Friday, February 13, 2015

Five Alternatives to “Thank You For Your Service”

I cringe every time I hear the words.  That’s okay, though, because so do the people they are directed to.
I’m talking about “Thank you for your service,” the nifty catchphrase that’s supposed to make sure Iraq and Afghanistan veterans – or War on Terror veterans, if you will – never feel the sting of rejection that Vietnam Veterans did.

I guess I missed the moment when that particular murmur became de rigeur.  It must have been around the time “No worries” entered the U.S. lexicon.

But no worries; whenever and however it got started, I hereby declare it done.

Vets say they hate it because the people saying it don’t really mean it.  People don’t really want to hear about their service; they just want to thank them and move on.  I think people do mean it, but it doesn’t mean what they think it does.

Here’s what it’s supposed to mean:  Regardless of what I think of the war you fought in, I appreciate the fact that you were willing to die to keep me safe.

Seems harmless enough.  But it’s not.  Here’s why:

  • The purpose for which people fight does matter.  The troops know it and so do we.  A lot of us have participated in things we thought were a good idea which weren’t.  But we don’t get “thanked” for them.  They’re not “service.”  A service has to benefit someone.  Just thinking you were doing a good thing isn’t enough.  These kids may have signed up to keep us safe, protect democracy, bring liberation to the Iraqis, protect Afghan women from the Taliban, but they didn’t do any of that.  When we thank them for participating in a lie, we perpetuate and enlarge the lie.  That’s called doubling down on our folly.
  • The lie becomes its own raison d’etre.  On The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore the other night, a vet explained that the troops are not thinking in geopolitical or global economic terms.  The only thing they’re thinking about, he said, is protecting the guys on either side of them.  Unfortunately, that’s another way of saying, “American lives are the only thing that matter.”  That’s what got us into this mess in the first place, and it’s a problem when you’re sitting in someone else’s country with many tons of destructive equipment.
  • The actual services people perform every day are not valued.  Airline pilots don’t call out the names of teachers, nannies and nurses and thank them for their service.  We don’t say thank you to the kids who got a job at McDonalds after school to help pay their families’ rent or the ones who are watching their little siblings while their parents are at work.  We certainly don’t say it to the people organizing Black Lives Matter marches.  The message to the returning troops is that nothing else they do, no matter how much more worthwhile it may actually be than whatever they did over there (which they’re right, we really don’t want to hear about), will ever earn them the appreciation we’re giving them for participating in a grand lie.  And what it says to the young people who didn’t make that fatal mistake is that unless they’re willing to be violent, no sacrifice is worthy of our thanks.
  • The people who are busy thanking the troops love to talk about “accountability.”  Yet for the returnees, there is no accountability.  It’s true that no one wants to hear about what they did, and it’s also true that no one makes them say what they did.  Many of them did terrible things.  No, it wasn’t their idea, but again, many of us join in bad schemes that weren’t our ideas.  And for some of them, it was their idea.  If one-third of women in the military are sexually assaulted by their fellow soldiers, someone is doing all that assaulting.  Ultimately, they know what they did.  For those with a conscience, it will haunt them forever.  For those without – well, that may come to haunt us forever.

So here are some things we could say to those returning vets in the airport, instead of “Thank you for your service.”

1)      “I’m sorry you were lied to.”  Okay, it’s not poetry, and it might not make them happy.  It’s honest, and it might lead to a conversation.

2)      “What are you going to do next?”  It’s never too soon to remind them that they do have a future.

3)      “How are you?”  Simple, but to the point.  You have to want to hear the answer.

4)      “What would you like people to know about what happened there?”  I’ve actually tried that one.  It’s always interesting.

5)      “Welcome home.”

Saturday, January 10, 2015

It's Your Grandkids' Civil Rights Movement

If Oprah Winfrey were not so in love with Hollywood, she would not say something as stupid as that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has no leaders and no concrete demands.

The people who say that stuff must have their quotes sitting in a drawer to pull out every time there’s a threat of a viable movement in the present, because legitimate social movements can only exist in the past, and insofar as they can be rendered suitably photogenic for a major motion picture.  If they’re too messy (read complex), they either (1) don’t exist, (2) have to be dumbed down, or (3) are insane.

In the case of #BlackLivesMatter, the widespread accusations of leaderless chaos and fuzzy principles of unity are hard to comprehend, because the movement has some very visible spokespeople and a five-point program.  In contrast to the all-demands-welcome Occupy culture, #BLM has explicitly requested that everyone who wants to support their movement refer to these five demands:
  • We will seek justice for Brown’s family by petitioning for the immediate arrest of officer Darren Wilson and the dismissal of county prosecutor Robert McCullough. Groups that are part of the local Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition have already called for Wilson’s swift arrest, and some BLM riders also canvassed McCullough’s neighborhood as a way of raising the public’s awareness of the case.
  • We will help develop a network of organizations and advocates to form a national policy specifically aimed at redressing the systemic pattern of anti-black law enforcement violence in the US. The Justice Department’s new investigation into St Louis-area police departments is a good start, but it’s not enough. Our ride was endorsed by a few dozen local, regional and national organizations across the country – like the National Organization for Women (Now) and Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation – who, while maintaining different missions, have demonstrated unprecedented solidarity in response to anti-black police violence. We hope to encourage more organizations to endorse and participate in a network with a renewed purpose of conceptualizing policy recommendations.
  • We will also demand, through the network, that the federal government discontinue its supply of military weaponry and equipment to local law enforcement. And though Congress seems to finally be considering measures in this regard, it remains essential to monitor the demilitarization processes and the corporate sectors that financially benefit from the sale of military tools to police.
  • We will call on the office of US attorney general Eric Holder to release the names of all officers involved in killing black people within the last five years, both while on patrol and in custody, so they can be brought to justice – if they haven’t already.
  • And we will advocate for a decrease in law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels and a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing and schools. This money should be redirected to those federal departments charged with providing employment, housing and educational services.
No leaders?  Alicia Garza, Ashley Yates, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, Jameila White, Cat Brooks, Alexis Templeton, Brittany Ferrel, Zakiya Jemmott.  Maybe the reason Oprah Winfrey can’t see them is because they’re women?  Try Larry Fellows III.  Zachary Murray.  This is a leaderful movement.
BLM’s real offense is that they have embraced the slogan “This is not your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”  That ruffles a lot of feathers, because the grandparents’ civil rights movement has been cast as the gold standard of U.S. activism.  What the youth are saying may sound, to those who were part of the civil rights movement of the sixties (or want to believe or pretend they were), like a dismissal of their proudest accomplishments.  It’s not.  Millennial activists are not trying to deny the importance of what has come before; they’re just saying, “That was then, this is now, you did your part, we’re going to do ours our way.”

In the movie “Budrus,” about the Palestinian nonviolent movement, 16-year-old Iltezam Morar says, “All my life, I heard people talking about the First Intifada, the First Intifada.  This is my turn.”  Every generation of activists needs to make that break, find their own form of struggle.  In my day, it was all about affinity groups and six-hour direct action trainings.  I still think that’s a good idea, but it doesn’t fit so well with the quick click lifestyle.  Most younger activists are getting their training on the street.

The civil rights movement is a mythical yardstick for new movements.  It was never one thing.  As has been well documented in so many books and articles they would probably reach from New York to California, there were movements for Black freedom in hundreds of towns and cities in the fifties and sixties.  The “civil rights movement” included innumerable organizations, not all of whom liked each other, from the NAACP to SNCC to the Organization of Afro American Unity.  Many of the people who marched in Selma considered Ella Baker, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Diane Nash, Bob Moses and Ivanhoe Donaldson more significant leaders than Martin Luther King, Jr.  When Freedom Riders nicknamed Dr. King “De Lawd,” it was not out of respect.
People who suggest that the Black Lives Matter activists should be doing today what Dr. King did in 1965 ignore the fact that King and others founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, following a year of activism around the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which itself grew out of years of similar actions that failed to capture widespread attention and thus spark a movement.  By the time King was invited to the White House, he had been in jail numerous times.  In part because of the ability to spread information about actions quickly across distance, #BLM has been able to coalesce around its messages much faster.  In 1970, activists Carol Wilson and Patricia Jackson drove across country to spread literature and news about the women’s movement.  Now you can post a picture on Tumblr and the next day see someone across the world holding up the same image.

Mainstream critics like Oprah want #BLM to hurry up and institutionalize, get an office, rein in its brilliant semi-spontaneous unpredictability in favor of choreographed nondisruptive protests, and lobby for short-term policy changes.  If I thought there was any chance that would happen, I would lay out the reasons it’s a terrible idea.  But I’m pretty sure the movement is just getting started.  Hopefully, the skeptics are just about done.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dear fellow activist facebook friends:

We are in an unprecedented moment of energy and possibility.  In all my years of activism, I’ve never seen a time in this country where there were marches – big marches -- every night for weeks.  It’s inspiring and heartening and also a little scary and intimidating.  The scary and intimidating part for those of us who are not Black, and even more for those of us who are white, is the ever-present danger that we will overstep or misstep, miss our cue, give support where we shouldn’t or say something meant to be supportive that comes off as condescending, arrogant, appropriative, dismissive, dogmatic, ignorant, racist, idiotic, …  If you’re like me, you’re feeling this may be the moment you’ve been waiting for, and that you might end up being told you don’t have a place in it.

Doubtless we will be told that.  But here’s the thing – other people will tell us the opposite.  And that’s okay.  At times like this, a lot of things get said.  And a lot of them are true, and a lot of the things that are true are also contradictory, because there are many many truths.  I’ve read articles by Black people telling white people the only sign we should carry is #BlackLivesMatter.  And I’ve read things by Black people who don’t like #BlackLivesMatter.  I’ve read eloquent defenses of property damage and harsh condemnations saying it’s all white anarchists doing it and putting Black people at risk.  I’ve been at actions where organizers nearly came to blows over whether to have a die-in; some people felt it was too passive, and others that it powerfully symbolizes the incessant killing.

It’s tempting to just sit back, take it all in and not say anything.  That’s mostly what I’ve been doing, and it’s a comfortable position – hey, I’m just here to support and listen, it’s not my place to say anything.  But there’s a fine line between being respectful and dodging responsibility.

I appreciate so much the photos and news reports and links to great analysis my extremely attentive and prolific friends have been posting in the last few weeks.  I would be so much less informed without you.  I’ve also seen a few things in the last week that made me uncomfortable.  I’m not posting any links ’cause this is not about calling people out.  It goes without saying, you don’t have to listen to me.  If it resonates, great.  If it doesn’t, keep doing what you’re doing.  Don’t unfriend me and I won’t unfriend you.

Here are a few things I wish my facebook friends would not do:
  • Compare one group’s action to another’s, saying, “This is more moving than this.”  It’s not a competition.
  • Put down activists who choose nonviolence.
  • Put down activists who damage property, as long as they don’t jeopardize others.
  • Assert that those doing things you don't like at protests are cops, unless you know it, like in last night’s gun-toting CHP incident.
  • Call a white person being choked by cops an example of white privilege just because he didn’t die.  No one should be choked.
  • Suggest that college students who get raped get too much attention, because non-college students are slightly more likely to be raped.
  • Pit victims of US drones against victims of ISIS beheading.  They’re both war crimes.
  • Trash Malala Yousafzai as a Western puppet and then fawn all over her when you find out she’s a socialist.
  • Call spending two hours in handcuffs and not being allowed to go to the bathroom “torture.”
  • Post those privacy notices that don’t do anything.
I could go on but that’s enough.  Keep those links coming!  And see you in the streets (as soon as it stops storming).