Saturday, December 20, 2014

Moral courage

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” — Mark Twain

IF YOU DON'T read another Hey Look post ever again, read this one. From my favorite New York Time series, Fixes.

Where Does Moral Courage Come From?
By David Bornstein 
December 18, 2014 

Readers of Fixes know that our primary mission each week is to highlight strategies that work to effect social change and improve lives. In her column last week, Tina Rosenberg zeroed in on some of the strategies that successful efforts have in common. They are crucial, but there is also something fundamental that underlies all these efforts: the human ability to imagine that wrongs can be righted, and the belief that change can happen.

Where does that sort of moral imagination — and the courage to act on it — come from? Researchers have found that people who display moral courage often perceive themselves to be “strongly linked to others through a shared humanity” and feel a sense of responsibility that is not limited to intimates. How this conviction takes shape is largely a mystery: The science of altruism is still young. We know that parenting matters, but it doesn’t explain the phenomenon: siblings from the same family often have very different levels of commitment to moral values.

Looking at the experiences of those who have demonstrated moral courage can instruct us. Last week, this year’s recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi — both honored for their struggles to protect and defend the rights of children — gave their Nobel lectures in Oslo. Malala’s extraordinary youthful courage is well documented, but Satyarthi’s story is less well known. It is well worth hearing.

In his lecture, Satyarthi recounted an early moment in his moral awakening. He was a young boy just beginning his schooling when he met a young cobbler boy polishing shoes outside the school fence. He wondered why the boy wasn’t attending school. All children were supposed to attend school, he thought. He asked his teachers, but they had no answer for him. Then he asked the boy’s father, and was told that the boy had to work because it was his fate. “This made me angry,” Satyarthi said in his lecture. “It still makes me angry. I challenged it then, and I am challenging it today.”

Satyarthi had told me that same story 14 years ago, when I had the opportunity to spend time with him in India, to report on his work with the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an organization he founded in 1980, which has rescued more than 80,000 children and many other family members from slavery (often in dangerous raids).

It is remarkable how a simple encounter as a 7-year-old can shape the direction of a life. At face value, Satyarthi had little in common with the boy. He had been born into a Brahmin family in a conservative state, Madhya Pradesh, where the caste system was strongly entrenched. The adults in Satyarthi’s society paid little attention at the time to laboring children. But as a child, he had fresh eyes and a need to ask questions. And that was the beginning. From that moment he began resisting the system, subverting it in the ways of a child, fighting the very social order that granted his family enviably high status.

He told me another story. In his town, Vidisha, it was “untouchable” women who swept the streets and cleaned the open toilets. Frequently, they came to Satyarthi’s street to beg for food. But they wouldn’t dare to touch the fences outside the houses. Instead, they called for alms and residents would throw coins and bread though the gates and fences in the direction of their buckets. Often the food landed in the dirt, and the women would wipe it off and keep it.

Satyarthi recalled that he would sometimes run and snatch a piece of bread from a woman’s bucket and eat it before anyone could stop him. This was a grave offense, he knew (though not because he was taking food from a beggar, but because he was eating something from an untouchable.) He didn’t know why he felt compelled to break this rule. “It was the only time my parents ever hit me,” he recalled.

Another awakening came in 1969, when Satyarthi was 15 and India was commemorating the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. Across India, streets and parks were being renamed; statues were erected; everywhere there were rallies and exhibitions. Gandhi had campaigned tirelessly against untouchability and at the rallies Satyarthi attended, he heard one politician after another passionately denouncing it. “It was a very emotional day for me,” he said. “I found what they said very beautiful.”

It gave him an idea. “I thought I would organize a feast,” he told me. “The sweeper women would be invited to cook and the big politicians would be invited to eat. I thought it would be a great symbol to break the caste hegemony. We would hold it in the newly built Gandhi Park near the new Gandhi statue.”

Friends said he was crazy. But he persuaded a few to help. He approached some sweeper women.

“What are you talking about?” they said when they heard his plan. “How can you possibly think people will come and eat?”

“I heard their speeches,” Satyarthi said.

They laughed. “You’re very naïve.”

Still, a few agreed to cook a meal. His friends rode their bicycles around town, dropping off invitations at 50 or 60 houses. The response was encouraging. Satyarthi recalled: “People said, ‘O.K., good idea, very progressive.’ Some asked, ‘Can we bring friends?’”

They planned for 30 guests.

“In the evening I saw these sweeper women come to cook,” Satyarthi said. “They must have washed themselves and their clothes 100 times. They looked so clean.”

And for the first time he worried: Would there be enough food?

The feast was called for 7 p.m. By 7, no one had come. Satyarthi thought: “It’s Indian time, don’t worry.” By 8, still no one had arrived. “We thought there must be some confusion about the location in Gandhi Park,” Satyarthi said.

He had invited a leader of the local Communist Party. “Surely, he would come!” he thought. “I went on my bicycle to see him, and his wife answered the door. She said, ‘Oh, my husband is in bed. He’s not feeling well.’”

He went to another house, and was told. “Oh, we’re coming.” At another house a girl told him, “My father has already left for it.”

He returned to Gandhi Park to tell his friends that people were on their way. “We waited until 9, 10, 11. We waited until our hearts were empty. No one turned up. Not even the Gandhians.”

At 11, they ate in silence. Then the friends walked their bikes home. At midnight, Satyarthi arrived at his house and was surprised to see the lights still on. The gate was open and people were sitting in the courtyard. He was shocked to see some of his relatives there.

“You fool!” they shouted when they saw him. “You fool! With your nonsense!”
“I haven’t committed any crime!” he yelled back. “It is you people here who have committed a crime by perpetuating this inhumanity.”

The argument grew heated, until threats were uttered of a “social boycott” — an age-old practice of ostracism, one of the most severe punishments in Indian society. The elders said that, to avoid the boycott, Satyarthi would have to make a pilgrimage to the holy Ganges River, shave his head, undergo a cleansing ritual, and organize a feast for 100 high caste people.

He refused. “I am not a sinner,” he said. “And you cannot outcast me. I will outcast you! I will not have any relations with any of you any longer!”

Family members, fearful of the social boycott, begged him: “Please, Kailash, please take a holy bath.”

Eventually tempers cooled and a compromise was made: Kailash promised never to enter the kitchen again, or touch the water source, or eat with the family. Afterward, he said, for years, he ate alone in his room. In time, people died and memories faded and Satyarthi was permitted to enter the kitchen, but the incident never left him.

“I learnt that if you challenge something, you should be prepared for the reaction,” he said.

Satyarthi told me this story while we were traveling by train from Delhi to Chandigarh, where his organization had recently made a daring rescue to free a group of bonded laborers, members of an indigenous tribe, the Bhil, who had spent much of their lives working in mines and quarries.

The laborers wrapped themselves in heavy shawls and peered at the crowd of journalists through tired eyes. They couldn’t read or write. Many had never been away from the quarries, and had lived under constant watch of guards, even when they went into the fields to defecate.

Many news organizations had come to report on the rescue. Satyarthi and his colleague Jai Singh, an untouchable, conducted hours of interviews alongside the laborers. Satyarthi dressed immaculately — in a crisp white punjabi, brown vest, and cream colored shawl — all hand woven in the Gandhian tradition.

He related to the press how the businessman who had enslaved the Bhil, a well-known figure in Punjab, had been protected by government friends for years. There were other laborers still in the quarries, still to be released and repatriated to their homes in the state of Gujarat.

As I listened to him speak, I was struck by his self-control. Although Satyarthi had seen among the worst of what humans are capable of, his message was characterized less by outrage than by a steady, calm forcefulness. It was as if he knew that justice must eventually be served — that was how the arc of history bent — though it would take time.

Despite the terrible suffering he had witnessed and the dangers of his work, I thought of him as a fortunate man. He had a clarity of purpose that was rare. There was a coherence and continuity that ran through his life. The 7-year-old who empathized with the cobbler boy, the child who ate bread out of the hands of sweeper women, the angry teenager who defied his elders — all continued to whisper in his ear. He never let go of their idealism.

But he was no longer naïve. He had learned from his miscalculations; never again would he throw a feast and have it go unattended. Surrounded by TV cameras, journalists and photographers, his message was clear and dramatic and canny. He had found a way to make people pay attention to the rights of the most vulnerable across India — and across the world.

“I represent here the sound of silence,” he told the Nobel Committee. “The cry of innocence. And, the face of invisibility. I have come here to share the voices and dreams of our children, our children, because they are all our children.”

Friday, December 19, 2014

What dating preferences tell us about ourselves

“Some white people hate black people, and some white people love black people, some black people hate white people, and some black people love white people. So you see it's not an issue of black and white, it's an issue of Lovers and Haters.” — Eden Ahbez (George Alexander Aberle), known as Eden Ahbez, American songwriter and recording artist whose lifestyle in California was influential on the hippie movement

I'VE BEEN blogging away on average every other day for four years, and what's interesting to me is that the ones I've written about racial issues are among the least popular. 

Most popular? Sports, diseases, and famous people — although one I wrote about the Southern Poverty Law Center is only 15 reads away from surpassing a sports one to become the most read at 503. That cheers me up.

Friend Karl Schilling found this interesting piece on Quartz (, and with his permission I'm sharing it with you. Draw your own conclusions.

The uncomfortable racial preferences revealed by online dating
By Ritchie King
November 21, 2013

The data shown above come from the Facebook dating app, Are You Interested (AYI), which works like this: Users in search of someone for a date or for sex flip through profiles of other users and, for each one, click either “yes” (I like what I see) or “skip” (show me the next profile). When the answer is “yes,” the other user is notified and has the opportunity to respond. It’s very similar to another dating app, Tinder.

The graphic shows what percentage of people responded to a “yes,” based on the gender and ethnicity of both parties (the data are only for opposite-sex pairs of people). Unsurprisingly, most “yes’s” go unanswered, but there are patterns: For example, Asian women responded to white men who “yessed” them 7.8% of the time, more often than they responded to any other race. On the other hand, white men responded to black women 8.5% of the time—less often than for white, Latino, or Asian women. In general, men responded to women about three times as often as women responded to men.

Unfortunately the data reveal winners and losers. All men except Asians preferred Asian women, while all except black women preferred white men. And both black men and black women got the lowest response rates for their respective genders.

Perhaps most surprising is that among men, all racial groups preferred another race over their own.

AYI analyzed some 2.4 million heterosexual interactions—meaning every time a user clicked either “yes” or “skip”—to come up with these statistics. Its users skew older than Tinder’s—about two-thirds of AYI users are older than 35, according to a spokesperson.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cruz-ing to a loss

“He understands that health and illness are intimately connected to social issues and even political decisions. He will point that out, and I predict that he will be attacked for it.” — Dr. Jerry Avorn, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, speaking of Dr. Vivek Murthy

TED CRUZ'S maneuvers to keep a Senate eager to leave for the Christmas holiday, in session Saturday, December 13 were intended to force a vote on President Obama's immigration policy. Instead the Joe McCarthy look-alike gave outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid the extra time necessary to pass 23 previously blocked presidential nominations.

One of the confirmed is Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Dr. Murthy's nomination had been held up for more than a year by the NRA and their Republican Senate lackeys.

That's right ladies and gentleman, during a year that saw Ebola outbreaks, mutant flu strains and an alarming resurgence of the childhood diseases measles, mumps, whooping cough and chicken pox, the country had no doctor-in-chief because the National Rifle Association was allowed to dictate who should or shouldn't hold the position.

The NRA, which has succeeded for 20 years in blocking the use of federal funds for data collection and analysis of the incidence of gun fatalities and injuries, was apoplectic because Dr. Murphy is a member of an organization called Doctors for America which sent a letter to Congress urging a ban on the sale of assault weapons, a buyback program to reduce the number of guns in circulation, limits on the purchase of ammunition, mandatory safety training for gun owners and mandatory waiting periods before completing a purchase. 

You heard right. No matter how many deaths and injuries occur as a result of the incomprehensible number of guns in America, the NRA not only is vehemently opposed to any regulation no matter how reasonable, it fights every day to prevent you from even knowing what the number or deaths and injuries are.

For more information about Dr. Murthy, here's a New York Times Science Section

Vivek Murthy, the New Surgeon General, Isn’t Afraid to Take a Stand
By Sabrina Tavernisedec 
December 16, 2014 

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, a Boston internist who at the age of 37 has become one of the youngest surgeons general of the United States, is a self-described dreamer and grass-roots organizer.

He has professed a deep fondness for mangoes, and his interests include studying ways to increase global happiness. But his lighthearted style should not be taken as a lack of seriousness. In fact, his stance on a divisive issue — he has been an outspoken supporter of gun control laws — put him in a professional limbo that lasted months.

Dr. Murthy’s appointment was confirmed Monday night, more than a year after he was nominated — a delay that said as much about the American political cycle as it did of his views. His remarks on guns, including a Twitter posting in 2012 that “guns are a health care issue,” enraged the National Rifle Association and frightened politically vulnerable Democrats ahead of the midterm election.

But Dr. Murthy, who treats acutely ill patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and teaches at Harvard Medical School, slid through in one of the last acts of the Democratic-controlled Senate. He becomes the country’s youngest surgeon general since John B. Hamilton, who left the office in 1891.

In an age when health care is a politically contentious topic and doctors often shy away from getting involved, Dr. Murthy takes positions. He is a founder of Doctors for America, a nonprofit group of 16,000 physicians and medical students whose stated mission is to improve the country’s health care system and make sure everyone has access to quality health care.

The group advocated passage of the Affordable Care Act (and the election of President Obama — it was originally called Doctors for Obama, a fact that rankled Republicans and even some Democrats), training members to educate people about enrollment, organizing a bus tour in Florida and holding athletic races for fund-raising across the country.

Republicans have criticized Dr. Murthy, saying he is more advocate than doctor. Even some health experts said that his advocacy could hurt his ability to be taken seriously as an independent voice — something that is crucial for the position, which lacks any real power beyond its potential as a bully pulpit.

But his supporters say it is precisely his willingness to take a stand on real issues — so rare in today’s political environment — that is his primary strength. Dr. Jerry Avorn, a colleague of Dr. Murthy’s at Brigham and Women’s, pointed out that past surgeons general took strong and unpopular positions — on smoking in 1964 and on AIDS in the 1980s — and were remembered as courageous fighters for what was right for public health.

“One person’s advocacy is another person’s public health leadership,” said Dr. Avorn, who is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He called Dr. Murthy “universally respected” and said that once, after a colleague was in a life-threatening car accident, he researched rehabilitation options.

Dr. Murthy’s ability to look beyond the daily duties of a doctor and think broadly about national health trends makes him well suited to the post, Dr. Avorn said.

“He understands that health and illness are intimately connected to social issues and even political decisions,” he said. “He will point that out, and I predict that he will be attacked for it.”

Dr. Murthy was born in Britain to immigrants from India. He grew up in Miami, and was exposed to medicine by spending time in his father’s primary care clinic there. He studied at Harvard before going to medical school — and getting an M.B.A. — at Yale.

Dr. Murthy, who was not available for an interview on Tuesday, according to a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, has said that he got the idea to create Doctors for America in 2008, when health care became a campaign issue.

“I was struck by how few physicians were organizing and gathering their ideas to actually make an impact on the candidates’ platforms and, ultimately, on a health reform bill,” he said in an interview published in Hospitalist News in 2012. “A few colleagues and I began Doctors for America with a simple belief that physicians should play a leadership role in designing and running our nation’s health care system.”

In addition to Doctors for America, Dr. Murthy created a group that carries out AIDS education and was a founder of a community health group in rural India that trains women to become health educators. He also helped found a software company whose products are meant to improve the efficiency of clinical trials, according to the Doctors for America website.

At various times in the past, the country spent years without a surgeon general, and some say the position has lost its meaning. In 1995, a certain senator from Delaware, Joseph R. Biden Jr., was quoted as saying: “You could eliminate the entire job and you’d have no impact on the people of America.”

But the position is what the nominee makes it, and it remains to be seen what Dr. Murthy will choose. For now, he is quiet. His Twitter feed went silent in September 2013, not long before President Obama nominated him.

Among his last posts was a quote from Walt Whitman: “Charity and personal force are the only investments worth anything.”

Sunday, December 14, 2014


'There is overwhelming evidence that the higher the level of self-esteem, the more likely one will be to treat others with respect, kindness, and generosity." — Nathaniel Branden, Canadian–American psychotherapist and writer known for his work in the psychology of self-esteem

SOMETIMES I feel as though I'm a perennial scold. Vote. Care. Protest. Call Congress. Email Rush Limbaugh's sponsors. 

Nag nag nag.

Believe me I'll be back at it soon enough. However, in the meantime, in case you missed it, here's a wonderful story from The Boston Globe about human generosity.

Secret Santas pay off more than $40,000 in layaway orders at Toys ‘R’ Us stores                                                                                                                
By Kiera Blessing and Taryn Luna
December 12, 2014

It appears that the idea of paying it forward is catching on this holiday season.
Two anonymous donors walked into different Toys “R” Us stores in Massachusetts this week and paid off all of the layaway orders.

“We have had many accounts of layaway Santas, layaway angels, just good Samaritans,” said Toys “R” Us spokeswoman Adrienne O’Hara.

The first donor went into a Bellingham store on Wednesday and paid more than $20,000 to settle payments on 150 layaway accounts. The woman and the store manager together identified the open layaway orders that the store had and closed them all — despite the high cost, said Toys “R” Us spokeswoman O’Hara said.

Then on Friday another woman spread some Christmas cheer at a store in Auburn, this time dropping $19,600 to cover the full balance of the store’s 125 existing layaway accounts. Similar to the mystery donor in Bellingham, the Auburn benefactor didn’t flinch when she saw the five-figure bill.

The stores quickly called the customers whose bills had been paid. O’Hara said she had heard stories of customers getting so emotional they cried when they received the news.

In a separate instance last week, someone went into a Toys “R” Us store in Woburn and paid the layaway balances of several unsuspecting customers in line, which totaled more than $1,000, according to the company.

“Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of excitement and a lot of acts of good will,” O’Hara said. “It’s heartwarming every time.”

In 2013, the company had a total of 597 layaway orders charitably paid off.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Considering the Civil Rights Movement

“Anyone who said he wasn't afraid during the civil rights movement was either a liar or without imagination. I was scared all the time. My hands didn't shake but inside I was shaking.” — James L. Farmer, Jr., civil rights activist and leader in the American Civil Rights Movement

I'M NOT DONE rewinding Ferguson, MO. In the meantime, however, Paul came across this piece that was originally written August 29, 2011, but has been republished by many times. And those of you who are serious Hillary fans, don't get your undies in a bunch.

Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did
by Hamden Rice
August 29.2011

This will be a very short diary. It will not contain any links or any scholarly references. It is about a very narrow topic, from a very personal, subjective perspective.

The topic at hand is what Martin Luther King actually did, what it was that he actually accomplished.  

What most people who reference Dr. King seem not to know is how Dr. King actually changed the subjective experience of life in the United States for African Americans. And yeah, I said for African Americans, not for Americans, because his main impact was his effect on the lives of African Americans, not on Americans in general. His main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer. That's why some of us who are African Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy, despite what our civil religion tells us, is not color blind.

I remember that many years ago, when I was a smartass home from first year of college, I was standing in the kitchen arguing with my father. My head was full of newly discovered political ideologies and black nationalism, and I had just read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, probably for the second time.  

A bit of context. My father was from a background, which if we were talking about Europe or Latin America, we would call, "peasant" origin, although he had risen solidly into the working-middle class. He was from rural Virginia and his parents had been tobacco farmers. I spent two weeks or so every summer on the farm of my grandmother and step-grandfather. 

They had no running water, no gas, a wood burning stove, no bathtubs or toilets but an outhouse, potbelly stoves for heat in the winter, a giant wood pile, a smoke house where hams and bacon hung, chickens, pigs, semi wild housecats that lived outdoors, no tractor or car, but an old plow horse and plows and other horse drawn implements, and electricity only after I was about 8 years old. The area did not have high schools for blacks and my father went as far as the seventh grade in a one room schoolhouse. All four of his grandparents, whom he had known as a child, had been born slaves. It was mainly because of World War II and urbanization that my father left that life.
They lived in a valley or hollow or "holler" in which all the landowners and tenants were black. In the morning if you wanted to talk to cousin Taft, you would walk down to behind the outhouse and yell across the valley, "Heeeyyyy Taaaaft," and you could see him far, far in the distance, come out of his cabin and yell back. 

On the one hand, this was a pleasant situation because they lived in isolation from white people. On the other hand, they did have to leave the valley to go to town where all the rigid rules of Jim Crow applied. By the time I was little, my people had been in this country for six generations (going back, according to oral rendering of our genealogy, to Africa Jones and Mama Suki), much more under slavery than under freedom, and all of it under some form of racial terrorism, which had inculcated many humiliating behavior patterns.

Anyway, that's background. I think we were kind of typical as African Americans in the pre-civil rights era went.

So anyway, I was having this argument with my father about Martin Luther King and how his message was too conservative compared to Malcolm X's message. My father got really angry at me. It wasn't that he disliked Malcolm X, but his point was that Malcolm X hadn't accomplished anything as Dr. King had.  

I was kind of sarcastic and asked something like, so what did Martin Luther King accomplish other than giving his "I have a dream speech."

Before I tell you what my father told me, I want to digress. Because at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished. He gave this great speech. Or some people say, "he marched." I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.

At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn't that he "marched" or gave a great speech.

My father told me with a sort of cold fury, "Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south."

Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don't know what my father was talking about.  

But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.

I'm guessing that most of you, especially those having come fresh from seeing The Help, may not understand what this was all about. But living in the south (and in parts of the midwest and in many ghettos of the north) was living under terrorism.

It wasn't that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn't sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.
You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth's.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.  

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.

White people also occasionally tried black people, especially black men, for crimes for which they could not conceivably be guilty. With the willing participation of white women, they often accused black men of "assault," which could be anything from rape to not taking off one's hat, to "reckless eyeballing."
This is going to sound awful and perhaps a stain on my late father's memory, but when I was little, before the civil rights movement, my father taught me many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people. The one I remember most is that when walking down the street in New York City side by side, hand in hand with my hero-father, if a white woman approached on the same sidewalk, I was to take off my hat and walk behind my father, because he had been taught in the south that black males for some reason were supposed to walk single file in the presence of any white lady. 

This was just one of many humiliating practices we were taught to prevent white people from going berserk. 

I remember a huge family reunion one August with my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around my grandparents' vast breakfast table laden with food from the farm, and the state troopers drove up to the house with a car full of rifles and shotguns, and everyone went kind of weirdly blank. They put on the masks that black people used back then to not provoke white berserkness. My strong, valiant, self-educated, articulate uncles, whom I adored, became shuffling, Step-N-Fetchits to avoid provoking the white men. Fortunately the troopers were only looking for an escaped convict. 

Afterward, the women, my aunts, were furious at the humiliating performance of the men, and said so, something that even a child could understand.

This is the climate of fear that Dr. King ended.

If you didn't get taught such things, let alone experience them, I caution you against invoking the memory of Dr. King as though he belongs exclusively to you and not primarily to African Americans.
The question is, how did Dr. King do this—and of course, he didn't do it alone. 

(Of all the other civil rights leaders who helped Dr. King end this reign of terror, I think the most under appreciated is James Farmer, who founded the Congress of Racial Equality and was a leader of nonviolent resistance, and taught the practices of nonviolent resistance.)

So what did they do?

They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down. 

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we'll be okay.

They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn't that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people.

And you know what? The worst of the worst, wasn't that bad. 

Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?

These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail. 

That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song. The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another. This is what the writer, James Baldwin, captured like no other writer of the era.

Please let this sink in. It wasn't marches or speeches. It was taking a severe beating, surviving and realizing that our fears were mostly illusory and that we were free.

So yes, Dr. King had many other goals, many other more transcendent, non-racial, policy goals, goals that apply to white people too, like ending poverty, reducing the war-like aspects of our foreign policy, promoting the New Deal goal of universal employment, and so on. But his main accomplishment was ending 200 years of racial terrorism, by getting black people to confront their fears. So please don't tell me that Martin Luther King's dream has not been achieved, unless you knew what racial terrorism was like back then and can make a convincing case you still feel it today. If you did not go through that transition, you're not qualified to say that the dream was not accomplished.

That is what Dr. King did—not march, not give good speeches. He crisscrossed the south organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives. 

Once the beating was over, we were free.

It wasn't the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act that freed us. It was taking the beating and thereafter not being afraid. So, sorry Mrs. Clinton, as much as I admire you, you were wrong on this one. Our people freed ourselves and those Acts, as important as they were, were only white people officially recognizing what we had done.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


“Happiness is a warm puppy.” ― Charles M. Schulz

In my continuing effort not to be the all-Ferguson-all-the-time blog, thanks to Galen Brooks, here's a delightful video of puppies learning how to do things for the first time. It'll warm your heart.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Rewind: the decision (part II)

“A man, a member of our community, has been killed by another. Only a trial court can sort out what exactly happened and what defenses, if any, may apply." — Seth Morris, Deputy Public Defender in Alameda County, CA since 2008

WELL that was a brief hiatus. 

Sorry, but I am impelled to make another Hey Look post about the continuing stream of failure-to-indict decisions — which of course includes Ferguson, MO.

I'm so grateful for my intelligent, well-read Facebook friends. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have seen this article from The Washington Post — that just happens to corroborate my post from last night: Rewind: the decision (part I) — had not the estimable Steve Sorkin brought it to my attention. Thanks Steve!!

Darren Wilson

It would have been very simple to indict Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo. Here’s how.
By Seth Morris
December 8, 2014

It is, we are told, very hard to get grand jurors to indict police officers — which supposedly explains why Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo walk free, despite the men they killed in Ferguson, Mo., and on Staten Island. But as a public defender, I know exactly what it takes to get an indictment. I could get one in either case. In fact, I am ready and willing to fly to any town in this country to get an indictment in any case where a police officer kills an unarmed civilian.  It’s just not that hard.

I’d start by saying this. “A man, a member of our community, has been killed by another. Only a trial court can sort out what exactly happened and what defenses, if any, may apply. I believe in our trial system above all others in the world. I ask for an indictment so that all voices can be heard in a public courtroom with advocates for both sides in front of trial jurors from the community. This room is not the room to end this story. It’s where the story begins.”

I’d do it by asking the grand juries to apply the law to these men as the law demands it be applied — equally. I’d ask them to consider the recent fateful events as the work of ordinary humans, not police officers. I’d explain that the cases are too important to be settled in a secret grand jury room. The lives lost are too valuable to avoid a public trial.

I’d ask them not to consider the defenses the men may raise at trial, because these are irrelevant to the question of indictment. Judges routinely tell my clients — indigent, poor, often young men of color — that they will face trial because probable cause is an exceedingly low standard of proof. All it requires is a suspicion that a crime occurred and a suggestion that the defendant may be responsible for the crime.

Of course I’d present the facts, and exculpatory evidence if I had it. But the most important question is what suspicion is raised by the subject’s conduct, not what excuse he furnishes in his defense. I’d advise grand jurors to treat with caution any self-serving statements offered by someone who has killed another person. We indict on facts, not explanations. The “presumption of innocence”? It doesn’t apply. Affirmative defenses such as self-defense or “reasonable use of force”? Those are “better left to the jury,” just as my clients are most often told.

I’d share with them the stories of how often police officers lie and shade the truth to advance their positions: I’ve watched cops lie about minor, irrelevant details — fare evasion, driving without a seat belt, reaching for a waistband — when they know how important those details are for the district attorney’s case. I’d say how I’ve confronted police officers for lying or omitting facts from their reports or even pretending not to see or hear something captured by a chest-mounted camera when that thing is exculpatory to the person they arrest.

The prosecutors in these cases failed to share stories such as these because they don’t routinely have to confront police officers as part of their job. It’s also because they never wanted an indictment in the first place.

I practice in Oakland, Calif., a city plagued by violent crime. I do this work because I believe in a fair process for every person, even those charged with doing unspeakable things. I have represented hundreds of defendants — in robberies, rapes, carjackings, kidnappings and murders — during preliminary hearings, which, like grand juries, determine whether a person should stand trial. In my hearings, the district attorney charges the defendant first and then presents evidence pointing to probable cause. The judge in these hearings, almost always, orders the defendant to stand trial. When defendants do testify, they typically do it at trial, not before the grand jury (as Wilson did). And the district attorney tells the jurors that the defendant would say anything to go free.

So how is it that police shoot an unarmed boy in Ferguson and strangle an asthmatic man on Staten Island, and nobody found probable cause? The only explanation is that, rather than acting like prosecutors, these district attorneys acted like the officers’ attorneys. They did not push the grand juries to indict. In fact, they suggested that it would be okay not to indict. They presented mitigation. They didn’t cross-examine the killers. Remember, grand juries only see one lawyer – the prosecutor. There is no judge present and no adversary to the district attorney. When there is only one lawyer in the room and that lawyer has asked for indictments in every other case he presents, when he stands before you and tells you he wants you do whatever you think is right, the outcome is almost preordained. Here’s what the right approach would have been:

Unarmed men were killed. Let’s have a trial.