George Floyd Died Today

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Black Lives Matter. Photo by Callen Harty.

George Floyd died today. And another piece of America went with him.

I want to believe that the racist culture in which our nation and our entire history is so steeped is in decline, and perhaps white women calling police because their privilege is threatened and police officers killing black men because their power is threatened are the last gasps of systemic racism.

But those in power do not give up power easily. Racism is so entrenched in the United States that getting to a place of equity must necessarily require years of deconstructing systems that are designed for the powerful to maintain their power.

George Floyd’s death is a result of the way things are set up and the racism that is ingrained everywhere in this county. Racism is not the domain of the South. It is in Georgia, but also in New York. It is in Minneapolis. It permeates the very fiber of this country. It is everywhere. In the North it has not always been as overt, but it is just as insidious.

When an entire race or class of people is considered “other” or “less than”, then citizens everywhere, consciously or not, feel superior to that class. White people are inherently racist by virtue of years of growing up privileged in the culture. We have to struggle and work hard to overcome the racism of the culture in which we are raised. We have to consciously seek to change.

There has been an incredible and frightening rise of overt and extreme racism in America, from the shooting of a jogger in Georgia to the police killing of a black man in Minnesota to the appearance of Confederate flags and swastikas in the halls of the Michigan Capitol. It feels like a reaction to the disintegration of a power structure that has been in place for hundreds of years that does not want to let go. But regardless of the reason, people of color are dying because of it, and each time that happens, a piece of our innocence dies also, our excuses for not standing up for our black brothers and sisters are chipped away, and we are laid bare as a nation.

George Floyd died today. He wasn’t killed by one policeman. He was killed by the power structure. He was not the only one. His death was in one place at one time. But people of color are dying daily, hourly, minute by minute–from a disproportionate number of Covid-19 cases, from poverty, from an unrelenting number of oppressions. It is time for all of us to rise up and say “No more!” It is time for the system to relinquish its power and live up to the unfulfilled promise that all of us are created equal.

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Open Letter to Justice Rebecca Bradley

Heart Mountain Camp

Heart Mountain Camp, the site of a World War II Japanese internment camp. Photo by Callen Harty.

Justice Bradley,

No, the stay-at-home order currently in effect is not like Japanese internment camps and there is no chance that it will be. Being asked to stay at home to protect yourself and other people is not the same as being ripped from your home and taken to a prison camp where you are not allowed to leave for any reason. Being furloughed due to the tough economy brought about by Covid-19 is not the same as losing your house and all your possessions. Not being allowed to shop or dine out for a while is not the same as being incarcerated because you are perceived to be an enemy combatant because of your heritage. Having to hear a court case over video while protecting yourself at home is not the same as losing your freedom and rights as a citizen because people are scared of your last name.

Your ignorance of history and your privilege are showing and it is not pretty.

And no, the governor and health secretary extending the stay-at-home order is not tyranny. Tyranny is Adolph Hitler killing 12 million people. It is the Chinese crackdown on Tiananmen Square. It is Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, and others imprisoning and killing their own citizens. It is not a soft-spoken Wisconsin governor who is doing his best to keep people alive.

You ask, “where in the Constitution did the people of Wisconsin confer authority on a single unelected cabinet secretary to compel almost six million people to stay at home and close their businesses and face imprisonment if they don’t comply?” The answer is simple and you know it. It’s called representative government. The people gave the legislators they voted into office the authority to create laws for the benefit of all and those legislators created laws that allow this during a pandemic. If the Republican leadership doesn’t like the laws as they stand, they can draft their own legislation. It’s in the job description.

Wisconsin citizens also gave the State Supreme Court the power to decide Constitutional questions with the expectation that justices would be objective and not partisan hacks. Republicans have been saying for years that judges–every time those judges decide against them–are activist judges who try to create laws from the bench. Project much? The laws in this state are already clear on this issue. Overriding the stay-at-home orders would simply be the court overriding the will of the people through the acts of the legislature. It would be activist conservative judges creating laws from the bench.

There is little doubt that the decision that will be handed down soon will favor the Republican leadership that skipped lower courts and brought this case directly to you and your fellow conservatives on the bench. It was clear when the court agreed to hear the case instead of sending it to a lower court that the stay-at-home order would be overturned. I sincerely hope that doing so does not endanger anyone–including you and your loved ones–though anyone with an ounce of sense and the ability to understand basic science would not bet on it.

No, the governor and his health secretary will not be sending Wisconsin citizens to concentration camps. But it is very likely the Supreme Court will be sentencing countless Wisconsin citizens to death sentences.

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Virus of the Soul

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Heart Balloon. Photo by Callen Harty.

Sitting at home reading about tens of thousands of people in my country dying of Covid-19 is hard enough. Knowing that countless more will die in the coming months is even more difficult. But reading about ignorant and hateful acts by my fellow countrymen is far more disheartening and honestly far more frightening than a deadly virus. It is a virus of the soul and I am more confident than ever that the soul of America is lost.

While we have achieved greatness in many ways, we also have a long history of horrible people and horrible acts, starting with the genocide of Native Americans, and continuing with the enslavement of African people, the exploitation of resources all over the world, and the destruction of the environment and anything else that stands in the way of profits and more profits. Money is our god and anything that stands in the way of accumulating more of it is expendable and we’ll go to war with anyone to defend that god.

This is on my mind because the news stories that are the scariest today are not about the virus, but about fellow citizens who have no love, empathy, or concern for others. Today I read a report out of Michigan about a security guard who was killed after telling a young woman she was required to wear a face mask to enter a store. Hours later family members came back to the store and he was shot and killed after a heated argument over the situation.

The coronavirus isn’t killing us as much as it is exposing us to the horrors of who we are as a nation.

Shortly after digesting the Michigan story I saw another one about a 79-year old man in Wisconsin who was killed over an argument about a parking space. A parking space! A person’s life is worth no more than a parking space? We are so lazy or so entitled or so–whatever was in the mind of the killer–that another man’s life becomes that meaningless? This country is in more trouble from the disintegration of morals and empathy than anything else that threatens us right now.

Also today there was a report that right-wing activist Ammon Bundy in a speech in Idaho blamed the Jews for the Holocaust, another man who was told he had to wear a face mask in a store in Michigan wiped his nose on the employee’s shirt in protest, and in California a man went shopping and instead of wearing a regular mask donned a Ku Klux Klan hood.

We are a sick country. Somewhere along the line we lost the spirit of neighbors helping neighbors and returned to the Civil War circumstance of brother against brother. We lost our sense of compassion, of putting ourselves in the shoes of others, and we have forgotten how to compromise. We have also forgotten how to sacrifice for the good of all because we have not had to do so for decades. We have lost the ability to love one another because we are all so damned self-assured that our political positions are right and those who disagree with us are all idiots or evil. We have self-quarantined our hearts.

I wish I had an answer, but I am at a loss. What I know is that we need to find our souls again and we need to learn how to love one another again. This is not an answer that science can find for us. It is not up to government. The politicians are even more divided than the rest of us. It isn’t even an answer religion can find for us. It has to come from deep within each of us. We desperately need a spiritual reawakening and we need to open our hearts to the possibilities and the power of love. Simply put, we are a lost and doomed nation if we do not.

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Wisconsin Asshats

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Scott Fitzgerald and Robin Vos. Photos by Callen Harty

Dear Scott Fitzgerald and Robin Vos,

The nicest thing I can say about the two of you is that you are asshats. After years in the Wisconsin Legislature as waterboys for the Koch Brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), you are somehow still in power as the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the Assembly. Your service to right-wing causes has been a disservice to the citizens of this state as a whole, but because you are in conservative districts (all of which were gerrymandered by you and your party) you keep getting reelected to further wreak destruction upon the state. Vos, you first got in by running unopposed for your old boss’ position in both the primary and general election and once an incumbent, always an incumbent.

Though your constituents have been okay with your various power grabs over the years, I am hopeful that maybe this time they will find their humanity and realize that you have none. Filing a suit to force Wisconsin to hold in-person elections during a pandemic should be enough to cause voters to boot you out of office. Already, there appear to be spikes in Covid-19 cases in Milwaukee and Green Bay, two of the cities with the longest lines because they didn’t have enough volunteers to handle the usual number of polling stations. Perhaps you are okay with a spike and a handful of people dying in your attempt to help your conservative lackey Supreme Court Justice win another term. Fortunately, that failed, but people are still going to die because of it.

And now, you are filing suit again, appealing directly to the conservative State Supreme Court and bypassing lower courts to try to immediately halt Governor Evers’ extension of his stay-at-home order. How many lives are okay to sacrifice to satisfy the business interests who back you? How many pieces of silver do you need? How much more power do you crave?

Vos, you even stated that you wanted to craft the suit carefully so as not to give the governor more power should you lose. Can you tell us again that everything you do is not about accruing more power? Bullshit. You’re an asshat who doesn’t care about the people of this state. Neither one of you is listening more carefully to medical experts than to your corporate benefactors. Neither one of you has ever listened more to the citizens of this state than to the moneyed interests whose interests are the core of your agenda in the statehouse.

If you win this case (with the help of the Supreme Court that sides with you every time you file a lawsuit, and there have been many), and cause the state to open up before it should, you will be responsible for much more sickness and death. Of course, you won’t care. You will have done what you need to do to satisfy those who want to keep you in power. You will have to live with that. Unfortunately, others may not.

 

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On the 2020 Wisconsin Spring Election

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Scott Fitzgerald and Robin Vos. Photos by Callen Harty

The most important race in Wisconsin’s 2020 spring election was the Supreme Court race between Scott Walker-appointed Daniel Kelly and Jill Karofsky. A win for Karofsky would change the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court from 5-2 to 4-3, a tenuous hold on the third branch of government after Republicans lost the Executive branch last year. The current conservative court has upheld virtually every Republican-passed law that has been challenged and every case taken before them by the Republicans for years, including a suit last week to overturn Governor Evers’ last-ditch attempt to postpone the election so as not to put Wisconsin’s citizens in danger.

When Evers ordered the election postponed, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos complained that Evers should have worked with them sooner to do something about it. But the two of them control both houses of the Legislature. They didn’t have to wait for the governor to do anything. They could have put together legislation to delay the election like sixteen other states had done, or switch it to all mailed ballots like Alaska did, or a combination of both. The governor had even said he felt it was the responsibility of the Legislature, not him, to take the lead on it. But they didn’t.

Long before Covid-19 and this particular election, Republicans have been doing what they can to suppress votes in the state and nationwide. After winning the Wisconsin governorship and legislature in 2010, they met in secret to create the most gerrymandered voting districts in the country. Within a couple years of that, they passed stringent voter ID laws, claiming it was necessary due to voter fraud, despite virtually no evidence of that. Back in 2018, after Scott Walker lost his bid for reelection, the Republicans had a plan to separate the Supreme Court election from the primary, knowing that Democrats would be more motivated to show up at the polls with a contested primary. That effort failed after the press alerted the public to the cost of doing so and the fact that the only reason for doing it would be to help Daniel Kelly. Currently, they have a lawsuit that is on hold that would purge more than 200,000 voters from the rolls, a tactic used by Republicans across the nation.

When Governor Evers finally called the Legislature into special session to vote on postponing the election, Vos and Fitzgerald had a couple of their members go to the Capitol, gavel the session in and gavel the session out in less than thirty seconds, with no discussion at all about what could or should be done to protect Wisconsin citizens against the coronavirus. While Evers could have called a special session sooner there is no reason to believe that wouldn’t have been gaveled in and out just as quickly. The Republicans seemed determined to force the election and to do whatever they could to prevent as many people from voting as possible.

The same day, Republicans petitioned the United States Supreme Court to overturn a lower court decision that would have extended absentee balloting by a week. One would think that government officials would do everything they could to make sure that everyone who wanted to vote could do so and that every ballot would be counted. One could assume that unless those leaders wanted to suppress the vote to help their preferred candidate.

The reality was that keeping the election in-person would force residents of the two largest Wisconsin cities–Milwaukee and Madison–to have to go to the polls and risk contracting Covid-19 despite a stay-at-home order, or stay at home and forfeit their ballots. And, what a surprise, the two largest cities are also the two biggest Democratic strongholds in the state, as well as having the most cases and deaths from the virus. Citizens in smaller towns outstate would not have as much to fear by going to the polls in person (though nobody anywhere in the state should have been forced to make that decision).

On Monday, Evers signed his Executive Order postponing the election, an eleventh hour attempt to do what should have been done at least a couple weeks earlier. Supporters of Fitzgerald and Vos screamed that Evers was trying to become a dictator, despite the fact that in his Executive Order he cited a state statute–323.12(4)(b)–that the Republicans passed during Scott Walker’s tenure as governor to give the governor more power. The governor had a couple weeks earlier declared an emergency due to the coronavirus and under the state of emergency, 323.12(4)(b) specifically says that the governor may “Issue such orders as he or she deems necessary for the security of persons and property.” Evers didn’t want to go this route, but felt he had no choice.

Vos and Fitzgerald immediately took it to their friends on the State Supreme Court, who shortly after ruled in their favor on a 4-2 vote, with four conservatives voting to hold the election, two liberals voting to postpone it, and Daniel Kelly recusing himself given that he was running for reelection. Despite a declaration of emergency and the governor quoting a state statute that appeared to give the governor the power to do what was necessary to protect the citizens of the state, the court ruled that he did not have the authority to do what he did. Later in the day, the U. S. Supreme Court overturned most of the lower court decision and determined that all absentee ballots had to be postmarked by April 7 and had to arrive at the city clerk’s office by April 13 to count.

The election was probably the most bizarre in the history of Wisconsin, if not the nation. Voters stood in line for hours in Milwaukee, which had only five polling places open because they could not find enough poll workers to staff the nearly 200 sites they would normally have open. Citizens also waited in long lines in many other cities. Some gave up and went home rather than stand with so many other people during a pandemic. Many, many people who didn’t get absentee ballots, including hundreds who had ordered them well in advance but hadn’t yet received them, had to make the decision to risk their health to vote in person or opt to stay home and not vote in a critical election. Countless people chose to forego their right to vote in favor of their health and safety, but huge numbers of determined citizens made their way to the polls, waited in lines, wore masks and gloves, and ultimately voted. Those who did vote in person risked their lives for their vote and for democracy. Wisconsin will soon see if there is a surge of the virus in a couple weeks and whether any of them die for their determination.

Assembly Speaker Vos volunteered at his local polling place in Burlington while stating that gathering all those people in one place was perfectly safe. He became the laughing stock of the nation when pictures surfaced of him in full protective equipment where he volunteered inside as people voted drive-up. Plenty of people were already angry at Vos and Fitzgerald for forcing the election to be held, but were even angrier that he showed up wearing full personal protective equipment when so many health care workers were not able to get the same for themselves.

After the election was over, bins of unmailed ballots for Oshkosh, Appleton, and Fox Point were found. The Wisconsin Elections Commission received complaints from all over the state from citizens who put in requests for absentee ballots and never got them. The Commission and the U. S. Postal Service both opened investigations into what may have happened with those ballots.

Because absentee ballots could still be counted if they arrived by the 13th, results were ordered not to be released until after 4:00 p.m. on Monday, April 13. By mid-evening, the race was called for Karofsky who was holding at about a six percent lead for a couple of hours. By midnight, almost 99% of the votes had been counted and she had approximately a 150,000 vote lead out of about a million and a half votes cast, enough to overcome any Republican objections, challenges, or lawsuits. The result was clearly a rebuke of Vos and Fitzgerald, as well as Donald Trump, who had used his pulpit as President to encourage citizens to show up at the polls during a pandemic and to vote for Kelly, and finally, of the Wisconsin Supreme Court itself and their close association with Republican leadership.

Prior to the election there were articles stating that this latest Republican attempt to thwart voting would be the playbook for the fall national election if it succeeded, and it was generally thought that it would and that incumbent Kelly would win another ten-year term. Karofsky’s win sent a clear warning signal to Republicans both in Wisconsin and nationally that they had better find another playbook as the citizens were tired of attempts to suppress the vote and subvert the will of the people. Wisconsinites who were embarrassed by the naked politics a week previously were suddenly proud that their fellow citizens overcame the odds and made their voices heard.

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Isolation 2

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My partner, Brian, wearing a mask. Photo by Callen Harty.

When I was a boy I could easily spend hours in my bedroom by myself, playing games with my toy cars. I wouldn’t race them on orange tracks with loop de loops or push them across the floor as fast as possible like other boys did. I only had a few of the Hot Wheels race cars that so many of my cooler friends had. Instead, I had the more utilitarian Matchbox cars. There were dump trucks and pickup trucks, police cars and ambulances, an occasional Mercedes or Fiat, buses and taxis, everything needed to set up a little town on the top of my bed, with the square patterns of the bedspread serving as city blocks.

An entire town was set up, mostly in my mind, as there were no buildings or streets or trees or anything but the squares of the bedspread, which suggested the way the town was divided, and the several dozen vehicles I owned which drove around those squares as I created stories of the people inside those cars and trucks.

I remember this now because I am remembering how introverted I was as a child, how socially awkward in so many ways. Because I have done theater for decades and have done public speaking for almost as long, because I have founded several organizations and published strong opinion pieces, I think now most people would not guess that I am still an introvert at my core, still the little boy who is so shy and uncomfortable in social settings. Sometimes introverts can project confidence that isn’t really there. Sometimes we do things because we have to do them. But when those moments are done, we are okay with taking a walk in the woods by ourselves or coming home to be alone and be okay with that.

This is part of who I am, but I am fully human. Though uncomfortable with small talk and certain social constructs, I need some social contact. I need some close friends. I need to hug and touch, to feel wanted and to want. As a writer, I need to be out in the world to observe the people in it, to understand our human condition better by witnessing the world around me.

Despite being an introvert I have already grown to dislike the phrase “social distancing.” I am already weary of “safer-at-home.” This is not the way the world should be.

I am lucky that I have a partner that I can share my isolation with at this time. I am lucky that my job is one that can be done at home and that my company is having us do that. I understand that I have it easy compared to so many others, but it is still difficult. In previous times, I might choose to stay home most days or I might choose to go to the woods by myself to commune with nature, but not having the choice is hard. Being kept from family and friends that I love makes me want to be with them even more. Not knowing when that will be possible again hurts.

I understand that this is so much easier for me, that there are people dying, that there are lovers who can’t be with their partners as they take their last breaths, that thousands of people have lost their livelihoods and that we are likely heading into a deep recession, if not a depression. I understand that domestic violence is skyrocketing, that people who were already lonely are lonelier still, that many are suffering in many ways, and that my situation is relatively easy. Still, this is not the village I imagined as a boy. It is not the society I dreamed of as a young man. It is not the world I grew accustomed to as a man, and I’m at a loss to know how to deal with the change and the fear that some things may never be the same again. I will never be the same again.

Right now, I long for those old Matchbox cars. I long to sit by my bed and create the world I want, and I think I’m not the only one. Right now, the part of me that needs human connection out in the world is hurting, and it makes me sad. The uncertainty of it all is unsettling. So, I reach out with my writing, hoping that my words in print rather than my voice might touch someone else and we can connect for a moment in this time that we are in now.

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Isolation

Hug

Hug. Photo by Callen Harty.

Last night I had a dream that we were with a group of about half a dozen old friends. Our time together was at its end. We were outside somewhere, likely a park, and all of the friends were lined up in a row and my partner and I were standing about ten feet away looking at them. Two of them hugged each other and I looked longingly at them because I love to hug and I miss them so much right now.

This is the reality of the world we live in right now. We can’t hug our friends or, unlike the dream, even be with them.

The dream continued with me looking at each of them and extending my arms out in what is known as an air hug and doing the same to each of them in turn. When I got to the last one, he stepped out of line and started moving toward me to give me a real hug and I started backing away. He continued moving toward me and I walked away from him. He started moving faster and I started running. He ran after me and eventually touched my shoulders and I turned and said sternly to him, “That’s not funny.”

This, too, is the world we live in, when we are afraid of the ones we love.

Yesterday, sitting at my kitchen table while working from home, I wasn’t feeling very well. I was tired and just felt sort of yucky. Nothing fit the symptoms of the Covid-19 virus and despite being isolated, I started worrying about it, thinking that this might be it. I realized then that despite my stoic front I am actually terrified of this disease and worried about dying from it due to complications from heart issues.

It’s the world we live in at this time.

I desperately want to go for a hike, but the weather hasn’t been the best, so I’m waiting it out. The only time I’ve been outside lately has been to walk the dogs and as we do, we watch the strange dance of people avoiding each other, crossing the street before they get too close, moving around in such a way as to have no contact. At least some of them smile and say hello and wish you a good day.

And this is the world we live in, where neighbors keep their distance.

The thing is, the isolation has not been that long yet and already I am longing for the world I used to know–the one in which people shake hands, hug, and connect in so many ways. It is the way of humans. It’s the world we should be living in, and I already miss it desperately.

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