Immediately after Roanoke producer & lyricist, Face Valyou, placed this Justice for Kionte banner and took this picture, two Roanoke County Police Officers approached him and threatened him with arrest
On Tuesday night, I attended a Board of Supervisors meeting for the County of Roanoke. I was there to support the effort for #JusticeForKionteSpencer, who was killed by Roanoke County Police on February 26, 2016. Kionte Spencer was 18 years old and a ward of the state of Virginia when he was killed by police.
The police department, as is too many times the case in situations like this across the country, believes that it is appropriate for it to investigate itself. We learned Tuesday night that the findings of this closed investigation would be released Wednesday morning at 11:30 in a closed press conference. Note the CLOSED aspect of both the investigation and the press conference.
Tuesday night, six people spoke, voicing concerns about the lack of transparency in the investigation and the traumatic impact that the killing of Kionte Spencer has had on local communities, especially youth and people of color. One speaker, an African-American woman with a 15 year-old son, emotionally explained how she has had to prohibit her son from playing with BB guns–although his white friends of the same age freely play with them with no fear of being seen as a threat.
Kionte Spencer, like Tamir Rice, was carrying a BB gun when he was killed by police. In both of these cases, any differences between them aside, I believe police responded with implicit bias. The public has also largely responded with implicit bias. If Kionte had been a white teenager, would police even have been called? Implicit bias does not indicate individual guilt or innocence; it indicates here a fatal flaw in the system. Or, as has been said countless times, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
I did not expect the Board of Supervisors to respond in any meaningful way to those six speakers Tuesday night. And they didn’t. Yet even though I didn’t expect them to respond in any meaningful way, actually sitting there and experiencing what I can only describe as their mechanical and complacently bureaucratic reception of these six calls for justice, transparency, and some sense of conscience in local government–actually experiencing that left me feeling cold.
After being silent throughout the entire speaking session, even when direct questions were asked of them–and apparently that non-responsiveness is procedure–two of the supervisors did respond. But responses only came from those two supervisors who were scheduled to address other business after the comment time. Would they have responded if they didn’t have some business on the agenda? One of many questions. Supervisor Al Bedrosian told us: “There’s a process this goes through to make sure all the evidence, everything is brought forth. I’m not the police, we’re county supervisors so we have to trust in the process.” To me, that is completely tone-deaf, given what six people, speaking for many more, had just told him. From his statement I understand that Supervisor Bedrosian did not hear the clear message that had been repeated six times: We do not trust this process. Also: You are supervisors: supervise. Use your influence and insist on transparency and justice.
Why should we trust this process?
And yesterday, Commonwealth Attorney Leach and the Roanoke County Police Department did release their conclusions in a closed press conference: no charges will be filed. As they explained themselves to the press, four citizens stood outside in an area that police had directed them to and which had been cordoned off for “protestors” ahead of time. When one of those citizens stepped onto the grass to place a banner with the words “Justice for Kionte”, he was approached by police with hands on their guns and told to put his hands in the air. When he complied, he was directed to pick the banner up and return to the cordoned-off area or be arrested for “obstruction”.
Obstruction of what? Certainly not justice.
And we are expected to trust?
The area police cordoned off for the public
Flowers set in one of many orange cones police used to contain members of the public who wanted to witness the press conference
The first thing I am pocketing is your name. Tamir, like something uttered in prayer. We will all be saying it so much in the days to come, it will sound like a chorus of hushes in a holy place, a sacrifice, not of praise but of sorrow. I am drawing it close to me now, listening to the sound of it on my lips first, before all our commentary turns you into a cause, foreign and distant.
I’ve become adept at this, arriving at the scene early, committing key details to memory. After I turned your name — Tamir — over on my tongue, I Googled it. It means tall or owner of dates or palm tree or wealthy. Your father says you were, in fact, tall for your age. You were, in fact, wealthy in the ways that wind up mattering: of spirit, of intellect…
I am saddened by this country. I have been for some time.
I don’t understand our priorities. I don’t understand our obsession with competition, with creating hierarchy. Hierarchy: valuing one person or institution–or, hell, product–over another. Hierarchy is so deeply entrenched in our culture–yes, our white supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture–that calling it out as deeply entrenched is fairly ridiculous. Merit and ranking and competition are apparently self-evident truths in our culture.
Why? Why does it have to be this way? And doesn’t it make you sad that it is this way? It makes me sad.
But beyond me being sad, the hierarchy of white supremacist patriarchy kills. Me being sad is fairly trivial compared to the piles upon piles of historical and contemporary injustices–kidnapping and enslavement, near extirpation and complete marginalization of indigenous societies, indentured servitude, Jim Crow, COINTELPRO, the weaponization of media to promote fascism… the longer I look at it, the more polemics I feel are necessary. I’m not going to persuade anyone to see obvious atrocities in this way; those who see, see; those who don’t want to see… probably aren’t going to read this.
How is this piece different? How is this an essay on becoming? I started this blog as a reaction, as a way for me to process and fight against the ignorance that spoils the very freedoms that Uber-Patriotism beats his chest and proclaims to protect.
I want America to become America. Land of the free, all that. I don’t see how aggressive policing of under-served and under-privileged populations makes us any freer. I don’t see how exporting violence and exploiting resources makes us any freer. I don’t see how a two party political system makes us any freer. I don’t see how the clunky mass machinery of representative democracy makes us truly free.
To really participate in freedom, we need to have control of our bodies, our minds, our lives. We need to have functioning communities, not suburbs and neglected inner cities slated to be gentrified. We need local economies and interdependence, not a globalized economy ruled by the military of the country that preaches independence and enforces dependence.
I don’t see how an economics of exploitation helps any of us. Not to get all Buddhist on your ass, but if my coffee comes from impoverished folks working coffee plantations in South America or Africa, I’m drinking exploitation and suffering to wake me up in the morning.
One of the most beautiful teachings I’ve found in my spiritual wanderings–and I’ve been here, there, and nowhere in those wanderings–is the Buddhist teaching of interdependence. The notion of nothing as no-thing. The reality that nothing and no one is ranked in a hierarchy. Instead, we’re a stew. We are all interdependent. We are not separate beings. We feel separate. We are not.
I’m an onion in the stew. The beef’s flavor depends on me. If I stop being an onion, the beef stops being the beef that it is. But my onion-ness is changed by the stew, by all of the other ingredients. You can see how this pretty quickly gets complicated and calls for diagrams that fall apart.
I’m the stew. You’re the stew.
The rational mind cannot grasp reality.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? In America. In Western culture and philosophy in general. We’re all rational and legalistic, we have lots of concepts and frameworks, but we’re pretty dense when it comes to seeing the real.
Look outside. When I look outside, I see a spring day. Sun and intense UV rays that require protection. Wait, back up. Simplify. Put on the sunscreen, but appreciate the warmth.
This is an essay on becoming stew, but the stew does not last.
This chain of becoming continues forever.
Western culture grasps. It manipulates. Western culture names and codifies. It attempts to make fluid concrete.
But Western culture is part of a cosmic stew. It’s a social construction concretized in millions, billions of bodies growing older and changing on a rotating planet circling around a ginormous ball of fire. And those bodies act and change as they grow, and they have children, and despite the inertia of misinformed traditions, the bodies evolve and realign over time. I am hopeful that they will realign into a stable formation, one that is not static, but dynamic, one that understands and embodies the fluidity of being in its traditions.
Yesterday the Charleston City Paper in Charleston, South Carolina, ran a story about a planned protest on the Ravenel Bridge. According to the press release the paper published, protesters planned to block traffic until police intervened. The press release was later retracted and the protest cancelled.
The comments section of the article is full of white people who just don’t understand why activists would use this disruptive tactic. Reading the comments is an exercise in witnessing white privilege, ignorance, and outrage. There’s an accusation of reverse racism, as if that’s a thing that exists. There’s a lot of “don’t inconvenience me” sentiment, which seems callous given a man was murdered by a police officer. There’s also a lot of “this won’t do anything but piss people off and make them want to hurt you” sentiment, which is malevolent and dangerous, given that a man was murdered. One commenter suggests that police should “jump out” at the protesters, which is problematic because here is what a jump-out is. More than one commenter threatened to run protesters over. There’s this one:
Annoying. The murderer has been arrested and charged. There is no injustice here as there were in other cases. Standing in road during rush hour is asking to get run over.
What this man is saying is that the murder itself wasn’t the injustice. The only injustice would be if the officer wasn’t held accountable. That’s a fairly shallow reading of injustice.
It’s tiring, looking at this shit. And they all believe that their sentiments are rational. And I suppose they are, if your moral compass points directly at yourself and your family and whether or not you are inconvenienced, or if you really have failed to understand history.
Because here’s the thing. This extreme violence and dehumanization against Black Americans that’s being witnessed by the masses is not new. The United States was built on similar violence and dehumanization. Black people in the geographical space that has become the United States of America have been killed and terrorized by white authority and white populations since before the country was founded.
I don’t know what it’s going to take for middle-class white people to begin to empathize outside of their demographic. The standard response of white people who felt threatened by the protest is not only racist, but classist. It’s classist because, in its outrage, it fails to acknowledge the privilege involved in driving a car to and from work, or elsewhere.
It’s tiring, looking at this shit. Witnessing these reactions yesterday just drained vitality and joie de vivre from me. It emotionally exhausted me and left me feeling physically tired, my heart rate increased. And that’s white privilege working, too. See, my reaction is still rooted in naivete. I can’t say that I was surprised by these comments at this point, but I was shocked, in the sense that my nervous system jumped in the way I described.
I have no idea how a Black person would feel reading those comments. I can imagine that if I was a Black American, I’d be pissed as hell all the time, living with this white supremacy–because that’s what these comments are, you know. They indicate that middle-class white people have a normal standard that dare not be disturbed. If the standard, the routine, is disturbed, those responsible for the disturbance must be punished.
White supremacy is not an extreme in this country. The comments left by the people of Charleston yesterday are another clear indication that white supremacy is the norm.
Six months after the Disappearance of the 43 students from the Rural Normal School at Ayotzinapa on September 26, 2014, the families are still searching for their children, for answers, and for justice. The students were attacked precisely because they were part of the rural educational system, a network of 17 schools across Mexico called normales, which trains students from impoverished areas not just to become teachers but to actively work for social reforms in a country where, as the parents say, “it is as if there is no government”.
On April 1, I had the honor of bringing Clemente Rodriguez Moreno, Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval and Anayeli Guerrero de la Cruz to Blacksburg, VA where they spoke in two classrooms and made a public presentation. I had the privilege of sharing meals and family photos with them, listening to them, and learning from them. I learned that Clemente’s son, Christian, loves folkloric dance and is interested in agronomy and is involved in researching new forms of organic compost. I learned that Anayeli’s brother, Jhosivani, wants to study chemistry, loves soccer, and wants to do well so he can look after his parents. I learned from Felipe, a professor at the Rural Normal School, that he struggles to keep the students in school as the government has abandoned them and cut what little funding they gave so that the students and staff have to take on the burden of buying all their supplies, books, and seed to grow their food and raise animals.
Relatives of the Ayotzinapa 43 speaking in Blacksburg, Virginia. Photo by Michael Shroyer.
The 43 students were part of an ongoing mobilization to demand funding for their schools, to demand the right to an education, and also were on their way to remember the Oct. 2, 1968 massacre in which thousands of students were beaten, jailed, and Disappeared as tanks bulldozed over Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City. There has never been a formal investigation into the killings. The case of the 43 students eerily echoes this painful silence as the investigation that was launched, which was only initiated after extreme pressure, was sloppy and full of contradictions, not a real investigation at all.
Professor Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval speaking in Blacksburg, Virginia. Photo by Michael Shroyer.
Professor Felipe De La Cruz commented that the events in Mexico may seem incredibly removed from our own experiences, but like the eye of a hurricane, there is calm amidst the storm. The storm is here and we will be swept up in it as well as the effects of the failed War on Drugs, Plan Merida, NAFTA, the escalation of Multinational control over our natural resources, and the inability for ordinary students to receive quality education catch up with us as well. He is correct. Pipeline fights, rising tuition costs, environmental degradation, and the fight for a living wage all point to the growing push for mobilization for social justice in our own backyards. Their struggle is our struggle. The connection is really not that hard to make.
Margaret Breslau has served as Chair for the Coalition for Justice for the past 11 years. The Coalition was founded in 1981 as a response to the Contra Wars, the US-backed “contra” counter-insurgency in Nicaragua against the left-wing government brought to power on the back of a popular mass movement from below. Since then the Coalition has expanded its mission and come to see that we are part of a larger human rights community where all people’s struggles for peace, justice, and dignity must be observed and supported. We are an organization that not only upholds the empowerment of people, but also the protection of the environment, as well as respect for cultural differences. We do so in solidarity with other volunteer and grassroots organizations, through education, and community involvement. Follow @justicebburg on twitter.
We live in a shitty society. When you look at our history, which so few people aside from those overtly oppressed by this society–because, face it, overtly oppressed people have little or nothing to lose and much to gain from critiques of history and social norms–when you even begin to look at our history with a consciousness that is not colonized by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, you must come to terms with perpetual terror. Horror. Genocide, enslavement, the shackling of personhood to economic interests.
My naivete began to end on September 11th, 2001. Being from a white middle-class background, having been educated in public schools, somehow I assumed that, in the face of an overt terror attack, the government and citizens of the United States of America would take a measured response. Investigate. Ponder. Consider foreign policy. Consider the problem.
Somewhere along the line, I missed the cultural indoctrination, the secret memo passed around that said, the Declaration of Independence and basic human rights don’t apply to all people the same way; people? Why, that’s a very limited category, don’t you know? No, rather, I took seriously the words of the Declaration, that all men (which I was educated to believe meant people, not just males) are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights like Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness with a capital H.
I internalized the notion that women were equal to men.
I took the Civil Rights movement seriously and assumed that we’d moved into enlightened territory regarding race–although, living as I did in South Carolina, certain tensions were evident. But I assumed those tensions were not widespread in the nation; this was, after all, South Carolina.
I assumed that the hippies had won significant gains in the struggle for peace.
I was 14 when Operation Desert Storm was executed. Watching the bombs drop on CNN, war playing out like a video game. That felt wrong to me.
Perhaps Operation Desert Storm was the moment when cracks began to form in my cognitive model of my country. Ten years later, planes destroyed the World Trade Center and my country’s response to that act destroyed my faith in it. The backlash to the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, commonly described as the “war on terror”, is ongoing. The trauma inflicted by this so-called war far exceeds the trauma of the destruction of those towers. It far exceeds any notion of justice. It is retribution. It is punishment. It is white supremacist capitalist patriarchy raging against the Other. It is not a war. It is a holocaust.
White supremacist capitalist patriarchy knows how to execute a holocaust. The destruction of Native America–an insufficient term for the diverse indigenous societies so nearly extirpated by European colonization that the remains have been partitioned into reservations–is a holocaust. The execution of this Indigenous Holocaust was fundamental in shaping the world we all inhabit, this technological dystopia so frequently mistaken for progress. This Indigenous Holocaust is ongoing.
White supremacist capitalist patriarchy knows how to execute a holocaust. The forced removal of millions of Africans from their homes; their subsequent storage below decks in ships in service of their dehumanization and subjugation, their treatment as property, as objects; the over two and a half centuries of enslavement; the fraud of their emancipation; the struggle of survivors of chattel slavery to come up and thrive in the face of and inside of a system that was and continues to be based on dehumanizing them–that is a holocaust. The execution of this African Holocaust was fundamental in shaping the world we all inhabit, this technological dystopia so frequently mistaken for progress. This African Holocaust is ongoing.
Refinement of bomb-dropping and on-the-ground combat into drone warfare is not going to protect us from terror; it is terror, and its result will be terror. Refinement of fuel consumption and pursuit of mythical sustainability in a world that has far exceeded its carrying capacity will not correct climate change; climate change is likely irreversible by now, and we are likely to be forced into a radical revision of the way in which we live on Earth and interact with its ecosystems. Reform of police departments through tracking of police homicides and the use of body cameras will not end the problem of police brutality; the policing system, like the military, is rooted in violent repression of the Other.
We cannot engage democratically with each other to solve our pressing problems in a framework of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, which by its very nature is anti-democratic. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy excludes a high percentage of the population from meaningful engagement in the democratic process. It always has. It always will.
A wilderness, a wilderness
calling, calling. When I was younger,
I had a fantasy of foraging
in the ruins of western civilization.
The truth of the zombie apocalypse
is that the worst predators are human.
A wilderness is calling us,
a wonderness. Earth is shifting
and our signpost won’t direct us
no more. We need a human technology.
We need music springing around us,
drums, voices, strings. Grass underfoot.
Spring is calling us, wilder now,
wondering at how long, how long
we’ve been downpressed. No more.
We make a human technology,
music and language, the laughter
of Earth working. Grass underfoot.
Flowers burst and we’re wilder here,
raving, calling in the dawn. Snowmelt
and rising rivers, up to our shins
in richness, rich mud. And all the colors
come out. Now, now we move,
shake out from this chrysalis. Wings.
Metamorphosis. We are seeds, we sing
an Earth song. These tones are our home,
we feel our blood rise to the occassion
and how long, we wonder at how long,
but no more. There’s a freedom coming
we’ve none of us known before.
“History is ending,” Terence McKenna raves, “because the dominator culture has led the human species into a blind alley”, and while it’s easy to dismiss a man who preaches the merits of DMT, presents an end-time model based on the I-Ching and the Mayan Calendar, and rants gleefully about “self-transforming machine elves” to ecstasy-eating youths over a techno-digeridoo soundtrack provided by Spacetime Continuum, he may have a point.
Climate change is destroying the world we know. Industrial democracy, neoliberalism, global capitalism, white supremacy, whatever you choose to call it, is breaking down. Not so long ago, the fictive nature of money was unveiled, but our attention was hijacked from the Wizard-of-Oz shenanigans of our global economy by those who perpetuate inequality and fear, talking about “too big to fail.” But what if society is failing because it’s too big?
My Name is Chellis & I’m In Recovery from Western Civilization suggests that what we believe is democracy is an elephant that should have been a mouse; that is, democracy can only function in small-scale, participatory societies. Chellis Glendinning theorizes that real democracy–that is, participatory democracy where individuals can directly participate in collective life–can only happen within relatively small groups. She posits that domestication of nature and self, thousands of years ago, inflicted an original trauma on the human psyche that has been exacerbated and amplified throughout history.
We find ourselves, uber-grandchildren of the traumatized, afflicted by traumas on all sides. Climate crisis, militarization of the police, perpetual war for perpetual peace, economic inequality: all arguably the products of colonial white supremacy. Or, as Riane Eisler, Terence McKenna, and others look further back, these are arguably products of “dominator culture”. Glendinning looks further still: our intractable situation is the product of our original trauma, the split of the human psyche from the primal matrix brought about by domestication.
Specialization and Incapacity
Given the multitude of problems we face, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Recently I was approached by a new friend with an invitation to interview relatives of students murdered by state and drug-related violence in Mexico, the Ayotzinapa 43.
On Nov. 7, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told the public that the students were shot, burned in a garbage dump and thrown into a muddy river in black plastic bags. His words were met with disbelief, anger, and indignation not only from the students’ families, but also by people throughout Mexico because they rely on the confessions of three drug cartel hit men, not conclusive evidence — human remains discovered near a landfill based on their information have not yet been identified yet.
But what does one ask? Say? In the face of such brutality, how do I, a stranger to the families and, until recently, a stranger to the murders, approach the trauma? Faced with such trauma, focused on the similar but different trauma of historic and contemporary state violence against Black people in the United States, what does one ask? Parallels can be drawn, but my unfamiliarity with the larger context of life in Mexico weakens my approach.
Language is an insufficient tool to bridge the gap of trauma, but it’s the best tool we have. Any tool can be abused, used as a weapon. Weaponized language is used by white supremacist society in subtle and unsubtle ways to subdue and destroy resistance. Language is a sharp tool. In an unskilled mouth, or crafted from the keys under unskilled hands, language can inadvertently wound. But we must proceed with language. We must communicate with each other.
I Assume That You Are Uneasy
Glendinning asserts that in nature-based, hunter-gatherer societies, human beings existed within a primal matrix of high attunement to the natural world. The consciousness of the hunter-gatherer differs in fundamental ways from our consciousness. The essence of the difference is the connection to and constant participation in nature. In Glendinning’s model, the human personality in a natural state is centered, but not ego-centric; the ego is integrated into the primal matrix. If we entertain Glendinning’s model to the extent that we take seriously the notion that human beings, for most of our million-year history on this planet, were integrated within the primal matrix, we may understand the context for our contemporary unease.
I assume, of course, that you are uneasy. You should be.
I Believe That the System Is Failing
Failure is an experience we all must accept, and this rhetoric of failure not being an option is the rhetoric of exceptionalism. We need to get over this notion of being exceptional, of being too essential to fail. We can fail. If our institutions are “too big to fail”, perhaps we need smaller institutions that allow for room for failure.
Humanity can fail. We are failing. The planet will survive the climate crisis. It will remain, life will likely continue in some form. Earth has undergone climate shifts before and life has persevered. Whether or not humans survive is an unanswered question, but we must begin to act like we want to survive.
For too long we’ve been acting like we don’t care about ourselves, about each other, as human beings. Whether that’s due to white supremacy, or dominator culture, or domestication is not irrelevant, and I think we could approach our existential dilemma acknowledging that all three theses are true and related. How we approach the struggle now, from our situs within a brutal culture that puts profit over people, must be informed not only by analysis, but also by will, by the belief, being articulated in the Black Lives Matter movement, that we can win.
I Believe That We Can Win
We need new systems. We need roots-oriented, community-oriented, on-the-ground democracies. And we need thousands of them, localized and decentralized. Believing that we can win is a process that is intertwined with understanding the monumental problems we face. Believing that we can win does not mean that we don’t believe that we can fail. Believing that we can win means acknowledging that failure is part of the process. Believing that we can win means, I think, being committed to transforming hegemonic, technological, exploitative society into heterogeneous, human, relational societies.
How can we get there? I recently attended a meeting of concerned citizens and community activists in my city. We met under the banner of a Communication Workshop on Racism and ostensibly focused on learning techniques of non-violent communication. What actually happened, though, was that all of us as individuals were trying to be heard, and in our effort to be heard, bypassed the techniques of non-violent communication being taught. So, from one perspective, we failed to learn about and practice non-violent communication with each other. But I don’t think that anyone attending that workshop would describe it as a failure. In a city and society that is still segregated, still separate and unequal, the act of white and Black and biracial and Latino people coming together to talk about race is itself a success. It’s practice, it’s a start for us here, and we should count it as a success. Because that is how we get to the better society we are longing for: by practice.
One thing I like about my local Buddhists in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh is that they practice. Every Sunday, they gather to practice sitting and walking meditation, to practice deep listening with each other. One person speaks at a time, and engaging in speaking/listening is intentional and respectful. Everyone sits in a circle. If you want to speak, you bow, state your name, and begin speaking. When you are done, you bow to indicate that you are done. This is usually followed by a moment of silence before someone else decides to speak.
This sort of respectful, intentional communication would have been beneficial as we talked about race at the Communication Workshop. It would be beneficial in our centers of government. It is a tool, one that we can use to create respectful, intentional spaces where we speak and listen.
We must transform by engaging in a practice of community-building, of localization and engagement. This is bound to be messy. We are not always intentional or respectful; we may be confused or agitated. Our practice of democracy is not going to look like my local Buddhists. If we are serious about survival, if we want to thrive as human beings, we need to be serious about engaging with each other locally, about knowing each other.
This is a process of recovery; we are, or should be, in recovery from Western Civilization. We’ve been colonized, but not civilized. Civilization implies civility; the United States of America is not and never has been civil. But we can work on civility, locally. In order to come to terms with our trauma, our colonization, our dehumanization, we need to know each other as human beings.
One way that I can work in solidarity with those suffering from the excesses of Mexican state and extra-judicial violence is to focus locally. I must work to empower my community, so that we can work to achieve a new kind of power in America: a grass-roots, a people power in service to human needs.
The transformation we need is from exploited beings in service to a hegemonic, technological society into human beings participating in heterogeneous, relational societies.