Voting is…Falling in Love!

 

Voting is…Falling in Love!

“When people asked me what it felt like to vote for the first time, I answered, “What does it feel like to fall in love?” said Desmond Tutu, social rights activist and retired Episcopal archbishop of South Africa. America is supposed to be the world’s beacon of democracy, so we should never take voting for granted—nor should we deny it to anyone who can legally vote.  It is no small thing—nor is voting responsibly easy.

2016 is a year filled with chatter about both rigged elections and voter suppression. Any search of voter fraud issues brings up lots of fact checks about how rare it is: Trump’s Bogus Fraud Claims.

Voter suppression is the other far more important story. People of color and women have endured all kinds of tactics since our beginnings. Abigail Adams cried to husband John, “Remember the ladies!” Though black men were given the vote after the Civil War, all kinds of tactics from poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses ensured they could not vote. (Black grandfathers had been enslaved, therefore black people could not vote, but the grandfather clause protected poor whites from literacy tests and poll taxes.) More modern kinds of intimidation continue from purging voter rolls; from flyers, billboards and robocalls that give false information; from tactics that make voting more difficult like ID laws, difficult procedures to register, cutting back on early voting and polling places that favor people of color.

I am interested in the disenfranchisement of many of our returning citizens coming out of prison, who face huge obstacles in voting in many states. The chart is this article: State Felon Voting Laws shows current laws and regulations: 20% of states may take people’s right to vote away permanently, once again saying, “We will never stop punishing you if you’ve served time in prison.” Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have unrestricted laws allowing people behind bars to vote.

I have fond memories of my students in prison organizing and carrying out presidential elections. As an election inspector in Michigan, I had access to the authentic forms and procedures needed to register, to vote and to count the votes. My students elected two co-chairmen each time, who took everything very seriously and followed the rules to the letter. It was painful to talk to my students about the importance of voting, because some of them were people going home to states that would make it very hard for them to vote—if ever. As an election inspector, I watched people voting for the first time look very nervous. Those of us who have voted comfortably need to recognize how intimidating it can be. I was moved by this man’s story from the Marshall Project and how much pride he takes in voting after being in prison.

A Former Prisoner on Voting for the First Time in his Life

Voting is no small thing. It says so much about taking charge of our lives in concert with other citizens. It says, “I count too.” It’s like falling in love to know you have a stake and a voice in your future and the future of your family and community. All of that makes it sacred. To make it difficult to vote, to make such a fundamental part of our democracy intimidating or to take it away completely is to deny someone their humanity. It should never happen.

Living from the Inside Out

Parker Palmer became my North Star as I read and re-read his  books about education.  His wisdom, clarity and compassion kept me focused. This June, as I remember the absolute joy of our prison graduation ceremonies, his commencement address is the best I have ever read, speaking not only to graduates, but to the current chaos and concerns in our politics.

 

Living From the Inside Out

In May, 2015, I gave the commencement address at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Founded in 1974 by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, Naropa merges Western scholarship with Eastern wisdom in a context of contemplative practice. I was grateful for a chance to welcome the Class of 2015 to a world in deep need of their competence and compassion. In this season of graduations, I wanted to share my talk with you.


I have two modest graduation gifts for the Class of 2015. The first is a six brief suggestions about the road ahead of you. The second is a promise to stop talking in about twelve minutes so you can get on that road sooner rather than later!

My first suggestion is simple: Be reckless when it comes to affairs of the heart.

Now, before someone thinks I’m trying to corrupt America’s youth, what I mean is fall madly in love with life! Be passionate about some part of the natural and/or human worlds, and take risks on its behalf, no matter how vulnerable they make you. No one ever died saying, “I’m so glad for the self-centered, self-serving, and self-protective life I lived.” Offer yourself to the world — your energies, your gifts, your visions, your spirit — with open-hearted generosity.

But understand that when you live this way, you will soon learn how little you know and how easy it is to fail. To grow in love and service, you must value ignorance as much as knowledge and failure as much as success. This is ironic advice on a day when we celebrate your success at passing a rigorous test of your knowledge! But clinging to what you already know is the path to an unlived life. So cultivate beginner’s mind, walk straight into your not-knowing, and take the risk of failing and falling, again and again — then getting up to learn again and again. That’s the path to a life lived large in service of love, truth, and justice.

Second, as you integrate ignorance and failure into your knowledge and success, do the same with all the alien parts of yourself.

Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to your shadow side: let your altruism meet your egotism, your generosity meet your greed, your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow: even Buddhists, even Quakers, even high-minded people like us. Especially high-minded people like us! But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good. Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection — it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. As a person who has made three deep-dives into depressionalong the way, I don’t speak lightly of this. I simply know it is true.

As you acknowledge and embrace all that you are, you give yourself a gift that will benefit the rest of us as well. Our world is in desperate need of leaders who live what Socrates called “an examined life.” In critical areas like politics, religion, business, and mass media, too many leaders refuse to name and claim their shadow side because they don’t want to look weak. With shadows that go unexamined and unchecked, they use their power heedlessly in ways that harm countless people and undermine public trust in our major institutions. If you value self-knowledge, you will become the leaders we need to help renew this society. But if, for some reason, you choose to live an unexamined life, I beg of you: Do not take a job that involves other people!

Third, as you welcome whatever you find alien within yourself, extend that same welcome to whatever you find alien in the outer world.

I don’t know any virtue more important these days than hospitality to the stranger, to those we perceive as “other” than us.

The old majority in this society — people who look like me — is on its way out. By 2045, the majority of Americans will be people of color. Many in the old majority fear that fact. And their fear, shamelessly manipulated by too many politicians, is bringing us down. The renewal this nation needs will not come from people who are afraid of “otherness” in race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Because of that fear, our once-vital society is gridlocked and stagnant — and our main hope for renewal is diversity welcomed and embraced.

I recently met a professor who left a predominantly white college to teach undocumented youth in Southern California. When I asked him how it was going, he said, “Best move I ever made. My previous students felt entitled and demanded to be entertained. My undocumented students are hungry to learn, hard-working, and courageous enough to keep moving out of their comfort zones.”

America will be renewed by people with those qualities. And if we who have privilege and power will welcome them, collaborate with them, and help remove the obstacles in their way, 2045 will be a year of promise for all of us.

Fourth, take on big jobs worth doing, jobs like the spread of love, peace, and justice.

That means refusing to be seduced by our cultural obsession with being effective as measured by short-term results. We all want our work to make a difference, of course. But if we take on the big jobs and our only measure of success is next quarter’s bottom line, we’ll end up disappointed, dropping out, and in despair.

Think of someone you respect because he or she lived a life devoted to high values: a Rosa Parks, a Nelson Mandela, or someone known only to a few. At the end of the road, was that person able to say, “I’m sure glad I took on that job because now everyone can check it off their to-do lists”? No, our heroes take on impossible jobs and stay with them for the long haul because they live by a standard that trumps effectiveness. The name of that standard is “faithfulness” — faithfulness to your gifts, to the needs of the world, and to offering your gifts to whatever needs are within your reach.

The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results. Public education is a tragic example. We no longer care about educating children — a big job that’s never done. We care only about getting kids to pass tests with measurable results — whether or not they measure what matters. In the process, we’re crushing the spirits of a lot of good teachers and vulnerable kids.

Care about being effective, of course. But care even more about being faithful, as countless teachers do — faithful to your calling and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care. You won’t get the big jobs done in your lifetime. But if, at the end of the day, you can say, “I was faithful,” you’ll be okay.

Fifth, since suffering as well as joy comes with being human, I urge you to remember this: Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.

Sometimes we aim that violence at ourselves — as in overwork that leads to burnout and worse, or in the many forms of substance abuse. Sometimes we aim that violence at other people — racism, sexism and homophobia often come from people trying to relieve their suffering by claiming superiority over others.

The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death. It happens every day. I know many people who’ve suffered the loss of the dearest person in their lives. At first, they go into deep grief, certain that their lives will never again be worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that — not in spite of their loss but because of it — they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys.

These are broken-hearted people — but their hearts have been broken open rather than broken apart. So every day, exercise your heart by taking in life’s pains and joys. That kind of exercise will make your heart supple, so that when it breaks — which it surely will — it will break not into a fragment grenade, but into a greater capacity for love.

Sixth and finally, I quote St. Benedict — not a Buddhist or a Quaker, but still worth quoting! — who said, “Daily keep your death before your eyes.”

That may sound like a morbid practice, but I assure you it isn’t. If you hold a healthy awareness of your own mortality, your eyes will be opened to the grandeur and glory of life. And that will evoke all of the virtues I’ve named, as well as those I haven’t, such as hope, generosity, and gratitude.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining. So I’ll close with this brief quote from the writer Diane Ackerman who reminds us to live — truly live — our lives:

“The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”

Once again, a deep bow to the Class of 2015. To each and every one of you, traveling mercies and blessings as you make the journey from one mystery to the next and the next and the next!

 

“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.

What’s Alive in our Hearts?

This past year has been a terrible one for African-Americans—and for the country. It is hard to feel like we’ve made progress in bridging and mending our racial divisions—sometimes it feels as if we are falling backward when we see continuing deaths by police and see the violence and sense of hopelessness in impoverished inner cities. I see profound segregation in neighborhoods, in towns and cities, in states where white people live in different areas from people of color, and it feels like our landscape is made up of people living in separate circles who rarely interact, preventing us from the kind of dialogue that would yeild new understandings.

I’ve just read Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, a story of listening carefully to Dan, the Native American elder, and writing down what Dan has to tell him. Five lessons within the book are relevant and could help as we face the challenges of our racial divides.  

First, as the old man talks about the history of what has happened to native peoples, he says, “Look at what your way did to our people. When you came among us, you didn’t care what was alive in our hearts. You wanted to know facts.” [1]

Exactly. We have a multitude of facts and figures: the numbers of people killed and by whom, statistics around gun violence and suicide, and all kinds of polling data, especially since Ferguson in 2014. I don’t hear very much at all about what is in people’s hearts. Specifically, I don’t hear about people’s fears, among them the fears white people have about young black men and people of color in general, fears of violence or loss of jobs. White people need to hear how much people of color everywhere fear the police, fear that they cannot secure good jobs, fear that their children do not have enough opportunity in education or employment, fear that they cannot find adequate, affordable housing, fear that their children are hungry.

The second is in the story of how the land was taken and the vast differences between white people and native people regarding the land itself. Dan tells Nerburn that to natives, the land was the place where ancestors were buried, where sacred stories and ceremonies took place, and that the land gave his people life and life for the spirits. He says, ”The worst thing is that you never listened to us. You came into our land and took it away and didn’t even listen to us when we tried to explain. You made promises and you broke every one.” [2]

As I heard the stories of being African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American from my prison students, I heard the vast differences between being a person of color and being a white person in the United States. Learning to listen well to differences and caring enough to ask the right questions is hard and necessary work—but such a helpful first step.

The third lesson comes from Nerburn’s foreword where he talks about letting go of our own understanding of other people’s historical realities, their lives and the situations they find themselves in today. Nerburn writes about his time with Dan, Dan’s friends and family and says, “They literally and figuratively kidnapped me, and would not let me go until I paid the ransom of giving up my own understanding. They wanted me to realize that I had walked through Alice’s keyhole, and the world I had entered was not mine to reduce to the size and shape of my own understanding.” [3]

It is hard to give up our own perceptions and ideas of what we think is the truth. I love Aniais Nin’s quote that says, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” My students and I were so lucky to have inmates who were not in our high school program visit and talk to us. Mr. Terrence was from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and came in to tell us about the values his people held and how wide the gap was between people on reservations and the general American culture. He said,

“Our young people have a very hard time when they are growing up. They must keep their feet in two places—one foot in your world and one foot inside the house with the dirt floor on the rez. If they leave the rez, they risk losing who they are and lose being Indian. That is a very bad thing. One of the problems with this is that white people think a dirt floor is a bad thing. They don’t understand that hundreds of years of culture are in that family and in that house.”

The fourth lesson is about guilt. We also need to recognize that many of us still harbor a sense of guilt about what was done to people of color in the past. Nerburn says in his foreword,

“I have never met an Indian person who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with anger and sadness at what has happened to their people, and I have never met an honest and aware non-Indian person in America who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with guilt about what we as a culture have done to the people who inhabited our continent before us. We can like each other, hate each other, feel pity for each other, love each other. But always, somewhere beneath the surface of our personal encounters, this cultural memory is rumbling. A tragedy has taken place on our watch, we are its inheritors, and the earth remembers.” [4]

In my prison classes, the issue of slavery brewed beneath the surface all the time. My students saw their incarceration as a form of modern-day slavery, and the cultural memories of slavery and Jim Crow came out in discussions of their family stories. One day, after an emotional discussion of slavery, Mr. Loving, an older white man, stayed back after class to tell me, “Mrs. Wenzel, it is hard to live in this place with so many young black men, and this is the first time I’ve recognized how guilty I feel about what happened to black people during slavery. I can sure see why black guys make this connection.”

I’m not sure that feeling guilty about things that happened in the past is useful. We weren’t there and we didn’t perpetrate the horror and damage done to so many people. I think it would be far more helpful to face the horrors of the past and learn how they are still alive and powerful today. It would also help to recognize how we as white people today still benefit from racial hierarchies and the institutional structures of racism. I wish there were forums in which white people and people of color could discuss their common anger and sadness about what has happened in the past. We would need a trusting space in which to do that.

Last, I am uncomfortable with the idea of enemy, because our politics of fear and anger put us in opposing camps all the time. I loved elder Dan’s idea of re-framing the idea of enemy after he sings a song in Lakota and explains it to Nerburn,

“I wrote it when I knew I wanted to speak. I went to my hill and spoke to my grandfathers. They gave me that song. They gave it to me in the wind. They said I had too much anger to speak. They told me that anger is only for the one who speaks. It never opens the heart of one who listens. There are good white people, they told me. They want to do right. They are not the enemy anymore. The enemy is blindness to each other’s ways. Put away your anger now, they said.” [5]

I refuse to believe that huge numbers of Americans are bigots, incapable of learning and respecting people who look different and have different experiences of being Americans. Recognizing and discussing our hopes and fears, in trusting and safe places, would be a huge step forward in the healing process. Reading books and aritcles by people of color would help too. I think we are capable of summoning our best selves: our courage to feel pain—the pain of others and our own, our openness to truth we hadn’t considered before, and our desires to make our relationships better. In the process, we could discover our common humanity.  We need to know what is alive in our hearts—and in the hearts of our fellow Americans.

more “What’s Alive in our Hearts?”

“On Charleston” by La’Ron Williams

My friend La’Ron’s thoughts have made me think about my own family experiences—and how different they are from the long reach of terror and trauma in his family. I am just home from a family reunion. Our large and loving extended family gets together every three years, and we all appreciate our rich family history. We’ve had our pain and losses like every family, but none of us could possibly imagine being targeted with terror and violence for who we are or what we look like.

I am writing this the day after the confederate flag was taken down in South Carolina and know there is concern that many people will think this action is enough. What is badly needed is for white people to try to get out of our safe white skins and listen hard to the harsh reality so many black people endure. We need to go beyond one perpetrator and flags coming down to see the historical context in order to understand systemic present-day injustices. To use La’Ron’s words, we need to understand “a societal arrangement that regularly and routinely demonizes, criminalizes and dehumanizes Black lives while simultaneously normalizing, ignoring and making excuses for the social arrangements of White supremacy. See his post, “On Charleston,” below.

–Judy Patterson Wenzel

On Charleston

by La’Ron Williams

I want to share a few of my thoughts regarding Wednesday night’s murder of the 9 worshipers in Emmanuel AME Church.

First, it’s hard for me to comment without becoming emotional. My mother’s father was a lynching victim, and my entire family remains wounded because of it. I know from firsthand experience the far-reaching ramifications acts of terror can sow. My heart goes out to the families of Wednesday’s victims, as well as to the church of which they were a part, and to their local community.

At the same time, I harbor a tremendous sadness for what this event may portend – not only for African-Americans, but also for the nation.

This morning, when I learned the news about Charleston, four names immediately came to mind: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denice McNair.

I was 12 years old in the summer of 1963, when those four little girls, while attending a session at the 16th street Baptist Church, became the victims of a brutal bombing attack. In the aftermath, television brought the news into thousands of living rooms across the country. That was a relatively new thing back then. There had been no TV coverage during the heyday of lynching, and many Americans were directly witnessing this level of brutality for the first time. Many Americans expressed disbelief at the callous nature of the attack on such innocent children.

But there was very little disbelief in the African American community. The deaths of those girls came as no surprise to us. For nearly a century, following the end of slavery, we had lived with the soul-destroying reality of Jim Crow segregation, and the massive culture of fear that was a constant feature of our normal, everyday lives. Fear was the weapon of choice for White Supremacists seeking tomaintain the hierarchy of race that had existed under slavery, and fear was everywhere, supported both by an ideology of Black inferiority/dependence as well as by the physical weaponry to enforce the nation’s racially linked, tremendous social disparities. We strengthened our course as a country awash in guns and violence.

African-Americans may have been disturbed by the 1963 bombing, but we certainly were notsurprised. And while many American families outside of the Black community were caught unawares, there were thousands who were not – not only in the South, but throughout the nation. Racial terrorism was no secret to them, either. They are the ones who can be seen in the photos of the large-scale public celebrations that accompanied lynching — the ones collecting souvenir body parts, enjoying refreshments, laughing and smiling. They are the State and Federal officials and prominent citizens who condoned such acts and allowed such acts to thrive.

I never want to see a return to those days.

Yesterday morning, Joe Riley, Charleston’s 72 year old White mayor, called Wednesday night’s event “unfathomable.” Listening to his words, I wondered where he’d been hiding all his life.

He is a Charleston native, living in a state that has a history of anti-Black race hatred that ranks among the worst in the nation. At age 72, he had to have lived through much of that history. One would think that, to him, what happened Wednesday night would be completely believable – and very immediate. How can he speak of that event without placing it within its proper historical context?

Far too many Americans have very little awareness of the racial context of our society. We know little of the specifics of the thousands of race-related laws, rules, and practices that at one time were consciously put into place to ensure the supremacy of Whites and to lock others out of assertive participation in the nation. It is the existence of those laws, rules, and practices that, over time, allowed to accrue the enormous racial disparities of wealth and social status that we currently live with.

Although many of those laws have been stricken from the books, the landscape of structural racial inequality persists.  When we talk about “racism”, every conversation should include a discussion of that real racial history.

Sadly, we don’t do that. When we do (rarely) acknowledge “racism,” we think about it as it appeared in 1963, or on Wednesday night – as personal, obvious, malicious, and intentional acts of ill will. And when we find examples of that malicious brand of “racism,” we jump all over it in an effort to “prove” that, apart from the actions of a few “deranged” individuals, it (racism) is a thing of the past.  A result of that approach is that the millions of Americans who are trained to believe racism is over also come to think that the nation’s millions of structurally disadvantaged African-Americans have no one but themselves to blame for their presence at the bottom of the American hierarchy.

The news coverage since Wednesday’s shootings have placed heavy focus on the perpetrator. He has been called “deranged”, “mentally ill”, and “sick.” It is very hard for me to listen to FOX News as they repeatedly attempt to let society off the hook, and locate these murders only in the actions of a single individual.

In 1963, shortly after the girls were killed, Dr. M.L. King said, “We’re not concerned with who killed these girls, but with what killed these girls.”

What killed those girls is the same thing that killed the 9 worshippers at Emmanuel AME: a culture and a social arrangement that regularly and routinely demonizes, criminalizes, and dehumanizes Black lives while simultaneously normalizing, ignoring, and making excuses for the social arrangements of White supremacy.

It is incumbent upon us to double and redouble our effort to create places where we can come to understand and transform the structures of American racism. In the absence of such an effort, Dylann Roof’s actions may trigger the wrong kind of response. We’ve already seen it in the aftermath of Ferguson and other locations, where individual Police have been targeted for “revenge” against what Police forces represent as a whole. I don’t want to see in the news where a Black gun(man) has targeted an all-White church. I don’t want Roof to have his “race war.”

This is not a time to talk about “punishing” one individual, “healing” one city, and quickly returning to the status quo. For a huge segment of our population, the status quo is palpably intolerable. For the rest of us then, it is unsustainable.

This post first appeared in the newsletter of Ann Arbor’s Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ). La’Ron Williams is a member of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice Board of Directors, an anti-racist educator, and an award-winning storyteller.

Guest Blog: Wake Up White America

My friend Jan Brimacombe, concerned citizen and social activist, volunteers in a prison facility to help inmates read books to their children. These books and recordings are then sent home, providing much-needed connections between incarcerated children and their fathers. She participates in a group that reads, learns and discusses the complicated issues of racism every month. She works on environmental issues, in particular with the dwindling populations of Monarch butterflies as she helps people to save their habitat by planting milkweed. I am honored to post her piece (written before the tragedies in Charleston) about our responsibility as white people to be aware of how our complicated and painful racial history and current tragedies impact black communities—and she urges us to get involved in the piece below.

–Judy Patterson Wenzel

Wake Up White America

by Jan Brimacombe

I am a 72 year old white woman; wife, mother, grandmother and retired teacher. On a recent Sunday afternoon while volunteering at the Milan Federal Prison Detention Center, I counted 25 African American children visiting their fathers. Ranging in age from infants to teenagers, the children were very engaged: lively conversations, hugs and laughter, seemingly normal father/child interactions except all of these children’s fathers are incarcerated. (The negative effects on the children, families and communities of the incarcerated warrants an entire new editorial.) And this is just one small visiting room for one unit in one section of a federal prison. My informal surveys of this visiting room have nearly always revealed the majority of inmates to be men of color. This microcosm of incarcerated men seems to mirror what some in this country are beginning to acknowledge and question: the mass incarceration of black men in America.

The recent series of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers revives an obscure genre of plays dating to the early 1900s. Anti-lynching plays were written and performed to show how lynching devastated African American families. Readings of these plays has begun at JACK, a Brooklyn Community Arts Center. After performing Blue Eyed Black Boy the troupe read Safe in May. An Ohio State University professor who has studied the history of anti-lynching plays states that being able to tell the truth about why communities are under siege is an important counterpart to being told you deserve what you get. By performing these plays today one of the actors concludes that the audience might think, Oh, my that looks like what’s happening right now.

Eric Garner dies while in the choke hold of a white police officer in Staten Island as he pleads, I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe. Unarmed Michael Brown dies amid a volley of gunshots from a white police officer’s gun in Ferguson, Missouri. Grand juries conclude non-indictment in both cases. Violence erupts in Ferguson. Protests staged in New York City. Demonstrations take place around the country. Walter Scott is shot and killed by a white police officer in Charleston, South Carolina after being stopped for a faulty car taillight. In Inkster, Michigan Floyd Dent is stopped by white police officers; video captures him being dragged from his car and then punched in the head until his injures require medical care. Violence and rioting erupt in Baltimore after Freddy Gray dies from injuries suffered while in police custody after his arrest. Like Eric Garner, Gray’s calls for medical help go unheeded by the police. At Gray’s funeral his brother remarks, Most of us are not here because we know Freddy Gray, but because we know many Freddy Grays. The perennial black/white racial divide surfaces in reaction to all these incidents.

Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Martha MacCallum of Fox News discuss the Michael Brown case. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are sensationalizing these events for their purposes. You can’t take an isolated case and say racial profiling occurs. Profiling happens to everyone. NBC News pays Al Sharpton to deliver garbage. He has the nerve to insult the American police community. How audacious of these Fox “newscasters” to claim that profiling happens to everyone, choosing to overlook the meaning of profiling in the case of Michael Brown. This interpretation of the tragedy in Ferguson fuels racism in white audiences.   

Bryan Stevenson, director of The Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Alabama shares these statistics in his TED Talk: one third of black men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 30 are in jail, prison, on probation or on parole. In many of our urban areas 50-60% of young men of color are in jail. 34% of black men in Alabama have permanently lost their right to vote. Milwaukee Public Radio devotes a year to reporting on black male incarceration in Wisconsin, which has the highest incarceration rate of all fifty states. The state spends more on prisons than education. By age 34, only 38% of men living in the 53206 zip code area of Milwaukee (95% black) will NOT have spent time in a state correctional facility. Why is it that law enforcement targets predominantly black neighborhoods?

Parents of black boys in the United States must teach their sons the rules of engagement during encounters with the police. Don’t forget you are black. Do not get into a power struggle. Keep your hands visible; DON’T reach for your cell phone. Make the officer feel he is in charge. Don’t move suddenly. Use sir when addressing the officer. Portland lawyers create an app titled Driving While Black to teach people of color how to stay safe during traffic stops. As a white parent of a white son I worried about him being involved in an accident as a new driver, but NEVER feared he was in danger of being targeted or mistreated by police officers. I felt secure in knowing that if my son had car trouble or was in an accident the police would be there to assist him. The contrast between my reassurance and black parents’ fears in regard to policing is stark.

After George Zimmerman’s innocent verdict in the shooting death of Travon Martin, Alicia Garza posts her outrage on Facebook. Patrisse Cullors responds and culls Black Lives Matter from Alicia’s posting. A movement is born. Garza writes in an article for the feministwire: Black Lives Matter is an intervention in a world where Black Lives are systemically and intentionally targeted for demise. Black Lives Matter is an affirmation of Black Folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. I think back to the sixties and the Black Power Movement and the coinage: Black is Beautiful. Fifty years later African Americans continue to struggle and plead for dignity and justice in our society.

I feel compelled to ask white America to Wake Up. We must dig deeper into our souls and recognize that the oppression of our African American citizens continues to this day, as is highlighted currently by the deaths and beatings of unarmed black men at the hands of majority white police officers. Since the abolition of slavery, mechanisms have emerged that ensure the continued subjugation of African Americans: the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, Jim Crow, share cropping, segregation, the war on drugs and now mass incarceration of black men (as well as an increasing number of black women). Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is an excellent springboard for studying our country’s enduring practices of racial oppression. White America must shed its cloak of indifference and join the movement: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

A Ruling Passion: Abolishing the Death Penalty

Mr. Walls was my student at the end of his very long sentence, finishing his last high school credits and feeling grateful to be leaving prison with a diploma. On the first day of my Civics class, he grabbed a front row seat and did far more than the assigned work. One day he spoke to me in the hall about his interest in the abolition of capital punishment, asking me if he could address the class. He got to know people well when delivering books to people on Death Row in another institution. “Most of them were poor and black,” he told us. He went on to argue that the death penalty solved nothing: it did not deter crime, it did not bring the victims back, and it added layers and layers of loss and grief to the families and loved ones of the people who were executed. He talked to anyone or any group who would listen: he wrote letters to the editor and letters to legislators. He worked on this issue all the time. I called it his “ruling passion.”

News of Nebraska outlawing capital punishment is welcome, as is the continuing conversation about the efficacy of lethal injections and the spotlight on what happens to people when it goes wrong. I am heartened by knowing that other states are considering a ban on what Mr. Walls called “killing people legally.” Innocence projects around the country are discovering just how many people are innocent; the fact that we still kill innocent people is chilling. I am also encouraged to read information from Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Marc Hyden, the national coordinator, and other right-leaning opponents have been persistent for years in claiming that capital punishment is “out of line with the conservative ideas around respecting human life, upholding fiscal responsibility and limiting the scope and power of the government.” [1]

Keeping people on Death Row and carrying out capital punishment raises other questions. In an article from Harper’s magazine, Kenneth E. Hartman writes about his experiences of Christmas in prison from his early years in the 1980’s when even the guards got into the spirit of celebration with inmates. He then traces his holiday experiences through the next decades when not only did prison populations swell to unbelievable levels, but punitive attitudes grew to new and cruel heights. Hartman says the new philosophy of corrections is a “more aggressive approach to crime and criminals that holds that rehabilitation to be both pointless and fruitless.” In other words, these are throwaway people beyond any redemption.

Sent to a new facility, Hartman asks a staff member if the canteen could sell eggnog, something he had enjoyed during the holidays in another prison. The staff member says it would be impossible and asks, “What would the victims think?” Hartman replies that he doesn’t know. [2]

Exactly. No one knows what victims think or feel because only a very few are part of the process. If offenders and victims were given a chance to talk face to face, would each victim or member of victims’ families all want the person put to death? Would they want people on Death Row to suffer terribly every day for the rest of their lives? Or, would they want the space and opportunties for them to heal through the process of facing and taking responsibility for their crimes, thereby recovering their full humanity?

I am impressed with the conservative groups who are working to abolish the death penalty because it interferes with their core values. It speaks of their integrity to match actions with beliefs. People who want capital punishment and work hard to keep it going, even in the face of the recent horrors with lethal injections gone terribly wrong, need to be able to say that it is perfectly acceptable to kill people who might be innocent; be able to say that it is acceptable to kill people because they are too poor to hire a good lawyer; and be able to say that it is acceptable to mete out the death penalty on people of color far more than to white people. American citizens need to recognize—and honor–the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, including torture.

In an article in the New York Times called The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison by Jessica Benko, I was struck by the stark contrast of Norway’s highest security prison lying in the middle of blueberry fields, where the people inside are allowed fresh air and sunlight every day. We have the grim situation in this country where 80,000 people live in solitary confinement, many not seeing anything other than a small patch of sky for decades. Inmates in Norway are treated with compassion and respect, and the goal is to do as much as possible to prepare people to get out. Benko at the New York Times interviewed Ragmar Kristofferson, an anthropologist who teaches in a correctional training facility. “If you treat people badly, it’s a reflection on yourself,” he says. “In officer-training school,” he goes on to explain, “guards are taught that treating inmates humanely is not something they should do for inmates but they should do for themselves.” [3]

In Norway, if someone does something terrible, he or she is not automatically a terrible person. In the United States, if you make a mistake and commit a crime in this country today, you become that mistake—and can lose your life.  If we treat people humanely and with respect, they tend to respond humanely and respectfully. If more people could personally know and have relationships with people facing the death penalty, I think our attitudes would drastically change. Our current ruling passion in many parts of the country is to punish—and punish severely with strong voices fanning the flames of revenge and retribution. The problem of obtaining drugs to execute people is creating conversations in a few states to bring back the gas chamber, the electric chair and even—the firing squad. The violence toward people behind bars with very long sentences for non-violent crimes, the murders of black people by police, the 80,000 people in solitary confinement and our thirst for the death penalty are all part of our retributive thinking. That thinking needs to be balanced by more voices of reason, compassion and mercy. Abolishing the death penalty would support offenders’ families and it would support victims’ families if they were part of the process. If we could make our policies more compassionate and do it for ourselves as Norway does, it would move us all into a more humane country.


1. Khan, Naureen, With Nebraska Leading, Conservatives Reconsider the Death Penalty, Aljazeera America, June 2, 2015.

2. Hartman, Kenneth E., Christmas in Prison: Greeting the Holidays in an Age of Mass Incarceration. Harper’s Magazine, December, 2014.

3. Benko, Jessica, The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison, The New York Times, March 26, 2015.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.
Practices and programs reflecting restorative purposes will respond to crime by:
  1. identifying and taking steps to repair harm,
  2. involving all  stakeholders, and
  3. transforming the traditional relationship between communities and their governments in responding to crime.

Russian writer and philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If he could examine our prisons today, I think we would be judged very harshly. If he could see the millions of people in them and see how we are criminalizing poverty and childhood damage, we would be judged inhumane. If he could learn of the draconian sentences for non-violent crimes, we would be judged unjust. If he could see what damage mass incarceration is doing to families and communities and how difficult we make it for people getting out to put their lives back together, we would be judged foolish and shortsighted. If he could see the number of children we condemn to adult, violent environments and lifelong sentences, contemplate the tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement and understand the way most incarcerated people are treated, we would be judged ruthless and brutal. If he could understand its racist elements, I think he might point out our core value of equality and label us hypocritical.

Criminal behavior is complex, and some of its root problems like poverty, mental health issues and poor—or no—educational opportunities seem intractable, but there are better ways of dealing with criminal justice if we care enough about our identity as a people. We need a sharp 180 degree turn toward restorative justice. The ways is which we carry out “justice” is tragically broken and sick, and the damage being done is affecting us all. It—and we–need to be healed.

Across the Line

Making big changes and seeing the world very differently require courage. Maya Angelou said, “Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Individual people can so easily put blinders on about big, painful problems, but we are also capable of moving from a place of safety and security over into an unknown space where we feel insecure and often frightened. Making courageous decisions needs moral muscle and a desire to feel honor and self-respect. It is how we grow. Instead of focusing on these national faults lines in our criminal justice system, we could focus on our strengths, our capability for great compassion and our deep concern for the common good. If individuals are capable, then so are we as a nation capable. I’ve found people’s courage and capabilities amazing—especially among my students in prison.

Dropping out of school has serious consequences, especially to people’s self-respect. People who drop out often feel like failures and losers. None of my prison students had graduated from high school before I knew them. I think about the first days back in school for these men—how vulnerable they looked with their wooden faces and wary, anxious eyes. But, they had already crossed the first difficult line, the doorway into the office to sign up. They had to swallow their pride about their grave mistakes. I found it so interesting when asked about the decision they most regretted, that they said it was not the crime they committed, but dropping out of school. “If I hadn’t dropped out, I wouldn’t be here,” they answered.

They had to look in the mirror and face themselves as people with very rusty basic skills in reading, writing and math and as adults who knew very little about what was in their textbooks. In the macho world of prison, it took great courage to be doing the right thing for their lives, to face the unknown world of being back in school. They had to face their fears about failing again, open their books and begin. They had to decide that their lives were worth something, that they just might be capable of succeeding after all. One young man wrote me a note about three weeks into the semester, saying that he wasn’t sure he could do the work, but he wanted me to know how hard he was trying. He said it took him a whole year to “not be too scared” and sign up for school. I watched and was awed by his courage. I watched their courage every day.

I see a connection between being courageous—and the development of personal dignity. I wrote about South Africa in my last post, and how its people still give us shining examples of what it means when we put ourselves in vulnerable positions and do amazing, out-of-the-ordinary things.

Nelson Mandela gave the world so many shining examples of both courage and humility. There were many ways he could have reacted to his twenty-seven years of political imprisonment. If he had meted out punishment, many people would have understood a sense of anger and revenge. He could have punished the people who took away so many precious years. He could have called for the same kind of humiliating damage he himself had experienced. Instead, he invited one of his white jailors to his inauguration and gave him an honored place, showing his country and the world a new level of human stature, a new humanizing dignity and a new kind of courage.

The United States has our own shining examples of astonishing courage and dignity in the face of tragedy. The Christian Science Monitor Weekly magazine on April 13, 2015 has a cover photograph of Ricky Jackson, who served 39 years in prison, making him the person serving the longest sentence in America’s history for a crime he did not commit. The article called Innocence Found: The Ricky Jackson Story follows the intricacies of Jackson’s case and his efforts to free himself. It follows the Ohio Innocence Project, whose members started working on the case in 2006.

Eddie Vernon, a witness in the case, was only thirteen-years-old when the police and prosecutors coerced him into lying about what happened. His testimony sealed Jackson’s conviction—and that of two other young men, who were also innocent and spent decades in prison. After trial, Jackson was sentenced to die in the electric chair, and he spent two years on Death Row until the federal Supreme Court ruled Ohio’s capital punishment unconstitutional. The next thirty-seven years found him in a succession of prisons. When he went before five parole boards, they looked for a change in him and some kind of remorse. When he couldn’t demonstrate that because he was innocent, they extended his sentence each time. Eddie Vernon, after decades of his own remorse and guilt, finally came forward—terrified of being convicted of perjury. He too demonstrated great courage. Finally, the state withdrew and Ricky Jackson was freed.

What makes this story so compelling to me is that Jackson isn’t angry or bitter. He managed to live in prison with grace and humility, and he exhibits those same qualities as he struggles to put his life back together while dealing with the challenges of being out in the world. He has met with Vernon, and doesn’t harbor any resentment or anger toward him, knowing how much Vernon has also suffered.

Innocence Projects and organizations like Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative are finding innocent people on death row and serving years and years all over the country, creating tragedy for victims and their families and dishonor for us as a nation. I wonder how Ricky Jackson’s fate would have changed if restorative practices had been in place. As most programs involve the community, it might have been far harder, if not impossible, to coerce and believe the testimony of a thirteen-year-old boy. We have to drastically change course if we want to be move toward being more civilized, to use Dostoyevsky’s language.

When my students ventured across the scary line to sign up for school, they were being accountable to themselves, signing up to be their best, not their worst. They were moving beyond the labels of drop-out and felon and becoming students, then graduates. When graduation day came and they could finally wear the red cap and gown, they all walked and stood taller, their dignity and self-respect in place. Education is a part of restorative justice as it helps students discover their competence–and their goodness as human beings.

Maya Angelou also says, “I think the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.” All of the parts of restorative justice try to enhance the best in us: our ability to be responsible, our talent for creativity, our capacity to make moral choices, our power to be compassionate and our courage to be forgiving. With courage, we can all move across the line and begin to see our system and all of its victims differently. We need a change for the rest of us, because it would give us a much-needed new identity. It would honor us. We need to look no further for exemplary role models than those people who’ve spent years and years behind bars.

Unlearning Long Divisions: I Am Because You Are

Introduction:

The prison fence is an obvious structure that divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to, by huge opportunity gaps, by our own judgements, assumptions and inabilities to listen and know each other, by our geography, by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, during slavery and then under Jim Crow, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, online comments, and the addition of big money have all turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.


One fall, another teacher brought Mr. C down to my classroom a week or so after the semester had begun. He had quickly passed the basic skills test, and his teacher told me he needed far more challenges. He was a new inmate who had arrived the previous summer and was eager to learn, but a  dark cloud seemed to hover around him for several months. When I asked after a few weeks if he was okay, he told me he was out of energy and often depressed.

There were lots of questions I learned not to ask my students: their crimes, the length of their sentences or the number of their children. I did not think any of that was my business, and the one time I did look up a student’s crime, the information did nothing to improve a rather strained relationship between us. Knowing how long they had to serve and how many children were left fatherless in the world depressed me. News got around, however, and my teaching staff learned that Mr. C had a 33-year sentence for a drug offense. With good behavior, he would have served 27 of those years.

Once he regained some balance, Mr. C was one of the most outstanding students I had ever taught. He took every class our high school program offered and graduated after several years with a long list of “A’s” on his transcript. Jobs were available to inmates as classroom aides or “tutors” in our program, so when I talked to him about helping me in my classroom, he eagerly agreed. He was a part of the program for over 20 years with his sense of calm, his sound advice and his creative ideas about course material. In day-to-day interactions with my students, he kept a sharp, but discreet, eye on them and would flag problems or talk to men on the side. We made few important decisions in the program without his wise counsel.

I soon learned that Nelson Mandela was his hero and guide about how to do time in prison well. We both noticed that Mandela’s sentence was also 27 years, and I could not take in enough books, articles or videos about him. Mr. C sparked my interest in South Africa too, and we watched as Mandela was released from prison, as Apartheid ended, and as he was elected president. My students, Mr. C, and I learned about and followed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as it was established with Desmond Tutu, human rights activist and retired Anglican archbishop, as its leader. Talking about how the victims of Apartheid were given a voice and about the whole concept of amnesty created many rich discussions in my Civics classes. I’ve been interested in other countries that have successfully used truth and reconciliation programs like Kenya, Namibia, Chile and Canada.

We learned about the African concept of ubuntu, the philosophy that we are all bound together and cannot be fully human without caring about each other. Ubuntu knits the bonds of kindness and sharing that connect all of us on the planet. Tutu says, “A person is a person because he recognizes others as persons.” Ubuntu says, “I can’t do well unless you do well.”

I was pulled into South Africa too, and in 2006 I went to Cape Town to volunteer in a center for  children who had been orphaned by AIDS, rescued from abusive situations or abandoned. South Africa is a powerful place, and my experience was life-changing. In addition to the many beautiful children who still haunt my heart, I had two other unforgettable experiences.

I took a ferry to and then a bus around Robben Island. When we got to the prison, our guides were former inmates, making it even more poignant as we stood in the corridor and gazed at Nelson Mandela’s small cell and saw the garden he had tended so carefully. We heard stories of how the inmates developed communication to continue their political work while incarcerated, and then we gathered for questions. One came from a woman who asked, “How did you possibly keep your spirits up for all of those years?”

The guide smiled at her and said, “You’re an American, aren’t you? I’m surprised you would ask that question, because we knew about the American Anti-Apartheid support and it made a huge difference to us.”

As volunteers, we were driven back and forth from Cape Town to Khayelitsha, the township where we worked. Moss, a high school teacher, was one of our drivers. He and I became friends, and he wanted to take me on a tour of Gugulethu, his township. As he drove me around, he told me how much South Africans admire and try to model their struggles after our Civil Rights Movement. I met some of his friends and neighbors in the township, and then he was eager to take me to the place where Amy Biehl was killed. Amy was a young American college student who was in Cape Town to study and work on voter registration as an Anti-Apartheid activist. She was murdered by four young men when she gave a friend a ride home. Moss went on to tell me how her parents came from America to be present when the young men applied for amnesty in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after serving prison terms. He wanted me to know that her parents not only extended their forgiveness, but they also created the Amy Biehl Foundation. He seemed proud to tell me that two of the boys involved in Amy’s death worked in its after-school programs.

All of the pieces of Amy’s story are compelling and inspiring. (See theforgivenessproject.com and the Amy Biehl Foundation on YouTube and Facebook.)

Mass incarceration is a kind of apartheid in the United States, as millions of people are banished to our jails and prisons, apart and exiled from the rest of us. We could do so much better. We could see drug use as a health issue and not a criminal one. We could create our own Truth and Reconciliation programs. We could move forward as a country and figure out our own ways of doing restorative justice. We could understand ubuntu and how it could make us a better people and a better country. I see hope on the horizon as people are beginning to understand the healing power of restorative justice for victims, perpetrators and the community as a whole. I will be writing more about this.

When Congress passed new legislation addressing inmates with very long sentences, Mr. C was released after “only” 22 years. He is back home in Kingston, Jamaica and is equipping and programming a community center in his old neighborhood. After securing enough grant money, he  has been able to employ many people and supervise its construction. He also works with a group of at-risk young men and tells me, “I’m doing all this for me.” Many of my students talked about wanting to work with vulnerable young people when they returned home. Like Mr. C, they also understand ubuntu.