Sunday, August 20, 2017

does this post make me look like a nazi sympathizer?

Working at Homeboy Industries comes with a certain cachet. Most liberal-to-moderate people love the story of the radical priest who rode his bicycle into the middle of gang fights and refused to see gang members as evil incarnate. Today even law enforcement gets the basic axiom that “hurt people hurt people.” In grant applications, I boast about working with the “least likely to succeed.” Tour groups pull up to our headquarters by the busload, partly because people with tattooed faces are still something of a sideshow attraction, but partly because they’re moved by the idea that all these tatted-up gangsters have changed their lives for the better. Sometimes tourists sit for hours in our postage stamp of a garden, listening to stories of pain, confusion, relapse and redemption from literal killers.

So it’s hard to remember what things were like back in the day. In 1988, when Homeboy was a tiny jobs program at Dolores Mission Church, gang members were the subject of fear-mongering news reports, (most) cops hated Father Greg, and Homeboy Industries received bomb threats from community members who saw his work as condoning society’s most hideous elements. When police responded to gang homicides, they would tell radio dispatchers that there were “no humans involved.”

Fr. Greg at a funeral in 1990. (Photo by Anacleto Rapping, Los Angeles Times.)
Homeboy’s mantra is that we will stand with the demonized until the demonizing stops. And it’s through that lens that I’ve been reading an endless feed of Nazi-hating with growing discomfort.

To be clear: I am not talking about hating on white supremacy an institution, because um, yeah, it’s bad. I’m not talking about hating on elected officials who are tepid and slow in their response to public displays of hate, because those guys have power and a platform and they can do better. I’m talking about your “average,” disaffected white guy who joins a scary-ass movement because he’s scared. I’m not equating that guy with gang members, exactly; this is not apples to apples, because gang members invariably come from poor, disenfranchised communities and white supremacists do not always. But sometimes they do.

And just as gang members who choose to heal—because gang membership has failed to bring them safety or happiness, because someone showed them a bit of kindness and opened a door to another way of life—will tell you that they’re no longer falling for the myth that their “enemies” are their enemies, so will ex-Nazis tell you that people of color and Jews are not their enemies. Both are groups who fell for a lie perpetuated by white supremacy. White supremacy as an institution wants gang members to keep killing each other, and it wants poor angry white people to hate everyone who isn’t them.

Nazi gang member.
My friend Marcos.
Fr. Greg maintains that no kid ever joined a gang because he had a choice. I wouldn’t say the same is true of people who join militias and neo-Nazi groups, but I would bet money that they are all suffering. Just not for the reasons they think they are. White supremacy works its magic by saying You’re not poor because of complicated and fucked-up trade policies that favor multinational corporations, and you’re not angry because the parents you want to love maybe treated you super shitty. You’re poor and angry for a much simpler reason: because of THOSE PEOPLE.

My feeds are full of white people yelling at other white people to stop being Nazis. To stop being racist. To implicate and flagellate ourselves if we want to be taken seriously as non-Nazis. They’re full of vague condemnations of what their other white friends aren’t saying (“Can’t help but notice that some of you are awfully quiet,” observes the collective Big Brother). They’re full of people saying If you voted for Trump, get out of my life right now.

At best, these kinds of posts are cries from people who want to make the world a better place and are frustrated by their own helplessness and the complacency of their own people. Many of these people regularly do the things that actually make a difference: call their electeds, donate money and time. That’s more than I do on many days.

But it’s also a looootttt of virtue signaling and a lot of deflection. “Maybe if I proclaim loudly that I hate Nazis and, better yet, that white people all suck, no one will notice that on some level I’m a white person who likes cake also.”

At 8 am, seven FB friends shared this sketch. By 10:30 am, the backlash had shouted them down.
I tend to read these kinds of posts as if they’re intended for me. Then I proceed to wrestle with my privilege guilt (going strong since 1995) and my lack of activism, and I cry some more white tears, and nothing really changes for anyone who is oppressed. So yes, I’m wondering even now if some of my exhaustion isn’t just so much defensiveness. I could gaze deep into my own navel here. But if there is someone who has actually been social media-shamed into being a better citizen, I would like to meet them.

I love seeing Americans stand up against fascism and hatred—showing up at rallies, putting on angel wings against Fred Phelps and his minions. But I can never work up a lot of energy for people taking swings at easy targets, which is what declaring your disdain for Nazis on social media and painting them as subhuman basement-dwellers is.

I’ve read three things recently that speak to what I’m working through here:
  1. This post by Myriam Gurba, a queer Latina/Polish writer who is suspicious of the essentialism and religiosity present in “whiteness is terrorism” ideology
  2. This Clickhole article, whose headline gets to the heart of what I see as the real problem: My Republican Colleagues Must Condemn Racist Violence and Go Back to Peacefully Passing Racist Laws
  3. This post by Karissa Tucker, a young white writer and soul-searching Christian, who ponders the gap between caring and activism
Next to me right now, AK is reading a book called Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. She just sighed and said, “I wish Trump’s father had read this.”

Because pain and cruelty create hate, create a lack of empathy.

Nazis: not a fan of my people.
To be honest, I’m scared of posting this, because maybe it will come across as just another white person being defensive. But I’m also queer, part Jewish, and even the WASPy side of my family is full of literal genetic mutants, so we would be first on the eugenics chopping block. Blue eyes aside, I am not exactly Aryan race material. And the people I love the most in this world are brown. That doesn’t mean I understand what it’s like to be them, or even that I’m not racist, but it means I have a personal stake in white supremacy not winning.

Maybe it sounds soooo 2015, but I still think love wins. So, dear justice-hipsters who love Homeboy and who are denouncing whiteness and Nazis, and pretending morality is an identity and not a thousand daily decisions, if you really want to be ahead of the curve, try some radical love. It hurts, and it’s hard, and I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something that would personally put themselves in harm’s way. But that’s what makes it radical.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

pushing against the wind

Wind River is an intense, beautifully made movie about a hunter and an FBI agent investigating the death of a young woman on a Native American reservation in snow-strangled Wyoming. The landscape is a character in itself, often a villainous one. When 18-year-old Natalie Hansen (Kelsey Asbille) is found barefoot in the snow, six miles from anywhere, raped and bleeding, the medical examiner can’t list homicide as the cause of death because technically the cold killed her. This creates a jurisdictional nightmare, because Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) can’t call in FBI assistance unless it’s officially a murder. But there are only six cops (led by Graham Greene, who plays the part with world-weary humor) on the whole reservation, so without backup, the investigation is fucked.

Getting the weather report.
The snow holds tracks and covers them. Blizzards shut down roads and obscure views. Long shots of snowmobile caravans making their way across a white snow-desert conjure images of The Hurt Locker as much as the presence of Jeremy Renner as a local hunter/tracker does (because Detroit is also out now, my brain did a spectacular crisscross and I thought I was watching a Kathryn Bigelow movie the whole time; sorry, Taylor Sheridan). Someone observes that here, it takes fifty miles to go five and says “Welcome to Wyoming.”

O-jai, nice to see you.
In a flashback, Natalie and her boyfriend do some California dreaming about where they might like to live, landing on Ojai. Think of Southern California as a metaphor for being white and middle-class, possibly male. When you want to live your life, you step outside and do it. Rural Wyoming is what it’s like to be Native and poor. You step out your door and the land and weather fight you every step of the way. The world for you is harsh at best, deadly at worst. It’s not a coincidence that this is the kind of place the U.S. herded its original inhabitants into; analogy and reality merge here.

Enter Jeremy Renner with his snowmobile and ability to read tracks like tea leaves. As a local and as the father of two mixed-race children—the older of whom also died in the snow—he is the Man For The Job. To extend the metaphor, he’s an ally doing what allies should, putting his skills and access to use for the good of people who could use a hand.

Cowboy on a great white snowmobile.
The movie is also a contemporary Western, with Indians and cowboys, good guys and bad guys and a shootout that exposes toxic masculinity for the tragicomic clusterfuck that it is. Agent Banner—a rookie who is as petite as Mary Kate and Ashley—puts her gun down and gets control of the situation. She is not fearless, and at times she’s in over her head, which makes her badassery that much more admirable. Similarly, Wind River works as an action movie because the victims and the grief that blooms in their wake are never just plot devices.

At the end of the movie, a couple of lines of text note that no statistics are kept on how many Native American women disappear each year.

I cried hard as the credits rolled, because how could I not think of Roxy the whole time? As we left the theater, I said to AK, “I don’t say this often, but right now I’m really feeling like ‘Fucking men.’” I paused. “I guess white people aren’t so great either.”

At home, we thanked AK’s mom for watching Dash (and doing the dishes, god bless her). He was still tossing and turning, so I curled my body around his and thought about Roxy’s kids, who had a great mom and who now have no mom because some guy could not find his way out of the dark. Jeremy Renner’s character says to Chip, Natalie’s angry drug-addict brother, “I wanted to fight the whole world too, but I figured it would win, so I fought that feeling in myself instead.”

Angry young men.
“Dash is one of the good ones,” AK said.

There are plenty of good ones. There are. Wind River is a fantastic and important movie, but it would have been better if Jeremy Renner’s character was played by a Native guy. Ally metaphor aside, nothing much in the script would have needed to change. And to be honest, the movie passes the Bechdel test only on a technicality.

If Taylor Sheridan had written a movie with a Native protagonist, would people have criticized him for trying to speak from an experience other than his own? Not to be all “White people just can’t win!”—because it’s pretty clear white people do plenty of winning. But representation politics are complicated.

I’m glad Wind River exists. I will be thinking about it for a long time. We should produce more movies by Native writers and directors, starring Native actors. All these things are true at once.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

there are deaths and then there are deaths

Every few months, a shoebox appears on the reception desk at Homeboy. It’s covered in paper printed with grainy photos. Sharpie or ballpoint pen explains who died: someone’s mother or brother or homie. A few times it has been a trainee, although never one I knew personally. Once it was a baby. Rarely is it anyone over fifty. There’s a slit in the top of the box for folded bills.

At this year’s mandatory open-enrollment meeting, our insurance brokers talked about HMOs vs. PPOs, inpatient vs. outpatient, FSAs and co-pays and preventative care and cancer. Everyone watched with glazed eyes. When the brokers got to the life insurance section and mentioned funerals, the room buzzed. Everyone knew exactly how much a funeral cost.

I didn’t know Roxy well, but I didn’t have to ask “Which one was she, again? Did she work in the bakery?” The first thing I noticed about Roxy was that she was beautiful—like undeniably, Disney-princess beautiful, with big dark eyes, dimples and long straight hair. That kind of beauty can be a blessing and a curse. I mean that in a general way, because I don’t know how it was for her. The only time I interacted with her beyond hallway hellos was when I wrote a letter to a landlord to provide a counterweight to her bad credit. I explained that she was a single mom to three kids who were thriving, who would love to play sports in the park near the apartment building. She struck me as sweet. She talked about escaping domestic violence and gaining confidence.

It’s an old story: Woman leaves an abuser. Abuser apologizes, cajoles. Woman tries to move on with her life. Abuser escalates.

I was already in a weird, antsy mood on Monday morning when I heard someone sobbing. And then many people were sobbing in stereo. Someone said, He killed Roxy. He shot her. And then Roxy was a face on a box.

People talk about trauma fatigue, but I’m not sure I can claim that. I’m not a therapist or a case manager; I was friendly with Roxy, but we weren’t friends. Instead, I’ve spent the week in what I’ll call a third-responder fog. Because there are plenty of other variables in my life, I can’t tell whether I want to leap out of my skin because I’m outraged by injustice or because I’m petty and unable to count my substantial blessings. All I know is that when a male leader shushed me and another woman in a meeting yesterday, I wanted to punch someone in the face or cry or both.

When you’re a third responder, you feel like you’re getting smaller and smaller with every word you don’t say. You wonder what you’re even doing here. You can’t tell whether you’re wondering that because a woman was shot by the man everyone knew wanted to shoot her, or because you want a nice life where meetings start on time and people return emails.

“There are deaths and then there are deaths, you feel me?” one of the homies said today. A guy who mentors others and has a lot of wisdom. “Everyone—guys from different neighborhoods—are saying what they’ll do to this fool if they find him. So I tell ‘em, don’t go to the vigil, don’t put yourself in that situation.”

Island life.
I’ve been wrestling with some existential questions about my work, trying to find a balance between seeking out my tribe and changing the definition of what a tribe should be. Am I a person reshaped by trauma, who belongs on an Island of Misfit Toys? Am I writer and an introvert, who belongs with other writers and introverts? Neither? Both? Should I STFU because it’s a luxury just to have such a crisis?

Monday night I drove to therapy, where I was grateful to spill it all. When I pulled out of the parking garage, the needle on my gas gauge was at the bottom of the yellow warning section. My wallet, I discovered, was at home. All I had was my checkbook, and the guy at the gas station predictably looked at me like I was a weirdo.

So I called my sister, and she and my dad drove to Westwood and put gas in my car and bought me tacos next door. Because I do have a nice life, and people to catch me when I fall. The sky was pink and orange by the time they arrived. The palm trees and wires were Kara Walker silhouettes.