Christmas Reflection

Christmas Tree. Photo by Callen Harty.

Christmas Tree. Photo by Callen Harty.

Last night as I was driving home under the stars on tops of evergreen trees and past lights behind frosty windows I thought of my mother and I cried. She is old now, bedridden and infirm, somehow staying alive when we thought she would be gone before Christmas several years in a row. She has been on my mind a lot lately. In a sad way she is already gone though still physically present. She doesn’t recognize people, she doesn’t know her own history most of the time, she is weak. And yet she hangs on to her tenuous life with a ferocity that amazes.

But I wasn’t crying for her inevitable decline and passing, which could be years from now with her Irish stubbornness and toughness. The tears were more for what has already been lost. What I have now is memories, but she has shown me that memories can be as fragile as life. I cried in part for the joyful memories. In more youthful Christmastimes she would load all of us kids into the car and drive around town to look at all the pretty lights hung from trees and houses. Many of my best memories are of Mom in the car: sudden surprise trips to the drive-in eight miles away in Benton or twelve miles away in Darlington where we would enjoy ice cream (still her favorite treat); treks to Dubuque or Madison for shopping; going along with her through early morning fog when she would drive my oldest brother to work at his job in Monroe; trips to visit relatives in Hanover, Illinois or just out to the country to farms of relatives and friends; even the short jaunts downtown or to the post office–all of which gave time just to be together and talk and marvel at the world around us.

In high school Yahtzee, Scrabble, and other games were used the same way. We would spend hours sitting at the table rolling dice and striving to win while discussing the state of the world. We loved each other’s company then–we talked, we shared deep things with each other, we laughed. Oh, did we laugh. We laughed a lot. Sometimes there would be laughing jags so long and so hard that we would both end up in tears from the laughter, with my mother snorting loudly as it continued, and that would make her and me both laugh even more. She loved her Yahtzee, but the game didn’t really matter. It was the thing that brought us together to sit for a while and be with each other. She was fiercely competitive, but I think we both won when spending that time together and I think she knew that.

These things can come to a person at the most unlikely of moments, but I understood fully last night why holidays can be so difficult for so many people. In many families, just like mine, the parents do their best to create happy experiences for their children. We didn’t have much when I was a child, but Mom always made sure we had some new clothes and some new toys or things that we would enjoy at Christmas. Many of my friends and neighbors would get all the newest toys or gadgets and I would sometimes be embarrassed by what I had received in comparison, but I also understood that my mother had done the best she could as a single mother raising a family of four. There was always food, light, and love in the house during the season. In every season, when I think about it.

Christmas memories are often the most happy of memories; maybe not for everyone, but for many. Part of it is that as children we don’t necessarily see as much loss as adults have seen, so there is an innocence there, and as we grow into adulthood and maturity we understand what has been lost from those memories. As the years go by there are more people missing from the holiday table and the empty places leave an emptiness in the soul. The young ones don’t understand that because it is their turn for the happy memories to be created for them. At some point in the future they, too, will  look at a Christmas tree or lights or something that reminds them of their childhood and instead of smiling because of the memory they will one year be sad because of the loss. They will cry as I did last night, wipe the tears, and hide all of that from the children at the table because, really, it is all about those young ones and creating memories for them.

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Heroes

Set for Are We Delicious? Musical Heroes at the Barrymore Theatre, Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

On Friday I was invited to speak at a performance of Are We Delicious?/Musical Heroes. The company had invited audience members to nominate “local heroes” and then invited four to speak between pieces at the event. This is what I wrote for the event.

First of all I’m honored to be sharing the stage tonight with the other three speakers and with the talented writers, actors, and musicians in this production. Thank you for the invitation.

I was asked to speak a bit about my mission and about my heroes, and neither one is easy to summarize in just a few minutes, but I’ll do my best.

My mission is simple—for the world to be a better place when I leave it than it was when I got here; to bring more love into the world than there was before. I’ve strived to do that in my life by working as a queer activist, a peace activist, through my art, by co-founding several organizations, working with youth, and working to shine a light on child sex abuse so that we can end it forever.

But I don’t think of what I do as heroic or courageous in any way. Those labels don’t feel comfortable to me. I just live my life. It’s what I do.

As for my heroes I have had many in my life, people who inspire me and make me a better man. These include my life partner, Brian, who is here tonight and has brought much light and love to many, my bedridden mother who wakes every day to continue to teach us lessons, many friends, my mentor, Joel Gersmann, Harry Hay, Paul Wellstone, the people in Black Lives Matter, the water protectors at Standing Rock, and others. While I applaud all of them I also understand that they, and me, are problematic as heroes—because we are human and humans are frail and can fail as often as we succeed.

Once you understand, though, that heroes are just regular folks who have their own issues and occasionally rise above their humanity, then you can also understand that all of us have the potential to be heroes, whether it’s by doing something simple like helping a neighbor, donating money to a good cause, or quietly living your life with love and compassion. Not every hero is in the public eye, nor do they need to be. I think that everyone lives their lives to the best of their abilities. That is an amazing thing. You can all be heroes just by living. Just be loving and giving and you will be a hero to someone. Be kind. Stand up. Stand for something. We need all of you to act out on those impulses now more than ever.

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Chance Given

less-hate

Less Hate. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

On election night I was devastated by the Presidential results. Though I voted for her I wasn’t as devastated by Hillary Clinton’s loss as I was by Donald Trump’s win. It made no sense to me. Every election people say they want “change” and because of that many of those people voted against the entrenched name of Clinton. Many voted not so much for Trump but against Clinton because they hated her so much they would have elected Mickey Mouse instead of her (and perhaps they did).

But Mickey Mouse is a harmless mouse. Trump appeared to be more of a rat–calling Mexicans rapists, women ugly, making fun of a disabled reporter, and bragging about conquests and sexual assaults of women. Unless you’re Vermin Supreme there should be a certain decorum in Presidential candidates, which Trump completely lacked. As a gay man I could not vote for him. As a sexual abuse survivor I could not vote for him. As a man who believes that all men and women are created equal I could not vote for him. I could not imagine that enough of my fellow Americans would hate Clinton so much that they would allow him to be elected. What happened to the #NeverTrump crowd? What happened to all the Republicans who initially said they could not back such a horrible person and then little by little (with the exception of maybe half a dozen with real morals) jumped back on the bandwagon because they cared more about their own political futures then about the political and real future of this country? Then, of course, there were the spineless politicos like Paul Ryan who tried to play both sides of the fence to try to protect themselves no matter which way the wind might blow on election day.

On election night I cried. For the first time in 40 years of voting I literally cried at the result, because it told me how far America has sunk as it gasps its last breaths of empire. The end of empire, expansionism, and interference in the affairs of other nations is not such a bad thing. The end of our morals and decency and the last vestiges of compassion and caring is a horrible thing to watch. Granted, Trump did not even win the popular vote, and a huge number of eligible voters just plain stayed home, so it’s not like Trump’s win is a mandate for anything. Still, a large percentage of my fellow Americans voted for a man who showed himself to be racist, misogynist, and more. I never thought I would see such a reprobate elected to the highest office of the land and so I cried for what we have become.

Because I believe in this country and have learned to accept hard-fought losses I understood Clinton, Obama, and others who congratulated Trump on his victory–as difficult as that must have been–and understood their desire for a peaceful transition of power and best wishes for his success. I understood the idea, as much as I disliked Trump as a candidate, that he would be the next President whether I liked it or not and that he should be given the same chance that any other incoming President has been given.

Less than three weeks as a President-elect have passed and I have already run out of chances to give Trump. If he says he wants to act as a President for all the people then he is either ignorant of the lives and careers of those with whom he is surrounding himself or he is outright lying about wanting to be the President for all of us.

Nobody has been named yet, but experts believe that it is currently a battle between Mitt Romney and Rudy Guiliani for Secretary of State. Guiliani has been one of Trump’s leading sycophants (psychophant?), which Trump surrounds himself with, so he probably stands a very good chance. His claim to fame, of course, is his willingness to erode every American right because–you know, 9/11. Romney, on the other hand, was no friend of Trump’s during the campaign. Trump is known more for getting even with people than with offering an olive branch. His only reason to select Romney would be to appease the Republican establishment, which would also be out of character. Democrat Tulsi Gabbard has also been mentioned after accepting a meeting with Trump to discuss Syria and our policies there, but it would be a surprise if he selected her and not one of his inner circle or some other conservative outside of the establishment. The scary thing is that either one of those choices seems like a godsend when compared to many of the other choices so far.

Who knows? Trump may surprise everyone with an even worse Secretary of State pick than either Giuliani or Romney. Just look at some of the horrible choices he has already made. A few are choices that would be acceptable offerings from any President. While Nikki Haley is not a politician I like, her selection as Ambassador to the United Nations is not one to raise a lot of eyebrows. Likewise with Donald McGahn as White House Counsel and a couple other choices. On the other hand some of the most high-profile selections are people I wouldn’t be comfortable welcoming into my house, let alone helping to lead the government. These are not people who can be supported.

If Trump wanted to separate himself from accusations of racism he did not do so with his first few selections. Worst of all was the selection of Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist and Senior Advisor to the President, the position held by Karl Rove under George W. Bush and held by David Axelrod, among others, under Barack Obama. If anyone remembers how much influence Karl Rove had over George W. Bush then you have to realize that Bannon will be in a position to wield a lot of influence. Bannon is the one who revived Trump’s campaign late in the election cycle. He did it with some pretty ugly antics, such as inviting women who claimed to have been assaulted by Bill Clinton to one of Trump’s debates with Hillary Clinton. Prior to coming onto the campaign he was the editor of Breitbart News, a conservative organ that promoted deeply conservative views under the leadership of its founder and editor, Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart himself had Libertarian and very conservative views, but when he passed away in 2012 Bannon took over and pushed Breitbart even further right and published article after article of anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynist, and racist claptrap. Upon learning of Bannon’s appointment Democratic Senator from Oregon Jeff Merkley tweeted that Trump had just invited a white nationalist into the White House. While technically accurate, white nationalist (and alt.right) are simply polite terms for racist jerks. Bannon is a racist, pure and simple, and having a man like him at the President’s side is a scary prospect for anyone who believes in our foundational premise that all are created equal.

Attorney General selection Jeff Sessions has also been considered a racist. In the 1980s conservative President Ronald Reagan (who now feels like a crazy liberal in comparison to some of the wacked out right-wingers around today) appointed Sessions to a judgeship. A Republican-held Senate refused to confirm him because of racist remarks. He had joked that the KKK was okay with him until he found out they smoked pot. Not really a funny joke, or an okay kind of opinion. He was also accused of calling the NAACP and other black and civil rights organizations as “un-American”. He also opposes same-sex marriage. If he doesn’t get rejected by the Senate again he will be the highest-ranking lawman in the nation, a scary thought for anyone who believes in civil rights.

Lieutenant-General Mike Flynn has been named National Security Adviser. He has shown himself to be an Islamophobe. In February of this year he tweeted “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL . . .” and asked followers to forward that message with the closing statement, “The truth fears no questions.” So my question is why he didn’t specify that fear of terrorists is rational rather than classifying all the adherents of a particular religion as people to fear. That kind of irrational bigotry will not lead to better national security for anyone.

Mike Pompeo, a representative from Kansas, was chosen to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. His views on surveillance are scary enough that I fear writing something negative about him now could come back to haunt me later. He wants to expand the government’s ability to spy on citizens and collect information in order to better prevent terrorism and threats to the United States. He, too, has walked a tightrope of Islamophobia, pretty much always being careful to qualify his distaste for Muslims with coded terms and references to radical Islamists. At the same time he has depicted radical Islamists as being out to destroy Christianity and insists that believing in Jesus Christ is the only way to save us all, while not acknowledging or realizing that Christians like himself are out to evangelize the world into their way of thinking and to do that they must destroy other religions along the way.

A couple days ago Betsy DeVos was named as the Secretary of Education. DeVos is a woman who never went to public school (nor did her children), who has never taught, and whose only connection to education has been in fighting to expand school vouchers and charter schools. This is a person who does not believe in public education and would like to see it privatized. Republicans who profess to believe in less government have been using these tools to slowly erode local control of schools, providing opportunities for charter schools to teach a curriculum that espouses creationism and other non-scientific viewpoints as the truth. She is married to the heir to the Amway fortune. Amway was founded by two men who believed in the “American Way”, which is what Amway is short for, and who have used the profits from their pyramid sales scheme to fund ultra-conservative causes for decades. DeVos has been quoted as saying that she expects to get something in return for the money that she and her family give to candidates. She could easily be the poster child for Citizens United.

This is just a sampling of the selections for top positions so far. There are many more to come, including the likelihood of a 17-year employee of Goldman Sachs as Treasury Secretary, homophobe Tom Cotton as a potential Secretary of Defense (hopefully not the likeliest choice, but under consideration), a possible Secretary of Agriculture whose campaign account tweeted the “c” word about Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of the Interior possibilities such as venture capitalist Robert Grady, Lucas Oil co-founder Forrest Lucas, and environmental rights activist Sarah Palin (please note sarcasm on this one).

These choices tell me that Donald Trump does not want to be my President, and I know that I don’t want him to be my President either. I was willing to give him a chance. Within a few days he had already surrendered that chance. On election night I cried. Less than three weeks later I am no longer crying. I am angry, stubborn, resolute, and prepared to resist.

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Mo(u)rning in America

dont-shoot

Don’t Shoot. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

 

In the morning the children wake

and wonder and worry.

“Will they come to take me away

today?

Tomorrow?” When

will I be deported?

 

And the queer boys and girls

and trans and more

wonder, too.

“When will they come to hurt me,

or to kill me,

to punish me for the sins in their own hearts?”

 

Morning in America.

Should I kill myself before they get here?

Should I kill myself before the day is done?

Mourning in America.

 

Trumpets blare

the dawn of a new day in America.

Dark clouds huddle on the horizon.

Lightning strikes.

Lightening strikes.

Black lives matter

less now than they did

even a day ago

and immigrant lives do not matter

at all, unless they are white . . .

from Europe . . . Christian.

 

The Bill of Whites.

Freedom of assembly with each other.

Freedom of pressing issues.

Freedom of one religion.

Freedom of speech—

with the right accent.

The right to bear arms—

the most precious right of all!

Life, liberty, the pursuit of privilege.

 

Morning in America.

By nightfall day one is done.

Mourning in America.

Our day is done.

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On Election Eve

vote

Vote. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

Because I am an optimist and truly want to believe in the best of everyone I keep thinking that we are all Americans regardless of political affiliation, religious beliefs, or anything else, and that after the 2016 election is over tomorrow everything will return to normal. Those who have unfriended others on Facebook or cut them out of their lives in the real world will wake up and realize that there are things more important than which candidate received your vote. People screaming at each other in the streets will calm down, the tension of the election will dissipate, and we will return to being enemies because of sports teams again rather than politics. Slanted news stories from biased writers who pretend to be objective journalists will disappear from the pages of newspapers. And the ads which take sound bites out of context to make others appear to be monsters will fade from our screens and speakers.

But as optimistic as I want to be I am also a realist in other ways. This election has been unlike anything I have seen in my life. I know that mudslinging goes back to the earliest days of our country. In every election we see civility disappear and attack dogs let loose. This is nothing new, but the absolute vitriol on display in this cycle is the worst I have seen in my four decades of voting. I also understand that in every one of the last number of elections people have hysterically claimed that those who vote third party are dooming us by allowing the wrong major party candidates to win because a vote for X is really a vote for Y or Z–in this case a vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or a handful of other candidates is really a vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump–depending on which one you support. I don’t believe it’s true, and I do believe that part of being a good citizen is to vote your conscience for the candidate you think is the best choice. In my view, if a major party candidate loses because of third party votes then they didn’t do their job in convincing enough people to vote for them.

So there are these recurring themes that we see every election. One of them is that enemies are made out of family members and friends because of disagreements over political choices. This is where my idealism has always come into play in the past. If a friend or relative voted for a candidate that I would never vote for I have always been understanding of that. I have tried to understand why they might have a difference of opinion and tried to see it from their point-of-view. I have accepted the results of elections, sometimes unhappily–especially in the case of George W. Bush–but life has gone on, my friendships have continued, and as a political junkie I could look forward to the next time around to support a candidate more to my liking.

This election is different. In this election Donald Trump has staked out turf that is beyond my ability to try to understand or accept. He has not just attacked his primary competitor, which is to be expected, he has assaulted a wide range of my fellow citizens and friends–Hispanics, differently abled, African-Americans, women, Muslims, and on and on and on. If he should win I fear for all of them. As a gay man I fear for my rights, if not my life. When he chose Mike Pence as his running mate I knew that he could not become President or my life could be upended. Pence is one of the most anti-LGBT politicians in the country and Trump’s choice of him as a Vice-Presidential running mate was all I needed to know about how Trump truly feels about queer people, despite his occasional feeble attempts at seeming to reach out to our community. He couldn’t even gain the endorsement of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of traitorous gay people who tend to care less about their rights than their financial well-being.

Trump also bragged about being able to assault women and get away with it. Jimmy Carter almost cost himself his election by admitting that he had lusted in his heart, though he never acted on it. Trump has been accused by numerous women of more than lusting. He has been accused of inappropriate behavior and sexual assault. As a male survivor of sexual abuse this is concerning, as are his language and actions in the  videotape in which he bragged about being able to grab women who will let him do it because he is famous. It is incredibly triggering. It is unacceptable.

Because of these things, his infantile behavior with Twitter wars, his inability to check himself, and more, it doesn’t matter to me at this point what Trump’s actual political viewpoints are. I wouldn’t care if he had plans to make America greater than it’s ever been–which, by the way, he doesn’t–he is not an acceptable candidate because he is not an acceptable man. He is instead a hateful, narcissistic authoritarian man. He is not worthy of the Presidency or any other political office in this country. In the past I could forgive others for voting for candidates whose policies I felt were not to my liking. But this is not about policies. It is about basic human decency, honor, and compassion.

I cannot understand anyone who knows and loves me or knows anyone from any of the groups Trump has attacked so viciously actually casting a vote for him. How can you look me in the eye and tell me you love me for who and what I am and then vote for Trump and Pence? How can you look at anyone you know who is Latino or Muslim and tell them Trump is the best candidate? How can you look into the eyes of any person who has been the victim of sexual assault, which is as many as one in three in this country, and proudly say you voted for Donald Trump?

I would understand it if it were a different man with the same political ideas. I truly would. I would get it if you didn’t know anyone in any of the groups he has attacked and from that place of privilege didn’t have to think about how horrible a Trump presidency would be for others. But I cannot believe that if you truly know me and care for me you could vote for him. I cannot believe that you could call me a friend and pull the lever for Trump. In this election I cannot understand and likely cannot forgive, because I value my life and the lives of my fellow Americans–African-Americans, Muslims, women, immigrants, and others–more than a relationship that can be discarded so easily for partisan reasons.

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A Day in the Life of My America

american-flag

American Flag. Photo by Callen Harty.

Most days, even on the weekends when I don’t have to, I tend to wake up by 6:30 or 7:00. Today I was able to sleep in until about 7:30 or so, and then I was able to lounge in bed for another hour or so. I watched a little television, checked Facebook and other things online, and generally just relaxed before getting out of bed and taking a nice long hot shower. On days like this I realize, though maybe not always as consciously as I should, that I have it pretty good compared to others. I have a bed and house when others are homeless. I have a job I’ve been at for more than ten years now that pays me a decent salary (not great, but enough to live on and have spending money), while I know there are those who have been unemployed or underemployed for months and years. I have a car and enough money for gas when others can barely afford public transportation. I am well-fed when others are hungry. I have privilege by virtue of my color and my gender–although I lose some of that due to being a gay man–when others are oppressed because of their color or gender. I have family, friends, and a life partner who love me when there are countless others who are alone in this world. Overall, my life is good and I am comfortable.

But I also see the world in which we live. I understand that some of my comfort comes at the expense of others. This is why I am politically active. I believe that government should not be for the rich or the majority but for the least of us and those in the minority. It is why I often join marches, rallies, and movements, because those in power will not concede their power, or any part of it, unless the people speak up and speak out, and act up and act out. There are strong forces aligned with the rich and powerful so that they maintain both their wealth and their power. Without groundswells of popular support against wars and injustices the wars and injustices are destined to continue.

On the way to meet my niece for some tea and lunch I passed by a display of eight life-size purple cut-out figures with the words “Domestic Abuse Affects Each of Us” printed on cut-out clouds lying low to the ground. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it occurred to me how sad it is that we have to dedicate entire months to raise awareness of issues like domestic violence, sexual assault, gun violence, bullying, and more. Our society is so violent that we set aside months at a time to remind people about how widespread the violence is and hope that at least a few people are drawn to an awareness that was not there before. It is not acceptable that so many in this country are victims of so many kinds of violence, yet as a whole we settle for it. We raise awareness for a moment or two in a month or two every year and then we drift back into complacency and care more about reality television than the reality outside our doors and windows.

After meeting my niece I headed over to Hudson Park to join people gathering in prayer to be followed by a march to the Wisconsin Capitol as a show of support for the Water Protectors at Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota. Sacred Stone camp is the epicenter of an incredible grass-roots resistance to a pipeline that has united a couple hundred Native American tribes and thousands of people from all over North America. Unfortunately it has also mobilized the protectors of the rich and of corporations–the police, private security, National Guard–who have also descended upon the site with military force to try to subdue those who want to protect the water, the land, and sites that are sacred to the Native Americans who live there.

When I arrived I was disappointed to see two men and a boy holding small hand-written signs and holding one small drum. It seemed to me that there should be hundreds, or at least dozens, or at least a dozen. They greeted me warmly and were glad to see someone else join them. There had been some communication issues and some conflicting times and locations reported for the event, so it appeared we might be it. After a while I realized it didn’t matter. We would put out positive energy. The one drum would beat the energy of the earth. We would do what we could in that moment to raise awareness of the Dakota Access pipeline and those trying to stop the destruction associated with it, and perhaps a few fellow citizens would see those signs or hear our words and come to an understanding that was not there before.

Hudson Park was chosen because it is the site of effigy mounds. There are more native burial mounds and effigy mounds in Dane County, Wisconsin than almost any place in the United States. The spirits of native ancestors are everywhere around the county, so it seemed like a good location from which to march downtown.

As we waited a handful of others joined us. One had a bullhorn that they offered up for the march. Another brought sage. Before deciding to begin the march Rebecca Kemble, a Madison alderperson who had already been to Sacred Stone Camp and had been arrested along with other citizens there, led us to the shore of Lake Mendota where we gathered to offer prayers at the water’s edge. Water is indeed life and it is sacred.

Prayers, thoughts, and positive energy were offered up for the water, for those working to protect it, and for the earth beneath us. As that was wrapping up Rebecca’s phone rang and she said she had to answer it as it was someone who was in North Dakota. She put her phone on speaker and we all listened to Barbara With, an activist from La Pointe, Wisconsin, talk about what was going on out there. She talked of the sacredness of Lake Superior, where she is from, the recent arrests at the protests, and how a hundred of those arrested are unaccounted for at this time. She also shared that some of those arrested were put into dog kennels and that arresting officers were found to be leering at the young Native women. One could feel our genocidal past in her description of the ecological genocide being inflicted upon the same people today.

After the phone call ended we headed toward downtown Madison. Along Willy Street we met up with a sharply dressed African-American man with a cap indicating that he was a veteran who had served in Afghanistan. He was leaving the Social Justice Center when he saw us and asked what we were doing. When we explained it he decided to march with us. The small band of activists walked from there to the Capitol with our little signs, a young boy speaking into the bullhorn about protecting water and his future, and an occasional passerby giving a thumbs up or a car honking their horn in solidarity. Still, I couldn’t help but notice how easy it was for so many to turn the other way, not look at the signs, not hear the message, and just go on with whatever was happening in their world. Those who would build pipelines across burial grounds depend upon that kind of apathy in order to finish their work. Those who would stop them depend upon those people waking up before it is too late.

Downtown Madison was bustling with red-shirted fans of both Nebraska and Wisconsin, scheduled to play a big game at Camp Randall. We stopped on the corner of Mifflin and Wisconsin, having picked up a couple more marchers and signs. Using the bullhorn, chants about the water were shared with those on the streets. At one point an elderly woman with two dogs came up to us and said that we should stop what we were doing. When I asked her why she pointed to about ten or so red-clad people staring at us from benches several yards away. She said, “They’re from Nebraska and they’re scared. They’re from out of town. You shouldn’t be scaring them.” I asked her why they would be scared of our small group of people and she responded with something about the noise, then turned with her dogs and walked away. Based on her appearance and demeanor I presumed she was heading back to one of the high-rise gentrified apartments that have priced most common folks out of living too close to the Capitol Square. If the Nebraska fans were scared they didn’t show it. In fact, they showed little interest at all.

After a bit we moved a block down to the top of State Street where a stage and fencing were being set up for Freak Fest, an annual Halloween celebration held every year in downtown Madison. What used to be an open street party where more than a hundred thousand people in costume would show up along the entirety of State Street is now a closed gathering and music festival with a price tag. The top of State Street is a space where many homeless gather during the day. They are usually chased out by night or harassed and sometimes beaten by cold-hearted young men. When there are events like Freak Fest happening they get removed and have to go elsewhere. Madison doesn’t like to look at its homeless people very closely because it tweaks the guilt centers of those who like to shop, dine, and party downtown. The mayor, who used to be a radical, then a liberal, and now seems to be nothing but a shill for the gentry, has been trying every trick he can think of to remove them from public view. Of course, removing them from downtown doesn’t eliminate the problem of homelessness. It just makes it easier to pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

Freak Fest was just being set up by mid-afternoon so we were able to be there without paying or being told to leave. Our group stopped next to a brightly chalked message that said, “Be a true American. Stand up for Standing Rock, North Dakota.” Some additional people joined in and others stopped to ask questions or chat. At one point we heard music and saw a good number of people marching up the street. It turned out to be members of Primates Incorporated, along with some members of the Forward Marching Band, a group that appears at many left-leaning events around the city. They had come up State Street to draw attention to the plight of primates that are used for scientific experiments. Primates Inc. is raising money to create a sanctuary for primates retired from this work. They saw the “No DAPL” and “Protect the Water” signs and stopped and joined the rally. It seemed a perfect union–a group working to protect animals and a group working to protect the earth and water–joining together as one for a brief moment in time.

As we were chatting my friend, Jessie, who will be heading to North Dakota in the morning, saw a man fall to the ground and get back up again. He was a middle-aged to older African-American man and nobody else seemed to notice him. He may have been one of the street people; he had come from the direction where a group of them were sitting. When I first looked he was holding his chest as if in pain. He started to walk and seemed to be staggering, but it was impossible to tell if he might be drunk or disoriented from a health issue. He rounded the corner and sat down on a window ledge. I asked Jessie if we should go check on him. I felt we should and she did, too. We walked over and asked, “Are you okay?”

He said he had heart issues and knew that he needed a heart operation, but couldn’t afford it. My heart sank a bit at his words–we live in one of the richest nations in the world and our people cannot afford to get sick. Jessie checked his pulse and his heart rate and it all seemed to be okay. I could smell alcohol on his breath, but still didn’t know if he was drunk or ill. He seemed scared. As someone who has suffered a heart attack and survived I understood his fear. Jessie asked if he had had any water and he said no. She felt that he needed water, so I went across the street to a shop and bought a bottle and brought it back and opened it for him. He took a drink and I looked in his eyes, which were an incredible green color, and I saw that he was still in fear. We asked again if he were okay and he assured us he was. He looked at us both and thanked us for checking on him. “Thank you for noticing me,” he said, and as I walked away I thought of how many men and women on the streets and in our lives every day go unnoticed. They may have the most beautiful of souls but people walk by them every day, going about their own business, whatever that might be, oblivious to the souls in need and to all the beautiful people who pass through our lives.

After leaving the man I went back across the street to get a pasty, a type of meat and potato meal in a wrapped pastry that is the one cultural food from my home part of Wisconsin. Pasty is a known and appreciated meal in southwestern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so I often buy one when I’m downtown. The place that serves it was started by a man from Mineral Point, a short distance from my home town, and it is served in every restaurant there. The smell and taste of it reminds me of my elderly mother who used to make it when we were kids (although she cheated and made it as a pie instead of in a folded pastry). A proper pasty should have meat, potatoes, rutabaga, and an incredible pastry crust and I don’t know if others did it this way or not but my mother always made it with suet. As I’m sitting outside eating it I think of her and how frail she is–she has been bedridden for several years–and how I’ll never have one of her pasties again. She can’t get out of bed, she sometimes doesn’t know who I am when I see her, and she is incredibly skinny. But she is also tough and keeps hanging on, now into her nineties, even though she’s been on hospice and removed from it and received last rites more than two years ago now. The thought of her makes me sad, but it also brings back good memories of her in her kitchen and the love she showed us as children. Pasty is a comfort food for me.

Halfway through the meal a man ran across the street, chased by the man from the pasty shop and a couple other people. He seemed disabled or tweaked out or something, as he wasn’t running very well. One of the men chasing him tackled him and he fell to the ground along with the sound of shattering glass. It turned out that he had grabbed the tip jar from the pasty shop and tried running away with it. When the jar broke at least one of the homeless people grabbed some of the money that fell out of it and got away with it. One of the protesters said to me, “I don’t have any big issues with people stealing from large corporations, but not from a small mom-and-pop operation like that. That’s just not right.” He then went on to say that the owner of the store often would bake entire trays of the pasties and hand them out to the homeless people near his store. I don’t believe it’s right to steal from anyone, but I think it is somehow more wrong to steal from those who have less. I agree that if you must steal it should be from those who can afford to lose it. I also wondered about the situation of a man who would try to steal a tip jar that probably had no more than twenty or thirty dollars in it, if that. What was his story? Why did he need money so badly that he would do that? Was he homeless? Hungry? What kind of society do we live in that people might need to steal from others just to survive? As I moved through my day I was reminded numerous times that our problems are so much greater than any one issue and that the solutions are going to require people with varying causes and different backgrounds to work together.

A short time later our small rally broke up. One of the men, Airto, offered Jessie and me a ride back to her house and to my car on the near-east side. He had a friend with a car just up the street. Airto and Jessie were going to Sacred Stone camp together. I wished him and her safe travels and peace on their way, then headed back home. Along the way I passed another set of the of the domestic violence awareness figures and thought of how I had come full circle in my day. As I continued to drive I noticed that many of the trees along the route were almost leafless, another circle and cycle of life in our world, and realized I needed to go on at least a short hike after my day just to reconnect with the natural world. It is where I always go to replenish my energy. Connections with nature are always positive for me. Getting away from people and being among plants and animals connects me with my humanity in ways that nothing else can.

After a short hike and a relaxing time alongside a pond I headed home. When I got there our dog, Cuco, was waiting eagerly to go for a walk, tail wagging crazily, jumping up and down in excitement, I think also wanting to connect with the outdoors where we all truly belong. I understood in that moment that this is why the fight against the pipeline is so important. It is a stand against the continued encroachment upon our natural world. It is a moment when an incredible amount of energy is being focused on saving one small part of our world so that eventually we may be able to save it all. I fervently hope that we can.

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The Arresting Case of Amy Goodman

amy-goodman

Amy Goodman at the Wisconsin Capitol during the 2011 protests against Governor Scott Walker. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

Journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now was arrested last month for reporting on the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Today the charges against her were dismissed, but that is no reason for journalists and others who treasure the right to peaceably protest and who believe fervently in freedom of the press to celebrate.

As background the pipeline is a huge project that will carry oil across North and South Dakota, Iowa, and all the way to southern Illinois. According to Bill McKibben in the New Yorker (9/6/16) the pipeline was originally planned to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck, North Dakota, but when fears were expressed that a spill there could harm the city’s drinking water the route was shifted. The shift moved the pipeline from mostly white Bismarck to within half a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation where tribal members have said they were not consulted. They also stated that the new route, which was approved hastily and with little or no public input, would require digging up burial sites and spots that are sacred to the tribe–some of which has already happened–not to mention threatening their drinking water in the event of a spill. Those behind the pipeline, which includes Energy Transfer Partners, Enbridge, Sunoco, Phillips 66 and others, have said that fears of a spill are unfounded, yet they clearly moved the route of the pipeline away from Bismarck for that very reason.

Because of this an encampment was created where tribal members began a protest against the pipeline. They have been joined by thousands of other Native Americans and allies who have continued to protest and do what they can to block construction at what is now called the Sacred Stone Camp.

While the mainstream media at first mostly ignored the story some journalists and filmmakers made their way to the camp to document and report on what was happening and supporters started pouring in with supplies and to stand strong with the tribe. A private security firm let dogs loose against the protesters which finally drew in mainstream media attention, but many of the arrests by riot police have largely gone unreported. Well more than a hundred people have been arrested, including Goodman, other journalists, tribal leaders, and protesters from around the country.

Other than Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein, who was arrested for writing graffiti on a bulldozer at the site, and actor Shailene Woodley, Amy Goodman is the most well-known person arrested at the protest site. She was originally charged with criminal trespass, as most of the protesters have been, but that was upgraded to “riot”, a misdemeanor charge that could have meant a fine and jail time if the charges had not been dismissed. Goodman’s arrest left journalists, Constitutional scholars, protesters, and others unnerved as she was clearly there as a reporter with a known news organization. Democracy Now (9/12/16) reported that the Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director Baher Azmy said, “This is clearly a violation of the First Amendment . . . an attempt to repress this important political movement by silencing media coverage.”

Lizzy Ratner in The Nation (10/15/16) reported that prosecutor Ladd Erickson admitted that trespassing charges would be difficult to prove and then stated that he did not believe Goodman was a journalist, but a protester, even though she was being filmed and had a microphone, not to mention that the charges were not brought against her until after North Dakota authorities had seen and reviewed her report on Democracy Now, a show that has been on the air for decades.

Clearly North Dakota authorities were reaching. They have used private security, riot police, police assistance from other states, and the National Guard to try to ensure the pipeline construction continues. They also clearly do not want journalists reporting on what is going on there. They don’t want to draw attention to the protest, which could bring more support for the protesters, and they don’t want anyone to see how they are handling the situation. They likely had no clue that the Democracy Now report from Goodman would be viewed by millions.

Today the charges against Goodman were dropped. Supporters of the Sacred Stone Camp posted stories all day long about how the nation’s justice system does work after all. But there is a problem with that. Yes, in the long run it does sometimes–but not always–work. In the short term it is a different story. Other journalists and protesters have been arrested and while their charges may be dropped also the arrests effectively stopped them from doing what they were doing at the moment. This is a tactic that has been used often by police when trying to gain control of large, peaceful protests. During the Wisconsin Uprising in 2011 protesters against Scott Walker and Act 10 who were seen as leaders by authorities–although it truly was a leaderless movement–were often arrested and taken to jail on trumped up charges. While the charges were almost all dropped later the arrests removed perceived ringleaders and targeted individuals from the moment, often effectively allowing authorities to regain control of the situation.

One group of protesters in the Wisconsin Uprising who were arrested for holding signs on the first floor of the Capitol when the Capitol police had declared the ground floor a protest area and other floors off limits ended up suing and winning a judgment for the wrongful arrests. The police knew that the charges were not legitimate, but they also knew they wanted to remove the protesters at that moment. This is the fear for the water protectors at Sacred Stone Camp. While Goodman filed her report and had a warrant issued for her arrest later it is possible, and perhaps likely now, that if someone is videotaping or photographing the protests, even as journalists, they can be arrested and removed from the site, effectively cutting off the report and stopping any documentation. The charge can be dismissed by the District Attorney later, and it appears to the general public that the police were just doing what they believed to be their job.

If one thinks this is not likely or possible look at the case of Madison, Wisconsin Alderperson Rebecca Kemble who traveled to the site about a week ago to deliver a resolution in support of the water protectors and went along to a prayer gathering. Kemble is also a writer who has had numerous articles published by The Progressive. When the police arrived to disperse the crowd, she photographed them coming up to where the crowd was gathered. She was cornered and could not leave. The arresting officer accused her of resisting arrest and destroying evidence. She was also charged with riot and trespassing. According to her City of Madison alder blog (10/15/16) the officer grabbed her camera out of her hands. She wrote, “My camera was seized as evidence and may have been damaged or destroyed given that the last time I saw it was lying on the ground far away from the place where it was last in my possession.”

Those who commit acts against the people and against the earth do not want a record of their destruction. They understand that there will be those who know what they are doing and will protest it and try to draw attention to it, but they do not want the vast majority of the citizens to see. The threat of arrest is an intimidation tactic that can keep some from reporting what they see. When journalists from anywhere on the political spectrum are threatened when they are simply trying to report what they witness then all of us are threatened. Amy Goodman may be free, but the press may not be.

 

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