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We Are Called to Greatness

18 Nov

Last night I was honored to receive an “Innovator Award” from Outfront Minnesota, the principal civil rights organization for LGBTQ people in our state.  Writing a speech in the aftermath of last week’s election was challenging.  Here is what I came up with.

I want to thank Outfront Minnesota for this incredible honor and thank all of you here tonight celebrating the work of this wonderful organization. I also want to thank the community of activists, the movement that I belong to here in Minnesota–community, faith and labor–and especially to the members of SEIU local 26, the janitors, security officers, window cleaners and, as of just this week, airport service workers, who have given me the honor of allowing me to be the leader of that union for the past 12 years. I also, of course, want to thank my partner of twenty years, John Stiles, who could not be here with us tonight because he had a longstanding, planned trip that he left for last Wednesday morning.

You can imagine that when he planned this trip many months ago, we had no idea that early Wednesday morning would feel like the coming of the apocalypse. I had been asleep maybe just an hour when I was jolted awake with a panic attack like nothing I had experienced before. I literally felt like I could not breathe: the only words I could sob to John were, “please don’t go, please don’t go.” I felt at that moment that my world was literally collapsing and I could not bear the thought of being without him for two weeks. I was able to eventually calm down and John made it out of the country without me making too much of a scene; but that feeling of lack of oxygen, that feeling of breathlessness, stayed with me for days after.

As I tried to work my way out of this desperation, I was reminded a lesson from Tibetan Buddhism that has helped me get through difficult moments in my work.  It is a meditation called tonglen: as you focus on your breath, you first envision yourself breathing in darkness and breathing out light. Then you envision yourself breathing in pain, breathing in the pain of others, and breathing out light. Inhale pain, exhale light. Breathe in pain, breathe out light.

The people in this room who work for social justice know that our work is hard: we see so much pain in the world, and we cannot help but breathe it in. We also encounter, create and breath out moments of joy. When we help a victim of a hate crime rebuild, when we win a higher minimum wage, when we win a union contract, these things add joy to people’s lives. This meditation has helped me out of dark moments.

A few years ago, in a particularly dark moment, I was feeling sorry for myself and at that moment, I thought, there is so much I love about the work that I do but so much that is so hard. What I wished for at that moment was that I could experience more of the joy and less of the pain. And what I learned through tonglen is that when we do the work of social justice, we cannot wish for work with less pain and more joy. The work of social justice is precisely to breathe in pain and emit light. That is the work.  It is both.

***

In 2011, I had the great honor of representing SEIU at the Congress of SATAWU, the South African Transit Workers Union. The South African labor movement was a crucial part of the struggle to end apartheid, and international labor solidarity was also key. Witnessing this congress was a transformative experience. While there, I also visited the apartheid museum and went to Soweto. The home Nelson Mandela returned to after being jailed for 27 years by the apartheid regime is now a museum in that township.

Our tour guide, an older woman, told us about the famous Soweto uprising. I asked her if she had been there during the rebellion and immediately realized it was a dumb question. “Oh yes,” she said, as she pointed to a bullet scar on her shin.

I’ve been thinking about that trip to South Africa a lot this past week.  When Mandela was finally released from his twenty-seven years of imprisonment, he was likely the only person in the country who had the moral authority to accomplish what he did, to lead that country to a peaceful transition of power. He led South Africa to reconciliation and rejected the civil strife that could have become civil war. At that moment, Nelson Mandela was called to greatness in ways that I could never imagine being called myself.

This week I have thought a lot about Mandela and about my tour guide in Soweto. I’ve been thinking of them because I have often said that organizing is a vocation of optimists, necessarily so. But in the last week, I confess that it has been existentially difficult to find the optimism, to find the joy, even to find my breath.

I cannot stand here tonight and paint a bright picture of the future for you. We will soon face challenges we have never seen before. But I can tell you is that in the face of the challenges that are to come, we are called to greatness.

When immigrants, terrified that the country has elected a man who won by demonizing them, are faced with the the choice to live their lives, even if in the shadows, boldly and with joy, we are called to greatness.

When citizens are faced with the choice of sitting idly by or providing sanctuary if the president-elect keeps his promise to immediately deport 2-3 million people, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of silence or creating an underground railroad for women who want to control their own bodies and destiny when the president-elect takes steps to ban abortion under all circumstances, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of doing nothing or insisting our local elected officials resist implementing nationwide stop and frisk, we are called to greatness.

When our Muslim brothers and sisters are faced with the prospect of being put on a registry, and when the rest of us are faced with the choice of letting that happen or fighting back, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of looking away or putting our bodies between our transgender loved ones and their oppressors when their oppressors make them even more a target as they choose to live and love as their true selves, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of continuing to stay divided or uniting non-union and union workers to build power when corporations and the elite who put this president-elect into office go after workers and the organizations they build, we are called to greatness.

And because we are called to greatness, we will love each other fiercely, call out our enemies and call in our friends, creating a community of love and kindness and accountability and justice

Because we are called to greatness, we will breathe in pain.  We will breathe in pain.  We will breathe in pain.

And we will breathe out light.

Because we are called to greatness.

Yes, I’m With Her. Now What? November 8 Thoughts.

8 Nov

Holy crap, it’s Tuesday November 8th. I woke up way before my alarm and today, with millions, I will participate in this very flawed democracy and then await results.

In the final weeks and days, it finally almost became cool to support Hillary Clinton (Thanks, Bey!)  But holy shit has it been a long road.  So this morning I remind myself why I’m voting for Clinton and why I’m not.

beyonce

***

I’m with her because secret Facebook groups have kept me sane for the past year. They kept me sane during the primary, when I saw left friends pass on rightwing memes literally created by conservative PACs, when friends who criticized her for not being ENOUGH against Citizens United but who didn’t know that the full name of the group that gave us that horrendous Supreme Court Decision was Citizens United Not Timid – yes, C.U.N.T. – and it was created to attack her.

I’m with her because I don’t remember everyone being so damned tortured about supporting John Kerry — and to say he was at least as flawed a candidate as Clinton is like saying Donald Trump is just a little bit racist.

I’m with her despite being fiercely against her in 2008 because – like Michelle and Barack – I’m an adult who doesn’t live in the past but is focused on now and the future. I’m with her despite being skeptical at the beginning of this primary season, but I’ve seen her campaign as a progressive on many issues – not tacking right as many assumed she would for the general – while still getting no credit for that. I’m with her because I know people who love Obama but hate her for things she did as his Secretary of State.

I’m with her because – as Deborah Tannen eloquently describes – she’s not just judged by a double standard but is in a worse situation, a double bind: if she doesn’t smile she’s dour, but when she verifiably, empirically smiles more than her opponent in a debate she was STILL told to smile more.

I’m with her because when it comes to choice, LGBTQ issues, the global climate change, Supreme Court appointments, belief in the role of government, and a whole host of other issues, there is not doubt she is the best candidate.

I’m with her because I find the whole “I hate voting for the lesser of two evils” line of thought repugnant and privileged.  I’m Puerto Rican. In bipartisan fashion, Congress recently put my home island under what can only be described as a colonial receivership.  When it comes to the American political process, “lesser of two evils” is a way of life, as it is for many people of color.  Welcome to our world.

And perhaps most importantly, I’m with her not because I think I won’t disagree with her as president but because I know I will. But I know that one thing people consistently say about her is that she listens, knows how to get shit done, and she knows how to do that under a barrage of relentless attacks. I’m with her because I am not looking for saviors in politics, especially in US national elections; we are our own saviors.

I’m with her because I am the president of a union of janitors and security officers, of immigrants, low wage workers and people of color, because I am myself Latino, and I am sick and tired of seeing my communities scapegoated.

I am with her because I intend to hold her and Congress accountable to pass immigration reform and criminal justice reform.

I am with her because I know what I’m getting when it comes to Wall Street reform and true financial justice, and by that I mean for a problem so fundamental to our democracy this is a tough, uphill slog no matter who is elected.

I am with her because she has repeatedly told us to hold her accountable. We intend to. (You know that when it comes to immigration reform, we didn’t do that enough in his first term –except for the visionary Dreamers, of course)  That’s on us).

I am with her because I intend to hold us, the progressive movement accountable.  I intend to hold myself accountable.

I’m with her because the work doesn’t end on Tuesday, November 8th. It is just beginning. I’ll be happy about things she does and pissed about others, but I won’t stop organizing and I won’t stop working, and I know that the playing field that she will set up will make our organizing and our victories possible – not guaranteed and they’re never easy. But it’s the right playing field.

***

Tonight, hopefully, this election will avoid a catastrophe for the country and the world.  But let us not kid ourselves. The forces our opponent has unleashed are a genie that will be very tough to put back in the bottle.  The days ahead will be tough.  But we’ll deal with that tomorrow.

Onward!

 

 

Recordando Orlando

15 Jun

Living in Minnesota for this many years, I am used to feeling a part of a very specific subgroup of people. I’m not just a Latino in Minnesota but a Puerto Rican. Not just a Puerto Rican but a gay one.

It’s hard not to feel like I’m always just a little bit on the outside looking in. That, however, is not new to me, nor am I pained by it.  It’s simply the story of my life.

Growing up Puerto Rican, on US army bases, I’ve always felt a part of many worlds. I’ve always spoken both English and Spanish; I don’t remember a time I knew one and learned the other. Culturally, I’ve always felt I had one foot firmly in the island’s culture and the other in mainstream US.

Which culture weighs more heavily in my mind, or which language my brain is thinking in any particular moment depends on that moment and the context. A few days back on the island and I am back to dreaming in Spanish, or Spanglish.

Growing up between cultures, between languages, I have spent a lot of my life feeling like, no matter what group of people I am with, I am always on the outside looking in. I know that can sound weird  or lonely, but it has actually felt empowering. One of my formative memories of growing up is of a parent-teacher conference requested by my kindergarten teacher, Ms. Robinson, an American teaching at our Department of Defense elementary school in Germany.  Ms. Robinson called my mother in to let her know that her son was willful, disobedient, and –worse yet–did not know how to pronounce his own name. Mami was alarmed until she heard the teacher describe how she’d call me, “I say JAY-vier, come here. JAY-vier, listen to me. And he just ignores me!”

Mami and I laughed all the way home. That day and always, my mother instilled in my siblings and me a deep sense of pride. The fact that we spoke two language, knew more than one culture — that was an asset. It meant we knew more than other people. The rest of that school year whenever I got in trouble with Ms. Robinson, I just felt smug, as if to think, “yeah, well we’ve already established that you are dumb.”

***

This week, being on the outside looking in has not felt empowering. I woke up Sunday to a text from our dear friend Carla, telling us she was crying about how the massacre in Orlando must make us feel, how personal this is.  I had no idea what she was talking about, wondering what words autocorrect turned into “massacre” and “Orlando.”

John slept in and I went downstairs to make coffee and get my day going. I grab my phone and go to Twitter.

A massacre, indeed.  A night club under siege for hours, with almost fifty dead. Not just fifty clubgoers dead, fifty people at a gay club. Not just a gay club but a gay club on a Latin Night. The victims are not just almost all Latino they are mostly Puerto Rican.

A massacre of gay Puerto Ricans.

A lifetime of feeling empowered by being on the outside looking in and, here, from Minnesota, I feel … like I don’t know what the fuck I’m feeling, actually.  I admire the righteous anger, but that’s not quite what I am feeling. It’s that plus sadness but that’s not quite it. Is it despair, emptiness?

There is no outside from which to look in.

***

So many gay Latinos have a Pulse Bar, a place where you went or go to be yourself. In Puerto Rico when I was home on vacation from college, it was Krash on Avenida Ponce de León. When I lived in DC, it was Escándalo, a tiny bar where I learned to follow when dancing salsa and merengue.

If this enraged, closeted maniac had been at either of those places back then, when I was in my twenties, that’s how mami and my pops would have found out I was gay. That was my immediate thought Sunday morning.

Today my folks and the Puerto Rican community as a whole have a dramatically different relationship to gayness and outness. There is so much more space than when I was growing up, but still–I can’t help but wonder if any of those 49 dead are being outed to family and friends in the most public and violent manner imaginable.

***
Orlando Dead

***

Sunday I was chastised on Twitter for highlighting that the victims were gay:

My twitter bio says I love to argue and hate to lose, but not Sunday and not today. Not about this.

Think yourself better because you see “past” the fact that they were gay and Latino. Knock yourself out. You must think that is a compliment, your ability to see through us, like cellophane.

It matters they were gay. It matters that they were Latinos. It matters that they were Puerto Rican.  It matters.

***

In the middle of so much pain, beauty emerges.  It comes in the form of stating a simple truth:

It comes in the form of generational cry of agony from an “aging dyke” apologizing to the younger generation of LGBT folks: “This wasn’t supposed to happen to you.

It comes in the form of an Orthodox Jewish congregation visiting a black gay bar in DC, where very different people came together and felt as one.

It comes in the decision of two families to bury their beloved sons together, honoring their love. “I think my son wanted to do that. That’s why,” the father of 22 year-old victim Juan Ramón Guerrero said. “I don’t care what the people think. I don’t care.”

***

In San Francisco, New York, and Minneapolis, vigils for the dead have failed to include queer latinos. Here at home, Outfront Minnesota has apologized.

I accept their apology.  I don’t have the energy to feed anger right now, certainly not with allies. We grow when we acknowledge wrongs and move forward together.

I see debates on Facebook about whether straight people can say “I am Orlando,” whether it is right for anyone who has not feared holding hands in public to claim solidarity in this particular way.

I can’t police how others mourn.

I want everyone to own this tragedy as a human tragedy. All I ask is that, as you connect to this pain in your own personal way, as you stand on the outside looking in, do not erase us in the process.

***

Digan sus nombres

Stanley Almodovar III, 23

Amanda Alvear, 25

Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33

Antonio Davon Brown, 29

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29

Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28

Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25

Luis Daniel Conde, 39

Cory James Connell, 21

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22

Paul Terrell Henry, 41

Frank Hernandez, 27

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30

Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25

Kimberly Morris, 37

Akyra Monet Murray, 18

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35

Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25

Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34

Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan, 24

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33

Martin Benitez Torres, 33

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37

Luis S. Vielma, 22

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37

Jerald Arthur Wright, 31

 

Armed, Arrested and Alive. #61seconds

4 Apr

At 12:49am, on November 15,  Officers Riggengberg and Schwarze approached Clark and noticed his hands were in his jacket pocket. They told him to take his hands out of his pocket. He refused. Riggengberg then took his gun out and held it down alongside his leg, with the barrel pointed towards the ground. He did not point it at Clark or at any other individual. Clark started yelling, “What’s the pistol for?” The officers again and repeatedly told Clark to take his hands out of his pockets and he continued to refuse to do so.

#61Seconds

That’s how long it took police officers to determine Jamar Clark was dangerous because he had his hands in his jacket pocket, take him down, struggle with him, and shoot him in the head.

Can’t we figure out how to arrest people without killing them? asks a City Pages reader. But, some people may protest, many arrests are made without a person getting shot in the head. And, yes, that is correct.  Here, where we live, men who do not have hypothetical guns that are maybe, perhaps, hiding in their pockets… men with actual weapons get arrested. And they live to tell the tale.

#61Seconds

 

Mark David Hawanchak

Michael Thomas Hawanchak

Mark Thomas Hawanchak. October 20, 2015. ” Authorities say a man is in custody after threats to harm prompted a police standoff and lock down of schools in Northfield in what was deemed a dangerous situation for several hours Tuesday afternoon.The Northfield Police Department responded at about 2:50 p.m. to the area of Harbor Drive and Ford Street E. When officers arrived, a man claimed to be in his home armed with firearms and threatening harm.” The standoff with Hawanchak, who was armed, prompted schools in Northfield Minnesota to be put on lockdown. He was arrested in Inver Grove Heights.

 

#61Seconds

Armed man, Jordan, MN. February 23, 2016. “On the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 3, the Jordan Police Department received information that a male armed with a .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun had left his residence in a vehicle very distraught and was threatening to take his own life. The adult male was located in his vehicle on Beaumont Boulevard between Aberdeen Avenue and Old Highway 169 at approximately 9:05 a.m. Law enforcement established a perimeter around the vehicle a safe distance away.”

#61Seconds

Michael Timothy Reiten. December 23, 2015. “Prior to being taken into custody Police say Reiten led officers on a vehicle pursuit from 10th Avenue East crossing and changing directions on multiple different streets and avenues before ending on 22nd Avenue.  Police say Reiten brandished a black handgun, pointing it toward officers on several occasion during the vehicle pursuit. The pursuit ended near 22nd Ave, where Reiten’s vehicle was disabled and he fled on foot. Reiten was apprehended in the median of Hwy 29 South by the Sheriff’s K9, allowing officers to secure Reiten without further incident.”

Michael Timothy Reiten

Michael Timothy Reiten

   #61Seconds

14 year old white male. November 4, 2015. “A man is in custody after an armed robbery at Shopko in Fergus Falls. Fergus Falls Police Sgt. Connor West says that at around 4:30 a man showed a knife and demanded money at the 226 E Lincoln Ave. store. He took off on foot with an undisclosed amount of cash. But because a large amount of officers and Otter Tail County deputies happened to be nearby on a different call, they were able to canvas the area and find him a block away just six minutes later. Sgt. Connor West/Fergus Falls Police: “It was great teamwork between the law enforcement officers and the general public in giving us the information so we could follow up and locate him a timely manner.”

#61Seconds

Kevin Shea. March 24, 2015. Girlfriend called in domestic assault. “The victim says Shea may have armed himself with a handgun before she escaped. Patrol Officers formed a perimeter around the house until The Superior Police Department

Kevin Shea

Kevin Shea

Emergency Response Team and Crisis Negotiators could respond. Negotiators were able to make contact with the suspect by phone, and the 37-year-old man left the home and surrendered at around 7:15 Tuesday morning.”

 

#61Seconds

Ronald Gary Bailey, Dec 1, 2013. Armed man sets his house on fire and blames President Obama. “Officers who were transporting Bailey to Hennepin County Medical Center’s behavioral Crisis Intervention Center discovered that he had a loaded .380 caliber pistol concealed in his pocket.”

ronald_bailey1-800x430

Ronald Gary Bailey

  #61 Seconds

Cole Laird, August 3, 2015.  14-year old Wisconsin boy who sent police on a car chase was  caught in Anoka. Although he’s a juvenile, Wisconsin police had released  his identity.”It all began in Eau Claire, where police say the teen stole a car. According to officers, he was then involved in the St. Croix robbery attempt and a high speed chase with police in New Richmond.He eventually abandoned the car near Star Prairie and ran. Police say he then stole another car, only to leave it again and run. Monday night, several agencies were scouring the Cedar Lakes area on the Polk County line for Laird, after gunshots were heard there.

#61Seconds

chad hatton

Chad Hatton

Chad Hatton, November 5, 2015. “Authorities have taken one man into custody after they say he robbed a pet store by knife point. Rochester Police say 39-year-old Chad Hatton walked into the Fish and Pets store in the Crossroads Plaza while law enforcement were on scene of a possible bomb scare in the same area. Investigators say Hatton displayed a knife to a clerk and took cash from two registers before dashing out the back door. Nearby officers, including some that were on scene for the bomb scare, responded and were able to find and arrest Hatton about a block away. “Timing is everything, you need that time, you need that quick response, that relay of information to responding squad cars and you also need a little bit of luck and I think we had all those yesterday,” Captain John Sherwin of the Rochester Police Department says. When officers took him into custody they found the knife he allegedly used and money from the store.

#61Seconds

Brian Fitch, July 2014. Fitch killed West Saint Paul  police officer Scott Patrick. After a gunfight, Fitch was shot but not killed, and apprehended.

brian-fitch-sr.jpg

Brian Fitch

#61Seconds

Jeremiah Robert Ray, April 10, 2015. “According to the complaint, Ray reportedly pushed his partner, and then allegedly pointed a gun at an older man at the residence and threatened to kill him. He reportedly did the same to an older woman there. When the couple’s son pulled up in the driveway, he called police, then Ray allegedly also pointed a

Jeremiah-Robert-Ray-mugshot-36691121.400x800

Jeremiah Robert Ray

gun at him and threatened to kill him too. By the time Moose Lake police officers along with officers from the Carlton County and Pine County Sheriff’s departments responded, along with the Minnesota State Patrol, Ray had left the residence. He was arrested a short time later at a residence in the Sturgeon Lake area in Pine County. When police searched that residence, they found two Glock 10mm pistols and an AR .308 caliber rifle.”

 

 

#61Seconds

Brian Harris, January 25, 2016. “A 38-year-old man is due back in court Wednesday, after police in Minnesota suspected that he was holding a woman against her will while driving her from northwest Wisconsin.  The victim’s mother told Lakes Area Police that Brian Harris took methamphetamines heavily, and there were reports that he shot at vehicles he thought were following him from Polk County along Highway 8. On January 25th, a police sergeant arrested Harris in what was called a “high risk” traffic stop at a gas station in Chisago City, Minnesota — and officers say they later found two weapons and meth in the vehicle.”

#61Seconds

Gregory Allen Rose, November 16, 2015. Suspect in murder and arson in Midland County, Michigan, arrested in Minnesota. . “Law enforcement officials in Minnesota reported Rose was in a stolen Army Corps of Engineers vehicle and rammed several patrol cars before being taken into custody.”

Gregory Allen

Gregory Allen Rose

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#61Seconds

Josh Hendrickson, September, 2009. Minnesota man with gun outside Obama rally questioned by Secret Service.”Hendrickson showed up to the event with a Glock in a holster, and a Kel Tec 380 — known for its light weight and “manageable recoil” — in his back pocket. The local police and the Secret Service question Hendrickson after seeing the outline of a gun in his camo shirt, he said.”

#61Seconds

Kirk Bigby, December 10, 2015. Bigby opened fire on a holiday party at Bluefin Bay Resort. “Witnesses said the 61-year-old Bigby, of nearby Finland, and the victim had been at a

Kirk Bigby

Kirk Bigby

casino-style party for employees of the Bluefin Grille went they left to go outside. Bigby came into “physical contact” with the victim before pulling a handgun and shooting him dead, police said. Police located Bigby in a guest room at the resort and arrested him. Officers said Bigby was uncooperative during the arrest, and he suffered minor injuries in a struggle with police.” A gun was found in the guest room.

 #61Seconds

Terry Swanson, July 30, 2009. “It takes a special kind of crazy to bring a gun into city hall but police say that is exactly what 60-year-old Terry Swanson of Big Lake did on Tuesday morning. ‘One of our plain clothes investigators heard the call on the radio and went down and confronted the guy at gunpoint, handcuffed him and took the gun off him,’ Sgt. Jesse Garcia of the Minneapolis Police Department said Thursday afternoon.”

Terry Swanson

Terry Swanson

#61Seconds

Thomas Joel Owen Graff, November 2015. “Thomas Joel Owen Graff, 40, of Milan, is facing felony charges of aggravated robbery in the first degree and assault in the second degree in connection with the Nov. 27 early morning (3:18 a.m.) armed robbery of the Casey’s General Store on South First Street in Montevideo. On Nov. 28, Tori Ivy-Graff, called the Monte­video Police Department to report that she believed Graff, her soon-to-be ex-husband robbed the Casey’s store.”

#61Seconds

Robert James Williams

Robert James Williams

Robert James Williams, November 13, 2014. “A Grand Rapids man is facing several felony charges following a seven hour standoff with police Wednesday night. 29-year-old Robert James Williams has been charged with one count of reckless discharge of a firearm, four counts of false imprisonment and one count of terroristic threats. Police say Williams’ girlfriend called 911 to report that he was driving to city hall, armed with a high power, semi-automatic, rifle with the stated intent of committing “suicide by cop”.

#61Seconds

What We Praise When We Praise Mike Freeman. #JusticeForJamar

31 Mar

 

What Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman did by taking responsibility for the Jamar Clark case—and not using the broken grand jury system—is most certainly important and commendable. Nationwide, in case after case, district attorneys have used grand juries as a way to avoid prosecutions of police in cases of use of deadly force. In Ferguson, New York and Cincinnati, we saw prosecutors then report the results of the grand jury as if they had been trials, where all evidence is presented.  Grand juries are not trials. In cases of police use of deadly force, they are escape hatches.

Freeman had initially said that he too would punt his responsibility as a prosecutor to a grand jury, and many were upset that the community was once again being asked to trust in a system that in Minnesota in recent years has seen not one officer charged in cases of deadly force.  As the Star Tribune reported, “Since 2000, at least 143 people in Minnesota have died after being shot, Tased or restrained by a police officer. To date, not a single officer has been charged in any of those deaths.”

Freeman

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman (Photo, KSTP)

And so there was much rejoicing when Freeman reversed himself and announced that he would not only not use a grand jury in the case of Jamar Clark but that, under his watch, no officer-involved shootings would go to grand juries.

Since Wednesday’s press conference, when Freeman announced that the two officers in the Clark case would not face charges, the County Attorney has also been commended for making available much of the video and documentary evidence he used to reach that conclusion.  He has been applauded, by fellow politicians and editorial boards, for the seemingly unprecedented transparency in making this move.

But can we pause for a moment and ask the question, what are we praising when we praise Mike Freeman?

As I read these songs of praise for the County Attorney because he took responsibility and demanded transparency, the question that came to my mind was, is the bar really that low when it comes to black lives and police accountability?  I know that after Ferguson, Cincinnati, New York and too many other places, this does, indeed, seem to be an aberration.

But isn’t that, in fact, the problem?  Shouldn’t an elected official owning his decisions and being transparent about them be the minimum we expect when it comes to investigating instances where the arm of the state kills a human being?

What we are praising when we praise Mike Freeman is the apparent societal understanding that when it comes to black lives, the minimum is enough.

It is not.

About that Press Conference

Wednesday’s press conference started out well enough.  Freeman began by giving his condolences to Jamar Clark’s family and saying that Jamar deserved to live a full life.  He also did well to preface the substance of his statement by citing the very high bar that our legal system places on finding a police officer culpable in a situation of deadly use of force.  The sad truth is that the law gives police almost complete impunity in these situations. Freeman stated that “police officers in Minnesota are justified in using deadly force in the line of duty when necessary to protect the officer or another person…” He also cited Graham vs. Connor, where the “US Supreme Court held that the use of deadly force by a police officer must be evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable police officer on the scene… not from the perspective of a civilian” or from the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.

There is seemingly no objective criteria by which to judge whether a police officer is in danger.  If he feels in danger, he is in danger. A high bar, indeed.

In his prefatory remarks Freeman also made clear that he feels police departments across the country must re-evaluate how they use deadly force. Police, he says, “must emphasize de-escalation…Police must use discussions, negotiations…They need to use the lowest use of force possible… We simply must reduce the number of situations where guns are discharged by police.”

Perhaps, I thought, he is setting the stage to argue that while the police officers in this case use of force was unfortunate, it was not illegal.  I was wrong.

After describing police reforms as a core belief, Freeman goes on to say:

“Now, I want to be very clear. These remarks are not a reflection of the actions of officers Ringgenberg or Schwarze on November 15, 2015. This case is not at all similar to some of those seen around the country… in Chicago, in Cleveland or North Charleston, South Carolina. These officers were called upon to respond to a person who had assaulted his girlfriend and interfered with the paramedics who were trying to assist her.”

From here on out, the rest of the press conference might as well have taken place in Chicago, Cleveland, North Charleston, Ferguson, or far too many other places.  Freeman the Champion of Police Reform was replaced by Freeman, Defense Attorney of Police Officers.

In detailing the events of the evening Clark was killed, he quoted none of the eyewitness accounts of that night, explaining that their testimonies were contradictory and therefore did not corroborate whether or not Jamar Clark was handcuffed. The prosecutor’s skepticism, however, was reserved exclusively for those eyewitnesses.  He read from the police report dramatically, repeating over and over the alleged final words of Jamar Clark, “I’m ready to die,” even though those words were uncorroborated by anyone other than the two officers.

The not-so-subtle message was clear: Police Words Matter. Black Eyewitnesses’ Words Do Not.

A Missed Opportunity for Leadership and Healing

Like I’m sure a lot of Minnesota, I spoke with friends after the press conference, sharing our reactions.  Some of these friends are leaders active in Black Lives Matter or who spent many hours at the 4th Precinct Occupation last fall.  No one was surprised by Freeman’s decision–we’ve sadly come to expect these outcomes–but all were appalled by the press conference. We talked and asked–fine, so this is the end result.  But couldn’t you have at least told the story differently? Couldn’t you at least suggest some things that the police officers could have done differently?  Did they really practice the de-escalation you said you believed should be police practice?

Freeman only acknowledged the violent take-down of Jamar Clark to say that the police officer learned that technique “in San Diego.” We have since learned this is not considered a proper procedure in Minneapolis. And we knew before that this same officer had actually been sued in San Diego  precisely for using this take-down method! How differently might we all have reacted to the press conference, I thought, if Freeman –following his own stated beliefs about the need to change police practices—had said something like, “this, to me, does not look right. It could have been done differently. They could have negotiated, had a conversation. Unfortunately, given the high legal bar for proving officer misconduct, this is not illegal.” But, no, Freeman could not find a single thing to criticize about the officers’ behavior.  Everything they did was by the book.  Everything. This isn’t, of course, that much a surprise, when you step back to realize that he took every word of their report as Bible.  Of course they look like heroes.

All day I was consumed with thinking, what if he had just presented this evidence differently, might he have at least led, put us on a path toward collective healing?  But later that evening I realized that, in thinking that, I too had been seduced by what seemed like a mountain of evidence Freeman presented.  What woke me up was reading a Facebook post by James C. Burroughs, an African American attorney in Minneapolis.  His post has now been shared hundreds of times, certainly because he expressed so beautifully, in such a heart-wrenching manner, that judging from an evidentiary standpoint, how unconvincing Freeman’s case actually was.  Burroughs wrote:

No Justice for Jamar

As a lawyer and Black man today is a numbing and solemn day. I watched the decision of County Attorney Mike Freeman today as he decided not to prosecute the officers who took the life of Jamar Clark. I hoped Mike, who I have known for years and respect as an attorney, would show me evidence that supported whatever his decision would be. I hoped this evidence would show me that there can be, in some cases, justice when fair people like Mike objectively review the evidence. I knew today I would see evidence that showed me video of 1) how Jamar Clark interfered with the paramedics and refused to let his girlfriend get treatment: 2) how Jamar Clark attacked the officers with no provocation and went for their guns; 3) how Jamar Clark was so out of control that he had to be subdued by gunfire to the head; and 4) how Jamar Clark was not handcuffed and how he was using his hands to attack the paramedics and officers. I was also expecting evidence that showed a balanced review of witness statements that showed how things transpired. I expected Mike not to solely rely on officer testimony. I expected an attempt at justice, even though I might not agree with the final decision. I have been a lawyer a long time so I know that the same facts can sometimes lead to different conclusions. I was prepared to give Mike the benefit of the doubt.

I guess I expected too much. The evidence that Mike presented to me and the rest of the public today showed: 1) paramedics placing Jamar’s girlfriend in the ambulance with no interference from Jamar; 2) an officer grabbing Jamar by the neck from behind and jerking him to the ground only 60 seconds after arriving at the scene; 3) Jamar pacing around the scene and talking to officers and paramedics and at no time striking anyone (no provocation); and 4) no clear evidence of any officer trying to reasonably arrest Jamar after reading him his Miranda rights and trying to place him in handcuffs in a standing position.

I also got to hear Mike primarily rely upon officers’ testimony that said “he went for my gun” and that Jamar said “he was ready to die.” This happened 60 seconds after officers arrived at the scene. Surely if Jamar was ready to die he would have charged the officers and went for their guns immediately after they arrived Or maybe Jamar would have jumped in the ambulance and tried to attack his girlfriend saying ” I’m ready to die.” However, that did not happen. Instead, Jamar was on the ground after being thrown there by the officer and said I’m ready to die after having a gun put to his head. I have been a Black man a long time (longer than I’ve been a lawyer) and I guess I have never heard that uttered from a brother when a cop has a gun to your head. A cop you have known all of 60 seconds.

I guess I am numb because I hoped today would be different. I thought I would see a good man and good attorney, Mike Freeman, show me evidence that justified not charging the officers. I hoped I would be able to digest the decision because the evidence showed that no charges should be brought against the officers. I was hoping the cops statements to Jamar would be corroborated by witnesses and at least be believable.

 

Burroughs opened my eyes as to the questions Freeman’s seemingly thorough presentation did not ask and did not answer.  And since I read that, more questions have surfaced.  KARE11 reported that the officer did not follow proper procedure when he violently took Clark down (linked above). Had that take-down–“learned in San Diego”–not happened, Jamar Clark would likely still be alive today. Wasn’t that perhaps worthy of mention?

And although Freeman stated unequivocally that Jamar “had assaulted his girlfriend and interfered with the paramedics who were trying to assist her,” it didn’t take members of the public long to find in the very documents Freeman released that in both her interviews with police, the woman in question–RayAnn Hayes–repeatedly denies being in a relationship with Jamar Clark. In the second interview she explicitly states annoyance with the media for reporting them as being in a relationship and the situation as being one of domestic violence. In the first interview she was asked if he had beat her previously: “No, I don’t know ’em. How can he beat me when I don’t even know ’em?”

That the officer that day came in with a preconceived idea of what happened might not be surprising.  But that that preconceived notion survived Freeman’s investigation to come out of his mouth months later at his press conference–that is inconceivable.

Thursday evening WCCO news has an exclusive interview with Ms. Hayes. We’ll hear her say, in her own words, what happened that night and what her relationship to Jamar Clark was.

Perhaps her words will be heard by the US Department of Justice, which has not concluded its investigation of the case.  Perhaps to them, her words will matter.  They clearly did not matter to County Attorney Mike Freeman.

UPDATE:
Here is WCCO’s interview of RayAnn Hayes, which seems consistent with what she told police in their two investigatory interviews with her. “No dispute. No domestic. None of that,” she said. “You guys are letting these officers go, and trying to put it on me,” she said. Her testimony seems to blow up the entire narrative of Freeman’s press conference:

 

I am a superdelegate.

10 Feb

An article is making the rounds on social media with a clickbait headline, “The DNC Just Screwed Over Bernie Sanders and Spit in Voters’ Faces.”

Having apparently slept through the 2008 primary season, the author is shocked to learn that by the rules of the Democratic National Committee there are  a number of delegates to the national convention that are elected federal officeholders, party officers and members of the Democratic National Committee.  In 2008, the very same dynamic was at play. Clinton had many elected officials behind her and there came a point when some feared that it was those superdelegates who would decide the nomination.  Those fears did not come to pass.

DNC-kicking-donkey-logo1Since I was elected a Democratic National Committee member representing Minnesota in 2012, this time I get to experience the fun from the inside! Given that I will not be running for reelection to the DNC, I was really hoping my SUPERdelegate status would mean I was getting wined and dined by our candidates.  Alas, Hillary hasn’t called and all I get from Bernie are emails.  No flowers, cards or Edible Arrangements.  Not so super at all.

What I did get today was two calls from reporters.  As concern grows with some Sanders’ supporters that Clinton will “steal” the nomination through superdelegates, I have been called to be identified as a candidate supporter.  Since I might be listed soon as one of the Council of Elders ruining our democracy, I thought maybe I’d state here what I told them and how I feel about this whole thing:

  • I am a Clinton supporter and expect I will be casting a vote for Clinton at the Democratic National Convention this summer.
  • I support reforming our delegate system to eliminate even the possibility of superdelegates deciding a nomination.
  • I do not believe super delegates will decide the nominee.  They didn’t last time and, if it came to that, the party would be so fractured and the process would be so divisive that it would not be a tenable set-up for a general election win.
  • I will be listed as a  Clinton supporter because I am one (more on that in another post); that said, in the unlikely event of the convention coming down to superdelegates deciding over the will of the voting electorate of primary and caucus goers, I would not participate in that.  What that means, who the heck knows.  It’s a far-fetched hypothetical.

That is all.

Have a super day.

UPDATE:

A friend wrote with some math.  There are 4763 total delegates – 712 of those are supers.  That’s 14.9% of the total.  Not exactly an overwhelming and right now about 60% or so remain uncommitted.  So everyone chill, please. 

One of the arguments for having superdelegates is that, if these folks did not have reserved delegate spots they would likely run for national delegate positions and, as party elected officials and leaders, would likely win many of these positions.  So you’d still have a “party elder” problem in the delegate pool. 

 

The Moth Twin Cities Grand Slam – Jan. 22!

17 Jan

  Friday, January 22nd is The Moth Grand Slam at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown Saint Paul. I competed in the first Grand Slam, and I am really looking forward to hosting this second Twin Cities best-of storytelling contest. Ten storytellers who have won one of the monthly story slams compete, telling a new story on the theme of “When Worlds Collide.”  If you’ve never been to The Moth in the Twin Cities, here is your chance to experience some of the best storytellers all on one stage. Get your tickets here.