Monday, July 10, 2017


Photo of the Manhattan skyline, September 2011.

[For Part I, click here]

"Michele, that’s absolutely insane!" a man named Herb Sturz boomed across a silver tray of pre-made sandwiches in a Midtown conference room in 2011.

It was a clear, sunny day in May, and I was a senior program associate at the Vera Institute of Justice. I was in a room full of some very big fish, the most important people I'd ever sat face-to-face with in my career. 
We'd come to George Soros's Open Society Institute for a luncheon to explore preliminary funding for a demo of the program model Judge Redd and I piloted in Roxbury. The plan was to roll it out in Manhattan or another borough and conduct a rigorous random sample comparison to confirm whether it worked as well as the anecdotal evidence from Boston suggested. 

Present were Michele Sviridoff, then-Mayor Bloomberg’s justice czar, Michael Jacobson, then-director of Vera and former city corrections commissioner; and, Herb Sturz, former deputy mayor and one of Soros’s key justice policy advisors.

Up to that point, Michele had taken a keen interest in the program model and everything was going great, until, right as we were about to pass the ham sandwiches, Herb veered off course and confronted her on Stop and Frisk.

“Herb, I’m sorry, I don’t have anything to tell you. The mayor’s position-”

“But Michele-” he pressed again, interrupting her for the third or fourth time, not letting her get away with the stock party line she kept repeating.

Though I fully agreed with Herb, as did all of us present, he’d have had to pry my mouth open with a crowbar to get me to jump in and join him. If Michele bought our pitch and a major city like New York began using court fees and fines as an incentive to promote reentry, Judge Redd and I would be hot new players on the criminology scene, invited to lecture at big universities, do high-profile consulting, and the like. More importantly, if New York adopted the model and other cities followed suit, it would prove that my faith in the system, or at least what was left of it after Boston, was grounded in reality, that the system was interested in justice more than revenue, that it was worthwhile to stay at Vera and push for these reforms.

“Herb,” she cut him off, “If you say one more word I’m leaving-”

I grimaced and fired a look at him, eyes imploring him to back off, but he was whip-smart, saw the situation in a glance. In hindsight, though, I wish he’d kept going, that he hadn’t held back on account of our program. Its fate in Manhattan—and everywhere in America—had been sealed long before we sat down in the conference room at OSI that day. The New York State Assembly had already passed a criminal procedure law prohibiting judges from waiving court fees and fines under any circumstances. Vera tried to pitch the idea to several other jurisdictions afterward, but in the end, not a single one was willing to risk losing their fees and fines revenue. To this day, not a single jurisdiction I know of has embraced the model.

Judge Redd and I had unwittingly set a trap for the system, giving it the opportunity to choose rehabilitation over revenue, and it had revealed its true priority.

Word salad on the facade of the New York State Supreme Court building in Manhattan.

Until then, for most of my life I'd been under the impression that solutions were wanted. I thought the goal of the system was to save lives, break the cycle, work ourselves out of jobs. I took the promises carved into the granite fa├žades of the buildings I worked in as a lawyer at their word, devoted my career to fulfilling them without knowing that in so many cases the words were there for showthey in no way resembled what actually happened inside. 

Around the same time we shut down the planning process in New York City, the New York Unified Court System began sidestepping the bail reforms won by Vera in the '70s and punishing defendants for having no cash again. The nation’s leading criminal justice figures—Bill Bratton, Ray Kelly, Mike Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani, and others—were claiming there were no known solutions to gun violence, which, from my time in Boston, I knew was not true, and they were telling the public that, as a result, it was necessary to violate the rights of tens of millions of Americans to prevent it.

A modern-day civil rights pogrom was based on an outright lie.

Similar lies and abuses leached inland from the coasts: Prosecutors in Oklahoma caught living rent-free in an apartment they’d seized during a drug raid; police in Michigan caught seizing cars parked at an art museum; officers in Missouri caught using racially targeted traffic stops to close revenue shortfalls, and on it went.

Meanwhile, America’s chief justice oversight agency, the Department of Justice, was averaging 40 misconduct prosecutions annually, or, roughly, 5% of cases referred to it for prosecution. This meant that in 95% of cases the country’s 1,000,000-plus sworn law enforcement officers were being taught there were virtually no consequences for dancing a country jig all over the rule of law.

In 2001, in Los Angeles, the police department signed a consent decree giving the federal government power to oversee reform in lieu of litigating a messy, expensive lawsuit that would reveal decades of misconduct. After it was signed, and the Department of Justice lawyers returned to DC, the rank and file went right back to business as usual, Tasing a man’s testicle off for littering, punching a special needs woman on a bus, shredding inculpatory internal affairs documents that outlined specific instances of misconduct. In Albuquerque police shot 38 civilians in five years, 19 fatally. Not a single officer was indicted. In Chicago 662 police officers racked up 10 or more civil rights complaints against them, each. One shot an unarmed man in the street, lied about it, and the city covered up the video until after the mayoral election. In New York, where officers were promoted and commended for violating the rights of millions of New Yorkers via illegal Stop and Frisk practices—and in many cases, punished if they refused—officers killed 179 people in 15 years. Three cases led to an indictment. Only one resulted in conviction: probation. Officers in every other case were not charged, officially cleared of wrongdoing, or acquitted.

“It’s nice to be good, but it’s better to be nice.”

These words were written on a paperweight on the desk of Middlesex Superior Court Justice Paul Chernoff, who I clerked for as a 2L in the summer of 2002. Widely regarded as one of the county’s most fair and impartial trial judges by attorneys who argued before him, I often sat with him in chambers, he busily typing away on some ruling or another, me scouring for cases he hadn’t found yet, coming up empty. Occasionally he’d stop and share the secrets of effective trial advocacy with me, impress lawyerly wisdom upon an aspiring rookie apprentice, but the gist of everything I would learn that summer was already sitting in front of me, on the paperweight. No matter what happens, no matter how badly you’re losing to an adversary in court, keep your cool at all times and play nice. Treat everyone you encounter in the halls of justice kindly, fairly, and with the utmost level of respect, no exceptions. The dignity of the legal profession demands it.

Over the years I’d dutifully employed this maxim. I’d gone down the list of systems our society had appointed to deliver justice, deferentially trying each one out and giving it the benefit of the doubt: I put my head down and toiled away in courtrooms, judges’ chambers, DAs’ and public defenders’ offices, state capitols, US Capitol—you name the building I tried the door in good faith. But each time there was no answer, justice never poked her head out and said "hey buddy, all good in here!" I’d played by the rules, stood where I was told, simpered and bowed and handshaked my way down the line, and it had gotten me nowhere—less than nowhere. The sad truth was that the financial and political interests at work were way too powerful, tempting, and entrenched for the diplomatic let's just keep asking them nicely shtick to work.

In reality, the approach rendered us hamsters on a giant wheel. We were allowed to squeak out a reform pellet or two every so often, include it in our fundraising brochures to make it look like we were getting somewhere, but as soon as we stopped to take a breath and move on to the next abuse, the system had already gone back to business as before. What happened in the conference room that day at OSI—when Herb backed off on Stop and Frisk so Michele wouldn't walk out with the city's polished silver gravy boat—vividly demarcated the boundaries of how far we were allowed to go in defense of justice and rule of law. If we wanted to keep our position on the hamster wheel, keep the food pellets coming every couple of weeks, then we had no choice but to behave how the people in power wanted us to behave, to play nice, pull punches, never criticize them or call them out for lying or breaking the law
—in a word, we had to mostly let them get away with it.

Incredible, too, was that I hadn't seen anything yet. Vera was about to send me to Louisiana, the per capita incarceration leader of the free world, to work on a prison reform initiative sanctioned by Governor Bobby Jindal and funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance and Pew Charitable Trusts. 

Though I had suspicions about the system's intent, what happened in Louisiana was so insane, so contrary to what I was told about my country, and the ideals I swore to uphold in her defense, that after all was said and done in the bayou I would never be able to look at America, or my chosen profession, in the same light again.

[Part III coming soon...]

Friday, July 7, 2017


Sunset over Kenmore Square, 2005.

“Your Honor, what if we help kids in gangs pay off debts to the court as an incentive to get jobs, go back to school, and quit the streets?” I asked Eddy Redd in 2007, who was the then-presiding justice of Roxbury Court.

“ADA Constantino,” he called me from days long past, back when I was a prosecutor arguing cases in his court, “anything you need.”

Judge Redd’s imprimatur flung the doors to Roxbury wide open, and soon the probation department, clerk magistrate’s office, and even my former colleagues in the DA’s office, were helping me enroll young men the city deemed "impact players," that is, the ones the police had considered most at risk of gun violence. 

In a month’s time the room was full of young men from Warren Gardens, Alpine, The P, and other neighborhoods called "hotspots" by the police. Many of them had felony convictions, and almost all of them were on probation and—the reason they were showing up to a program being run by a white former prosecutor—being harassed weekly by probation officers to pay the monies they owed to the court system. Monies they obviously couldn't pay, without going back to a hustle, because the system, far from helping them build lives, had made it much harder for them to land employment. 

My staff and I began going out into the community, meeting with local business owners, asking them to help young men turn their lives around. Many told us to get lost, others didn't. Several were fully on board and they began hiring the guys, one after another.  

In 2011 The New York Times wrote a story about the program in a two-part “Fixes” column, arguing for the expansion of programs that use court debt as an incentive for ex-offenders to meet reentry benchmarks. The Brennan Center for Justice featured the program as a “success story” in a national toolkit for local, state, and federal court practitioners.

The story should have ended here. Boston was a national leader in innovation. When something worked—and especially if it was proven to prevent shootings and save lives—the city’s funders and powerbrokers would obviously embrace it and scale it to full potential. But in 2011, despite these high-profile endorsements and a success record of helping 20 of 26 "proven-risk" (a clinical term I hate, but that many funders use) participants land jobs, we had to shut down. Despite sending more grant requests than I can count, we couldn’t raise enough funding. I still have an email saved from the coordinator at the Hyams Foundation, who, told me with a straight face that our program didn't meet their funding criteria, when the funding track I'd applied for had earmarked money to help young men of color become economically self-sufficient.

Mural of a crying eye in Uphams Corner, 2007.
Though it was hard to believe, I soon discovered that this was common, that programs that effectively prevented youth gun violence were shut down constantly. Like most pie-in-the-sky do-gooders, I thought I was the first one, the only one, who’d ever come up with an idea like this—classic white savior thinking, I know—but I also met Talia Rivera, then-coordinator of Boston’s High Risk Youth Network. Born and raised in Roxbury, Talia had started a similarly effective program in the Greenwood section of Dorchester and she'd shuttered the program for lack of funds, too.

Our experiences and those of many others we spoke to were troubling, to say the least, but I soon learned something far more sinister had happened in 2000, the year I arrived in Boston to start law school. In 1996, while I was still a senior in high school, Boston city officials learned how to turn youth gun violence off like a switch. Police, clergy, and community leaders rounded up the kids doing all of the shooting and offered them jobs and services instead of military operations and prosecutions. In the 29 months following the first meeting not a single teenager was killed in the City of Boston. They’d dubbed it a miracle—the “Boston Miracle”—but then the city inexplicably abandoned the program in January of 2000, and in the two years that followed, shootings had more than doubled.

Finished in Boston, struggling to understand what this meant—and, in blind faith to the system, and America, trying to convince myself that there had to be some plausible explanation for all of this—I took a job with a powerhouse criminal justice organization in Manhattan. The Vera Institute of Justice had made its name in the '70s dismantling a criminal bail system that punished low-income arrestees for not having any cash on hand. My new colleagues were Ivy Leaguers, industry titans from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Bureau of Justice Assistance, and other elite justice policy groups. They were statisticians and data wonks with immense brainpower. Vera was an ideal place to evaluate what had happened in Boston, and to try and use empirical data to remedy it.

Now I would get to see what the system was made of on a national level, and never could I have dreamed what I was about to witness. Judge Redd and I had unwittingly sprung a trap for the system, forcing it to choose between rehabilitation and revenue, and we would soon get to see what its intentions truly were.

[Part II, what happens next in New York City, here

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Liberalism's Last Chance U

I’ve been meaning to watch Last Chance U, a documentary series about junior college football at Eastern Mississippi Community College, since it came out this summer, but each time I’ve gotten sidetracked by shows I'd hoped would provide clues, signposts, explanations of the times, and such, for the anthropological anomaly that has been 2016. Shows like Black Mirror, Westworld, and Stranger Things, if you feel me?

But then I watched all six episodes of Last Chance U this week and realized my mistake. Not only was it some of the best television I’ve seen in a long time—it’s honestly hard to believe all this stuff happened while the cameras were rolling for the documentary—but the show contained more answers and clues about the recent demise of liberalism in America than all of those other shows combined.

If you haven’t watched it yet, SPOILERS COMING. The show profiles a junior college that serves as a last refuge for aspiring football athletes that have hit roadblocks on the path to D-1. The reasons include bad grades, arrests, and in a few cases, players getting stuck riding pine behind older, more experienced players. Many of the young men on the team have overcome immense challenges to get to EMCC, and though a good many are traumatized and bearing their scars openly, they're making it despite odds stacked against them. And, man, can the kids on this team play football.

The season gets rolling and the drama is intense. The head coach, Buddy Stephens, a husky white man with a goatee and an unapologetically foul mouth, warns his squad: We run over teams. We shove the ball up their nose. They hate us as a result, so be prepared. By the final game of the regular season, the squad has only lost once and they are in contention for the national championship. The rankings are in large part based on score, so the team does not hold back, piling on points, calling timeouts in garbage time, remorselessly, and shamelessly, scoring touchdown after touchdown.

Coach Stephens again warns his squad. These guys, Mississippi Delta, the final opponent before the playoffs, are going to play dirty. Be ready. Don’t respond. The only way you can lose is if you let them get inside your head. Before the game one of the Delta players punches an EMCC assistant coach off camera, and Stephens’s players pace back and forth apoplectic while a staff trainer sews five stitches into his face. 

The game starts and out of the gate Delta is playing like their coach has assigned Conrad Dobler’s autobiography for English and asked them to act it out on the field in lieu of writing book reports. Low hits, late hits, out of bounds hits—it gets ugly fast. Each and every time Coach Stephens urges his players to hold back, don’t engage them, don’t let them get to you, they nod and somehow superhumanly comply.

But the other team wants a fight and they are not going to stop until they get it. After an incomplete pass attempt to running back DJ Law, a first-class talent who’s a virtual lock for a prestigious D-1 school, a Delta player hits him helmet-to-helmet while he’s prone and vulnerable on the ground, seemingly trying to concuss or decapitate him. Law pops up and shoves him by reflex, and it's the moment Delta's been waiting for. They clear the bench and crowd over Law, who’s on the ground, stomping and kicking with cleats.

Coach Stephens is screaming at his players to hold back, while they are watching their friend and teammate curl up in the fetal position at the bottom of a stampede. Delta players pick up trashcans and hurl them and swing their helmets like balls and chains. The Delta coaching staff meanwhile stand by and do nothing. At this point Stephens’s players decide that saving Law is more important than anything else, including making it to the title game, and they rush into the scrum to retrieve him and bring him to safety.

Finally it breaks up and Law's in bad shape. Coach Stephens stands over his group of players, young mostly black men on one knee, except for Law, who is teetering and wobbling with a trainer in the background. Coach begins berating them, calling them thugs and labeling their behavior "gangster shit." He seems—and clearly is—angrier about his players clearing the bench than about the other team trying to kill DJ Law. It’s the show’s moment of truth, and in this moment Coach uses the bulk of his energy, and words, speaking about decorum, rules, how his team isn’t like the other team, and that they are better than that. He never once stops his tirade to check in on DJ Law.

Predictably, the players can’t believe it. Law walks out of the locker room during the coach’s screaming and boards the bus alone, reeling and distraught. The rest of the players leave and begin grumbling about racism, self-defense, white men, and how the white man simply does not and will never care about them—Coach has lost his team.

Which all leads me back to liberals, who're in the aftermath of a similar drubbing. We played a dirty opponent, one who refused to play by the rules, one who came for a fight and refused to settle for less, and, who, as a result, ended up kicking our sissy liberal asses Mississippi Delta-style. And after the fight, rather than stopping to check in on DJ Law, or in this case, the many people of color who're being targeted by acts of racial violence and terror all across the country, we’re lording over them and lecturing, too.

Finding no quarter anywhere else, people of color have come to the Democratic Party—much like Stephens’s players arrived at Eastern Mississippi Community College. Yet during the campaign, when students asked us for protection against feces swastikas, n-words, KKK and blackface costumes on campus, we said police it yourselves. When they asked for safe spaces, we lectured them about the importance of free speech.

Instead of validating their concerns about safety and promising them protection, which in light of the nearly 900 incidents of racial violence since the election, are very real, we huddle them up for a lecture on “identity politics.” Rather than saying, “You got it, we'll protect you even if it means we lose the next ten games, or in this case, elections,” we lecture about how liberals are “over-defending” minorities. Instead of saying, “Wait, white supremacists are rallying behind Donald Trump and moving into the White House?", we double down, devising ever-more creative ways to say the same thing.

So as I sat in horror as Last Chance U came to a close, so I sit in horror at white liberals. Our black and brown brothers and sisters are telling us they’re in danger, surrounded by angry people who, like Delta's players, are openly demonstrating a desire to hurt them. They’re telling us we’re wrong to lecture about identity politics and wrong to give a pass to people who don’t think racial violence is a deal-breaker—but like Stephens our only focus is on making the next game, decorum, and winning.

But in the end Coach had an epiphany. He listened, if a bit reluctantly, and went back to the film room to re-watch the tape. Coach Stephens was smart enough to suspect he may have been wrong, to admit his first and only response should’ve been to protect Law, and afterwards, his players when they went to protect him. Coach Stephens was smart enough to get his team together, apologize, tell them they were right, that he was proud of them. The question is, liberals, will we ever be smart enough to do the same?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


I had a great conversation with a friend who's visiting from out of town last night, and one of the things he mentioned was how angry I seem on social media all the time: "Like, do you have to be SUCH a dick?" he said to me, probably hoping it would go down as a kind of intervention on behalf of all of the other white people in my life who're probably thinking the same thing at the moment.

He was talking about why I'm always lumping white people together in the same boat, calling ALL of us, YES, ALL of us, racist--basically that use of caps right there was what he was referring to, why I specifically and it seems deliberately opt for all caps in such situations, to strike nerves, rather than pausing and taking the time to make critical distinctions for strategic diplomatic purposes and feelings.

What I realized throughout the course of our conversation was that not even the people closest to me, people who've been like surrogate family to me, people who I know and love, and who know and love me, understand why it is that I or anyone else with a brain would ever choose to do such a thing.

So I thought this would be a good opportunity to explain. Here is what happens when you do the latter, when you make nuanced distinctions over tea with your pinky finger in the air in order to respect people's feelings: Not a single, boot-licking, phone-call-making, petition-signing, social-media-sharing, goddamned fucking thing.

You might not believe me, and such, so I'll prove it: I've already written this post. Nicely. A dozen times. I'm not exaggerating. Wrote about it in the Guardian. Wrote about it in the Boston Globe. Wrote about it on my blog and social media. Basically for the last ten years or so I've been telling anyone and everyone who'll listen that a genocide has been ongoing in our cities for 20 years, and right now, rather than thinking to yourself, holy shit, there's a genocide going on in our very own liberal ass Bernie ass Sanders ass leg humping ass cities, you're thinking to yourself that I'm merely using this post as a pretext to show off how great I am because of all of the stuff I've written, telling yourself that I'm doing it because I want a cookie from black people, because I want to be special. 

This is why I'm mad. Because much like the AIDS crisis in the 80s, hundreds of thousands of mostly young men are dying from something we've known how to stop for decades, and all you can do is sit there and point out how much of a narcissist and white savior I am for trying to tell you about it.

And it's not just me, either. Pro Publica told you. So did Leana Wen. So did Sanjay Gupta. So did a billion other others that I could cite, but it doesn't matter to you and it won't matter to you. How do I know it won't matter? Are you suddenly jumping up to do something? Are you picking up the phone? Are you donating money? Are you rushing to City Hall and refusing to leave until your mayor scales these lifesaving programs citywide? No, you aren't. You don't give a fuck. You're more mad about me lumping those of you who think you give a fuck in with those that don't give a fuck than you are about a goddamn genocide of neglect that's been underway since 1996.

This is why I'm mad, white people. Because you aren't mad. Because you haven't been for 20 years. Because I've asked you to care about this nicely a thousand times and you've done nothing but ignore me, tell me I have an agenda, call me a narcissist, a martyr, putting myself on a cross, I'm mentally ill--literally, you've said anything and everything--and I'm being literal when I say anything and everything--other than: "holy shit Batman a genocide has been going on for 20 years we need to stop it!" 

Thursday, November 10, 2016


Four years ago, in 2012, I tried an experiment. I'd spent the last 12 years bouncing around America's political and justice systems, trying every conceivable strategy in the book to reform the things I'd seen the nice way, the diplomatic way, the way I'd been taught good, conscientious citizens achieved reform in school: by playing by the rules, appealing to the best in people, employing diplomacy, logic, persuasion, reason, rule of law. I'd written reports full of data, cited national best practices, published op-eds, blog posts, Venn Diagrams, pie charts, legislation, presentations with fancy slides--name the measure, I tried it. Only none of it, ever, had worked.

So I decided to try something different. I planned a lobby-in at City Hall and invited all of my friends, family, and former colleagues to join me. We'd refuse to leave until the mayor stopped breaking the law and violating millions of New Yorkers' rights with Stop and Frisk. Reformers and criminal justice heads in the city had tried everything under the sun already to stop the mayor, but he'd refused. He believed breaking the law was a necessary means to an end, and that was that. I'd hoped that a group of white people, lawyers, former business executives, and such, people who used to work with him and his staff, sitting out front and refusing to leave, would shame him for this conduct, make him change his mind.

On the day of the action, no one, not a single family member, friend, loved one, or colleague, joined me, so I audibled and switched up the plan. If they didn't want to engage I'd make them. Part of me was hurt, annoyed, wanted to lash out, sure, but part of me we was also tired of the apathy, the disinterest, the talk about how we were such exceptional people but at the same time could allow such cruel, illegal things to happen. And lastly, after failing in the system for so long, part of me was hungry to find strategies that actually worked. So I grabbed a can of spray-paint and aimed at the one thing I knew the people in my life cared about, my relationship with them, my future, my safety. I told everyone in my life that since they weren't going to come with me I was going to paint graffiti all over the mayor's office alone, get arrested, released, repeat, until either they engaged and forced the mayor to end Stop and Frisk or until I racked up a criminal record 20 pages long and got sent away to prison. I posted the news in my blog and told everyone who to call and what to say when they got through.

For years in that space, this space, my blog, I'd been sharing stories of the young men I'd worked with in Dorchester and Roxbury. I'd once posted about one of the men in my program in Roxbury, who I likened to Will Hunting. Reggie was a guy who'd gotten caught up in the court system and who was one of the smartest kids I'd ever met. Everything he said was so on-point, poised, and nuanced. I'd asked for help with job leads, old cell phones, stipends for meeting benchmarks, and so on, and not a single person had responded, except Sue, who was our program's employment coordinator.

But now, now that it was me, my life, my future, suddenly all of my friends and family came out of the woodwork, hundreds of them, to rubberneck. Where my blog posts had gotten 2 or 3 hits until then, suddenly they were all clicking, reading, devouring every update, wanting to know what the hell was going on, why I was throwing my life away, racking up a criminal record. In a word, it worked. Their racism wouldn't let them see Reggie, wouldn't let me center his experience for them, but they sure as hell could still see me.

Which brings me back to Donald Trump, and more importantly, to his supporters who are acting openly on the racism and xenophobia that his campaign rhetoric has inspired. Yesterday, in response to the bombshell news that Donald Trump had actually won the election, a writer named Damon Young, editor of Very Smart Brothas, wrote the following:

"This is on ALL White people. Who are complicit even if they didn’t vote for Trump. Because they obviously haven’t done enough to repudiate the mindsets existing in their families and amongst their friends; possessed by their co-workers and neighbors; shared during private holiday gatherings and public city townhalls."

I'm mentioning my experiment strong-arming loved ones into action now because for years I'd tried everything in the book to do what Damon said, to repudiate the mindset of my family and friends, the nice way, through emotional pleas, love, dialogue, engagement--it never worked. My father, sister, and I think even my mother, who I saw post a reasons to vote for Trump article on Facebook, by an evangelical minister of all people, the day before the election, all supported Donald Trump though my daughter, their granddaughter and niece, is mixed race and thus one of the very people that Trump's followers have decided to scapegoat and target. 

How they could do this I'll never understand, but despite all of my efforts, and despite the thrust of my entire life's work, they did it anyway, so now it's time to hold them accountable for corking this bottle the only way that I've found works. If there's one thing all people have in common, no matter where they fall on the racism spectrum--unwitting and wholly implicit, or explicit full-on costume wearers who drop n-bombs and wave confederate flags--it's that they love their families. Often I have found that the most virulent racists are the most doting and protective of their children and grandchildren. 

So, if we truly want to repudiate such mindsets, like Damon Young said, or at least force people who supported Trump to hold the overt racists who act on their racism among them accountable, this is what we'll have to take away from them: the thing they care about most, their family members, us, because if my experiences have taught me anything, it's that nothing short of this will accomplish a damn thing. 

Today I saw video on social media of kids chanting "Build the Wall!" in a school cafeteria, and pictures of a transgendered Veteran's car burned and vandalized with the word "Trump." So this is what I'm proposing: For every one of these incidents that happens, mom, dad, sis, and everyone else that supported Trump despite knowing he was inviting these behaviors into the open, I'm adding a day to the time I'm not coming home to visit. Every single time one of these incidents happens, I'll add another day, and another. It's two weeks until Thanksgiving, and a month until Christmas, so if you want to see me and your granddaughter over the holidays, watch football, exchange presents, or see us ever again for that matter, you better get to work before too many more of these incidents add up. 

You might say this is unfair, but honestly, when Islamic terrorists commit acts of violence, aren't you the first to call for moderate Muslims to round up their people, get their house in order? So now it's time for you to apply the same logic to your new friends: Go get your people, the racist psychopaths you've gotten yourselves into bed with, or enjoy Thanksgiving turkey, eggnog, and Easter egg hunting without us.

It's not that I don't want to see you, or for you to not have a relationship with me and my daughter, by the way. It's quite the opposite, really. I love you, and I know you love her. I want her to know this side of her family, and to have a good relationship with you. It's just that this is too important, for her and people like her, to play nice with you anymore, to gloss over it, pretend like everything's okay--it's not.

                            [This post was edited on Friday, November 11, at 0922 EST]

Thursday, March 3, 2016


On October 27, 1936, It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, opened simultaneously in 21 theaters. The Los Angeles Yiddish production, pictured here, featured Morris Weisman as "Buzz" Windrip. Credit: Federal Theatre Project Collection

There’s been a lot of criticism lately of Donald Trump and his supporters’ rising Fascism. Proposals to ban Muslims from entering the United States, erect a wall between the US-Mexico border, crowds ejecting, beating, and assaulting attendees of color at rallies. It has been suggested Donald Trump is the candidate the Republican Party deserves, but this is unfair. Donald Trump is the candidate every white person in America deserves.

A comedian named W. Kamau Bell recently said in Salon, “I don’t care if you had no plans to vote for Trump. If you are white, he is your problem above all else.”

We are in this embarrassing Trump hurtbox right now, white people, because we have refused to police ourselves for 200 years. We offered freed slaves Forty Acres and a Mule as a gesture of restitution and then did nothing when the promise was reneged. Martin Luther King wrote us a letter from Birmingham Jail. We ignored it. A man yelled out at a soccer field to take out a black soccer player. We did nothing. It explains all.

In the most liberal cities in America we are watching police officers teach the American people it’s okay to stop black people on the street, violate their rights, strangle them for minor infractions, and shoot them in the back. We’re allowing the military to teach us the same about Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and wherever else they live. We blame mass shootings on guns when our government has been teaching us that the way to solve all of our problems is with drone strikes and machine guns.

We watch white supremacists shoot up churches. We act confused when our moral cancer wipes us out with heroin, suicide, and alcoholism. We stand by while courts, legislatures, and municipal governments grind down to a halt and refuse to perform their designated functions. Kindness, diplomacy, reason, and rule of law have ceased, yet we prattle endlessly about diplomacy, reason, and the rule of law from our couches. Meanwhile black people are showing up and risking their hides and their lives, getting ejected, beaten, and threatened with fiery deaths.  

When Trump and his supporters get together and dream about doing big things, we are frozen in place, spouting off at the mouth as though everything that can be done to stop them is being done. Meanwhile, a cursory scan of American history shows literally thousands of additional options at our disposal. Actions that are as quintessentially “American” as apple pie and baseball. Our Colonist ancestors used boycotts of tea and other nonviolent resistance measures when the British stole money and killed unarmed civilians. Women used the same tactics to gain Suffrage, as did Hispanic crop workers seeking fair pay and more rights. In one book alone, Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters,” you can find literally thousands of examples of direct nonviolent action tactics that have been proven to work when democratic systems fail to protect We the People.

Like any pathology, racism must be policed. If not, it spreads and grows. Our systems are clearly not policing it. Our police are clearly not policing it. Which leaves us. You and me, America. Not just the brave men and women of Black Lives Matter and other groups, but white people. Writers, lawyers, judges, techies, and media gurus—everyone. If you are on a soapbox lamenting the rise of Trump, if you are complaining about it on Facebook, or Twitter, and you are not willing to employ the additional measures that our ancestors used to combat tyranny, then stop talking. In the history of the world, whining has never once stopped a genocide train from chugging. Free speech is important, but only in a democracy where reason and order still hold sway. It’s time now, good white people everywhere, to shut up and get in front of the train.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Is #freespeechmatters the new #alllivesmatter?  (Daily Beast)

Trouble is brewing at America’s colleges and universities, and I'm not talking about shrinking enrollment, state legislators with budget axes, or recent student protests on campuses from Connecticut to California. I’m talking about something stealthier, and more sinister: A broad consensus of academics, school administrators, faculty, journalists, and political commentators using coded constitutional arguments to dismiss student protests and drown their legitimate grievances with academic debate.
It started back in August, during summer break, when a group of Black Lives Matter protesters took over a Bernie Sanders rally. Commentators of all political stripes, far left to far right, lambasted them, not on the merits, but with lectures about free political discourse. Next, in September, a white student at Wesleyan wrote an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. When students of color demanded sanctions against the paper, they were lectured again, this time on the importance of a free press.

In October, Yale tried to spare its students of color the daily racial indignities—n-words, feces Swastikas, “Kanye Western” parties—that students at the University of Missouri, UCLA, and other schools were experiencing. School administrators sent students an email urging them to make conscientious Halloween attire choices. In response, another lecture (albeit employing perfected gold-butter euphemism) from a resident teacher. She hit reply all, told students more censorship wasn’t the answer, and basically said lighten up and police such trivial things as costumes yourselves.

When Yalies protested and demanded her resignation, Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic called the students “misguided.” Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine was more critical, likening students to Marxist Fascists who were hell-bent on crushing any and all opposing viewpoints. Ben Carson and Megyn Kelly had an hysterical exchange on Fox News. Columnists from USA Today to Washington Post piled on, decrying free speech on America’s college campuses in danger of imminent annihilation.

It should go without saying that students at Yale and anywhere else they protest are not trying to destroy free speech, a free press, or suppress the exchange of ideas. What they are trying to tell us is that they've had enough. They've had all of the n-words, feces Swastikas, blackface parties, George Zimmerman costumes, and school police officers profiling them and throwing them to the ground that they can take. Things that we might think are minor, like Halloween costumes, are not minor. They are a constant reminder that students of color are not safe anywhere on American soil—and perhaps especially not on their very own college campuses.

Yet when they ask us to take these concerns seriously and police such incidents to avoid their experience of further trauma, we hide in our cars. When they ask us to police mayor’s husbands in KKK costumes, we say police it yourselves. When they tell us they can't handle another school police officer throwing them to the ground, as at Brown, we call them petulant toddlers and liken them to lawless foreign mobs. 

Racism, like any pathology, must be policed. If there are no consequences for minor incidents, they escalate. Police in Chicago are presently murdering teenagers while City Hall helps them hide the video because they've learned they can upgrade all the way without consequence. When Bill Bratton and Rudy Giuliani employed this logic in the 1990s, we signed up to arrest and prosecute minorities at higher rates for 20 years. It was common sense. The ends of safe cities justified suspending Equal Protection. Today, however, when students tell us that the ends of safe campuses justify the aggressive policing of racism—whose end logic is genocide—the Constitution is transmogrified into an inviolable tablet of bedrock and used to pummel them.

Our students are letting us know they've been seeking protection in America's halls of democracy for the last 60 years. They are trying to tell us that our police, Supreme Court, Congress, and Justice Department aren’t getting the job done. Our schools are more segregated than they were before Brown v. Board, housing discrimination as rampant as it was prior to the Fair Housing Act, lynchings outsourced to police, security guards, and neighborhood watchmen, and oversight agencies refusing to do their jobs.

They are telling us if we love free speech, order, college football, and the many other things that make America great, we'll start owning these legitimate grievances. And if we don't, they're putting us on notice we don't belong on campus teaching them, in deans' offices advising them, in presidents' offices representing them, or on newspaper editorial boards writing for them. They are putting us on notice that they are willing to do what it takes to replace us with people who take protecting them seriously.  

When compelling interests collide, the Supreme Court has often held that there are exceptions to constitutional speech protections. Try exercising your 1st Amendment right to protest on the Court's front steps, for example, and you will quickly find yourself moved across the street or wearing steel bracelets in a transport wagon. This is because the safety of the Court’s clerks, lawyers and justices warrants exception. America's college students should be treated no differently. There is no more compelling interest than protecting students from ubiquitous racial trauma on campus.

Yelling #freespeechmatters!—or anything other than “you got it” in response to such demands for protection—and doubling down when it is brought to our attention that we’re dead wrong, is little more than a genteel academic version of showing up to Black Lives Matter rallies and drowning students out with chants of #alllivesmatter!