On the Milwaukee Riot

Milwaukee

Milwaukee. Photo by Callen Harty.

Anyone who has known me for a long time knows that I have been a pacifist since I was a child. I have stopped fights, marched for peace, and have done what little I can to make this a more peaceful world. I believe that violence and war are not the answer. Yet that doesn’t mean that I can’t understand the backdrop for a violent eruption and even sympathize with it while at the same time wishing that there had been a more peaceful way. This is what I am feeling about Milwaukee this morning.

Yesterday afternoon a police officer shot and killed yet another young black man. There have  been conflicting reports about it. Some have said he was unarmed; others that he had a weapon with more than a hundred rounds. One report said he was shot in the chest and the arm; another that he was shot several times in the back. The police reported that he pointed the gun at the officer. Area residents say he did not. It could take weeks for the full story to be revealed. But what is glaringly obvious is that Milwaukee’s north side has been a tinderbox for quite some time.

Oddly enough I have been thinking about A Christmas Story this morning, the movie that is replayed endlessly during the holiday season. And there is a reason for that coming into my mind today. Think about the movie and remember that Ralphie and his friends are constantly harassed and bullied by two of the neighborhood punks throughout the early portion of the film. At one point Ralphie has had enough and fights back, tearing into the biggest bully with all his might, mercilessly beating him in a violent rage, swearing, slugging the other kid relentlessly, until his mother arrives and pulls him off the other boy. He didn’t have any concern about what might happen to him by fighting back–he just blew. And the reason he blew is because the constant abuse of he and his buddies had been accumulating pain in him. He also was having other issues in his young life, thinking that his one great desire for a Christmas present was being undermined by everyone. So there came a point when logic failed him and emotion took over and he fought back, because it was all he had left to do.

Most people watching that movie probably cheered for Ralphie in that moment. He was the underdog, the one constantly being bullied. Despite my pacifism I understood his rage and understood why in that moment it was the only action he could take. I might have wished that he had found a different way to resolve it, but I understood the path he took.

I think also about the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City in 1969. It was several nights of riots that were considered the catalyst for the modern gay rights movement. Queer people celebrate those riots as the beginning of our liberation. We don’t look at it and say, “Oh, those people shouldn’t have destroyed their own bar and neighborhood. They shouldn’t have rioted.” Instead, we celebrate it because we understand that the riots were the result of the accumulation of atrocities against the LGBT community. The people in the bar the night it started, mostly drag queens and minority queer folk, were tired of police raids and harassment. They were tired of Mafia-run bars overcharging them because nobody else would serve them. They were tired of the taunts of other citizens and oppressive laws that kept them from full freedom in a country that promises freedom for all. Stonewall was the tinderbox that lit up the movement for queer rights. Perhaps the movement would have happened without it, but Stonewall hastened it. But understand that nobody there planned it as a political act. It was an emotional reaction to being harassed and bullied and being treated unfairly.

Our own American revolution was a violent reaction to taxation without representation and other slights by the King of England. The Declaration of Independence includes a laundry list of the harms inflicted by the mother country and makes it clear that the citizens of the colonies were not willing to be bullied anymore.

And so we have Milwaukee and countless other cities across the country exploding into protests and riots, not because of a single instance of police aggression, but because of an accumulation of racism, unfairness, and harassment that has been allowed to fester with no real attempt at looking at the underlying issues and resolving them. One more young black man killed by police and the tinderbox goes off. It is an emotional reaction, just like Ralphie and just like the queer folk at Stonewall. While I hate to see the riots and violence I understand the underlying issues and accumulated injustices that cause a people to explode in rage.

There is much underlying the riot that occurred last night. According to multiple sources Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the United States. Unemployment in the city is about 5.6% overall, but for blacks it is closer to 20%. Wisconsin also has the highest incarceration rate for African-Americans in the country, and the highest educational disparity between black and white populations. A February 8, 2016 piece on PBS listed the following disparities in Milwaukee:

  • Milwaukee suspends black high school students at a rate double the national average.
  • Wisconsin has the largest achievement gap between black and white students in the country. With Milwaukee being 40% black it has the largest black student population in the state and is the biggest contributor to that gap.
  • Four out of five Wisconsin black children live in poverty. Four out of five black children live in poverty. Again, Milwaukee has the largest African-American population in the state, so a huge percentage of them are living in poverty in a country that claims to be the richest in the world.
  • More than half of all black Milwaukeeans in their 30s and 40s have served time.

This list doesn’t take into account the daily harassment by police officers in Milwaukee  with citizens being questioned about what they’re doing out and about, cars pulled over for DWB–driving while black, other recent police killings of black men nationally as well as local incidents such as the killing of Dontre Hamilton, Derek Williams, and more recently Jay Anderson in nearby Wauwatosa. This does not mean that all police are evil and out to kill black citizens, but there is enough of a history for the black community to fear the police rather than trust them. White folks generally can trust the police and believe they are there to serve and protect. That is part of what white privilege is about. Black folks don’t feel the same because of their experiences and history with the police. When more than half the black men your age have served time, flashing red lights are not the most welcome sight in the world.

Many people turn to Martin Luther King, Jr. at times like these in order to pontificate about the rioters. They’ll quote the spiritual practitioner of non-violence in an attempt to shame the rioters. And he did say that violence begets violence. He did promote peace. He did say “We must not use violence.” He understood how the use of violence could be used against the cause for racial justice. But he also understood human emotions and knew that at times when people are pushed too far and too hard that they will rise up. It is all they have left. He also said this:

“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

A riot is the language of the unheard.

The point is that the riot in Milwaukee last night did not come out of nowhere. A hundred or two hundred citizens lashed out emotionally at yet another perceived injustice. They have not been heard. They have raised their voices to deaf ears. They are seeking to be heard. Don’t ask why they set fire to buildings in their own neighborhood, but instead ask why they were angry enough to do that in the first place. Then get to work at listening to the answers to that question and working together to resolve those issues.

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Ralph-en-Stein

Jill Stein vols

Jill Stein volunteers. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

There is a myth that comes around every four years that needs to be put to rest after more than a decade. It usually references Green Party candidate Ralph Nader as the cause of Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush back in 2000. The difference in the vote between the two major party candidates in the state of Florida was less than 600 votes and Nader received almost 100,000 votes in that state. A similar scenario played out in New Hampshire and if Gore had won the Granite State he could have won even without Florida. Presuming that without Nader in the race Gore would have gotten even a small percentage more of the votes than Bush in either of those states, the reasoning goes that he would have won the Presidency. We would never have heard of hanging chads or Kathleen Harris and there would have been no Supreme Court decision on the election or disappointment that Gore did not take the fight further but gave up before his supporters felt it was over. If you research it enough you will find that both sides in the controversy have shown statistical evidence to prove beyond a doubt that 1) Nader cost Gore the presidency and 2) Nader did not cost Gore the presidency.

I voted for Al Gore, but if a candidate cannot inspire the electorate enough to vote for them instead of migrating to a third party then the blame should rest on the candidate’s shoulders, not the American citizens who have every right and responsibility to vote for whomever they believe is the best candidate. It is nobody’s business to tell anyone else how to cast their ballot. Every citizen has the right to vote for the candidate that best speaks to them. Those who felt Ralph Nader was the best candidate believed it because the other two did not inspire them or tap into their needs and wants. There is no such thing as a wasted vote. This country was not intended to be a two-party system and we really need to do something to fix it so that other candidates have a real chance of winning.

The number of people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was 2,882,995. Patrick Buchanan took almost half a million votes, most of which would have probably gone to Bush if Buchanan had not been in the race. There were 14 other candidates on the ballot who secured an additional half million votes, some of which may have gone to Gore and some of which may have gone to Bush. All of them together made up about 3.5% of the vote total. The vote total for all of the candidates was 105,405,100.

In subsequent elections the  dire warnings were sounded about the Nader effect (and it’s not just the Democrats who use this to try to convince people not to vote for third party candidates). The Republicans and Democrats are both happy to have people believe there are only two choices. In this election there are Republicans who fear that Gary Johnson may hurt Donald Trump and Democrats who fear that Jill Stein will hurt Hillary Clinton. Stein, in particular, is being labeled a spoiler long before the election even happens. I’m going to vote for Clinton but if her diehard supporters don’t have any more faith in her than that then she has a lot of work to do between now and November.

The crux of it for me is this. The FEC states that 51.21% of the voting age population voted in 2000. Take out those who cannot vote, such as felons in some states (and these days those without proper identification) and you still have about half of the eligible population sitting on their hands (or with their heads up their asses) and not exercising their right to vote. The American Presidency Project lists the highest percentage of voter turnout in our recorded history as 81.8% in our centennial year of 1876. According to 270 to Win it was a close election with Samuel Tilden winning the popular vote by about 300,000 votes and Rutherford B. Hayes winning the election with one more electoral vote than Tilden. If only we could get anywhere close to 81.8% today it would be a miracle. Or 70. Or 60. The lowest voter turnout total according to the American Presidency Project was 48.9% in 1924. Since 1972 it has never been higher than 60%. That means the likelihood is that at least 40% (and probably more than 50%) of the voting age population is likely not to vote in 2016, leaving a hundred million or more votes on the table.

The real reason Gore lost in 2000 is not that Nader secured a couple million votes, and it won’t be Jill Stein’s fault if she gets a million or two million votes and Clinton loses. The real culprit is the half of the country that doesn’t care enough about their future or the future of their children or grandchildren to get off their asses, turn off the television, and head to the polls. So don’t lambaste those who really believe that Ralph Nader or Jill Stein, Gary Johnson or Emidio Soltysik, or even Vermin Supreme is the best candidate for them. They have the Constitutional right to vote for the candidate of their choice, and at least they care enough to go to the polls and do their civic duty. Instead of attacking those who do vote, even if it’s not for your candidate, put some energy into getting people energized enough to vote for the person you want to win. If your candidate, whether it’s Clinton or Trump or one of the others, doesn’t speak well enough to the masses of apathetic citizens staying at home then maybe there is something wrong with their message. Or something wrong with those people who don’t care enough about what happens to the country to do something to create the future they want. Either way it’s not the fault of those who cast their votes for the candidate of their choice.

 

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The Lowlights of the Mike Pence Speech

Plastic Flag

Plastic Flag. Photo by Callen Harty.

 

Donald Trump scares me, but I’m even more frightened of the prospect of him becoming President and then not finishing out his term, as that would mean that his Vice-Presidential pick, Mike Pence, would move up to the highest office in the land, and for someone like me he is very scary.

Pence has conservative cred. He fits right in with all the rabid Bible-thumping, liberal-hating, anyone-but-Hillary right-wingers, anti-government conspiracy theory citizens who have been steadily moving our country to the right. He is strongly anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro-military, pro-religion and seems to be a likely candidate for trying to create a theocracy. Yay, 2nd amendment gun rights! Boo, 1st amendment freedom of religion! And the press. And human rights. He proudly and repeatedly defines himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”

Last night he gave his acceptance speech and recited a litany of conservative dreams that would be nightmares for most of us, all while cheerleading for Trump even though he endorsed Ted Cruz in the Indiana primary. Here is a sampling of some of the things he talked about that were the most concerning:

  • “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” While the conservatives in the Tea Party wing of the Republican party (which Pence was an early supporter of) talk a great talk about loving America and its Constitution they tend to love it as selectively as they quote and use Bible passages to support their positions. Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers used the expression of “separation of church and state” as their understanding of the religion clauses of the 1st amendment. They did not want a government controlled by people whose religious beliefs would blind them to the good of the country. While many of them were Christians they did not put their religious beliefs above their governmental duties. Even John Adams, who was possibly the most devout Christian of the early founders, said, “. . . the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion . . .” This was from the Treaty of Tripoli in which he declared strongly that as a country we have no enmity against Muslims. And finally, James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution and also the man who conceived the Bill of Rights, had this to say: “. . . religion and Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” The founding fathers did not want a country ruled by religion. People like Pence put their religious beliefs above all else to the detriment of others.

About two-thirds of the way into the speech came the cynical part when Pence talked about all of the common Americans who are yearning for a leader like Trump to care about them. Of course very few politicians, who are almost all rich and unreachable, know anything about what common Americans think, feel, or suffer on a daily basis. Trump knows no more about the dreams of the common man than he knows what it’s like be on the receiving end of the words, “You’re fired.” As easily as he bankrupted several businesses he will bankrupt the dreams of middle and working class Americans. But Pence would have us believe that Trump is the benevolent billionaire, the one man who cares about American families. He talked about some of those people Trump hopes to save.

  • “It’s union members who don’t want a president who promises to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business. Those miners want an American energy policy and they know that Donald Trump digs coal.” Forget about the bad pun. Setting aside the idea that we really need an energy policy that relies on renewable sources of energy this cynical appeal to union members is about as low as it gets. Pence, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Michigan’s  Rick Snyder, and others of their ilk (the adopted children of the Koch Brothers) all hate unions and want to destroy them. They don’t want coal mines to succeed for the workers and union members, but for the owners, so that those rich industrialists can keep extracting coal from the earth, leaving devastation behind, and making money as long as they can. The only reason miners get a share of the wealth that comes from coal mining is because they have strong unions that have fought for fair wages and working conditions. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party would be just as happy to strip workers of their rights as to strip the land for coal.
  • “It’s African-Americans, who remember generations of hollow promises about safe streets and better schools, and they know Donald Trump will fight for equality.” The three or four African-Americans the cameras could find in the audience seemed to be in agreement. The more than thirty-five million others in this country know better. Despite the pandering from Pence they will not be turning out in droves for a man who did not disavow the KKK earlier this year, who was sued by the Justice Department for not renting to blacks back in the 70s, who worked hard to keep the Obama birther movement going, and more. And this doesn’t take into account his feelings about women, Muslims, Mexicans, and other minority groups.
  • “And he loves educational choice.” This is code for school vouchers, a system whereby the government pays for citizens to go to private schools (often religious ones) with money that is taken from our public schools. Eventually there will be little to no funding for public schools as the voucher system continues to expand. It is a long-range ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) plan to eventually privatize education (like they want to privatize everything, from schools to prisons). This achieves two conservative goals: 1) It creates a new industry from which investors can get rich, and 2) It sets the agenda for what is taught in the schools. Goodbye science and higher learning. Hello, pseudo-science, religious studies, and social brainwashing.
  • “And it’s Hispanic Americans, who respect the law, want jobs and opportunities for their families, who know that Donald Trump will uphold the law and get this economy moving for every American.” He was clear to define Hispanic Americans who respect the law, because when it comes to illegal immigrants there is no love. Pence supports building the wall that Trump wants to build on our southern border.
  • “You know, in so many ways the Democratic Party has abandoned those it used to protect. Maybe they’ve become too entrenched in power, so comfortable at times that they lose patience with the normal legislative process. It’s so much simpler to impose their values by executive order or court action.”  Never mind that because a party holds the Presidency it doesn’t mean they are entrenched in power, especially when that President is virtually held hostage by a Congress controlled by the other party. It’s amazing that Barack Obama was able to get anything done in his eight years. Yes, he did sign Executive Orders, as has every President–Democrat, Republican, or other party–for a couple centuries. George Washington was the first to do it and signed eight during his two terms. Barack Obama is still well behind the number signed by either George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan (As of July 20, 2016, according to The American Presidency Project, Obama had signed 244 Executive Orders. The junior Bush signed 291 in his two terms and Reagan signed 381. For the record the senior Bush signed 166 and Bill Clinton 364.) As for imposing will by court decisions Pence proceeds to speak a moment later in his speech about how important it is for Trump to win the election because the next President will determine the nature of the Supreme Court for the next 40 years. So is he saying it’s bad for Democrats to appoint justices who are in line with their political worldview, but it’s okay for Republicans? The judiciary was intended to be independent. While you can’t pretend to be completely objective–we all have our worldview–the goal is to make it as objective and independent as possible. Whenever a federal or Supreme Court decision is decided against conservatives they scream and shout about judicial activism, but those same people cheer and celebrate the courts when decisions go the way they want. You really can’t have it both ways. The role of the Supreme Court is simply to decide the constitutionality of laws. This is all part of the balance of powers set up by the founding fathers that the Tea Partiers claim to hold in such high regard.
  • “So let me say, for the sake of the rule of law, for the sake of the sanctity of life, for the sake of our Second Amendment and for the sake of all our other God-given liberties, we must ensure that the next president appointing justices to the Supreme Court is Donald Trump.” Just a little look at the code words included in this. Rule of law refers to the idea that the law as written should be the governing force of a nation, as opposed to tyrants and dictators imposing their will upon the populace. The Tea Partiers tend to think of Obama and Clinton as dictatorial types because they are smart enough to use the rule of law to their benefit, but they are okay with Presidents doing that as long as it’s the ones they elected. Of course the sanctity of life refers to fetuses even when they are not viable outside of the womb. It doesn’t refer to the sanctity of black lives, the sanctity of a convict’s life, the sanctity of the homeless and of starving children, the sanctity of lives lost in other countries from American bombs and drones–we need to make the military stronger and show the world how tough we are! The only ones that really matter to these people are the unborn fetuses that may grow up to some day be the black man shot by police, the person condemned to the death penalty, the woman sleeping in the park in winter, the hungry child with no hope of a meal, or the family killed by a misguided bomb. And there he goes with the 2nd amendment again. Why is it that the other 26 amendments are ignored by these people? Yes, we have the right to bear arms in this country, but that shouldn’t mean that we have the right to military grade weapons that can kill masses of people at one time. We shouldn’t have AR-15s any more than we should have nuclear weapons, tanks, and other military gear available to the general public. And while the regular folks out there in Tea Partyland are simply afraid of having their hunting rifles and pistols for self-protection taken away (which nobody wants to do) politicians like Pence are die-hard 2nd amendment backers not for you and me, but for the manufacturers who are making a mint off of our paranoia and our fear of our fellow citizens. Maybe it was at one time, but the NRA is not about hunters and individual gun owners rights. It is there to protect the weapons manufacturers’ income.
  • I’m not even going to quote the Benghazi line. Give it a break. Hillary Clinton was exonerated by a Republican committee investigating what happened there. The Republicans and right-wingers around the country have tried to make it an issue for years with no success. It is time to let it go.
  • “History teaches us that weakness arouses evil.” Pence meant to imply that American military weakness (despite us still having the largest, most powerful military in history) is what has led to the rise of terrorism in this world, and he also managed to blame Obama and Clinton for it at the same time. Not that killing civilians in far-off lands would have anything to do with it, or overthrowing governments worldwide, or attempting to make the whole world in our image (which maybe we’ve succeeded at too well). No, the blame lies entirely with that darned Obama and Hillary will make it worse. “Weakness arouses evil.” While this is a scary line it is also true. The weak economy and government in pre-World War II Germany, the fear of “other”, and the loss of faith in their government is what allowed Adolph Hitler to rise to power by promising a renewed military strength, national pride, jobs, and more. This has been the pattern of every dictator–play on people’s fears, find or create an enemy, and then come in as the savior. Donald Trump is not a savior and Mike Pence is not either. He is merely a sycophantic tagalong hoping to rise to power alongside the most surprising candidate to be nominated by a major party in recent memory.
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Breaking the Cycle

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Sign at a rally after the Michael Brown shooting. Photo by Callen Harty.

Sometimes violence in a family is generational. A father beats a son who beats his son who beats the next son because that is the world in which each of the sons grew up and that is how they learned to deal with conflict, frustration, and any other feeling that may come up in their lives. At some point one child may grow into a man and decide that the way he grew up was horrible and the last thing he wants to do is to inflict the same pain and abuse on his children, so he figures out a different way and breaks the cycle. He figures out how to discipline without violence and how to love fully and his children learn the same because that is the world in which they grew up.

I feel like America is that bully father and that unfortunately there are scant few who grew up here who want to break that cycle.

Today I woke up (again) to the news of a police officer shooting and killing a black man. This time it was in Minnesota during a traffic stop. It was a man who was told to show his ID, who informed the police up front that he had a concealed carry permit, and who was shot four times as he moved to get the ID he had been asked to show. His girlfriend and child were in the car and witnessed the horrible event.

Yesterday it was an officer in Louisiana who shot a man multiple times who was already on the ground in the arms of two police officers. He did have a gun, but it was in his pocket, where they pulled it from after he was shot.

A couple weeks ago it was a mad gunman who shot and killed nearly 50 people at a gay bar in Orlando. These horrible events keep happening and we keep crying for a moment and then forgetting. Last year in the United States there were more mass shootings than the number of days in a year.* Last year there were 493 murders just in the city of Chicago and this year is on a pace to beat that by a large number, with 336 murders already recorded in the windy city just a little over halfway into the year.**

Early in the year when a murder occurs in my city of Madison, Wisconsin the police and media will refer to it as Madison’s first murder of the year, as if there is an expectation that there will be more–because that is the world in which we live.

We also live in a country that has become the world’s bully. As a nation we take down or kill leaders of other countries, we bomb innocent civilians in a never-ending cycle of incursions, actions, and wars, we engage in war with several countries at a time, we kill first and ask questions later–just like these latest killings by the police.

Our founding fathers gained independence with a violent revolution. They enshrined the right to bear arms into our Constitution. They held people captive as slaves who could be beaten, raped, or killed on a whim. They committed genocide against the native population of this land. They created a lawless west. As a nation we have admired the most violent among us–outlaws of the west, gangsters in the early 20th century, Presidents and generals who lead us into unnecessary wars and are honored for it with peace medals.

The lessons we have learned as children of this nation are the lessons of violence. We have engaged in a litany of wars and military actions from George Washington all the way through Barack Obama. And virtually all our wars were fought not to protect American people, but American interests, which translates as protecting the wealth and assets of the ruling class. Not one generation has grown up without war. Every American child has grown up with our country engaged in killing other people in far-off lands, and we have grown to accept this as the normal course of things.

I believe that as long as our leaders continue to justify drone warfare, bombings with “collateral damage” , unnecessary and unjust wars, covert killings of supposed enemies, as long as we continue supplying the world with munitions and our own citizens with military-grade weapons, as long as there are classes of citizens who are considered “other” or “less than”, as long as the signal from the top down continues to be that violence is resolution then we will continue to see police officers kill persons of color and poor white folks. We will continue to see mass shootings and daily murders in cities across the country. We will continue to see a descent into a world where no life has value.

The children of this country need to break the cycle. Those who understand that violence begets violence and love begets love must find a way to reach others, to reach our leaders, to change the way the world is now so that we can live in a future where everyone is safe, everyone is truly equal, and every life is valued. It is not just about removing guns from madmen. It is about changing the entire culture.

I wish I knew how that could be done. I wish I had an easy answer. I don’t. I think it has to start within the hearts of those who value life more than property or wealth. It has to start with those who do not think color, gender, orientation, or a host of other factors make anyone less. I think those who want to see it change have to reach out and touch those with whom they are close, and then those people need to reach out to others, until there is a mass movement of citizens demanding that we look at the way we move through this world, both as individual citizens and as a government that is supposed to represent us. I think that those of us who want to see this change must start taking stands whenever and wherever we can. We need to stand up and say “No more.” We have to let it be known that we will not accept things as they are, and that we expect things to be better. It will not change itself. It needs common people to stand up and demand something better.

*372 mass shootings (defined as four or more injured or killed) resulting in 475 deaths and 1,870 wounded according to 2015: The Year of Mass Shootings by Abbey Oldham. PBS News Hour. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2015-the-year-of-mass-shootings/

**2015 Chicago Murders. Timeline. DNAInfo, Chicago. https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago

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On the Pulse Nightclub Massacre

Candle at a vigil for the victims of the Pulse Orlando shooting. Photo by Callen Harty.

Candle at a vigil for the victims of the Pulse Orlando shooting. Photo by Callen Harty.

Within a couple minutes of waking up on Sunday morning several posts on Facebook had alerted me to yet another mass shooting in the United States. A moment later I saw that it had taken place at a gay nightclub in Orlando and my heart sank. Even if the club were more than a thousand miles away the people there would be my queer brothers and sisters and allies. Then I heard that it was Latino night at the club and my heart sunk a bit further. Two groups that are oppressed, two groups that are treated as “less than” or “other” in our culture and we were being slaughtered, most likely for no other reason than our identity.

Really, I had no definitive way of knowing whether the shooter knew it was Latino night or even whether it was a gay club, but my heart knew. I did not need to find out from NBC that his father said that the shooter was outraged by witnessing two men kissing and holding hands in Miami a couple months before the shooting. My heart knew. And even if it turns out that that he did this as an Islamist extremist I do not need to be told that he hated LGBT people. My heart knows. My heart knows that he chose Pulse for a reason.

As a gay man I have expected something like this to happen for years, although I expected it would be a homophobic, right-wing Christian who doesn’t really understand the love of Jesus rather than a homophobic right-wing Muslim. It doesn’t much matter. So many right-wing interpretations of various religions teach people to hate. People are hated for their sexuality, their race, their religion, their place of origin, their status (or lack of it), gender, and on and on. Hatred crosses many lines.

Pulse is not the first time and it won’t be the last. Any queer person can tell you that. Look up the Upstairs Lounge arson fire in New Orleans where 32 people died. Look up the Otherside Lounge bombing in Atlanta where fortunately nobody died. Look up violence against LGBT people and you will find a litany of brutal beatings, torture, and killings of people simply because they were queer. Harvey Milk, Allen Schindler, Brandon Teena, Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither, name after name after name, and those lists only include the ones that were somehow considered newsworthy. They don’t include my queer Native American friend, Earl Greeley, who was beaten to death by a man in Superior, Wisconsin. They don’t include the store owner whose bloody body was found in his store on the Capitol Square in Madison. They don’t include the still unidentified person whose biologically male body, dressed in women’s clothes, was found stuffed in a chimney on the University of Wisconsin campus in a case that is still unsolved. They don’t include the countless nameless faceless gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens of the world who are killed every day in this world. Or who are beaten to within inches of dying. Or harassed or threatened.

As a gay man I live with the whisper of violence in my ear. I hear it whenever I walk the streets, whenever I gather with my queer brothers and sisters. I hear it when I lay in bed at night or when I dare to kiss my life partner in public. While I have not yet suffered a physical assault I have been verbally harassed and had my life threatened many times. I understand that at any moment I could be attacked or killed just for being who I am. This is not to say that others aren’t also possibly in danger in this gun-slinging violence-crazed country, but there is a higher probability of someone in a minority community facing violence. According to a recent article LGBT people face a significantly higher risk of violence than other minorities (The Atlantic, June 12, 2016)*. This because of who we love. That is all.

At least in this country the possibility of dying for being gay is not officially government-sanctioned. In many countries the punishment for homosexual acts is death. Still, there are politicians, religious leaders, and others who with their rhetoric encourage the type of thing that happened Sunday. The underlying message is that gay people are evil, worthless beings. The killer of my friend who was bludgeoned to death has been out of prison for years. The judge felt that he had come from a good family and that what he did was not indicative of his true nature and that if he could continue college he could become a valuable contributing member of society. He was sentenced to prison, but only for a relatively short period of time. Earl’s death did not lead to justice. Earl’s life was deemed of little value by the judge. Earl, as I noted, was both gay and Native American.

My thoughts are jumbled still. The massacre in Orlando has shook me up pretty badly. It has brought to the forefront all the lifelong fears, the anger over injustice, the incredible deep sorrow that I was born into a world that does not value all people as equals and seems not to value life at all. I know that is not true, of course. I know that for every murderous person filled with enough hatred to do damage to others there are thousands upon thousands of people willing to stand in long lines to give blood to those in need, to risk their lives to save the lives of others, to stand up for those who can’t stand for themselves. I know this, but still I grieve for the state of the world.

But I will not live my life in sorrow. I will not live my life in fear. I will not give in to hatred and bigotry and become hateful myself. Instead I will dig deeper into the well of love in my queer soul. I will survive and I will love and I will help make this world a better place. After hearing that the Orlando shooter became outraged by seeing two men kissing I decided to change my profile picture to one of Brian and me kissing. I am too old and too stubborn to go back in the closet. My love will not hide. Ever. You can put a bullet in my heart but you don’t have a weapon that can take my soul. You can destroy my body but I will not let you destroy my spirit.

That is where I am at today. I am in a place of love and that is where I will dwell all the days of my life.

*from the Atlantic, June 12, 2016: “In a 2011 analysis of FBI hate-crime statistics, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that ‘LGBT are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people,’ said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the center. Because the population of LGBT Americans is relatively small, and the number of hate crimes against that group is significant, LGBT individuals face a higher risk than other groups of being the victims of an attack. ‘They are more than four times as likely as Muslims, and almost 14 times as likely as Latinos’, Potok added. Sexual orientation motivated roughly 20 percent of hate crimes in 2013 according to the FBI; the only factor that accounted for more was race.”

 

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Courage

Me in grade school Photographer unknown.

Me in grade school Photographer unknown.

I’d like to thank WCASA and all of the wonderful employees there for presenting me with this award. I am deeply honored to be named your Courage Award recipient for 2016. I would also like to thank Angie Rehling of OutReach who nominated me for the award, as well as some special people who have walked this path with me for many years.

First on that list is my life partner, Brian, who has supported me in countless ways for more than 25 years now. My gratitude and love continues to grow deeper each day. I would not be standing here if not for him. There are also family members who have  listened and stood with me throughout the years, so I would like to thank my sister, Coleen, and my niece, Lauri, for their undying support. A couple dear friends, Sunshine and Jackie, have also helped me immensely as I have slowly peeled back the layers of my life to become a survivor, so thank you for everything you have given me and everything you have allowed me to share. Thank you for your willingness to hold all of that with me. Finally, two of my co-workers have also been with me every step of the way, so special thanks to Joann and Dottie for your support and friendship. There are many others who have helped me in this process in myriad ways and I thank all of them for their love and support.

I am proud of the work that I have done in the last several years and I am honored to receive this award, but I also understand that it is just one marker along the highway. I am still walking my path and we are also still on a long journey to that day when there will be no more sexual violence. On the day that I received notice of this award I saw on the local news that in separate cases two area men had been arrested for creating child pornography. A middle school teacher had been arrested for having sexual relations with a student. Another story was about a man burning down the future home of a registered sex offender. It turned out that the arsonist had himself been sexually abused at the age of five. I believe there are messages in the universe if we look for them. The message I received that day was that this award was not given to serve as a memorial to past accomplishments but as a reminder of the work that still needs to be done. I will do my best to continue in that work.

I would also like to take a moment to talk about courage. There have been times as I have presented my writings or spoken my truth about my story and survival when friends or strangers have commented about my courage in doing so, and that has always made me a little uncomfortable. For some reason I have always been at ease with my life as an open book, whether it is talking about my queer life, my alcoholism, or my status as a male survivor of childhood sex abuse. I understand that not everyone can be out there with things like this, but because I feel it is important to be open with my life in order to help others I have always done it. It just is. I have never seen it as an act of courage.

For me courage is not me speaking to you now. It is the little boy inside of me who fought valiantly the first time the abuse was perpetrated, who managed as a child to survive nearly eight years of sexual abuse, who kept me as an adult from ending it all, and who stayed with me through years of alcohol and drug abuse and years of uncertainty and doubt. It is also the countless little boys and girls who are living that same nightmare every day right now and who are somehow managing to survive. It is for the little child inside each person here who has shown the will to survive and thrive.

This award is for all of those little children inside each of us. Please take a moment to connect with them, hug them, hear them, be with them, and thank them for the courage they had all those years ago that allows you to be here today, whatever your story might be. Love them. Hold on to that child and love them. Love yourself. They are you and you are them and you deserve to be loved. My little boy is hugging and loving each of you right now.

Thank you again for honoring that little boy’s courage. We accept it on behalf of all survivors.

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Silver Anniversary

PrideFest 1991

The earliest picture of Brian and me. At Milwaukee’s PrideFest, 1991. Photographer unknown.

In May of 1991 I had just moved back to Madison, Wisconsin after four years in Denver, Colorado. Denver was beautiful and I loved it and had made many friends there, but it was never home. I had also recently broken up with my boyfriend after a five-year long relationship and countless break-ups and make-ups. I was tired of the emotional yo-yo and had also decided that it was the last break-up and that I didn’t need anyone else in my life to be fulfilled and to be a complete human being.

Shortly after moving to Madison I was at the pinball machine at Rod’s bar, a basement bar in the old Hotel Washington building which burned down several years later. I looked up and saw my friend, Billy, coming down the stairs with someone I hadn’t seen before. I can’t remember if I thought it to myself or said it aloud to my friend, Dan, but I remember my first thought was, “Damn, that boy’s cute.” Billy introduced me to Brian, they wandered off, and I went back to my pinball game. We bumped into each other again a little bit later, but that was about it.

By that time in my  life I was sober. I had quit drinking after more than a decade of nearly constant drunkenness. Still, I went back to Rod’s for several nights in a row hoping to bump into Brian again. There was something about him. I wanted to talk to him some more. One night when I was there by myself with an empty bar stool next to me Brian walked in the door and asked if he could join me. He sat down and we ended up talking for hours–about gay politics, other politics, theater, movies, music, philosophy, religion, and on and on. There was a connection there, some indefinable understanding that while we were different we shared many interests and convictions.

After five years with my ex I was not looking for a relationship at that time, but at some point after that long conversation in the bar we had our first date, and then another, and another. On my birthday on May 27 we had another date and kissed for the first time as Brian was at the door ready to head home for the night. Happy Birthday to me! By June 1 we had determined that we were a couple. Within a short time I knew that it would be the longest relationship of my life. Within a short time after that I knew that we were meant for each other and that it would be a lifetime (and beyond) relationship.

We have been through a lot together. We have worked together to make Proud Theater, an LGBT youth theater group, a success. We have worked together in other theater work, primarily at Broom Street Theater. We work well together. We are each other’s biggest fans. We make each other laugh. After twenty-five years we still laugh a lot and I truly believe that is one of the important keys to a long-lasting relationship.

On the other hand, we have each watched the other lose a best friend–my friend to suicide, his to AIDS, as well as other friends and family. We have watched as his mother died of cancer and as my mother has slowly degenerated into dementia. We have supported each other through many difficult emotional issues. And with each tough day that we have experienced we have grown stronger together.

Twenty-five years later our love continues to grow. Now we don’t have to finish sentences. We support each other in all we do, but are honest when we don’t agree. We rarely disagree strongly and we have had only a few major disagreements or fights in our time together. We joke about growing old together. We appreciate each other more with each passing day. We still hold hands all the time. We still kiss each other upon leaving or arriving. We still say I love you every day, many times. And as we grow older we both fear losing the other, not being able to imagine life without each other.

Interestingly we are each our own men. We do not need the other to be complete, and yet we complete each other in some way. We complement each other (and compliment each other). We are whole beings by ourselves but we are made more whole together.

When I was younger I couldn’t imagine finding a life partner. I couldn’t imagine a day when I could marry a partner. When that became legal we decided to wait until our 25th anniversary because we wanted to make sure it would stay legal and that it would be legal in our home state of Wisconsin. We are now planning that for sometime in the fall. We don’t need that to know that we are committed to each other. We don’t need to pronounce it aloud so that others know. Our love will outlast the paper. I look forward to the next twenty-five years.

 

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