added that it sounded like I was still working through how to be an ally and find myself in the movement.

I really appreciated her feedback, and I think there is a lot of truth in her perception that my navigation of allyship is a work in progress. I was also reminded of a scene in The Education of a WASP, a memoir that charts Lois Stavely’s evolution from a complacent white Midwesterner in the 1960s to a dedicated anti-racist ally. In this scene, Lois’s friend Barbara tells her about the different types of allies she has met over the years working in solidarity with white people.

“Look,” Barbara continued, she “was not going to stereotype whites as they stereotyped blacks, but white people did break down into certain categories….But it was the white liberals who, as she had come to believe were more destructive than the greedy or the damaged ego-whites.”

After Barbara enumerated on these categories of white allies, Lois asked, knowing that Barbara will give her an honest answer, “what group do I fit into? ” Barbara tells her, “I don’t know, and I don’t think you know yet yourself.”  Tragically so much of life rendered in this memoir casts a shadow to this day (it was eerie to re-read the scene I described in my post on Trayvon Martin about how the young developmentally disabled boy who had been lynched was left hanging as a “lesson” to the neighborhood). The author of this post gives a present day example of more harm than good wrought by white liberals co-opting the movement for justice for Mike Brown.

In some ways, I am much like Lois captured in that moment. I am unsure of my footing and how to contribute to the anti-racism movement in the most meaningful way, and about making mistakes that will hurt those I wish to support. As described in FreeQuency’s post, I did feel like I was appropriating the vulnerability experienced by African Americans confronted by the police by doing the “hands up, don’t shoot” chant with my hands raised, and even though the Black Panther Party declares, “all power to all the people,” I still felt as though I was mimicking a gesture that was not meant for me when I did the Black Power Salute. I wholeheartedly want to and will keep showing up for justice, but I know I need to be ever mindful not to appropriate and co-opt, yet I need to try not silence myself as I describe this journey and the missteps I have made and will continue to make along the way.

I want to bring this post full circle and emphasize that in this journey, the demand for justice for Mike Brown is a movement, and for those allies reading please reflect on these ideas, and get involved by educating yourself, supporting The Saint-Louis based Organization for Black Struggle, thoughtfully and respectfully participating in rallies and marches in your area, and although I have expressed ambivalence about my role as an ally in this post, I am never ambivalent about being an ally, we as white people need to come out for justice, but come softly when doing so.

 

Update from El Estor & brief history of this blog for new readers

I’m very flattered to see that the number of people who subscribe to my blog has grown these past two weeks–I’m guessing in response to my post about Michael Brown’s death. There are many ideas in that post that I cut out in an earlier draft, and I am planning to revisit these thoughts in an upcoming post. In the meantime, I would like to give my newer readers some background for why I began this blog, and provide a much needed update on the community of El Estor, Guatemala.

In 2012, I attended the Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s (GHRC) fall speakers tour where community activist Maria Choc spoke about how the Canadian Nickel Mining Company, HudBay Minerals, had brutalized her community–how its security forces had raped eleven women, murdered community leader Adolfo Ich, and shot and paralyzed a young man named German Chub Choc. My accounts of the history of El Estor and Maria Choc’s talk can be found here and here. I was very moved by Maria’s talk–her description of the atrocities El Estor had experienced, and how the community was fighting back through a lawsuit against HudBay Minerals and resiliently rebuilding their lives. I wanted to do something, and when a member of the audience had asked, “what can we do to help?” Maria stated that the community needed funds for a wheelchair and German’s ongoing medical needs, as well as startup capital so he could independently operate a corner store.

Coming from a disability rights perspective, raising funds so that German could experience greater independence and inclusion appealed to me. I set up an Etsy store and created this blog as a forum to explain how and why I was selling my handmade crafts. I also wrote about issues intersecting with my project, like the Affordable Health Care Act’s effect on people with disabilities, and reflections on social justice. I soon discovered that making felt purses is a very inefficient way to fundraise, even more so when no one buys them. The organization Rights Action, which works in solidarity with Central Americans to improve human rights, launched an appeal to fund a home for German and his family.

Since then, my blog has undergone some shifts, but remains a forum where I, as the no longer misspelled tagline states, share resources and reflect on issues pertaining to social justice, human rights, and disability. Included in this catchall, is news about German Chub Choc and El Estor, which can be found here, and now I have a few updates.

1. Mynor Padilla, the former head of HudBay security, responsible for shooting German and seven other people, and murdering Adolfo Ich, remains in jail. I am sad to report that German is being harassed by people agitating for Mynor Padilla’s release, and German is experiencing health problems from conditions associated with his spinal cord injury. Rights Action. “Hudbay Minerals: Stop the Harassment in Guatemala Concerning Mining Related Criminal and Civil Lawsuits.” August 22, 2014. http://www.rightsaction.org/action-content/hudbay-minerals-stop-harassment-guatemala-concerning-mining-related-criminal-and

2. The people’s court in Canada held a mock trial for the El Estor lawsuit against HudBay, and the verdict was guilty. Under-mining Guate. “HudBay Minerals Declared Corporate Criminals in People’s Trial.” May 8, 2014. https://rachelblumesmall.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/hudbay-minerals-declared-corporate-criminals-in-peoples-trial/

3. The documentary film Defensora, which tells the story of El Estor’s lawsuit against HudBay Minerals, was screened in Canada on April 22, 2014. The trailer is included in this link. The Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN).” April 22–Defensora Screening.” March 25, 2014. http://mininginjusticesn.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/april-21-2014-defensora-screening/

New & Noteworthy: legacies of struggle, words from Hedy Epstien & Angela Davis

This short post shares interviews from two women–Hedy Epstein and Angela Davis–each speaking about the interconnections among different struggles for justice and equity.

The first clip is Democracy Now! Journalist Amy Goldman’s interview with Hedy Epstein, the newly famous 90-year-old Holocaust survivor arrested in St. Louis during a protest demanding justice for Mike Brown’s death. When Amy questioned Hedy about the arrest, and asked “what keeps her going?” Hedy responded that because of her experience being oppressed, she must act “because anyone who stands idly by becomes complicit.”

1. Democracy Now! “Stop the Violence from Ferguson to Gaza: 90-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Arrested in St. Louis.” August 20, 2014. http://www.democracynow.org/2014/8/20/stop_the_violence_from_ferguson_to

The second clip comes from a speech Angela Davis gave when she was honored by the UK-based anti-poverty organization War on Want. Among the topics she addressed was the passing of Nelson Mandela, and how “Mandela urged us to see connections in freedom struggles” to find solidarity among the people of South Africa, the American South, Vietnam, and Latin America. She also commented that we are living in the legacies of these struggles, and quotes Mandela directly: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

2. Colorlines. “Angela Davis on Palestine and the Prison Industrial Complex.” July 22, 2014. http://colorlines.com/archives/2014/07/angela_davis_on_palestine_and_the_prison_industrial_complex.html

Responding to the death of Michael Brown, what a sincere white person can do

On Thursday, I joined the National Moment of Silence in Washington, DC for Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of six-year veteran officer Darren Wilson. Scanning the crowd, I saw adorable children holding up signs reading “Don’t Shoot” as they sat on the shoulders of their parents, and among the signs demanding justice and decrying the horror of Michael Brown’s death, one stayed in my mind, perfectly capturing the cyclical nightmare of where we stood. On a white poster board was written lyrics from  2pac’s song Changes:

Cops give a damn about a negro?  Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero

Even though time has disproved the lyric we ain’t ready to see a black President, so much in the world 2pac described stands, well, unchanged. That night in Malcolm X Park surrounded by so many, I felt momentarily buoyed by the crowd’s active energy as we chanted “Brown lives matter. Black lives matter.”

Image Source: Alternet. August 17, 2014. "Woman Behind Powerful Mike Brown Protest Photo Defies 'Respectability Politics.'"

Image Source: Alternet. August 17, 2014. “Woman Behind Powerful Mike Brown Protest Photo Defies ‘Respectability Politics.'”

Less than a year ago, I wrote a reflection about Trayvon Martin’s death on this blog, and shared a quote from Malcolm X’s autobiography regarding his perspective on the role of white allies in the anti-racism movement. I had posed this quote as a rhetorical question, “what can a sincere white person do?”  Now less than a year later, I need to answer this question once again with Malcolm’ X’s own words.

“Where the really sincere white people have got to do their “proving” of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites. That’s where sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.”

In an editorial in Saint Louis Today titled “Let’s Talk About Race,” Associate Law Professor at Washington University in St. Louis Dr. John D. Inazu, succinctly states “So let me implore my white friends and colleagues not to let this be a ‘black thing.'” Yesterday, I discovered a podcast called “Hyphenated,” and in Friday’s episode, the speakers advised would-be white allies to “show up, listen, don’t talk over black people, come in with open heart and open mind, and combat racism in your community.” Enacting this advice begins with informing oneself, and a post on Everyday Feminism has beaten me to an annotated resource list that includes Colorlines’ excellent Daily Newsroundups from Ferguson and link to Saint Louis based organization On The Black Struggle, which is on the ground in Ferguson demanding justice now.

Last night, I attended another vigil, one supporting children fleeing violence in Central America. The organizer addressed the crowd saying, “we stand in solidarity not just for our children and families at the border, but also with our brothers and sisters in Ferguson.” It is all to easy to connect the dots to the painful histories of militarized police violence pushing families to flee Central America and what taking place in Ferguson today. I held up a sign with a message that speaks to both tragedies and our need to start making some changes.” We demand compassion and justice for all children.”

New & Noteworthy: Migration Crises

Two articles crossed my path today, and although each article covers immigration in different countries, the common themes of how painful histories and destructive polices create diasporas is cause for contemplation.

1. Kathryn Johnson and Lydia White Cocom.  Upside Down World. “US Policies Exacerbate Migration Crisis in Guatemala.” July 29, 2014.  http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/4962-us-policies-exacerbate-migration-crisis-in-guatemala 

This article, co-written by The Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s Assistant Director, blends testimonies from Guatemalan youth who have migrated to the United States to flee violence with facts from  the Organization of American States, UNHCR, and UNICEF to effectively illustrate how United States’ policies are contributing to the migration crisis in Central America.

2. Americas Quarterly. “The Dominican Republic and Haiti: A Shared View from the Diaspora.” Summer 2014. http://americasquarterly.org/content/dominican-republic-and-haiti-shared-view-diaspora

I was intrigued to learn that in September 2013, the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court ruled that the children of undocumented Haitian migrants, including those born in the Dominican Republic, are no longer citizens of the D.R. In the linked interview, Dominican author Junot Diaz and Haitian author Edwige Danticat “discuss the roots and legacies of racism and conflict in the neighboring nations, the impact of the court’s ruling, and the responsibility of the diaspora to build bridges between Dominicans and Haitians.”

Human Rights Defender Makrina Gudiel–steadfast pursuit of justice

I always leave the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC) speaker’s tour feeling so inspired by the actions Guatemalans are taking to advocate for justice. GHRC’s 2014 spring tour with Makrina Gudiel was no exception. GHRC staff introduced Makrina by stating that “as a human rights defender, she is a “real-life hero.”

Makrina opened her talk by describing, in a gentle and calm voice, how a human rights defender “is a person who makes their life part of the social forum.” She identified two paths to becoming a human rights defender–one path was academic and analytical, and the other was auto-didactic and through lived experience. Growing up in Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, a sugar growing town in Guatemala’s south coast, she observed how the economic inequality on the sugar plantations created a system that pitted “the rich against the poor.” This realization sparked in her a desire to change the status quo, and by the time she was an adolescent, she joined her family advocating for labor rights.

When I heard her say the name of her town, Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa I felt a memory jolt–I had met with members from this community and learned about the assassination and disappearance of many of their family members during the Internal Armed Conflict. Sadly Makrina’s family was one of those to suffer such a loss–her beloved brother, Jose Miguel, was disappeared in 1983. Makrina later learned that the Guatemalan military had targeted her family as “Chumpas Rojas” (Red Jackets) because their labor advocacy was considered subversive. Furthermore, Jose Miguel’s entry was found in the Military Diary, a roster the Guatemalan military kept documenting those they kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. After Jose Miguel was disappeared, Makrina and her family went into exile in Mexico and the United States.

Jose Miguel Gudiel pictured in the Military Diary. Photo Source: The Guatemala Human Rights Commission

Jose Miguel Gudiel pictured in the Military Diary.             Photo Source: The Guatemala Human Rights Commission

Makrina and her family returned to Guatemala after the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, and her family brought her brother’s case to the Inter-American Commission in 2004. Soon thereafter, Makrina received a telephone call from a Kabil, a member of the Guatemalan military’s counter-insurgency unit, who told her, “you and your family will receive a visit from me this year.” Despite reporting this threat to the police, her father was murdered in December 2004. This crime was never adequately investigated, and Makrina recently testified before the Inter-American Court regarding her father’s murder in 2014.

Listening to Makrina tell her story, I was so struck by how she has channeled her tragic personal losses in “the social forum” as an active community organizer and a coordinator of the Network of Guatemalan Women Human Rights Defenders. GHRC staff expressed their concern that when Makrina returns to Guatemala, she will likely be threatened for her ongoing pursuit for justice for her father and brother’s deaths. I encourage everyone reading this article to frequently check in with GHRC regarding Makrina Gudiel, and to take a concrete step toward positive action by signing the petition to maintain the ban on US funding to the Guatemalan military.

Makrina Gudiel (left) and her family. Photo Source: "Porque queríamos salir de tanta pobreza" (106)

Makrina Gudiel (left) and her family. Photo Source: “Porque queríamos salir de tanta pobreza” (page 106)

Learn more about GHRC’s Spring 2014 Speakers Tour with Makrina Gudiel

1. “Makrina Gudiel: Seeking Justice for Crimes of the Past in Guatemala.”  http://www.ghrc-usa.org/get-involved/events/spring-2014-speakers-tour-makrina-gudiel/#Makrinabackground 

2.”Guatemala News Update: March 31-April 4, 2014.” http://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/guatemala-news-update-march-31-april-4/

3. “Guatemalan Activist Calls for Solidarity in South Coast.” http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20140403/NEWS/404030383

Learn more about the victims and survivors from Santa Lucia Cotz

1. “We Need Everyone to Know.” Impunity Watch. http://www.impunitywatch.org/html/index.php?alineaID=89 The organization Impunity Watch works closely with the community of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa. In this article. Impunity Watch provides background information about the violence that escalated in the murder and disappearance of many members of the community, as well as Santa Lucia Cotz’s efforts to commemorate their loved ones by writing Porque queríamos salir de tanta pobreza and painting a mural.

2. “Porque queríamos salir de tanta pobreza: la memorable historia de Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa contada por sus protagonistas.” http://biblio3.url.edu.gt/Libros/2013/pqsalipobre.pdf This is the pdf version of the book the community Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa wrote to commemorate their family members who were assassinated and disappeared. The story of Makrina’s brother, Jose Miguel Gudiel, and father, Florentin Gudiel Ramos, which Makrina wrote, is on pages 104-106.

3.  “Painting Realized by Family Members of the Victims of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa.” http://www.impunitywatch.org/docs/ENGELSE_VERSIE_POSTER_MURAL_lowres.pdf  This document includes a picture of a beautiful mural painted by the victims’ family members, a short explanation of the Internal Armed Conflict, and the family members’ process of organizing themselves and pursuing justice. One of my favorite things about this document is that it includes quotes from the family members about how they chose to represent their loved ones in the mural.

 

Pushing Back Against Privilege & What is Funny?

This week, I attended a show featuring six standup comediennes  sponsored by a leading nonprofit whose mission is empowerment of Jewish women world-wide. The host opened the show with jokes poking fun at assumptions about Jews, which felt welcome in an inclusive environment where the majority of the audience was Jewish. But I felt uncomfortable when the humor turned into exclusive abelist jokes, meaning prejudiced against people with disabilities, where the punch lines were that people with disabilities are inferior to others.

 One of the opening comediennes made a joke about a man telling her she was smart “for a lady,” and she recounted how she offered the quick retort, “you are good at using tools for a Mongoloid.” Hearing this word was a truly unpleasant throwback–Mongoloid is an old, pejorative term for a person with Down Syndrome that is also racist because it refers to the eyelid shape of people from Asia. This so-called joke also reiterates Douglas Bayton’s thesis in “A History of Inequality in America” about the trickle down effect of an oppressed group being labeled “mentally disabled” as the ultimate insult.

My discomfort grew when the headliner made a joke calling her mother “retarded,” and then minimized it by saying “retarded is a technical medical classification.” However, her joke was not using the “r-word” as a medical classification, she was actually mocking her mother’s lack of technical savvy. Furthermore, the r-word is not a “technical medical classification” and is no longer even in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders. The current technical medical term is Intellectual and/or Development Disability (I/DD). A profound response on why using the “r-word” is not edgy or witty as the comedienne intended, but instead is a hateful slur comes from self-advocate John Franklin Stephens’s open letter to Ann Coulter.

The headliner had another joke where she recounted being stood up on a date by a blind man, which included a ton of gags about how she asked him out because she felt sorry that “he couldn’t see how cute he was,” and she saw a future together where “he could never see her cellulite.” These jokes do not even make sense if you have spent any time around a person who is blind or has low-vision, because from such interactions you realize complex and creative workarounds for seeing without your eyes. These jokes are premised on the prejudiced idea that being blind and/or having low vision also means that a person is truly deficient: incapable of a sense of touch (feeling her cellulite) and lacking the social conditioning and feedback from others to recognize that he is attractive.

After the Comedy Show, I wanted to address why I found these jokes so appalling, and I talked to the headliner. At first, when I tried to explain the complex skills people who are blind/have low vision use to navigate their daily lives and why her joke made no sense, she jibed,  “so why did he stand me up?” I quickly realized she wasn’t interested in developing a more nuanced understanding of the lives of people with blindness/low-vision, so I got to the point told her that I found her jokes to be prejudiced and abelist. She agreed, and said with pride, “I am going to offend a lot of people with my comedy.”

I had to accept that she simply didn’t care, and was even proud of her prejudices, but I thought that the host organization, which aspires to empower Jewish women, should care that humor grounded in prejudice is not even remotely funny. What makes comedy funny is the joining together of ideas that reveal truisms and absurdities about the way we live. Jokes whose punch line is premised on a person of privilege mocking the vulnerability of a group of people, are not edgy or original or even funny because they cruelly and boringly reiterate the status quo. For example, during the 2013 Oscars, the online news outlet The Onion tweeted that the nine-year old star of The Beasts of The Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis, was a “cunt.” There is nothing funny about exposing a young African American girl to how society objectifies and sexualizes her, as this response articulates.

The following day, I emailed the coordinator for the nonprofit organization sponsoring the event, outlining many of my thoughts here. The coordinator wrote a congenial response that emphasized that as the host of the show, she does not and cannot control the comediennes’ content. She added that comedy shows are spaces for irreverent and sometimes offensive material, and she knew that none of these comics intended to offend or degrade anyone. I was disappointed by the host’s response because I felt like she missed my point: that until the comediennes can delve deeper and recognize that marginalized people, including people with disabilities, are first and foremost people whose rich experiences that can be very funny but are not to be made fun of, they will never be truly funny.

My final guideline comes from the blog “Black Girl Dangerous,” which gives excellent advice on how to push back against privilege. I  regret giving the organization my money to attend the event, and in the future I want to make more informed choices about the nonprofits and entertainers I support. In closing, I would like to recommend some standup Comedians who jokes, unlike those I parsed above, are irreverent and funny:

1. Margaret Cho http://www.margaretcho.com/2009/10/28/stand-up-clips/

2. Hari Kondabolu http://www.harikondabolu.com/videos/

3. Maysoon Zayid goo.gl/hRk5W9

New & Noteworthy: the diffusion of concepts–toast and homophobia

These articles are not so new, but I certainly think they are noteworthy. I took a week to think about why I wanted to put these two articles together: one from Pacific Standard Magazine, an exploration of the sudden spread of the hipster fad for “artisanal toast.” What begins as the author’s tongue-in-check scavenger hunt for the source of the trend, leads him to Trouble Cafe owner Giulietta Carrelli, and her fascinating life story of how intimate and shallow relationships have affected her life. The second article is from Autostraddle magazine, and discusses how homophobic polices in Africa, which its so easy for us in the Global North to look down upon, have in fact resulted from colonial influence.

Both these articles are very different in tone and address very different topics, but what they have in common is the propulsion of ideas–be they toast or homophobia and the inter-relationships along the way that facilitate their migration from coast to coat or continent to continent.

1. Gravois, John. “A Toast Story.” Pacific Standard Magazine. January 13, 2014. http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/toast-story-latest-artisanal-food-craze-72676/#.UuBbo46RvRc.facebook

2. McDonald, Helen. “We Need To Talk About Colonialism Before We Criticize International Anti-LGBTQ Legislation.”  Autostraddle. January 22, 2014. http://www.autostraddle.com/we-need-to-talk-about-colonialism-before-we-criticize-international-anti-lgbtq-legislation-218306/