form and content, protest and repression

Warning: this essay is partly a personal religious reflection although it also contains significant sociological content. In it I reflect on a sermon calling protest a spiritual exercise and a meeting about training Black young people to avoid challenging or talking to police and the significance of the juxtaposition of these two events.

The Madison protests reconvened this weekend without me. A friend estimates 20,000 at Saturday’s rally featuring Michael Moore – a large crowd by any normal standard, although a decline from last weekend’s high of somewhere between 70,000 and 120,000 (depending on whose estimate you believe). Today the pro-Walker and anti-Walker protests were said to be a few hundred each. The real action is out state, with recall efforts and other attempts to “flip” Republican Senators, as well as the escalating pressures on the Democrats in Illinois – their pay is frozen and they are being fined $100 a day, among other attempts to force their return without any concessions. Walker’s refusal to negotiate on any point is both alienating the state’s moderates and raising his cachet in national right-wing circles.

There was a guest sermon at church today – the pastor’s brother, a Mennonite activist from Pennsylvania who spoke on engagement as a spiritual practice, the idea that instead of separating the spiritual from the world, you should be spiritual in the world. The scripture was Isaiah 58:3-7 :

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.  Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

You find God when you are working for justice and helping the poor and oppressed. His own current political agenda is the movement against gun violence, which is trying to target merchants whose businesses are major sources of the guns that end up being used in urban crimes. The sermon was full of positive comments about the Wisconsin protest and how God is on our side as we challenge authority and work for the poor and oppressed. He wore a “We are Wisconsin . . . And we are winning” t-shirt. During joys and concerns, one congregant stood up to give thanks for her son, who’d been one of the protesters sleeping inside the capitol and then outside in the snow and rain – everyone clapped. If you think Walker’s budget cuts are good or that public employee unions are bad, you’d feel very uncomfortable in that congregation right now. We have a taken for granted assumption that we are all on the same side in this. I couldn’t help but remind myself that activists whose foundation is religious are often on the “other” side, supporting issues I really oppose, and the ways in which their communities surround them with people who don’t challenge their assumptions.

Don’t get me wrong. I think I’m right and the people around me are right. I truly and sincerely believe what I believe. And I truly do believe that we are doing the work of God when we work for justice. But so do the people on the “other side” of issues I care about think that God is on their side. I can’t help but note that God mostly tells people to do the things that a whole system of socialization and experience has taught us are the right things to do. It really isn’t enough just to engage, it matters what you are engaged about, what “side” you are on, and how you go about your engagement. Content matters, not just form. I’m struck every Sunday about how the hymns we sing, the messages we hear, the content of our joys and concerns all reinforce one set of understandings about what Christianity is “really about,” while other people’s churches emphasize other messages from the same core texts.

Or, backing away from religion to the broader context of protest and rebellion – it isn’t enough just that people protest. It matters what they are protesting about, what their goals are. The same vessel of protest carries both the tea party protests and this current mobilization. If you oppose the mobilization, you’d stress that the energy of the effort is union members organizing to defend unions – and you’d be right. It is primarily a mobilization of people through their well-organized channels for the purpose of maintaining the right to have those channels. It’s a defensive mobilization. Can we, should we bring the same concepts to bear on protests we like and those we don’t like?

The way protest and activism are being lifted up, and the comfort we all have with protest, brought me back into reflection about my other weekend activity. I spent Saturday morning at a training session for religious people to work on issues of racial disparity in criminal justice, part of an effort to found a local Gamaliel Foundation group. (I’m an attendee, not an organizer.) There were two choices. One group went off to learn about how to observe court sessions, to be a witness holding the system accountable.

I stayed for the presentation on how young people are being taught to avoid escalating encounters with police. The speaker is the former gang member and drug dealer I mentioned in a previous post. One component of the plan is small cards (the size of business cards) advising young people how to behave when stopped by police. The card contains a (small) color graphic of a tall white person in a police uniform facing a shorter black person. It says (in rather small print, obviously):

“Along the continuum of decision points in the juvenile justice system from initial law enforcement contact through disposition and beyond, the decision to arrest is the first and arguably the most powerful indicator of future impact on minority youth, their families and affected communities. Upon initial contact with law enforcement respectfully provide your name, name and phone number of your parent/guardian and clearly state that you wish to remain silent until your parent/guardian is present.”

The young people are urged to give their true name (to give a false name is obstruction of justice, a felony) and then to shut up. In trying to explain or defend themselves, young people often provide police with the basis for criminal charges. The idea is for the young people to carry the cards on them so they can hand them to the police if they are stopped – the hope is that the police will recognize that the young people have been told to do this and thus, hopefully defuse police anger at the young people for refusing to talk. I’m wondering if youth are also taught breathing exercises or other techniques to calm their anger and frustration when stopped unfairly. Survival here means NOT protesting, not rebelling, not standing up to power. The “protest” is to resist becoming a crime statistic. The adult trainer is very clear that sometimes the young people have done something wrong, but they will make the situation worse if they talk to the police and confess. It is also important for young people to understand who police are and that talking back to police is very different from talking back to other adults. Another card tells them that Educational Resource Officers in schools are real police officers and they must not talk to them without their parents present.

So young Black people need to be taught not to challenge authority as a survival strategy, just as they were taught in the South before 1960. It is a necessary lesson if these kids are going to make it out of adolescence with their hopes intact, but I reflect again (as I have so often before at these kinds of meetings) just how much self-control African Americans need to be able to get through the day in a racially-stratified society. How bad White kids are allowed to be and to get away with it, and how little tolerance Black kids are offered for misbehavior. And I cannot help but reflect that all this energy devoted to avoiding confrontation with police and avoiding arrest limits the capacity for Black protest mobilization.

And it is not just children. As I mentioned before and confirmed in further conversations, one of the Black parolees who was supposed to be speaking at these events has been picked up on a parole hold each time he asks his agent for permission to go to an event addressing issues of racial disparity in criminal justice And “driving while Black” stops – endemic in this community, as elsewhere, constantly force Black adults to endure disruptions to their plans and the self-control to remain calm in the face of unwarranted surveillance: Where are you going? Where are you coming from?  Why are you here on this street at this time? Account for yourself. Do you have any drugs or weapons?

I need not to over-do this, I need to put it in context. Black people are agents, and there are lots of Black folks challenging political structures as well as trying to protect young people and provide help to those damaged by our system. As I have mentioned before, there is constant attempt by Black adults to create a sense of personal and political efficacy among young Black people. In fact, the speaker in our group came with his wife (who is also his business manager) and his small children. He said he makes a point of bringing his small children to meetings because he wants them to see him doing his work. Another Black attendee also brought a small child. People are working hard to train up their children for active, engaged citizenship.

But still, the contrast is looming. Tea partier or unionist – the carriers of protest in the past few years in this country have been overwhelmingly White. Look around at who feels entitled to protest. Look at who feels safe enough to turn out into the streets in large numbers. And then look around to see whose voices are missing from the public assembly. Look around for who teaches their children they are entitled to speak up, and who has to teach their children how to survive repression by keeping quiet when confronted with police.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? “

Advertisements

My jaw dropped: racial interactions

I study racial disparities in criminal justice, but this still completely blew me away. I started clicking around and have ended up collecting links to a large number of quite amazing videos of racial interactions that would be great discussion-starters in class. The two segments that just make my jaw drop were broadcast last February on ABC 20-20’s “What Would You Do?” series last February. They are a little over six minutes each after a 15 second commercial*. The setup is a parking lot in a public park in a White suburb. In part 1, for several hours three White boys overtly vandalize a car. Dozens of White people walk by, looking but doing nothing. Only one ever calls the police; a few say something to the boys. In part 2, three Black boys do the same thing: lots of people call the police, many more people intervene.  In both cases, there is overt criminality going on, although possibly so overt that people might have defined it as some kind of stunt. On balance, a clear demonstration that failure to sanction overt White crime is part of a racial disparity pattern, not just response to Black crime. But the real shocker: while the White kids are vandalizing the car, the police DO get TWO 911 calls from the same parking lot. What they call about is Black people SLEEPING in a nearby car: they phone it in as “possible robbery!”

Vandals 1 (white)
Vandals 2 (black)
(*I found these originally on Youtube but link to ABC despite the commercial opening in the interest of supporting copyright holders where possible.)

Edit: here’s a more recent episode, this time involving kids trying to cut the chain on a bike lock.

There are also some really chilling Driving While Black segments available.

This 10-minute segment was produced by a New York news station about Nassau County. It is really quite incredible, the tester ends up handcuffed and held for thirty minutes after making a U-turn on a residential street and refusing to explain what he is doing in the area. No response to White testers who duplicate the action, although the Blacks in the trailing news car are stopped and hassled.

This ABC Primetime episode on Driving While Black is also very good, but the YouTube versions are all scratched and vertically stretched. I cannot find an on-line version of the original. The first segment is 10 minutes, the second is about 2 minutes of wrap-up
10 minute main segment
2 minute wrap up

A Fox news video shows a black customer being surrounded and beaten by whites but the black man is the only one arrested

The ABC Primetime What Would You Do? series also has a number of great segments (generally 8-10 minutes long) about bystander intervention into overt cases of racial/ethnic discrimination. Actors play the part of store clerks or real estate sales people who overtly insult and harass Black or Muslim or Spanish-speaking lower class (day laborer) shoppers (also actors). Bystander responses are videotaped. Each segment shows lots of people either standing by without intervening or in some cases approving the discrimination, but also highlights people who do intervene. John Dovidio (a psychologist known for work on bystander intervention) provides commentary that praises those who do intervene. Again, these seem like great discussion-starters. I linked to YouTube when I could not find the segment on the ABC site.

Real estate agent insulting Black and Muslim couples looking at a home.

Black shopper in a upscale clothing boutique gets insulted and even frisked

Muslim woman trying to buy an apple Danish (quite a few shoppers join in on the discrimination, while a White man who says is son is fighting in Iraq challenges it)

Spanish-speaking guys in work clothes trying to buy coffee (quite a few shoppers again join in on the discrimination, few seem to speak against it)

H/T to http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/ which pointed me to the Muslim shopper video on YouTube, from which I found the rest through YouTube searches, ABC News searches, and Google.

Public Sociology in Farmtown #8: Ideas and Wrap-Up

Previous Farmtown #7 Next Farmtown #9 Index/List to Farmtown Series

The final session of the two-day conference I’ve been describing in the “Farmtown” posts is supposed to be reports from the small groups that met in the morning. These reports get longer and the discussion gets more animated with each successive speaker. As with the sermon, I’ve tried to capture the flavor of the longer speeches. Again what interests me is the way people weave different themes together when they talk. Continue reading “Public Sociology in Farmtown #8: Ideas and Wrap-Up”

Public Sociology in Farmtown #7: Inspiration and Challenge

Previous Farmtown #6 Next Farmtown #8 Index/List of Farmtown Series

(This continues a series. See the earlier posts in the series for context.)

Our lunch speaker is a Black man I code as about 40 plus or minus 10 years. He has a staff job with a college in another state and is also a Baptist minister. His style is passionate Black ministerial oratory interweaving politics and God, interweaving joking and anger and challenge, ranging broadly across a lot of issues and pulling in quotations from many writers. He says his goal is to challenge and upset people. The talk is free-flowing but planned out; there are extensive quotations from religious and political sources. I’ve tried to capture the feeling of the speech/sermon in my notes.

My goal is to make you upset and angry today. People need to stop being PC and talking about “institutional racism” as a cover and being afraid to call out individual racists. We should demand justice. But instead of demanding, we are sitting complacent and saying we are doing something, but we are not doing something. We should demand drug treatment and job training. Socially responsible businesses should offer training at their own cost, benefits to community. We should go back to Operation Breadbasket, when leaders demanded businesses to sponsor jobs. Continue reading “Public Sociology in Farmtown #7: Inspiration and Challenge”

public sociology in farmtown: extracts from #4 white supremacy

I will get back to finish the Farmtown series.* As my last post in the series (#4, White Supremacy) was characterized by one friend as “the world’s longest blog,” by my spouse as “I know I said I liked the longer posts, but . . . ” and by another friend as “you don’t write blogs, you write articles,” I thought I’d pull out the incidents that I most wanted to share with others. If you waded through the long post, there is nothing new here. If not, these are the incidents I thought it was most important to share for discussion.

A Black professor in his sixties gives a lecture whose point is to explain how simple differences become schisms between people because of inequality. He then develops an example using the two white police officers sitting next to me that is an extended tale about what if you (white man) were always knocked down by her (white woman) every time she saw you, what would you do? The white man says “lash out” (most don’t hear him say it) but the speaker says that you’d just lie down to avoid being knocked down, and then goes on to say that you’d teach your children to just lie down and avoid the woman and her children, and the children would do it even if they did not know why. And, he says, the woman’s children would expect the other people to lie down, but not know why they are doing it. I find these different perceptions of how people respond to oppression to be important and telling. I think lashing out is what most whites do think the most common response to oppression is, not having actually experienced it. And even as much as I teach this stuff, I am struck by the speaker’s emphasis that you lie down to avoid being knocked down, and that you can teach that to the next generation. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown: extracts from #4 white supremacy”

public sociology in farmtown (4): white supremacy

Previous Farmtown #3 Next Farmtown #5 Index/List of Farmtown Series

(Shorter extract from this post if this is too long for you)

It is important to place this discussion in the context of the whole conference, so it you are new to this series, please check out the previous post. For a quick recap, I’m writing about a two-day conference on racial disparities in incarceration and education at a university in a rural area I call Farmtown. The previous post focused the first half of the first day and the ways information was brought into the group. This post focuses on the second part of the first day, which ran from 3:15 – 9pm.

Two Farmtown professors do the short version of a workshop they’ve done often before for white faculty at their institution on the ideology of white supremacy. The black social science professor goes first, and it is relevant to note that he is older, in his sixties. His title is “isms and schisms.” The point is about how demographic differences become structures of inequality. He talks about how people respond to experiences of discrimination and then asks people what they see when the imagine pictures of powerful groups (i.e. Congress, Supreme Court). We are supposed to say “white male.” I hear one of the officers next to me say something like “mostly white males with some women and a few blacks and latinos” to Congress, and for the Supreme Court says “mostly white men and a woman and a black man.” At the end of this exercise, he requires the white man to answer his “what do you see?” question, and the answer is “mostly white men.” I’m glad I’m not put on the spot like that. I learn later that the speaker always forces a white person to answer this question. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown (4): white supremacy”

public sociology in farmtown (3): getting information

Previous Farmtown #2 Next Farmtown #4 Index/List of Whole Farmtown Series

My in-house editorial advisor says he likes the longer posts better, that the shorter posts seem like wind-up and no pitch, so I’m going to do this in somewhat bigger lumps. To recap posts 1 and 2, I’m writing about a conference of 35-45 participants on racial disparities in incarceration and education being put on at a university in a rural area (Farmtown) that is organized by faculty and staff of color whose attendees are predominantly people of color, roughly half from the hosting university and the others from the metropolitan areas in the state, which include the state capital with the main university campus I call Unitown, the big city I call Segtown, and other urban areas in the swath between Segtown and BigCity in the next state over. I wanted to write about partly because interactions in a conference that is mostly people of color are different from those in a white-dominated setting and are different from what many whites think they would be. And partly just to give the flavor of a real conference in all its complexity.

This is an ambitious and even exhausting conference. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown (3): getting information”