Power to the People!

Here’s some good news, in what feels like a dark time for many people. We do have power.

One of the first things we did in our civics classes was to look carefully at the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches in order to understand their powers and functions, why and how the three branches of government were set up, the interaction and restrictions between them. Checks and balances were set up so that none of the branches would have too much power. We can look to the situation Obama was in as Congress obstructed him, most recently and importantly by refusing to even look at Obama’s choice to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.

My students agreed that with elections every four years and campaigns lasting so long, too much attention is put on the president, which leads to misconceptions about who holds the power. My students were surprised by the number of actions the president cannot take. Democracies are set up so that the ultimate power lies with the people.

We live in a complicated system and a complicated world. It isn’t easy to figure it all out, but if we don’t read newspapers, listen to the radio, look at lots of sources, we lose our power. The last election laid bare the misinformation that people have about how the government works and who can fix the problems. The president, no matter who he or she is, cannot fix much in our individual lives. So much is up to us, we the people. We need to know who represents us,  this website is just one of many sources: whoismyrepresentative.com.

The Republicans in Congress are giddy about their power right now, holding majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, along with the White House. There is a lot of chatter about their desires to repeal Obamacare—without any viable plans to replace it, which would take health insurance away from millions of people. Kids in their twenties could not stay on their parents’ plans nor could people get insurance with a pre-existing condition. There is talk about saving those two plans, but without the mandate to buy insurance, those parts are not affordable. They would like to privatize Social Security and Medicare. George W. Bush tried this, but he found little support from the American people. No one knows which side of these issues Trump will finally land on, but for people who are worried about issues important to them—now is the time to exercise our power.

Our elected representatives think about one thing all the time: getting re-elected. I heard a state representative on the radio one day talking about hearing from his constituents. “If I get even one letter on an issue, I pay attention to it.” In Michigan, legislators are term limited. In the House, they can serve three two-year terms. In the Senate, they can serve two four-year terms. House members just get there—and they need to start fund-raising and running for office again, which makes it very important for them to tune in to what their constituents are saying.

Though the Senate is the more powerful body and people serve six-year terms in Washington, people in the House of Representatives serve only two years. The House was designed to be more responsive to the people. That only works if we do our job. As one of my foreign students noted on a particularly contentious day in civics class, “Americans have one great talent, and that is to complain.” I complain when I feel powerless. I think a lot of people feel forgotten and powerless. The good news right now is that people are getting organized and engaged in the system. Here are four ways to put pressure on the people who represent us.

 

1) Attend Town Halls

Most members of Congress hold regularly scheduled “town hall” meetings, where they meet and listen to their constituents, the people who voted for them. If our elected officials are doing their job, they want to hear from us, so we need to stand up and make our ideas and feelings known on the issues we care about. Our job as constituents is to keep our elected officials accountable. If they try and duck a question or we don’t feel satisfied with the answers, we can tell him or her that we will be spreading the word. Or, we can e-mail or snail mail them. Our attention needs to go to our own representatives. Even though it’s tempting to contact other people, if we aren’t voting for them, they will not care.

2) Non-Town Hall Events

Every member of Congress loves holding public events back home that increase their visibility and provide “photo ops”. We can show up and press the questions about the issues that are important to us.

3) Go to District Offices

Members of Congress and state legislators check in at their district offices to meet constituents, sometimes on a regular basis. Their schedules should be available from the district office staff. We can ask for a meeting with them, prepare good questions and ask them. They have no idea how much influence we may have over others in the district, so if we are a member of a committee or a group, we need to say so. They need to know we will report back to other people. If they won’t meet with us, we can get that word out—with the media or on social media.

4) Coordinate Phone Calls

This method is the cheapest and quickest, and it has the best potential to get the attention of a member of Congress or a state legislature. We can organize a group of people who really care about an issue, say Social Security or the ACA. The more people—the better. We can prepare what to say, and when it is convenient for everyone, make the phone ring off the hook! Staff members might ask for our name and address and are usually very friendly. Terms in office are not permanent, and people usually want to keep their jobs! There is strength in numbers and numbers add up!

Citizens behind bars have very little power, so one of the lessons I wanted to convey was that my students were able to wield some power politically. They did not believe me—initially. Our high school program inside prison had its funding threatened and cut all the time. Our students worried constantly that it would be eliminated. We invited a state representative, a Republican who had been in adult education himself, to visit our Civics class. He was very impressed by the students and encouraged them to write letters. I made it an assignment, telling them they could write to whomever they chose. In a state-wide coordinated effort, we did manage to delay some funding cuts. For a while, our program had a federal literacy grant, and that was threatened too. When three men said they wanted to write to Vice-President Dick Cheney, I balked a little, thinking he would be the last person to support such a program. My students reacted with, “You said we could pick!” I backed down and a group of five men wrote heartfelt letters about how much they valued being in school. The letters went out at the end of the year, pleading with Mr. Cheney not to cut any of the small federal grant we were receiving. I promptly forgot about it.

When I came back to school in September, our program director handed me a large package. Attached to my students’ letters was a page that went right down the line, the “chain of command,” from the vice-president’s office to the attorney general, to the head of the Bureau of Prisons to the regional director, to our warden, to the prison educational office and then…across the hall to our high school office. Except for the local people, everyone of these people had signed off, several of them commenting, “It is obvious how much these men value being in school.” I was shocked—and couldn’t wait to share it with my students. I will never know if Dick Cheney had anything to do with it, but our federal funding stayed in place. Even better, my students felt like they’d been heard.

I know it’s easy to feel like we don’t count and that we are powerless to affect any change. We can expect some confusion and conflict. As Obama says, “Democracy is messy.” Our job is to hold our elected officials’ feet to the fire. If they don’t do their jobs—they can be beaten either in a Democratic or Republican primary or in a general election. People must be informed and we must vote. The system sometimes feels like steering a large ocean liner in a storm, but it works far better when people are aware and make their voices heard. 

One last thing, some wisdom from a few of our Founders:

When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.

A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.

—Thomas Jefferson

Make yourself sheep and the wolves will eat you.

—Benjamin Franklin

The circulation of confidence is better than the circulation of money.

—James Madison

Power to the People!

Stories about Island Prisons

Stories about Island Prisons

Abuse continues on Rikers Island, the notorious prison sitting in the East River of New York City. Reading about the sordid record at Rikers prompts me to investigate other island prisons. Turns out, island prisons dot the waters all over the world in places like Venezuela, Italy, France and Panama. Alcatraz, America’s other infamous island, stands with its high imposing fortress rising up from San Fransisco Bay. Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison from 1934-1963, It now functions as a tourist attraction as part of the U.S. National Park Service. Island prisons create a fitting metaphor for the way we regard and treat people who are incarcerated. Islands not only make it difficult to escape, but they create a natural barrier for the rest of us so that we are completely cut off and immune from the realties of lives inside. A prison on an island creates a more powerful sense of exile. more “Stories about Island Prisons”

Yelling Fire

One of my favorite lessons in our civics classes involved discussing the First Amendment, especially the freedom of speech. My students were surprised at how short it is:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

We had lively discussions about our rights and freedoms—and my students were keenly aware of how their rights were restricted in prison. We talked a lot about respect, a concept much discussed as they navigated a place where they didn’t always feel respected. We talked about slanderous speech and had many discussions about what constituted hate speech. My students understood that responsibilities are  attached to these freedoms. I used the age-old examples of how our freedom stops where the another person’s nose begins and “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” The idea of the Golden Rule came up too. I said that, however short and seemingly simple, as a nation we would be discussing the First Amendment and its complications forever.

I sit and wonder what my students would say about the current climate of political speech. I know some of them would be horrified. I know they would care about the immigrants in the country. They would care about Muslims.  They would care how protesters have been treated at Trump rallies. When they learned just how hard it was for women to get the vote, they were horrified at the way women were treated before 1920, the imprisonments and force feedings the women endured. I wonder what their reactions would be to the misogyny displayed today.

Living together like sardines forced people to get along, and I felt a high level of civility as I walked around the prison compound. Even people I didn’t know greeted me politely, held doors open, and offered to carry things to my classroom. Because we focused on what it means to be good citizens, I decided to include discussions of civility. I called in graduates of the program to lead discussions, which were always lively and interesting. Mr. Mack, a young, consistently cheerful black man, could have written a book about civility. He was always friendly, always helpful, always aware of how other people were feeling. In response to Mr. Mack’s good humor, someone asked, “Ya but, what if you’re having a bad day?”

Mr. Mack replied, “It’s never okay to take out bad feelings on other people! Other people have bad days too, and I don’t want to make things worse. This is a tough place to be, and we gotta help each other.”

America has a lot of hurting people, and Trump is giving them a voice. He knows just how to tap into the disappointment, the anger, the fears: it’s all about Mexican immigrants taking jobs, the Chinese getting American jobs, the Muslim terrorists.  He’s “tellin’ it like it is” as he bashes women and those others, talking about how strong, smart, loved he is. Somehow, he’s saying, “I have all the truth.”

The problem is, those attitudes and statements have consequences. Lots of people are affected, particularly children. At a high school basketball game in Indiana, white students held up a picture of Trump and chanted, “Build a wall!” when playing a school of Hispanic students.

When Cokey Roberts, political analyst, asked Trump about this incident and how his rhetoric damages children, he responded that it was “a nasty question” and went on to duck any response.

Muslim students are having a particularly hard time. We should not be surprised that children are bullying. Children mimic what they see adults doing.

New Jersey senator Cory Booker noted recently “There are always going to be people with hateful words in their mouths, and worse. Between 20 and 30 transgender Americans were killed last year for who they were. We had a church in South Carolina where someone walked in to kill black people specifically. But what concerns me more are all the good people who sit silent in the face of what’s going on. We all have a choice. We can do nothing and accept things the way they are, or we can stand up and take responsibility for changing them.

Words have consequences, sometimes deadly consequences.

Booker went on, “To me, being silent in the face of injustice is the greatest threat we have.” This from a senator who is making it a point to reach across the great political divide in the Senate and not see Republicans as enemies.

Some moments in my classroom remain vivid. Mr. Park was an older student in his fifties, well-liked and respected. He spoke quietly one day saying, “I came into prison needing to feel like a man. I am leaving school feeling like a gentleman.” My breath caught and my eyes filled up. Mr. Park was expressing our greatest strength: our respect and care for others. Our strength lies in our gentleness—not our tough talk. Hate speech is hurt speech, and it says “I know all the truth about you.” We need to get out of our comfort zones and get to know people who are different than we are. If we cannot, we can get to know their struggles by reading about them. We need to treat other people as we would like to be treated. We need to stand up to hate and injustice. Yelling fire will only fan the flames of our divisions, our discord and our dysfunctions.”


 

 

  1. Galanes, Philip, On Purposeful Paths, The New York Times, March 27, 2106.

“It’s Easy”

Like many people, I was shocked to hear about the death of Justice Scalia. After several days, I realized how complicated his death is from a legal standpoint, and the more I read and hear about him, the more contradictions I find. It has been heartening to hear about his friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and how it has endured across a huge political divide. I keep hearing about his charm, his wit, his humor, his writing ability and his legal brilliance. He served on the court with distinction for decades. I am sorry about his death, but I am relieved that he will no longer negatively effect so many people, particularly people on death row with his vociferous defense of the death penalty. Asked about what it was like to rule on death penalty cases, he responded, “The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy.” Given our horribly broken criminal justice system and its accompanying racist policies, I do not understand how anyone could be so cavalier about anything as serious and tragic as capital punishment. In my last blog, I wrote about people in the “tall tower” and how often they are disconnected from the world of impoverished communities and people of color. Wealth, power and privilege create these disconnections. Misinformation, prejudice and judgment often follow. It seems to me that Antonin Scalia lived in the tall tower—far removed from the realities of people in prisons and on death row.

Two of my heroes are Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander. Stevenson wrote Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and he created The Equal Justice Initiative where he represents people in Alabama on death row, many who are innocent. He represents children who are incarcerated, sometimes as young as nine or ten, and who have been sentenced to life without parole. Many of his stories are chilling. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, gives us new language and understanding about the tragedy of the United States becoming the world’s biggest jailor, and how our prison populations reflect the new form of racial control. She sheds light on how our prison system is creating an American caste system. They both work tirelessly for justice.

Bill Moyers interviewed Stevenson and Alexander together.  

Moyers asked Stevenson, “Why is it that capital punishment has become so symbolic of what you see as the crisis in American justice and American life?”  Stevenson replied,

“It shapes all of criminal justice policy. It’s in the only country where you have the death penalty that you can have life without parole for someone who writes bad checks. Somebody else who steals a bicycle. And so it shapes the way we think about punishment. You know, we’ve gotten very comfortable with really harsh and excessive sentences. And I think the death penalty permits that. But I also think it really challenges us, if we will really execute innocent people. We’ve had 130 people in this country who’ve been exonerated, proven innocent while on death row. For every 8 people who have been executed, we’ve identified one innocent person. If we will tolerate that kind of error rate in the death penalty context, it reveals a whole lot about the rest of our criminal justice system and about the rest of our society.”

Allowing the death penalty makes our society more punitive. Our prison policies are not based on the assumption that people are basically good and make mistakes. We don’t use prisons for the sole purpose of rehabilitation. We punish. We punish severely. We still have more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement, many of them children. Women and children are especially vulnerable to rape, and pregnant women are treated horribly in many cases. At this point, we make it very hard for people to put their lives back together when they are released by restricting access to federal housing and food subsidies, restricting licenses and student loans and by providing inadequate support for finding sustainable jobs. There is talk of reinstating Pell grants for people behind bars, but far more needs to be done about more comprehensive education. I taught in the only high school completion program beyond GED in the federal system. Without the right kind of support, returning citizens are vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment, debtor’s prison and what Michelle Alexander calls “a lifelong underclass.” Many states prohibit these citizens from serving on juries or even voting. They are vulnerable to recidivism.

When I was writing a blog about one of my students on June 15, 2015 called A Ruling Passion: Abolishing the Death Penalty, I learned about a national organization called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. It was reassuring to read about their concern and political action. Helen Prejean wrote in Dead Man Walking, “Government…can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide with of its citizens to kill.” The death penalty  is not only complicated, but it results in tragedies of immense proportions, especially among minorities. It is devastating to the families of people who are killed. It provides a slippery slope into more and more damaging and punitive policies, and it should never be described as easy in any context.

The Blame Game Continues

The conditions in the Detroit Public Schools are beyond belief. I cannot imagine sending my children to rat-infested, moldy, cold and dangerous schools—nor can I imagine being able to teach under those conditions. There are not enough teachers and not enough supplies. When I taught in Detroit’s inner city fifty years ago, I had forty-three third graders, but the building was clean, welcoming and safe. We had adequate materials. It is so ominous for so many impoverished communities that conditions have worsened to such an extent.

I listen carefully to teachers working in our public schools and all of them are discouraged and disheartened. They feel blame from all corners—administrators, parents, politicians and the public. This isn’t new, but with dwindling funds, conditions and morale are much worse. The following reaction in The Guardian on January 12, 2016, is a typical response. I doubt that the attorney general has investigated the schools by touring these places with such awful, health-threatening conditions. I hope his response would be different. Once again, our extreme separations cause these less-than-compassionate responses. Once again, it is black children who suffer.

Asked by the Detroit News about the legality of Monday’s protest, a spokesperson for Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, side-stepped the question, instead slamming the teachers’ move: “Staff may have complaints, but not showing up for work hurts the kids and parents, not the administrators. We feel for these families because this is outrageous, no matter where it happens.”

“Outrageous” is the right term for what is happening to children, parents and teachers in Detroit. Where does the responsibility for this situation lie? My friend Amber Hughson’s comments about institutional racism say it well:

Imagine yourself in elementary school, showing up for your day and seeing rats crawling across the floor of your classroom. Sleet and rain coming into the room where there’s [ black mold]. The textbook you’re working out of is a decade old and ripped. Imagine that you’re black and the majority of the kids around you are black. Imagine that as you go through school you become more and more aware that other kids in other places don’t go to schools like this.

What would this tell you about how you are valued, who cares about you, or whether or not your education–or your life–matters?

There is more segregation in American schools now than there has been since [1968]. And here we are today–just down the street teachers are being told that they are hurting students by protesting (using their sick days, because it is illegal for teachers to strike in Michigan). Our government is vilifying educators who work in buildings where the gym floor is swollen into hills and the playground is closed off because hot steam is pouring out of a broken pipe.

This is not desegregation. This is not even separate but equal. If you want evidence of institutionalized racism–this is everything. If you want evidence of class privilege–this is everything. Every single public school should have the same quality of facilities and materials, regardless of the class or race of the adults in the surrounding community. Education and opportunity are how you get people out of poverty–yet we create deeper and deeper poverty by giving more and more opportunity to the students attending school in West Bloomfield, MI and then allow students in Flint and Detroit, MI to go to crumbling schools where certified teachers won’t even take jobs (as they shouldn’t under these conditions).

You cannot get more intersectional than this issue–unions, which are democratically created and run organizations are being destroyed by politicians who know unions (a now dirty word for ‘organized citizens’) are the one strong force which fights for low wage workers to get out of poverty. Those unions cannot represent the interests of these teachers (who are mostly women) because we have made it illegal for teachers to strike; we’ve done this in the name of students–the very students who are mostly minorities and who are hardly receiving an education at all because our state funds for schools are not equal and our education system and society are deeply segregated.

If you believe in justice, equity, and the right to dignity for all children–do not disparage these teachers. Fight for better schools in Detroit, and I promise you will be on the side of what is right.

 

Who’s a Flight Risk?

While teaching in prison, I was always aware of just how invisible the people incarcerated were—and how little the general public knew about the reality of life behind bars. The high security shrouding the people inside and what really happens inside the fence makes it difficult to figure out the truth. There is a widespread tendency to not believe the stories that inmates tell; instead they are seen as unworthy of dignity, fair treatment and ordinary human kindness. Two articles from the New York Times: Restraint of Pregnant Inmates Is Said to Persist in New York Despite Bans from April 9, 2015 and Handcuffed While Pregnant from September 23, 2015 expose what happens to women who are pregnant while incarcerated. It is not a pretty picture.

As a former childbirth educator, I know just how vulnerable and afraid women feel when they are pregnant, when they are in labor, when they deliver their babies and as new parents. Women have an innate fear of finding themselves alone, especially as their babies are born. After hearing hundreds of childbirth experiences, I was always struck by how fragile women felt in the face of hospital policies and procedures. It was not a time to assert their wishes or question the people who were in control of how the baby would be born. It is difficult for laboring women to move around, and they do not like to move very far away from the bed. I cannot imagine how being incarcerated exaggerates those fears and vulnerabilities. Pregnant women in jail or prison are not exactly flight risks—apt to run out of a room, down the hall, into a stairwell or out into the street. Labor is hard enough without such medieval torture practices like handcuffs, waist chains and ankle manacles. The editorial board of the September 23rd article calls these indignities “sheer cruelty and pointless degradation,” and says these practices introduce health risks to the mother and her baby.

Another article, U.S. Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies on September 28, 2015 from In These Times, a monthly magazine published by The Institute for Public Affairs in Chicago, Illinios, also points out the fact that in spite of bans on this type of treatment in several states, the practice of shackling women who are pregnant, in labor, delivering their babies and caring for newborns persists. Part of the solution is coming from outside advocacy groups who are investigating and interviewing incarcerated women who have endured these awful practices. There is hope in Delaware’s example of creating a group home program where both mothers and babies are given the education and support that they need, though that facility is locked. Another program in New York operates independently of the prison system, and mothers are allowed to keep their children, avoiding the problems of foster care.

Children suffer greatly when their mothers are incarcerated. In the interest of keeping families as healthy as possible, we could do so much better. We need to be creative in finding alternatives to incarceration, and we need to investigate the forces in our culture that create these levels of punishment, see the pathology of these practices and provide the kind of training that would not only keep both mother and baby from harm, but provide the best care and nurturing possible.  All mothers count. All babies matter.

The Eighth Amendment

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

–The Bill of Rights’ Eighth Amendment

 

We are not doing at all well on this one. Three recent articles address the issues. The Bail Trap in the magazine section of the New York Times on August 16, 2015 says, “Every year, thousands of innocent people are sent to jail only because they can’t afford to post bail, putting them at risk of losing their jobs, custody of their children–even their lives.”  

NPR posted an article entitled In Ferguson, Court Fines and Fees Fuel Anger; the article explains people’s outrage in response to the city’s use of fines. 

On September 9th the New York Times published an article called Solitary Confinement is Cruel and All Too Common. Its first paragraph says,

“If mass incarceration is one of modern America’s deepest pathologies, solitary confinement is the concentrated version of it: far too many people locked up for too long for no good reason at no clear benefit to anyone.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy says that solitary confinement “drives people mad.”

The problem is far larger than excessive bail, fines and 80,000 people in solitary confinement.  People are sentenced for decades for drug offenses, devastating lives and whole communities; drug use is still a criminal issue and not a public health problem; disproportionate numbers of people of color languish on Death Row; many people on Death Row are innocent; children are incarcerated, treated as adults, put in solitary confinement and given life sentences. All of this horror says as much about our divisive politics of fear and the finger-pointing culture we live in as it does about the millions of people snarled in the system. This situation says that millions of impoverished, often mentally ill people and people of color simply do not count. We talk long about criminals paying the price, but we are failing to look at our thirst for punishment, our long and sordid history of racism or the situations and policies that set people up to fail. We are far too eager to see people behind bars as totally bad and not fully human. Using the right language is useful. The American culture has deep pathologies. I wish we had a national integrity and paid as much attention to the 8th Amendment as we do to the freedoms of speech and religion. I try to maintain hope, and the fact that California is addressing these ugly conditions is encouraging.