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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Liz Halbert, Hero

Another post about the Not In Our Town gathering in Bloomington, October 2006: Nobody knew how emotional it would be to hear the stories in a room together over two early Autumn days. The stories had already been told in the "Not In Our Town" documentary series, but many were dabbing their eyes and standing to applaud spontaneously as they met in the flesh, exchanged hugs, and listened to the re-tellings. Though it took place in a rather institutional, unadorned hotel meeting room, it breathed with the quality of a tribal campfire where great stories are repeated and passed down and beyond to the next tellers.

These were ordinary folks from several dozen communities who had done extraordinary things to confront acts of hate and intolerance. Unfortunately, the biggest local hero of all could only be seen on a videotape. She died in December 2005 from a rapid viral attack at age 26. As a 15 year old, Liz Halbert had been one of the founders of the Not In Our Town chapter in Bloomington. She exuded the passion and clarity that are often more clearly expressed by a teen-ager. She’d been a panelist at the President’s Conference on Hate Crimes. When she got to college at Eastern Illinois University, she experienced an ugly, all-too-common incident. A group of white men yelled out “Nigger” at her from a passing car. She called her parents to invite them to a forum she’d organized after the incident. They said they expected to see about 25 people there and wanted to support their daughter. They should have known there would be hundreds including the mayor and the chief of police. An African-American senior stood up at the forum and declared that Liz’s incident wasn’t all that uncommon, but it was shocking that it took a freshman to show the community that it needed to deal with it.

We watched Elizabeth, a beautiful, Miss Illinois contestant, explain on tape that, “we’re all ignorant. There’s just so many cultures we can’t fully know. But we can control our ignorance rather than let it control us.”

Friday, November 24, 2006

MLK Jr. Day in Greenville

Lottie Gibson, James Hennigen, and Sandy Lechner came from Greenville, South Carolina to the "Not In Our Town" gathering in Bloomington. This year was the very first time that their county officially celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. day with a day off for county workers. It took a bitter NINETEEN year struggle to win that recognition for MLK Jr. It was so much more than a battle for a day off. Even the largest march ever held in the county – 10,000 mostly black citizens in 2003 – had no effect on the 8 right wing commissioners who did not want to recognize the man they publicly labeled a Communist and a womanizer. The MLK Jr. Day activists needed three more votes on the commission. Greenville is an extremely Republican county and the activists decided they should focus their efforts on a Republican primary to elect moderates. The hard-fought Republican primary produced three victories against right wing commissioners, but the right wingers did not give up easily. They contested the closest race and a recount confirmed the victory. The right wingers then appealed to the party leaders and a new election was ordered for that district. A warning went out that arrests would be made if any Democrats (read Blacks) voted in the primary. That warning backfired on the right wingers. Many African Americans who risked their lives a generation earlier to gain the right to vote, saw the warning as a mean-spirited (illegal) challenge. When they found out that only Democrats who had voted in the Democratic primary were forbidden to vote in the Republican primary, they came out in force. (When a county is so overwhelmingly Republican, not many vote in a Democratic primary.) The right wing commissioner was beaten more soundly than in the previous election and recount. The new commission voted for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and Greenville County has joined the rest of the U.S. in honoring the civil rights leader.

“It was a racist war, Lottie delared. “We had a war!”

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Not In Our Town

Last month (October 6-8), I attended the first national Not In Our Town gathering in Bloomington, Illinois, as a member of the video crew. Many of the 100 who gathered were characters from the same documentary, meeting each other for the first time. Their stories had been woven together in a series of three documentaries about local heroes and communities who stood their ground against hate crimes and bias.

It all started in 1995 when veteran documentary-makers Patrice O’Neill and Ryan Miller went to Billings Montana to record a story of a community that stood in unison against hate after a brick was thrown through the bedroom window of a Jewish child where Hannukah candles flickered in the night. Since 1993, hate activities by white supremacists in Billings had been alarming folks in the community, but also triggering collective responses of unity and compassion. KKK fliers were distributed, the Jewish cemetery was desecrated, the home of a Native American family was painted with swastikas, and threatening skinheads started standing in the back of a small African American church during its services . Thirty painters from the painters' union came after their workday to paint over the grafitti at Dawn Fast Horse's family home. People from other denominations and races came to stand at the Methodist Episcopal Wayman Chapel until the Skinheads moved on. After the brick was hurled through the Jewish child's window, the Billings Gazette ran a full page rendition of a Hannukah menorah and encouraged people to tape them to their windows. Some who taped the Menorahs in their windows received threatening calls or had their cars vandalized. This only multiplied the number who displayed the menorahs, until there were an estimated 10,000 homes with the newspaper art. From the earliest signs of hate grafitti, Police Chief Wayne Inman warned skeptical community officials to take it very seriously and mobilize community awareness. Now retired, he was one of those at the Bloomington gathering, retelling the Billings story.

Perhaps this time he was preaching to the choir, but his words scattered a new generation of seeds that will blossom into continued resolve and solidarity in communities across the country when hate rears its threatening face.

Friday, November 17, 2006

In a loose fitting tuxedo, I attended a dinner event at San Jose's Tech Museum and heard Bill Gates speak Wednesday night. If you closed your eyes, you could forget you were listening to the world's leading capitalist, and many might even come away thinking that capitalism does in fact seed the best innovations that in turn uplift all people. He was that good. The event was the sixth annual awards night for Tech Museum Laureates - those innovators who have employed technology to bring positive results - often in impovershed places. One of the winners created a simple filtering mechanism that can purify water and enable women's cooperatives throughout India to sell bottled, purified water. Another winner created a portable device that uses a digital camera-voice recognition computer in a way that helps visually impaired persons know what all the signs they encounter outside are telling them. Bill Gates talked about the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate diseases that are curable yet still ravage millions in developing countries every year. He said that if we somehow lived in neighborhoods that randomly mixed rich and poor, you would notice this child is starving and that family is ravaged with malaria, and we would immediately do something about it. He was passionate and genuine. If every successful capitalist turned a significant portion of their profits to seeding social solutions, maybe it would make a big difference, but that just doesn't happen. Many of the awards presenters such as execs from Intel and Agilent have laid off thousands in recent years that far outweighs the $50,000 they gave out to the winner in their category.

I got invited to the black tie event that very afternoon because the Foothill College table had one opening. I've been working with a wonderful Sociology professor there to conduct debates on state propositions before the past two elections. She knew from some small talk that I had a "hand-me-down" tuxedo. Unfortunately, I forgot to put on the suspenders and had to hold my pants up whenever I walked.

There really ought to be museums that are organized year around on the theme of innovations for social good such as these 25 annual award winners. How different the world would be if schools were organized around solution building projects as well where students developed appropriate technologies and education materials to make a difference in the health of the planet and its people.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Solidarity Action in the wake of a Possible Hate Crime

A few weeks ago, Alia Ansari, a Muslim woman, wearing a hijab (headscarf), was shot in the head as she walked to a nearby school with her three year old to pick up some of her other six kids. The killer got back into a car and drove off quickly though witnesses got the license plate # and police have been holding a Hispanic suspect. Unclear if he was in that car. Unclear if it was a hate crime.

One thing that is clear is that Muslims are frightened and insecure in Fremont, CA where it happened and where the largest concentration of Afghani emigres have settled. ("The Kite Runner" - bestselling novel - is, in part, about that community.)

There was a public forum with the chief of police. No information about whether it looked like a hate crime was given out. A Muslim organization came up with a "Wear the Hijab or Turban Day" as a way that people in the Fremont community could show their support for the safety of their Muslim neighbors. Given that we are just across the bay in Palo Alto, I wrote an email to a number of people connected to our schools and various agencies to encourage our own participation, as a demonstration of neighborly support and a way for us to stay proactively sensitive about acts of intolerance. I got back some feedback that wearing a hijab would be uncomfortable given that some Muslim regimes force women to wear them. The ACLU Chapter Board (of which I'm a member) declined to endorse the Fremont event. I wrote a second email suggesting we wear armbands or pin a card with Alia's name on it to our shirt and that we join in a moment of silence at noon with those in Fremont, and send them emails. Tomorrow is the day. I believe there will be about six small groups of folks doing this in various places in the community, including students at Palo Alto High School and members from a couple of churches, as well as some individuals. I'll be meeting some folks at the Media Center.

You have to have a thick skin to publicly suggest a community action.

Israel - Palestine through a Lerner's Eyes

Palo Alto's First Presbyterian Church hosted a weekend with Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor/founder of the progressive magazine, Tikkun, and a co-founder with Cornel West of a movement of Spiritual Progressives. Deborah and I went on Friday night and this morning (Sunday) to hear him speak for the first time.

It was great for me to hear someone voice the feelings/opinions I hold about Israel-Palestine, but rarely articulate. In my immediate family with its divide between ultra-religious Zionists and non-observant, culturally proud Jews the easiest course has been to avoid any discussion on the issue, not get deeply involved in any movements, and just not respond to my father's mailings of pro-Israel, pro-Orthodoxy articles. I have a friend who is a progressive Cuban American whose extended family is divided between rabid anti-Castro folks (mostly in Miami) and pro-Cuba folks. He reports a similar dynamic where he just keeps quiet to avoid the deep family rift that would otherwise occur.

As a spiritual progressive, Lerner says we must start with the "I-Thou" perspective rather than the "Evil Other" perspective of those with whom we are at odds.

He talked about the need for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to model a real "intention" for peace and generosity and seeing the humanity and goodness in "the other side." When the Oslo Peace Accords were signed he encouraged Israeli President Rabin to use it as an opportunity to travel to Palestine, initiate new bonds between the two peoples, express sorrow for all the killing Israel has done, etc. Instead Rabin went back to Israel and proclaimed he signed the agreement but doesn't trust the Palestinians and would take each step very slowly and cautiously. When Lerner subsequently asked him about it, Rabin said that first he had to build trust among his own people and after re-election he could move forward with more initiatives for real and lasting peace. Instead he was murdered by Israeli right-wingers before serving another term. Be careful because "the mask becomes the face," Lerner said.

It also felt good to hear him say to those who would promote total divestment from Israel that there is a big difference between selective divestment from companies that fuel the occupation such as Caterpillar Tractors and total divestment. He said that when the left would promote divestment from at least 15 human rights violators including the U.S., then he would be fine with adding Israel to that list and joining the cause. Too often it feels to me that people on the left demonize Israel on an emotional level that goes beyond the attention they give and express about places where torture, repression, and ethnic cleansing are practiced at least as vigorously. That gets very uncomfortable.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day

"Hey Chad, how's it hanging?"

After seeing Dorothy Fadiman's new documentary, Stealing America Vote by Vote , I've been geared up for another round of suspicious voting machine behaviors and overt dirty tricks to keep Democrats out of the process. Maybe with those stories finally getting some traction in our country, we won't have another Election 2004 or 2000.

I was glad to see how my touchscreen provided a printout for me to review, though I read accounts on the Common Cause blog of people who reviewed their printout and found that a number of votes got mistakenly recorded for Republicans - just like what happened in 2004.