Monday, February 17, 2014

A Time to Fight

They must think me radical, a militant bent on mayhem. They could not be further from the truth. They think I am eager for a fight when I am only eager to confront injustice.  They say I would be better served by prayer. I wish they were right.

There is a time for prayer. When my oldest son deployed to Afghanistan in June 2013, I prayed with both hands. Fear permeated each and every one of my days – fear for his wife who waited for him, fear for his mother, Jane, for his brother and sisters and me. I prayed for his safe return. In December 2103, just days before Christmas, my prayers were answered. Prayer was all I had. It brought my precious son home.

I know of prayer. I was raised in the First Baptist Church of Woodland Park, under the ministry of Rev. James Gibson. I have been praying since I was able to talk.

There is a time for prayer. There is also a time to fight. On May 18, 2013, I launched a hunger strike to protest Michigan’s treatment of its prisoner population. I did not stop praying. I simply thought it was time to pus some skin in the game, besides. That strike lasted for 88 days; during which time I refused every one of the 264 meals offered to me. Letters poured in from around the country, many imploring me to “Let God handle it.”

I did not stop there. I wrote articles and circulated them to media outlets, seeking to publicize the grievances of prisoners around Michigan, and across the country. After publishing one such piece, “Granddaddy, Come Home,” which decried destructive Michigan Department of Corrections policies, people said to me, “That will make them madder…you should have prayed.  I wrote, “Ma Parole” and “Take These Truths…,” exposing improprieties in Michigan Parole Board practices. My people were dismayed, thinking such language might diminish my chances of getting a parole five years from now. Why should it, unless we have fallen into an alternative universe where truth confines, and falsity “sets us free”?

My people want me to come home from prison, but they seem to think that I will happen through prayer. For our children in Afghanistan, prayer is all we have. Wanting freedom for eligible prisoners in Michigan takes more; their incarceration has that endless quality about it…like slavery. Back in the day, the slaves were told to “pray for freedom.”  They prayed for 250 years, and the grip of slavery only tightened. Then, along came Abraham Lincoln. He prayed, too. He also armed a million Union soldiers and sent them south. Prayer did not end slavery; the Union soldiers did. (The other side prayed as hard as Lincoln, but they ran out of men.)

The people who tell me, “Just pray,” do not feel the multitude of live being sucked dry by the greatest prison system on Earth. They do not know of the desecrating of lives being committed beneath the nose of our Constitution – a desecration sanctioned by laws that have been corrupted to conform to a punishment regime; not for the public good, except that public is infected with the same mean-spiritedness that has led this nation to endlessly hound and persecute poor and minority peoples since its inception. 

I fight against this insidious example of a government’s trampling of a besieged minority to satisfy the bloodlust of a discordant American majority. And they say to me, “Just pray.” We have hundreds of thousands of people in U.S. prisons being held beyond their out-dates – people desperate for a second chance at life; a chance at redemption – that are being held in bondage for no other reason than it is politically expedient to keep them there. And impassive Americans think prayer will end this human rights abuse. Do they prefer prayer because prayer leaves all of the heavy lifting to God? If people back in the 1860’s felt the way Americans feel today, slavery might have lasted another 100 years. 

Face it:  Even Abraham, patriarch of the Jews, and icon of the Christian faith, knew that there was a time to pray and a time to fight. “Time” does not presume the correct day, or hour, but rather the moment when all signs point to a “moment of truth.” I have been in fights before. There is something priceless about going into a fight armed with the feeling that you are right. 

Once, I tore a large bronze penis off of the walls of a local tavern. It caused quite a stir. The owner of the establishment, four hundred pound behemoth named Woody Shack, was white. The community that tavern served – my community – was African-American. The penis – fully three feet long with testicles the size of ostrich eggs, protruded out over the bar. They were a caricature of Woody’s own body parts. When I ripped it down, his bouncer friend came at me in a fury:

“What the hell you doin’ tearin’ down Woody’s bar!” he screamed. (I was the only black man in the place. I carried no weapon; I have never carried a weapon.) That I did not take a step back must have startled the bouncer, and the other whites, besides. They stopped in their tracks. I simply looked them in the eye.

“Woody can hang anything in this bar he wants!” the bouncer declared, leaning forward once more. 

No, he can’t,” I said.

Later, I imagined the big bouncer thinking, “Maybe Carter was right.” Of course, I was right. What would possess someone to hang such an abomination on the walls of any respectable community? That I ripped it out of the wall (as splinters flew) and threw it over the bar was fitting. That happened in Newaygo County during the summer of ’87. I feel just as right about my fight today. 

What is happening to prisoners and their families in Michigan is an abomination. It has become a bronze penis sticking out of the wall. And no one does anything about it. The public is oblivious to any that doesn’t affect them personally. Well-intentioned politicians fear anything that might get them a “soft-on-crime” label. Even prisoners are afraid of losing “small comforts”, similar to how the slave feared being sold to the master in the “next county” if he complained. 

I do not break their rules; neither do I fear these people – not the warden, the parole board, the governor, nor the president. My only fear is that I would fear standing up for what is right out of fear that I might cross those who are wrong. My hope is that I will always stand up for myself, my family, and my community – regardless of the odds against me – whenever it is time.  

Monday, January 20, 2014

You, America, You Have Political Prisoners, Too

Dennis Rodman, a Hall of Fame basketball payer, appears genuine in his affections for Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea. For that, he is assailed, especially by those in the American media. 

It does not help that Un is holding an American, Kenneth Bae, in one of his prisons. Because of the tensions between our two countries, Bae has become a cause célèbre, having been labeled a “political prisoner” by the Obama administration. Now, supposed “high-minded” Americans want to know why Rodman, who is the only American on Earth with access to the reclusive Un, is not pressing his friend for Bae’s release. 

Meanwhile, these high-minded Americans ignore thousands of political prisoners in their own land – Americans who have served their time, but still languish in prison because it is politically expedient to keep them there. 

Freed prisoners are of no use to the powers that be in America. (They only matter to their families – a small segment of predominantly low-income Americans who, apparently, do not matter to the powers that be, either.).  But, a held prisoner is evidence of tough-on-crime politics. Besides, held prisoners are invaluable to local economies. They help inflate employment statistics; without them, many prison staff would be out of a job. 

The holding of a prisoner beyond his out-date insures prison-related jobs remain in the community. It is politics at its worse – a human rights abuse – when the lives of men and women are stacked like so much inventory on a store’s shelf - literal fodder to help sustain America’s middle class.

Prior to the exhibition game between the Korean national team and a team of ex-NBA stars from America, Rodman appeared, via satellite, on the Chris Cuomo Show. During the interview, Rodman “went ballistic” when Cuomo chided him for not speaking up for fellow American, Kenneth Bae. The following morning, Rodman apologized, explaining that he had been drinking, was “stressed out”, and had said some things he should not have said. It was a refreshing admission. 

Could it be that that same child-like honesty in Rodman is what attracted him in Un in the first place? In a land where the emperor cannot trust his own family – Un had his uncle executed for treason – Rodman may be one of the few people on Earth whom Un truly trusts. 

Nonetheless, the American press was brutal in its portrayal of Rodman, calling him “Idiot…clown…traitor.” 

Jesse Jackson, on the other hand, applauds Rodman for “…shedding light on a dark place.”  He compares Rodman’s efforts to the “ping-pong diplomacy” that preceded Nixon’s trip to Red China. He also points to the Harlem Globetrotters who went to Moscow and sang, “Sweet Georgia Brown” to Khrushchev’s communists as a similar instance of non-diplomat Americans shedding light on a “dark place.” Rodman simply had less help and more detractors.

Instead of deriding Rodman for not speaking up for one fellow American in a North Korean prison, Cuomo and Blitzer and Lemon should “speak up”, themselves, for the thousands of political prisoners being held in America’s prison. Or, don’t “fellow Americans” on American soil count?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Time for Justice

There is an inevitability to life that shrinks us to our rightful size. Nations, too, are bound by this principle.

Today we enter this new year as a nation, grappling with a fundamental flaw in our character:  Nothing crystallizes our fake love of liberty like our actual practice of it. Witness our 80-billion dollar prison industry, more than the next ten countries combined. Here, punishment has become gratuitous – meted out on a par with some of the most despotic regimes on Earth. America proclaims “Justice for all” with its mouth, while wreaking it with its hands.

We have lost sight of what justice is, so long have we gotten away with injustice. A supposed-Christian society that championed slavery for 250 years – that sought the eradication of its own native populations; that replaced slavery with Jim Crow, and now with mass incarcerations; that de-emphasizes the humanity of its captive population – cannot be a fair arbiter of justice at home, or abroad. That nation is awash in its own crimes. And when it shows no acknowledgement of those crimes – no remorse – as Shakespeare would say, “What honey is expected?’

This nation will not repent. On the contrary, with the largest prison system on Earth, America seems emboldened, so much so that it adds families of prisoners to it multitude of minions, as though they, too, are captives; which, of course, they are. With the cruel touch, America wreaks havoc upon elderly parents and babies, alike. Who will check this draconian giant? 

Do you believe the enslaver will be enslaved? That he who bombs shall be bombed? Americans, individually and collectively, must begin to ask these questions – to take responsibility for this nation’s bad acts and, by consequence, brace for the moment when this nation is laid on the rack.
We profess to believe in the Bible, but appear to rarely believe that it actually applies to us. “Eye for an eye,” though archaic, makes sense to us as long was it remains relegated to a time capsule – where, if it leaks, it does so only where extremist Islamic cultures persist.

Perhaps because we live in the moment, we feel insulated from our crimes – as though by the time time gets around to us, we will have long been gone. Certainly, generations can pass before retribution calls, but it pays its calls, nonetheless, and generations are left wondering, “What did we do to deserve this?” (see 9/11).  Soon, a victim’s culture is spawned wherein no one living accepts responsibility for crimes committed in their names, and often on their behalf.

Amid the onslaught on one shooting after another – out of the shadow of the disintegrating American family – we, as a nation, look into the mirror and wonder, “What is to become of us?” Suffice it to say, nothing good will come of a nation in denial, especially when it denies past inequities, the likes of which it continues to commit to this day. What shall become of us? We shall reap what we sow. There will be harvests aplenty.

These horrific school shootings are not committed in a vacuum. From this nation’s violent beginnings, we have killed Native American children in village schools from Maine to Florida, from the Carolinas to California. We have continued these killings in the Philippines and Vietnam and Iraq.
What about the nine Afghan boys killed while gathering firewood for their mothers? They were attending a school – one that modeled boyhood responsibility. Then, in an instant, they were obliterated by a US drone strike. Do we think that crime will go unpunished? President Obama said, “Oops.” Do we think that is contrition enough for time?

A wise man once said, “Justice is balance.” Well, America has lost its balance. Yet, it continues to wreak its twisted justice. The result fills families with despair. 

This despair will not go unremembered by the children. They will be the next arbiters of justice – not just America’s children, but Afghanistan’s children, and Zimbabwe’s children, and children the world over. They are time’s children. Inevitably, America, it will be time.