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Posts Tagged ‘injustice’

My son (former Teen the Elder, for longtime bookconscious readers) recommended I read The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale after he and his sister (former Teen the Younger) gently disabused me of the idea that police are basically good, and there are just “bad apples.” They recognized that I was conditioned to this idea by our culture and my schooling. They, having been freed from “schooled” thought by their unschooling, had no such illusions. I can’t take credit; other than choosing to unschool them, I had little to do with the amazing humans they became.

Forgive me for digressing. I’ve got to say that if you don’t have any twenty-somethings or teens in your life you should seek their counsel online or via friends. While I have long thought of myself as social-justice oriented, I have learned more in the past few weeks from discussing current events with my young adult offspring than I did on my own for a few decades. Case in point, I had no idea police are not, in their mission or intent, “good.” To be clear I’m not talking about individuals. I still hold that there are good people who unwittingly enter into a career in the police force believing they will bring about good in their communities. I (and Vitale) am talking about the institution of policing, which, as part of our overall elitist capitalist society, serves mainly to enforce the norms of power and wealth at the expense of the poor, people of color, and those with disabilities.

If you are not shocked, or just disagree, with the idea that capitalism is hurting more people than it is helping, then you will at least be shocked by Vitale’s illuminating discussion of how police at best do a disservice to and at worst, outright exploit, the disabled, especially those with mental illness. I was shocked and sickened by two cases described in the chapter on political policing by people who are mentally disabled who were coerced by police into “terrorism plots” that were just meant to ensnare Muslims, who are now serving lengthy prison terms. In our names, as Americans.

Reading The End of Policing in the week leading up to the Poor People’s Campaign “digital assembly” this weekend helped me connect the dots between the social justice issues that have concerned me and policing. Vitale notes that if we actually invested the billions spent on police budgets (including military gear like tanks and grenade launchers that are used in communities’ and even schools’ police presences around the country) in the communities that allegedly need the most policing, many of the criminal and disruptive behaviors the police claim ti be solving would be eliminated. He cites evidence that where housing, education, health care, or other basic needs are met, policing is much less necessary.

And if we’re all equal, whether you come to that belief via the founding documents of our country or the sacred scriptures of any of the major world religions, shouldn’t we all have access to safe, clean, secure, affordable housing? Clean water? Nutritious and affordable food? A living wage and paid time off to care for sick family members or just recharge? Health care? Quality education? The right to vote? The right to peaceably protest? No matter our race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, immigration status, or any other identity? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Vitale points out that “Our entire criminal justice system has become a gigantic revenge factory. Three-strike laws, sex-offender registries, the death penalty, and abolishing parole are about retribution, not safety.” That’s a lot to take in. But when you dive into these, it’s true. They don’t make us safer. They just make it harder for people to return to society, receive mental health care, and become healthy, functioning members of their communities. Vitale goes on to say “Real justice would look to restore people and communities, to rebuild trust and social cohesion, to offer people a way forward, to reduce the social forces that drive crime, and to treat both victims and perpetrators as full human beings.” Yes.

Another point Vitale makes better than I can paraphrase: “We don’t need empty police reforms; we need a robust democracy that gives people the capacity to demand of their government and themselves real, nonpunitive solutions to their problems. . . . Instead of asking the police to solve our problems we must organize for real justice. We need to produce a society designed to meet people’s human needs . . . .”

Vitale traces the history of policing, and then breaks down its failures, mostly in the U.S. but also in some international contexts, broadly and in particular areas such as homelessness, the drug war, sex work, the school-to-prison pipeline, the border, gangs, and political policing. I sped through the final chapters after tuning into the Poor People’s Campaign for a few hours yesterday, and it really all clicks. Bringing about a more just, equitable society will secure our future, and the future of our children and grandchildren. Anything less will mire us in the kind of fear, mistrust, misinformation, economic inequality and political paralysis that we currently enjoy.

I highly recommend you read this, and also that you read with care the Poor People’s Campaign’s moral budget. Maybe tune into the rebroadcast of their digital assembly. Think about what you grew up learning about policing and whether it jives with what you know of the world as an adult. And listen to the young people in your life. I have no doubt they will lead us, out the mess we made for them.

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The Computer Scientist will be happy I’ve finished this book because I could not stop reading it each night, so my book light probably kept him up. And then I could not get to sleep, imagining what was happening to the people Matthew Desmond wrote about. So I tossed and turned.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is not a book of journalism, as it might seem at first. Demond is a sociologist, and he studied poverty and eviction as part of his graduate work. Although he’s a good writer, he’s first a scholar. A very detailed chapter at the end of the book explains his methodology, which was to live with his subjects, and helps readers understand ethnography.

The book is an honest look at yet another entirely broken system in American society. Just as Ghost of the Innocent Man revealed how the justice system is stacked against poor defendants and favors jury decisions, privileging them over errors in evidence gathering that can condemn innocent people to decades in jail, Evicted explains how the entire system of poverty housing — landlords who are free to leave property in disrepair and charge poor people 70-80% of their income for substandard housing, police who prefer and even encourage landlords to evict nuisance tenants who call the police too much (including battered women), lawmakers who decided long ago that families with children are not a protected class, leaving a loophole for building owners to refuse to rent to moms and kids — is stacked against the poor.

It leaves its mark for generations, as children who grow up in families relegated to poverty housing and shelters are undernourished, under educated (one boy in the book changed schools something like five times in a school year), under resourced as their parents often lose jobs as a result of having unstable housing, and often without their relatives. It breaks apart neighborhoods where transience bears indifference and impermanence.

This book will haunt you. I have honestly not been able to think of anything else for days. On Friday I actually imagined what it would be like to dump roaches in a slumlord’s clean kitchen, clog their toilets, and cut off their heat so they could taste what it’s like for their tenants. I think I’m going to be angry for some time to come. Desmond sums up the core of the issue this way: “Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

And yet, Desmond states simply, “All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary. Because it is unnecessary, there is hope.” That’s optimistic, if somewhat unrealistic. He suggests a few major policy shifts that could end poverty housing and create a level playing field for poor renters, such as fully funding indigent legal representation (something I heard an ACLU attorney cite as the best thing we could do to end wrongful incarceration as well), and universal housing vouchers, such as some European countries have. What’s been keeping me up and what will continue to haunt me is that I feel those solutions are completely out of reach in the current polarized political climate, where demonizing any kind of “other” is the favored tool of elected officials trying to manipulate the public with fear.

I read this book quickly, on the theory that it was like ripping a bandaid; I wanted to get the pain over with. Maybe someday I’ll try reading it more slowly. I am hoping the people in this book caught a break somewhere along the line — Desmond tells us about a couple of them, who, once housed, were able to turn their energies to their families, their educations, and their lives. I pray that people who enrich themselves on other people’s despair will come to understand what they’re doing and stop. And I wish lawmakers would read this book.

Recommended but only if you’re prepared to find yourself wishing to conduct some sort of Robin Hood terrorism on slum landlords.

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Last spring I read Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community  by MLK, Jr. This week I finished Why We Can’t Wait, which was written four years earlier. King recounts the momentous events of 1963, including the actions undertaken by civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens in Birmingham, the cruelty and violence that the white establishment in Alabama, especially under Bull Connor’s leadership, perpetrated on nonviolent protestors that galvanized national support for the movement, and the March on Washington. And he writes, as very few others can, of his hope for the future. Last spring I found that encouraging. It was harder to feel hopeful this year.

In 1963, King believed that with continued effort, the nonviolent resistance would not only prevail in bringing about equality for black Americans, but that it had the potential to help bring about an end to economic injustice and even war as well. In the final section of Why We Can’t Wait King writes of his belief that “In measuring the full implications of the of the civil-rights revolution, the greatest contribution may be in the area of world peace . . . . Nonviolence, the answer to the Negroes’ need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.” He was talking specifically about not only ending nuclear proliferation, but he armed conflict altogether. A few years later he was struggling to remind his own movement of the benefits of nonviolence in the face of calls for armed resistance to institutionalized racism; that made it very painful to read his optimistic words here.

The other thing I found disheartening was King’s description of Congress in 1963. He described a “stranglehold” by a minority devoted to preserving the status quo  (wealth and power, at the expense of justice) and called for “the growth of an enlightened electorate” to break this hold. Clearly decades later there is still a minority — people wealthy and powerful enough to hold office, — strangling the legislative process in this country. Enlightened is not a word I’d use to describe the electorate.

King also called for “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement” for the violation of African Americans’ human rights since the beginning of American history. He cited Nehru’s efforts in India to end mistreatment of the Untouchables as an example. But as recently as this summer, the mistreatment of Untouchables in India made international headlines, and around the world in many cultures, there are comparable groups who are treated as lacking in human dignity. Even in America various privileged groups (I say that as someone who is privileged) demonize and discriminate against various “others” like immigrants, young black men, poor women, the mentally ill, muslims, etc. Would restitution have prevented the further entrenchment of institutionalized racism in America? I doubt we’ll ever know.

I think it’s common around the national MLK holiday (still observed as Great Americans Day in Biloxi, Mississippi) to wonder what King would make of the  continuing racial injustice in America. I don’t dare speculate, as a privileged white woman, but I like to hope that he would still believe love can win. On good days, I still believe that too. But re-reading Letter From Birmingham Jail and then reading about the way our president-elect went after civil rights veteran and U.S. Congressman John Lewis this week on social media, I feel as if love and progress have their work cut out for them.

 

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When I drove to Vermont to collect Teen the Elder (in less than two months I have to call him something else!) from college, I caught up on some podcasts, including Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust interview with Jacqueline Winspear. I’d heard of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, but mostly avoid mysteries. I’m a wimp when it comes to blood and guts and I hate thinking about crimes and criminal intent.

But I love history, and Teen the Younger and the Computer Scientist and I watched The Bletchley Circle on PBS recently. The series is about four women friends who were code breakers at Bletchley Park who work together to nab a serial killer in London a few years after the war. The murders made me squeamish, but the period details were terrific and I enjoyed the brilliant female characters.

So when I heard Winspear’s conversation with Nancy Pearl I was intrigued. Last weekend the Computer Scientist and I visited an inn on the southern Maine coast, and a mystery seemed perfect to take along. I loved it! Maisie is a very compelling character, a working class girl who goes into service and can’t resist her employers’ library. When she’s catches Maisie reading in the wee hours, Lady Rowan Compton realizes the girl’s remarkable intellect deserves developing, and she asks her friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, to tutor Maisie.

When the first book in the series opens, Maisie has opened her own office as a “psychologist  and investigator” in London, and Dr. Blanche is retired. As the book unfolds we learn about her life thus far and the training, study, and experiences that have shaped her, including studying “moral sciences” at Cambridge and serving as a nurse in Frace during WWI. Under Dr. Blanche’s careful tutelage, Maisie learned to take careful notes, think deeply, and meditate regularly. This combination of awareness and contemplation really struck me.

That’s what I’ve been working on myself — mindfulness and lately, contemplative prayer. I’ve tried meditation for years and have had mixed results. In a small group discussion of Jerry Aaker’s A Spirituality of Service and a Lenten series on types of prayer, contemplative or centering prayer appealed to me as a practice similar to meditation but less focused on breathing. Phil Fox Rose offers a nice “how to” on this kind of meditation. Contemplative awareness in Maisie Dobb’s world and our own is about compassionate insight into the messy, the broken, and the beautiful alike.

Why bother with this? Why not say a quick prayer if you pray, and get on with the day? Well, Maisie meditates for mental clarity. Regular practitioners swear by that, and as I mentioned in my review of Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote, meditation  helps strengthen our “negative capability” as Keats called it, the capacity to live comfortably with uncertainty. Or to grasp a mystery, fictional or real. Such as trying to take in catastrophes like bombings or murders or natural disasters, or to be a witness to injustice (plenty of opportunity to do that lately, as our state argued about whether to fund essential services via casino gambling and a judge decides soon whether our town’s homeless people have a right to camp when there’s no shelter space).

I’m not sure if those skills will help me figure out what Maisie Dobbs is solving as I read the rest of Jacqueline Winspear’s series, but I plan to do that, as well as to hone my own contemplative and mindful awareness. 

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