This one time I was on the radio…

I was interviewed on the Monday that Darren Wilson was not indicted for the shooting of Michael Brown. It was an impromptu thing that I had no idea was coming… and a little odd  considering the grand jury was holding off on releasing their decision for several hours after I spoke with the interviewer, but anyhow here it is.

And then came the Eric Garner non-indictment.

And then one of the young black men in my class said to me, “I am just so tired of having to talk about this all the time.”

Kenny, my man, I can’t even begin to understand what this is like for you, but my god I wish society would give us some new material as well.



Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but it is certainly prone to extended paraphrases. Long before the jury announced its decision, many people had seen what the outcome would be, had known that it would be a strange echo of the words Zimmerman uttered that rainy night in central Florida: they always get away.

I hate to say I told you so (actually, that is not entirely true… but at the very least as I get older it generally makes me feel more sad than vindicated) but I really did tell you so about this one. As the Zimmerman trial got underway and no one took issue with the defense attorney cracking jokes, the freakishly homogeneous jury, and the abased treatment of victim Trayvon Martin’s friends and family, it seemed pretty clear to me what was going to go down.

Of course it could also be that I am a historian and I feel that the history I have studied and lived prepared me for what would be the eventual verdict that came out as I was sitting at a lovely dinner at dear friends’ wedding in Mendocino County.

The familiarity dulled the sharp edges of the tragedy. The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling.

This doesn’t make me any less saddened by the fact that a young man was killed for no other reason than he was a black teenager. The truth is teenagers make those not used to dealing with them very twitchy, and I know this from a plethora of experience – I always watch how people react here in the “liberal” Bay Area when I get on Bart with my Berkeley High (hardly threatening, although very diverse) students… and the reactions of the commuters on the train are always the same, ranging from discomfort to disgust to real concern. And the fact that he was black does matter.

Racial bias is real. Racial profiling is real. Racial inequity is real. Racial injustice is real. Don’t take my word for it read the science on racial “profiling.” Read the science around the study of “unconscious bias” at Harvard University.

Maybe we could look at some white kids who tend to wear hoodies… skaters and surfers – no less likely to be punk kids by the way – but I cannot remember the last time I heard of one of them being shot and killed for basically being in the wrong place at the wrong time (which skaters and surfers frequently are…) And as I watch the often swift hand of justice in America I have to play the mental game of wondering how things would have played out had Martin been white and Zimmerman black. Save for pro athletes (which is a rant for another time) I feel pretty confident in saying a black male shooter would have been immediately arrested (no weird 46-day delay) and incarcerated. And I seriously doubt Mark O’Mara and Don West would ever take a case of the everyday criminal of color. In fairness, I don’t know for sure, but it is a feeling I have. Just like the feeling I had when I said these things:

It’s Florida Vince. No justice there. And in times of uncertainty like we are living in (economically, politically, ideologically, environmentally) people are desperate to have something tangible to be afraid of… and so they make a young black kid seem *that* scary. It is easier to be afraid of something concrete and tangible than to face the daunting reality that our collective survival is going to require a huge effort to come together and work shit out. As you know, very few people really want to do work in any context. Everyone just wants solutions and results. Sad. [FB, 10 July 2013]

Now we are faced with the aftermath. People are angry. and I don’t think it will be long-lived or effective. People have short attention spans and the media at the very least is banking on that. Frustration will incarnate as destruction and there will be greater alienation and divides. And the reality that Trayvon Martin did absolutely nothing that warranted the sort of outcome that Zimmerman had in store for him will be lost among the fall out, resentment, and intentional effort to justify the outcome of our modern justice system. Continue reading

Feel the Power.

Empowerment is a terribly obvious concept that becomes painfully elusive when a definitive explanation is required. The easy way out is to say it is a deeply personal and therefore entirely subjective notion. But that cannot be true when it is something that is apparent to everyone when they are in the presence of it. So, it is not good shoes. Or a Black Amex. Or being physically intimidating through size or aesthetic. It is not a style or something learned, picked up from the celeb du jour. It is not exactly some higher consciousness or enlightened state. (Though I would be remiss to suggest that none of these things contribute to empowerment.) In the simplest of terms, the only measure of empowerment that I could settle on is eye contact. In every context, manifestation, or situation that I could consider, the greatest equalizer of status, position, persona, and character has always been eye contact.

A while back I was asked to contribute a few words (ha – a few – well, I tried…) to a publication I have been fortunate enough to contribute to a few times on how I would describe empowerment. My contribution is above. But since then, I’ve been thinking about it more. I am lucky, as I have never really felt absent personal power. This is not to say that I have not been in situations and circumstances where I did not have the power I imagined, or that I always effectively exploited my prowess, but at the very least I have felt worthy of being empowered.

When I first was discussing the prompt with the lovely Ginger, editor of the magazine, we were trying to succinctly – as much as one can over cocktails – to get at the heart of empowerment. We tossed a series of ideas back and forth; what were the times we felt empowered, how did we recognize this in others, how did one achieve it… It was delectable food for thought.

  • Empowerment to me means being able to look someone in the eye no matter how they are treating you.
  • Empowerment to me means looking into the eye of those who most people would choose to ignore.
  • Empowerment to me means having the courage to stand up for what you believe in without having to demean others for holding different priorities.
  • Empowerment to me means having the wisdom to know that some people are dangerous, be it physically, psychologically, or emotionally, and you are not weak to walk away.
  • Empowerment to me means recognizing that some people will never hear you or see you or acknowledge you in a way that makes you feel good, and you have to let that go.
  • Empowerment to me means owning your thoughts and actions and knowing you are the only one who has control over them.
  • Empowerment to me means seeing the potential in people.
  • Empowerment to me means understanding that kindness is not weakness,
  • Empowerment to me means keeping your head up when people lay their shit on you, and knowing that it will always, eventually, make its way back to them, and you have no role to play in that reality.
  • Empowerment to me is seeing the students I teach stand up for what is right – and most importantly stand up for themselves.
  • Empowerment to me is knowing that my height, my shoes, my situation, have nothing to do with the presence I can wield…
  • Empowerment to me is knowing which droids are the ones you are looking for.
  • Empowerment to me is understanding that we are all in this together, and those who choose to ignore that fact will eventually realize they were wrong.
  • Empowerment to me is having the courage to be authentic.
  • Empowerment to me is this 11-year-old boy taking down ignorant racists with grace and calm.
  • Empowerment to me is one of my 15-year-old students standing up on a stage all by herself and belting out a classic:

And sitting with all these thoughts on the yoga mat today moving from prasarita padottanasana to sirsasana – my favorite asana for gaining perspective – I thought about how lucky I am to be able to look people in the eyes, something that the shifty, the shady, the less than honest, the insecure, the big talkers with no walk… are unable to do. At the end of my practice sitting in agnistambhasana, I thought about the traditional Hindu/Indian salutation of namaste. It means ‘I bow to you’ in the most literal sense, but in a larger context it suggests the spirit that is me sees the spirit that is you.

That is empowering.

And so are my girls right here… check out the spirit in Kheyaira, Kara & Lud.

Own your shit and look people in the eye… not bad rules to live by.