MLK Day 2021

I realized, this morning, that I’d never read Dr King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. So I found this copy online, and read it straight through.

It took only twenty minutes to read. But in that one letter, King evokes philosophers and thinkers from Martin Buber to St Augustine to Thomas Jefferson, laying out the justice of his cause and defending nonviolent direct action. It’s a powerful, compelling, argument.

Reading the letter, it struck me how little has changed, in how police still react with violence to Black people who are nonviolently seeking justice. In King’s day, they attacked marchers with dogs, billy clubs, and fire hoses. In ours, they do it with tear gas, rubber bullets, and tasers. But the demands are the same, and the violence committed in the name of upholding racist power is the same.

I urge you, if you haven’t before, to read the letter. And as we speed away from 2020 and into 2021, let’s remember Black people were murdered by police in 2019, and they will continue to be murdered by police in the new year, until racist power is broken, and justice is granted to all those Black families that have been told to “wait.”

Please Vote

The Washington Post has a comprehensive run-down of everything the Trump regime has broken over the last four years. The list is long, and it starts from the very first day of their time in office.

We need to roll it all back.

But more than that, we need to fix the broken parts of American democracy, that have allowed a minority government to stall progress and enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

We need to reform the Supreme Court. Justices should have term limits. And the power the justices have arrogated to themselves of deciding the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress should be removed, and placed in a completely separate, explicitly bi-partisan, Constitutional Court.

We need to abolish the Electoral College. We elect governors and mayors directly. We should elect the President directly, too.

We need to admit both Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico as states. They deserve the full rights (and responsibilities!) of citizenship.

Finally, we need to address the balance of power between Congress and the Executive. Congress should take back powers it’s given away, like the ability to declare a state of emergency.

And it should reduce the powers of the executive branch where they have been delegated. For example, border patrol agents should have no special powers to search and seize, no matter how close to the border we are. Federal police should not be able to deploy military weapons against citizens who have peacefully assembled. And moving funds between agencies or programs (when Congress has explicitly earmarked them) should be labeled a crime, and thus an impeachable offense.

All this, in addition to specific policy shifts, like stopping the provision of military gear to police departments, ending the abuse of refugees and migrants, and rebuilding the State Department as the primary driver of foreign policy.

It’s a lot. But it’s not impossible. We can do it, but it’s going to take all of us.

So please, vote. Vote not as the end, but as the beginning, of building a better country together.

Because none of us are free, unless we are all free.

Keeping Score: September 25, 2020

I can’t believe Breonna Taylor’s killers are going to walk free.

I mean, I can believe it, in the sense that racism is real and cops are killers and they’re killers because they kill and get away with it in this country.

But it’s just…hard to grasp that after all we’ve been through, these United States, in 2020, a group of people could decide it’s just fine to charge into the home of one of their fellow citizens and murder them, so long as the murderers are wearing badges.

It’s also hard for me to wrap my head around the President of the United States saying for months that the only election he could lose is a fraudulent one, and there’s no howls of indignation from his side of the aisle. No Senators lining up to condemn his words and ask that the House open a new impeachment investigation.

Nothing. Not a fucking peep.

Meanwhile in my state, in supposedly progressive California, we still use inmates as firefighters, paying them perhaps a dollar a day, which is slave labor by any other name. And once they’ve served their time, if they happened to have been born somewhere else, we hand them over to ICE for deportation.

Oh, and there’s still a pandemic on, so walking around outside to enjoy the air newly-cleared of smoke and ash means constantly dodging people who aren’t wearing masks.

So it’s all I can do right now, when I’m not doomscrolling, to keep editing the novel. One chapter at a time.

I feel like I should be making more progress. Editing more than one chapter a day. Maybe even racing to the finish line.

Or picking up the story I was outlining a few months ago, and starting to actually put words to paper.

But I can’t.

I just…can’t.

The writing spirit is very willing, but the writing flesh, the meaty brain and hands that would summon words from the void, are quite busy right now.

So I press on, one chapter at a time. I’m not stopping, but I’m not able to move any faster right now.

Because this book’s become even more important to me, lately.

It’s about prisons. It’s about all the different kinds of people that get locked up, and why. It’s about exploitation, and greed, and how it’s all kept going by the people that look the other way. The ones that hold their noses so they can benefit.

It’s also about forgiveness, and change. About making yourself vulnerable again, after holding onto a hurt for so long.

I want to finish it. I need to finish, to have this story told. To share it.

There’s not much else I can do, so I’m doing this.

Voting. Donating. Speaking up.

And writing.

The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always been afraid of the police.

Not that I have any negative experience to make me afraid. No, I grew up White and privileged, shielded from the things they did to others.

Yet I was afraid. And I was right to be.

Because if the police can pull you over for a broken taillight, insist on a search of your car, and choke you to death when you resist said illegal search, you never want to be pulled over.

If the police can raid your house on an anonymous tip and kill your dog when it tries to protect you from the armed intruders violating your home, then leave without even an apology when they learn it’s the wrong home, you never want to have them pay you a visit.

And if they have the power to insist that the only way you’re going to get help with your heroin addiction is to plead guilty to a crime that hurt no one but yourself, you never want to ask them for help.

But that’s where we are, in the United States. We’ve expanded the role and powers of police so much, that the often the only hand being held out for those who are homeless, or addicts, or mentally disturbed, is the one holding a gun.

As we re-examine the place of police in our society, Vitale’s book is essential reading. It’s not a screed, and not wishful thinking about how everything would be peaceful if the police went away.

Instead, it takes a hard look at what the police are for, and then dares to ask the question: Are they successful at it?

As it turns out, they’re not. They’re not any good at solving homelessness, or making sex work safe, or getting addicts into recovery, or reducing gang violence, or helping the mentally ill get treatment, or disciplining school children, or even something as mundane as actually preventing crime.

Police, in a word, are a failure. They’re an experiment that we need to end.

Because the problems we’ve asked them to address can be, just by different means.

We can get the homeless into homes, and use that as a foundation to get them standing on their own again.

We can invest in businesses in and around gang-troubled neighborhoods, to give the people who might join those gangs the opportunity to do something better.

We can find other ways to discipline children than having them handcuffed and marched out of school.

The End of Police is both a passionate plea for us to find a better way, and a dispassionate look at how badly our approaches to these problems have gone wrong.

It’s not too late to try something else. We just need to make the choice.

No Crisis

I refuse to believe that Trump’s election is a moment of ‘crisis’ for liberalism.

We’ve always been under siege. We’ve always been fighting uphill.

We were fighting uphill when we were abolitionists. We were fighting uphill when we worked to win the right to vote for the women of this country.

We were even fighting uphill when we wanted to stand with Britain in World War II. Not many people know this, but many in this country wanted to stay out, to let the Nazis and the Soviets divide up Europe between them, and let Japan have Asia. It took liberals like FDR to stand up and say, “That’s not the world we want to live in.”

Every time, we have been in the right. It has just taken a while for the rest of the country to see it.

I am reminded of MLK’s phrase, “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” I remember the victories of the recent past, when we expanded the right to marry to same-sex couples. When we finally decriminalized a drug less harmful than alcohol. When we made health insurance affordable for 20 million more Americans.

This is not a crisis for liberalism. It isn’t the last gasp of conservatism, either, a desperate attempt by the powerful to stave off change.

They are always fighting us. And we are always winning.

This time will be no different.

Hobby Lobby Ruling Undermines Pluralism

The Hobby Lobby ruling didn’t make sense to me for several reasons. One thing that really bothered me was the way they asserted they could apply the religious exemption law to the corporation: they started out asserting that corporations are persons, then shifted to saying the rights of persons are protected by protecting the rights of the people employed by corporations, then shifted to saying the shareholders would be burdened by the penalties if they didn’t comply with the healthcare law.

It felt very slippery, and didn’t seem to hang together. Then it dawned on me: what they’re saying is that shareholders should be allowed to practice their religion through the corporation. Which sounds good at first glance, and is certainly not unconstitutional. But I don’t believe it’s a good principle for a liberal society.

Think of a Muslim-held company that decides to force its employees to pray while facing toward Mecca five times a day, or a Rastafarian company that expects employees to smoke ganja. Or worse, a company owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses that refuses to pay for health coverage that includes my kid’s vaccines, or my blood transfusion during an emergency surgery, or my mother’s kidney transplant. According to the logic behind the Hobby Lobby ruling, this would just be the owners practicing their religion through the corporation. Never mind that they would be pushing their religion onto their employees.

I don’t think anyone should have the power to force a religious practice on someone else – not my teachers, not my city council, and certainly not my boss.

I shouldn’t need to worry about my employer’s religion when applying for a job, anymore than they should have to worry about mine. When you enter the public sphere, you check your religious baggage at the door. It may be uncomfortable, you may not like it, but it’s necessary in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society like ours.

If you don’t check your religion at the door, you can end up with Christian businesses and Muslim businesses and Atheist businesses, everything split along sectarian lines, like in Iraq. That’s not the kind of society I want to have.

In the past, our laws have been used to avoid¬†precisely that kind of sectarian society. When Amish employers sued to be exempt from taking their employees’ Social Security payments out of their wages, they lost, because you can’t exercise your religion through a corporate body. When shop owners in the South sued to be exempt from Fair Hiring laws, they lost, because when you enter the public sphere, you agree to be bound by the laws of that sphere.

By going against that precedent, the Hobby Lobby ruling undermines one of the core principles of our pluralistic society. I can only hope it gets overturned as soon as possible.