Reflections on a Race Riot

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Baltimore is burning. The recent riots, which followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, have sent the media into a frenzy of sensationalism and recrimination. For the most part, black residents in the inner city of Baltimore have been portrayed as lawless thugs eager to destroy property and harm police officers. The much greater number of peaceful protesters was largely ignored, their hand-in-hand march not exciting enough to capture  media attention.

My first reaction upon seeing bricks hurled at police officers and store windows shattered was to agree with the conventional narrative. Of course blacks should be outraged, but this was no way to further their cause etc. etc. But the more I saw and read, the more I realized that I had failed to grasp the anger and hopelessness that led to this point.

As author and activist Kevin Powell wrote, “Any people with nothing to lose will destroy anything in their way. Any people who feel as if their lives are not valued, like they are second-class citizens at best, will not be stopped until they’ve made their point.”

The death of Freddie Gray was not an isolated incident but a pattern of police behavior when it comes to blacks in America. It is a system that must be addressed, that must be rectified. It is ironic that at the very moment in history when we have our first African-American president, the plague of police brutality against blacks seems to be at an all-time high.

Many blogs and photo essays have popped up on Facebook making the point that when whites rampage, break windows, and set fire to cars, it is revelry that has gotten out of hand. When blacks do it, they are thugs and animals. When a white man guns down dozens of people in a movie theater, he is described as a brilliant student. When a black man commits even a much lesser crime, he is described as a criminal or suspected gang member.

I am not trying to excuse violent behavior. I am not saying it is right to burn buildings or loot stores. In fact, I have been disturbed by the almost unanimous public approval for a Baltimore mother shown on camera repeatedly slapping her teenaged son on the head as she dragged him away from the unrest. “Mom of the Year” she was proclaimed. Really? I wonder where her son learned that violence is the answer to problems.

Violence begets violence. When parents beat their children, their children learn to vent their anger with violence. When police officers treat black people as de facto criminals, using excessive force, threats, and intimidation on a regular basis, they are furthering a cycle of violence.

As a country, we need to deal with the endemic problems that create violence and disorder in our society. The answer is not more police or more incarceration. It is not corporal punishment to keep our children in line. The answer is to see our common humanity and to strive to make our country, arguably the greatest country in the world, a place of fairness, prosperity, and justice for all.

For the Birds

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Now that spring has sprung, I have taken my walks outside and into nature. I never walk with headphones on because I love the sounds of the outdoors, especially the birdsong.

I got my interest in birds from my father. He used to point out the different varieties of them living in our neighborhood when I was young. I continue to be fascinated by their movements and their songs and the mystery of these creatures living above me in the trees.

In today’s Chicago Tribune, there was a delightful story about a 15-year-old boy named Henry Griffin, who has become something of an expert on birds and who leads bird-watching expeditions around his Oak Park, Illinois, neighborhood. I usually think of birders as older adults with plenty of time on their hands and the inability to sleep past 5 am. Bird watching requires early morning alertness and immense patience, not the qualities one usually finds in a teenager.

Griffin has a birding website, where he blogs about his travels and bird sightings. A musician, he is attuned to birds’ various song patterns and can identify many by sound even when they are unseen. I would love to be able to do this.

Several years ago, I treated myself to a weekend in Tucson, Arizona, at a health spa. One of the activities offered was a morning bird walk. I got myself up early, bundled up, as the desert is quite chilly in the morning, and headed out with my guide. I was the only guest along for the trip. It was so peaceful being outdoors while most of the world slept. The birds, however, were already awake and active. I particularly remember a scarlet-headed one we saw in a remote area amidst dry grasses and cacti.

I’m not sure why I find birds so fascinating. Is it their curious little raptor faces that are so reminiscent of their dinosaur ancestors? Is it the intricate pattern of their songs, which reminds me of my father whistling while working around the house? Or the grace of flight as they soar, dive and rise again? Maybe it’s the flash of color that rewards a persistent bird watcher and the challenge of finding a rare species in one’s environment.

Tradition has it that a cardinal landing in one’s yard is a sign that a deceased loved one’s spirit is nearby. Couples are referred to as lovebirds, and there are popular expressions such as, “Birds of a feather flock together.” The Wright brothers looked to the flight of birds to help them design the first airplanes.

I saw my first robin today, the harbinger of spring. Is it any wonder I look forward to bird sightings?

A Better Man Than I

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My husband loves his car. It is sleek and black and purrs like a lioness. He maintains it lovingly, gets it washed regularly, and doesn’t allow anyone to eat in it. So I might have expected him to get miffed when I smashed it into the rear end of a taxi the other day.

It wasn’t my fault! I had just dropped the hubby at his office in downtown Chicago and was heading to our dentist’s office. I was stopped at a light behind a red SUV that happened to be a taxicab. When the light changed, the taxi started forward and so did I. Inexplicably, the taxi stopped, and I didn’t have time to stop before crunching right into it. The sickening thud told me that my husband’s beautiful car had sustained some major damage. I called my husband’s office, my heart in my throat.

He was completely calm and came to survey the damage. The first thing he did was wrap me in a hug and tell me he was so glad I was okay. Then he looked at his beloved car. The front headlights and grill were smashed in, and the hood was bent. It looked like the automobile equivalent of a boxer who has been punched right in the kisser.

Hubby’s reaction? “It’s not so bad.”
“I am so sorry,” I said. “I feel sick about it.”
Still totally calm, he said, “It’s no problem. We’ll get it fixed. I’ll call the body shop and tell them you’re going to bring it in.”

And as simply as that, I made the necessary next moves: calling our insurance company, clearing out the car, and dropping it off at the premier auto body repair facility. Let’s hope it comes out good as new.

My husband and I are like any other couple. We get annoyed over little things, have arguments, and get on each other’s nerves. I don’t handle crises very well, and in this particular instance I made a number of logistical errors that totally inconvenienced him. Yet he never got upset or yelled, something I feel pretty certain I would have done had the tables been turned.

I am grateful for the level-headedness and compassion my husband showed after I wrecked his car, and I only hope I will treat him with equal kindness should the shoe ever land on the other foot.

Taken for Granted

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If you are a spouse or a parent, chances are you know what it’s like to be taken for granted. Whether it’s a child who relies on you to bring to school her homework paper that she left at home or a husband who gives you an absent-minded peck on the cheek as he sails out the door for work, your being there is considered a given.

While that can sometimes feel negative, I have to say that being taken for granted can be a beautiful thing. It means people in your life are so secure in your love for them that they don’t need to beg for it or search for proof of it.

Ever noticed an old married couple out for dinner who barely speak? It doesn’t necessarily mean they have nothing to say to each other. It can also mean they are so at ease with each other that they don’t need to fill the togetherness with words. The same is true with my kids. I often drive them, especially my boys, somewhere in companionable silence. Our presence together is all that we need.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to expect respect from our loved ones. I also try to teach my kids to be grateful for the many blessings in their lives and to express their appreciation to us and others. When being taken for granted feels more like being a doormat, it is certainly time to set some expectations for the people we love.

I also think we need to realize that our spouse, child, parent or friend will not always be there and may even be taken away prematurely. It’s important not to assume that our time with them is unlimited. Therefore, we need to try our best to make the most of our days with our family and friends.

But I do want my loved ones to take it for granted that I will always love them and be there for them in the best way I know how.

Unforgotten in “Chiraq”

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The statues are eerily lifelike and fully dressed in the clothes young teens might wear. They hold backpacks and guitar cases, stand or sit in realistic poses. But they have no faces, just a blank hole where their heads should be. They are “Unforgotten,” an exhibit dotting the landscape of downtown Chicago.

Each statue represents a young person gunned down in Illinois in the recent past. Their purpose is to highlight the huge loss to our society caused by handgun violence. According to the Chicago Tribune, more than 400 people in Chicago were killed last year.

Such persistent, meaningless violence has led critics to dub the city “Chiraq,” a name that is causing some controversy. As Chicago rapper Aaron Pierce put it, “That name belittles our city, and I feel like it dehumanizes us.” Yet it is the name filmmaker Spike Lee has chosen for an upcoming movie.

Is it fair? Is Chicago a war zone? From the almost daily headlines, it would seem that there is a similarity between our city and a place where terrorism runs rampant. Yet statistically, violence in Chicago “has been on a steady decline since the early to mid-1990s.” (Chicago Tribune)

Perhaps it’s the prevalence of online sites, You Tube videos, and social media that have brought gun deaths to light more and more. More likely, though, it is the proliferation of handguns. According to Joseph Erbentraut in the Huffington Post, while the total number of homicides showed a modest decrease from 2013 to 2014, the number of shootings went up. As Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said with reference to the increase, “If these guys are throwing rocks at each other we wouldn’t have this problem.” (Erbentraut, Huff Post, 12/31/14)

Supporters of gun rights have been the winners in recent years in terms of the lax control on gun sales and the success of open carry laws. But Americans are fighting the trend. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization dedicated to stopping senseless gun violence, has been waging a battle in state houses across the country to gain common sense legislation controlling who has access to guns. They are also defeating open carry legislation, especially with regard to guns in schools.

It may be an uphill battle, but many people are saying, Enough is enough. On a recent sunny day, families and passersby wept as they gazed at the hollow statues posed in the St. James Cathedral Plaza in Chicago. It’s time to put a stop to the rampant gun violence in our city, retire the ugly title “Chiraq,” and make sure our children living and dead are “unforgotten.”

 

Grocery Store Walk of Shame

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This morning I ran into a local supermarket for a few items, which I collected in a basket and brought to the checkout line. But as I put my items on the conveyer belt, I was embarrassed to realize that almost all my items constituted some form of dessert. Sure, I had some juicy red strawberries, but I plan to dip those in chocolate. The rest of my items were heavy on the butter, sugar, and chocolate (unless you count the wholesome Lunchable I threw in there for my daughter’s power lunch).

To make matters worse, the woman in front of me was rhapsodizing about all the unidentifiable vegetables she was buying. While she explained how to sauté some healthy creation, I wanted to slink away and abandon my purchases.

I often feel self-conscious about what I am buying when I grocery shop. It is so difficult to load my cart up with vegetables when my family members will barely eat any of them. My teenage son wants meat, meat, and more meat, and he also complains when there are no good desserts in the house. My daughter is better, but she loves certain incredibly junky foods such as the aforementioned Lunchables and pretzel sandwiches with processed cheese inside.

Although my Lenten abstention from eating sweets has made me much more judicious about how much sugar I consume, my active kids can afford to eat it, and I don’t have the heart to deny them the pleasure of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies or a bowl of ice cream.

This morning I also broke the cardinal rule of grocery shopping. Never shop when you are hungry. That may explain the massive load up of carbs at the checkout.

I’m sure I am just being paranoid when I feel others are judging me for the contents of my cart. Once when I was a young teacher, I was hosting a small party, so I went to the local supermarket to stock up on a few bottles of wine. As I headed to a checkout line, I noticed that one of my students was in the line ahead of me. So I made a quick detour before he could see what a lush I appeared to be. It didn’t help that back in those days, the underage cashier would yell, “I have liquor!” at the top of her lungs since she couldn’t ring it up herself. Nowadays the clerks use the more subtle code “21.”

To be sure, there are plenty of times when I stock up on the produce and nonfat dairy products. My family is reasonably healthy and not overweight. So I should probably just relax and enjoy my grocery shopping time.

And if it’s true what they say, “You are what you eat,” then my family and I must be awfully sweet!

A Rape Culture on Campus?

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The stunning disavowal by Rolling Stone magazine of an article accusing fraternity members at the University of Virginia of gang rape should give all of us pause about our prejudices and assumptions.

Far from questioning the alleged victim with a critical eye, the reporters and many others, myself included, were quick to judge and assume. The most damaging assumption made was that gang rape is a commonplace phenomenon at fraternity parties.

As an ardent feminist, I have almost always erred on the side on women and the many struggles, prejudices, and discrimination they have historically faced in America. However, this case has made me reflect on my attitude toward men and their sexuality.

The quickness to judge seems to stem from a willingness to paint young adult males as ruthless sexual aggressors who, given half a chance, will have sex with any unconscious female who crosses their paths. In point of fact, however, I don’t know any men who would commit such a heinous act.

Rape is not an act of sex but of power and violence. Although date or acquaintance rape is more difficult to prove due to the possible consensual actions that may have preceded it, the act of forcing a woman (or a man) into sex is still an act of violence. Do we really want to presume that all the men around us are potentially violent predators?

This attitude strikes me as little better than the all too prevalent opinion that women who dress or act provocatively are “asking for it” – that is, bringing sexual violence upon themselves.

As a society, we need to stop conflating sex with violence. This is the problem with the recent film Fifty Shades of Grey. While I am all for people’s freedom to do what they choose in the privacy of their bedroom, I think popularizing sadomasochism with a blockbuster “chick flick” is a bad idea. It gives people the idea that only through violence or the hint of violence can sex be exciting. A recent case at the University of Illinois, in which a student was accused of sexually assaulting a female student during a Fifty Shades– inspired encounter, bolsters my argument.

I was saddened when I saw the most recent attempt by colleges to deal with sexual assault on campus. Ads feature college students and celebrities holding up signs that say, “It’s on us.” But what, exactly, is “on us”? Holding up standards of common human decency? Rape is not a norm anywhere, including on college campuses. I fear the belief that it is normal will only breed a climate of fear and alienation.

I have two daughters and two sons. I hope I have raised them all to be respectful and kind – and certainly nonviolent. Let’s expect that of our young men and women in college. They may just rise to our expectations.