Archive for category injustice
It’s like some evil game
of Simon says
Why do so many people
who look like me
comb over the footage,
looking for a misstep?
The questions begin,
cloaked in willful blindness
the cloak victim-blaming
“Yeah but–was he
Why didn’t he
The wrong questions,
world without end
Just ask Charles Kinsey
if hands up & unarmed
& lying on your back
on the road
begging for reason
will keep a black man from being
shot if someone decides
he looks like a threat
because he is breathing
Like someone decided
Tamir was a threat,
sitting alone, dreaming
that will never come true.
I dream of a world where
people who look like me
will ask vastly different questions,
again and again
until this world ends
And a new world opens
one where police will be expected
to protect and serve
a father of four
car broken down
who has his hands in the air
is the absolute expectation
A world where
would still be here
I’ve been drunk-binging on nature lately, pulled from my grind-screen work and what I ‘should’ be doing to spend hours just gazing at the wonders of the fall. I end up working way too late to compensate, but you can only see the foliage in the daylight.
Such transformation is amazing. It gives me hope. As in, “I am living in a miracle world, pure, uncut amazing! Anything might happen!”
Well. It’s not all Indian summer breezes, after all. Nope. It’s a world awash in constant pain. Turn on the news or read the stream or listen to the couple behind you in line for a burrito sniping at each other–pain, pain, pain; see the face of the worn-looking woman waiting for the bus, see how a knotted thread of anxiety is pulling her features toward the center of her face, into a pinch of ache. She’s in pain, emotional, physical, spiritual–it doesn’t matter what kind of pain, does it? She’s a human, and she’s hurting.
This week I read a story in the New York Times about an Italian marathon-runner, and not an experienced or well-trained one, who came to New York to run. He was with a loosely-organized group of Italians. He spoke no English. Somewhere along the route of the marathon, he dropped his small amount of cash, along with his hotel key-card and his subway map.
He went missing for around 48 hours, wandering New York in his running clothes, disheveled, hungry, alone. Unable to communicate. After running a whole marathon, so he must’ve been flat-out depleted. He made his way, somehow, to the airport, knowing his group would be flying out the next day. Security kicked him out, because they thought he was homeless.
A policeman noticed him on the subway the next day, and realized he was the missing foreigner.
According to Office Yam, “He kept turning and looking to the map. He seemed like he was under duress, like he happened to be lost or not knowing where he was going.” Thanks to the officer’s alertness, the hapless marathoner was saved. Happiness! Truly, it was a joyful ending to what must have been a terrifying experience for him.
Still, no mention in the news article of all the actual homeless people who are disheveled, hungry, alone and unable to communicate, who also do not know where they are going, and who are moved along and cursed at and rarely rescued. They have no group to join, it seems. Imagine the marathoner, wandering weak and scared for two whole days. Now imagine wandering—indefinitely. In the cold, in the rain. In the days that come after this golden time ends.
Sometimes I just want to not want to help, to care, to crave, to feel at all. Because I don’t know how to fix it. I can barely manage myself.
But then: the trees.
The trees are divine spirits. They won’t let me fade into numb oblivion. They remind me that no matter what else is going on, no matter what hurts or what is messed up—that beauty is there, not caring if I eat it up or ignore it, but there all the same. Doesn’t that mean something? I take a picture. I feel pleased, and then sort of shallow at the rush of pleasure all this beauty brings. My inner scold chides me. A picture of an amazing blazing autumn afternoon won’t heal the world.
A little voice says it might heal some tiny corner of it.
It might remind someone— someone who gets lost fighting things she cannot change—to remember to appreciate the gift of being in this world, on this day. To breathe this autumn air, and feel gratitude.
And maybe that is a tiny little start?
It’s not nearly enough, but you have to begin where you are, and work up from there.
“Hope without power is no match for fear with power.” –Caroline Myss
Maybe if we empower our hopes, there will be a little less fear in the world?
The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
The beautiful, rowdy prisoners.
It is their ghosts I think of as I walk past cell after cell. (I know. It’s easy, in such a ruin, to imagine ghosts.)
Silent screams echo through the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary in the trendy Fairmount neighborhood of urban Philadelphia. This prison, now an historical museum site, has not housed inmates since its closing in 1971.
Maybe it was the humidity, pressing down on me the hot summer afternoon I visited. But I felt what I felt. I felt heavy layers of despair. I heard voices, and not just the recorded ones in the audio headset. I also heard the voices of prisoners past and prisoners present, calling me to attention.
This place was, back in the early 19th century, thought of as a ground-breaking, humanitarian response to reforming criminals. The Quaker-inspired system was based on the belief that solitude and work would allow convicts to focus on their wrong-doing, and become truly “penitent.” Prisoners, many in for crimes like horse theft, saw no one, spoke with no one, touched no one, and smiled at no one, day after day. When necessity forced prisoners to leave their cells, they were hooded so that they had no visual interaction with other humans.
Eastern State is where solitary confinement was pioneered, and perfected, the audio recording hissed in my ears, as I peered in cell after lonely cell. The Pennsylvania System, as it was dubbed, was hailed as a model.
It didn’t work. It did not reform.
But “solitary” remains a punishment used at many modern prisons in the US and is even used on prisoners under the age of 18. US state and federal prisons are currently holding as many as 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement or isolated housing, according to ACLU reports.
Human Rights Watch notes that as of 2006, the rate of reported mental health disorders in the state prison population is five times greater than in the general adult population.
What 17-year-old deserves solitary confinement? What mentally ill person deserves it? Which criminals deserve this, exactly? And who is empowered to decide and implement this torture that takes place far from the eyes of mainstream society?
As Charles Dickens said, after visiting Eastern State in 1842:
“….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
I wonder at how I have slumbered. In the courtyard of Eastern State sits a sobering, three dimensional bar graph, charting the rate of incarceration in US prisons versus the rest of the world. The US has achieved world domination here. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
Processing all this, I walk the corridors of Eastern State. A fog of cognitive dissonance begins to cloud my mind. The light here is soft, and beautiful as the light through any rose-windowed cathedral. The arched corridors are beautifully proportioned. In its heyday, Eastern State was hailed as a model of justice and technological advancement. On the surface, it appeared to be such a good idea. An unquestionable system, implemented by a government that knew what it was doing.
This is a reminder, one of the little voices whispers to me.
A reminder to wonder, to question. A reminder to look beyond, to see what is really happening.
I’m not entirely sure what all this means. But I know it’s not good. I keep reading. The United States prison population has increased by 500% in just thirty years. I learn that that minorities and impoverished people—the most voiceless, the least powerful— are far more likely to end up doing time. Hard time.
Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, prisoners are being put to work filling government contracts. Think “slave labor.” Federal Prison Industries, also known as Unicor, uses prisoners for labor, and pays as little as 23 cents an hour. And, according to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, thirty-seven states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations who bring their operations inside prison walls.
Suddenly, as I write this, I hear other voices too, jeering ones, asking me if I’m forgetting the victims, in all this wondering? No, I’m not forgetting.
But there can be many kinds of victims, after all. And many kinds of crimes, not all of them carried out by individuals.
The ghosts in my head remind me to keep wondering, to keep questioning why we as a nation keep building so very many cages.
Links to more information on this topic:
I’m doing a forty-day series of writing prompts to jump-start a novel that I’d let go of working on.
I write each prompt in the voice of the character of my story. A lot of it won’t be in the story, but it is a lot of fun and I’m getting to know my character much better.
Here’s today’s: Imagine a time you felt trapped or were trapped, literally. What happened? (Prompt inspired by a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, a prison where solitary confinement was pioneered as a punishment.)