The Casual Blog

Tag: Black Lives Matter

Taking down some more Confederate monuments, and learning some important history

Looking across the N.C. Capitol grounds to the former site of the tall Confederate memorial obelisk

The big Confederate monument on the west side of the Capitol in Raleigh came down last week.  I didn’t learn the news until I walked over there for my morning constitutional.  Where there once was a 75-foot-tall obelisk, there was just a pile of rubble, which workers were cleaning up with a backhoe.  

People think of these monuments as part of history, which they are, in a way, but not the way most people think.  The big Confederate obelisk was dedicated in 1895.  Right after the Civil War ended in 1865, during the 12-year Reconstruction period, there were meaningful efforts to recognize equal rights for formerly enslaved people, but after that, white supremacy was reinstituted in the new form known as Jim Crow.  Most of the Confederate monuments in N.C. and elsewhere date from the Jim Crow period, and carry the coded message that the Lost Cause was noble, and white supremacy was still triumphant, so black people had better know their place, or else.   

It truly is historic that these monuments are coming down, but I’m sorry that they’re coming down so quietly.  There were apparently thousands of  people cheering when the Confederate obelisk was dedicated, and probably a lot who would have liked to cheer as it came down. 

Unfortunately, the Republican North Carolina legislature passed a  law in 2015 following the mass murder of black people by Dylann Roof forbidding the removal of such state owned monuments.  What were our Republican leaders trying to express, I wonder?  Let’s hope it wasn’t support for white racist terrorism, which would not be unprecedented in North Carolina.  Many of those Republicans are still in power, so let’s ask them.  

Recently Governor Cooper issued a decree authorizing removal of the Confederate monuments at the Capitol, which he characterized as an emergency measure.  The Governor’s reasoning was debatable, but close enough for government work.  I’d been a little worried that well-meaning protesters would try to pull down the big obelisk and accidentally crush somebody. Happily, the government workers got the monuments down without anyone getting hurt.

Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh

This week I took a walk through the Oakwood Cemetery, including the Confederate section.  It’s a quiet, lovely place, with old oak trees and gently rolling pastures.  There are several stone memorials praising the valor of the Confederate soldiers and the nobility of the Lost Cause.  

As for the soldiers, I’d guess there were some brave ones, and others who were flat out terrified.  As in every war, most of them were just followers, doing what they were told to do.  We can  feel compassion for them as humans and feel sorry that their lives were cut short without thinking their cause was noble.  Praising the Lost Cause (described as “Glorious” on a bench in the stone chapel shown below) is another matter.  That’s morally derelict.

Speaking of monuments, there was an outstanding essay by Caroline Randall Williams in the NY Times  titled You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is Confederate Monument.  Williams sets out in stark terms something we don’t much like to think about:  that the brutality of slave labor camps included a lot of rape of black women by white men.  From this racist violence, children of mixed race were begotten, as shown by the many variations in skin tones we now call black.  The evidence has been everywhere for all our lives, and we somehow managed not to notice.  The good news is, now we’re recognizing it was shamefully wrong, and starting to see the need for reparations.  

I also recommend a new essay by Isabel Wilkerson titled America’s Enduring Caste System.  Wilkerson  draws an interesting distinction between race and caste which explains how one can have no particular racial animus and yet still accept the caste system that subordinates people of color.  

As Wilkerson explains, our caste system is not explicit, but it is deep seated and powerful.  We understand it unconsciously, just as we understand our mother tongue, and it guides how we think about hierarchy and rights.  As it has traditionally operated, our caste system decrees that people of color should live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools, have lower status jobs, and be regarded with suspicion.  This is, of course, an artificial creation with its roots in the racism that was used to justify slavery.  It is not immutable.  When we look at it more closely, we start to see we can dismantle it.  

I once thought I knew a fair bit about the history of slavery, but I’m finding there’s still a lot to learn.  Last weekend Sally and I watched 13th, a documentary on Netflix about America’s still on-going program of mass incarceration of black people.  It’s really excellent.  The subject is multi-dimensional, but the director, Ava DuVernay did a brilliant job of boiling it down.  Michelle Alexander, who wrote the essential book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, appears in the film, and contributes more here to our understanding.

I also want to give a shout out to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her new piece on reparations.  Just as in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1619 Project work, she brings new aspects of the white supremacist system to light.  In the new essay, she points up that giving enslaved people their freedom and ignoring their poverty and other needs was a brutal way of handling the situation, and it cost many lives.  The continuation of white supremacy after the Civil War ensured that the descendents of enslaved people would remain second class citizens, poor and easily exploited. 

H-J notes that the coronovirus pandemic has taught us some surprising lessons, one being that we can come up with $2 trillion dollars to address economic problems without breaking a sweat.  She makes a compelling argument that now is a great time to finally acknowledge the immensity of the wrong done to kidnapped Africans and their descendents, and take a meaningful financial step toward righting that wrong.  I’ll conclude by quoting the last two paragraphs of her piece:  

Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just.

It is time for this country to pay its debt. It is time for reparations.

 

Happy Juneteenth! Let’s talk about police attacking black people

Sally’s orchid in late afternoon sun

Happy Juneteenth!  Change is in the air!  Aunt Jemima is finally retiring, and it sounds like Uncle Ben is soon to follow.  The Confederate flag is leaving NASCAR, and some of the many monuments to the Confederacy are coming down.  It’s true, these are just the symbols of our racial caste system, and there’s a lot more work needed to dismantle the system.  But it’s a start.

The Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd have now been going for several weeks.  The protests against police violence and discrimination have been mostly peaceful, with more black people coming out and more white people joining in.  Amazingly, the fires and looting that took place in the first few days seem to have stopped.  More recent violence has involved police attacking peaceful protesters.  And happily, that violence level seems to have come down, too.

On the radio and in the papers, I’ve picked up bits and pieces of discussions about how to address chronic violence by police against black people.  More conservative types tend to favor increased training to address bias, while more progressive types propose reallocating the police responsibilities and their budgets.  But there seemed to be a lot of agreement that something needs to be done about the abuse and killing of black people by our police. 

There is, though, a continuing counter movement, which views the protesters as violent insurgents, and the police as valiant defenders of civilization.  That Blue Lives Matter is an odd point to be pressing at this moment.  They do, of course, but no one is threatening to arrest and kill Blues.  

In this right-white universe, there are a lot of hymns to the heroism of the police.  Here again, there is an element of truth to the hymns.  Police work can be hard and dangerous, and we should be grateful to those who do it with fairness and integrity.  But the point being made by the hymns, even if by accident, is less noble.  That subtext of the hymns is:  we’re glad to see the police acting tough and violently attacking peaceful protesters, particularly black ones.  

We probably don’t know as much about police work as we assume.  We tend to think of it as a lot about finding and arresting dangerous felons, but that actually happens very seldom.  Much more often, police are responding to noise complaints, domestic violence, illegal parking, public drunkenness, and other minor disturbances of the peace.  The weapons they carry around are intimidating, but not often helpful in these situations.  

I used to enjoy watching television shows about cops.  The cops were so manly, and tough!  Except for Charlies Angels, who had such beautiful hair and legs, and could also kick butt.  I particularly liked The FBI, with the well groomed cops who always carefully did their homework to bring down vicious criminals.  Later, I enjoyed Miami Vice, with its stylish cops, speedboats, and explosions, and violent deaths for drug dealers.

My takeaway from so many cop shows was that police work required a lot of violence.  It was normal to shoot criminals, if you couldn’t beat them up.  It didn’t seem there were any other possibilities.  This seems to be where a lot of the right-wing proponents of police violence are now.   They, and in fact most of us, have not received any training in searching for peaceful resolutions.

It may be justified once in a blue moon for a cop to shoot a fleeing black man in the back.  It could be that the black man has just stolen the nuclear codes and is about to blow up the world, or that he’s making off with deadly bioweapons to start a massive plague.  But those cases are infrequent.  More often, police shoot black men because they’re black, and they refuse to obey them.  

Why do we think it’s OK for police to attack black people?  It goes back a long way.   When I was a kid, there was a lot of talking about desegregating the schools, but we didn’t really do it, and we aren’t even talking very much about it these days.  Indeed, there are a lot of people today who would vigorously resist a desegregation program.  

The people who opposed, and still oppose, desegregation may not know why they don’t like the idea, but I’m pretty sure I know.  They’re afraid of black people.  But why are they afraid?   Because they have very little contact with them, and they’ve been taught from an early age that they’re scary.  Some of their leaders keep reinforcing that message with racist fear mongering, which those leaders use to get votes.  

If people of different races went to the same schools and churches and lived in the same neighborhoods, it wouldn’t work.  They’d figure it out.  White people would gradually realize their black classmates and neighbors are OK.  Not scary.  It would take some time, for sure.  But eventually we’d quit thinking that the most important thing about a person is his or her skin color.  Eventually differences in color would matter no more than whether you have a sun tan, or don’t.

This would be great, except for those who benefit from the existing caste system, like fear mongering politicians.  And, to some extent, every person now defined as white.  White people will lose some advantages, like getting preferred over black people for jobs, schools, and catching cabs.  But nothing huge.  With black people competing on a level playing field, white people may need to raise their game.  But that’s just too bad.    

In fact, it would be good.  It would definitely feel good to be rid of the shame of racial oppression, of secretly knowing that we’re involved in something morally despicable.  It would be so good to take down the walls and fences, and have available more friendship.  We’d feel so much better.

Peace and non-violence versus law and order

 

Barred owl at Pocosin Lakes

Life in Raleigh is looking more normal, with more traffic and more shops open.  As for Covid-19, there’s no reason to think the virus has left us.  I understand why businesses want to get going again and people want to get back to work, but I’m not clear why it makes more sense to ignore the virus now than it did a month ago.  Anyhow, I’m using a mask when I run errands, and avoiding unnecessary physical proximity.  

But it seems like we may be making progress on facing and addressing our racism.  Protests against police violence and racial discrimination are continuing across the country.  In many places peaceful protesters were met with tear gas and beatings from the police, which, though dangerous to the protesters, helped make the protestors’ point.  The police have been taught to think of everyone as a potential threat, and to assume that criticism is an attack.  We’ve come to think of police violence as normal.   All that needs to change.

Black bear eating grass at Alligator RIver

Abolition or defunding of police sounds crazy when you first hear it, and that language will stop some people from listening.  But if we can get past slogans, there’s a potentially rich and rewarding discussion to be had.  A lot of our usual police practices are simply bad habits developed over a long period.  Some grew out of the exigencies of racial oppression in our caste system.  Unpacking that history and mindset will take some time.

But it only takes a moments’ thought to realize that a lot of what the police are asked to do has nothing to do with stopping violent crime or theft.  Addressing domestic disputes, drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness, and other social problems does not usually require a gun, billie club, and handcuffs.  Most of our ordinary problems can’t be solved by violence, and a show of intimidating force by police can make them worse.  It would be better to address, say, a mentally ill person who is behaving erratically using a health care professional.  

So it makes a lot of sense to reallocate part of our police budgets to things like addressing the needs of the mentally ill.  This idea of not trying to solve every problem with massive violence could go a long way.  As we start to straighten out the police violence problem, we can start to think about our military violence problem.  We’ve got a military budget that is, by itself, larger than the next ten largest military budgets combined, several of which are our allies’  budgets, and none of which are currently wartime foes.  With our massive advantage in weaponry, we tend to default to violence to solve our problems.

Our military expenditures are staggering, and also embarrassing, especially when you consider how little actual military success they have bought us.  Of course, that money could be spent in a lot of more productive ways either domestically (such as better schools, improved transportation, safer housing) or to advance peace internationally.  Dropping violence as our default solution to everything could save a lot of lives of our young soldiers and many others.  Gearing back on the massive transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the arms industry could help our inequality problem, while lowering the risk of a nuclear war that ends everything.   

 

But first things first.  I fully expected that conservatives would try to spin the George Floyd protests as the work of radical anti-Americans, and they did.  “Law and order” has been a rallying cry for decades, signaling the need for violence to maintain the existing hierarchy.  It was no great surprise when President Trump rolled out that slogan and called for violence against the protesters.  

I was surprised, though, that he used violent tactics, including tear gas, just outside the White House in order to clear away protesters for a photo op in front of a church.  And I was really surprised that he brandished a Bible over his head for the photographers.  I’m not a Bible man myself, but I assume that a lot of believers would find it offensive to see their holy book used so shamelessly as a political prop.  

Several times in the Trump presidency I’ve thought it can’t get any worse than this, or any more obvious than this.  I’ve gotten inured to his constant lying, but he periodically finds a new low gear for greater cruelty that I think must be shocking even to his supporters.  And I’ve generally been wrong, as almost nothing shakes his core supporters.  But I haven’t given up hope.  From recent poll numbers, it sounds like the old reliable “law and order” ruse may not work this time.  People may be realizing it’s a scam.  The reflexive resort of violence will not bring real peace. 

Anyhow, it seems like much of the nation has realized that our policing can’t go on the way it is, and that we’ve got a lot of other problems that derive from our racial  caste system.  There’s so much to do that it might be a good idea to start a to-do list.  Here’s an example.

 

  1.  Stop policing as it now exists, and retool it as peacekeeping, while redistributing responsibilities for addressing addiction, mental health, domestic violence, and other problems to well-funded professionals in the appropriate areas.
  2. Shut down prisons as they now exist, and retool the criminal justice system as restorative justice to address both the  needs of victims and needs of offenders, with prison used only as a last resort for those demonstrably too dangerous to live among us.
  3. End segregation in our schools and provide the necessary resources for high quality education for all. 
  4. Guarantee good health care for all.
  5. Guarantee safe housing for all.
  6. Provide for safe, efficient public transportation for all.
  7. Provide fair reparations for the victims of slavery.  
  8. End subsidies for pollution and provide resources for clean air and water for all.
  9. End subsidies for fossil fuels and invest in stopping and reversing global warming.  

The pictures here are ones I took in eastern North Carolina week before last of barred owls and bears.  These owls can be hard to spot, and I would have missed these without my talented guide and mentor, Mark Buckler.  I share them as a reminder that the beauty of the natural world is still here, actually very close to us, and it can help us in these difficult times. 

Views of the big anti-racism protests, and getting close to some bears

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A black bear last week in eastern North Carolina

It’s been almost two weeks since the first peaceful protests in downtown Raleigh, followed by not-so-peaceful protests, vandalism, and looting.  In our city and many others, people gathered in the streets in opposition to police killings of unarmed Black men.  The crowds shouted in unison, Black lives matter! And No justice, no peace!  

Late in the night, some of the demonstrators started throwing bricks through the big plate glass windows and grabbing the cash registers and goods from the shops.  There were some small fires.  It looked like our city could be in big trouble.  

The protests were not far from where we lived.  Our building’s management boarded up the ground-level windows the next day, and a lot of area merchants and residences did likewise.  But it seems like the demonstrators had second thoughts about the destruction.  The protests continued the next day, with marchers with signs, shouting, and drumming, but without the vandalism and looting.    

There have been thousands of people here and around the world peacefully protesting police violence and other anti-Black discrimination.  It’s not surprising that Black people are protesting.  They’ve lived with these problems and related ones for a long time.  It’s good that they’ve found the courage and purpose to organize, and good that non-Black people are joining in.  The movement is helping white people to see the reality of our caste system that subordinates and oppresses Black people.  

Our racist system, and the background folk ideology that sustains it, took a long time to construct, and it will take time to deconstruct.  But it feels like we may be moving in the right direction, and with any luck we’ll keep moving that way.  

What to say about vandalism and looting?  Obviously, it’s not as bad as the police violence and killing of innocent Black people.  Some of the vandalism likely comes out of anger, with inadequate legal outlets for that anger.  In many places, Black voting has been suppressed, so ordinary political expression is not available, and other methods of communicating are too expensive.  I can understand why anger and frustration make throwing a brick through a plate glass window seem like the only available way of getting attention.  And breaking glass and lighting fires certainly does get the attention of the power structure and the media.  

The problem is that property damage and theft also align with the traditional racist narrative that Black people are dangerous and must be controlled, with violence if necessary.  Property destruction is an understandable emotional outlet, but it is ambiguous as communication.  It creates a space for new police violence and disruption of lives by the criminal justice system.  Also, looting may just be a way to get things without paying for them, which is nothing to be proud about.

So, my recommendation is to stop breaking glass and looting, but keep shouting for change.  I really admire the courage of the protesters.  I took on board the message that the Covid-19 virus is dangerous and requires that we not get too close together, and as far as I know that’s still true, so I haven’t been marching.  Also, I’m fearful of getting tear gassed and clubbed by police.  There have been a few stories of police expressing compassion, but a lot more about brutal police attacks on non-violent protesters.  

That’s something else that needs to change.  I feel concern for the police, who in the best of times have a tough, dangerous job.  There are probably many police officers who resist and oppose anti-Black racism, but there are clearly some who don’t.  Police violence against Black people is endemic.  It has to stop. 

There was a heartening essay  in the Washington Post today by Patrick Skinner, a police officer in Savannah.  He noted that police training fosters a mind set of being a warrior, with citizens as the enemy.  He described his own experiment with a different approach to policing.  The key idea was to approach the people in the community he served as neighbors, and try to help his neighbors.  In his experience, it lowered the risk of violence and increased the possibilities for peaceful resolutions.  It sounded like a great idea!

But as I say, this is a good time for non-Black people to learn more about the Black experience and our caste system.  I was pleased to see that three books I found really helpful on this subject are near the top of the New York Times Best Seller list:  White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram Kendi, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  I continue to recommend them.   

I got to spend some time last week in eastern North Carolina at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge and the Pocosin Lakes Refuge.  I was there as part of a wildlife photography trip led by master photographer Mark Buckler.  This area is said to have the largest concentration of black bears on the planet, and we were hoping to see bears.  

There were a lot of them.  We saw mothers with cubs, frolicking yearlings, and males courting females.  We saw bears of various ages walking, running, eating, playing, and resting.   A couple of the bears looked like they had been injured, but most seemed to be well fed and healthy.  It was moving to be with these beautiful and resourceful creatures.   

 From what I learned, the popular myth that bears are normally fierce and apt to attack humans is way off the mark.  They are normally wary of humans and busy with their own concerns.  They are, of course, wild animals, wary and not entirely predictable, and they are definitely capable of attacking humans who threaten them.  

But we saw no aggressive behavior.  Some of the bears we saw were shy and kept a good distance, but a few let us get pretty close and stay for quite a while.  Of course, we kept a sharp eye and ear out for signals of discontent, like grunting, growling, or slapping the ground, and frequently updated our possible exit strategies. 

There were also some less beautiful creatures, including opossums and biting insects that left me with some extremely miserable itching wounds on my legs.  Some of these seemed to be chiggers.  But there were different looks to the wounds:  some bites became blisters, some became hard, and other were oozy.  Wonder if they bite bears?

Spring, some explosive questions, including a nuclear one, and hope

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More harbingers of spring arrived in Raleigh this week: forsythia, red buds, and more daffodils started blossoming. Those colorful little flowers will cheer you right up. Look closely and you can see more buds getting ready. The flowers do not last long, so to enjoy them you need to get outside quickly and focus intently. They remind us that life is such a precious, precarious thing.
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Last week a white policeman in Raleigh shot and killed a young black man. I felt very sad, and also concerned about possible damage, physical and mental, to our community. I’d like to think the race relations and police-black community relations here are much better than, say, Ferguson Missouri. But it’s also fair to say that there could be big problems that people like me just don’t know about. One thing I’ve learned from Black Lives Matter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alice Goffman, and others is that while I almost never see it in its raw form, racism is real, and being black in this society is still a big health risk.

Soon after the shooting, hundreds of people marched in the street in protest. There were some traffic problems, but there was no reported harm to persons or property. Also no reports of police in military armor and tanks.
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The first descriptions of the incident featured a fleeing suspect getting shot several times in the back. The official police description differed greatly, saying the man who was killed tried to shoot the officer and was wanted for drug crimes. We tend to see these things in the way that fits most comfortably with our preconceptions. Most white people I’ve discussed this with are inclined to accept the police account as true, despite eyewitnesses who say otherwise. But just as insidious racism can shape perceptions, it’s possible that eyewitnesses who fear and distrust police conformed their memories to fit their larger life narrative. I’m consciously uncertain. Either way, any time a person is killed in the course of our misbegotten war on drugs, it’s an avoidable tragedy. We need to keep working on ending prohibition.
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Also last week, the U.S. killed 150 new recruits of al Shabaab in Somalia. Using bombs from drones and manned aircraft, we caught them standing in formation, perhaps graduating from terror school. According to Pentagon sources, they were going to be part of an imminent attack in Somalia on African soldiers and a few U.S. advisors. This is very similar to the bombing of possible terrorist recruits in Libya recently, so it seems to now be a thing – mass execution of young men who could potentially attack people we don’t know much about. Are we really sure this killing was justified? Is there no possible non-fatal way of addressing such threats? Could we be increasing the chaos and the risk of more mayhem through such attacks?

We don’t have a good track record in using our military in a carefully calibrated way, or in telling the truth about our attacks. See Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Now Libya and Somalia. Tomorrow?
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You may have missed the story, which I did not see in a major U.S. newspaper, of the trial of the Marshall Islands lawsuit in the International Court of Justice seeking to stop nuclear proliferation. The Marshall Islands were used by the U.S. as a test site for 67 nuclear explosions in the 40s-60s, which devastated the area and sickened and killed part of the population. The lawsuit is about the lack of compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, in which some nuclear powers agreed to work in good faith towards disarmament. Apparently the suit is seeking a declaration that this hasn’t been done, and must be done.

For quite a while I’ve been thinking about whether there’s any way nuclear arsenals can be justified. They need a strong justification, because the risks are extremely high – accidental explosions, theft by crazed terrorists, escalating counterattacks, all out annihilation and the end of the world as we know it.

Here’s my current view: no political dispute could possibly justify killing thousands or millions of innocent people, which is the intended purpose of our most powerful nuclear weapons. No sane person would willingly subject the planet to nuclear winter, when much of the animal and plant life that initially survived a major nuclear war would die. Deterrence only works if an adversary is sane and rational (it doesn’t work on madmen), so deterrence is either unnecessary (as to the sane), or ineffective (as to the mad). So we cannot reasonably support the state’s creating and maintaining the risk of nuclear war. That leaves disarmament as the only credible, ethical strategy.

You may agree or disagree, but in either case, why aren’t we talking about this? Perhaps we assume that there’s nothing that can be done, or that it’s something we as individuals can’t effect. The Marshall Islands, a very small country, has challenged that stance. It’s election season, so let’s ask the candidates: what steps will you take to lower the risk of a nuclear holocaust and move towards a nuclear-free world?

On Friday, Bernie Sanders was speaking at noon at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, which is just a couple of blocks from where I work. It was a mild, sunny day, and so I thought it would be nice to see him, and perhaps ask him his view on the nuclear risk. By the time I got there, the line was very long. It took me ten minutes to walk to the end of it, by which time I realized there was no chance I was getting into the hall. But it was nice to see the crowd. They were very young! And, I’m guessing, hopeful. Anyhow, it made me hopeful.
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