Pariah: Queer, no chaser

It’s depressing that queer storytelling is still regarded as something rare, unique, or extraordinary.  Even in an age where queer characters populate more films and TV shows, the voices from these characters are usually just a footnote rather then the main subject.  The film 54, from 1998, pops to mind.  Named after and set in New York’s legendary, disco era Studio 54, its story focusses not on the club’s flamboyant (though closeted) owner, Steve Rubell, or even on the club itself.  Instead, it focusses on the dreams and hopes of a fictitious cute straight boy, played by Ryan Phillipe, who works at the club.  Wasted opportunity doesn’t even begin to describe this movie.

Sadly, there are even queer folks who think that queer stories have been done to death, including stories about AIDS and coming out stories.  We can delude ourselves into thinking such things, until we remember that the boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-in-the-end storyline continues to thrive in endless variations and thus gets retold over and over.  Queer folks can tell their stories over and over, too, with equal variance and nuance.  There are many stories to be told.

Dee Rees, the writer and director of Pariah begins her story thus:  we are in Brooklyn in a dimly lit club filled with women, all eyes on the stage while a pole dancer does her thing.  The sound system blasts music with lyrics that focus unabashedly on the female anatomy.    There are no boys, cute, white, straight, or otherwise, to be found.  Instead, hidden in the back is the 17 year old protagonist, Alike (pronounced Ah-LEE-ke), or Le for short, played by Adepero Oduye.  She is shy, very intelligent — she’s an aspiring poet and an A-student taking AP English — and has a very religious mother (Audrey, played by very effectively by Kim Wayans) who fears her tomboyish daughter might be too manly for her own good.  Despite her mother’s misgivings and harassment, Le is determined to explore her sexuality and hang with other lesbians, including her friend Laura, played by Pernell Walker, someone her mother particularly loathes.

I like the characters and relationships this movies offers.  They all ring true.  Laura has a tough, take-no-prisoners shell which masks various vulnerabilities.  Her most moving scene is when she passes her GEDs and goes home to tell her estranged mother, only to face rejection again.  Laura’s sensitivity to rejection leads to a strain in her relationship with Le, when the latter begins hanging with someone else.  But her love for Le means that she is willing to step back and give her space as well as be there for her when crisis strikes.

Le’s relationship with her father is the most interesting and satisfying in the film.  I had a friend in college who said that after she came out, she and her father used to cruise chicks together.  Le and her father Arthur, played by Charles Parnell, don’t engage in that activity, but I could see where it might be possible at some future point beyond the range of the film.  While religious dogma keeps Audrey from being able to love her daughter without preconditions, Arthur does not have this problem.  Though preoccupied with his own problems, including working multiple shifts as a police officer to keep his family in a comfortable setting, he places no conditions on his love for Le.  He has anxieties, mostly that his daughter lives a safe and happy life, but he does not allow his anxieties to keep him from expressing his love for Le.  They are able to communicate and their affection for each other means that they can also communicate without saying a word.

Le’s younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) also comes off as a real person.  The two bicker and snipe at each others, as siblings are often wont to do, but their affection for each other runs deeper.  As their parents fight downstairs (verbally, not physically, a welcomed relief), Sharonda goes into Le’s room where they comfort each other.  During this tender moment, Sharonda confides to Le that she’s OK with her.

This leaves Le’s relationship with her mother as being the most strained.  Wayans plays Audrey as someone who seems uncomfortable with everything around her, not just her dykish daughter.  Nothing ever seems good enough, though it is Le that receives the brunt of her displeasures.  She tries to remold her oldest daughter in her own image by buying her feminine clothing to wear and setting her up with appropriate girls to hang with.  Though in the end all of these efforts end in failure and further estrangement.  Le’s and Laura’s mothers parallel each other.  Both live isolated lives as a result of their rigidity.  Laura’s mother is seen hiding behind a door during her daughter’s visit.  Le’s mother tends to sit alone and apart from coworkers during lunch.  One wonders if her coworkers get as annoyed with her righteousness as Le does.

Isolation, rejection, finding oneself, friendship, and love without preconditions are all universally human themes.  One does not need to dress them up in a straight jacket in order to tell them effectively, something with Dee Rees demonstrates with her remarkable first film.  Pariah tells its story eloquently and unflinchingly.

Struggling Struggles in Shades of Black and Lavender

On Salon I found a wonderful coming out essay written by Jean Melasaine in which she recounts the multiple communities she has grown into during her life.  She was born to Samoan parents who immigrated to the US.  Her parents speak little English.  Her family was poor.  And they attended the Mormon church, where she quickly learned that her queerness, which she figured out at an early age, made her a bad person in the eyes of the church.  After going through a rough period, she ultimately came to accept her queerness openly, stating:

I knew when people made me feel bad for being brown, for being poor, for having parents who didn’t speak English, that life was going to be hard. Queerness was just another struggle.

I really like that last line:  “Queerness was just another struggle.”  Queerness should not be pitted against other identities.  Queerness, or more broadly one’s sexuality and gender identity, is simply part of the spectrum of one’s identity.

I contrast this way of thinking with Tara Pringle Jefferson’s essay on Loop 21 which asks in its title “Do African Americans Sympathize with the Gay Rights Movement?“.  The subtitle cuts to the chase:  “Some do, but feel it shouldn’t be compared to the Civil Rights Movement.”  Sadly, this is not an uncommon sentiment.  I should first say that I do not believe that Ms. Jefferson is coming from some homophobic place.  However, for me personally the very question is troubling, a divide and conquer of the soul.  By my way of thinking, the heart of the Civil Rights Movement is the radical idea that black folks are human beings.  Whereas the heart of the Gay Rights Movement is the radical idea that gay folks are human beings.  See the difference?  Good, neither do I.

The manifestations of and reasons for black oppression and gay oppression are different, but the outcome is the same:  dehumanization.  For different reasons, society at various points in history has labeled members of both groups unworthy of basic rights or dignity.  Slavery.  Jim Crow.  Separate but equal.  Profiling.  The first three have been outlawed, though their effects fuel the fourth and thus continue to be felt in a country still uncomfortable with meaningfully discussing its past.  Laws controlling sexual expression, largely aimed at queer folks in the form of anti-sodomy laws, were on the books in this country for a long time.  It is still legal in many states to fire someone for being gay.  And of course both blacks and gays continue to be the victims of violence.

So both oppressions have detrimental effects on their victims.  Put another way, during a violent attack I personally would not stop and deconstruct whether the blows I’m receiving from fists, boots, or bats are harder or more lethal because I’m black or because I’m gay.

But the saddest part of Ms. Jefferson’s essay is its assertion that to compare the Civil Rights Movement to the various gay liberation struggles that have taken place in the last 40 odd years is somehow insulting.

Preston Mitchum, a student at American University’s Washington College of Law, said he doesn’t believe the two movements can really be compared either.

“My role is dual, because it comes from being gay and black,” he said. “I can see both sides of the story, and people need to recognize that the struggles are different. It almost trivializes black civil rights in a way.”


Let’s go back and examine one of the major tools of the Civil Rights Movement:  non-violent resistance.  A young man by the name of Bayard Rustin, himself black and gay, brought the Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s attention.  Dr. King enthusiastically embraced it and contextualized it within his own theological training, famously declaring that non-violence is “a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.”  So one of the major weapons of one of the major figures of the Civil Rights Movement was in fact inspired by a non-African American man from half a world away who had been dead for over seven years when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began.

Does comparing the Indian struggle for independence from the British to the African American Civil Rights Movement somehow trivialize the former?  Of course not.  Such an assertion would be ludicrous.  The fact is that both movements added to the vocabulary, richness, and history of the collective human experience.  The leaders of both movements are, in fact, world citizens as a result of their work.  We cannot and should not selfishly guard the legacy of Dr. King or Rosa Parks or Julian Bond or any of the other leaders who sacrificed in the name of black liberation from others seeking liberation and dignity.  We must share this precious legacy with all those who appreciate their work and wish to follow their examples as part of their own struggle for personhood.

Is the struggle for queer personhood any less important than the struggle for black personhood?  I think not.  I cannot divide myself thus, nor do I have any desire to do so.  For to do so would mean trivializing part of my own soul.  Queerness is just another struggle, one which makes up part of the spectrum of my identities.

My Date With Climate Change

I came up the long escalator from the Underground and found myself on the grey streets of London, home to Doctor Who, The Prisoner, and Monty Python.  I was in heaven.  Late March 2000, just in time for my birthday, saw my partner and me overseas for the first time.  Everything about the trip excited me from beginning, where I had to “translate” for my partner what “take-away” meant when he ordered coffee, to end, where we flew over Greenland on the flight home.

Greenland.  From 30,000 feet up, it was nothing but white enchantment.  Shadows caused by the angle of the sunlight gave away the contours of this forbidden land, but otherwise, all I saw was white, white, white.  Sheets of white ice that looked as if it had never been touched by human feet, hands, or machinery.  I stared out the window the whole time we floated above this amazing landscape, marveling at a piece of earth I had hitherto never seen.  The voyage truly left an impression with me, one of the great highlights of our first trip over the Atlantic.

In October 2002 we took our first trip to Continental Europe, visiting Berlin and Amsterdam.  Given that I hadn’t properly studied German since college — and had to rely on my rusty memory and some cramming done months before the trip — I did pretty good with the language.  And in Amsterdam, everyone spoke English.  It was another enchanting voyage for us both.  And again, on the way home, we flew over Greenland.  It remained as pristine as I had remembered it from two years prior.  Once again I enjoyed the view our 30,000-foot vantage point offered.

Our trip to Europe in 2005 did not include views of Greenland, but the one in November 2007 did.  My partner watched the inflight movie while I stared out of the window.  It had been a wonderful trip, capped by visiting an extensive exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne museum in Munich of the works of Max Beckmann, my partner’s favorite artist.  (Examples of his work can be found here at Artsy.Net.) The exhibition covered Beckmann’s paintings while he was in exile in Amsterdam during World War II.  He left his German homeland, never to return again, on the eve before the Nazis opened their Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) Exhibit, which featured works by Beckmann and others the fascist regime disapproved of.  As for so many during that time, Beckmann’s world had changed for ever.

On that flight I witnessed the change our planet had gone through just since my last viewing of Greenland in 2002.  From our 30,000-foot vantage point I saw the endless sheets of white interrupted by brown rock and grey stone islands.  It took no more than an instant for me to realize what had happened and why there had been a change.  And I wept.

I hadn’t realized how reassuring the sea of white had been or what it signified for me.  I just knew that it was changing.  I could see rock where before I saw only endless pristine ice.  I remember wondering, in desperation, if I had in fact seen any rock on the previous flights.  I already knew the answer, but still I searched for any explanation other than the one that caused water to flow freely from my eyes.  Science has never scared me.  I love science.  So the science behind climate change and global warming never seemed foreign or unbelievable to me.  I also remembered my astronomy, which I majored in for two seconds before switching to history.  Venus is the outstanding example in the solar system of a runaway greenhouse effect.  The planet’s thick carbon dioxide atmosphere traps the sun’s heat, elevating surface temperatures to a toasty 870° F.  It’s hotter on Venus than it is on Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, because of this greenhouse effect.  In fact, it’s because the earth has a modest greenhouse effect that out planet is as comfortable as it is.  But there is clearly such a thing as too much of a good thing.  Life is nothing if not balance.  The climate change documented by the scientific community demonstrates quite clearly that things are tending towards a dangerous imbalance.

As it happens, there have been recent reports that the ice on Greenland is melting so fast that the big island is actually rising due to the loss of weight from the ice.  So no, sadly, I had imagined nothing on that routine transcontinental flight in 2007.  Greenland had changed.  If anything , I expect the situation now, four years later, is worse.

Politicians continue to dither about in regards to climate change, as the recent conference in Durban, South Africa has demonstrated.  Maybe they need to take more flights over Greenland, the Arctic, or Antarctica.  Maybe they need to compare then and now photos of the Swiss Alps or Kilimanjaro and play the old Sesame Street game “one of these things is not like the other.”  Maybe they need their own date with climate change.  I can say that even though I continue with the business of day-to-day living and day-to-day issues great and small, life for me after my date has changed forever.

Rick Perry: Hiding in the Darkest Alleys

“…[G]ay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
– U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Addressing the United Nations on International Human Rights Day

Do read or watch Secretary Clinton’s remarkable speech on LGBT rights.  She spent about a half-hour talking about the need to further the cause for LGBT human rights around the globe.  Such a speech given by such a person to such an audience would have been unthinkable even five years ago.

Now contrast it with the mess of a campaign video Rick Perry concocted and released at the same time Secretary Clinton made her remarkable speech.  After first declaring that he is “not ashamed to admit” that he’s a Christian, he further posits:

“But you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there is something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

Wait a second, what the hell did he just say?

“But you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there is something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

Right, that’s what I thought.

First, some background.  Perry created this video to air in Iowa, a Hail Mary pass for his flagging campaign before the Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2012.  Iowa surprised everyone in April, 2009 when it adapted marriage equality after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the state could not discriminate against same-sex couples who wished to marry.  Though celebrated, the decision has been controversial and a backlash has already claimed three of the Iowan Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of marriage equality.  They were voted out of office in the 2010 election.  So Mr. Perry, hoping to capture some of this energy and the religious right vote, hastily threw this video together and put it on the air in Iowa.

Make no mistake:  this ad is patently and dangerously offensive.  It conjures dark images of dimly lit alleys and cornered souls being surrounded by thugs with lead pipes, chains, and bats ready to do bodily harm.  Or of a kid hiding in some obscure corner of his or her existence, trying desperately to hide from the biting, tearing words flung by sadistic schoolmates.  Has he not seen the coverage of kid after kid after kid committing suicide behind anti-gay bullying?  Perry’s is not a political ad.  It’s an instigation for violence, a call to arms against “the other” who in his mind possesses no humanity and thus is not deserving of it.  I think we’ve seen this movie before.

I don’t know if Rick Perry truly believes that LGBT folks do not deserve equal, human rights.  It doesn’t really matter, though.  His willingness to put out such an ad, for the sake of political gain, shows that he is a man with a very shaky moral compass.  Yet he states that he’s not “ashamed” to be a Christian.  Most Christians I know would be ashamed of his behavior.  But his claim of being a defender of faith and “religious heritage,” as he states in the video, is hardly unique and certainly not new.  As I wrote some months ago, in their declarations of secession, some of the former Confederate states, including the Governor’s, cited moral and religious reasons why it was right for people of African descent to be enslaved by those of European descent.  To treat the races equally, Texas wrote in their declaration of secession, was a violation of “Divine Law.”  Religion is not itself an evil, but it is often used for evil by those with shaky moral compasses.

This is hardly the first time LGBT folks have been singled out as boogiemen for the sake of electoral advantage in a presidential race.  But this is one of the most foul.  Rick Perry did more than just took off the gloves.  With this “political ad”, he donned dark clothing, armed himself with a nail-spiked bat, and entered the realm of the dark alley thug, waiting for a victim to pound into oblivion.  The world is changing, Mr. Perry.  Secretary Clinton’s speech is one of many reflections of that change.  Those like yourself are a vanishing breed and will soon be thought of and referred to exclusively in the past tense.  However, if someone is bullied, beaten, or killed because of your vicious ad, the splinters from the well-worn bat are in your fingers.

It Took Two Weeks

Within a couple of months of coming out in 1988, I took my first HIV test.  It took two weeks to get the results at that time.  Two weeks.  They counseled you when they drew blood.  And they counseled you when they gave you the results.  But for two weeks, you were on your own.  In 1988 there was still too many unknowns about HIV and AIDS, cavities in our collective knowledge into which some of the darkest fears uncomfortably slipped and festered.

Every sexual encounter suddenly rushes forth, the good, the bad, and the ugly, to be thoroughly scrutinized.  Did it break?  Did I spit it out fast enough?  Did I rinse my mouth right away?  Some something stay on my hand too long before I washed it?  Did I have a cut in my mouth?  Did I?  Could I?  Did I?  Could I?  It’s easy to worry in a vacuum of knowledge.  Two weeks was too damned long.

Today’s tests can return results in less than an hour.  Instead of going off for two weeks to worry and fret, one can sit and talk with the counselor while the test does its work.  One need not dread alone, which I hope is an enticement for more to get tested.  Knowledge is still power and it’s still the only effective weapon we have against this disease.

Let’s Start Using Much Older Weapons: Speech, Diplomacy, Conversation

The Doctor:  Professor Watson, any being that can exist let alone thrive inside a nuclear pile is hardly likely to be deterred by a few primitive missiles.
Professor Watson:  But they’re the most powerful missiles we have!
The Doctor:  On your standards, perhaps.  I think we should try much older weapons.
Sarah Jane Smith:  Like?
The Doctor:  Speech?  Diplomacy?  … Conversation?
— Doctor Who, “The Hand of Fear”

This demonstration I remember quite well.  Spring Quarter 1986.  UCLA.  Anti-apartheid.  As part of our continued efforts to convince the Regents of the University of California to divest from Apartheid South Africa, we followed the lead of other protesters on campuses across the country, most notably UC Berkeley, and erected wooden shanties.  The shanty became the symbol of the anti-apartheid movement because so many black South Africans, living under the weight of impoverishment, dwelled in them.  (Sadly, as this 2005 photo demonstrates, shanty towns continue to be no stranger to South Africa.)

Berkeley students created rather small shanties that stood maybe five feet tall at best, quickly built structures that could fill a whole plaza in a short space of time.  They were in essence tents made out of wood.

Being Angelenos, in the shadow of Hollywood, we were a bit more grandiose.  Our shanties stood about eight feet tall and were about 8′ x 8′ square inside.  Each had a roof, walls, a door, and I think even a window.  The only thing missing was a flower box.  We built three of these edifices over the course of a weekend in a service yard next to the Art Building — that way if any one saw them, they’d think they were just another art project.  I think we intended to make more, but given the size and the amount of materials we had, three was our limit.

We hauled them late one Sunday evening — those mothers were heavy — from the far end of North Campus to Royce Hall and left them overnight on the portico facing the quad.  How they went undetected that night I’ll never know, but the following Monday morning they were ready for their close up.  There they were, three wooden shanties in the middle of Royce Quad, the very symbol of the campus, and us decorated around them playing hacky sack and listening to reggie.  Berky Nelson, the student liaison officer for campus who dealt with us at many a demonstration, came over and summarized out encampment thus:  “This won’t fly.”

Shanty town UCLA lasted for the balance of the day, but then the police came to break it up.  They torn up two of our buildings and had designs on the third.  I sat in the last shanty, along with some fellow travelers, peacefully defending our building and the movement it symbolized.  Meanwhile, a couple of others from our group hurriedly negotiated with Berky, some others from his office, and UCPD.  We saved the third shanty, but agreed to move it off the hallowed ground of Royce Quad to the relatively more palatable Bruin Plaza in front of Ackerman Student Union.  There it sat for the rest of the quarter.  We took turns staffing the shanty, providing info on South Africa and apartheid during the day and sleeping in it at night.  Crisis averted.

The police did not topple the shanty on top of us as we anxiously sat inside it.  We did not get clubbed.  We did not get pepper-sprayed like so many weeds in a field of grass.  The powers that be used much older weapons to defuse the situation:  speech, diplomacy, conversation.  In looking at the UC Davis pepper spraying, and the UC Berkeley clubbing that occurred a week earlier, I’m struck by the apparent dearth of UC administrators on hand to negotiate and talk.  Maybe they did and it went nowhere.  In light of what transpired, however, I think waiting and talking longer is preferable to clubbing students or hosing them with toxins.

No demo or civil disobedience action on a college campus should happen without the presence of administration.  They should be calling the shots and doing whatever it takes to avert disasters like what occurred at Davis and Berkeley.  Consider it a part of the educational process.  It’s hard.  It’s frustrating.  But ultimately it’s just the right thing to do.

And they link arms

“When they said Berkeley was ‘crunchy,’ I didn’t know they meant students’ rib cages.” – Stephen Colbert

Gathered together to protest the injustices of the day, they linked arms and held firm.  They linked arms as they crossed a bridge, knowing that police cars, batons, dogs, and fire hoses waited at the other end.  They linked arms as they stepped off the bus to receive blows from mobs armed with bricks and clubs who hated their peaceful integration.  They linked arms to save their factory from being shutdown because the bank said so, not because of any lack of productivity.  They linked arms as they marched to the sea to gather a hand full of salt.  They linked arms knowing that resistance was futile and their extermination in the camps with all the other undesirables was inevitable.  They linked arms so that they could wait in the cold for hours on end to exercise the right to vote, a right secured for them by the blood of those who had linked arms before them.

And now they are linking arms saying they are sick of the foreclosures.  They are linking arms saying they are sick of the take, take, take.   They are linking arms saying they don’t need another haircut because their hair is already too short.  They are linking arms to say that tuition is too high and education is no longer accessible for too many in the population.

They are linking arms non-violently, quietly, in song, in spirit, and in peace, beckoning all of us to listen.


the gar spot: One year later

Have you ever used a pickax?  The first time I ever used one was to create a ditch for a french drainage system on one side of the house.  In the Bay Area, the soil is generally some type of clay.  When it rains, it’s mud.  But when it’s dry all bets are off.  It’s as hard as rock.  I lost a lot of weight that summer, hauling ass with the pickax trying to break up the ground.

So this is how I see it.  I have a pickax and I’m at a cave entrance on the side of an impossibly tall mountain.  I use the pickax to delve deeper into the cave.  Salty sweat pours from my forehead and gets into the mouth.  My sunglasses fog up and end up on the ground because they become a damn nuisance.  Who needs sunglasses in a cave anyway.  And after a long series of rhythmic strikes against the rock all I can see for my troubles is maybe a 3-inch indentation in the rock.  Profanities abound.

Stubbornly or foolishly or some symbiosis of the two I continue to strike the rock.  Eventually I discover various veins, interesting ores worth exploring.  Some are just as hard as anything the pickax has sliced through, but others yield easier to the rhythmic strokes.  Riches come into reach.  Encouraged, I take more chances and pick harder at some of the most stubborn veins.  More riches.  I try to put them to good use and keep digging.  The urge to stop and lament my lack of progress or shout to scorn the wall that gives only 3 inches at a time diminishes.  The trick, it seems, is not to look back, but always forward.  Keep the rhythm, and move.

Seems to have worked.  Because now when I look back, one year later, I can see that the 3 inches at a time has turned into a windy path in the side of the mountain, a world of my own creation.  And on the ground I can see footprints.  Folks have come by to check out my work.  Makes one smile.  But I don’t stand for long.  I crank up the jazz, grab the pickax, and start digging some more.

The work continues.


Mom sat me in front of the TV one day in 1969.  I was four and fidgety.  Eventually, a big yellow bird came on the screen and introduced me and the rest of the world to Sesame Street.  The rest was history.  I quickly became hooked and watched it happily for many years.  The fast pace of the sketches were really nothing new — Laugh-In, which I watched with Mom while waiting for Dad to come home from his swing shift job, had a similar format.  I don’t think there was a character I didn’t like (Elmo came after my time), but the one I identified with the most was Grover.

Friendly, goofy, lovable, shy yet slightly self-aggrandizing in a hammy sort of way, that was Grover.  He had his own world view and tried to make the rest of the planet adopt to it.  I could relate.  One of his favorite lines, when confronted with having to lift something heavy, was “I’m not strong, but I’m wiry.”  I used the line many times in elementary school.

He housed his more gregarious behavior behind the alter ego of SuperGrover.  Replete with a helmet and a pink camp, SuperGrover captured the do-good, problem-solving spirit welling inside me even at that age.  That SG was a klutz seemed to match, too.  I didn’t wear a pink cape, but I did want to fly.  What kid didn’t?  At that time, my flying fantasy was modeled after the Flying Nun.  I attempted to make a habit mimicking Sister Betrille’s, but made of cardboard and not heavily starched fabric.  I wore it on my head on a windy day, stood on the stoop of the porch and jumped.  It didn’t work, not that I expected it, but it was fun trying.  SuperGrover rarely rescued anyone, but he had fun trying, too.

We were both friendly though a little introverted, and definitely “good boys.”  I avoid the term “good two-shoes” because that implies being obnoxious snitches or something like that, which I wasn’t and I don’t think Grover was either.  But we generally behaved.  Which is why I was shocked when one day timid little Grover actually sassed one of the adults.  I don’t remember who the adult was, Susan or Bob or whomever, but they said something to Grover like “but that won’t work” or “you can’t do that” and he replied simply “I do not care!”  It wasn’t just that he said it, but the brazened way his voice inflected the syllables that emboldened my heart.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Grover had demonstrated the valuable art of being bitchy.  For timid, wiry types, this was definitely required education.  Other teachers would follow, including Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares — and as the Hooded Claw on “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop” — but Grover was the first.  A queenette was in the making.

Occupy Oakland Melee: An Obscene Overreaction

At a long forgotten antiwar demonstration around 20 odd years ago, I stood tense as the atmosphere grew dank from humidity and angst.  We were gathered in front of the federal building on Golden Gate Ave. in San Francisco.  We wanted to take the steps, but a police line blocked it off.  They were in riot gear, shields and all, and the healthy size crowd stood and shouted at them.  It was night time.  There were no cameras, no smart phones, no Twitter, no Facebook.  The crowd was tense and anything could happen.  Suddenly, a couple of folks started throwing things at the officers.  My heart jumped.  I had never been beaten at a demonstration by the police, and I didn’t want to have that track record ruined.  How would they react?  They didn’t.  They held the line in front of the federal building.  There was no teargas.  There were no rubber bullets or flash-bang bombs.  Eventually, the standoff ended and we marched elsewhere.  I remember thinking to myself how grateful I was at the professionalism of the police that night.  They didn’t overreact.  They held firm, we moved on, end of story.

How I wish that had happened Tuesday night here in Oakland.  What a bleeping mess.

I was not at the demo last night, but have been horrified by the videos and pictures airing all over the media.  Teargas.  Rubber bullets.  Bean bags.  Flash-bang bombs.  The lot.  Officers from over a dozen police departments, including some from as far away as the Central Valley, descended on Oakland to quell the demonstration and restore “order.”  Both Oakland Interim Police Chief Howard Jordan and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan have praised the response.  Are they mad?

The most egregious incident is that of Iraq War vet Scott Olsen, who was hit in the head by a blunt object — eye witnesses say a canister of some sort — and is in critical condition in hospital with a skull fracture and swelling of the brain.  The Guardian reports that he was taken to hospital by friends.  It should also be noted, as seen in this widely aired video, that Mr. Olsen’s friends were trying to assist him as he lay motionless on the ground, only to have an officer throw another exploding canister at them to disperse them.

This incident alone is riddled with wrong, but a couple of points stand out.  First, no officer intervened when they saw a man lying on the ground motionless and bleeding.  No ambulance or emergency personnel came to Mr. Olsen’s aid.  Who knows how long that young man would have been left there had it not been for the good samaritans who came to his aid.  Second, there was no justification beyond naked malice to fire a second canister of teargas at the crowd trying help Mr. Olsen.  Acting Chief Jordan justifies the overall police action Tuesday night because the police were

“assaulted with bottles and rocks and had hazardous materials thrown at them.”

Read more:

But look at the clip.  Folks were concerned with Mr. Olsen, not the police.  Yet they were met by another violent canister exploding in their midst and right next to a man already down and bleeding.  Therefore Acting Chief Jordan’s statement is not in keeping with the facts.  Canisters, it would seem, were fired irrespective of concerns for police safety.  The clip demonstrates that weapons were fired at the caprice of the officers on the front line.

In a year where Oakland is suffering another rash of murders — where last summer a three year-old toddler was killed by a stray bullet — we have multiple police forces coming to Oakland not to help quell the murder rate, as has happened in the past, but to quell and bully peaceful protesters.  That’s obscene, and very bizarre coming from a mayor who has pledged to make Oakland safer.

Keith Olbermann made a brief special comment on Countdown which focussed on the police violence and Mayor Quan’s reaction to it.  His basic message was simple:  repent or resign.  She has much to answer for.  Last year, as Mr. Olbermann pointed out, then-Councilmember Quan helped to keep a situation from getting out of hand between protesters and police at a rally protesting the verdict in the Oscar Grant murder case.  She received much heat from the police for her actions and they even started an investigation on her.  Given that background, it is hard to fathom that she would defend the overreaction that took place.  She was out of town when the crackdown happened and rushed back to town when it became clear that a situation was brewing.  One wonders, though, if she saw any of the footage before making press statements.  She fumbled, in a rather obvious way, and may indeed lose her job behind it.  Even before this action, some folks have started a recall effort against the mayor.

The police can do better.  They can follow the example of the officers from 20 years ago who kept their cool, who were protected by their gear and did not overreact.  We do not need police to go crazy on folks demonstrating.  As the President is fond of saying, this is not who we are.

As I write this, I understand that there is another demonstration taking place.  Early reports indicate that the police are keeping their distance.  Good.