Peace Day Travesties

Last night my son reminded me that it was Peace Day yesterday, and my heart sank even lower.  How could it be that on the day dedicated to world peace, the U.S. allowed an improperly tried man to be put to death by lethal injection?

Perhaps even worse, how could it be that our President chose this day to appear before the United Nations opposing the Palestinian government’s efforts to negotiate a two-state resolution with Israel?

Obama’s speech was laden with bitter irony for those who could hear between the lines.  How could he laud the people of other Middle Eastern states like Egypt, Libya and Yemen for taking matters in their own hands and violently overthrowing oppressive rulers, while at the same time telling the Palestinians that they should wait, be patient and let others decide their fate?

What difference is there, really, between an oppressive dictator like Qaddafi and an oppressive state dictatorship like the one Israel exercises over Palestine?  In both cases it’s a matter of people’s basic human rights being violated.  In neither case do the people have the “democracy” that Obama praised in his speech yesterday.  Why is it OK for the Libyans to rise up and throw out the oppressors, but not for the Palestinians?

Of course, we know the answer.  Because American Jews have too much invested in the success of the state of Israel, and are too afraid of the Palestinians to see them as anything other than potential terrorists.  Because American Jews wield considerable power in the U.S. government, and their support can make or break a political candidate here at home.

Under these circumstances, I am not proud to be an American of Jewish descent (I can’t call myself a Jew because I have never practiced the religion and am largely unfamiliar with it).

I’m not happy to be a white American either, given the clear racialization of the American criminal justice system, with people of color receiving much harsher treatment, from the police on the streets to the courts and the prisons, than people of European descent.

What do I do with my guilt over the way “my people” are treating others?  I can “pass” as a non-Jew and distance myself from that community, but I can’t exactly “pass” as a person of color.

What I have to do, and what all of us who deplore the oppression that was blazoned across the headlines on World Peace Day should do, is to ally myself firmly with those who stand for freedom.  In many cases, sad to say, this would mean opposing the policies of the U.S. government and many of its cronies, like the state of Israel.

Dissent from majority opinion has a long and proud history in our country and we should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe, even if we appear to be opposing the powers that be.

Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States declined to step in and save the life of Troy Davis even though it was plain to hundreds of thousands of onlookers that he did not deserve execution.  Yesterday President Obama went on record as opposing the efforts of President Abbas of Palestine to finally take his rightful place among the league of nations at the U.N.

Justices and President, I respectfully disagree with you.  A lot of us disagree with you, a lot of the time.  You need to start listening to us ordinary folks again, and give us a government we can be proud of.

Otherwise, you might just wake up one morning and find the Arab Spring has come to America–with you, or at least the oppressive establishment you represent–as the targets this time.



Justice for Troy Davis?

9/21/11, 8:59 p.m. He’s not dead yet.

There are thousands of people trying to save his life, this Black man in a Georgia penitentiary, who has already served more than 20 years in prison.  Troy Davis is a symbol of something much greater, a magnet for a deep rage, a deep and inchoate sorrow–the rage and despair of all those who rail against injustice.  He is neither the first, nor will he be the last to be snared in the U.S. “justice” system and ground to a pulp.

Clearly, his trial was a travesty of justice.  Whether or not he killed a man in 1989 (a white man who happened to be an off-duty cop), certainly he has served his time, and just from looking at him you can see that he would not be the same man who walked through those prison doors 20 years ago.

Isn’t the purpose of the criminal justice system rehabilitation?

Or is it revenge, the vengeful inflicting of an eye for an eye?

I would like to believe that if we go to the expense and trouble of housing, feeding and caring for a prisoner for 20 years, we’ve done it to accomplish more than simply warehousing him for his execution date.  What is the point of that?

As Bob Roberts showed so movingly in his memoir My Soul Said to Me, just about every convict has it in him (or her) to be rehabilitated.  All it takes is someone who is focused on seeing the good, rather than insisting on the irredeemable.

The Bard Prison Initiative, for example, is predicated on the assumption that every man behind bars is capable of learning, and will benefit from education.  So many of the young men and women behind bars never had the benefit of a decent education–which might have put them on quite a different path.

The Bard Prison Initiative, like Bob Roberts’ Project Return program for released ex-cons, demonstrates that justice does not have to wear an executioner’s hood.

Sure, those who do wrong should be punished.  But not forever.  Very few criminals deserve capital punishment–and sadly, those who most deserve it often manage to escape (for instance, the masterminds of genocide in places like Guatemala, Rwanda, Bosnia….).

What good does it do anyone to put Troy Davis, or many others like him, to death?  What good does it do to hold Leonard Peltier or Mumia Albu-Jamal in prison for decades?  Doesn’t the criminal justice system want to do good?

Doesn’t it?

The Problem of the Color Line Persists

A Grievous Wrong on Georgia’s Death Row –

A moment of silence this morning for Troy Davis, unjustly sentenced to be executed today in Georgia for the alleged killing of a police officer in 1989.  There is no doubt in my mind that if Mr. Davis were white, he would be in a very different place in his life right now.

His predicament hangs over me as I prepare to discuss W.E.B. DuBois this morning with my students–The Souls of Black Folk (1903), which is where DuBois famously and prophetically announced not only that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” but also formulated his theory of double-consciousness, the idea that the African American has to look at him/herself through white eyes.

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.  One ever feels his two-ness–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

DuBois goes on to say that he wants neither to “Africanize America,” nor to “bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism,” but to “make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

These words were written at the turn of the 20th century.  How sad it is that after a century of struggle for equality and full citizenship for African Americans, DuBois’s insights still ring true today!

According to legal scholar Michelle Alexander, “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”  In her book on this topic, Alexander calls this “the new Jim Crow,” in which racial segregation and increased police presence in African American communities, combined with poorer schools and lack of economic opportunities have led to a straighter road to prison for young African Americans than to college.

Yes, things have improved since the time of THE HELP, but the road to equality still runs uphill–the playing field is hardly level for blacks and whites in our society, or anywhere in the world.

Troy Davis is yet another victim in the on-going low-level war against people of color in this country.  When are we going to stand up against racial discrimination?  When are we going to say no to the unjust tying of school funding to property taxes, a holdover from colonial times that is holding so many in our nation back? When are we going to insist that the prison-industrial complex stop profiting on the broken lives of young people who never had any chances in life, and start do the job it should be all about: rehabilitation?

Let’s not let the problem of the color line be the problem of the 21st century too.  We have too many other problems to deal with, and we need the creativity and energy of every citizen to remake our civilization into the just and sustainable global society it has always dimly aspired to be.

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