Comic Strip Heroes

I’m a long-time reader of the comic strip pages in newspapers. Peanuts and Doonesbury were favorites growing up. Nowadays I like Luann and Pearls Before Swine. And of course I’m thrilled that Berke Breathed has revived Bloom County. Even back in the day, I tried reading myself into some of the characters. I wasn’t so much looking for black characters, but gay ones.

I had a secret thrill whenever Marcie called Peppermint Patty “Sir.” My closeted queer eyes saw them as a butch/fem couple long before I knew those words or what they meant. Peanuts Wikia states that Charles Schultz denied any relationship between the two, writing “the characters are supposed to be very young children and they both have crushes on Charlie Brown.” A fascinating statement. On the one hand, they have a crush on Charlie Brown. But on the other hand, they are “very young children.” This appears to fit the trope that homosexuality is an adult thing and that children have no sexuality or gender identity, unless it’s cis-heterosexual, of course.

The pickings for queer characters in newspaper comics has been slim. Doonesbury had Andy Lippincott, but he died of AIDS. Later, Mark Slackmeyer came out of the closet and even had a relationship with a conservative character named Chase. Fairly recently, in 2014, Scott Adams had long-time intern Asok come out in Dilbert. This was in response to the Indian Supreme Court upholding an anti-gay law. The character’s homosexuality has not been much of an issue since. I always thought (hoped) that nerdy Gunther in Luann would come out, but instead a newish character named Pru declared herself a “thespian lesbian.” It was a plot device meant to show that she was not going after Luann’s then-boyfriend, Quill, like everyone thought.

And this is all well and good, but apart from Doonesbury, none of these characters have had major issues revolving around their sexuality or how it impacts the characters’ lives.

A friend of mine on Facebook shared a comic strip from Tumblr I found quite arresting and moving. Created by artist Panic Volkushka, it depicts a gay couple at couples counseling: Bart Simpson and Chris Griffin, all grown up. My 12 year-old self started doing cartwheels reading these two well known characters done up in a queer setting. But Volkushka did more than just play with their sexual orientation. He gave them depth by showing how their abusive childhoods wrecked their adult lives. It’s a story all too common in the queer community. Their counselor is R. J. Hill, aka Bobby from King of the Hill. I always loved Bobby, one of the most developed characters of that show. Volkushka rightly notes that despite his father’s inability to understand his son, he still loved him and treated him well. I also like how Volkushka maintains the mystique around Bobby’s own sexuality, a quality that made him such a good character.

This sort of character development does what good fiction needs to do: put a mirror to society to tell truths. Instead of gay caricatures, Volkushka created people trying to overcome realistic problems. I had a very strong reaction reading his cartoon because he made me care about the characters. This is why it is important to have well-developed queer characters in fiction, even the funny pages. Such depictions will help turn queer folks from being “others” to being humans.

We need such symbolism now just as much as 40 years ago, when I was growing up. Kids today may have more examples of queer folks living happy lives, but the backlash continues to be fierce. The US House of Representatives just killed an amendment to a bill that would have protected the civil rights of LGBT people working for government contractors. The amendment had passed, but the Republican leadership extended the voting time so that its members had a chance to switch their vote. Just enough did so to kill it.

This is but one example. The other obvious example has been the rush to pass anti-LGBT rights laws in states all over the country, particularly law denying the right of transgender people from using the restroom of their choice.

So while comic strips might not seem like a battleground for civil rights, in a way they are, the same way all media are. Representation matters. Lack of representation maintains invisibility. And invisibility, like silence, equals death.

Knowledge Over Fear

When I was 15, I got up early Saturday mornings. After something simple and easy for breakfast, I went out to the garage and got my bike. I rode west, past Denker, past Western, past Arlington. In the gloomy, grey skies of an LA spring, I kept peddling until I got to Crenshaw, then I turned southward. A few blocks further and I arrived at my destination, a little masjid squeezed in between two other businesses on the busy avenue. I could take my bike inside, for safe keeping, but I had to remove my shoes. Then, for the next two hours or so, I studied Arabic with a few other people.

I wasn’t interested in converting to Islam. My spiritual bent even then could best be described as agnostic. I was interested in learning the language. I come from a family of language nerds. Mom spoke French and Spanish. Dad spoke Spanish and some Italian. When he served during World War II, he was more interested in learning the languages of our enemies rather than blowing them up. He also dabbled in Italian and Japanese. My siblings also learned languages. Robert ruled Russian. My sister learned French, and later in college studied Zulu.

German was and remains my main “second tongue.” My husband and I often speak to each other in German. But I always had a fascination with Arabic. When an opportunity arose to study it, from a friend of my brothers, I took it up. I can still remember the alphabet, my teacher was so thorough in the way he taught it. Sadly, I didn’t keep it up when I went to UCLA and have forgotten most of the vocabulary and grammar I had learned. In those days, UCLA only offered one section of Arabic and it always met at 8 in the morning. I could get up and ride the bike to the masjid on Crenshaw, and get there by 9. But getting to UCLA from South Central by 8 in the morning was more drama than I could handle. Call me a wimp.

Today, though, if I studied Arabic actively, what would life be like? What would people say if I carried books with Arabic script on the cover today? Or worse, if they saw me writing in this exotic looking language? We know the answer, and it deeply troubles me.

In the last month, we’ve had two examples of people freaking out needless on flights because they perceived a problem where none existed. In the first instance, a young man called a relative as the plane was still boarding. He spoke to his relative in Arabic. The person next to him freaked and told a flight attendant. The young man, an undergrad at UC Berkeley, had to leave the plane and miss his flight while going through a tedious and humiliating interrogation by the FBI. The FBI ultimately released him, no charges filed and no apologies made by the FBI or more damningly by Southwest. Shame on them.

In the second instance, a passenger next to a man felt uncomfortable because the man, who had with an olive complexion and dark hair, wrote in odd scribbles. She felt unsafe, sick to her stomach. First the lady came off the plane for an examination. Then the airline removed and questioned the man about his background and his scribblings. Ultimately, as in the first case, no charges were filed and the man was free to fly on his way. What was he writing? Differential equations. The man in question is a noted economics professor.

When this second story broke, I tweeted about the origin of the word “algebra”:

Merriam Webster tweeted back an article of theirs citing eight common words in English that originated from Arabic. Many ancient scientists came from Islamic lands. Astronomy is filled with Arabic: the star names Rigel and Algol, for example. The irony that algebra originated with Muslim mathematicians is undoubtedly lost on the person who “blew the whistle” on the professor. She clearly lacked that level of sophistication.

But this is the world in which we now live, a world riddled with anger, suspicion, and most dangerously of all ignorance.

In Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of my Name, she described how she rode out the McCarthy Era by living in Mexico. She joined other poets, writings, artists, and leftist activists, all of whom fled the hysteria of that time. The Red Scare destroyed many careers and lives, for nothing. This was one of America’s darkest periods.

We’re in a new period of hysteria, a new era of witch hunts. Islamophobia runs rampant and effects everyone, including those who do not belong to the faith. Ask Sikhs who are bullied, beaten, and killed because their attackers thought them Muslim. Ask the professor working on a math problem while on a flight (#FlyingWhileThinking?). Ask those who speak or study Arabic.

I may have been too wimpy to get to UCLA by 8 a.m. to take Arabic classes, but I’ll be damned if I allow mass hysteria to prevent me from learning the language, or anything else for that matter. Learning and knowledge are the still the only effect weapons against fear. If we succumb to the fear and hate-mongering, then we’ll all become unsafe.

This Election Depresses the Hell Out of Me

I haven’t written much about the 2016 presidential election. One could cite the usual fatigue felt even by those like me who like to keep up with politics. The cable news channels, the networks, and social media have done a splendid job of overanalyzing everything to death. No word, no thought, no belch, no fart from the candidates has gone unnoticed. Each has been dissected, distilled, folded, stapled, and manipulated until replaced by the next.

I wrote about my own observations of the race recently, but even that post ignored the elephant in the room and the real reason why I haven’t spent much time talking about the election. It depresses the hell out of me. The Republican primary has outdone itself in terms of juvenile antics. The nadir for me came when Marco Rubio intimated that Donald Trump has a small penis. “You know what they say about men with small hands,” he joked. This allowed The Donald to go on about his endowment at the next presidential debate. And for the topic to dominate the news cycle for days.

Dick jokes. The race for the presidency came down to dick jokes. That’s not funny. It’s depressing. Leave the dick jokes to @Midnight. Don’t use them in presidential politics. (And as an odd addendum to this sad chapter, Marco Rubio says he’s now “warming up” to Trump.)

What is meant to pass for substance hasn’t been much better. This past week Donald Trump held a press conference to discuss in detail his foreign policy stances. The BBC did its best to cover Trump’s remarks with the type of seriousness one would normally accord an event by a major US presidential candidate. But given the source material, i.e., Trumps aimless ramblings (despite using a teleprompter), the resulting article looked like a Monty Python sketch rather than a serious news story.

And then there’s Ted Cruz. He apparently wants to turn the US into a theocracy, with his own bizarre brand of religion as the nation’s moral and political touchstone. No thanks. Canada has Justin Trudeau as its Prime Minister. We have Ted Cruz. Can’t we do an exchange? That Cruz’s birth in Canada doesn’t disqualify him does not sit well with me at all. President Obama also had an American-born mother and was born in Hawaii. But his citizenship, and thus his qualification to be president, continues to be questioned. Folks no doubt will want to impeach him and put him in prison even after he has left office.

The Democratic presidential debates had, until the last two, been beacons of reasoned discussion. But then the race became tighter, and both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders engaged in petty attacks against each other. I found Secretary Clinton’s contention that guns killing people in New York come from states with lax laws like Vermont to be a bit much. Similarly, I thought Senator Sanders’ claim that Clinton is unqualified to be president silly. Both candidates have shortcomings. All humans do. I prefer to hear how they will each rise above any shortcomings to effectively lead the country.

But the wacky antics of the Republican candidates have dominated the news cycle, much to the detriment of the race as a whole. Some broadcasters have admitted to focussing their coverage on the outrages of Donald Trump solely because doing so improves their ratings, hence their bottom line. That’s disgusting. Abdication of duty by the Fourth Estate only further undermines our democracy. The race might be a joke. It might have its funny moments. But I’d rather have serious political discussion over dick jokes. We have no lack of problems to solve.

The Anton Schwartz Loft Concert

I love house concerts. Listening to music in so intimate a setting places the music front and center, where it belongs. The audiences tend to be connoisseurs that have a strong bond with the performers and the music. The setting is warm. I remember going to an Indian music house recital in Los Angeles many years ago that featured the late Shubbho Shankar (son to Pandit Ravi Shankar and Smt. Annapurna Devi) on sitar and Pranesh Khan (son of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan) on tabla. We all crowded on the floor at their feet and listen to them play late into the night. Indian classical music lends itself to this type of setting.

So does jazz. From its early days, jazz has connected with its audiences in small settings, from rent parties in crowded flats to those smoky clubs tucked away in basements or off back alleys. Yoshi’s is awesome, as is the SF Jazz Center. But an intimate setting, where the musicians and audience can truly relate to one another, that’s where it’s at.

Saxophonist Anton Schwartz has hosted concerts in the intimacy of his West Oakland loft for the past 13 years or so. The general format is that he invites a guest musician to sit in with his group, featuring John Shifflett on bass and Lorca Hart on drums. I met Anton after his performance at KCSM’s Jazz on the Hill last year. Since we have a mutual friend, I did something I normally don’t do and introduced myself to an artist I really like. At that encounter, I placed myself on his mailing list. So when he announced a Loft Concert at his place in West Oakland, I couldn’t buy the ticket fast enough. Good thing, too. The second show quickly sold out. I attended the first show, a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

His loft is in a converted school building on the ground floor, already the makings of a good jazz club setting. The performance space looks like a typical modern loft: high ceilings, a concrete floor, an office area on one side and a galley kitchen on the other. The performers played at the front of the room next to a baby grand piano. Lots of chairs tightly packed the floor. No smoking, but Anton’s stage manager and wife Dawn had plenty of munchies to nosh on and beverages to sip casually.

Joining the band at this concert was pianist Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets. They began the show with one of his tunes, “Les is Mo,” an homage to Les McCann. It was a good groove and a fine show starter.

Despite the concrete floor, high ceilings, and limited acoustical padding, the space had, to my ears, a very warm sound. Dawn later explained that the audience itself helps with the acoustics, lessening the space’s natural echo. Also, the musicians generally balanced well among themselves, none overpowering the other. Mr. Ferrante’s piano sang beautifully behind Anton’s sax as well as on its own. And Mr. Shifflett’s bass came through clearly as well, with Mr. Hart’s drums holding it all steady.

Balance ruled the performance as they switched between livelier songs like “Les” and more contemplative ones, like Anton’s own “Then Again.” I knew only one other piece from the program, “Pangur Ban” from Anton’s latest album Flash Mob. So I enjoyed experiencing music I had not heard before. I came away from the show feeling mellowed. The music was both exciting and calming. In addition to helping the acoustics, the audience radiated its own warmth, responding well to the musicians. It was a friendly crowd, easy to strike up conversations with during intermission. A few folks I spoke with had studied with Anton. This fits the mold of a house concert, a group of musical connoisseurs in tune with the music and the musicians.

Anton splits his time, when not touring, between the Bay and Seattle. By his own admission, he has not hosted many loft concerts in West Oakland of late. In fact, the one I attended was the first for this year. Let’s hope the warm and enthusiastic response he and his group received will lure him back again soon.

gar’s Famous Bay Area Bumper Sticker Presidential Poll

For the past few presidential election years, while driving around town, I have conducted the least scientific poll imaginable. I call it my “bumper sticker” poll. Keeping in mind that I’m in the bubble of the Bay Area, I still find that this “poll” can provide an interesting read on the state of things in presidential elections. And after all, this is California, the home of the automobile. What better way to gauge the public’s opinion of things than by looking at the rear of their most treasured possession?

Contrary to what one might think, it’s not impossible to find support for Republican candidates in the Bay Area. In 2008, McCain/Palin graced a few bumpers. Similarly in 2012, the odd Romney/Ryan sticker popped up here and there. I even saw, and laughed hard at, a Herman Cain sticker on the back of a somebody’s car. Because I live in such a liberal/progressive bubble, the sight of any Republican candidate’s bumper sticker is sure to catch notice. Indeed, any Republican that can penetrate the bubble likely has a lot of support elsewhere, in less progressive spaces, at the cost of the Democratic candidate.

Such was my observation in 2004. I knew Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was in trouble when I saw a noticeable number of “W” bumper stickers. Bush bumper stickers in Oakland … and Berkeley??? I dismissed the first few I saw as travelers from Contra Costa County, that less-that-liberal spot over the East Bay Hills. But then I kept seeing them, not just on freeways, but also surface streets. Not a ton of them, to be sure, but enough to catch my eye. Enough to show that Kerry was in trouble. Again, I figured that if the Bush/Cheney ticket penetrated the Bay Area bubble enough to be noticeable, then in other, less liberal lands Kerry must be in real trouble. And of course he was. He lost. Even in California, Kerry only beat Bush by just under 10 percentage points, 54.31% to 44.36%. By contrast, Barak Obama beat John McCain by 24 percentage points in 2008.

In 2008, the last time the Democratic presidential primary was competitive, the Bay Area saw a definite battle of the bumper stickers between the two leading candidates, Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton. Thinking back, I’d probably give the edge to Obama, bumper sticker-wise, but really it was pretty neck-and-neck. In the end, Clinton took California in the primary race, 51.47% to Obama’s 43.16%. Judging from the election results, it would make sense that Obama bumper stickers trended slightly higher in the Bay Area.

From Wikipedia.

From Wikipedia (annotated by me).

According to the map above, Obama took Bay Area counties Alameda (home to Oakland and Berkeley), San Francisco, and Marin. These are the most progressive counties in the state, and indeed in the nation. He also took very liberal Santa Cruz, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties. Clinton, on the other hand, dominated most of the state, including densely populated Southern California. And that’s likely why she won in the end, though of course she ultimately lost the national primary to Obama.

So I wouldn’t say that my “bumper sticker poll” was 100% accurate, but it did show how close the race was at that time. I should also note that the 2008 California presidential primary was held in February, not the traditional June. The excitement of the Obama candidacy hadn’t really taken hold yet. This would explain the temperate number of Obama bumper stickers. Once Obama became the nominee, Obama/Biden bumper stickers and yard signs appeared everywhere.

So, what have I observed this time around? Again, we have a competitive Democratic primary race. Again, Hillary Clinton is one of the leading candidates. This time, though, it’s not even close. The bumper stickers have spoken: Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, and more Bernie, with a dash of Hillary on the side. The number of Bernie Sanders bumper stickers observed has increased steadily as we draw closer to California’s June 7 primary. Hillary Clinton bumper stickers have not. This gives the appearance that Clinton bumper stickers have virtually disappeared. They haven’t. They just haven’t kept up the same pace. Because California has a late primary this presidential election cycle, there is time for a candidate’s  “excitement factor” to kick in. And it has, for Bernie Sanders. In 2008, I could see folks being skeptical that black man could win the White House, thus tempering their support for Obama in February. By June, Obama-mania had reached a fevered pitch. Similarly this year, those who may quietly have held Sanders leanings, but didn’t think an avowed Socialist stood much of a chance, have likely been buoyed by his victories. Thus, they have come out of the closet, as it were, to proudly display their candidate’s sticker on their car bumper.

Indeed, in another development, I’ve also noticed Bernie Sanders yard signs. Normally I don’t see yard signs until the Fall for the general election. But this year I’ve seen a few, and they’ve all been for Bernie, Bernie, Bernie.

Traditional polls have all shown Clinton with a decided lead in the California Democratic primary. Though some have shown that lead narrowing a bit. The closest read comes from the Public Policy Institute of California. Their March 6 – 15 poll has Clinton at 48% and Sanders at 41%, with 7% undecided.

If the traditional polls prove correct, then Hillary Clinton will take the California primary. However, if the bumper sticker poll theory about penetration holds true, then I don’t see Clinton having penetrated the Bay Area progressive/liberal “bubble” in a substantial way, meaning that she may be in more trouble than the traditional polls are showing. If she does win, it will be by a razor-thin margin. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Michigan-style Sanders “upset.”

We’ll find out in June. Can’t wait.

Oh, and by the way, I have yet to see any bumper sticker for any Republican presidential candidate. I have seen a couple of “Make Donald Drumpf Again” hats, but that probably doesn’t count.

State-sponsored Bigotry Fuels Hate

In “The Scouring of the Shire,” the penultimate chapter to The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf gives Frodo, Sam, Pip, and Merry a warning about Saruman. Though defeated, his powers diminished, his master Sauron vanquished for good, the old wizard is still capable of a little meanness in a cruel way. Such is often the case after a major victory. The forces defeated linger and can continue to fester and cause harm in manners great and small.

Charlotte, North Carolina passed an ordinance to grant all LGBT folks protection against discrimination. This included the right for transgender folks to go to the restroom of their gender identity. Well, the Republican controlled state legislature wanted none of that. Forthwith, they passed one of those silly and highly bigoted “religious freedom” bills to usurp Charlotte’s ordinance, and all ordinances that grant basic civil liberties to LGBT folks. Many states have threatened to pass such bills, but North Carolina felt motivated to do so because of the Charlotte ordinance. In fact, writes NPR:

The state’s General Assembly wasn’t due to meet until late April, but it scheduled a special session — for the first time in 35 years, member station WUNC reports — on Wednesday to respond to the Charlotte measure before it went into effect.
NPR, March 24, 2016

Georgia’s legislature passed a similar bill, House Bill 757. Another stupid “religious freedom” bill, it would:

…prevent individuals from being forced to perform or attend same-sex weddings …; allow faith-based groups, including churches and religious schools, to refuse employment and service to anyone who violates the group’s religious beliefs; and permit those groups to deny employment to anyone “whose religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.”
Think Progress, March 25, 2016

This bill, says its sponsors, is the result of the Supreme Court’s overturning all anti-gay marriage laws in the country. Those of faith continue to feel threatened because their dogma isn’t the nation’s law, so they are passing these stupid laws. Such laws will not stop the tide of marriage equality, a done deal. But they will continue to enable those who feast at the troff of bigotry. It gives them an out. They can point to these laws and say “See, I ain’t a bigot. The state agrees with me.” The threat of boycotts by big companies and many Hollywood studios that film in Georgia likely compelled Georgia Governor Nathan Deal to veto the bill. But it has already done damage.

Was Georgia’s hate bill going through the mind of Martin Blackwell when he poured scalding hot water over Anthony Gooden, his girlfriend’s son, and Anthony’s boyfriend Marquez Tolbert? Marquez and Anthony were asleep at Anthony’s mother’s house when the attack happened. Blackwell complained to the police that he didn’t approve of the two young men or their relationship.

This wasn’t a little cruelness, it was a lot of cruelness. It’s hard to put into words the level of evil Blackwell committed. Marquez and Anthony suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns and require expensive medical procedures to heal them. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help defray expenses. Georgia lacks hate crime protections, but the FBI has stepped in to join the investigation. Let’s hope they stack a heap of charges against Blackwell.

State sponsored bigotry, like North Carolina’s law and the vetoed law in Georgia, embolden bigots like Martin Blackwell. They continue to use their hate and inflated sense of purpose to hurt, maim, and kill those whom they dislike, and do so with tacit state support. It used to be that the country moved in the direction of passing laws to prevent this type of targeted abuse against a harassed minority. But not anymore. Using religion as a shield, bigots are launching an all-out assault against not the just the rights but the very existence of LGBTQ people. It’s encouraging to hear the outrage against such bullshit “religious freedom” law. It’s great that many companies are lining up to excommunicate Georgia, should their bill become law.

We have to stand against such laws because of the fallout they produce, the hate they foster, and the damage they do to the real lives of real people. Marquez and Anthony never should have experienced what happened to them. None of us should rest easy until such hatred has been vanquished forever.

Republican Supernova

Stellar evolution. Lately, the current trajectory of the Republican Party has me thinking of the lifecycle of massive stars. All stars go through the same general evolutionary pattern, but larger stars die more dramatically. If the GOP has entered its death throes, then it is doing so in the most dramatic way possible.

Stars in the prime of their lives are said to be on the main-sequence. Our sun is on the main-sequence, slowly converting hydrogen to helium deep in its core. The hydrogen-helium nuclear fusion process is the most efficient and while a star stays in this phase, it remains more or less stable.

Let’s say that political parties with ideas that fit the comfort zone of most Americans are on the “main-sequence.” Their ideas fuel the party’s agenda, the way hydrogen fuels a star’s nuclear fusion and keeps it going. However, political parties, like stars, are not homogenous nor are they static. Hydrogen makes up most of a star’s mass at birth, though other elements are present, too. And of course the hydrogen is slowly converted into helium. Similarly, fringe elements also exist in political parties. When hydrogen no longer constitutes the primary element within a star, and the star begins fusing helium and even heavier elements to stay alive, it is said to move off of the main-sequence. It’s still alive, but it becomes enlarged, erratic — and in the case of massive stars, prone to violent fits, blowing off large chunks of itself.

Eta Carinae (NASA photo)

Eta Carinae, a very massive star, not exploding, just blowing off steam. (NASA photo)

By this analogy, a political party moves off its “main-sequence” when more and more fringe elements begin influencing its direction and purpose, and when those elements begin pushing out what once had been considered mainstream. In the GOP’s case, the fringe elements are mostly religious conservatives, nationalists, xenophobes, and overt racists.

From Lincoln to Eisenhower, the Republican Party lived more or less on the “main-sequence.” By the Nixon Administration, the “hydrogen” began to run out and the fringe elements began taking over. By Reagan, the fringe elements started exerting more influence. No response to AIDS. Contra-gate. James “two Jews and a cripple” Watt. However, the fringe had not fully taken over, not yet. When Reagan vetoed a bill calling for divestment from Apartheid South Africa, Congress overrode him. 81 House Republicans and 31 Republican Senators joined Democrats in that override vote. And despite his conservative bluster and posturing, even Reagan approved bills raising taxes, as did his successor George H. W. Bush, though the move likely cost him his reelection.

But with the arrival of George W. Bush, the fringe took over. The Republican Party moved decisively off the “main-sequence” and adopted a harshly conservative agenda that included no rights for LGBTQ folks, no reproductive rights for women, a hatred for science, and no new taxes under any circumstances. From these positions a majority of Republicans will not budge. Those who show any leniency are quickly exiled, blown into the political interstellar medium like so many random hydrogen molecules off of a fitful, massive star.

At this point in stellar evolution, a massive star is fusing heavier elements — helium, carbon, neon, oxygen, silicon, etc. — in concentric shells above a growing inert core of iron.

Fusion shells in a highly evolved, massive star.

Fusion shells in a highly evolved, massive star. (Wikipedia)

Each of these fusion processes keep the star going, but none are as efficient as hydrogen. Each delivers less energy than the one before it, until you get to iron. Iron won’t fuse into anything, since the process takes energy rather than produces it. Thus, iron won’t react. It sits there like a lump, growing bigger and bigger. Very much like Tea Party Republicans. They refuse to interact with anyone. They refuse to compromise. They prefer to let the country go to hell rather than to actually allow government work. Tea Partiers are the iron core of the Republican star.

What happens to massive stars with large, inert iron cores? They explode into supernovas. Nuclear fusion, which had for the star’s lifetime fought the urge of gravity to collapse the mass of the star in on itself, can no longer produce enough pressure to prevent that collapse. And the iron core alone certainly cannot. So the star collapses and explodes. Thus is the fate of a massive star. Depending on the size of the star, the remnant of the supernova will either become a neutron star, spewing toxic radiation into space like a hyperactive lighthouse. Or it will collapse to a point of singularity and turn into a black hole.

The Republican's Eta Carinae.

The Republican’s Eta Carinae.

With Donald Trump leading the Republican presidential field, the GOP clearly has a massive iron core problem. Out the gate, Trump aligned himself with the bigots and racists by declaring that Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers. His rhetoric has only worsened. Yet, not only has he continued to get votes, but more Republicans politicians have started to endorse him. Most perversely, Governor Chris Christie and Dr. Ben Carson, Trump’s onetime opponents, now dance with him.

The so-called “mainstream” Republican Party power brokers are aghast at this development. They believe, rightly, that Trump will alienate too much of the voting populace in a general election. But they have no one but themselves to blame for Trump’s rise to power. The GOP mainstream routinely rejects science, disparages women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks, and places profits over everything every time. Every time. By today’s standards, they would consider Eisenhower, who launched the nation’s interstate highway system, or even Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency, communists.

Today’s GOP might think they still have some mainstream values left, but in reality they’ve been off the “main-sequence” for decades. In addition to Trump, they have candidates like Senator Ted Cruz, who singlehandedly held up the budget and nearly destroyed the country’s credit rating. And Senator Marco Rubio, who despite earlier leanings towards solving problems, like immigration, has now tacked hard right to keep up with his opponents. And the Congress is still chockfull of Tea Partiers, unwilling to budge from their positions to compromise on anything.

George W. Bush, the last Republican president, started an unwinnable war and tanked the economy, nearly driving the world into a second Depression. When the GOP finally goes supernova, how much more damage to the country will they do?

Rodney King Beating 25th Anniversary

[Ed. note: Today (March 3, 2016) is the 25th anniversary of the beating of Rodney King by police officers. No single event of police violence has had a greater effect on me. I still can’t watch the video anymore. Before Twitter, hashtags, and #BlackLivesMatter, there was Rodney King, recorded old-school on video tape. It gave the world a glimpse of the type of racist violence heaped upon the African-American community since time immemorial in this country. 25 years later, with a black man in the White House, we’re still being heaped upon. I wrote the piece below after the death of Mr. King in 2012.]

(Originally posted as “The Accidental Activist – Rodney King 1965-2012.”)

In one of my Civil Rights History classes way back when, the professor explained why the NAACP very specifically took up the case of Rosa Parks as a means of challenging the Jim Crow era bus segregation laws.  She had been a secretary for the organization for a number of years and had an unimpeachable background.  By contrast, a few months prior to Mrs. Parks’ famous arrest, Claudette Colvin had been also been arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white person.  Her case joined other, similar cases that went to trial and ultimately undid the bus segregation laws for good.  However, the NAACP did not publicize her case because she was an unwed, teenaged mother, something that undoubtedly would have been a distraction, particularly in the 1950s.  As a political strategy, one can understand the NAACP’s reasoning.

But sometimes, history happens.  Sometimes the right person, the unimpeachable person, is not what fate delivers.  Rodney King already had a past, including encounters with the criminal justice system, by the time of his infamous beating in March of 1991.  But he is who fate delivered as an archetype of gross police violence.  He case did not challenge an unjust law, however.  There are no laws on the books that say “beat black people senseless when they resist arrest.”  That’s not what his beating exposed.  Instead it showed what can happen when people of a certain demographic, in this case black males, antagonize police officers who feel their authority is being threatened.  This is a different type of discrimination, the sort that is common, however, in this post Jim Crow age.  After the Civil Rights movement, instances of discrimination have become harder to codify and thus harder to prosecute and remedy.  Similarly, it has become harder to have a conversation about disparities in society based on factors like race and class.  Rodney King’s beating brought this conversation uncomfortably to the forefront.

In the minds of many, all over the world, the Rodney King case was perfectly cut and dry.  Yes, the man resisted arrest.  No, the man did not deserve or need to be beaten senseless because of that.  Once he was restrained, he should have been taken in, booked, and handed over to a judge.  It didn’t happen that way, and what did happen caused international outrage. Sadly, in the minds of many others, including those on the jury for the four officers prosecuted and ultimately acquitted for beating Mr. King, the beating was inevitable, or worse deserving.  They felt this way because he had past encounters with the law or simply because he was a Big Scary Black Man who disobeyed officers.  These attitudes form the crux of the uncomfortable conversation society has been presented in light of Mr. King’s beating.

And now the debate is happening all over again, just a couple of months after the 20th anniversary.  Rodney King has died.  And in light of his death, debates about the man, his life, his beating, and his place in Civil Rights history have begun all over again on message boards across the Internet.  The nay-sayers, sounding much like the jury that acquitted the beating officers, have opined that he was no victim, that he brought his troubles on himself, and, by extension, that he got what he deserved.  One person in the comment section of Joe. My. God. even went through the trouble of listing out all of Mr. King’s crimes and offenses in chronological order, and then ended by calling him a “scumbag” and declaring that “the world is better off without him.”

Such tasteless statements are par for the course, alas.  He was not a perfect man.  He was not a Rosa Parks who possessed an unimpeachable background.  But for the type of discrimination he revealed, he was in fact the only choice possible.  Mr. King forces us to consider, do all citizens, regardless of their race or socioeconomic background, deserve human sympathy, courtesy, and equal treatment by the police and in the eyes of the law?  As demonstrated by the commenter above, this is a test that many fail.

The conversation about racial profiling and racial discrimination in this post Civil Rights era is harder and harder to have, as Mr. King’s life and death have proven.  Mr. King’s words, spoken at the height of the rebellion in haunted, halted speech, “Can we all just get along?” seem as much a pipe dream now as they did twenty years ago.  We can’t have the conversation if people refuse to participate.  But have it we must.  It doesn’t matter that the showcase person for police brutality and racial profiling was not a perfect man.  It matters that his case showed just how much work we have to do to make the world a more just place.

This is something Mr. King himself came to terms with just months before his death:

 In an interview with The Times this year, King confided that he was at peace with what happened to him.

“I would change a few things, but not that much,” he says. “Yes, I would go through that night, yes I would. I said once that I wouldn’t, but that’s not true. It changed things. It made the world a better place.”
-LA Times, June 17, 2012

Sammy’s Blues – Part III (Conclusion)

Sunday Morning, Liberty Hall, The Huck – North Side, 10ish

Roy ran into Reverend Tamera backstage. They exchanged a quick hug. He asked why the event was happening at Liberty Hall and not the church. “Church and state, honey,” she said, then added that she understood the concept better than some preacher-folks. Roy laughed. Besides, she added, the old rustic hall has hosted every radical movement from the Wobblies to Black Lives Matter. “Let’s add Charlotte to that list.”

Roy emerged from behind the curtains. He saw Harry, Bingo, Liz, and other familiars setting up chairs in the large space. He hopped down and started arranging chairs with Vera in the front row.

“Using the stage entrance?” she said, then kissed him. “No sign of Sammy?”

“Naw.”

“Hmmm.”

“Did I tell you about the Mix Up?”

“What about it?”

“We got double carded when we went there Friday night.”

She stood upright and placed a hand firmly on her left hip. “You aren’t joking with your Auntie Vera, are you? Are they still doing that crap?”

“I guess. We didn’t let ‘em get away with it, though. We stood there until they let us in.”

She stood for a moment, shaking her head.

“Outrageous. You know what I did when they pulled that crap? I had a special card made, about the size of a driver’s license. It’s a photo of me doing this.” She cocked her head, crossed her eyes, stuck out her long tongue towards her nose, and flipped the bird right next to her cheek. “That was my second ID card.”

“Love it!”

“I can take one of you and your friends for next time.” She arranged chairs as she talked. “Only next time, I think all you should go to Club Copacetic.”

“I didn’t think they did 18 and over anymore.”

“Hmmm,” she grunted.

*   *   *

The Huckleberry Women’s Big Band led Liberty Hall through a rousing, up-tempo version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a soul sister of Linda Tillery’s version. No one sat still in the audience.

When the singing and dancing ended, and after several rounds of spontaneous applause, hoots and hollers, Reverend Tamara took the stage. The curtain closed behind her. She, too, announced the arrests that took place at Eddie’s Grove, but noted, “Not one new light fixture has been installed on that corner or anywhere else in the park. Not one.” Boos sounded long and hard. Then Tamara called those arrested freedom fighters and the room erupted into applause again.

“I was going to talk about the other event happening this morning, and how I was invited, along with the other religious leaders in the Huck; about how they told me to come and bring my flock with me, but with the stipulation that there wasn’t enough time for me to talk; about how I and some of my colleagues, who were also told there’d be no time for them to talk, saw the event as nothing more than a shield – a transparent shield – to cover the umm-hmm of the man who refused to even meet with the freedom fighters in Eddie’s Grove; about how their so-called ‘Unity Rally’ was really an action against those who did not fall into their narrow definition of unity or community.”

She paused.

“I was gonna talk about all that, and then I decided, nah.” Everyone laughed. “Instead, I want to talk about my idea of unity and leadership.”

Then she began listing qualities of leadership she admired: communicator, active listener, activist, organizer. Mrs. Parker, sitting front row center, said “That’s right!” loudly, after each point. Others in the audience made similar responses. Roy sat between Mrs. Parker and Vera, in anticipation.

“I think you know who I’m talking about,” Tamara concluded. “And I have a feeling you’ll agree that this person embodies unity.”

She stepped aside and out came Charlotte, dressed in a fine suit and a bow tie. The crowd exploded. Mrs. Parker stared at her face and beamed, clapping hard despite her arthritic hands. Tamera stood by the podium a while before leaving the stage. Camera flashes flickered. TV lights turned on. Charlotte stood alone, smiling sweetly and nodding her head. Roy studied her expression closely, keeping a smile to himself.

Eventually the room settled down so she could speak.

“Hello, sisters and brothers. I guess I better just say it, before y’all explode.”

The room buzzed with told-you-sos and uh-huhs whispered from the many who had predicted this moment.

“My name is Charlotte Hunter, and I would like to humbly announce my candidacy for the District 9 city council seat.”

People rose to the feet. Mrs. Parker shed tears of joy. Harry whistled between his fingers. Bingo clapped above his head. Vera shouted, “You go, girl!” over and over as she snapped photos.

From behind the closed curtain came a loud drumroll, then cymbals, then a booming bass drum. A frenzied solo took place. As folks got into it, the curtain opened. Sam-boom reborn. His sticks and kicks exploded in a fury that rivaled Max Roach. He brought the house down.

“Gotcha!” Roy said.

“Remind me to slap you later,” Vera said as she snapped photos.

Charlotte held her hands clutched under her trembling chin. She turned to the mic.

“Now we got it going!” she said.

The Huckleberry Women’s Big Band joined Sam-boom on stage. He settled into a steady beat and on the count of three, they began playing “When the Saints Come Marching In,” Liberty Hall’s theme song. Everyone started dancing again.

Sammy’s Blues – Part II

Sammy put on his black jacket and beret after turning out the lights. He closed the store then headed south. Going through the park, he noticed the bandshell resting silently on the far left end of the playing field. A dilapidated chainlink fence still surrounded it. No one has played there since Alfonso was little. Back when he had a full head of thick black hair, summers for Sammy meant gigs at the bandshell. Wondering if the guy from the city would show up to unlock the place and get the power going so that the show would start more or less on time. Worrying about the monitor speakers cutting out again, mid-performance. Working long days with little pay under the oppressive blanket of heat and humidity that settled over the neighborhood. But it was a joy. They got to play together. “Beanpole” Bob Rush on bass, Slack “The Jack” Jennings on piano, and “Sam-boom” Turner on drums. And the audiences always turned out.

He crossed 48th street and found Mrs. Parker on the stoop wearing her burgundy shawl and pink bunny slippers. He took a seat one step below her.

“You just missed Bill,” she said. “He was out here about thirty minutes ago.”

“You remember the time my group played ‘Bitches Brew’?”

Mrs. Parker started laughing. “I think I was the only old fart to get into it. All the rest of them, oh my goodness!”

“We burned through three albums trying to learn how to play it. Goddamn if we didn’t think we were hot shit.”

“Admit it. You loved the chaos from the crowd.”

Sammy did his slow staccato laugh. “Up until folks started throwing things.”

For the “Bitches Brew” show, they were joined by Funk It on trumpet, Logan X on tenor sax, and Beanpole’s brother Big-L on guitar. Some folks in the audience became restless when Beanpole put down his upright and plugged an electric bass into an amp and Slack the Jack set up an electric keyboard. Without any announcement, the band began performing their interpretation of “Bitches Brew.” Sammy and his group couldn’t wait to bring Miles’ revolution to Huckleberry Park. They wanted a scene and got their wish. Folks around their age and younger quickly fell into the groove. Older folks, whose tastes went no further than Art Blakey, hated it. Stop playing that motherfucking shit! When you gonna stop tuning up and play! Fuck Miles Davis! It got crazy. Young folks started dancing to the trippy free flow of the music, while the older folks ratcheted up their indignation. They switched from yelling at the band to yelling at the kids for enjoying the music. The kids yelled back. Eventually it came to blows and when chairs started flying, that’s when Sammy called out a time out.

“By the time we stated playing again, I think most of the old folks had already left, ‘cause Beanpole and Slack still played electric, and they weren’t have it. But at least the crowd calmed down.”

“Hmmm,” Mrs. Parker said, leaning back and reminiscing. “That was still a pretty funky version of ‘Satan Doll’ you all played.”

“Yeah. We thought we were so revolutionary.”

A few cars travelled down the oneway street, towards Lincoln. Faint music floated down from a cracked-open window above. Bill’s room. It sounded like soul.

“You ever think about playing again?” Mrs. Parker said.

“It’s been so long. But just recently, I was wondering where I could set up my kit. Shit, I haven’t taken it out of storage since who knows when. I played my tune for the boys. Alfonso danced so beautifully to it. He just improved it, right on the spot. It was like he had rehearsed it for years. He has the gift.”

“Uh-huh. See? You need to play it for him live.”

“Heh. Yeah. I should.”

“Sammy, before I go I want to see that park fixed and you playing in that bandshell again.”

Fixing the park, one of Charlotte’s talking points.

“You know,” Sammy said, “other than the first time she ran, Charlotte has never failed at nothing she’s started? She owned her job with Larkin. She graduated top of her class, for her BA and MSW.”

Mrs. Parker pointed across the street. “I used to watch her practice double-dutch when she was little, right over there next to the community center.”

Sammy nodded.

“Some of the girls teased her, ‘cause she kept getting tripped up. But she had a couple of friends who helped her and kept turning the rope for her. She got it, made it her own.”

“I think what tripped her up in the first election was that she hates talking about herself. She’s a great advocate for everyone except herself. We gotta help her win this time. I want her to win it, you know.”

“I know, sugar.”

He began scat singing “Lavender Veil Blues,” tapping out the beats on his knees slow and easy. Mrs. Parker closed her eyes and began swaying.