taking action

Thanks to Ijeoma Oluo — who shouldn’t have had to be tweeting out step-by-step instructions through her grief and fear, but who did — yesterday I took more action toward police accountability in my community than ever before.

Thanks to Ijeoma Oluo (writer, editor of The Establishment, pitch-educator, and solid-gold Twitter star), yesterday I searched for information about police accountability and citizen oversight in my city.

Thanks to Ijeoma Oluo, when I found no satisfactory answers, I followed her suggestions (click through to read the whole thread; it’s very instructive) to craft a letter to my mayor and city council members asking for more information and emphasizing the importance — to voters and to community safety — of transparency and communication. If you do the same, maybe my letter will serve as a useful template:

As a concerned resident and voter in ______ , I’m wondering what measures are in place to ensure police accountability for our community’s safety.Does the ______ Police Department have any provisions for citizen oversight? Do they call in a citizen panel to review allegations of misconduct or police shootings? What is the threshold for indicting an officer for misconduct, or otherwise instigating an investigation into a questionable arrest or encounter?

How are indictments and other questionable encounters investigated? How is evidence of officers’ behavior obtained? Do our police wear body cameras? If so, how many of them and how routinely? How often is the footage reviewed and how is it archived? Is there a waiting period, as in the Alton Sterling shooting in Baton Rouge, before officers who shoot civilians are required to be questioned?

Police accountability is good for civilians and for police. It’s good for justice, and what’s good for justice is good for our community and our country. No elected official is doing their job unless they’re fighting for accountability. Please tell me you are.

Their responses pointed me toward our local police department’s citizen review subcommittee, and the eligibility requirements are troubling: Anyone who has ever been arrested or filed a complaint against a member of the police department or who has an immediate family member who has may be summarily disqualified. Intentionally or otherwise, that restriction ensures that those most vulnerable to the system’s ills have no official voice in challenging that system.

Eventually, one of my city council members confirmed that the citizen review subcommittee’s monthly meetings are open to the public. Thanks to Ijeoma Oluo, who made every step of this process so easy, I have now set up a public Facebook event publicizing the time and place of these meetings in our city, and several people have expressed interest, decided to attend, and invited friends.

Thanks to Ijeoma Oluo, yesterday I wrote my representatives in local government, learned about a committee designed to increase transparency, told others about it, and made plans to attend. Thanks to Ijeoma Oluo, I know that even the committee designed to increase civilian oversight is (accidentally or otherwise) skewed to exclude those who most need its protection. Thanks to Ijeoma Oluo, I see how privilege shapes the system even at the local level, and I see a space where maybe, just maybe, I can use the privilege this system allots to me to amplify the voices and concerns of those it excludes.

That was yesterday. Today, I went to Ijeoma Oluo’s Patreon and contributed — modestly, but what I can afford. She made it possible for me to make a difference, however small it may be, and that is invaluable.

[updated July 9th, 2016: I’m also making it clear on all my local postings that I have no affiliation with the police or political system or ownership over this issue. Because Facebook’s interface automatically assigns a page’s creator as its “host,” even for a public event, I’ve pinned a post clarifying that I have no official standing, that I’m just a concerned resident, and that I’d be glad to transfer that “host” position to a community organizer or activist better suited to lead.

 

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day-one plan

The day after police killed Alton Sterling, Hillary Clinton’s Twitter stream looked like this: Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 12.59.44 PMScreen Shot 2016-07-06 at 1.00.04 PMScreen Shot 2016-07-06 at 1.00.16 PMScreen Shot 2016-07-06 at 1.00.38 PM

Eventually, her social-media team issued one platitude acknowledging Sterling’s killing at police hands. After Philandro Castile’s killing by the police, she doubled down on sympathetic words. But leaders do more than speak in platitudes; they make plans. And they fight for them.

Hillary Clinton has a plan for criminal justice reform. Why isn’t she shouting it from the rooftops? Why is she offering empty words of condolence and talking about the continuing police killings as if they’re a predestined (and therefore unavoidable) “tragedy”?

Leaders don’t just offer thoughts and prayers. Leaders lead. Tell Hillary Clinton that she needs to speak up, speak out, and speak LOUDLY about a day-one plan to curb police violence, ensure civilian oversight, and stop this ongoing assault on black people in the United States.

overnight in Ferguson

“I don’t want to put the group in danger. I was trying to go in deeper with this. At this point, it’s clear that they’re trying to exterminate folks.” Elon James White‘s overnight coverage (Tuesday, August 19th) in Ferguson, Missouri.

“Outside, they’re just gassing everyone. If they see a human being, they throw a gas canister at it.”

The Woman

Let me be very, VERY clear: The Woman features brutal, unflinching violence and disturbing — even traumatic and triggering — themes. This is not a film for everyone. It’s hardly for anyone. But it struck a chord in me — hit it so hard and so relentlessly that I spent the second and third act rocking back and forth on the couch trying (and failing) to suppress my cries of second-hand anguish.

[note: I’m imbedding the trailer, but it edges closer to spoiling The Woman than my review does.]

In the first few minutes of The Woman, we see a feral woman striding surely through the woods, clad in rags and streaked with mud. She is powerful and fierce, commanding even the wolves. Cut to a jolting contrast: a neighborhood barbeque where we meet the Cleek family: mom Belle (Angela Bettis, the riveting star of director Lucky McKee’s May and Sick Girl) with her tight smile and flashing eyes, sulky daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter, Premium Rush), quietly obedient son Brian (Zach Rand), and twinkly little Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen), and the chipper, chirpy, casually controlling dad, Chris (Sean Bridgers, “Deadwood”). It’s inevitable that these two scenes will collide, and also inevitable what will happen when they do: the patriarch captures the wild woman and spends his free time trying to subdue her. And in this simple, brutal story, Lucky McKee taps into and articulates an anguish and an anger that lurk within me — and maybe within you.

The power of The Woman comes from its ability to surprise us even as it plays out the story that we know is coming, the story that we dread. McKee gives that dread its due, never turning from the stark horror of her subjugation. The sexual violence — and of course there is sexual violence, though smug, self-satisfied, self-congratulatory Chris takes his time building up to it, telling himself that he’s civilizing his charge, not imprisoning her— is not titillating or stirring, never framed for the audience’s scandalized pleasure. This is rape, plainly presented. It’s stomach-turning.

The Woman showcases McKee’s perfect grasp of sexualized horror tropes and reclaims them with flawless ironic aplomb, stirring up fury and horror and grief and empathy instead of fear and perverse thrills*. Some critics complained that The Woman is outrageous, dehumanizing, sickening. And those complaints are right, in a very limited, obtuse way: it is an outrage. Abuse and rape — and even worse, the way our culture conspires to shame victims of abuse and rape — are dehumanizing. The sheer beaming smugness of an abusive patriarch secure in his role is sickening. It’s not the movie that makes them so.

This viciously, mercilessly graphic film expresses something I’ve long felt in my heart: that misogynists, and those who support misogyny by standing silently by, aren’t just denying women’s abilities or intelligence or rights: they are denying our very humanity. They are arrogating the mantle of full humanity to themselves and denying it to me and to other women based purely on anatomy.

Before the film started, your editor remarked “Angela Bettis is in this! You like her! … but she isn’t The Woman.” Not very many minutes in, I wondered “… isn’t she?” I think she is. I think daughter Peggy is The Woman, as well. I think that — to a certain, all-too-common class of misogynist — I am. Misogynists aren’t just denying us some rights, they are dehumanizing me — and if you’re a woman, they’re dehumanizing you, too. And that’s terrifying. Once a person persuades themselves that you are less than fully human, they can allow themselves to do anything to you.

*Hey, I’m not knocking perverse thrills. There are a lot of movies and a lot of movie-watchers, and there’s a place for almost everything. But seeing an on-screen rape presented uncomplicatedly as a rape was weirdly, jarringly reassuring to me: a reminder that, despite our culture’s reliance on rape-as-drama or rape-as-redemption or rape-as-plot-catalyst, the actual act is just a brutal, painful act of personal terrorizing.

family values

Perhaps because our household has a landline and is therefore Officially Old, we’re getting dozens of calls a week aimed at a conservative “Family Values” voting contingent. I always let the robo-caller play through in hopes that at least I’m keeping them busy for 90 seconds, and I always answer the surveys and push-polls. The thought that my unexpected, unwanted response makes a tiny bump in their data pleases me. And if there’s an actual human on the other end, I always — always — let them know that my values are family values, just not the kind they espouse.

So let’s talk about Family Values. I’m tired of that phrase being claimed solely by conservative forces. I have a family, and I have values, and my Family Values are just as valid as anyone’s.

I value education. I value science. I value equality for all our citizens regardless of race, class, gender, or orientation. I value cultural diversity. I value my rights as recognized — not given, not bestowed, recognized — in the Constitution. I value freedom of religion — including freedom from religion. I value civil discourse, even about inflammatory issues. I value individual reproductive rights, including the right to choose abortion. I value equality and freedom.

This election season, local ads from anti-equality committees frantically urge us not to let the upcoming vote “redefine marriage.” I’m quite pleased that they’re framing the issue that way. See, I’m all for for periodically redefining marriage, and I bet most Americans feel the same way if they really examine the historical and ongoing redefinition of marriage.

Think of how our laws have redefined marriage just in the the past century. Married women now have the right to own property and to maintain their own bank accounts. Single adults can legally and readily obtain birth control. Spousal rape is now a prosecutable offense rather than a right or a punchline.

That last one particularly stands as a shining example of “redefining marriage”. Until the mid-1970s, there was no process or statute by which to prosecute a spouse — even an estranged spouse — for rape. The marriage license constituted an exemption (in many statutes, an explicit exemption) from rape prosecution; it was a license for even an alienated spouse to force intercourse upon their partner. As recently as 1993, North Carolina upheld this exemption from prosecution for marital rape. In a generation, our nation as a whole has transitioned from explicitly permitting spousal rape to making it a criminal offense. This is a vast shift in our understanding of consent, sexuality, and privileged entitlement, and a redefinition of the rights and responsibilities bestowed by marriage.

Every time we update our outmoded marriage statutes, we make strides for greater equality. It’s appallingly improper to let civil rights be decided by popular vote, but if this vote — this “redefinition” — helps to shift the tide for progress, then let’s do it.

reindeer games

Rudolph
The classic stop-motion animation Christmas special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer sells itself as a paean to acceptance and tolerance of non-conformity. It’s a noble message indeed — and one that deserves more than the scant lip service the Rankin-Bass production pays it, as a close reading of the show proves.

When Rudolph is born with his festive red nose, there’s not a hint of acceptance or excitement, but a heavy blanket of stubborn repression. Within moments of Rudolph’s birth, Mrs. Donner embraces denial: “Well, we’ll simply have to overlook it.” Deeply entrenched in this draconian regime of conformity, Donner quickly works up a plan to hide his son’s distinctive attribute. (In a subtle remark on the distancing effect of familial rejection, Mrs. Donner cuddles Rudolph to her bosom for just a moment before his fake nose pops off, suggesting that future affections in the Donner family will be wary and hesitant moments at best.)

Donner’s makeshift solution (which, the narration tells us, Rudolph suffers for years) not only disguises Rudolph’s natural appearance but also smothers his natural voice, a metaphor too powerful to overlook. Donner privileges his own reputation over Rudolph’s identity and dignity. As he reapplies the mud to Rudolph’s nose, he desperately growls, “Santa can’t object to you now!”

But Donner is wrong. Santa’s ability to object is overwhelming: he rails against a song of devotion composed by his elves, he complains about the weather (AT THE NORTH POLE, Y’ALL), and after acknowledging that the newborn Rudolph is clever and handsome, he undermines all his compliments by rebuking him for his ambition to serve as Santa’s pack mule. “Every year I shine up my slavebells sleighbells for eight lucky reindeer.” Here are your shackles, slave: how lucky you are to wear them. That’s right: Santa’s self-centeredness is so complete that he believes the lithe, lissome creatures who drag his massive sleigh, the incalculable weight of a world’s worth of toys, and Santa’s own not-inconsiderable bulk are lucky.

Let’s examine Santa’s role in the Rankin-Bass universe. [Note: Let’s be clear, here. The supposed Santa of the Rankin-Bass specials is NOT, I repeat, NOT an accurate portrayal of Santa Claus. The real Santa is a jolly old elf, a kindly and venerable fellow who brings great joy to children and adults alike. Please direct your complaints the the estates of Mr. Rankin and Mr. Bass. Frankly, I think Santa should sue for character defamation.] Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer quickly establishes Santa as the overlord of this isolated state: in the very first scene, we learn that the North Pole is a vast wasteland ruled over by its “Number One Citizens,” Mr. and Mrs. Claus. They live in palatial grandeur in the “first castle on the left — matter of fact, the only castle on the left.” Ahahahaha, unbalanced distribution of wealth is hilarious!

And of course Santa is wealthy; all year long, he exploits the labor of a racial underclass. Like the reindeer, the elves are apparently born into slavery. They work frenetically to produce an endless stream of toys, which Santa whisks away with no thanks or acknowledgement. And who gets the glory, the eons of fame, and the adoration of children? Santa, of course!

When one brave elf has the self-respect to stand up for his own dreams and desires, he is soundly ridiculed by his superior and peers alike and consigned to the workbench while the other elves frolic in their brief respite from the assembly line. Hermey only wants to better himself, gain and education, and learn a professional trade to escape the ranks of servitude to which his heritage has confined him. But in this restrictive regime, he must throw off not only the comforts of community but even the safety of his home. Our snowman guide’s only comment on this brutally enforced serfdom to Santa? “Oh, well, such is the life of an elf!”

At the same moment, Rudolph is facing the shame of uncloaking his hidden identity to his peer group. Just as the derision reaches its peak, with even Rudolph’s father joining in, Santa steps in. “Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself!” For a moment, the nonconformist’s heart leaps; surely Santa is about to deliver a speech of understanding and individuality! But no. Santa dresses down Donner for his chicanery, and in an aside he utterly rejects Rudolph. “What a pity. He had a nice take-off, too.” Santa lets his bigoted worldview deprive him of a worker of obvious skill and prowess.

Is it any surprise that our unorthodox protagonists prefer to take their chances on the snowy wilds rather than suffering a lifetime of their homeland’s continual shaming? As they sing at their first meeting, “Why am I such a misfit?/ I am not just a nit-wit!*/ They can’t fire me; I quit!/ Since I don’t fit in.” (*Note that even Hermey and Rudolph, who are so bitterly rejected for their deviance from the rigid and demanding norm, gleefully deride those whom they view as lesser-than or other-than, just because they can.)

When Rudolph, now grown to buckhood, returns to Christmastown, Santa tells him that his parents and his sweetheart Clarice have been wandering the icy wastes for months. “And I’m very worried!” Santa adds. Worried for their welfare? Worried because the ice-bound badlands of the arctic pose many dangers? No, worried because “Christmas Eve is only two days off and without your father, I’ll never be able to get my sleigh off the ground.” Santa’s concern is for his own enterprise, not for the endangered lives of his slaves.

And here we learn the answer to the musical question posed by Hermey and Rudolph: “We may be different from the rest/ Who decides the test/ Of what is really best?” Despite its token message of acceptance and tolerance, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer clearly demonstrates “who decides the test”: it’s Santa, of course — Santa who lives in the only castle, Santa who dictates not only the careers but the entire lives of those under his reign, Santa whom we all acknowledge as the arbiter of who is naughty and who is nice. This adherence to the absolute authority pervades the entire text of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Even on the Island of Misfit Toys, the final authority rests with King Moonraiser, the leonine king who flies around the world each night seeking out misfits to spirit away to the island. His flight and his authority both suggest that King Moonraiser is the dark doppelganger of Santa, a stark authoritarian whose whims have the power of law in his despotic kingdom. This tale that seems on its surface to celebrate the individual ultimately caves in to the hegemonic power of authority, which predicates its acceptance of the unique or odd on their usefulness. Rudolph and Hermey are welcomed only after their idiosyncrasies serve the needs of the larger orthodox society — and even then, they are only accepted under the imprimatur of the autocratic leader whose interests they serve.

Lest you spare any pity for the brutally critical Santa we meet in the movie’s first moments, the cranky old guy who refuses to eat and can’t think straight because the sung praises of his underlings ring too loudly in his ears, remember the words of our narrator: “Mrs. Claus will have him plenty fattened up by Christmas. It’s always the same story.” Fatcat gets fatter; news at 11. It’s always the same story. Indeed it is, creepy inching-toward-us snowman. Indeed it is.