Saturday, June 06, 2020

Black Lives Matter

For eight minutes and forty-six seconds, three other law enforcement officers stood by as their fellow officer killed George Floyd. Go ahead and set a timer if you'd like an idea of how long that is. Or maybe you have seen the video enough times by now to know exactly how long it takes to asphyxiate a man by putting your knee on his neck. It's not like there was a lot of other action to distract them. Four adult males standing over the man in the street.
None of them considered checking the condition of the man face down, handcuffed behind his back. Scared? Confused? Stupid? Not one of them had the presence of mind to say, "Hey Derek, why don't you get off his neck?" None of them shouted at the top of their lungs: "Hey man! You're killing him!"
As so many people before me have pointed out, this time there were cameras. And let's take a moment to remember what all that surveillance is about: Catching bad guys.
There aren't always cameras. There haven't always been cameras. And even when there is video evidence, an "investigation" takes place. There were no cameras four hundred years ago. One hundred years ago. When the cameras showed up, it did not stop the brutality and the killing. The system wasn't set up for that. The system was set up for Black Lives to be institutionally less than white lives. It was written into our Constitution. This is what is meant by "institutional racism."
When slaves were finally freed, we couldn't even make good on our promise of forty acres and a mule
Another hundred years passed, and someone got it into their head to create a Civil Rights Act. In 1964, one hundred eighty years after the writing of the Constitution, legislation passed that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote. Magically, racism disappeared overnight.
No. Legislation passed and was systematically countered, overturned, and ignored. Black Lives were minimized and cut short by institutions that had been in place for centuries. Forty years passed and we elected a Black President. Problem solved!
No. The same forces that kept Black People from voting, getting jobs, walking the streets without fear were the forces that Barack Obama wrestled with for eight years. And his replacement? The guy who insisted that his predecessor was not born here. 
A few nights ago, as people across the country gathered to insist that Black Lives Matter, this guy ordered a path be mowed through protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas so that he could stand in front of a church, holding a Bible. He did not pray. He did not go inside. He just wanted the picture. No one standing nearby said, "Hey, sir, do you think this is a good idea?" Not a one of them walked away in disgust. Scared? Confused? Stupid? 
The time it has taken you to read these words is less than half the time to kill George Floyd. Time to think. Time to breathe. So with the little time we have left, let me give you these words: Black Lives Matter. 

Friday, June 05, 2020


The group I sat with in Fourth Grade was a bunch of clever boys. There was myself, Ron, Kent and Warren. We were held in special regard by our teacher, Ms. Stuart. There was little we could do wrong. Best at math, spelling, reading. Warren and Ron were athletes and Kent was a four-square wizard. I was a burgeoning author. Which is why there was such a hush when the door opened and our principal stepped in.
"Are those the ones?" The principal was nodding in our direction. Me, Warren, Ron and Kent. The kid standing next to him pointed.
At us.
The kid was a Third grader. His name was Marvin. He was also the only African-American student at our school.
"Ms. Stuart," the principal said, "Can I please see these boys in my office?"
There was a pause of incomprehension, then she replied, "Certainly Mister Schwartzvegger."
Warren, Ron, Kent and I got up slowly from our desks, looking at one another with jaws agape. What was going on?
We followed Mister Schwartzvegger and Marvin out into the hall and began the long walk down the hallway past the fifth grade classes, around the corner and all the way to the Office. None of us had ever been inside the Office before. We had only stood outside the glass window to hand in attendance or receive notices to send home. Now we walked into The Principal's Office.
The chairs had been arranged so that the four of us sat in front of our principal's desk. Marvin sat at the end. Mister Schwartzvegger settled into his. "Boys, I brought you in here today because Marvin told me about something that happened today on the playground."
My mind reeled. What had happened on the playground? The same thing that happened every day. What was different? What was wrong?
"Marvin, would you like to tell your side of the story first?"
Marvin started by looking at the floor, slowly his account began to roll out. These boys had come up to him and shoved him off the merry-go-round. These boys kept him off. Then they called him the N word.
Kent, Warren, Ron and I did not look at each other. We knew we were "these boys." But we had no idea what Marvin was talking about. There was stunned silence until Mister Schwartzvegger turned his attention to us. "Well?"
It was Warren who spoke first. "It wasn't us." Pause. "It couldn't have been us."
For the first time in ten minutes, I breathed out.
Warren continued, "The merry-go-round is way over on the little kids' playground. We were on the blacktop."
"I was playing four-square," offered Kent.
"We were playing basketball," Ron gestured at Warren.
I wasn't playing four-square. Or basketball. I was doing what I usually did. I was standing around watching Kent, Ron and Warren. I looked at Marvin. He had gone back to staring at the floor.
From there, it was only a few more minutes of tension before we were turned back out into the general population. It was never made clear to me or Warren or Ron or Kent what had actually happened across the playground on the merry-go-round.
Was it some other kids? Somebody in Third Grade? Fifth maybe? How did he pick the four of us out of the entire school?
Marvin didn't come back to our school for fourth grade. I do not know if it had anything to do with what happened on the playground that day.
I can only assume.
If he were here today I would apologize. I wish I had found my voice way back then. No, I didn't push Marvin from the merry-go-round, but I know he was angry. And scared. And he needed a friend.
I'm sorry Marvin.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Where Have I Seen This Before?

1773. The colonies are feeling oppressed. An out of touch monarch is ruling from a distance and demanding that his distant subjects continue to bend to the whims of his arrogance. In order to fix the budget crisis across the sea, it was decided that taxes levied on the colonists of this New World would fix the debts run up by years of war and poor spending habits. After the Stamp Act of 1765 had taxed colonists on virtually every piece of printed paper they used, from playing cards and business licenses to newspapers and legal documents, the Townshend Acts of 1767 went a step further, taxing essentials such as paint, paper, glass, lead and tea. 
The tea. That was the deal-breaker. These were, after all, British subjects. Mess with their playing cards, but not their tea.
Oh. And the Boston Massacre. In 1770, those same colonists were fed up with the ubiquitous presence of British soldiers in their streets. A group of unruly types threw snowballs at a sentinel guarding the Customs House. Reinforcements arrived and fired into the "mob," killing five and wounding six. 
Maybe tea wasn't such a big thing after all.
If they were British. 
These were Americans, and they called themselves the Sons of Liberty. Others called them tea smugglers, getting around that heavy tax by avoiding the King's hefty taxes. Men such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams. As an act of protest, a large group of protesters voted to refuse to pay taxes on the imported tea. To make their point more clearly, a group of men dressed in native garb boarded three ships and threw three hundred forty-two chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Men such as Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and the aforementioned Adams and Hancock. No one is really sure who actually did the deed, since they were "in disguise." They hacked open the chests so their contents would be spilled into the water. It took more than one hundred men more than three hours to destroy forty-five tons of tea with a current market value of nearly a million dollars. 
We refer to these men today as "patriots." 
Not terrorists. 
Not thugs.
They knew how to change things in a way that has become known as "revolutionary." 
In two hundred fifty years, I hope that's how they talk about what happened in the spring of 2020. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

What's The Deal?

All we are saying is "give peace a chance."
Except that's not all we are saying anymore.
No justice. No peace.
That seems like a clear enough deal.
Because it's easy enough to sit up on the hill and look down and wonder how this all went so bad. Aren't we supposed to be staying inside and keeping safe and socially distant?
There was a virus that was killing people and we were united in our attempts to survive this global pandemic. United for the most part. Except for those demonstrations surging up from the frightened, angry and confused Americans who were trying to find a way to straighten out their confusion by putting things back to they way they used to be.
So here's the trouble with that: Before mid-March things were not that great. Divisions between haves and have nots, rich and poor, black and white. Nothing was being done to mitigate any of those tensions. Quite the opposite.
Remember that question about justice and peace? If you haven't been keeping track for the past four years, or the past sixty, or the past three hundred, then maybe you feel that we are just fine on both of those counts.
In the United States, the response to COVID-19 shined a light on the way we treat ourselves and each other. This is a country that has tried to talk themselves out of being less of a cauldron of racism and more of the melting pot. Not a lot of justice gets meted out under that kind of heat. Add to that heat a considerable amount of pressure.
The kind of pressure that would kill a man if you knelt on this neck.
This is not justice.
Therefore, no peace.
If you want to give peace a chance, how about a little justice first?

Tuesday, June 02, 2020


On Saturday morning, American astronauts lifted off from these United States for the first time in nearly a decade. The launch comes at a time when anything resembling good news is a welcome relief. For a generation of humans who were raised on the hope of missions to the moon and Star Trek, this is a reminder of how things could be. Not how things are.
It should be noted that during the sixties when wars and race riots were making life hard down here on earth, there was a cretin in the White House. Richard Nixon is the one who made the call to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they sat in Tranquility Base. Never mind the fact that he was the man who ran against John F. Kennedy and lost. Kennedy was the man who laid out the grand plan to send men to the moon. Nixon, the challenger, sent more men to Vietnam.
And eventually, going to the moon became a bore. A very expensive bore. A "why don't we save some of that money to fix things down here?" bore. Just a few years after the Eagle had landed, the last man walked on the moon.
1972. The year that Nixon won reelection. The year of the Watergate break-in. It would be another decade before the Space Shuttle program would put Americans back into space. It is no coincidence that the first shuttle was named Enterprise. Their decade long mission was to boldly move payloads to space and to repair broken satellites. Not exactly strange new worlds, but it was paving the way. Americans astronauts were no longer white, crew-cut sporting test pilots. Men and women of all backgrounds had their chance to slip the surly bonds of earth. Finally, space looked a little more like Star Trek. 
And what about earth? How did it look? 
Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell probably put it best: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”
Maybe when Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken come back from their trip they'll do just that. 
It's time. 

Monday, June 01, 2020

Day By Day

Friday was a sad day. Sad because once again I was saying goodbye to a colleague whom I hold in the highest regard. By our school's history, I should point out that losing just a few people is a victory of sorts when it comes to turnover. And yet, there we were. Once again stuck with these awkward moments near the end when someone had to be the last one hanging around the office. Someone was going to have to leave first.
As is my custom, I was nearly the last person out the door. In previous years, I have had the excuse of leaving to rush home to prepare my house for the year-end bacchanal that traditionally takes place in and around our back yard. There would be none of that this year. In spite of our best intentions, and a Zoom connection, our staff got together one last time before we sailed off into the uncertain future. From the same little boxes that we had occupied for so many different meetings and webinars.
Meanwhile, out in the streets of America, there was no joyous sigh of relief as another school year came to an end. Protesters hit the streets and gave voice to the pain and suffering felt by everyone affected by the deaths of Geroge Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and the list goes on.
And on.
And on.
Oakland is one of those communities that has burned. Not from the protests and demonstrators, but from the double standard of justice that continues to plague our cities. I teach black and brown children who are continue to grow up with a question mark hanging over their future. Wrong place, wrong time? Wrong color.
There's nothing wrong with color. There's something wrong when anyone bypasses the content of a person's character to focus on color.
I am a white guy who teaches in a school where I am most definitely a minority. And nobody makes me feel like it. Okay, from time to time it becomes a bit of an elephant in the room, a big white elephant, but the fact that I am there as part of a community to build things up and not tear them down is something I cannot take for granted. I will continue to go back there, until I am no longer needed. Because this is what I do.
The halls felt very empty when I finally left on Friday. But I know that I will be back, and we will work together to make something better. Day by day.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

We Have Met The Enemy...

A few weeks ago, I mused with great cynicism about how closing all the schools had eliminated school shootings. Sadly, nothing has been done to curb systemic racism since the outbreak of the global pandemic.
I wrote here recently about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The three men who have been arrested for the killing are white. Mister Arbery was black.
George Floyd died while being taken into custody by Minneapolis police. No. George Floyd was killed by a white man who knelt on Floyd's neck until he died. Mister Floyd was black.
And these are the most high-profile cases of just how far we have not come. One thing that can be said about COVID-19 is that it doesn't discriminate.
The woman in Central Park who called 911 to report a black man threatening her. The man, Christian Cooper is black, and he asked Amy Cooper to please put her dog on a leash. That was the threat. She called the police, "There's an African-American man threatening my life." Horribly ironic, since it would seem much more likely that seems as though it would be Christian who has more to fear than Amy out of these two Coopers. Still, Mister Cooper said later that he was uncomfortable with all the negative attention that Ms. Cooper was receiving.
Uncomfortable? I am impressed by Christian living up to his name, but I do wonder why there isn't more discomfort being felt among white people about any or all of this ugliness. Taking to the streets and demanding that these unfortunate representatives of our race be called out for their abuse of their skin color. To be clear: These are white people doing awful things, and we should be more than embarrassed. We should be enraged.
There is no justice for any one of these men. They were put in untenable situations because of their skin, and this never should have happened. Murdered or harassed or simply looked on with suspicion. It's not "them." It's us.
And sadly there is currently no known cure.