Friday, June 26, 2020

We Have Got to Do Better

Nature grounds me, lifts my spirits, calms my racing thoughts. It isn't even a conscious experience, which actually makes it even more effective... I simply breath slower, deeper, and am soothed, restored, by the sight of flowers, of closed buds, and fading petals, of resilience and frailty, of the balance of forces, the bonds we share. My garden shows me, literally and figuratively, how we are connected, how a garden bed can be representative of our greater world, for better or worse.

To grow, sometimes it’s necessary to dig deep, and tear things down, start again. Pull up hate and racism by the roots. Tear out broken systems. Clear a path for justice, for better ways. Don’t let old growth and bad seeds choke the life out of the garden. It takes work, it takes a bold vision, and learning better methods, it takes maintenance, nurturing, listening, observing, to help a garden grow. First, I pulled out the things the goats and chickens could safely consume, and shared that with them. Then I pulled out the bits that would be good for the compost, like nitrogen rich pea shoots, vines, the dry calendula. Lastly, I pulled toxic and nuisance weeds and those went straight to yard waste... those will come back, again and again, so we will just keep tearing them out. Then we added new soil... time to plant, again. It was easier when I asked for help.

When my boys were in Montessori, I loved the method of teaching that began with self, then grew, expanding outwards, encompassing more and more of the world. It works in so many ways to remind me how I can learn, how I can expand my growth, my caring, my intentions, outward, in wider and wider circles. When I begin in my heart, in my own garden, then reach to my family, friends, and community... my best efforts ripple out further and further, connecting me to the world, and the world back to me, so that I can see the whole world in my heart, in our garden.

From this point of view, knowing we are connected, I want the world, all people, protected, respected, nurtured, healthy. We all contribute, we all work, we all have our gifts and voices to lend, and if we are educated, if we can expect equity, justice, opportunity, then we return those, and more. Healthy, we can work more efficiently, we can create, and relax, we can participate in making life better for all. Without fear, without insecurity, we are better neighbors, able citizens, and we can enhance our own lives, and the lives of everyone around us. I am not naive... I know there are cheats, and bad players, I know some people will have advantages, and others will take advantage. Every pretty garden has weeds, slugs, leaking pipes, decay. Every society, like every garden, needs care, maintenance, attention.

Well, I think I've made my point here. The world is a garden. Let's weed, and water and plant seeds. And if all of this was sufficient, then I wouldn't have a lot more on my mind, grieving my heart...

I don't know where to begin...

When I was in fifth and sixth grade, I was bussed to school. I was a token minority in a mostly white neighborhood school, at a school that was really nice. And by the time our class was ready to move to junior high, our school district wanted the same, mostly white children, to bus to an inner city school. It was newly built, and supposed to be "good, diverse, integrated." We rode our school bus, to see the new school, where we were told we could continue our education with our friends, on a campus "designed" for the future. The bus left our pretty school, with the trees, and open campus, and drove into San Diego, through old neighborhoods, passed gang tags, liquor stores, right up to a tall block structure, with metal gates, no windows. It was hard, cold, barren. It looked fortified, and a whisper traveled between us, "Ooh, this must be the prison." Imagine the cognitive dissonance we experienced when tall, steel gates opened and the bus pulled into an asphalt yard, and we were invited out. We honestly thought this was a mistake, that we'd been taken to an actual prison. We stood in our rows, and administrators came out of the building to welcome us, to encourage us to choose this school. We were eleven and twelve years old, and we were not impressed, not comfortable. We were walked into the building, shown classrooms, taken around the whole place and back out to the yard, "Does anyone have any questions?" asked the principal. Well, we'd seen "big kids," and we saw no more playgrounds, no more windows and trees, and being small, and young, I was certainly thinking it: Bullying, trouble. I was so glad someone dared to ask, "Does your school have, like, bullies, or gang stuff?" We stood, almost huddled, in the shadow of this menacing edifice, and the principal sucked in his breath and blurted, too insistently, "No. Absolutely not. We have no issues, because this is a safe place, and we care about your safety..." And behind him, maybe 100' away, the gates opened and three police cars rushed in, halting urgently, and six officers jumped out of the patrol cars, running into the building. No sirens, but lights on the cars flashed brightly in the noonday light. We were loaded back onto the bus, and as we pulled away, our faces were pressed to windows. Armed men were loading handcuffed big kids, but really just kids, like us, the Black and Mexican kids in this class of mostly white children... loading those children in the backs of squad cars. I decided then and there, No way.

Even at 12 years old, I could see that this place was designed and built for a hopeless future, for a system that determined to raise, not expectations, but fear, hostility, isolation, and division. I wasn't keen to face bullies, but I was far more chilled by the thought of being locked up at school, guarded from the outside by people who assumed we belonged in walled yards. It was like a decorative rock-bed garden, with cinder blocks, concrete, where all growing things, outside of the prescribed squares, are sprayed with herbicide. It looks orderly, and clean, but only the pretty specimens have a chance, and everything else is suspect, poisoned, hidden. Conform, or be removed, know your place, or be pulled out, be quiet or be crushed. It's what the district designed and built, what society, White society and culture expected, a solution...when I read about the School to Prison Pipeline, I don't doubt it, or refute it, because I saw it firsthand.

"American Uprising," painting by Kadir Nelson.

This experience, and many other instances of being racially profiled (or ethnically profiled, because there is still confusion about the words we use to describe prejudice, bigotry), having been bullied, harassed, and streamed/tracked (automatically being turned away from college prep and honors courses, even being forced to take "easy classes." "Low-track classes tend to be primarily composed of low-income students, usually minorities, while upper-track classes are usually dominated by students from socioeconomically successful groups. In 1987, Jeannie Oakes theorized that the disproportionate placement of poor and minority students into low tracks does not reflect their actual learning abilities. Rather, she argues that the ethnocentric claims of social Darwinists and the Anglo-Saxon-driven Americanization movement at the turn of the century combined to produce a strong push for "industrial" schooling, ultimately relegating the poorer minority students to vocational programs and a differentiated curriculum which she considered a lingering pattern in 20th century schools." Tracking is basically segregation in "integrated" schools.) All of this... all of these informed me, and shaped me, and stay with me. And still, I meet people that tell me, "I don't see color." "It's better now." "You don't look Mexican." "But, you are white." "Pocha." "Guerra." "Gringa." "What are you?" "We always had groups at school, like the surfers, the nerds, the beaners. It was all cool. It was no big deal." "He doesn't have to fix the mess he made, because he's a Mexican. Free ride." "You people." "Drop dead, wet-back!" Still.

I try not to write for my children, about their personal experiences. I try, at least, to keep personal information and opinions, points of view, my own. I don't want to speak for them. But, I want to speak about my concerns for them, about them. I want to address the issues I face as a mother of children, now young men, and a daughter, that are not seen as White, that are a shade darker, a bit ethnic, "quirky, different, aloof, dress "interestingly," have long hair, are tall for their age, look older than they are, are precocious, don't make eye-contact, flinch, pace, stim, don't read facial expressions well, shy away from confrontation." I am talking about Intersectionality.

My children are ethnically "different," and they are behaviorally "different." They are on the Autism spectrum, and that's something some people are not aware of, or have even dismissed because they perceive "how normal they seem." But others notice, and comment, and eye them suspiciously. Being Hispanic, Latinx, being Autistic, this makes them vulnerable, targets. Even in this lovely community, this "liberal" town, we have friends, also intersectional, ethnically "different," behaviorally "different," that have been targeted, singled out, harassed, and abused by local law enforcement. Report it? Know that from inside of law enforcement, those friends were cautioned against making formal complaints, because "There would be retaliation." Autism spectrum issues are hard. We don't want a "cure," we have figured things out, and we are doing fine... until we leave home, and then the world finds ways of reminding us they are not the same, of challenging us to fit in, to assimilate, adjust, to overcome, to conform, or be removed, know your place, or be pulled out, be quiet or be crushed. And I fear for them. Not openly, not wringing my hands and wailing, because that would crush them, too. Besides needing to give them the warning that BIPOC parents give their children, about being extra polite, extra proper, extra careful, extra submissive, and to know that law enforcement is not likely to be there to protect and serve them, because of Autism, we have to also not overwhelm them with concerns about their instinctive sensitivities to sounds, touch, to change, to confusion, to anything irrational, or unreasonable.

Ok... here's the thing... Police are trained to say, "Stop resisting! And laws protect police when they shout this at anyone being detained, so if you flinch, or recoil, if you cry, or turn in pain, fear, confusion, the police can escalate their force, increase the pain, the confusion, and act like you are resisting, treat you like a bad guy. Our police and sheriffs are heavily armed, they look hostile, they assume individuals they are confronting are hostile... it's all set up, in place for looking for and anticipating "bad behavior," and reacting with violence. I'm not a journalist, and I'm not going to cite all of my statements. That's not me being lazy, it's me saying, there is evidence, there are statistics, this is truth: Law enforcement profiles, White citizens discriminate and call 911 for any little thing that upsets them, police have bad eggs, and a code of protecting each other, and my children, Black men and women, and boys, and girls, Gays, Bi, Trans, disabled, all of the Others, the intersectional, the poor, the homeless... all of them are being treated badly, poorly, unfairly, cruelly, inhumanely, unjustly. It's in our culture, it's in our laws, it's in redlining, tracking, it's policy, and law, it's our history. How long have we been cutting school budgets, and defunding education? How many nurses or counselors are on campus vs police or security? How much training does a person go through before they are set out, armed, to Protect and Serve? Why do we pay taxes, and billions of dollars are directed to armored cars, body armor, weapons, chemical weapons, that are being turned on us, on Black women, on Black men, on boys, girls, journalists, homeless people in wheel chairs, people at home, asleep... At a young man that was walking home, and looked suspicious to someone?

Have you read about Elijah McClain? He was detained on his way home from picking up an iced tea for his brother. He's dead. He's the whole reason I am trying to say something, the reason I'm telling you my experience, my worries, the things I know, and the things I am learning. He is the reason I am in terrible grief, and mourning, and scared for my children, and why I want to pull up hate by the roots, and tear out the system that is broken, unjust. It makes me angry that we even have to analyze the details, question his actions, his tone, what he was wearing. I've seen the bullshit responses from people about George Floyd, that he had a record, he was criminal, he did this, that, all to dehumanize him, all to dismiss the outcry, and the fury. He was too human to be a hero? He was flawed, so settle down? Forget that! He was a human being, and should have had equal protection under the law. Period. Breonna Taylor should be alive. Atatiana Jefferson should be alive. Aura Rosser should be alive. Stephon Clark should be alive. Botham Jean should be alive. Philando Castille should be alive. Elijah McClain should be alive.

We give our police billions of dollars to do one job: Protect and Serve. And now I have lived to see military police helicopters flown tactically above peaceful protesters, marchers attacked by poisonous gas, corralled and herded, shot, beaten, run over, and we pay for this protection, this service. We say we can't afford to pay for college educations, to reduce tuition, to erase college debt. We say we can't afford to give people healthcare, to even keep a system of giving people a chance to pay for affordable health insurance. We say prisons can be private and can earn a profit. We say we can't pay for school nurses, or to house the homeless. We say we can't treat mental illness, or drug addiction. We can't keep voting polls open, plentiful. We can't pay a living wage. We can't give equal pay, or equal rights. We are building a cold, hard garden, poisoned, broken, bigoted, and mean, neglectful, abusive, prejudiced. Are social services and safety nets really radicle? Are they actually extreme left wing idealism? Where would we put "Human decency? Justice?"

Last summer Elijah was walking home and someone thought he looked suspicious, called 911. Elijah was listening to music, moving his arms, minding his business, like my boys do. He was confused, unsettled, by the police that approached him, grabbed him, like my boys would be. He objected, was scared, like my children would be, like I would be. The police, three armed men, took him to the ground, restrained him, and his last words were, "I can't breath. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That's my house. I was just going home. I am an introvert. I'm just different. That's all. I'm so sorry. I have no gun. I don't do that stuff. I don't do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don't even kill flies! I don't eat meat. But I don't judge people, I don't judge people who eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful. And I love you. Try to forgive me. I am a mood gemini. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You all are very strong. Team work makes the dream work... (crying) Oh, I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to do that. I just can't breath correctly."

Every move he made, every flinch or recoil, in the dark, under the weight of three armed men, was treated as an act of resistance, because someone thought he "looked, "suspicious."
How do I teach my children to not look quirky, or to not react to being grabbed, pushed, sat on, beaten, called names, spit at, kicked, profiled, stalked? How do I comfortably watch them leave the house, and not think of Elijah McClain? For justice, it should not matter that he wasn't "on something," that he was really sweet, that he was young, a gentle soul. He should have lived, he should have been respected, protected, no matter his history, his look, his confusion, or resistance. But to this mother, to me... it matters, and I think of him, like my own children, and I want him to have his whole life before him, to be making music, and dancing his way home, free from fear, safe from hate. It matters to me that I see him, recognize his being "just different," like my children, and I can't stop feeling horrified. We simply must defund the police, stop spending billions to escalate fear and suspicion, we must tear out this broken system and hold ourselves to higher expectations, better goals, we must clear the way for justice, so we can have peace. I need this to be a better world, for all of us, and that can't be asking too much.

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