Citizenship and the Presidency

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas announced his candidacy for US President. The thought that went through my mind was, how can he run? He was born in Canada. For most lay people who are into such things, we believe that in order to be eligible to run for US President, one has to have been born on US soil, either in a state or a US territory. From that standpoint, Senator Cruz would clearly not qualify. Ah, but the constitutional language is not that clear. Enter the world of legalistic nuance.

Article Two, Clause Five of the US Constitution states:

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
(from Wikipedia)

So, one has to be (a) a “natural born citizen” or a citizen at the time the constitution was adopted, in 1789; (b) one has to be at least 35 years old; (c) and one has to have lived in the US at least 14 years.

Point (c) is fairly easy. If you were born here, and then travel and live abroad for an extended period, say 20 years, then when you return, you have to live in the US for at least 14 consecutive years before you can run for president or vice-president. Point (b) is the simplest point: you have to be 35 years old. I’m sure it’s possible to get legalistic about this. For example, does one have to be 35 during the election or only at the point when one has to take the oath of office, that is, by January 20 at 12:00 noon? I can see people niggling over something like that, but to date it hasn’t happened.

But because the Constitution does not define a “natural born citizen,” point (a) becomes subject to interpretation and has fed legal discourse for years. Indeed, the “Natural-born-citizen clause” article in Wikipedia cites interpretations of this clause dating back to the 19th century. Congressman John Bingham argued in 1862 and 1868 that anyone, black or white, who is born within the boundaries of the US are by default US citizens. The question of race would have been a pressing one during the Civil War years; the Dred Scott decision famously disenfranchised all blacks, free or slave.

Murmurs about citizenship and qualification for the presidency arose in 2000 when Senator John McCain first ran for president. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936. At the time of his birth, he would not have been a US citizen, because the PCZ was unincorporated territory. However an addendum to the US Code of Laws passed in 1937 retroactively granted citizenship to those born in the PCZ back to February, 1904.

Citizenship and qualification famously for came to fore when Barak Obama won the Democratic nomination and later the presidency in 2008. Questions about his citizenship continue to this day, alas. At this point it is fair to say that all such speculations are based on racist assertions that because President Obama is a black man, he is not qualified to be president. President Obama was born in Hawaii in 1962, three years after Hawaiian statehood. His mother was a US citizen and his father was a subject of the British realm; Kenya was a territory of Britain until 1963 when it gained independence. But because he was born on US soil, that settles the issue for all but the most hardened racists.

So back to Senator Cruz, then. How can he run for the presidency when he was born in Canada? The US Code, specifically 8 U.S. Code §1401, defines who are nationals and citizens of the United States at birth. Specifically, part (c) states:

a person born outside of the United States and its outlying possessions of parents both of whom are citizens of the United States and one of whom has had a residence in the United States or one of its outlying possessions, prior to the birth of such person
(from Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute)

Senator Cruz’s mother was born in the US, his father in Cuba. His family moved to Texas when he was four years old. Several scholars believe that because his mother was a US citizen, Senator Cruz is a “natural born citizen” and thus can run for president. But most scholars also believe that without a US Supreme Court ruling on the subject, the question of who is a “natural born citizen” remains legally squishy.

It’s interesting to note that Senator Cruz has thus far not faced his own form of “birther-gate” of the sort that has bedeviled President Obama, even though Cruz is a Hispanic-American born outside the country. Had President Obama actually been born on non-US soil, could you imagine the hackles? I wonder, in fact, if more serious actions would have been taken to disqualify him from running back in 2007, when he announced his candidacy. This smacks to me of a double-standard. Either because Cruz is conservative or because he has fair skin, and can thus “pass” as white, he has escaped this type of bigoted scrutiny.

If established legal scholars generally agree that the Senator can run, based on the US Code or other legal doctrine, then I’m fine with that. Even though I likely disagree with Ted Cruz on a variety of issues and think he would make a disastrous president, I do not think he should be disqualified over the citizenship issue. There are plenty of other reasons to disqualify him. But it still sticks in my craw a bit that he is allowed a free pass and President Obama, six-plus years into the job, still faces questions about his citizenship and “legitimacy.”

Self-Haters Gonna Hate

Self-haters gonna hate.

Earlier this week, gay Italian fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana made harsh statements about same-sex couples raising children.

We oppose gay adoptions. The only family is the traditional one… No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.

They further called children born via in vitro fertilization “children of chemistry, synthetic children. Rented uterus, semen chosen from a catalog.”

I suppose it never occurred to them that some straight couples have used similar procedures to have children, but I guess straight folks get a pass.

And, not shockingly, the pair, who were a couple for over 20 years before splitting up, is also anti-marriage equality.

They cite their traditional backgrounds as the reason for their beliefs, but that’s just a smokescreen for their self-hate. They internalized the bullshit that LGBT people are unworthy of raising children or even marrying. A part of me feels for them. Self-hate is very real and very damaging. But my sympathy stops the minute they start voluntarily broadcasting their crazy. By doing so, they add to the homophobic bedlam closeted and questioning people already hear, giving them more false justifications to hate themselves. Out celebrities are potent weapons against homophobia. But when they turn out to be self-haters themselves, then they often can do more harm than good.

I congratulate Sir Elton John for speaking up against their hate and calling for a boycott of their products. At first Messrs. Dolce and Gabbana ridiculed Sir Elton, calling for people to boycott Elton John. They also declare that Sir Elton was intolerant of their views. Why do haters always insist on tolerance for their intolerance? As the call for a boycott widened, though, they have tried to tone down their crazy. But you can’t tone done stuff like “synthetic children.” That’s just rude.

The designers’ self-hate added to the antigay dialogue and gave aid and comfort to those who oppose marriage equality and LGBT folks raising children. Another likely self-hater in the news this week did worse than that during his abortive career.

Soon-to-be-former Congressman Aaron Schock (Rep.-IL) relished his status as the most buffed congressman in the country. Shirtless pictures of him are ubiquitous on the Internet. He also loves bling. He pimped out his office to look like something from Downton Abbey. He buys expensive clothing – one wonders if Dolce and Gabbana suits hang in his closet. He takes private jets to exotic vacation spots, in the company of an equally buffed male companion (wink-wink, say no more).

Questions arose about how he paid for his expensive lifestyle and whether he improperly used taxpayer and donor money to finance the bling and pay the way for an unsalaried full-time personal photographer who wasn’t his boyfriend (wink-wink, say no more) to travel with him. He did not have good answers for the questions and promptly resigned when they became burdensome. Besides hiding his money sources, many have wondered if the buffed congressman has been hiding something else about himself. If so, then it’s part of an old, tired story.

Mr. Schock has a big, fat 0% rating on LGBT issues from the Human Rights Campaign. He opposed repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He opposes the repeal of DOMA. Like Dolce and Gabbana, he does not support marriage equality. Also like the Italian self-haters, he cites his religious faith as the reason for his views on all things gay. He has publically denied being gay. And his own father has stated that his son isn’t gay, he’s just “a little different” and that he “wears stylish clothing.”

Ever blunt Barney Frank, retired congressman from Massachusetts, quipped that while he didn’t know anything about Schock’s sexuality, Schock “spent entirely too much time in the gym for a straight man.” Yeah, that and the parade of topless photos. Hmmm.

So here we have two examples of folks who want it both ways. They want to cling to outmoded, hurtful, “traditional” ideas about the family and relationships while at the same time enjoy the benefits a more open society has offered LGBT folks. Dolce and Gabbana enjoyed a 23-year relationship before breaking up romantically – they are still business partners. Back in the good old days that they claim to cherish, such an arrangement would have been close to impossible. They certainly couldn’t have been open about it. And being openly gay no doubt has helped their company’s bottomline, at least until now. Furthermore, Mr. Gabbana once toyed with the idea of having a child with a female friend via artificial insemination, shortly after breaking up with Mr. Dolce. Seriously? Hypocrisy, thy name is Dolce and Gabbana.

Then we have swank Mr. Schock, living the dream, taking trips with another young man (wink-wink, say no more), all the while voting against the interests LGBT Americans nationwide. All three of these guys have behaved cowardly and in a counterproductive manner.

Coming out is a personal journey. Normally I say that one should be allowed space to do it at one’s own pace. But my sympathy ends when folks play out their internal battles externally. That leads to harm and hurt. I advise Congressman Schock and Messrs. Dolce and Gabbana to follow Mahatma Gandhi’s advice:

The only devils in this world are those running around in our own hearts, and that is where all our battles should be fought.

 

Out of Step With the Times

I see a continuum between the foul mouth frat boys shouting racist obscenities on a bus and the 47 senators signing a letter that belittles and attempts to undermine the authority of the president. Both groups cling to a used-to-be that has become increasingly recognized as outmoded, even vilified.

The brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon declared that their group would never allow blacks, or rather niggers, to join their ranks. However, it quickly came out that the University of Oklahoma chapter of SAE has had in its history at least two black members in its ranks. Both have since graduated. And the national SAE organization states on their website that nationwide 20% of their members are non-white. Even though the University of Oklahoma chapter had blacks members at one time, it apparently is a rare enough occurrence that the current generation of now-former members felt empowered to boast in ribald, beer hall fashion that “niggers” can swing from trees rather than be allowed in their little club. Kids in their late teens and early twenties sang this ditty, people born in the 1990s. How did they become so clueless? Privilege. They don’t have to know anything about the history of African-Americans in this country, because they have been told that that history has no bearing on their lives. And clearly they lack any empathy towards others unlike themselves. Privilege does that.

Which brings us to the US Senate, one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. It’s old news that Republicans do not like President Obama. It’s also old news that race has contributed to their unease with him and anything he supports or promotes. As I wrote before, when Congressman Joe Walsh yelled “You lie!” while the president addressed a joint session of Congress, most black folks heard him really say, You lie, boy! He didn’t have to say the “boy.” It was implied, a given.

Until recently the slights taken against President Obama have been limited to this type of petty backbiting. This year, though, their hatred and disdain has taken international proportions. First we had Speaker John Boehner invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress without the advice or consent of the White House. Unprecedented, folks yelled. This has never been done before!

Then next came the letter. Cooked up by Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas, it purportedly sought to explain to the Iranian government that the president cannot negotiate or enact treaties and international agreements unilaterally, and that such matters had to be confirmed by the Senate. Otherwise, they warn, what one president can do the Senate can undo once the president is termed out of office. Therefore, don’t get your hopes too high about a deal regarding nuclear weapons.

The whole letter was a condescending mess from the start. Addressing the letter simply “Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” was no better than writing “To Whom This May Concern.” You don’t send letters to world leaders addressed as “To Whom This May Concern.” That’s tacky. Then, the constitutional lessons the letter claimed to impart were faulty at best. The leaders of Iran, should they require an education on how our government works, would be better off consulting Wikipedia. There’s even a page on the US Constitution in Farsi.

While the Senate letter was condescending towards the leaders of Iran, its main target of condescension was President Obama. They felt it their right to push him aside and deal directly with a foreign power. Why? Privilege. They didn’t like what he was doing, so it was perfectly alright for them to take over. Or worse, they pretended like he does not exist, the same way the SAE frat at OU pretended like their fraternity never had any black members. It’s perfectly OK, and expected, for members of Congress to disagree with the president on issues. It’s not OK to throw temper tantrums and debase the presidency.

At least a couple of the frat brothers from the video have expressed remorse for their actions. I don’t buy all of the excuses used — drunkenness is too easy, too hackneyed an excuse in these situations — but at least they acknowledged on some level that what they did is not acceptable. It’s out of step with the times. Meanwhile, the whole world is laughing at the Senate letter, yet Senator Cotton and most of the others who signed it have yet to see how ridiculous they look. They, too, are out of step with the times, and are likely to stay there for as long as possible. Perhaps forever.

Racism, Inc.

A long-lived urban legend states that cities have a quota system in place for parking enforcement officers. One retired traffic officer in LA recently said that this is no legend, but a hard fact. In particular, says the retired officer, at the end of the year, when the LA Department of Transportation is preparing to close the fiscal books, ticket officers are instructed to work overtime and write 32 tickets during a 4-hour overtime shift. So watch out during the holiday season in LA. They are apparently coming to get you.

“Coming to get you” takes on a whole new dimension in Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson. While Mr. Brown paid the highest price, African-American citizens of Ferguson have routinely been targeted by the police and criminal justice system to raise money for the city. This is what Attorney General Eric Holder summarized during his presentation of the Justice Department’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. I note in particular Mr. Holder calling the police force in Ferguson a “collection agency.”

A summary at the beginning of the report has a section entitled “Focus on Generating Revenue.”

The City budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved. City officials routinely urge Chief Jackson to generate more revenue through enforcement. In March 2010, for instance, the City Finance Director wrote to Chief Jackson that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”
– DOJ – Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department

In other words, the city told the police, in effect, we need money: write more tickets. Write harder. But that’s only the beginning.

Say you get a parking ticket for $151 and you can’t pay it. You then will have to face increased fines on that ticket, to the tune of, say, $550. Oh, and you’ll also have to spend six days in jail for failure to pay on time. A situation like this can continue on until you end up owing over $1,000. This is not a hypothetical situation. This is the plight of an African American woman in Ferguson, who still owes over $500 on top of the $550 on top of the original $151 parking ticket she received in 2007. One wonders if the officer who issued her the original ticket received a bonus, like a trader on Wall Street does after a good year. After all, the ticket has now inflated by nearly 700% over its original value. Markets get giddy over such numbers.

The report states that 67% of the population of Ferguson is African-American, but this population accounts for 93% of the arrests. So black folks are disproportionately paying for, well we can’t call them services, can we? They are basically being forced to fund their own oppression.

And African-Americans face oppression, massive oppression in Ferguson at the hands of the police and a very compliant justice system. The report cites many instances of dubious arrests, vulgar treatment, and physical assaults. To be black in Ferguson, Missouri in 2015 is to live under Jim Crow rules from a half-century ago. The only thing missing are the “White Only” and “Colored Only” signs.

Mr. Holder called for “concrete action” to correct these wrongs. After the Attorney General presented his report summary, Ferguson mayor James Knowles made statements to the press. He said that one of the three city employees cited in the report as having sent racist e-mails while on duty was fired. The other two are under investigation. “We must do better not only as a city but as a state and a country. We must all work to address issues of racial disparity in all aspects of our society,” Mayor Knowles said.

That’s not good enough. The report reads like an ante-bellum horror novel. Ferguson doesn’t sound like a city. It sounds like “Racism, Inc.,” a business that can oppress harder than anyone else, and for profit. The only way to solve the problem is to get rid of the current infrastructure and start over. The entire police department should be fired, from the chief on down. All city employees who participated in Racism, Inc. activities should similarly be dismissed. And any elected official who either aided Racism, Inc. or knowingly turned a blind eye to its practices should face recall elections. The evil must be rooted out and eradicated.

But that’s still not enough. Black folks have to vote. I remember hearing an interview during the Ferguson protests last year where one organizer said that voting isn’t a luxury that many black citizens can participate in because of work obligations or other life issues. As the Justice Department report makes painfully clear, being black in Ferguson is a life issue, even a life or death issue. During remembrances of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March, we are reminded that the year after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, the racist sheriff who terrorized the marchers was removed from office. Black folks were finally able to register to vote without any bullshit. They did so, and they exercised their franchise to remove an evil. The same needs to happen in Ferguson.

How many other Fergusons are out there in the country? How many other cities and towns use their poorest citizens as piggybanks to stuff city coffers, terrorizing them in the process? These questions scare the shit out of me, because the answers are likely as incalculably horrific as the Justice Department report.

The Dust Journals – Part XIV

Saturday, March 19, 2157

Popcorn and a movie, that’s what we need! Walter said. Even without the unaccustomed enthusiasm overtaking his usual staid speaking voice, I saw this activity for exactly what it was: a date. And I giggled. He grew his own popcorn in the greenhouse and popped it in a plastic container in the microwave.

It’s obvious how I feel about Walter. That he feels similarly about me gave me a pulse. I haven’t dared to talk about it. I certainly do not possess the skills to carry off a conversation like that. Hunter-gatherers aren’t great conversationalists. Walter knows other ways of communicating, though. It’s always been that way, since day one. Without a word of gripe, he has twice given up his bedroom to me so that I may heal, first when I arrived and more recently after my “episode.” With Walter there are no words, no declarations. He communicates by doing. Popcorn and a movie, it still makes me giggle.

I told him about my Mad Max obsession. He laughed. He had Max Mad, so we watched it. Plus, he had the sequels, which I hadn’t seen since childhood. Then he put on his favorite movie, Dr. Strangelove. Apocalypse night at the movie, he declared. I don’t know how the hell I missed that one as a kid. My parents succeeded in keeping it from me. It definitely was not their cup of tea. Subversive, that’s how they would label it.

I thought he was sending another message. There was a time when our attraction would have been called a strange love. Those days, at least, are over. Only a handful of yahoos go on about it, under the guise of concern for humanity’s continued existence and the need to procreate. They are easily ignored.

For real, though, any love in this day and age seems a strange thing. Perhaps it’s just the hunter-gatherer in me talking. Moving about solo, scraping to get by, means few attachments, and until recently I’ve had none. Though one seems to be growing. As Strangelove got stranger and stranger, we began sitting closer to each other, and touching.

As it started to get dark outside, Walter put on this movie about a guy who gets irradiated and turns into a giant. Then he terrorizes Las Vegas. Like Strangelove, it’s in black and white. I love black and white movies. In the end, the Colossal Man falls over Hoover Dam, tumbling into the rushing waters.

Are we the giant? I asked. Have we irradiated ourselves into monsters that ultimately have to be destroyed? He pondered my questions, but gave no real answers.

Then Walter asked if I had ever seen Hoover Dam. No, I said, I haven’t. He said that he had, when he was a boy. Lake Mead was a shell of its former self. The dam, he said, looked like an anachronism, holding back a third of the water it was designed to hold.

They took a tour of the dam, way down inside where the hydro turbines were. He talked about the big pipes he saw. They were enormous, he said.

By the time the film ended, it was dark outside. It was late. We opened up the sofa into a bed and slept together for the first time. It was beautiful. It wasn’t just the sex that made it beautiful. Sex I’ve had. Sex gets it done. It’s cool. But cuddling with Walter fulfilled a long-forgotten need.

Pensativa

Robert RussellAfter Mom died, I couldn’t listen to Brahms for about four years. Truth be told, all classical music remained highly problematic. For whatever reason, though, Brahms topped the don’t touch list, the trigger-warning list. I can recall a conversation between my mom, one of my brothers, and me, rhapsodizing about the music we loved. Brahms featured prominently. Maybe I was remembering that conversation. Maybe it was just the highly emotive way Brahms wrote. I have no logical reason why I attach certain music to certain situations or feelings. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of proximity, a tune became popular with me or in general so that I heard it often during a particular highlight in my life. Other times, I hear a certain note or phrase and it reminds me of a situation, a feeling, a conversation, a touching moment, an atmosphere. Music is the true communicator. It’s much more direct than words.

A few months before my brother Robert died, I heard “Pensativa” on the radio. I felt the familiar drop of my stomach, the signal of an emotional pang coming on. “Uh-oh,” I muttered to myself. I knew instantly what it all meant.

During our family band sessions, we often played “Pensativa.” Robert loved bossa nova. His fingers fluently played the bass line with all the right pauses and syncopations. I can’t hear the tune without thinking of him or seeing his hands gliding on his axe. It’s a carefree, laid-back tune. It conjures images of tropical settings, palm trees and cooling drinks made for warm climates. It’s sitting on the beach and watching the sunset music. It’s the music of people enjoying themselves with good food, good drink, good company. It’s the music of life. It’s a perfect representation of my brother.

So on this first anniversary of his passing, February 11, I’ll play “Pensativa” from time to time. I’ll see his hands on his bass. I’ll hear the lines he played so well. And I’ll think of him with that mix of magic and melancholy that often attends memories of the dearly departed. It’s not like after Mom died, nearly twenty years ago, where I couldn’t listen to Brahms without breaking down or feeling very uncomfortable. I feel the pangs of loss with “Pensativa,” but I can listen, think, and reminisce.

I miss my brother.

The Dust Journals – Part XIII

Thursday, March 17, 2157

So what sent me over the edge over a week ago? I have it on my lap: a book called Titans.

That Saturday I remember getting up early and going outside for a walk. It was already hot, so I didn’t stay outside for long. I’ve spent so little time outside since arriving at the desal plant that I forgot what reality felt like. The building is well air-conditioned. Back inside, I drifted as I often did to the library.

That’s where I found Titans.

I had heard about the book about when it first came out, about 30 years ago. It was published in Europe. Copies made it stateside after a fashion. Most things get here only after a fashion. No one concerns themselves about the fate of also-rans. I knew what it was about, and just avoided it. Others denounced it as garbage. I laughed at that shit. I did not engage, but I laughed hard at their defensiveness.

Titans. Giants. Larger than life demigods. Every era has had them. Carnegie and Rockefeller. Ford and Edison. Gates and Jobs. Bezos and Zuckerman. Every era.

The titans of this book were singled out as the main perpetrators of The Change. They made water a sacred word and scarce commodity. They made the oceans rise. They made the world get hotter. They made the plants die. They made the storms stronger and more violent. They did it by doing what they had always done: build their businesses bigger and better and faster and richer than any business ever in the history of mankind. They made those latter-day demigods I mentioned earlier look like nothing.

They destroyed everything, so the story goes.

In time I got defensive about it, too, even as I laughed at those who protested the book’s publication. I wanted it both ways. Yes, I admit that a class of people existed who fomented The Change. I just disagreed that my great-granddad was one of them.

Whenever I’m confronted with reality – like seeing how the Bay swallowed up most of Berkeley and Oakland – my love/hate relationship with him festers. That’s when the voices occur. The more I rationalize his actions, the worse the voices get. I get apologetic. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I can never say it enough.

So I was in the library, looking at this book, not reading it, not even touching it, just looking at it. Its mere presence triggered the voices. Murderer. Killer. Assassin. Hitler. Hitler. Hitler. You’re worse than Hitler.

No, I said, not me. I’m not part of that world. I divorced myself from that world.

They don’t believe me and scream louder. Murder. Killer. Assassin. Hitler.

I lapsed into the I’m sorrys, tearfully pleading with them to leave me alone. But I can’t say it enough to appease them. I never can.

Sans pills, I found no other defense than taking my own life. And that’s what I tried. It wasn’t the first time. To understand this, you need a lesson on bogo.

Many fanciful theories exist to explain the word’s origin. I subscribe to this one:

Bogo is a corruption of pogo, as in pogo stick. When you dance bogo, you jump up and down in one place, as if on a pogo stick, so it fits.

An extension of this theory claims that the bogo dance actually came from the Pago Pago Islands. The natives from that island devised the dance as a street theater protest against The Change. You see, they would jump up and down to get above the rising waters and gasp for air, so the story goes.

It was all probably an urban legend. I never wanted to believe it, though in my heart I probably did.

Whether it was true or not, us dryfoots on the mainland adopted the dance as a nihilist battle cry. In clubs that played bogo, they constructed a false ceiling that was maybe a bit over six feet off the floor. If you jumped hard enough, you’d smash your head through it. Kids would go all night, smashing their heads through the plaster and light timber, until they passed out. Even the Catholic Church never came up with a self-flagellation that severe.

My folks did not allow me to go to bogo clubs. That’s why I ended up trashing my room. I didn’t hit my head through the high ceilings. I hit it against the wall a few times instead.

That was my first attempt. I didn’t get very far. I felt so stupid that I just ended up trashing my room. This time, though, I felt more determined. Instead of smashing my head through the wall or against the bookcases of the library, I hit it against the floor, repeatedly.

Walter found me before I did any real damage, though I’m sure I became mildly concussed.

When I came to a couple of days later, I told him about my great-granddad, about the voices. He said that he had a great-granddad, too, that we all did.

I told him that he didn’t understand. I came from money. Lots and lots of money. I could have lived my life up in Toronto or on the Great Slave Lake or any of the other A zoned areas in the north, in complete luxury. I chose not to, I said.

Don’t forget, he said, I chose to live here. I’ve also heard voices.

That’s when I cried. I had never met any other person who heard voices like I had. I swear, all these years that I was the only one. I’m 57, and I thought I was the only one.

No, he said, you are not.

I told him about my fascination with postwar Germany. I wanted to learn how they dealt with guilt.

It took time, he said. They didn’t deal with it right away, he said. They had folks that held up mirrors, like Fassbinder, who forced the issue. Today, he said, we are all isolated, even those in the A-zones. Our culture is too fragmented, detached from itself.

I don’t want to live in that fantasyland, he said. It’s better to know the voices, recognize them for what they are.

He still wanted to show me what he wanted to show me. It would put everything into perspective, he said.

But only, he added, when you are ready.

The Dust Journals – Part XII

Friday, March 11, 2157

Walter is so wonderful.

Most of my life, the people I’ve encountered don’t give a damn about anything but their immediate existence. They have no time for anything else, especially other people’s complex emotions.

I’ve lived most of my life, most of my adult life, among this class, 22nd century hunter-gatherers. We don’t stay in one place for very long. And when we do, we form only superficial communities, like back at the arroyo. Folks were pleasant enough, but we stayed in our silos. In reality, we don’t have time for our own complex emotions much less anyone else’s.

Walter is different. He doesn’t have to hunt or gather. He has stayed in one place for a long time, here at the desal plant.

Great Granddad used to say that he never had a problem in his life that he couldn’t solve with a few buddies and a good stiff drink at his favorite bar. He said that was the secret to life, implying that I should follow his example. Let’s dissect this advice.

We don’t have a few good buddies, those of us stuck in C-zones and D-zones. We follow the water. We have to be first in line to get the water. When you’re constantly fighting for first place, you don’t tend to form many lasting relationships. You may form temporary alliances, to further your own gains. Great-Granddad said he and his best friend had known each other for over 60 years, until they started dying off. I can’t think of anyone I’ve stayed in touch with for more than six.

Hunter-gatherers establish no roots. Business cannot afford so fickle a population. So there are no bars in C- and D-zones. Therefore, if I had a few good buddies, we’d have no place to get plastered.

Great-Granddad used to go on a tear about people who “claimed” they had to choose between paying the bills and buying food. He called that bullshit. That was not a reality he knew or could fathom. And for a while, I couldn’t fathom it either, when I was a kid.

As an adult, it has become my reality.

In my world, the vagrant world of C- and D-zones, you either drink the water, or bathe with it, or wash your clothes with it, or water the plants you hoped one day would feed you with it. You cannot do all four at once. The ration was always too low.

We have no friends and we have no bars. We just have the either/or choices associated with survival.

Walter, though, he belongs to a different era. I could see him running a bar or being someone’s drinking buddy. He tells me not to be hard on myself.

I told him about the voices. He said he has them, too. And I cried.

From Selma to Black Lives Matter

After the first instance of racially motivated violence during Selma, I wanted to start shouting “Black Lives Matter.” I held my tongue, so as not to disturb others in the theater. But I wondered if others in the audience saw the obvious connections between the racial violence of 50 years ago and the violence we’ve witness in the last year. As the credits rolled, I got my answer. Some folks in the back began chanting “Black Lives Matter.” I felt satisfied. And then something fascinating happened. I noticed a man in the row ahead of me with a distinct sneer on his face as he looked back towards the chanters. It wasn’t just that he looked bothered. His face curled into an almost identical expression of hatred displayed by the white racist characters in the movie. Why did he cop such a look? The chanting could not have disturbed his movie viewing. The film was over.

I didn’t talk to the man, so I have no idea what was going through his head, but a thought went through mine. Maybe he didn’t get the connection between the events in the film and the Black Lives Matter protests happening today. The incongruity made him angry.

How so? Let’s try to connect the dots. The Selma March belongs to history. It was a seminal part of the Civil Rights Movement. A national hero, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led it. The film depicted peaceful black folks from all walks of life, from the elderly to the young, marching for the right to vote, and being brutalized as a result. Moviegoers reacted with revulsion to a reenactment of these events, just as TV viewers did 50 years ago watching the real thing. The racism depicted was obvious, crude.

Today, for some, things are more complicated. When we hear about an unarmed black man or woman being killed by a police officer, shades of doubt enter many people’s heads. Today, society has deified the police to the point where their motives are rarely questioned, examined, or properly investigated. Similarly, the killed unarmed black person automatically falls under suspicion. This inevitably leads to the kneejerk conclusion that s/he must have deserved it either because they were guilty of something or because they escalated the situation by not obeying the police properly. Furthermore, the person killed wasn’t serving a higher purpose, like marching for civil rights. Thus, they do not possess the unimpeachable aura of innocence attached to demonstrators from the Civil Rights era. To someone with this mindset, it’s not only ludicrous to compare the two events – Selma and Black Lives Matter protests – it’s actually blasphemous.

Maybe this explains why the man sneered so harshly. Blasphemy usually provokes severe reactions. Nonetheless, this way of thinking contains a whole lot of wrong.

One should not need an unimpeachable aura of innocence to warrant humane treatment or due process. This goes for Eric Garner, who sold cigarette illegally as well as for Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who failed to drop his toy gun fast enough – within two seconds – before police shot him to death. Police killed both of them by escalating their encounters with these individuals and by forgetting that they were human beings, contrary to everything preached, marched, fought, and died for 50-plus years ago. The Civil Rights Movement had but one message at its core: Black folks are people, too. In other words, Black Lives Matter.

Black Live Matter if you’re going out to get Skittles. Black Lives Matter if you’re riding BART on New Year’s Eve. Black Lives Matter even if you had just robbed a liquor store. The sad fact remains that if any of these instances had involved white men instead of black men, the men would likely have survived their encounters with the police. Racial bias exists today as it did 50 years ago.

The movie showed a dramatization of the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson. In the film, Jimmie Lee is with his family at a night march, when the lights suddenly go out and police charge after the protesters. Jimmie Lee and his family escape and hide in a diner. The police find and beat them. Jimmie Lee tries to protect his elderly father when one officer takes out his gun and shoots him dead. The dramatization stays largely true to the facts of the killing, with one exception. Jimmie Lee did not die instantly, but two days later in hospital. He was 26 years old.

The policeman who shot him, James Bonard Fowler, claimed self-defense, saying that Mr. Jackson was trying to get to his gun. Sounds familiar? Fowler did not get indicted for the murder until 2007, 42 years later. He still claimed self-defense all those years later, but pled guilty in a plea bargain deal to involuntary manslaughter and spent six months in jail. Sounds quite familiar. In 2009, the FBI began investigating Fowler’s possible involvement in the killing of another unarmed black man, Nathan Johnson. In 1966, Mr. Johnson was stopped on suspicion of drunk driving and shot dead during the encounter.

The real blasphemy, as I wrote a while back, is that we still have to say “Black Lives Matter,” 50 years after Selma. The real blasphemy is that the police use the same excuses (“he was reaching for my gun”) to justify the killing of unarmed black folks. The real blasphemy is that people ennoble the Civil Rights Movement, deify it, so that its messages, reasons, and goals can vanish in that never-never land known as the past. It becomes an abstraction, and thus unconnected to similar events occurring today.

Some may sneer at Black Lives Matter chants and protests, but do so at their own peril. For they are sneering at the very people and events they hold so dear from 50 years ago.

Ding Dongs and Twinkies Part 2: Patty Hearst & the Twinkie Murders Through the Eyes of Paul Krassner

The Castro began life as Eureka Valley. A rail line built in 1887 made the area more accessible and a population boom took place. Working class families of Irish, German, and Scandinavian heritage began buying land and building large Victorian houses to serve several generations of their families. Denizens shared a Catholic background and a love of bars – the area had many. This era continued more or less unchanged until after World War II.

“White flight” cleared out the area in the 1950s as families moved to the suburbs. Meanwhile, gay folks had already begun settling into San Francisco, a phenomenon that dates back to before the war. Some were servicemen and women who had been discharged. Many found SF a place of tolerance. Even though California like virtually all states at the time had anti-sodomy laws, San Francisco was like, ‘eh,’ a level of tolerance most folks did not experience at that time. By the 1950s, the City had a growing population of white-collar gays and lesbians. Early guppies. And like all good guppies, they wanted to buy housing. So when “White flight” commenced, a population sat in the wings ready to buy. So began the stereotype of gays improving rundown neighborhoods and increasing property values. Being fabulous pays dividends.

Though the queer community in SF began flexing its muscles as early as the late 1950s and 1960s – back when Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis and legendary drag queen José Sarria (aka, the Widow Norton) dared to run for the SF Board of Supervisors – acceptance and respect took time. Tolerance only went so far. In this case, no farther than the closet door.

Dan White, the murderer of SF Mayor George Moscone and SF Supervisor Harvey Milk, as Paul Krassner notes in Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two Trials Plus…, represented the stay-in-the-closet-and-keep-quiet segment of the population. He was a young dude when elected to the Board of Supervisors, only 31 years old. But he came from a conservative Catholic background. He was once a police officer then a fireman for the City of San Francisco before going into politics. Both the police and firemen’s unions heavily supported his candidacy.

White, who seemed to like to quit things shortly after starting them, resigned from the Board of Supervisors a short 10 months after being sworn in. Then, he decided he wanted his job back. Moscone initially considered reappointing him, but then was talked out of it by Harvey Milk, among others. So were sown the seeds of bitterness.

Krassner covered the Dan White trial for the SF Bay Guardian. The murders happened not long after the Jonestown massacre. Indeed, Krassner states that San Francisco District Attorney Joe Freitas thought that a People’s Temple hit squad had done the deed. That wasn’t the connection, though Krassner points out other interesting connections between these two seminal events in San Francisco history.

Many who have taken to the streets recently to protest the killing of unarmed black folks by the police have charged that prosecutors will time and again side with the police, thus never charging them with a crime or treating their abuses seriously. We saw it in Ferguson, Missouri and again New York City. By Krassner’s account, such a cozy relationship played a heavy role during the Dan White trial.

The day before the trial began, the Assistant District Attorney slated to prosecute the case was standing in an elevator at the Hall of Justice. He heard a voice behind him speak his name.

‘Tom Norman, you’re a motherfucker for prosecuting Dan White.’

He turned around and saw a half-dozen police inspectors. He flushed and faced the door again. These cops were his drinking buddies, but now they were all mad at him.

Norman had crossed a line: he did not show deferential, blind allegiance to the police, a complaint we’re hearing a lot these days.

In reality, though, his former drinking buddies were being drama queens. Norman presented the prosecution’s case against Dan White so poorly and handled the trial so haphazardly, that the police needn’t have worried. Among other flaws, Krassner points out that Norman failed to highlight indications of premeditation in Dan White’s taped confession. White stated that he decided to see Milk only after having seen Milk’s aide in the corridor. White’s aide Denise Apcar, however, testified that he told her that he wanted to see both Moscone and Milk. Also, Apcar, who drove White to City Hall, let him out at the front entrance. But White went around the corner to go in through an open basement window, to avoid metal detectors. He was packing heat, after all. Krassner identifies obvious clues for premeditation in the case that Norman, for whatever reason, couldn’t.

By contrast, the defense was able to use White’s taped confession to their advantage, presenting their client as a scared but otherwise good little boy who had done something naughty. Writes Krassner:

When the tape was played in court, some reporters wept, including me, along with members of White’s family, spectators, jurors, an assistant D.A. – who had a man-sized tissue box on his table – and Dan White himself, crying both live and on tape simultaneously.

The truth revealed itself for those, like Krassner, who noticed. White’s own wife testified, via a psychiatrist, that her husband had a poor sex drive. How common is it that the weak envy the strong, to the point of wanting to destroy them? Krassner makes this observation. Moscone was perceived to be a lady’s man, with a penchant for African-American ladies. And Milk, of course, was gay. Gays have lots and lots of sex partners. Just ask one. So sexual inadequacy may well have fueled his rage, particularly since he blamed both Moscone and Milk for keeping him from being reappointed to the Board after he resigned.

It was later in the trial that the defense decided to switch reels a bit and declare that their client had a compulsion to eat a lot of sweet stuff whenever he felt stressed, thus causing him to behave in irrational ways. Krassner wrote in his notes “Twinkie defense” and a meme was born. Schmidt, the lead defense attorney, would later deny referencing the famous confection during the trial. But Krassner notes that his psychiatric witness Martin Blinder did. Thus, Dan White became a scared but otherwise good little boy who did something naughty because of a sweet tooth and a sugar rush. Ultimately, the jury bought it. They convicted the naughty little boy of voluntary manslaughter.

Krassner lived near Castro and Market around the time of the trial.

I met Harvey Milk when he ran a neighborhood camera shop, and I watched him developing into the gay equivalent of Martin Luther King. Had he lived, he might have been elected the first gay mayor. But he already envisioned the possibility that he would become a martyr.

The rage expressed at Dan White escaping a murder rap for killing a gay icon was off the chain. Krassner hadn’t intended to cover the aftermath of the trial, what would become known as the infamous White Night Riots. He had been home chilling when a friend called to urge him to go to City Hall, where an angry gay community went on a rampage, smashing police cars and creating havoc. Krassner went. He later called this one of the six dumbest decisions of his life. His description of the police, barricaded inside of City Hall witnessing the chaos, was chilling. Someone waited until the police were fighting mad, and then set them loose. They hit anyone who moved, including, unfortunately, Krassner himself. He attributes his limping walk to the beating he received that night.

Just over a decade later, in October 1989, the SFPD would reenact the White Night Riots in what became known as the Castro Sweep. And I was there. It started as an innocuous ACT UP march from Civic Center to the Castro. It turned into a police take over of the Castro, with police quarantining people inside their homes, inside the bars, inside Different Light, while they marched down Market and then Castro and beat people. I was on top of a newspaper stand, screaming at them to stop beating a friend of mine. An officer calmly asked me to get down, so I got down. He was one of the few cooler heads in the police crowd that evening. Later, as I was walking to the Castro Muni Metro station, one or two officers charged at us, and we ran into the station. Fortunately, they did not pursue us any further. Someone claims that someone on the police force said, “If we can get ACT UP in the Castro, we’ll have won the war.”

And what war would that have been? The war against queer folks? Were they still angry about Dan White? Did they blame gay people for his fall from grace and suicide? Krassner wryly observes that prosecutor Tom Norman “should’ve been grateful the jury had not declared the George Moscone and Harvey Milk were killed in self-defense…” The police clearly had a lot of “blame the gays” attitude, an attitude likely shared by the homophobic Dan White. It’s an attitude that states, in effect, just stay in the closet and you’ll be OK.

Krassner connects the Patty Heart trial and Dan White trial by noting their different outcomes. Patty received a 35-year sentence and was held responsible for her crimes, despite her having been kidnapped, coerced, and brainwashed. Dan White, on the other hand, received only a 7-year sentence for having committed premeditated murder without having been coerced or brainwashed. After reading Krassner’s book, one could say that the establishment achieved the outcome it desired most in both cases.

Plus

The “Plus” in the book title refers to two other chapters. One is an interview with Krassner by Terry Bisson. I liked this chapter a lot and in many ways I wish I had read it first. It has a lighter mood than the two main chapters dealing with the trials, making it a good warm up act.

The next chapter deals with singer/songwriter Michelle Shocked’s performance at Yoshi’s San Francisco (now known as The Addition) in March 2013. Shocked paused her show to adlib about Christians and gay marriage, stating that the beginning of gay marriage in California would bring about the end of days, in the view of many who follow her particular form of Christian belief.

Yoshi’s shutdown her performance prematurely and closed the show after many in the audience walked out. She subsequently lost several gigs after that. Krassner asks the question, “Is Michelle Shocked homophobic?”

The backbone of this chapter is a discussion Krassner had with Shocked on a radio show about the incident. He suggested that perhaps she expressed her satirical observations about born-again fundamentalism and gay marriage to the wrong audience. Having lived in the Castro, covered the trial of gay icon Harvey Milk’s assassin, and suffered crippling abuse at the hands of the police after that trial, Krassner was keenly aware of this community’s sensibilities and history of oppression. Shocked pushed back, saying that she strove to “confound an audience that has grown so self-righteous that they needed a little prick.” Well, maybe.

Good satire, as Krassner writes in this chapter, reveals a “metaphorical extension of the truth.” If Michelle Shocked meant to use satire to confound a self-righteous community, then I don’t think she did an effective job. The only bit in her rant that smacked of tongue-and-cheek was when she asked an audience member to tweet out that she said “God hates fags.” That, to my mind, wasn’t a serious request. The rest of her rant, however, just came across as muddled and confused, like she was in conflict about the issues herself.

But is she homophobic?

Krassner answers this question with nuance at the end of the chapter, a demonstration of the power of satire, an art form he has clearly mastered after many decades of practice. For those who enjoy nuanced observations, and in particular have an interest in 1970s San Francisco history, I highly recommend picking up this book.