Sunday, January 11, 2015

BLACK-ON-BLACK VIOLENCE IS NOT REAL



























I've been wanting to say something about "black-on-black" violence for a while now, but I've kept quiet because it's generally not my place. But week after week my people, white people, somehow get themselves on television and ply the same lies and misconceptions absent any pointed rebuttal from their own. So I'm breaking my silence in the hope that some prominent white person, somewhere, will read this, crumple it up, and figuratively stick it in Rudy Giuliani's craw the next time he broaches the topic. 

For some reason us white folks go years without caring about "black-on-black" violence. Then, suddenly, after a white cop kills a black kid with his hands up, or another strangles an unarmed man to death, those of us who haven’t cared about the topic for 27,000 consecutive days are suddenly huffing and puffing on television while black people are at the funerals. Why aren’t black people marching? Why don’t black people care more? Why aren’t they protesting what's happening in Chicago?

As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, black people do care. They are marching. They are doing everything they can. The reason why "black-on-black" violence continues is because white people want it to.

Sounds crazy, right? I once thought so, too. 

In 1996 Boston switched "black-on-black" violence "off." It was called the Boston Miracle. In the nineties in Boston a number of young children and a prosecutor were killed in a gruesome spate of violence. City officials said enough. They forged a partnership between police, community leaders and clergy and rounded up 1,000 of the city’s 100,000 15- to 24-year-olds. Specifically, the one percent on the corners. 

Go through this door, which is jobs and services, and you will have a good life. Go through this one, which is back the way you came, and we will round you up and throw you in jail. Forever. Most chose the first door, a few chose the second, and before anyone could say, wait, you’re about to debunk the most legitimate pretext for racism we have!, zero black teens were killed over a twenty-nine month period in Boston. Yes, you read that correctly. Zero.

Now, if you’re like me, and you believe that your government, the police, and the American people, honestly want "black-on-black" violence to stop, then you would assume, as I did, that nobody would ever, in a thousand years, allow the "black-on-black" violence switch to be flipped back "on" again. 

Don't worry, I fell for it, too. This is from the brains across the river at Harvard, who wrote the Miracle's autopsy report:

"The highly successful "Operation Ceasefire" program ended when then-Lieutenant Detective Gary French, who was the operational steward of the approach...left the YVSF...The new commander did not continue the weekly Ceasefire meetings, and YVSF operations devolved into chiefly law enforcement approaches."

You see, as the "new commander," kindly left unnamed, quickly became aware, homicide-free cities don’t require you to hire new recruits. They require you to retire police early (Boston was slated to lose 200 officers following the Miracle) and not hire new ones, because the police have nothing to do when the kids they were chasing over fences go to work. Homicide-free cities don’t require tech upgrades to keep pace with the N.Y.P.D. and other elite forces, who in the 2000s were gearing up with assault rifles, armored carriers, and a ton of other awesome SWAT gear that "black-on-black" violence in the "on" position makes white people scared enough to underwrite with blank checks. 

Just as fast as they turned "black-on-black" violence "off," city leaders realized their mistake and quickly switched it back "on." No more jobs. No more social services. No more nothing except warrants and ass kickings. As the chart below makes clear, complaints for disrespect and use of force suddenly exploded, while youth homicides increased to 15 in 2000, 26 in 2001, and 39 in 2006. Total homicides increased from 31 in 1999 to 69 in 2001. In order to combat this resurgence, the city hired more recruits, purchased citywide gunshot detection, hired a chopper with night vision, tanks, SWAT gear, and other crime-fighting essentials.


Which brings me to my point: "black-on-black" violence is not a real, race-specific thing that exists independently of the policy levers and power actors that turn it "on" and "off" at will. As Philippe Bourgois wrote in the 80s:

The streets of East Harlem have always produced violent, substance-abusing felons, no matter which ethnic immigrant group happened to be living there.

Intra-racial violence (excluding, obviously, crimes of passion) typically arises out of the need to protect illicit income from local competitors. And because ethnic and racial groups historically stick together in hostile environments -- think "Irish need not apply" signs -- Whitey Bulger’s local competitors in Southie were Irish, John Gotti's were Italian, and so on. 


The elected officials in charge of the economic levers in this country control "black-on-black" violence today the same way they controlled "Irish-on-Irish" and "Italian-on-Italian" violence back in the day. As soon as they incorporated those groups into the economy and allowed them to access the jobs and services available to everyone else, intra-racial crime disappeared. Thus it is today you don't hear people talking about "Irish-on-Irish" or "Italian-on-Italian" violence. They aren't real things. 

It's no different for other ethnic and racial groups. Time and again, when black Americans were offered the same jobs and services as everyone else, "black-on-black" homicides vanished. High Point, NC. Richmond, CA. Most recently in Chicago

So next time you hear hear Rudy Giuliani, Ray Kelly, Bill O'Reilly, or any other misinformed white person claiming that the only way to stop "black-on-black" violence is to heavily police, stop and frisk, and shoot-to-kill black men, please call them out on their bullshit. The data defies them. Reason defies them. Cost savings defy them. Saving lives defies them. History defies them. 

Don't make Russell Simmons remind him, white people. You tell him. It's your lie. Our lie. We started it. And now we have to clean up our mess. Because the more this lie proliferates, and spreads unchecked among our people, the more the gullible, scared, and precious among us are tricked into thinking that the Darren Wilsons and Daniel Pantaleos of the world are keeping America safe from a threat that we have been turning "on" and "off" again, at our leisure, for decades.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

ON ALLIES AND EATING SHIT

“You’re from Occupy! You’re not from here!” a woman named Mary screamed at me on the street, in front of several dozen news cameras in March of 2012.

The first part was incorrect. That I was part of the Occupy movement. The second part, however, was true. We were in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. I was not born or raised there, nor had I ever lived there. 

Mary directed her frustration at me because I’d spoken up and said something when it wasn't my place. We were at a press conference following the killing of Kimani Gray, an East Flatbush teen who witnesses say was not holding a gun when he was shot by police who claim that he was.

In the aftermath of the killing, a number of youth took to the streets. Some rioting ensued and several dozen protestors were arrested. A claque of national media descended and put local leaders on the defensive. A dozen clergy and community leaders pinned the riots on “outside agitators,” sharply condemning those responsible, demanding that the youth remain peaceful. Meanwhile, a man named Jose, one of the "outside agitators" referred to at the presser, was busy making plans to march another contingent of two or three hundred youth into the jaws of a police line later that night. Tensions were high, and more arrests seemed certain.

During the presser there was judgment and no alternatives. Not one church was made available. Not one community space was given to the youth to vent, and strategize, so that instead of marching into certain arrest and gaining nothing strategically, save maybe a much-needed release of frustration, they might devise a more strategic plan. Arrests are finite in quantity. You only get so many.

“Where and when are they able to vent, then?” I interjected.

At this Mary beelined over to me, to put me in my place. A crowd of reporters crushed in, to get a taste of what they they'd come for, finally. Division. Trauma. Insiders vs. outsiders. Us vs. them. I quickly apologized and tucked tail home, so as to honor her wishes, and make peace, without giving the vultures what they wanted.

I’ve been wanting to write something about the experience ever since that day, but there are so many reasons why not. The main one being that being an ally means knowing when it is not your place to speak. And knowing that it belies all credibility to sit down at the table with people you've been feeding shit to for centuries, only to turn up your nose when your steaming portion arrives.

Yet turn up our noses we do. It’s how we’re programmed to act as white people in America. As the dominant people group we have weapons at our disposal and we use them. This is why Piers Morgan made a grand ass of himself when Janet Mock insisted that he’d caused her offense. It’s why Vicky Beeching (who I’ve since learned a great deal about and like very much) fell into the same trap. It’s why people freaked out over the #cancelcolbert hashtag and tried to bludgeon Suey Park into submission.

It’s hard to blame white people for reacting this way. In our minds, and hearts, this is how we respond to challenge. We use our weapons, and our privilege, to fend it off. Defame me and I will sue you. Criticize me and I will tear you apart. By responding to people of color this way, in our minds we are treating them as perfect equals. It’s how we treat everyone else. Colorblind. Post-racial.

This is, of course, where things get tricky. With white people this is fine, so long as they’ve not been systematically or individually denied use of the same weapons. But with people of color it’s a different story. It’s perhaps the pinnacle of inequity to wield an arsenal of weapons against people that have been structurally denied access to the same weapons. In such situations, the proper response is to put down your weapons, sit at the table, and be quiet. Listen. Hear why your actions caused offense, in spite of your intentions, and strive to avoid committing reoffense.

In my case, with Mary, I strived for months to understand her point of view. Intellectually, I understood it completely. I was a white man, not from Flatbush, asking questions that it wasn’t my place to ask. I should have kept my mouth shut and watched. I knew this then and I know it know. At least intellectually.

But here’s the thing. While I agree that it wasn’t/isn’t my place to speak up, is there, at some point, a tipping point? Is there some point, in the escalation of a situation, or in the strategy involved, a time when it becomes appropriate to speak up? Does at some point the need to be strategic as a movement supersede my primary role as a quiet, supportive, bystanding ally? As the conference was ending, there were still no alternatives on the table. Should I have talked quietly with some of the clergy members, and asked them to open up a space for the youth, or should I have honored Mary's wishes and gone home? 

In the two years since that day, it seems my question has been answered. Emphatically. In May of 2014, a guy named Alex Hardy wrote a piece about White Saviors, and how it is our role to shut up and eat shit. Many others, most of them far less biting, followed. In response to Alex's piece, I was tempted to pull a Piers Morgan. I was tempted to tell him—you see, I’m even tempted to do it now. But that would make me a bad ally. So I remain quiet.

But should I? Is there some point at which I should push back, as someone that knows the heart of white racism inside and out, because it's who I am? Shouldn't I tell Alex that I've been amplifying the voices of people directly affected for over a decade, and that my people can't hear them. Can't see them.

Shouldn't I tell him that the social and geographic distances that white people have created have precluded the ability of our empathy to reach back across. That in order for it to cross this chasm, which is, admittedly, a problem of our own doing, I have learned, after years of trying, that the great majority of white people must see and hear from their own, and observe the system's abuses vicariously, before they can firstly believe they are real, and secondly empathize with those harmed. 

Should I point out, tactically, that any chance we have at extirpating the racism and fear that have supplanted the Constitution as the driving force behind American democracy depends in large part on successfully recruiting this silent white moderate, frustrating and downright painful as that may be? Should I push back and tell Alex that I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to reach this contingent for years, and when I finally found something that worked, he piped up told me eat shit?

In November, after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the officer that killed Eric Garner, a number of hashtags popped up on Twitter. Some to mourn. Some to vent. One, #crimingwhilewhite, started trending, and white people began using it to explain to their own that they’re able to get away with crimes that black people could never dream of getting away with.

Right away the calls came out to be quiet. Now is not the time. Stop showing off. Stop performing your privilege. Which brings up my next question: Is there ever a time? Will people of color ever be able to watch white people school their own, using the only method that seems to work – personal, vicarious examples that evoke empathy – and allow us to continue, or will it always be too painful to watch? Getting white people to acknowledge the structural forces that their forebears expertly programmed into America's systems, in order to "dismantle the power obtained through our privilege" (which the author of the above article posits is the one true goal) contradicts the hardwiring installed in us at birth. Reversing the programming of white supremacy, I have learned, is perhaps the single hardest thing to accomplish on earth. In order to convince people like me, in places where I grew up, to do this, you must first convince them that their privilege is real--no small feat.

The author above makes the mistake of imputing her evolution to the rest of the white race. What I have learned over the last fourteen years of trying is that the overwhelming majority of the white race is nowhere near this level of race consciousness. I once invited every white person I knew--family, friends, and colleagues in the criminal justice system--to go down to City Hall and refuse to leave until the mayor stopped trampling the United States Constitution. Not only did not one of them join me, but they told me I was nuts. Throwing away my future. For nothing. To finally see a hashtag that pierced through this denial, to show them that I wasn't nuts, and that our privilege is/was very real, only to have it criticized as yet another selfish performance, was maddening. 

The final straw, which made me break down and finally write this piece, happened yesterday. Ava DuVernay, the director of the new film Selma, was criticized for her depiction of President Lyndon Johnson. She responded that she did not want to focus on the White Savior angle, and that Johnson had been a “reluctant hero,” if at all.

I think that this reveals something important. Something that shows that this movement has become dangerously splintered. Ms. DuVernay surely has every right not to focus on the White Savior angle. Indeed, she could have left out Johnson entirely, if she’d wanted, and instead focused on Mayor Joe Smitherman, or Sheriff Jim Clark, Selma’s true foils. Instead, the film turned Johnson into an antagonist of sorts, which is an epic historical distortion. 

Johnson’s entire southern voting bloc, specifically on account of his positions on civil rights, defected from the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party at the GOP convention in 1964. Such an en masse political defection was, and remains, unheard of in modern history. Ronald Reagan, who was working on segregationist candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign at the time, introduced him as the GOP candidate for president as the new converts erupted with racist jeers and applause. It was one of the most shameful moments in American history, proving that LBJ faced catastrophic political fallout for his positions on civil rights. Yet he stuck with them. 

If you don’t want to focus on that angle of the story, because his courage detracts from that of the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, then by all means don’t. But if you smear him, and distort history, you may as well stoop to the level of the textbooks that cravenly omit this sordid chapter from American history altogether.

Which leads to my last question. Must white people, including the ones that wish to be allies, be turned into villains to move forward? Does history have to be distorted for commiseration and healing to occur? Do white people need to go through the same hell we put others through before we can work together? Do we need to sit down, and shut up, forever, to make a pluralistic, multicultural nation work?

If the answer to these questions is yes, it will surely be warranted. Deserved. And then some. Hell, we insist upon rule of law, in a nation of laws, and yet we have never, not once, come face to face with our nation's racial crimes--the height of hypocrisy. But is it possible, knowing all of that, and knowing what we do about human nature, that we can strive for accountability, restitution, and progress, together? That we can come to an understanding that when I am trying to reach my people, in the only way that I have found works, I might be granted a little bit of latitude? And that when you are trying to teach us, converts and not-yet-converts alike, and heal from the trauma that we have caused you, might we agree that there are times and places (many, many, many times and places) when it is our place to sit down and shut up? That in such situations, on both sides, we might give each other the benefit of the doubt, in the name of strategy, to move forward, ever mindful of the past, while striving to make things right? Without wagging fingers? Without patronizing? Without derision, deserved as it may be?

If the answer to these questions is no, then I, personally, will try and learn to live with it, as will many others who hope to stand united against oppression in all of its forms. But before I do, I need to have an honest moment with the members of this movement. What this will mean, tactically, in terms of numbers, is that this movement, at this moment in American history, is doomed. If we distort history in an effort to commiserate, if we tell people to eat shit as a matter of course, in order to heal from the many traumas visited by white supremacy, if we masquerade as allies and use the word as a pretext to rip each other down, while the liars that insist on the status quo maintain a heavily armed, completely integrated, unified front, then from a demographic, moral, and strategic standpoint, this movement is doomed for another three decades, at least, until the majority in America tips. And what then? 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

THE LIBERAL RACE BLIND SPOT

I don’t normally wade into Twitter shitstorms unless white people are behaving badly, and need to be checked by one of their own, and I've definitely never written about one outside of Twitter. But what's going on in the case of #cancelcolbert right now demands some immediate attention.

A writer named Bob Cesca, managing editor of the Daily Banter, took an activist named Suey Park to task for suggesting that Comedy Central should cancel the Colbert Report because the host Stephen Colbert made a joke about the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Cesca annihilates Park, telling her that she doesn’t understand satire, that the joke was made in a racial context that Park either wasn't aware of or doesn't get. He then asks her on his Twitter timeline whether she has seen the show, again implying that maybe she isn't sophisticated enough to get Colbert's brand of humor. 

Piers Morgan mini-me Josh Zepps did the same on Friday during a HuffPo segment, calling Park's opinion "stupid" and dismissing her much like Morgan dismissed Janet Mock in February. 

I'm writing to tell you, Mr. Cesca, Mr. Zepps, and white people who say you are against racism everywhere, that Colbert and his writers could have easily made the same exact point, with identical context, and achieved the same comedic effect with: “I’m going to start the Cracka' Ass Cracker Barrel Foundation to Combat Reverse Racism Against White People.” 

When I find myself laughing at sketches like Colbert’s -- even when I understand the context and agree with his larger point (probably hard for Mr. Cesca to believe) -- I am also often cringing at the same time because it reminds me of my own cruelty as a kid: A hurt, wretched little creature hurling slurs around to make myself feel better while pointing and laughing at my many victims.

And if it makes me wince as a former perp, it's not much of a stretch of empathic imagination to suspect that it would reconjure the inverse for Ms. Park. There she is, sitting quietly on the sidelines, nodding and agreeing substantively with everything Mr. Colbert is saying about Snyder's refusal to understand the offensiveness of his football team's name towards Native Americans, when -- POOF -- suddenly words redolent of the same slurs Ms. Park has experienced throughout her life as an Asian woman are up on the screen while an audience that looks strikingly similar to the people that typically hurl them is roaring with laughter. 

The decision of Colbert and his team to poke fun at a real, historically marginalized group instead of targeting a fictional marginalized group, that included the host, and would have likely been just as funny, is a clean glimpse at the blind spot in the race consciousness of white liberals. That they get to choose to bring a second marginalized group into the scrum, or not, and that they go for it, rather than erring on the side of caution, and that they and the many supporters that rally to their defense unleash their intentions as if they are invincible weapons that disprove claims of harm and delegitimize responsive measures by the marginalized group itself, undermines the entire point of being on the right side and perpetuates a far more insidious and hurtful brand of racism than the open coded attempts of buffoons like Paul Ryan.  

When something like this happens, and someone like Ms. Park, who has experienced these things firsthand -- unlike Cesca, Zepps and me -- we have a stark choice as people who claim to be on the "right" side of racism, ignorance and hate. We can take her word for it, whether or not we agree with, believe in, or understand her injury, because we acknowledge that she has standing that we lack (because we have never personally experienced the pain of such slurs, nor will we). 

Or, on the other hand, we can throw a collective fit and dismiss her, insisting on our right to use the group that she is a member of as a pawn in our satire, though we could have easily refrained. And then, rather than humbly listening, or giving her the benefit of the doubt, we insist that we did not -- and could never -- hurt her because intentions, because context, and because satire is an important tool, as though we are explaining these concepts to a child rather than a woman who at age twenty-three understands the complexity and nuance of race, class and history in America better than the majority of us ever will in our lifetimes. 

Choosing the nuclear hissy fit option proves to Ms. Park, and others like her, beyond any doubt that we as liberal white people with public platforms don't value her emotional well being or her intellect. More tellingly, it demonstrates to her that we are definitively on the "right" side of racism right up until the moment we are asked to change any of our behaviors or humbly entertain the possibility that we may have, despite our very high opinions of ourselves, offended someone. That the Morgans, Cescas and Zeppses of the world continue to operate smack in the middle of such a massive blind spot, without seeming to be aware of it, is tragic proof that we are nowhere near the level of race consciousness needed to identify and eradicate racism in all of its ugly forms in America. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

I GOT ARRESTED...SO WHAT?

Since my story ran in The Atlantic Tuesday, I have been overwhelmed with emails from people all over the country wanting to get involved with the Truth Artists Coalition (I promise I will get to them all, thank you so much for reaching out to us), comments, tweets, facebook messages -- for the most part all positive and supportive.

Perhaps more amazing have been the thoughtful conversations happening in the comments section of the article, on Reddit, Mother Jones, and in other places, such as Slate's crime blog, as opposed to trolling

In a piece by Justin Peters on Slate's blog (if you haven't read the piece, please do), he writes, "I just don't think it [Constantino's story] says anything significant."


I want to respond here (there are several other things I would like to clarify, such as that I never "concluded" anything in my piece, as he suggested, but rather I presented the facts in a way that lets readers conclude themselves, but that's for another day) because I think Justin has seized on an important nuance of my story. The nuance is this: It's true, my story doesn't say anything significant to Justin, and that's kind of the whole point. 


One of the most fascinating things about this experience has been that all of my friends who have never experienced the system from the inside, ranging from people I grew up with, to college, law school, and so on, have remarked, "Wow, I can't believe you went through so much," "I can't believe you risked so much," "I can't believe how bad it is in there," etc. 


In stark contrast, many of the people that have experienced the system, or who know and love those that have, not by the luxury of choice, like me, but by force, because of who they are and where they live, have written, "All this shows is how privileged you are," "You haven't seen anything because you were protected by your privilege," "You will never experience the system the way someone from Brownsville does."  


And this latter group is exactly right. I wasn't beaten. I wasn't pulled from a car and left to bleed to death on a public street. I wasn't pulled over and killed in front of my friends. I wasn't chased down, Tased, and left to die in police custody for tagging graffiti. I didn't have a broken wrist, or Taser burns, or any lumps on my head from my arrest, as all of the men of color around me in central booking did. Furthermore, as the story itself makes plain, I definitely do not get stopped or bothered when I leave the house and walk around Roxbury or Brooklyn. 


But here's the thing: Just because this latter group is right (and they are, because I will never experience the system the way a man of color my age does, nor will I ever be stopped in Barney's for buying a nice belt) does not make my white friends wrong for thinking what they think. To them, it is a huge, catastrophic life event to go through the experience of getting arrested and convicted. Where I am from, one doesn't get arrested unless one does something really, really outrageous, like driving drunk and crashing, or becoming addicted to heroin and breaking into houses. 


Accordingly, we trust the police and the justice system because they never give us a hard time and they (almost always) give us the benefit of doubt. Because this is our reality, we can't possibly believe the police or the justice system would ever treat people otherwise unless they deserve it. In my piece I wrote, "we figured whatever they [people in high incidence police contact neighborhoods] got, they deserved," which is, "how I ended up in Roxbury, fresh out of law school, ready to incarcerate everything in sight." 


It was only after resigning, moving into a neighborhood up the street from the courthouse, and living there for four years -- incredibly, with a man I once prosecuted -- that I realized how tragically misguided my worldview had been. This distance between worlds is what prevented people like me from seeing men and women of color in Roxbury as equals growing up. Where I grew up we had no natural points of contact with people in Roxbury. Accordingly, we had no way of hearing from friends, colleagues, associates, etc., that there are places where police harassment is a daily feature of life. Naive or oblivious, maybe, but where I grew up the idea of unprovoked, daily police harassment was nearly impossible to believe. 


This is why my piece isn't supposed to say anything significant to you, Justin. You already get it. The problem is that not everyone thinks the way you do yet, and the statistics that you cite as the end-all-be-all on the matter (because anecdotes, like landfills, are "all garbage") sadly don't have much power to help folks like me along. If statistics did have this power, stop and frisk would have ended a long time ago because the numbers clearly show how wasteful and ineffective it is. 


The truth is, no one gives a crap about statistics when they run up against thirty years of suburban, fear-based, hysteria-driven, driving-with-no-headlights-is-a-gang-initiation-watch-out-for-the-knockout-game-Cadillac-queen worldview that is inculcated in us from birth in faraway bastions of white privilege. In my experience, it is often hard for people to care about an issue until they can see, with their own two eyes, how it affects someone they know and love, someone they recognize, someone they don't fear, someone they can empathize with and relate to in a real way.


I got arrested and told this story so people like me, in suburbs far away from racial profiling and police harassment, with no natural points of contact with the system and those it unfairly targets, could see how messed up it is without having to go through it themselves. Will that be enough? Who knows. But in my view, after ten years of sitting in a chair and writing about these things (here, here, here, here, ad infinitum), with very, very little to show for it except a good salary, I decided it was time to cash in my immense privilege and try something different.  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

REMEMBERING MA SISS





















“Life, misfortunes, isolation, abandonment, poverty, are battlefields which have their heroes; obscure heroes, sometimes greater than the illustrious heroes.”
       
                                               -Victor Hugo

In the fall of 2006, Idene Wilkerson, or “Ma Siss,” as everyone calls her in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, took me, a homeless, penniless, 29-year-old attorney, into her arms, like a son, no questions asked. 

Ma gave me a place to stay in her Drayton Avenue walkup while I got my feet back on the ground, in exchange for a promise on my part to help out around the neighborhood. It was a promise that turned out to be a full-time job, and one that I eagerly, and often clumsily, embraced. I soon found myself doing things that had never needed doing in the places where I grew up: accompanying parents to court, taking teenagers to answer grand jury subpoenas after shootings, sitting with families in hospitals after overdoses, convincing young men not to retaliate after getting jumped, etc. 

We played football in the street, video games until early in the morning, and laughed as much as we cried.  The work was the most important, fulfilling work I have ever done, and there was, tellingly, as I have found with most work of this kind, no salary for it.

There were cold, dark winter nights when I would come home from a day of running around, exhausted, frozen, and starving. I would walk up the steps to my room in the building Ma owned, full of hunger and pride, angry and conflicted over whether to knock and ask for food. I often decided against it, ashamed to be begging for food with an advanced degree on my resume.

Nearly every time this would happen, I would walk up the stairs, go into my room brooding and griping, and no sooner take off my coat than a knock would come at the door, one of Ma’s children or grandchildren, or one of the neighbors, or one of the many people that helped out around the neighborhood, with a hot plate of food, baked chicken, greens, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, beans, black eyed peas, and so on, wrapped in foil, condensation steaming on the underside, set aside for me, and a small black plastic bag full of canned goods, vegetables, and other groceries. I have never met someone with such intuition for people in need. Somehow she knew. She always knew.

And I wasn’t special. Ma did this for everyone that entered the orbit of her Quincy Street neighborhood.  Free meals at the church, rides to the doctor, the store, job interviews, a spare couch if you need one, a patch on the roof, some extra bedding, and always, in my case, and many, many others, a hot plate if you are hungry.

How she managed to do this well into her seventies I do not know. But that’s Ma Siss, one of the selfless, resplendent souls that Hugo had in mind when he spoke of heroes. Ma Siss deserves a monument in the City of Boston, and that would not be nearly enough.

Ma Siss dramatically altered the course of my life, welcoming me into a world that somehow, shamefully, after twenty years of formal education, I did not know existed. I began to see the world clearly for the first time, to be quiet for the first time, to experience community for the first time, and, perhaps most importantly, to see all of the things I’d been taking for granted for the first time.

Thank you, Ma, for treating me like a son, for loving and caring for me, no questions asked. Without you, my life to this point, and all of the things I experienced, would never have been possible. You will be terribly missed, and adoringly remembered.


Monday, April 29, 2013

REMEMBERING MARTIN RICHARD

Two weeks ago, on the afternoon of Marathon Monday, as most Bostonians, whether here or abroad, did, I answered the many inquiries of concerned friends and relatives from my home state of Massachusetts. No, I didn’t run this year, thankfully, and, no, I didn’t know anyone hurt or injured at the finish line during the attacks. 

I’d just finished explaining this to my girlfriend’s roommate in Chinatown, as I hit the sidewalk for the 4, 5 Subway at the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall stop in New York City, when, poof, there it was in my inbox.

“One of the kids who was in my class last year who was your biggest fan…he was the 8-yr-old who died at the marathon today.”

The text was from a friend of mine, Martin’s second grade teacher last year in Dorchester.

I met Martin almost exactly a year earlier, when I was walking from Boston, MA to Sanford, FL. The march was modeled after James Meredith’s 1966 March Against Fear, when he set out alone from Memphis, TN to Jackson, MS to protest segregation and other forms of racism.

He was injured by a shotgun blast on his march, and strangers from all over the country took over to finish for him, sleeping in tents and being fed by generous locals along the march route.

Martin's class was studying nonviolent resistance through the lives of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and my friend had been researching whether anyone was doing nonviolent protest actions today. She’d heard about the march – to protest the failure of local authorities to arrest George Zimmerman – from a friend.

We met in Government Center, she enthusiastically explained the unit her class was studying, and we marched the first four-mile leg to Upham’s Corner together. A no-brainer, I agreed to stop by and speak to her students on my second leg the following day.

I woke up to an immaculate spring day and walked to class with a toothbrush and bagged lunch. Upon my arrival, this perfectly diverse class of ahimsakas – a Gandhian term for activists committed to "doing no harm" – was electric and bursting with enthusiasm.

“Where are you going to stay?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you can help me?”

“Yaaaaaaa!”

“What will you eat?”

“Hopefully whatever I can find.”

“What if you don’t find anything?”

“Then I’m going to be hungry.”

“Whoooaaaa.”

“But I don’t think people will let me starve, do you?”

“No, people are good.”

“Why are you doing it?”

“Because of Trayvon Martin. Do you know who that is?”

Hands shot up.

They began discussing the case, eagerly sharing their opinions and relating the case to their own personal experiences with violence in Boston.

After a moment, I stopped them.

“Please raise your hand if you know someone that has been hurt or killed by violence.”

Hands shot up. After a moment, every single child had a hand in the air.

One by one, the youngsters began sharing their stories. Some had relatives who had been shot and killed, others stabbed, many in jail. These were second graders. In America.

Martin began to relate his story.

“One time, there was this big fight on the street, and this group of people was really loud, and it was really scary, and-”

He paused.

He looked around at his classmates. His little mind switched gears and he chose his words very carefully.

“Someone got hurt really bad and I just think we all need to stop hurting each other.”

“So class, how do we use our experiences with violence as motivation to do good things?” one of the teachers asked.

Hands shot up again.

“We can do ahimsa!” one chimed

“We can make signs!” 


“We can march!”

I turned to the instructors.

“Do you think they are old enough to march with me a little bit today?”

The students began frantically looking around and whispering.

“I don’t know class, what do you think? Do you want to march with Mr. Constantino today?”

Martin’s hand shot up, as did several others, “OOOH OOOH OOOH I want to!”

“YAAAAAAAAA!!!”

The place became a whirling vortex of poster board, markers and signs. 





“We need more caring people in the world.”

I snapped a photo.

“We need ahimsa.”

I snapped another.

“Use your words instead of guns.”

And then I came to Martin’s sign. It was on light blue poster board, framed by two hearts and two peace signs.

“No more hurting people, peace.”

I snapped a photo.

After we marched together, Martin and his class headed back to the school to calculate my route and average speed in math class, to study the places where I would stop for geography and history, and to reach out to colleges, universities and shelters to try and help me find places to spend the night.

Sadly, I only met Martin twice, once on this day, and once when I reported back to the class on my journey after Zimmerman was arrested. 


As the days and now weeks have passed since his killing, one thing has nagged me to the point of disregarding all of the reasons – it’s too soon; it’s not my place; his family is still mourning – why not to write about him.

In September 2012, Maya Angelou appeared on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and explained that the reason why we don’t defend our brothers and sisters when they are being harmed is because we lack courage.

“Whoever is being assailed, that’s you, nitwit…”

I mention this because I can't get over this image of Martin against the backdrop of Ms. Angelou's words. There he is, leading the way with his classmates, second graders intuiting each and every one, word for word: Trayvon Martin is us


Martin was not only smart enough to look at violence against an unarmed teenager and know it was wrong, but he was courageous enough to fire his hand into the air like a rocket when he was asked if he wanted to do something about it, right then and there.

In 1966, when James Meredith was shot on his march to Jackson, strangers from all over the country converged as one and took his place until he was released from the hospital and able to rejoin them on the road into Jackson. 


I’d like to ask that in the coming weeks and months, as we come to terms with Martin's loss, we do the same for him, not by convening a march to Mississippi, although he would have probably loved that idea, but by convening together around acts of courage in our daily lives.

I wonder if we might try and honor Martin's example by trying to be more like him. When we see someone being harmed, we step up, right here and now, without regard for reasons why not. When we hear about violence in any of its awful forms, we stand up and say, nope, not today, not while there's life and breath in this body.

Let's give freely to the charitable initiatives that have been created in the name of the victims (here and here), but let's also remember that Martin would have gone several -- or several hundred, if my experience with him in class was any indication -- steps further, and that if we truly wish to honor his example with our own lives, we can draw inspiration from his courage and do the same. 

[This post was updated on May 1, 2013 at 22:41 EST]

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

PICTURES OF YOU


I was on my way to Dorchester Court yesterday when I drove by where 14-year-old Nicholas Fomby-Davis was killed on Sunday. I started thinking about another 14-year-old, Jaewon Martin, who was also killed May 9. I was going over the sensational story line in my head about how neither boy was "gang-involved," or "known to police," or an "impact player," when it sort of dawned on me: do these things really matter when we are talking about 14-year-olds? If 14-year-olds are gang-involved, known to police, or killing each other or getting killed, is that really something we should be holding against them?

Each time something like this happens, the community is devastated, then outraged. We hold multiple press conferences and we promise that we are going to find the people responsible and lock them up forever. Then, when the hubbub dies down, and the young person is buried, things go back to exactly how they were. I reflected on a piece I wrote last year around the same time, under the same exact circumstances, telling anyone that would listen that if we don't channel this outrage and begin to use it to address what is really causing crime, then it is only a matter of time before we will be standing "at a press conference with the parents of the next dead 15-year-old." Well, here we are. Again.

To be honest, I was pretty hard on the mayor in that piece. It is, of course, not all his fault. I know he cares more than most people about this issue, and that he has been trying out new ideas so far in his last term. This is a good thing. And we can at least know for sure that he cares more than the press that were at the arraignment yesterday.

When I arrived at court, there were hordes of press from the local stations, with vans humming, microphones, cables, all freaking out like mad and running around to make sure they spoke to every one of the dead child's relatives to get all the gushy footage of them sobbing and grieving. I wanted to grab their microphones and throw them into the street: where the hell were you people when this tragedy was unfolding from a mile away? Do you realize you only come here after kids die or cab drivers and shopkeepers are murdered? Year after year this happens, year after year you come here to cover these stories, and yet to you it's not a story that this keeps happening?

It's not news that 16-year-old boys like Justin Fernandez, the alleged shooter, are being found in cars with guns and gang members, as happened in a separate incident some months ago? It's not news that this is happening with 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds all over the city of Boston? Somehow it's news when it happens in DR Congo, when rebels there give kids guns and turn them into child soldiers, but it's not news when it happens in Boston?

There are big structural forces driving young people towards gangs year after year. Our multi-billion dollar criminal justice system is not only failing to address these structural realities, but may even be making them worse. This is not news?

I met my client and his mother and father inside the courthouse. They live in Dorchester. He is 16, the same age as the alleged shooter. He had bruises on his face from getting jumped over the weekend. I asked him about it. His mother interrupted, without giving him a chance to explain, her voice overcome with motherly anguish, "I keep telling him not to go outside. Not to hang out with anyone. To just stay in the house. But he won't listen. He just won't listen."

Imagine this for a second: a parent begging a 16-year-old to stay inside, alone, in Boston, in June. And this is not news?

Our children, just like my 16-year-old client, are growing up in neighborhoods where if they do not have a group of friends around them at all times, they are in constant danger of getting their pockets run through, and, if they resist, beaten up, shot or stabbed. This is not hyperbole. It is a fact of daily life for young people that live in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury.

In the pages below, and at meetings and in columns and to everyone I have ever spoken to in Boston, I and so many of my peers that do this work have discussed hundreds of ideas, promising practices that are working in other jurisdictions, programs that have had incredible success at lowering violent crime and recidivism, etc. Based on this evidence, a group of us even started a non-profit in Roxbury that helps young men work off their court fees by getting their resume together, filling out job applications, going on interviews and leaving the streets behind. I also know many other people have been doing and saying the same things that we are doing and saying for years. Yet for some reason, time after time, year after year in Boston, the overwhelming majority of our resources go towards law enforcement, prisons and prosecutions, which every shred of available data shows are unconscionably expensive and do little or nothing to prevent violent crime and recidivism. How is this not news?

Recently, the police released pictures of kids in the gang that Justin Fernandez was in, with the intention of shaming them publicly. What's interesting is that if you look at the flyer, most of the pictures of the alleged gang members are pictures of kids who appear to be no older than 15 or 16. These are the kids we are shaming? Seriously?

For the last two years I have been working with young men just like these. They are kids who are growing up in single-parent homes, often with caregivers absent because they are addicted to drugs and off chasing the grind somewhere. They are surrounded by violence, have attended multiple funerals of classmates and relatives, know dozens of others that have been shot and/or sent to prison, and they are bombarded day in and day out with toxic stress that is frying their ability to ever function as healthy adults.

They are saddled with the overwhelming responsibility of raising themselves from an early age, which turns quite dangerous when they become teenagers in a jungle where those with the craziest, baddest reputations rule, and so they wind up doing what so many male role models before them have done: they give the finger to society for doing so little to help them wind through this meat grinding mess alone, they hustle for money to survive and they team up with their friends -- the only people they can trust -- for safety. And at the end of long days worrying about whether they or any of their friends will get jumped, robbed, or worse when they go outside, there is little mental bandwidth remaining to focus on the big picture, to worry about MCAS, school, a career, or to buy a damn umbrella when it rains.

We in the mainstream often stand by and watch as "these kids" go through this protracted hell by themselves, and then we turn around and blame them for not making it out unscathed and in a chipper mood, ready to play by our rules. We act surprised when they drop out of school, assume oppositional identities and give mainstream society the finger.

In response, we blame the parents for not raising their children properly, and then once they have made the leap and gone from neglected children without a chance to ruthless, ruined teenagers, we overpolice the neighborhoods where they live, stop, frisk, arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and now the latest, release pictures of them to shame them, all despite the fact that it costs hundreds of millions of dollars more to do all of this than to intervene when they are young and prevent them from going down this wretched, life destroying path in the first place. Such is the fate of children becoming teenagers in Boston. And this is not news.

The only pictures we should be releasing are pictures of ourselves.