A reminder

From time to time there are certain words, sounds, ideas that electrify me. My upper arms go numb, and the sensation spreads down my back and collects in my spine. It is a wonderful paralysis for that instant, replaced with a powerful drive- energy I cannot summon in ordinary circumstances.

This strange feeling is a reminder.

It is a reminder that there exist reasonable alternatives.

It is a reminder that normal people can rise above fear and indifference.

It is a reminder that all big movements started small.

It is a reminder that great men and women spent a lot of time in jail.

It is a reminder that being right is not enough.

It is a reminder that rights did not always exist, but were built through conviction and struggle.

It is a reminder to not take a narrow view of the past.
It is a reminder that Martin Luther King Jr. stood for far more than just racial justice.
It is a reminder that he opposed the war in Vietnam.
It is a reminder that he stood against the exploitation of capitalism.
It is a reminder that he advocated for class solidarity as well as racial solidarity.

It is a reminder that billions of people are afforded no rights.

It is a reminder that in the United States we still murder our own citizens and watch them die in agony.

It is a reminder that a vast swath of people in my country fear the police that are supposed to protect and serve them.

It is a reminder that food, shelter, and medical care are not guaranteed in many countries, including the wealthiest on Earth.
It is a reminder that thousands of children are homeless and sleep on the street.
It is a reminder that in another society or another time my mental illness would have condemned me to a life of isolation and abuse.

It is a reminder that whole peoples like the Rohingya from Burma have no safe place to live.

It is a reminder that some things are worth dying for.

It is a reminder that the action of evil and the inaction of good are one and the same.

It is a reminder.

Written for the “I Have a Dream” prompt on We Drink Because We’re Poets.

Honoring the criminal Columbus

October 12th is recognized as Columbus Day in the United States, one of ten federal holidays. Its recognition is one of the great symbolic crimes against indigenous people in the Americas. Christopher Columbus began a horrendous genocide against the Arawak people (I recommend the first chapter of A People’s History of the United States by Zinn for an overview), and by bringing natives back to Europe to be slaves, he inaugurated an Atlantic slave trade that came to affect millions of Africans. Because he was Genoese, he has been triumphed by the Italian-American community. This is why it is currently a holiday, and remains so.

However, celebrating Columbus is to celebrate a great criminal. Would the Italian community like to celebrate Caligula, or Mussolini? The actions of all three are similar. Murder on a mass scale, callous disregard for human life, abuse of power and authority.

This is why a movement exists to reflect on Columbus and ask the key question- do we wish to celebrate him alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln? A powerful video entitled “Reconsider Columbus Day” puts it simply.

Those that love freedom, value rights and democracy, and consider themselves against prejudice have to voice some kind of opposition. It can just be a Facebook status, or a Twitter hashtag. When the holiday comes and it fills the news, it’s time to get off the sidelines.

Columbus Day celebrates tragedy and triumphs genocide.

What is equality really about?

What is equality really about?

As you likely know even if you don’t follow professional sports, veteran NBA center Jason Collins has come out as gay. He’s the first active member of a major sport to do so.

I’ve linked to the Sports Illustrated editorial he wrote to explain his decision. My favorite section comes near the end:

Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it’s a good place to start. It all comes down to education. I’ll sit down with any player who’s uneasy about my coming out. Being gay is not a choice. This is the tough road and at times the lonely road.

 
Mainstream society currently views gay rights and gay marriage as synonymous, and focuses more on marriage than any other aspect of gay life. As some of my queer friends have pointed out, the march to equality moves far beyond marriage. Not all gay people want to get married, or think that marriage is a good institution to promote. Society is slowly pivoting to gays being part of the norm rather than an error, an aberration. Even in a society used to the concept of rights, things aren’t moving quickly enough.
 
What is Collins’ action part of? The idea that gay people are woven into the fabric of this nation. There are gay athletes, teachers, ministers, and soldiers. Gay athletes like Collins, straight allies like NFL punter Chris Kluwe, and organizations like You Can Play attempt to make coming out a personal choice. Heteronormativity leads people to assume that certain groups of people are always straight, or that it seems natural for them to be. There are pervasive stereotypes about LGBT individuals being deviant, hypersexual, or insufficiently masculine (or feminine). When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was being reviewed en route to its repeal, gays were portrayed as unable to keep their professionalism, and couldn’t keep it in their pants. It’s insulting.
 
So Collins is a member of another, more neglected front of the gay rights struggle. When he came out two days ago it was national news. Part of the goal is that one day an athlete will come out, and it’s not a media spectacle. It’s just someone living their life.

The crimes against labor in Bangladesh

The tragedy of Rana Plaza

The crimes against labor in Bangladesh

A large industrial complex collapsed in Bangladesh on Thursday, with hundreds dead or stuck under the rubble. This was preceded in November by a massive garment factory fire that killed over a hundred workers. The fire started on the ground floor and spread upwards, leading several women to die after jumping from the roof, reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a disaster in 1911 New York that was a catalyst for many modern labor reforms.

Worker outrage has led to direct action, something that is now common due to these disasters, as well as poor treatment and unpaid wages. These are irregular and difficult to control because of the issues creating organized unions.

The collapse highlights how union rights are essential in developing economies. Not just to counteract insulting wages (less than $40/month to start), but because collective power is needed to improve safety. Workers in Rana Plaza had seen cracks and damage to the complex, but they were not in the position to force management to address the problems.John Sifton of Human Rights Watch says:

the disaster highlights concerns about labor rights in Bangladesh. “Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized, its workers would have been in a position to refuse to enter the building on Wednesday morning, and thus save their lives,”

Bangladesh is the rock-bottom labor market, for companies that think China and Malaysia have grown too costly. As with many export-driven countries, the government has given manufacturers incredible deals on land and created long tax holidays. In addition, there is lax oversight and a strong independence of companies conduct business on their own terms. Local labor activists are walking a lonely road, in which the powers that be are set against them; they have been beaten, arrested, and even murdered for their efforts.

Until labor organizations can exist free from corporate or government action, there will be another Rana Plaza. Even as I write this there are buildings cracked and creaking, full of flammable dust and lint, with the fire doors barred and filled with people working an insane amount for hardly any money at all. People who believe in labor justice should help support local workers create, expand, and use their collective power. Some organizations like the International Labor Rights Forum and the AFL-CIO are supporting and documenting the movement.

If Americans and Europeans do not see themselves in these tragedies, it is only because our generations have not paid the price. The bloody actions against miners, railroad workers, and the same garment workers who leapt from their burning factory in 1911 mirror what Bangladesh is experiencing. This is not just chaos in the developing world. It is a chance to see the horrors that activists fought and died for to end.

Racism, justice, and the Voting Rights Act

This will be a fairly long post, and will address the recent Supreme Court hearings of Shelby County v. Holder, a legal challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. It will also discuss racial privilege and the usage of the term ‘racism’- as well as judicial activism.

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1870. It was the last of the “Reconstruction Amendments” that fundamentally changed how race was viewed in the eyes of the law. The Thirteenth Amendment, recently given spotlight as the focus of Spielberg’s blockbuster film Lincoln, abolished slavery. The Fourteenth is complex but contained the Due Process Clause, which led to protections of individual rights by applying the Bill of Rights to states in addition to the federal government.

The Fifteenth is about voting, as racial equality must also mean political equality. It reads:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

While this amendment was not truly realized until the civil right movement and federal intervention in the 1960s, it is key to understanding the debate about the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that exists, and the potentially drastic changes that could result from a Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.

Continue reading “Racism, justice, and the Voting Rights Act”