On ‘I Can’t Breathe’

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay StreetI Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t imagine anyone watching the video of the last minutes of Eric Garner’s life and not being utterly horrified. Horrified by the excessive use of force and complete lack of concern for a man’s life.

I also cannot imagine how haunted Matt Taibbi must be from the research and passion he put into this book. But, I’m glad he took on those ghosts and took such care into getting the narrative right. He succeeded in so many ways.

By all accounts, Eric Garner shouldn’t be dead. At least not because of an illegal choke-hold. But, he is, leaving a giant hole in his family’s life as well as the community he called home. By all accounts, the man responsible for choking him to death — Daniel Pantaleo — should have been held to account. He was not. In a rather twisted alter-reality, Pantaleo is viewed by many as the victim.

This book isn’t just about that fateful arrest and its aftermath. It’s about a system — in New York as well as the United States in general — that forces us all to examine our own ideas of community, safety and policing, and the consequences of attempting to ‘feel safe’. It’s about what we’re willing to allow police to do to feel safe. And, it’s about what we will accept as ‘the way it is’.

As much as I respect anyone who chooses a career in law enforcement, I also fear how far the justice system itself has gone to protect its members. When entire communities recount story after story after story of ‘walking while black’, being pulled from cars and brutally beaten for asking a question, and then charged with crimes they did not and could not possibly commit, we must recognise that something is broken. And, it’s not the windows.

Taibbi packs so much food-for-thought within this book. It’s heartbreaking, even more so when you consider living within the realities he describes so painstakingly. We know Eric Garner’s name because of the clear evidence of brutality captured on a cell phone. The world saw that video and collectively gasped. We gasped again when a grand jury came back with no indictment.

Taibbi begins this book by describing another event in Staten Island. Ibrahim ‘Brian’ Annan, a young man stopped by police around the same time Garner was choked, was pulled from his car and beaten so violently by two police officers that one leg was broken in three places. He was charged with a total of seven felonies, all of which were eventually dropped, a process which took nearly a dozen court appearances and more than two years. The charges lobbed against Annan were so absurd and so obviously intended to simply force him to relent even the judge presiding over the cases found them silly. Annan’s beating was not captured on film. And, whilst disabled, he lived to tell the story. But, sadly, this is not uncommon in Staten Island, in particular, or in other inner cities in general (think Baltimore and Freddie Grey). It is sadly not new, either. Taibbi also tells the tale of Clementine Ross, a woman who has been waiting 50 years for closure on the shooting of her husband by a cop in Arkansas. His crime? Asking for a receipt.

Matt Taibbi focuses on a killing on Bay Street. But, given all of the names of all those who have died before and since Eric Garner, individuals primarily unarmed and shot by law enforcement officials, I’m surprised any of us can breathe.

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On ‘Notorious RBG’

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsburgNotorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always reminded me a bit of my grandmother. Quiet. Proper. Often wearing a stern look or serious expression accentuated by flawless hair and pearls. And, retorts at the ready which leave all present to hear them slack-jawed and cowering at their own ignorance. In my family, we often repeated a mantra, ‘Don’t cross Grandma’. I would imagine some variant exists for RBG amongst those nearest and dearest.

Notorious RBG is a must-read for any self-respecting feminist or equal rights activist (Is there really a difference between the two?) needing a beacon of hope and a dose of ‘get up and go’. And, RBG the woman is that beacon during very dark times. This woman. Unlike her, rather than seeing nine women justices on the highest bench in the land, I’d like to see nine RBGs at SCOTUS.

Oh, to dare to dream.

Detailing her life as a young newlywed law student, then graduate of Columbia Law (top in her class) unable to land a job, then law professor (needing to hide her second pregnancy)…, she understands not just in theoretical terms but from lived experience what perceived differences mean and they affect us as individuals and groups. To her, it isn’t simply about disregarding those perceived differences and the ideal roles of men and women; it’s about those institutionalised cateogories and erasing the various barriers and injustices they unfairly impose upon us. Her weapon of choice, however, is the law and the US Constitution. And, this woman plays the long game.

As I was finishing this brilliant, inspiring book this morning, I wept. Not because of anything particularly troubling that appeard upon the page at that precise moment. But, because so many of us are simply too tired to continue fighting for and working towards what we believe is right and just. If this tiny woman could become one of the most inspiring memes of our times, we—who have benefitted from her tireless efforts in classrooms, courtrooms and on the bench—can certainly work just a little bit harder to solidify and make permanent those giant gains she made for us.

RBG inspires for many reasons. And, we do her and all others who have blazed various trails a disservice by simply giving in to despair because it is too damn hard.

One of the appendices features a list of ‘How to be like RBG’. It reads:

  • Work for what you believe in
  • But pick your battles
  • Don’t burn your bridges
  • Don’t be afraid to take charge
  • Think about what you want, then do the work
  • But then enjoy what makes you happy
  • Bring along your crew
  • Have a sense of humour
  • I’ve got my to-do list sorted then.

RBG. However long she graces the Supreme Court and this world, it won’t be nearly long enough to satisfy me. I’ll still want more. But, her legacy. Long may it guide and inspire us all. And, may we all have red hot pens at the ready to sharpen and hone our words. Because words and how we wield them truly matter.

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On ‘Assata: An Autobiography’

Assata: An AutobiographyAssata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that makes me uncomfortable, but for all of the right reasons. If we are ever to confront racism head-on, we need to listen to and attempt to understand the effects persistent and institutionalised racism have on those it targets.

Assata, the book (and the woman who wrote it), is raw and unfiltered in many ways. Her anger and frustration and rage at social norms and the systemic racism that imprisoned her again and again and again and the criminal justice system who offered her anything but justice justify that rage.

Her rage should make us all examine why her anger and words make us squirm. It should force us to examine our own biases, and begin to shift our thinking and our actions.

This book made me think. A lot. And, I’ll undoubtedly continue thinking about my own privilege, my own biases and my own prejudices because of her words. This book will also make me more inclined to call out injustice of any kind when confronted with it, whether directed at me or others, friends / family or strangers.

#blackhistorymonth

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On ‘Between the World & Me’

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will never know what it is like to live as a black man or woman in today’s America. And, I can’t imagine raising a black child, particularly a young black man, in the US. All I can do is image the reality of knowing that they may not come home any time they leave.

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long letter to his son, I can understand the pain of history and helplessness that accompanies current events a little bit better.

Coates is very quickly becoming one of my favourite writers on contemporary issues in the US. His perspective alone equally intrigues and compels me. His writing blows me away. Through it, I can feel his anguish and uncertainty and anger, and share those sentiments. I also feel more than a little shame for being a part of a system that values him less than me simply by virtue of our individual histories. I am privileged because I am white and solidly middle class, as well as for growing up in a suburban utopia that never knew the dangers of simply stepping outside whilst black.

I sat down to read a part of this book; I ended up finishing it in a single sitting.

Everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read this book. Not once, but multiple times. If we ever hope to move beyond the existing divisions and racial inequity that surrounds us all, we need to understand the experiences of those like Coates. It will make us squirm with discomfort and shame by actions which I imagine we in our privilege never think of twice. And, it should.

But, by understanding such perspectives a little better, we can also understand why so many feel compelled to take a knee or protest yet another white cop escaping justice for killing another unarmed black man.

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The stories we miss

I’m not quite sure how I managed to miss the case of James Byrd. But, I did. Last night, we watched the brilliant and chilling documentary, Two Towns of Jasper.

My sleep was more than a little disturbed.

 

Despite a lynching that took place nearly 20 years ago, this film and the reality of events surrounding James Byrd’s slaughter remain relevant today. I suspect this is why PBS’s POV chose an encore airing in August of this real-life horror story.

We need look no further than Charlottesville and the public boastings of folks like David Duke and Richard Spencer to understand that far too many individuals would welcome such ‘opportunities’.

But, perhaps the more troubling aspect of towns like Jasper are the words of those interviewed in Two Towns. A white man relaying that he doesn’t understand what changed, whereby ‘nigger’ is now considered a derogatory or unacceptable term for a black individual. By his own account, there’s nothing wrong with that word, as those sitting around the same table nod in agreement. A white woman at that same table makes claims that ‘James Byrd was no model citizen of Jasper’, to collective, murmured agreement. The implication is clear: maybe his death was brutal, but it wasn’t like he didn’t have it coming to him.

Perhaps the worst moments in this film were not related to the trials of those accused or the outcomes for those miserable humans who carried out a truly gruesome attack on another human being. The worst moment for me was when the local school board decided to adjust the academic calendar, and render Martin Luther King Jr Day as a make up day for days lost during the school year. They rendered MLK Day expendable, whilst the Jasper rodeo remained a day off from school. A fucking rodeo.

The board reinstated the holiday, but only after significant opposition. Reverend Ray Charles Lewis says it best: ‘It’s easier for whites to forget,’ he noted.

My family is from a town very much like Jasper. And, I grew up listening and being outraged by some of the same comments and reflections made around various tables as those made by the white residents of Jasper. Sadly, those conversations or ideas are nothing new to me, I suppose.

But, that doesn’t make it right and nothing will change unless those of us with power speak up when we hear / bear witness to such archaic notions and prejudices. Whilst everyone may have prejudices, as yet another white Jasperian claims, we don’t have to accept them as honourable or acceptable. Particularly not today.

We all have a responsibility to stand up and stop an injustice when we see it happen. We all have a duty to our fellow humans to call out those who feel justified in using derogatory and demeaning labels to characterise others. We all must stand up and defend those being beaten and thrashed, whether by words or fists, for simple being different.

Most of all, we all must speak up, particularly when our voices shake the most. Because that’s when it matters most.

I will not be terrorised

The world at the moment seems awfully scary and intimidating and violent. That violence appears utterly random at moments and widespread, even amongst those of us who live in relatively safe zones (e.g., not in places like Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, for a start).

After last week in Charlottesville, after Thursday in Barcelona and after yesterday evening’s knifing closer to me in Turku, the only thought I have is, ‘I will not be terrorised’.

Am I afraid?

For humanity, yes, indeed, I am. But, I refuse to cower in fear that something ‘might’ happen. That the boogeyman de jour will leap out from behind some imagined barrier wielding a weapon of choice. I refuse to look at another individual, different from me, and think, ‘Aha! That is the boogeyman we’ve been warned about’, and continue to eye her/him suspiciously.

Years ago, I had a business trip to Israel, where I spent a lot of time at Hebrew University and travelling to and fro on various buses for meetings with colleagues and to attend special events. It was an incredible trip really, and introduced me to a part of the world that is unimaginably beautiful in its stark, barren, brutal reality. In many ways, I fell in love with the country.

But, whenever our group was together, armed security guards accompanied us, in itself rather shocking to me. By armed, I mean, bulletproof vests and semi-automatic weapons as well as Glock-9s at their sides. Never mind their ammo belts. Several trips required traversing routes twice as long as the direct route, simply to ‘avoid’ certain areas perceived as particularly ripe for attacks from Palestinians.

Because this trip coincided with an uptick in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the early 2000s, my boss at the time, an Israeli from Jerusalem, mentioned that there was chatter and concern that ‘something’ might happen. And, several times during that two-week trip, every single mobile phone my fellow passengers carried on various buses rang seemingly simultaneously. I learned quickly that when that happened, there had been some tragedy elsewhere. In fact, three suicide bombs exploded during that trip, two of which rather near to and soon after we’d be in various spots. [Several weeks after that trip, a bomb exploded in the cafeteria at Hebrew University, a place I’d had more than one lunch at during that trip.]

Was it scary? Yes. But, more so, it was sad. It was profoundly and deeply troubling to see the affect it had on those who live that reality every single day. Suspicion and fear weighed heavily, and the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians seemed to become more prominent. Talking with various vendors along the edge of the Arab market in the Old Town in Jerusalem or colleagues and friends from various parts of Israel, everyone wanted the same thing: peace. To live in a world free from the random acts of violence that plague us all. To allow children to be children, and to know a world in which they needn’t fear or cower depending upon their own identities. To live in a world free from those learned identities.

That trip was difficult, but it was also one of the most amazing trips of my life.

What gave me hope then and continues to guide me on the darkest of days now is the knowledge that not everyone is a maniac hell-bent on destruction. Not everyone is so consumed with hate that they seethe with rage at the mere mention or glimpse of their imaged enemy. Not everyone sees diversity as a scourge that should be forever eliminated.

Not everyone is a terrorist. Not every Arab or Muslim. Not every black man. Not every left-wing liberal or so-called antifa. Not every conservative or Republican. And, not every white boy with a Southern drawl.

Yes, at the moment, I am scared. More so because we seem to be less-inclined to learn from or engage with on another and prefer to categorise those who are different as ‘the other’ and, therefore, evil or our enemy.

But, rather than be terrorised, I’m going to continue to live my life as if that fear did not exist at all. I will not assume that every act of violence is a terrorist attack.

Months ago, after yet another horrid incident, I hoped that we could figure this shit out. I’m still hoping and believing that we can. We. All of us. But, if we are to do so, we must stop being terrorised.
scaredsalman

Is America great again?

The covers of this week’s Economist, New Yorker, and Time magazines all should give us pause.

The US was great. Despite it’s flaws and oddities and decisions with which I disagree. And, there are more Americans who are truly amazing individuals compared to the vile vermin who’d prefer we all be white and Christian.

But, the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

So, to those 6 in 10 Trump supporters who say they will never disapprove of him, I ask you: Are we great now?

Addendum: Der Spiegel‘s cover this week deserves a place in this post as well. Sigh….

 

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