Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Blessing for a Non-Thanksgiving

 Shall we be grateful this year?

Thursday seems like every other day,
There's a sameness about the flow
But happy Thursday.
So let’s be grateful for our families and friends
Who care enough not to travel.
Let’s be grateful for the flickers and jays
Who are non-observant
And don't mind sameness
But flock to the feeder
Like every day was made for feasting.
There’s a waxing gibbous moon.
The sun rises and sets.
The malls are closed
And there are no Black Friday crowds.
Let’s be grateful for the interruptions
And absences that make “normality”
Seem like a treat, because it is.
Nothing special ... a blessing.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Voting Rights and Wrongs

One hundred years ago, on August 18, 1920, women won the right to vote with ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  A nation founded on the precept that “all men are created equal” (meaning property-holding white males) moved one step closer to enfranchising all its citizens, regardless of race or sex.

Women for three generations marched, agitated and went to prison to win the ballot.  They were heckled, manhandled and force-fed when they went on hunger strike to call attention to their cause.  Dorothy Day, who later founded the Catholic Worker movement, was slammed with arms twisted over the back of an iron bench at the Occoquan Workhouse, a prison in northern Virginia where she and other suffragists were jailed for protesting outside the White House.  One of her cell mates was manacled with hands above her head and forced to stand all night.  

Women were not given the right to vote.  They paid for it and took it.  

Yet democracy remained elusive.  Native Americans here in New Mexico could not vote until 1948, when Miguel Trujillo of the Isleta Pueblo returned from serving as a marine in World War II and was denied the ballot; the resulting lawsuit finally enfranchised this land's oldest inhabitants. African Americans were barred from polling places, especially in the South, until the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, after non-violent demonstrators marching from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery were beaten bloody by state police while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

Now all those hard won rights are under assault.  

Voter suppression takes many forms.  To take our neighbor Texas as an example, gerrymandered districts there mean that while non-Hispanic whites make up just 41% of the population, they comprise two-thirds of the state legislature and Congressional delegation. Reducing the number of polling places is another way to lower turnout, making it harder for wage-earners and low income individuals (primarily people of color) to cast their ballot, again citing Texas, which has closed 750 polling stations in recent years. “The fact of the matter is that Texas is not a red state,” according to  Antonio Arellano of Jolt, a progressive Latino political organization. “Texas is a nonvoting state.”   Rules there allow a concealed weapon permit to be used for access to the voting booth, but prohibit using a student or university ID for voting purposes, discriminating against young people.  Voter ID rules also disproportionately disenfranchise women, who because of marital name changes often have driver’s licenses or other documents that don’t match their birth certificates. Judge Sandra Watts of Texas’ 117th District was nearly denied the right to vote because her maiden name was listed as her middle name on her driver’s license, while her voter registration card listed her actual middle name.  If a Judge can be tagged as a fraudulent voter, imagine how others without so much legal savvy fare.  

The problems with our democracy can only be solved by more democracy: by empowering citizens at the grassroots to make the decisions that affect their own lives and livelihoods.  Though it cannot end there, civic engagement must begin by making sure that every American can vote. With so many inequities of power, wealth and privilege besetting our nation, the principle that each person gets one vote is the great equalizer between rich and poor.  Too many have sacrificed to let this fundamental cornerstone of popular government be chipped away.  

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

De-Fund the Police?

Years ago, I got an early morning call to come to church.  Quick.  A suicidal young man was threatening to walk out into traffic.

When I arrived the police had beaten me to the scene and I discovered the agitated young man was African American.  Two white officers in uniform wearing gun belts loaded with handcuffs, tasers, billy clubs and other tools of the trade were doing nothing to calm the situation.  I asked them politely to leave.  Obviously this stranger had walked into a church because it signified safety and sanctuary. He needed pastoring, not policing. I took him out for pancakes and coffee.  A good meal doesn’t cure an existential crisis, but it’s often a decent palliative.  

Current calls to “de-fund” the police are simply an acknowledgment that law enforcement isn’t the answer to every problem.  And the assertion that police departments suffer from “systemic racism” doesn’t mean that all cops are bigots.  Police and sheriffs come in all colors and races and most are undoubtedly doing their best in a very hard job.  

Systemic racism means that our judicial process produces tilted outcomes.  Blacks, latinos and native people wind up behind bars far more often than whites, and  it’s not just cops at fault.  It’s our under-funded Public Defender system.  It’s local prosecutors who get rewarded for producing convictions (some DAs actually offer cash bonuses for trials that end in a lock up).  It’s for-profit prisons that incentivize longer sentences.  There’s unconscious racism at every level.

My wife is a criminal attorney.  She used to defend juveniles. She’d watch surveillance videos from department stores introduced as evidence in court. Two teens would enter the mall, one white, one black.  Both were shoplifting but the security cameras always focused on the black girl, who would be charged and convicted.  Was she guilty?  Yes.  Was justice done?  You decide.

This past month,  Congress began bipartisan talks to shut down transfers of military-style gear to those patrolling our city streets.  I think our whole approach to crime needs an overhaul.  Why is it “looting” when a black youth steals a TV but “liquidation” when white collar crooks take a company into bankruptcy, giving themselves million dollar bonuses while leaving worker pensions high and dry?  

I’m glad the conversation has begun.  It’s just tragic that it took eight minutes and forty-six seconds to get it started.

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