shlepping to shul

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

Continuing the story of my visit to Birmingham, on Saturday morning we went to shul. We could go to Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, an orthodox synagogue, or Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, a Liberal congregation. Though I knew that I would probably appreciate the davenning more at the orthodox shul, I chose BPS because I was curious about egalitarian Judaism in the UK. To be a little snide, this service out-Reformed a Reform synagogue in the U.S.: To some extent, what happened was almost unrecognizable to me.

After a 20-minute walk, we arrived at the synagogue before services started at 11:00 a.m. — which seemed quite late. Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in synagogue before services started; because the ones I attend on Shabbat morning tend to be about three hours, I (like many people) drift in 30 or 45 minutes late. So we actually sat for a little while, and the very nice member of the congregation who welcomed us explained that because of the summer holidays, attendance would be sparse, and asked those of us who were Jewish to please sing out during the service. Indeed, there were perhaps 25 congregants, and almost no young people. The rabbi (who is a woman) was away, and in her place a congregant (also a woman) led the service.

The service was quite abbreviated, with none of the prayers — including the Amidah — said (or even printed) in full. Many were replaced by responsive readings in English. I knew almost none of the melodies, and I think (though I’m not an expert) that the ones used were difficult to sing, and not that spirited. Honestly, I felt like I was in church, which is not bad per se, but not what I would want in a synagogue.

The Torah service was in the same vein. The procession of the scroll happened only after the reading, and there was only one aliyah, meaning that only a very small part of the parshah was read. And the tallit of young girl who had the aliyah was longer than her overall shorts. (I realize that makes me sound crotchety.) The Torah reader gave a short d’var and then did just that: read the Torah. He didn’t chant it; he just read it from the scroll. He then offered his own translation. I’ve never seen this tradition before, though I was told it is standard practice in these congregations in England. The reader did gain my affection by talking about the points of grammar he considered when making his translation; he even used the words “infinitive absolute”!

After kiddush, we went back upstairs so that the non-Jews could look at the Torah scroll close up. The congregation has four scrolls, which is quite a lot for a 300-member shul. (Most synagogues do have more than one, to avoid constant scroll rolling, since a holiday might make it necessary to read from different parts of the scroll.) The building, too, was quite modern and expensive, which seemed out of sync with its anemic congregation. As it turns out, the synagogue moved just a few years ago: Its original building was bought by a developer planning to build a skyscraper on the property. So the congregation had to pay only about 10% of the cost of the building.

After lunch, we split up into groups to go to different parts of the city to try to get a sense of the multicultural and multifaith character of the city. I’ll just note that I found this exercise a little problematic, for reasons that I don’t want to go into here. But one of the things that I noticed were the near ubiquitous signs reading, “This area monitored by CCTV cameras.” My association with these cameras in the U.S. is the over-policing of low-income areas and neighborhoods of people of color, particularly under the pretext of the drug war — so I found the situation horrifying. But two native Brits confirmed that this level of surveillance is standard (or at least has become so in the post-9/11 and post-2005-Underground-bombings world). None of the natives I spoke to gave a thought to the cameras, and one even characterized Americans as “uptight” for opposing them.

Finally, we finished up the day at dinner with more guests, interfaith community organizers from Sparkbrook. We heard about The Feast, which brings together Christian and Muslim youth, and then from Rev. Richard Sudworth of Christ Church Centre (the first stop in Birmingham, where we heard from awesomely named Mohammed Ali), as well as from Javed Khan, who works in the community around Christ Church, which is majority Muslim. Rev. Sudworth talked about his church’s role in a community that is not reflective of its membership: A new experience, they’ve stepped back and concentrated on supporting the work that is already being done by groups in the area. It really resonated with me, as I think it’s a good model for the kind of work I want to do in a Jewish organization with other groups.

Next up . . . we attend church!

dayeinu

At seder on Monday and Tuesday nights, we sang “Dayeinu,” the Passover song that thanks G-d for the many, many things that G-d has done for us. It’s a review of everything that happened to get us out of slavery in Egypt and into Israel where the temple was built. (Good for G-d, the song ends before those pesky temple destructions.) Dayeinu means, approximately, “it would have sufficed!” The verses take the form of, “If G-d had just done X and not Y, dayeinu!”

So we sing, “If G-d had split the sea for us and not led us through on dry land, dayeinu!” “If G-d had led us to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, dayeinu!”

But these are absurd things to say. It would have been enough for G-d to create an escape route from the Egyptians but not actually vouchsafed it to us? It would have been enough for G-d point the way to a random mountain in the desert . . . for no reason at all? Many have offered feasible explanations for each of these statements. On Tuesday, for instance, my seder host shared what she had heard from a rabbi: The arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai marks the first time “Israel” is referred to the singular, as a collective. So Sinai represents the beginning of peoplehood, even without the Torah. But I’m not so sure we’re supposed to take the song so literally. It seems to me that we might be simply expressing awe for each of the things G-d did for us, in a series of things that ultimately led to our freedom. But each one is actually not enough.

On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Prop. 8 case, the referendum that Californians passed in 2008 that outlawed marriage for same-sex couples. On Wednesday, the Court heard arguments in the challenge to DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts federal marriage benefits from same-sex couples (insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors’ benefits, immigration, the filing of joint tax returns, etc.), and requires interstate marriage recognition only for opposite-sex marriages.

marriage equalityOn Tuesday my Facebook feed turned red. Most of my friends changed their profile pictures to the Human Rights Campaign’s logo, colors changed for this historic occasion. Then the variations started: Yoda, Bert and Ernie, and an angry cat were added. The equal signs became penises, mustaches, animals, band-aids, matzah. I was over it even before the inevitable appearance of bacon. (The internet abhors a meme without bacon.)

I support marriage equality. And I didn’t change my profile pic. I put little stock in so-called clicktivism. One of my friends did post about how much it would mean to her if all her friends, especially straight ones, changed their profile pics as a sign of allyship: That partially melted my cold heart. And I did see a few people asking about its significance in comments on Facebook’s notification of changed profile pics. Which I imagine might be construed as “raising awareness,” quite possibly my least favorite phrase in the English language.

But my concern about this issue is deeper than my fear that people are substituting social media for real action. Many, many of my D.C. friends actually did actually go to the Supreme Court rallies to show support for marriage equality.

I worry that these cases, in the words of a good friend of mine, are “a gamble and a huge risk.” Marriage is a civil right — if perhaps not a strategy to achieve structural change — and there’s a chance it won’t be affirmed by the Court.

I came out in, and lived through, the post-Bowers v. Hardwick world, and it was an ugly time. The people who brought that case thought their odds were good too, but the result of their good intentions was a long period of time [Bowers was overturned in 2003 with the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas] when employers, governments, and courts (among others) could consider gay people de facto criminals in many states with the blessing of the Supreme Court. If we lose, and the high court decides that there is no fundamental right for gay people to marry our partners, I fear it could set back the fight for marriage equality in a huge way.

I worry that the online activism around these cases give rise to arguments that are not good for anybody’s liberation. I’m thinking in particular about the Louis CK quote [NSFW, natch] on marriage equality, which begins with “It doesn’t have any effect on your life.” Is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So you are free to oppose issues if they inconvenience you? I’m also thinking of the argument that gay people are just like straight people. Just gay. Again, is this really how we want to garner support for this cause? So minorities should have rights as long as they are just aspiring to imitate the majority? Equal protection goes to the non-threatening? I am also thinking of the implication that marriage is a panacea for ensuring rights. Shouldn’t everyone, regardless of marital status, be entitled to the benefits denied because of DOMA? So you’re just out of luck if for some reason marriage isn’t in your plans?

I worry that, as I’ve written about before, marriage equality is the priority of only a small, privileged group of queer folks, mostly well-off white people (just look at the plaintiffs in both cases, or the sea of white that was the supporting faction in the rallies). On a current events program on my local NPR affiliate this week, the host marveled at how quickly marriage equality has gained support (contrasting it with, say, the relative torpidity of the civil rights movement). As far as I can see, the difference is that the former has had a lot of money and power behind it.

I worry that money and power thus directed limits the same towards issues that feel a lot more pressing and a lot more damaging, particularly for poor people of color. (I recognize that it is easy for me — a straight, white, married woman — to say this with the privilege of marriage already in hand.) On Thursday I visited the inmate that I am mentoring — a queer woman of color — as she finishes her college degree as part of Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. I use the word “mentoring” because that is the formal term for our relationship, as defined by the program we participate in, but she hardly needs help with her studies. I’m basically a cheerleader, a listener, and a contact from the outside world.

She’s taking a class on race and incarceration, so we’re reading a lot of the same books. As we talked about the drug war and hyperincarceration and the dehumanizing prison system, I couldn’t help but wish for the day when all of my white friends would support drug policy and prison reforms and would proudly make those known and would go to rallies in support of court cases before the Supreme Court. As useless as I find social media “activism,” a sea of profile pics demanding an end to the racist institution of the death penalty, or protesting the “virtual ‘drug exception’ [that] now exists to the Bill of Rights” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow), or decrying the dehumanizing for-profit prison industry would at least mean that the issues had gained mainstream currency.

This was a hard post to write. Tuesday’s Facebook activity ultimately left me very sad and unable to organize my thoughts. (It didn’t help that I was getting sick and mourning the death of a friend.) And changing one’s profile pic is not a wrong thing to do. And one of my best friends works for a prominent gay rights organization in this fight. And many of my gay friends consider marriage equality very important.

Our collective liberation today depends on many, many steps — as did our march to freedom through the desert. And even when we think we’ve gotten there and the song ends, the temple can be destroyed. Twice.

Marriage equality is something to regard with awe. And it is in no way enough.

a world apart

This week I was assigned Cristina Rathbone’s A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars as part of my Foundations of Prison Ministry class. I was only required to read parts, but I ended up tearing through the whole thing. It helped that I had a snow day on Tuesday.

The book hits close to home (it looks like I’m calling Boston home now!) because the author lives in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood just a few miles away from mine. Plus, the subjects of the book are women incarcerated at nearby MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison, where I mentor an inmate who is in Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. I visit her as part of an interfaith initiative between Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological Seminary, the CIRCLE Prison Justice and Ministry Program.

Rathbone’s relationships with the five women whose stories constitute the majority of the book developed over five years — and were only the result of years of initial litigation for access to the prison. As she notes at the outset, she has just about only been in MCI-Framingham’s visiting room. But despite the considerable efforts of the powerful Massachusetts Department of Corrections to keep her out, Rathbone presents a comprehensive picture of life on the inside (in so far as any outsider can tell, I suppose).

The importance of the book lies in the fact that, Rathbone notes, “women behind bars are startlingly unlike their more violent male counterparts. Predominantly incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related offenses, they are frequently mere accessories to their crimes: girlfriends, wives, or lovers of drug dealers, even leaseholders of apartments in which drugs are stashed. Almost all have serious drug problems themselves, and about half are victims of domestic abuse.” It stands to reason that life inside a women’s prison would be different, too.

If the stereotypical male experience in prison is working out, illegal procurement of weapons and drugs, physical violence, and trying to escape, the stereotypical female experience is eating junk food, illegal procurement of underwear and personal hygiene products, gossiping, and trying to see children. But sex is the great unifier: It turns out that almost everyone, in both environments, sleeps with a fellow inmate or a guard.

The book alternates between the stories of a handful of women and the history of women’s incarceration in the U.S. I found the latter only of passing interest, in part because how little effect the past has had on the trajectory of how women now fare in the criminal justice system. The first women’s prison, Mount Pleasant, opened in 1838 on the grounds of the infamous Sing Sing prison, and it was closed in 1850. MCI-Framingham, which opened in 1877, is the oldest running women’s prison in the U.S., so its history could be instructive. But it falls into a depressingly rhythmic pattern: A reform-minded woman takes over and institutes changes aimed at true rehabilitation, and then a (usually male) higher-up decides that the programs and practices are self-indulgent and replaces the reformer with a traditionalist. And then a reform-minded woman takes over again . . . The regularity of the ups and downs made me wonder whether a permanent revolution will ever be possible.

rug hooking class at MCI-Framingham, 1948; photo via Framingham Public Library

rug hooking class at MCI-Framingham, 1948; photo via Framingham Public Library

In Rathbone’s account, MCI-Framingham, probably like many prisons in the era of government budget shortfalls, has very little in the way of programming. She writes: “Its website indicates a long list of programs available to the women of Framingham . . . but when you take into account the diversity and breadth of its population, it remains a fact that each women at MCI-Framingham has access to fewer programs, and therefore to fewer privileges and less prison-earned ‘good time,’ than most male prisoners in the state.” Indeed, Rathbone’s analysis is that the sexism of our society is reflected in the prison system: Men get disproportionate resources. But women in prison have disproportionate need, in part because of past abuse, drug addiction, mental illness, and their responsibility for children.

Sidebar: For what it’s worth, I should note a criticism of this analysis: Our class discussion on the book was led (in the absence of my professor) by Rev. Joyce Penfield, executive director of The Blessing Way, a Rhode Island institution that provides “spiritual guidance for reentry & recovery.” She argued that per capita, women get vastly more resources than men: There are more programs in men’s prisons, but they constitute 94% of the country’s prison population. I’m not sure that this changes the experience of scant resources that the women in Framingham report, but I feel compelled to mention this disagreement. And Penfield even went further, suggesting that her experience in the Rhode Island penal system is one of plenty where women are concerned.

Most compelling, as is so often the case, are the stories Rathbone tells. These are women you want to root for: None of them ever had much to begin with, were given pretty short shrift in life, and are now facing just about the steepest uphill climbs you can imagine. Most heartbreaking were the struggles with child-rearing. As women are most often the primary caregivers in our society, so too are they in prison. And they seemed to spend most of their energy behind bars monitoring the often insecure living situations of their kids. Unlike the majority of incarcerated men, each woman could not rely on her children’s other parent to do the care-taking in her absence.

Somewhat mystifying was Rathbone’s treatment of sexual relationships at the prison. She devotes a number of pages to the prevalence of these illicit affairs (physical touch between inmates and just about anyone is forbidden), both between prisoners and between prisoners and guards. Such contact is commonplace, even rampant, for all the same reasons that it is on the outside: One of the women in the book, who resists such affairs for most of her time in prison, even witheringly notes that her fellow inmates just replicate on the inside the same problematic relationships they had on the outside. Her cellmate hooks up with almost every officer that is interested, while another woman is involved in an abusive relationship with a fellow prisoner. And these relationships, like everything else in jail, are commodities. What’s lacking, to my mind, is a discussion of the question of whether carceral relationships can ever be truly consensual, particularly between inmates and guards. Rathbone only talks very briefly about allegations of rape in that institutional context — but devotes an entire chapter to a now-defunct web site that seeks to connect men to incarcerated women (ultimately called “Jail Babes” but originally and unfortunately dubbed “Jail Bait”). Maybe that says something important: As Rathbone begins her book, “Life in a women’s prison was full of surprises.”

steubenville

Trigger warning: This post alludes to a graphic sexual assault that may be upsetting to survivors.

For better or worse, the name of this Ohio town, which used to be associated with the high school football team that was its pride and glory, will likely become synonymous with “teenage gang rape,” much as Abu Ghraib has become synonymous with “torture and prisoner abuse.” Ironically, in Steubenville the former — a cult of football player worship that is all too common in the United States — played a huge role in the latter — an atmosphere in which multiple athletes assaulted a classmate too drunk to consent.

Today the two boys who committed the assault, a six-hour ordeal of which the survivor has no memory but which was extensively documented on social media, were convicted of rape. The 17-year-old will serve at least two years in the state juvenile system; the 16-year-old, at least one year. It’s possible that they will be incarcerated until they are 24 and 21, respectively. Extension of the sentences is at the discretion of the state’s Department of Youth Services.

I felt relief when I heard about the conviction. From the event all the way through the trial, it seemed — at least from my limited vantage point, through local and national media — that the town was generally rallying around “their boys” and were blaming the victim, as people are so wont to do. Indeed, many of their classmates hurriedly deleted videos of and text messages about the assault when the boys realized that, wow, people are kind of upset about this and we might have done something wrong. Two of the victim’s former friends testified that she is often intoxicated at parties and “lies about things.” There was much hand-wringing over the boys’ futures, football and otherwise. I feared that the circling of the wagons around the perpetrators would be successful.

jailed rapists

jailed rapists (source: RAINN)

I also felt that the punishments were at least to some extent appropriate, though I can’t help but hope that the punishments end up on the longer end of the possibilities (more on that below). I may be in the minority in this sentiment, judging by a (highly unscientific) review of today’s Facebook posts about the verdict. A friend of a friend expressed surprised outrage that rape is not punishable by 25 years to life. To which I want to burst out laughing.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), accounting for unreported rapes, only about 3% of rapists ever spend time in jail. And according to the U.S. Department of Justice, as of 1992, the average sentence for rapists was just shy of 12 years, with average actual time served about five-and-a-half years. (The current arrest rate for rape, about 25%, has remained unchanged since the 1970s, so there’s little reason to believe that sentences have changed either.) To say that rape is rarely punished via the criminal justice system is an understatement.

I spent seven years in D.C. volunteering at the local rape crisis center. I have little sympathy for rapists.

I also spent the same amount of time working and volunteering for drug policy reform organizations. I have little confidence in the criminal justice system.

And indeed, my experience working with survivors of sexual assault taught me the same lesson: The criminal justice system simply doesn’t do what we hope it does.

This semester I’m taking “Foundations of Prison Ministry” at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. To whatever small extent I wasn’t before, I am now thoroughly horrified at our criminal justice system. I can’t condone caging human beings for inordinate amounts of time. I have no trust that we are putting away the “right” people. And I am certain that we’re not rehabilitating anyone.

Sidebar: I just wrote 10 pages for my class midterm about why the criminal justice system is abominable — and I barely scratched the surface in so doing — so I am obviously not able to do it justice (heh) in this post. For a good primer, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. And don’t tell me you don’t have time to read a whole book. As a citizen of this nation, you don’t have time not to read it! /rant

Ultimately, what I am saying is that I am divided. I don’t think we should be locking kids up for long periods of time (and never for life). And the criminals in this case are kids. Stupid, self-entitled, shameless, sadistic scum. But kids nonetheless. (The New York Times reported that the boy sentenced to at least one year told his lawyer upon hearing the decision, “My life is over.” To my mind there’s no clearer indication of the immaturity at work here. And I still want to scream at him about the life of the girl he assaulted.) These kids merit punishment. So in our very limited criminal justice system arsenal, I am forced to admit that some jail time seems like the best option.

But I concede this knowing that whatever good these boys will learn over the next year, two years, or five years, they will find in spite of their incarceration, and not because of it. More than likely, they’ll come out more desensitized than they went in. They’re for damn sure not going to learn in juvenile how to be men in a way different from that which rape culture promotes. And shouldn’t that be our goal?

let the people in

final-let-the-people-in

When asked what she would have done differently if she’d known she was to be only a one-term governor, Ann Richards grinned and said, “I would probably have raised more hell.”

While I was at the ashram, I read Jan Reid’s Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards. I laughed with delight at the introductory chapter, and I cried with despair at the ending — at both endings. There was the end of her rather short political career in 1994, and then there was her death in 2006 from cancer.

My introduction to this bawdy, loud, wonderful lady was during her second and failed race for governor. As I wrote for my introduction when I was asked to speak during the feminist fishbowl, “Salem has identified as a feminist since 1994, when as an impressionable 16-year-old she watched Ann Richards lose her re-election bid for governor of Texas to one George W. Bush.” I remember feeling like the world was going to end that fall — and then being sure of it six years later in the fall of 2000. But here we all are.

And thank goodness for that, because the world that I live in is one that Ann Richards helped to create. As Reid notes,

Her greatest accomplishment was to bring to positions of responsibility and power in Texas the women, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, gay men, lesbians, and disabled persons who had been so long denied. Because of that, state government centered in Austin will never be the same. Whatever party wins the elections and controls the appointed boards that keep the bureaucratic agencies and institutions of higher education running, democracy in Texas is better because she won.

Ann Richards was born near Waco, Texas, at the end of 1933, and she was almost immediately ill suited to her time. She was a wife (to David Richards), mother (to Cecile, Daniel, Clark, and Ellen), and teacher because that’s what women did; she was honest even in her lifetime about how those roles made her just about go out of her mind with boredom. Even when she served as chief of staff for Sarah Weddington (before the latter went to D.C. to argue Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court), Richards had to negotiate a special arrangement with her boss to leave work early be able to cook dinner for her family. On the one hand, we should all be able to so organize our lives to spend more time with our families. On the other hand, of course Richards’ demanding job did not excuse her from her unpaid work, as it did her husband. Indeed, even as she began to field requests for appearances all over the country, Richards answered a phone call from Midge Costanza, the highest ranking woman in the Carter administration, with the breezy, “Hi, Midge, what do you want? I’m cooking David’s supper.”

ann richards at the 1988 democratic national convention

ann richards at the 1988 democratic national convention

Richards rose through Texas politics as a campaign volunteer, political staffer, county commissioner, state treasurer, and then governor. (Her career is a good reminder that it wasn’t so long ago that Texas was not the monolithically Republican state that it’s now considered to be.) Her spunk brought her to the attention of the national scene even when she was just a local politician, but she became a star during the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, where she gave the keynote address. She “talked Texas” and delivered the now well-known zinger about the Republic presidential candidate: “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

In 1990, Richards’s first race for governor, against millionaire businessman and good ole boy Claytie Williams, is one of the most amusingly horrifying tales in Texas history — and is chronicled brilliantly in Molly Ivins’ book Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?, a collection of the columnist’s political coverage, from which Reid draws liberally (no pun intended). Richards became the first female governor of Texas since 1924, when the wife of a former governor was elected. (They are still the only two women to have held that office.)

As Reid tells it, Richards tried to do too much: Her inauguration speech included 15 massive projects as top priorities. She made progressive headway in many, but ultimately, she would preside over the largest expansion of the criminal justice system in the country, doubling the number of incarcerated persons in Texas. In so doing, she did pioneer a revolutionary model of drug and alcohol treatment for non-violent offenders (she herself was a recovering alcoholic and drug user). And in her defense, she inherited a state prison crisis that had been broiling since the early 1970s, when an inmate brought a federal case against the state for violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Adding pressure to the impetus for change were several high profile killings, most notably the Luby’s massacre in Killeen in 1991 and the siege on the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993. But the number of executions on her watch reached 48, and her only acts of clemency in four years were two 30-day stays. It is an indelible stain on her legacy that by the year 2000, Texas had the largest prison population of any Western democracy.

The book suffered slightly, not from its subject, but from its writing, which swung between not enough repetition and too much. The text was full of awkward segues that didn’t properly introduce new characters, and recurring characters were not given enough context to remind the reader of his or her significance. But as the author touched on a subject and later returned to it, entire passages (as for example, on the history of prison reform in Texas) would be repeated almost verbatim.

But Reid was a friend of Richards (and his wife was in her employ for more than a decade). The reader can’t help but feel his affection for her. Oddly enough, he refers to her as “Ann” throughout; it’s hard to tell whether this is simply familiarity, but it is certainly not customary in biography.

It is indeed easy to root for Ann Richards, who said on her inauguration: “Today we have a vision of a Texas where opportunity knows no race, no gender, no color — a glimpse of what can happen in government if we simply open the doors and let the people in.”

voting

A few of my Facebook friends from Texas began posting this week about early voting, and I wondered whether that is an option here in Massachusetts. But then I remembered that I still don’t know who I’m going to vote for next month. And the choice is not between the president and Gov. Romney, which anyone who knows me might suspect. I am considering voting for a third-party candidate.

inauguration watermelon, just part of the Oba-mania in D.C. in early 2009; photo by salem pearce

I voted for Obama last time, and I was proud to do so — to be a part of history, and as a symbol of my hope for a new era after the horror of Bush years. I didn’t think Obama was going to forever change U.S. politics, as so many of my friends seemed to (a Hillary supporter originally, I was slow to warm up to the eventual candidate), but it was a thrill to vote for the first black president of the United States in that country’s capital, an historically black district. I happily waited in a long line that beautiful morning in November 2008 outside my voting location, the Metropolitan A.M.E Church. And I was proud to cast my vote that day even though Obama was projected to win the district — and of course did with almost 93% of the vote (more about that below).

But Obama as president has disappointed — and on more than one occasion, infuriated — me, as I know he has many progressives. He ran liberal as a candidate and then as president ran straight to the center (although I don’t think he is as bad as President Clinton in that way). To name a few issues:

The president signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the “indefinite definition” clause, a provision that allows for military imprisonment of U.S. citizens. (This law also makes the closing of Guantanamo — a campaign promise — more difficult.)

The president has deported an unprecedented number of undocumented immigrants during his term, despite a campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform.

The president has ramped up federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries, despite a campaign promise to end them.

And this Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has quadrupled (unofficially unacknowledged) drone attacks in Pakistan against terrorist suspects.

This is to say nothing of my devastation at the president’s refusal to speak out, as a black man with black daughters, about issues affecting black folks. And as I noted at the time, I was not impressed with his declaration of support for marriage quality.

I recognize that these are not everyone’s issues. And there are also things that the president has done which I’ve loved, such as health care reform and repealing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. However, I think that at this point my concern outweighs my estimation.

To be clear, I do not consider Gov. Romney any kind of alternative (not the least because he doesn’t differ from the president on the above issues), and I am fairly confident that the president is going to win re-election. More importantly for the decision at hand, the president is sure to win my state of Massachusetts. If I lived in a swing state, the president would have my vote in an instant, and this thought exercise would not exist.

The other choices in Massachusetts are the Libertarian ticket, featuring former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and the Green-Rainbow ticket, featuring Dr. Jill Stein (a former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate), both of whom have positions that I find appealing — and who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy on the four issues I mentioned above. According to this highly scientific website, I agree with Stein on 94% of issues and with Johnson on 82% (and Obama isn’t actually all that far behind with 72%).

But of course neither of them will draw anything more than 1% of the vote in Massachusetts. And I don’t know that I want either of them to actually be president: Stein in particular, by her dearth of political experience, is in no way qualified, and neither has been scrutinized and vetted on a national scale as I would expect to be the candidates for the most powerful job in the nation. Plus, I don’t agree with many parts of the Libertarian platform.

So I know who will carry Massachusetts; a vote for any other candidate won’t affect the fact that the electoral college votes will go to the president. Before I can answer the question of who I should vote for, I need to answer the question of why I vote.

Tritely, I believe that voting is my civic duty, part of living in a democratic society. The possibility of voting engages me with my elected officials and the issues that affect me, and the act of voting is a symbol of my investment in that society. I vote because so many others (particularly legions of felony drug-offenders, whose punishment does not end with serving time and who the vast majority of states strip of the right to vote) can’t.

taxation without representation; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I lived for years in the District of Columbia without Congressional representation (despite paying federal taxes as all other U.S. citizens). On principle, that’s enough to propel me to the voting booth as often as I can, if for no other reason than to elect members of Congress who will give D.C. residents representation. Which reminds me of another way in which the president has madden me: He has done nothing to advance D.C. Congressional representation in Congress — and didn’t do so even when he had a super-majority in Congress. He wouldn’t even show symbolic support for the issue — which results in disproportional disenfranchisement of black folks — by putting the “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousine.

As it turns out, voting is not rational, as this 2005 New York Times article articulates nicely. It’s inefficient and ineffectual. There is almost no chance that my individual vote will affect the outcome. If I believe that it is nevertheless important — and many things in this life are both irrational and important (the Libertarian Party probably doesn’t even want my vote now!) — what are the considerations for who gets my vote?

Do I vote for a candidate about whom I have serious reservations but who is going to win, because that projection is based on people like me voting for him, and if everyone behaved otherwise, he wouldn’t win?

Do I vote for a candidate with whom I have more agreement but who has no chance of winning — and who I actually don’t want to see win anyway? Is there value — for myself, for society — in a symbolic vote?

I just don’t know, and I continue to struggle with these questions, which feel very important to me. There’s a chance that I don’t decide until I actually get to my voting place on November 6.

no milk and cookies

Or, in which I do not laud the president for his statement on marriage equality yesterday.

First: I absolutely support marriage equality. It makes me furious that in various parts of this country we are voting on and legislating against civil rights. Any two consenting adults should be able to get married — and this is one of those rare moral and ethical absolute rights. It should not even be an issue.

And . . . I’m not that impressed by the president’s televised statement that “I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”

I realize I’m in the minority among my progressive peers, if my Facebook feed is any indication. I acknowledge that words matter, and it matters what the president says: He can start and shift a national conversation. And, as a straight married woman, I can’t know what it feels like to have my relationship finally given the dignity that it deserves, by the most powerful man in the world, because my privilege is that my relationship has always been so accorded. In some ways, it was indeed an historic moment. (And I’m not completely hardhearted: I was touched by his crediting his wife and daughters for helping to shape his views on this issue. The women have always been my favorite Obamas.)

But many things about what happened yesterday — and, I suppose, what have been happening for a while, during the president’s “evolution” — were troubling. It’s hard to escape the fact that the decision to make this statement was born out of yet another vice presidential gaffe. Basically, Joe Biden went off the campaign script, and the president’s hand was forced. To avoid the impression that he and his running mate are not on the same page on this issue, the president quickly went on television to express what we’ve suspected he’s actually believed for a long time.

Indeed, the speed of the reaction (three days passed between Biden’s statement and Obama’s — did the president just happen to finish “evolving” at that point?) suggests that he already held the belief and was perhaps waiting until after the election to say so. His silence has then been a political calculation, about which I find very little commendable (particularly in light of the growing support for marriage equality in this country). It is incumbent upon us as human beings to speak out against injustice — and never more so when that human being is in a position of political power.

And even if I’m wrong in characterizing the action as political, and I take the president at his word that his personal belief has been evolving, I am still dismissive. A black man well knows the the history of injustice in our country’s marriage laws, and he should have been saying from day one, “I absolutely support equality because it is not okay to restrict marriage.”

Moreover, this seems to me a symbolic statement. Will he speak out against future measures like the one in North Carolina, which passed just the day before? Will he work to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which he has thus far only ordered the Justice Department not to enforce defend*? I want action with vague words. I don’t feel all that thrilled at what on its face was a simple statement of belief, the appropriate response to which is “duh.”

In the bigger picture, I share the concerns of many — particularly people of color, low income folks, and trans folks — in the queer community about the focus on marriage equality to the exclusion of other issues facing those constituencies (see also: hate crimes legislation). As a friend of a friend wrote on Facebook yesterday — and as my friend Alicia has eloquently written elsewhere:

WHAT about those of us who are raging queers? What about those of us who are poly, sex-positive, who don’t want kids, who have unconventional family arrangements? What about queers who have AIDS, who are homeless, who are gender freaks and warriors? Those of us who want working to dismantle the state, take apart the military, end capitalism, destroy the institution of marriage, and abolish prisons? What do we do when a movement for justice for LGBT people and the national discourse frames that movement as being about an institution that strengthens the power of a state that wages wars, puts people behind bars, profits off of land theft and slavery, and makes healthcare a right of the rich?

Marriage equality is a step. But I worry that the argument for it often devolves into, “Gay folks are just like straight folks. You don’t have to go out of your comfort zone to support marriage equality.” That’s insulting to everyone involved. I want support for people (straight people included) not to get married, too. I want support and attention for many, many other issues that, frankly, are more pressing for many folks than the right to marry.

Further, this does not change my position that I will not be giving the president anything other than my vote. He won’t have my time and money before the election as long he keeps signing bills allowing for indefinite detention, deporting record numbers of undocumented immigrants, and raiding medical marijuana dispensaries, to name a few issues on which he has utterly disgusted me.

Finally, while I’m on my soapbox, I’d really appreciate it if we could all stop using the term “gay marriage” (and the only somewhat better “same-sex marriage”), as it’s conceding the right’s narrative on this issue. “Marriage equality” affirms that existing marriage laws apply to everyone; we are not seeking to create a new institution for queer folks.

Marriage, as it stands (my issues with the institution, especially the state’s role it, notwithstanding), should be open to all.

*Update: My friend Brian Moulton, chief legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, points out that the Obama administration has been “not defending” DOMA — not “not enforcing.”

anatomy of injustice

Raymond Bonner’s Anatomy of Injustice reads like a true-crime thriller, and I would say I enjoyed if I hadn’t spent the entire book alternating between anger and horror. A New York Times reporter, Bonner wrote the book from his journalism research, which started in Texas after then-Governor George Bush — who had presided over more executions than any other governor in history — stated on Meet the Press, “I’m confident that every person that has been put to death in Texas on my watch has been guilty of the crime charged and has full access to the courts. I’m confident.”

Since Governor George Ryan of Illinois had just two weeks before suspended the death penalty in his state because of eleventh-hour exonerations of several condemned prisoners, Bonner and a colleague were first sent to Texas, and then later other states, to investigate Bush’s claim and the state of the death penalty in America today. Anatomy examines just one of the many cases they looked into: that of Edward Lee Gilmore, a young black man of limited intelligence convicted of murder in South Carolina in a seven-day trial.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not impartial on this issue. I think capital punishment is just the most egregious evidence that our criminal justice system is broken (second only to the atrocities of mass incarceration, prison-industrial complex, and drug war, among others). One of my dream jobs would be to work against the death penalty as a rabbi.

So it wasn’t going to take much to convince me of the miscarriage of justice. Tragically, it took 30 years to convince those who could actually do something for Elmore. He had three trials before he was sentenced to death for the last time, and it took almost 20 years to locate a potentially exonerating piece of evidence that the state thought was lost. The book ends before Elmore’s saga does: Last month, Elmore left a courthouse in Greenwood as a free man for the first time since 1982.

Bonner chose the case as emblematic of the many death penalty cases that occur in the 36 states in our country that allow the punishment. He notes, “Elmore’s story raises nearly all of the issues that mark the debate about capital punishment: race, mental retardation, bad trial lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct, ‘snitch’ testimony, DNA testing, a claim of innocence.”

It’s because so many death penalty cases have at least one of these issues that Elmore’s story is sadly familiar, so I won’t go into the details of his story. Bonner is able to make the case for Elmore’s innocence, overwhelming in the narrative and affirmed by his later release, even more compelling by being able to pretty reliably point to the real perpetrator, a neighbor with whom the victim was suspected of having an affair and who died years before Bonner started covering the case. He “discovered” the body and pointed the original investigators to Elmore, and they never even considered the former a suspect.

edward lee elmore, a few years before his arrest for murder

Several things struck me as I read. Abysmally represented at his original trials, Elmore benefited immensely from later (competent, not to mention tenacious and passionate) counsel from the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center. This is typical of many of these cases: The best representation is available on appeal. A huge part of Elmore’s experience was the direct result of the complete incompetence of his original lawyers. There are many dedicated lawyers and law students today working on the cases of death row inmates, so why aren’t more of them clamoring to be the original lawyers on these cases? Indeed, the book makes clear that one of the enormous hurdles that Elmore had to overcome during all the years of appeals was that, despite massive evidence of defense ineptitude, no one wanted to imply that previous lawyers, juries, and judges had made a mistake (especially not multiple times), or perhaps more perniciously, were racist or classist (which of course they were). It seems to me that the priority of death penalty opponents should be ensuring that those accused of crimes eligible for capital punishment get the best representation at their initial trials.

Secondly, Bonner devotes a good number of pages discussing the differing roles of prosecutor and defense attorney. The book opens with two epigrams on the subject from Supreme Court cases. Justice Byron White:

Law enforcement officers have the obligation to convict the guilty and to make sure they do not convict the innocent. They must be dedicated to making the criminal trial a procedure for the ascertainment of the true facts surrounding the commission of a crime. . . . But the defense counsel has no such comparable obligation to ascertain or present the truth. Our system assigns him a different mission. He must be and is interested in preventing the conviction of the innocent, but, absent a voluntary plea of guilty, we also insist that he defend his client whether he is innocent or guilty.

In other words, defense lawyers’ primary responsibility is to their clients, guilty or not; prosecutors’ primary responsibility is to the truth. Bonner argues that this prescription for prosecutors has gotten lost — and in the vacuum has risen a culture that values winning above all. Today, prosecutors of death penalty cases are generally more interested in convictions, in assigning blame for (what are often heinous) crimes, in assuaging public outrage and fear, in securing “justice” for the families of victims. Perhaps some of these are admirable, or at least understandable. But ultimately, Bonner argues, prosecutors are derelict in their duties when they lose sight of the fact that they are instead (or at least also) supposed to strive to protect the innocent.

What I know about the practice of law could fit into a coffee cup (just as everything I know about law school I learned from Legally Blonde, as I am fond of telling my amused law student interns), so please excuse my ignorance when I say that I simply didn’t know this legal principle. In popular culture, particularly in sympathetic portrayals of wrongly convicted criminals, prosecutors are routinely portrayed as cravenly careerist and eager to convict. While that may be an at least a somewhat accurate portrayal of reality, it’s not what the law proscribes. And Bonner’s book is an object lesson of why not.

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