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.

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If the people lead…

The Leaderless Revolution is one of the many books that sits in my to buy / to read list of books. It sits there largely because several folks I respect immensely rather simultaneously and independently posted their reviews of it, and how it has them thinking of what we could accomplish if only unconstrained by structures which inhibit us.

Colour me intrigued.

Last night, also rather randomly, The Cuban queued up for our nightly dose of television a BBC Storyville documentary featuring none other than Carne Ross, the author of this intriguing book. I finally bought the book after about 15 minutes into this documentary. And, I plan to read it immediately upon its arrival.

Communities can not just offer but provide solutions. But we overlook such opportunities because these solutions can’t possibly be that easy or can’t possibly work because no one has ever tried them. Communities often remain unconsidered or an after-thought by those who make decisions, decisions which profoundly affect them. And, by far more often than not, those decisions are made without representatives of specific communities in the sodding room.

No wonder so many projects fail to reach their achievements or to produce the results others have intended or to meet the needs of those they should be helping. As someone who worked in development aid for a number of years, this was and remains all too obvious and tragic. Yet, precious little appears to change.

By contrast, a few indefatigable individuals I am honoured to know have extolled the virtues of anarchist activism for years. They don’t just sing its praises; they are anarchist activists in action.

Currently, through their efforts aimed at reducing opioid overdose deaths in their communities (in this case, Toronto), they are demonstrating just how incredible community-level activism alongside a little anarchism can effect change, hugely and positively impact local-level communities, and confront power structures we typically cower to or eventually relent to.

Briefly, as city-level structures (pardon the pun) drug their feet to implement any action as overdose deaths continued to not just occur but increase, these harm reduction policy activists sprung into action and opened a pop-up injection site in a community park. This action resulted from inaction and in part out of desperation. They were tired of seeing their friends and community members die. And, they knew definitively what to offer the community in order to prevent further deaths. By supervising injecting drug use, they can help prevent deadly overdoses immediately and call for medical assistance if necessary or needed. An added bonus is the on-the-spot outreach to those who may otherwise exist beyond the reach of health and social services. Services and the space are provided without judgement and without conditions placed on those seeking them, all within the community where it is most needed.

Within one week of opening up the pop-up site, they had reversed five likely fatal overdoses. They had also distributed overdose prevention kits to many, many, many others.

This may seem rather small-scale. But, imagine: within a single week, five of your friends died. And, you had the tools to help prevent those deaths but they were locked away by someone beyond your own community.

What would you do? Would you wait for public (e.g., city, state or national level governmental) action? Or would you do what you could to prevent any further deaths?

I’m not necessarily convinced that government is entirely bad. Indeed, I still believe in public institutions on various levels. But, clearly, we—all of us—face some serious obstacles given how power structures currently overwhelmingly favour those with power and money. Those who are already in the room. Given that so many decisions are made which impact those of us not in various rooms, something clearly needs to change. Perhaps we need different rooms with fewer ‘big men’ and ‘important women’ standing at the front.

Perhaps, if the people lead, the leaders will follow.

 

‘We must take sides’

In the wake of the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota this weekend, a friend posted the following quote from Elie Wiesel:

We must take sides.

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.

When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the centre of the universe.’ 

Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, the Accident

Indeed.

(I’ll be moving a re-read of The Night Trilogy up the to-read queue.)

 

Let’s not talk about politics

A friend of mine just shared this particular comic with me, and it could not have been more appropriate.

politics

©Emily McGovern. Brilliant image capturing how I suspect many are feeling at this particular moment. For more, visit http://emilymcgovern.com/category/comics/.

Feel familiar?

So far today, I’ve read more about the President’s damn tweets, more on potential collusion between Russian hackers and various Trump campaign officials, the assault on access to healthcare that is the GOP/Trump plan to reverse Obamacare, the completely unstaffed Science Division of the White House as of yesterday,  and the rather bizarre request for voter registration information from each state based on misinformation non-existent evidence of ‘widespread’ voter fraud within the US voting system.

I’m exhausted and it’s not even 9.00 on Saturday. And, we’re not even six months into this administration’s first term?

There’s too much. Too much noise and nonsense news and misdirection. As disgusting and demeaning as our current President’s tweets are, the agendas being pushed through as we’re all distracted by his unbecoming behaviour are even more infuriating. For instance, one little tidbit buried in news headlines is a lovely provision in a spending bill currently in the House. This provision would eliminate funding to the IRS to enforce a law prohibiting churches and other non-profits which are tax exempt from endorsing specific candidates for public office. (The law is known as the Johnson Amendment and was signed into law by President Eisenhower.) I don’t mind if churches and other non-profits want to enter the political fray; many already have. I do mind if they want to continue to claim their tax-exempt status.

And, down the political news rabbit hole I go…

My husband and I try to step away from our computers and work and other nonsense each day. On our peripatetic bonding time-out each evening, we typically experience a moment eerily akin to that captured in the image above. Particularly that last panel.

We support evidence-based policies.

We support policies which uphold and respect the human rights and dignity of all rather than a select few.

We support funding for the arts and sciences because they typically assist, benefit and enlighten more than a few, if not today then in future.

And, more than that, we support respectful, open and fact-based discussions on how to move forward on any particular issue.

I don’t for a moment believe that all those with opposing views to my own are idiots. I just wish the discussions about various policies wouldn’t assume that all of us are idiots.

Forget the bloody tweets. Let’s get back to what’s happening with and on specific policies. Precisely because it is so damn infuriating and exhausting.

The Keys to Cuba

I must warn you. This will be a rambling rant of sorts. As with all things Cuba, it’s complicated. And, working through various issues requires a long roundabout detour replete with potholes the size of Texas and an old ’57 Chevy with a Mercedes-Benz engine. [If you’ve never ridden in an Almendrón, none of that will make sense. So bare with me.]

The day I’ve been dreading and awaiting equally has arrived: later today, President Trump will finally announce his policy plans for Cuba. I can’t say that I look forward to this announcement. Waiting, yes. But, certainly not with any sense of hope or excitement.

I don’t know what the ‘best’ policy is towards Cuba. But, I do know that closing off diplomatic relations and taking a hard-line approach hasn’t work and won’t do anything to change the way things are in Cuba today or tomorrow.

I have seen change, however.

My first trip to Cuba in 2008 was eye-opening for a multitude of reasons, primarily because I was finally able to begin assembling my husband’s life into some sort of concrete reality, one only possible after seeing those faraway places and meeting those faces populating his narrative. His life before we met became tangible rather than imagined, if you will. And, I learned so, so much about Cuba and my own country’s role in her history. It is a troubled history, filled with injustice and absurdity and hypocrisy.

I am not a Fidel apologist. Far from it. But, to understand Cuba is to understand the place of Fidel and his merry band of revolutionaries and what they offered all Cubans. Fidel—another complicated personality with a contradictory and odd record—granted many rights to all Cubans which Americans still hope to one day gain. Equitable education to all, resulting in one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America the world. Universal healthcare with an incredible track record for standard of care, resulting in incredibly low infant and maternal mortality rates given the country’s GDP and high life expectancies for both men and women. All of these statistics surpass those in the US by quite some measure. In addition, running water, electricity in every home, a home were granted as rights for all Cubans. These things may seem like idealistic socialist notions, largely because they are. But, prior to the Cuban Revolution that ousted US-backed Batista and installed Fidel, his brother Raúl (now El Presidente until 2018), Che and Camilo and their band of revolutionary heroes at the helm, all of these basic human needs were available only to the rich and powerful.

None of this means that life is perfect in Cuba. Far from it. The obvious human rights issues continue to trouble anyone who gives a toss about humans in general let alone Cubans in particular. But, this is where what we know abroad and what the current situation in Cuba become less clear.

Demonstrations, however insignificant and small, are increasingly visible. Several years ago during one of our visits, a friend went to an event put on by several actors in the underground art scene. A portion of that agenda was openly mocking of Fidel and the Cuban government. Local police raided the event, arresting and carting off those in attendance to the political prison, a place feared by all and in which unspeakable things do occur. Yet, those law enforcement officers most concerned with any voices of opposition at all were completely uninterested in why all these individuals had been hauled in. In fact, their reaction was, ‘Why are you all here? You shouldn’t be!’ Thus, everyone was let go. Anti-Fidel or Anti-Raúl graffiti now pepper walls with ever-increasing frequency in Havana. It’s shocking to see, even for an outsider, particularly alongside the prolific pro-revolution and socialist propaganda throughout Cuba. But, it’s also a sign that Cuba is relaxing its attitude towards dissent however incremental that change may be.

Obviously, Cuba has a long way to go before she will see anything like the sort of resistance-to-Trump marches taking place in the US these days. But, we’ve had several hundred years to get our shit together. Cubans are relatively new to this. And, tentative first steps are still initial steps, however impatient others may be to see ‘real’ change, whatever that means, in Cuba. It isn’t up to us from other lands to set the pace.

More than anything, here’s my take on Cuba: We—the US—need to back off. Lift sanctions. Lift the embargo and allow travel between our countries. Freely and openly. Why? Because it allows our two people to interact and exchange ideas, and learn from one another. We understand and become more compassionate once we talk, and we realise that fundamentally we are just people. What our governments do is one thing; but what we want for ourselves and those we love is fundamentally the same. A roof over a heads and a place to call home. Enough in our cupboard and bank account to sustain us and possibly afford a treat when appropriate. And, essentially, we want the ability to life our lives to the best of our abilities given various other variables.

The embargo hurts Cubans, average Cubans, far more than it hurts the government. Fidel is dead. I won’t say thankfully, but I can’t really shed a tear either. He wasn’t my leader. But, if we’re looking for a win against him, that battle was lost last November. He outlived the embargo and nine US presidential administrations. Raúl is stepping down next year. So, if the embargo remains in place until then, ultimately it will have done nothing to oust the individuals it was intended to usurp. Who wins? No one, other than two leaders we in the US wanted to replace. Who loses? Cubans. Mostly Cubans. The people I love desperately and who would give me their last cup of coffee if such a thing were conceivable. The people who have made me weep with their kindness and sense of equity which should shame anyone from elsewhere obsessed with the latest and shiniest and best model gadget de jour. The people who, despite language and cultural barriers, have welcomed me as a fellow member of their tribe simply because I married a Cuban and came to visit. The people who I love and only want to let live so that they may simply, finally live.

I felt immense hope in Cuba in 2014 when President Obama announced an opening up of diplomatic relations with Cuba. That hope exploded in 2015 with the announcement that President Obama would visit Cuba. Both of those announcements coincided with our visits to my second home, and I was immensely proud of my country and my adopted second home. President Obama’s visit proved to be an incredible moment for all Cubans, many of whom still spoke of it when we were there last Christmas.

November 2016, however, brought grief and uncertainty, first with the election of President Trump in the US and then with the death of Fidel.

Channeling my inner Moulder, I want to believe that things will be alright for Cuba, that enigmatic country I’ve come to love so, so much. But, today, we shall see. I hope for Cubans that reason and rationality prevail. The keys to Cuba’s future should be left to her people. We, as Americans, should allow those keys to turn and perhaps supply a little WD-40 to help loosen long-idle and unused openings. If I’ve learned anything from my 12 years with one particular Cuban, that which binds us is far greater than whatever differences we may possess.

¡Viva Cuba libre!

The Keys to Cuba_Dec 2016

I have no idea what the title of this piece is, but it was incredible. Hundreds of keys arranged in the shape of Cuba. Investigating it are Pedro the Philosopher and Martica the Marvellous. On display at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, December 2016.

When words are all we have

A fellow expat who lives in the Netherlands has a mighty blog. Whilst I don’t read it as often as I’d like, I find it incredibly refreshing and equally real.

She recently visited Poland, making that most gruesome of all journeys to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Rather than simply share the link to her latest entry, I’m posting it here. I hope this gives it more weight than a mere shared link will. Because it is truly something that should be read slowly and carefully. And, perhaps as many times as can be stomached.

On most days, I believe in our collective ability as a species to do good. To extend kindness to those in need. To rise above whatever challenges we face as individuals and as members of various groups and demonstrate that we are not monsters. But, history reminds us of how truly awful we can be. And, we mustn’t forget. We absolutely positively mustn’t allow ourselves to fall prey to fear and hate and difference and commit the most vile offences we can commit against one another ever again.

Thank you, Farrah, for bearing witness. I don’t know how you wrote this piece, but I’m glad you did. Words fail me, so I’ll simply borrow from you…

The following stats are taken directly from her piece and taken from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial:

Note: The following facts are taken directly from The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Guidebook that I purchased on site in Auschwitz and from the placards outside of the respective blocks. I have photographs of the plackards where I took this information. 

Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. In the years 1940-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1, 300,000 people to Auschwitz:

  • 1, 100,000 Jews
  • 140,000-150,000 Poles
  • 23,000 Roma (Gypsies)
  • 15,000 Soviet POWs
  • 25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups

1,100,000 of these people died in Auschwitz, approximately 90% of the victims were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in the gas chambers.

Struggling to make sense of it all

This year. This year brought with it hope and joy and goodness. It also brought unspeakable tragedy and despair, and what at times seems like an endless stream of senselessness. I find myself struggling with it all like never before. I suspect I am not alone.

Mercifully, none of these tragedies or despair are my own. Yet, as I attempt to absorb the news of each new tragedy, finding some glimmer of kindness amongst my fellow humans can seem like a futile quest. ‘What is wrong with us?!’, is a question far too often repeated, becoming equally and increasingly incredulous and louder with each passing week.

Most recently, like much of the world I have tried and failed to understand why we seem incapable of preventing the needless and horrid death of a young Syrian boy, whose only ‘crime’ was being born to a family living through what surely must be hell on Earth, and who tragically made a most desperate attempt to find peace and security in Europe.

But, it’s not just the images of Aylan Kurdi which haunt my consciousness; it’s how my fellow privileged folk in the peaceful and calm developed North react. Whilst messages of #RefugeesWelcome bring me a sense of awe and hope, the voices of hate and vitriol ring just as loud, if not louder and more persistent, drowning out those seeking and extending compassion and kindness.

This theme, which did not begin recently, seems to repeat itself over and over and over again. Each new injustice and each new tragedy, each new viral story of the idiocy and ugliness which pervades this world is accompanied by hatred so intense and profound that I find myself speechless. Who are these people? What has happened to them—to us—to inspire such intense feelings of hatred for another human based on seemingly insignificant traits or differences? Are we really that different from one another? Are our stories so vastly divergent that we share absolutely nothing in common with ‘the other’? What has happened to our humanity? And, can we find it once again? Or are we hopelessly lost?

It’s the worst sort of rabbit hole to find one’s self in; climbing up out of it can seem insurmountable.

We need a reset button. Collectively and individually. I include myself within this targeted mass re-calibration. Wars will end and new ones will begin. The outward traits of tomorrow’s refugees may differ from those of today, but they will all seek a life which is free from worry and fear for themselves and, mostly, for their loved ones, perhaps more so for the youngest and oldest in our midst. Will we ignore them, choosing instead to leave families who look different to simply exist in horrid conditions and ‘camps‘? Will we help them to find a different, less crisis-laden life amongst us?

Perhaps we simply need to re-focus our energy on those tiny bits of goodness each one of us can pass along to those in need. Re-train those individual strengths and talents we each possess to create a better, safer, more just world, which when combined may result in lasting change that benefits us all equitably. Re-image and discover that one common trait we share with those who seem so outwardly so entirely different from us.

We must do something. Otherwise, we are lost. And, ultimately, we all lose.

This week’s viral escapade featuring the worst sort of pigeon-holing, most troubling in that it was directed at a young boy with what appears to be a promising intellect, provides some hope. If we can collectively step up and police those who seek to profile based on antiquated and bigoted perceptions, perhaps we can create a better world.

So many stories remain untold, while each one is worth telling. Maybe that re-telling is our first step on the arduous path towards understanding and making sense of it all…

 

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