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NRA helps ‘lone wolf’ Las Vegas shooter kill, injure hundreds at concert: how is this ‘not terrorism?’

 

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This morning, Sweetheart came in and sat at the at the edge of the bed.

“There’s coffee downstairs. And it happened after we went to bed last night, but there’s fresh hell,” he said.

I sat up. More quickly than I usually do first thing in the morning.

“Fifty people were killed and more than 200 were injured at a country music concert in Las Vegas,” he said. “A man on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel had automatic weapons. He’s dead.”

“Shit!” I said. “Fucking NRA.”

Downstairs, Fox News was on. I listened to it while I made Sweetheart’s lunch. It was on when I kissed him goodbye and said what I always do when he leaves for work. (“Work safely and come home.”)

It’s still on as I am writing this. As of this moment, we know the guy’s name (Stephen Paddock – I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess he’s white, because if he wasn’t, Fox and the other networks would be making sure to mention that every other minute). We know he was with a woman named Marilou, whose player card was found in the room and evidently she’s now being questioned.

We know there were multiple weapons in the room, that the windows at the hotel don’t open but that it was no biggie to shoot out a window as a prelude to mayhem.

Motive? What kind of sick piece of human offal takes out people listening to music? My first father-in-law Sidney used to say “You can’t judge irrational behavior by rational standards.”

That fits.

But still, we look for reasons.

Okay. I look for reasons. Dude was born in 1953. Is he a Vietnam veteran? Did the Ken Burns documentary kick open some locked door in his psyche? I’m not blaming Ken Burns. I’m also not blaming guns.

I know how to shoot. I’m a good shot. I’ve owned guns and have thought about getting one. Because I know what I’m doing. But the idea of amassing an arsenal and heading off to kill as many people as I can in one go turns my stomach. (There are hunters in my family, but all I’ve ever killed with a gun is paper and clay pigeons. I have also wounded tin cans.)

The National Rifle Association, though? That’s another story. They’re as complicit as anyone for this. They’ve perverted the Second Amendment. Between lobbying to make sure that sensible gun legislation isn’t enacted, making it easy for people to pick up guns at gun shows and generally tarring anyone who doesn’t agree with them lock, stock and barrel as some sort of wussy liberal….They’re responsible for making it as easy for this man to do what he did.

News is now reporting that the shooter was “known” to Las Vegas police. Whose hands were probably tied in regard to his gun ownership. Thanks again, NRA and the legislators who support them. I’m sure you are all sleeping like babies. Because of your actions, more than 50 people won’t ever wake up again, more than 200 are in hospitals and countless others will startle awake, reliving the event via nightmare.

 

PS When a white guy shoots up a concert full of people, it’s an “aberration” and not “terrorism,” according to a Fox interviewee. I wonder what he’d say if Stephen Paddock’s name was Hassan Abeddin. (Sorry to anyone named Hassan Abeddin.)

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The straight line connecting Donald Trump’s new tallit to “Christians for Islam,” and a best practices suggestion

On my morning Facebook rounds, I caught this post by one of my offspring:

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Clearly, my Photoshop skills are the equivalent of those of a four year old with an easel and finger paints.

 

In the way of Facebook, I could see beneath her post that a few other friends had posted articles about it, too.

At this point, shocking and seemingly inappropriate behavior is kind of the norm for this year’s GOP Presidential Candidate. (His cheerleaders and supporters are the ones who really scare me.)

I tried to imagine the reasons Donald Trump would be wearing a Tallit on Shabbat in a church. The best I could come up with was that maybe he was with a Messianic Jewish congregation. “Messianic Jews,” or as I refer to them, “Christians,” believe that Jesus is the messiah. As I understand it, that’s the foundation of Christianity – that Jesus came, died for our sins, was resurrected, rose to heaven, and will return. The righteous will be raptured and taken to heaven, the rest left on earth to a fate that is not fabulous.

Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to show up. S/He will establish heaven right here. We are supposed to help prepare for that time by doing what we can to help establish an earth that is as close to heaven as possible for mere mortals. That’s why you see so many Jews involved in social action, even those who don’t connect with the religious aspects of Judaism. Also, for Shabbat-Observant Jews (the ones who hew to keeping the Sabbath by not engaging in the 39 forbidden acts considered work), that time represents a taste of every day on earth in the Messianic Age.

So, my take on “Messianic Jews,” is that they can call themselves anything they want, but for Jews like me (who are still waiting for the first appearance of the Messiah), they’re Christians. My only real problem with Messianic types is when they go to small communities where there are no Jews and make presentations in churches to Christians who have never met a Jew in person. I saw this a lot when I was working as a religion reporter in a small community. I had never been able to articulate why I felt so viscerally offended at those press releases (which I ran, but only after I’d had someone else do the editing because my gut inclination was to round-file them, which went against my other gut inclination of everyone having equal rights to media access).

Then, when visiting one of my favorite United Methodist pastors at his church, which was one of the more conservative-leaning  (those UMs are a wide-ranging group – a true “big tent” denomination that swings from far left to far right), I saw one of those Messianic announcements on the church bulletin board.

I felt comfortable enough with Paster Kerry to tell him how I felt, and he felt comfortable enough with me to be genuinely interested, even though he didn’t understand what I could possibly find offensive.

And then, call it Divine Inspiration. Call it just plain inspiration. Call it Fred if you want. I looked at Pastor Kerry and said this.

“Imagine a kid from your church who’s been baptized, gone through your Sunday school and been confirmed,” I said. “Now, imagine him coming to see you during his second semester of college, all excited.

‘Pastor Kerry! Pastor Kerry!’ he says. ‘Did you know that Allah is the One True God and Muhammed is his last Prophet? I am going to keep the Five Pillars! I pray to Mecca five times a day, and I eat halal and observe Ramadan. But don’t worry. I’m going to still celebrate Christmas and Easter, because I’m a Christian for Islam!'”

Watching him make the connection was like one of those time-lapse films of a flower opening, only faster. The emotion with which he delivered his three-word response was a study in understated power.

“I get it,” he said.

But, I digress. Absent what I wrote above, when it came to Donald Trump and a Tallit on Shabbat in a church, I had nothing.

So I clicked on one of the articles. The answer was that Bishop Wayne Jackson of Great Faith Ministries in Detroit gave it to him as a gesture of love and hope.

“This is a prayer shawl straight from Israel. Whenever you’re flying from coast to coast — I know you just came back from Mexico and you’ll be flying from city to city — there is an anointing. And anointing is the power of God,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be sometimes in your life that you’re going to feel forsaken, you’re going to feel down, but the anointing is going to lift you up. I prayed over this personally and I fasted over it, and I wanted to just put this on you.”

There had been some speculation on Offspring’s thread that the Tallit might have been connected to Donald’s daughter Ivanka, who is Jewish. I could labor over a snappy ending to this post, but will go lazy by copying and pasting what I wrote (verbatim) on Offspring’s wall:

“Now, at least, it makes sense, even if it makes me kind of squishy and uncomfortable. I mean, what if Pastor Jackson had given Trump, say, I dunno, a Native American headdress? Or some other religious symbol from some other faith tradition? Maybe Jared & Ivanka will be able to explain the reason that a lot of Jews might find it a little … off-putting.

“That said, the spirit in which Pastor Jackson gifted it was pure, and he was probably reaching back to the roots of his Jesus, who lived and died as a Jew and so he probably feels some ancestral pull that way.

That said, it’s not something conventionally associated with Christianity and the Twister-like moves one needs to perform in order to explain it make it a poor choice.

“That said, The Donald complicated matters greatly by putting it on, when his best move would have been to have simply said thank you and brought it home to put away for his grandson’s eventual bar mitzvah.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Police shootings, mob violence and the comfort of strangers: A Dispatch from Milwaukee

While Sweetheart and I were somewhere loud and happy Saturday night (a wedding),  loud and not-so-happy things were happening close to us.

In the morning, my friend Walter, a Baptist minister, posted this selfie on his way to his church. He invoked Nehmiah 1.

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By then, we’d heard the news. Riots had broken out hours after a police officer shot and killed a 23-year-old who’d refused to put down the gun he was carrying. Mobs of people gathered, shooting in the air, burning businesses and, according to one video on Facebook that I did not watch, looking for white people to beat up.

There were photos of the businesses that had been burned. A gas station. A bank. A beauty supply store. Before it burned, looters were carrying out bags of weaves.

My house is a mess. We got written up by the city for “weeds” (we have a  prairie in our front yard). I do not spend enough time with my mother or my grandson. But it could be worse. I didn’t lose my business, and I still have a job to go Monday.

It would be great if the world got better by burning things down, but it doesn’t. It just makes more heartbreak and fear which, last I heard, isn’t high on the list of building blocks for neighborhood stability.

I had to go over there and see if I could help clean up something. I’ve driven by that gas station a gatrillion times, and when I go downtown after work, I drive past the bank and the auto supply and beauty supply stores that were burned.

I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I got to the intersection a few hours after Walter had left. He’s black and big, and I am white and not. It didn’t matter. Being afraid isn’t enough of a reason not to do something that matters, and for some reason I couldn’t articulate, this mattered.

What I found were groups of people in the park across from the gas station. I instantly recognized my neighbors, Michael & Carolina. On the grass just off the sidewalk, three people were sitting alongside a pallet-sized stack of bottled water. There were bags of gloves and cartons of garbage bags.

“People are just going out and cleaning up,” Michael said. He and Carolina had been there long enough to fill a couple of bags, and were taking off.

I got a pair of gloves and a bag from a woman, who told me that the effort wasn’t really being organized by anyone. People were just showing up. (Click here for a photo, courtesy of Neighborhood News Service.)

“Kind of like last night, only not” I said. She knew exactly what I meant. I headed out with my garbage bag and a pair of yellow gloves, the kind you use to wash dishes.

I hadn’t taken more than a few steps when a young black man asked me something about where the organizers were. I told him what I knew and pointed to the water stack. Then I asked if he wanted to pair up.

Which is how I met Chad, an electrician who recently bought his first house, some 20 blocks away from where we were (roughly the same distance away as Sweetheart and me, but in a different direction). We headed east toward the beauty supply store. There wasn’t a whole lot to clean up, but we picked up some trash, and some glass. And then I saw the bullet casing outside a storefront. I photographed it, then picked it up and showed it to Chad.

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“Whoa, a slug!” he said.

We chatted between his cell phone ringing intermittently as he told people where he was and what we were seeing, and as we got to the beauty supply store, his phone rang. His cousin had come to help out. He went to meet her. The street had been cleared of glass and the windows were boarded up, but the ground between the board-up and sidewalk was a mass of piled glass. I dug huge chunks out of the dirt, filling up my bag.

Chad returned and introduced me to Tiffany, who’s working on her master’s degree in public health and works in the field already. We walked and talked as we made our way along the street, surveying the damage and talking about upcoming community events we knew about and were involved in. When we got back to my car, I gave Tiffany my gloves, and asked if they’d be willing to be in a picture. We got another passerby to take it.

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I took quiet comfort in the presence like-minded strangers who care as much as I do about the city I love and call home.

The mom and daughter from Whitefish Bay who were picking up garbage, the woman in traffic who called out from her car window to ask where she could drop off donations, and all the other people we saw along the way. Some were cleaning up. Some were just walking along. The front-seat passenger in carload of girls in an SUV announced (with a dash of salt in her tone) that they’d been there the night before.  In the park, groups of people were gathered in prayer circles, including a shirtless guy with a huge snake hanging from his shoulder.

There was a lot of work to be done before last night, and a lot of good people already doing it.

I hope it’s enough.

 

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My Write-in Candidate is Dead and Reductive Disrespecters Want Your Brain: An Election Season Guide for the Perplexed

There are a lot of reasons I miss having a dog. Election season is one. Tuki used to come with me when I voted.

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She was also my candidate of choice on more than one occasion. I voted for Tuki when it was clear that, compared to the humans on a ballot, she would represent my interests more competently.

I wrote in Tuki for County Supervisor the whole time Lee Holloway was in office. The only time I ever saw him at my door was after a pension scandal (he and his fellow supervisors voted themselves and county employees fat pensions at the expense of the county’s well-being). When I asked him about it, he got owly. His opponent had no political experience and misspellings on her campaign literature. Tuki was the clear winner.

Even before she died in November, I knew there was a viable human candidate for County Supervisor this coming April. When my friend Mike found out I’d been laid off last July, he told me he was running and asked if I’d be willing to help with his campaign.

Lke me, Mike is a progressive communitarian. Of course I’d be willing to help!

Also, I quite adore him. I also adore his wife Trudy, their kids Jon and Carolyn and their special needs dog, Turbo. (Turbo is an epileptic – but courtly – German Shepherd.)

I asked about specific things he could affect as Supervisor.

“Three things,” he answered. “Transportation, parks and jobs.”

“Four,” I said. “Mental health services.”

“Absolutely!” he said.

So, since fall, Mike’s been walking the district, knocking on doors and introducing himself to voters. By the time it was time to collect the 200 signatures he needed to get on the ballot, he’d gotten a lot of exercise. He’d also gotten a lot of information from his prospective constituents.

It used to be that simple. Candidates declared their intentions by going directly to We the People to talk about who they were and what they’d do, and We the People listened, used our brains to make an informed decision, and voted.

But most people are busy. Or lazy. Some are so turned off by having seen nothing change for so long that they’ve abandoned the process entirely and don’t even bother with elections or voting any more.

All that is a big mistake. Because people – on the left and the right – have figured out how to turn that cynicism and laziness to their advantage, and they’re doing just that. They’ve given up on changing the system. They’re just trying to milk it in order to get more for themselves or keep what they have by maintaining the status quo. And they’re using your brain – with your cooperation – to get the job done.

You can see it working right now in the run-up to next year’s presidential election. Who will Hispanics want? What about women? How do we get the Black vote? What about the Jews? How do we reach White Men?

Local party/organization bosses are exactly the same. They go out and find people they think the Hispanics/Women/Blacks/Jews/White Men will vote for and recruit them to run. Then, they pour money and publicity into their campaigns and send out press releases touting their credentials “S/He went to a rally for {insert cause here} and is an activist in his/her {insert demographic-catnip-sounding group name here}!”

It’s all designed to appeal to your emotions.

Which is reductive and disrespectful. Almost as disrespectful as the fact that these decisions are, by and large, made by people who don’t even live in the districts they’re working to influence.

So, yeah. Qualifications aside, I’m a little cranky that Mike, who is in his 50s and white, is being told by the people who don’t live here that they have to support the black woman in her 20s because she’s a black woman in her 20s.

Anyway, all this to say that during this election season, don’t take anyone’s word for what the person who wants to represent you stands for. When those glossy things start showing up in your mailbox, or if candidates show up on your doorstep, find out how long they’ve lived in your district, what drove them to run, what they want to accomplish in office and how they plan to do it.

Then, stick it to the reductive disrespecters. Use your pre-frontal cortex  instead of your limbic system when you decide who’s getting your vote.

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The Art of Knowing What You Don’t Know: Cultural Intelligence, Tamir Rice and Hope for a More Enlightened 2016

The first time I heard the term “Cultural Intelligence” was in a church basement. The topic under discussion was an update on the redesign of Milwaukee County’s Behavioral Health division; the person updating us was describing an all-too-familiar and depressing reality:

The group doing the  redesign work is comprised of mostly white, upper middle class, suburban people who know, socialize and interact with other mostly white, upper middle class suburbanites. These well-meaning people are creating policies and procedures that will affect mostly black, poor, urban people whose realities are very different. Worse, they have no chance to understand that they doesn’t understand, because people with the ability to effectively reality check those committee members (people who are, were, know, socialize and/or interact with mostly black, poor urban people) have virtually no voice at the table.

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When I saw this painting at the Milwaukee Art Museum yesterday, I knew it was the image I wanted to go with this post. Tamir Rice was already in my mind, and he will never be as old as the young man in this painting. It’s called St. Dionysus; the artist’s name is Kehinde Wiley. Check out more of his work at http://www.kehindewiley.com

Or, to put it another way, there is one person of color on the board. There used to be two, but one took a job that meant having to leave the board.

One thing the two people of color were able to achieve was getting the County to pay for Cultural Intelligence training for Human Service workers. Last month, offered a seat at one of the trainings, I jumped at the chance. We had to take a pre-workshop assessment. Our scores would be given to us at the training.

I wondered what mine would look like. A few years ago, I took one of Harvard’s Project Implicit tests. I wasn’t surprised to pull a score showing an automatic preference toward white over black faces.

Cultural intelligence measures one’s ability to work and relate across all cultures. When we got our scores, my “CQ” was higher than I had expected. So, just for the heck of it, I went home and retook the Project Implicit test. My automatic preference had disappeared. That I’d had it wasn’t a surprise. That it’s gone isn’t surprising, either.

As a white lady of a certain age, my first experience with people of color occurred before I understood anything about what color was. Lily Mae Madden cleaned our house once a week and sometimes took care of my sister and me when I was way too little to know anything other than that Lily Mae wasn’t scary like my mom and I loved her. She was big and soft and kind. Her husband, Sam was tall, slender and as kind as his wife. My sister and I adored them.

By the time I was in kindergarten, they had passed out of our lives. There were no black children in my class. Or my school (which went to sixth grade). Or my neighborhood. There were no black characters on my TV screen (“I Spy” came on after my bedtime), until “Julia” came out in 1969.

In junior high and high school, things changed some. My urban public high school had no ruling class. Race differences were a reality but not an issue. White and black kids hung out together during the day, and maybe some socialized outside of school. All the girls in my crowd were white, though none of us thought about it in those terms.

In college, I was a fish out of water. It was my first real brush with class differences, although I was too green to realize it. At my small, private liberal arts school, most of the students had come from families with way more money than mine and many had gone to private boarding schools. The norm was to spend junior year somewhere else. My “somewhere else” was Israel.

The program was through the Reform movement, a year on the same kibbutz outside of Jerusalem. Professors came to us, and our single summer class was three hours of Hebrew instruction, six days a week. I wanted to learn Arabic, too. Attempts to connect with anyone who could help me find a class or teacher were quickly quashed. (“What do you want to do that for? You don’t want to do that.”) I was a good sheep, out of my element and with enough strange things to handle. I didn’t push things with the authorities.

I still tried, though, and achieved a small victory.

My aunt, in Minnesota, had a friend there whose cousins lived in Acco, a lovely city in Northern Israel. The Shaabi family’s Roman-era house was a cavernous stone structure just across from the sea wall along the Mediterranean. I didn’t learn much Arabic. But I was able to experience an aspect of Israeli culture I wouldn’t have otherwise. The experience taught me a lot about race relations at home. In Israel, it was the secular Jews, the religious Jews and the Arabs living separate lives in shared space. Here, black and white people mostly live separate lives in shared space.

I was 30 when my first marriage ended and my quest to find a family-supporting job led me to a racially mixed nonprofit agency where people socialized outside of work. The result was my first experience walking or driving down a street and wondering, instead of being a little uncomfortable and scared, whether the non-white person coming toward me was someone I knew.

These days, everybody I pass on the street looks like someone I might know and it feels weird to be in a roomful of people where everyone is the same color as I am.

I don’t know how to make that the reality for more of us. I wish I did.

Because it’s the only real way we can stop living in a country where police officers who look like me won’t be able to pick off a 12-year-old black kid with a toy gun and get a free pass from a grand jury. Tamir Rice’s family deserves better. The same goes for Trayvon Martin’s, Deontre Hamilton’s, Sandra Bland’s, Laquan McDonald’s and Walter Scott’s.

May 2016 be a safer place for all of us.

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Up from the grave to denounce a naked emperor

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Helen and me. I was so happy to get to see her, and I think she was happy to see me, too. Maybe even happier than she would have been to see Donald Trump. (Actually, I’m pretty sure she was happier to see me.)

Donald J. Trump is a man his supporters would avoid like gay pride parades if he were saying the things he says while unshaven and pushing all his worldly possessions in a shopping cart.

But he wears bespoke suits and lives and works in buildings with his name on them. So instead of being called out for what he is – the emperor with no clothes  – his rants are miraculously elevated to the level of worthy discourse. It would be lovely to live in a world where his call to bar Muslims from entering the US would signify the beginning of his being exiled from public life. Sadly, I know better.

I don’t often put words in the mouths of dead people. But I’m pretty sure that Helen Sperling, who died last week at the age of 95, would have excoriated Mr. Naked Emperor.

Helen was the first Holocaust survivor I ever met. I don’t remember not knowing her. But until a Sunday School morning when I was 12 and 60 or so of us sat on the floor in the Edelstein Room at our synagogue while Helen sat on a chair and told us her story, I only knew her as Paul and Franny’s mother.

Helen was the mother with the musical laugh and long hair worn in a braid down her back. My mother had short hair and a short fuse. I wanted the mother with the musical laugh and long hair. I loved being at the Sperlings’ house. I spent a lot of time there because Paul was one of my best friends until we turned 5. His sister Franny was two years older. She was beautiful and way too sophisticated to hang out with four-year-olds.

One day, which I only can tell you about because it became the stuff of legend for the mothers involved, Helen served a lunch that consisted of pretty much none of my preferred menu items. (In Helen’s defense, I was a pretty strange eater. I didn’t like peanut butter. I didn’t like jelly. I didn’t like tomato sauce. I didn’t like sweet things.)

But I had been taught to be polite, and to be a good guest. Good guests did not ask for food that wasn’t already on the table. Good guests did not say “I don’t like that!”

So, when Helen called Paul and me into the kitchen for lunch and sat us down, I evidently surveyed the repast and looked up at Helen.

“These,” I said, eyeing up the contents of one of the serving plates, “are the friendliest cucumbers I’ve ever seen.”

I know that Helen must have laughed and laughed in that moment, because she and my mother both laughed every time one (or both) of them recalled it – right up to last year, when I was in Utica for my Aunt Bessie’s funeral and had time either to go to the cemetery and see my dad or go hang out with Helen, who was 94.

I called Franny to make sure Helen was up for visitors. Sadly, Paul and I never re-established our pre-kindergarten bond (there’s always hope, and we do have our memories), but when I was 15 and Franny 17, we got close. Ten years ago, we reconnected. Aside from being a generally fabulous human being, she is is also an amazing aerialist, and my hero and inspiration in all things flying.

Helen was as full of life and as feisty as ever. That she needed oxygen to breathe and wasn’t so good at getting out of a chair did absolutely nothing to diminish her vivacity and power.

She exclaimed over the cream puff I had brought for her (“My favorite! How did you know?” What I didn’t say: “Because Franny told me when I called her to see if you’d be up for a visit.”) and lamented that she didn’t have anything to serve. I’d bought frozen fish sticks; Helen was thrilled to let me use her oven.

We yakked like girlfriends. I told her about my experiences as a reporter in Central Wisconsin, where a Holocaust denier had taken possession of a good deal of Public Square real estate. The denier used local media to broadcast her message, got herself invited to an eighth grade classroom to talk to students, and even arranged for a public talk at the local two-year university center. I spent three years there, I told Helen, and was most proud of two things I’d done. One was connecting a local coffee shop to Colectivo, a Milwaukee-based coffee roasting company, making it possible to get a great cup of coffee in the (relative) middle of nowhere. The other was getting a Holocaust survivor to come to talk to those eighth graders, and to give a public talk at the university center.

We talked about getting old and dying. She was ready, but as long as she could, she said, she would tell her story. I asked her if she’d recorded it.

“Yes,” she said, “I spoke with the Spielberg Foundation. (The disc is) in a vault, because until I’m dead, I want people to hear it directly from me.”

She told me about the bracelets she gave every attendee at the end of every talk. Blue, and engraved with the words, “Thou Shalt Not Be A Bystander.”

“I don’t have any here,” she said. Then, she remembered that she was wearing one. She took it off and gave it to me.

Helen was a staunch supporter of Israel. She also loved the United States, and the best of what both countries aim to be and represent.

There is no way she would have stood by while a well-dressed, charismatic political wannabe spouted religious hatred. She knew exactly where that led. Which is why she spent her life doing everything in her power to make sure no one would ever have to go there again.

Note: Even though Helen didn’t want any video of her telling her story while she was alive, I did find one – on one of her many visits to Union College, her talk was videotaped. Click here to see it. 

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Pan-African Nationalism basics, plutocratic cookie pigs and Rabbi Hillel

If I ever get pulled over for “fitting the description,” the description will be “garden-variety middle-aged white lady.”

It’s been an accurate description for most of my life (with the exception of the age part, which is following the conventional trajectory and means that if I live long enough, I’ll be a garden-variety old white lady), except for one interval. I never felt more ethnic in my life than I did during three years residing in a city of 20,000 people in Central Flyover Country. I passed as white just as easily as you please. Until the second question.

The first question was “What is your name?”

The second was “Where do you go to church?”

The minute I said, “The synagogue 45 miles northwest of here (the closest one),” it was all over. I wasn’t black. But I wasn’t white anymore, either. There were about 30 Jews in Central Flyover Country. But as a reporter – and features editor – for the local paper, I was the first one many of the people I encountered had ever seen up close and personal.

Most of my experiences as a small town Jew were positive. People were curious, but also respectful. There were a couple of uncomfortable encounters, but I never felt unsafe.

This week, I learned what it feels like when no one needs to ask anything to know you’re different. All they have to do is look.

Supposedly six of the approximately 200 people who showed up to the auditorium at the Large Midwestern Technical College Where I Work to hear guest speaker and Philadelphia resident Dr. Umar Johnson’s talk “Black to the Future: The Return of Jim Crow Justice in the Age of Post Racialism” were white. I never saw the other five.

A picture of three chickens, two white and one black, with another black chicken in the background.

Chickens. Some of them are black and some of them are white. And they all seem fine with that. Maybe it’s because they’re in China and not the US. (photo credit: Talia Frolkis)

The first thing Johnson told us about himself was that he is a Pan-African Nationalist. I didn’t know anything about Pan-African Nationalism before his talk. Taki Raton, a local Pan-African Nationalist, spoke later in the week at a smaller gathering. I learned a bit more there. Between the talks, I attended a screening of “Dream Big Dreams,” a documentary about Vel Phillips. Among other things, she singlehandedly opened the doors to Open Housing laws in my city and nationally during the Civil Rights movement. The screening and talkback was organized by One MKE, a local group whose mission statement includes the phrase “foster and retain a diverse pipeline of talent and improve cultural competence.”

There was a lot to chew on in what Johnson & Raton said, and I’m still thinking about it, especially having just read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah.” Her protagonist, Ifemelu, moves from Nigeria to the US. Among other things, she starts a blog. It’s called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black.” As much as I want to talk about how much I loved this book and how highly I recommend it,  I’m going to focus on Johnson’s talk.

Some of it had me jumping for joy, some of it left me cold. In the jumping for joy category was his recommendation to read Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 book, “The Miseducation of the Negro.”

Woodson’s thesis is as true today as it was when he wrote it. Education as it currently exists is a form of social control, designed to ensure perpetual second-class status for black Americans. To counteract that, black people need to discover and learn the truth about their ancestry and about African civilization.

I loved that Johnson was an authentically proud black man telling a group of mostly young black men them to stop looking for approval outside themselves. I loved him telling them to love themselves and each other and to care for each other, in part by building institutions to strengthen themselves and their communities. I loved that he urged them to not rely on anyone else to make that happen. I loved his message of community and of taking care of each other first.

In the “left me cold” category was his disdain for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He was referring to black boys being disproportionately misdiagnosed. I get that too many energetic kids, especially black boys, get labeled. But speaking as a white kid who spent my entire childhood undiagnosed (another story for another time), I can tell you that it’s real and it’s no fun to have it. So I get the overdiagnosis, but for the few kids who do have it, addressing it can be a game-changer. I speak from experience.

He also does not seem to believe in the theory of abundance. Maybe it’s the white privilege talking, but I’m kind of a “rising tide lifts all boats” type. If you have, I can, too, and more for you is not necessarily less for me.

His blanket portrayal of other communities as adversaries rather than allies competing for resources reminded me of a joke I heard when Governor Walker got elected in 2010. Walker promptly set to work bringing back the Middle Ages, complete with landed gentry, peasant and serf classes and minus the guilds. And not in a good way.

Here’s the joke: A union member, a Tea Party member and a 1 percenter are sitting at a table. There’s a plate on the table with a dozen cookies. The plutocrat takes 11 cookies and turns to the Tea Party member.

“I’d look out for that one,” he says, nodding in the direction of the union member. “I think he’s trying to take your cookie.”

It’s because I have a backstory to point to, to be proud of and to own that I am able to understand and clearly articulate exactly what it is about the idea of straight-up separatism that bothers me. It’s also the reason I can understand and clearly articulate the reason it’s so vitally important to be able to have a strong and separate group identity.

So here’s a shoutout and thanks to one of my ancestors – Rabbi Hillel, who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not, now, when?”

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