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.


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.


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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On ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

I Am Not Your NegroI Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ during its only showing in Helsinki a few months ago at a film festival. I knew it would be a powerful documentary and commentary on race in America, both historically during the civil rights era and given contemporary events. I had no idea I’d still be so affected by some of those words and images today.

Given current happenings in the US, and specifically the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, I keep returning to various scenes from the film and the eloquent anger and pain carried through Baldwin’s words, whether calmly spoken and delivered by himself decades ago or narrated by Samuel L Jackson. Medgar, Malcom and Martin were silenced, but Baldwin almost seems alive in the theatre or in the words printed in this book. I can only image how incredibly powerful his planned book would have been. In its absence, I’m grateful to at least have ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, along with all of his other works.

In a fevered state this afternoon, I came across this excerpt, and it seems so appropriate in this moment:

‘You never had to look at me.
I had to look at you.
I know more about you than you know about me.
Not everything that is faced can be changed;
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

Nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Nearly 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed, we appear to have regressed in our attempts in the US to face the brutal reality in the history of our nation. Until we face that reality—openly and honestly and completely—how many more Charlottesvilles will we witness?

View all my reviews

On Charlottesville…

What is there to say or write, really?

Like much of the country, my country, I’m rather stunned this morning, and yet not. I’m heartbroken, again, to see hatred and bigotry out-screaming and dulling the goodness and diversity I love about my country. I’m rather out of words.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate to catch ‘I Am Not Your Negro‘ in the theatre at its only showing in Finland. James Baldwin’s words are more than moving, and more relevant than anything written today, to my mind. Given the time between when they were spoken or written, their relevancy today seems almost prophetic, yet its indicative of what we haven’t achieved.

Indeed, given yesterday’s events, it seems we’ve regressed.

Those of who have nothing to lose must speak out. We must stand up to bigotry and hatred and injustices that take place every single day. And, we must listen.

It will be scary. It will make us uncomfortable. And, it will exhaust us unimaginably. But, if we are to move beyond this madness and mayhem, we must. 

‘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


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


Kaep & NFL hypocrisy

Yesterday, I posted an image to my Facebook page which featured NFL players Michael Vick, someone else I don’t know (Rice?) and Colin Kaepernick. Two players were convicted of felonies, served time and then were granted multimillion-dollar contracts to return to the NFL. Colin Kaepernick, in case like me you have been living under a rock and don’t follow American football, kneeled during the national anthem at several NFL games last season to ‘protest police brutality and social injustice’. As a free agent this year, he remains unsigned by any team in the NFL. 

Before yesterday’s post disappeared into the virtual black hole, I didn’t get a chance to respond to a few comments. Several of these touched upon various issues in the blacklisting of Kaep and the utter hypocrisy of turning a blind eye or dismissing bad (and to my mind) worse behaviours vis-à-vis players like Michael Vick since ‘they did their time’. Because this entire story equally fascinates and infuriates me, I thought I’d move the conversation here.

First, yes, indeed, Michael Vick served time. And, he’s spun that tale of redemption. But, honestly, his words and deeds still make me sick. That he’s been rewarded obscenely so makes it all the worse. To me, his post-prison personae shows very little contrition or humility in the sense that he knows he did something bad. Rather, he laments getting caught, rather than committing the crime in the first place. He regrets his prison sentence rather than abusing and killing dogs.

Another comment suggested that the NLF lost money this past year due to the actions of Kaep. I don’t buy it (no pun intended). Evidently, even as an unsigned player, Kaep falls 39th on the list of 50 top-selling official player merchandise. Do a search on Kaep and a slew of articles pop up blaming him for the NFL’s falling attendance and popularity, but they all appear to be from similar sources and those who disagree ideologically with his message rather offering any real figures or data. Thus, despite his popularity with audiences, Kaep is a convenient scapegoat. It’s convenient as a headline and that’s about it.

Another point was made that Kaep and others who do peacefully voice an opinion / raise awareness as only they can given the platform and audiences at their disposal should just accept the consequences when they voice unpopular views and are ridiculed or ostracised. I don’t think anyone who has voiced an opinion, popular or not, ever assumed that they shouldn’t face ridicule or disagreement. But, this same rationale only goes so far. More often than not, it crosses a line between respectful disagreement and outright hatred and threats of violence. Rather ironic in this particular case given why Kaep kneeled in the first place.

What really bothers is that this rationale harkens back to the justifications for the absurd public shaming and death threats lobbed at the Dixie Chicks when they were told to just ‘shut up and sing’.

Death threats for voicing an opinion. Peaceably exercising their freedom of expression. 

Does Kaep or did the Dixie Chicks deserve that? Rather than hear them out, we appear awfully quick to dismiss their concerns and demonise them. Pointing out the hypocrisy, particularly in the case of Kaep, seemingly falls on deaf ears and a return to the logical of ‘shut up and play’. 

Yes, athletes are performing a job. Yes, they are ‘entertaining’ us (or fans of sport X). But, why oh why do we think they have no right to have a voice? Why are we so quick to shame and punish Kaep for exercising his right, but we allow others to commit insanely violent and disgusting acts and to continue playing whilst reaping unbelievable financial rewards as well?

It both surprises me and doesn’t that a tracking tool was developed to log crimes committed by various NFL players. In addition to drunk driving and drugs possessions charges, one incidence lists ‘head butting his wife’ and ‘throwing a shoe at an 18-month-old infant’.

That’s lovely role-modelling there.

In my post yesterday, someone else commented that they were in favour of not allowing anyone convicted of a crime from playing in the NFL again. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I certainly would balk at supporting a team that allows rapists and those perpetrating domestic violence on their playing field or in their uniforms. I certainly wouldn’t honour a player convicted of using dogs as bait (e.g., Vick’s induction into Virginia Tech’s Sports Hall of Fame). 

Kaep wasn’t violent (unlike a heap of other players, convicted or otherwise), he didn’t commit a crime (freedom of speech was and still is legal, thankfully) and he serves as a positive role model in his community off the football field as well (rather quietly I would say).

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of American football. At all. It’s just never really been that interesting to me. If I were a fan, though, I’d be more supportive of a team that stood behind Kaep than I would be of teams who continue standing behind the likes of Vick and others in that tracking tool.

Shaun King wrote an incredible piece on his obsessive love of football and why he was now boycotting the NFL. For him, as a lifelong football fan, he won’t watch or follow the sport any longer as well given the inherent hypocrisy of Kaep.

For a sport which to me is so over-the-top patriotic, why oh why are we punishing individuals for trying to make our country and ourselves better?