What Do We Do With Our Brutality?

Nine months ago, George Floyd was killed three miles from our house.  We had driven through that intersection many times, 38th an easy cross street, running from Lakewood Cemetery to the Mississippi River.  I start that way still, remembering only when I get to Portland that I have to go around it.  There sits a barricade staffed by sweet but firm volunteers monitoring the entrance.  A block behind them the memorial is centered on that intersection where Mr. Floyd was killed.  

We are finally able as a country to talk about race and racism.  Many of us now roll our eyes at anyone still claiming not to see color.  Our condescension may as well pat them on their heads and send them down a grade for remedial education.  Unfortunately, such education is voluntary, and those attitudes often lack the curiosity needed to gain understanding around this divide.  Without curiosity, ignorance persists.  

We talk about race a lot.  We are not, though, talking about our brutality.  

In 1619, Jamestown colonists purchased enslaved Africans from British Pirates, who had stolen them from others.  Their arrival marks the start of slavery in the United States.  We were a nation yet to be formed, according to the New York Times 1619 Project, “157 years before the English colonists even decided they wanted to form their own country.”  These 20 or so people, originally from Angola, were the first of millions.  Before the colonists decided what this new land would become, they decided on whose backs they would build it. 

As 2020 came to an end, a man of color was shot and killed by Minneapolis police not far from the George Floyd Memorial.  This time the body cams were on.  This time the deceased appears to have shot first.  The sting of every incident is felt by every person in this city.  To a person of color who has learned to live in fear of the police, or government in general, it is another traumatic event.  It is heavy in its entirety, its meaning only reduced by its place in the overwhelming volume of previous such events.  How can you trust an organization of authority when most of your experience leads you to fear its brutality and distrust its tactics?

The colony called Virginia established a law in 1662 that the status of the child followed the status of the mother – any child born to a slave was also a slave.  Not only was such a woman a slave in her days, any sex she had, voluntary or not, could only produce a life enslaved.  Such a life dictated for production, outside any inclination to nurture and love that to this day we expect and demand of women.

On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, during an overnight police raid.  Whatever the justification, the raid was executed poorly.   Incompetent staff allowed to run amok with weapons shows a desensitization to brutality.  For it to be done at the hand of the state is against all we claim to represent in our romanticized ideal of freedom.

In 1739 a group of enslaved Africans near Charleston banded together to fight and escape, known as the Stono Rebellion.  Forty of them were killed and a law was passed to prohibit such assembly. Violence is the only way to deny the freedom that is America’s promise.

On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was shot in St. Anthony, which borders Northeast Minneapolis.   The video footage his girlfriend captured, and Mr. Castile’s reputation as a beloved school teacher aid, family member and friend, galvanized this city in a furious demand for answers and change.   As we see in so many instances, presumption of guilt follows the dark skin.

In 1787 the Three-Fifths Clause was included in the United States Constitution.  It only bothered counting black bodies at all for political representation. Their bodies had no right to vote for said representation.  This was just another extraction of their commodity value.  Recognition of their humanity was not three-fifths.  They were measured still as property for political gain. Their humanity was not recognized at all. 

On May 15, 2010, just before his 17th birthday, Khalief Browder was arrested in The Bronx on suspicion of stealing a backpack.  Due to court backlog and other issues, he remained incarcerated for almost three years before his charges were dismissed.  The prosecutors never made a sufficient case against Browder to bring him to trial.  The system let him languish as they failed to prepare for trial.  The real delay was one that cannot be part of the equation in measuring the speed of justice.  Mr. Browder refused to take a plea deal, refused to say he had committed the crime the state could not prove.  Without a trial, much less a conviction, he was incarcerated for three years, two of which were in solitary confinement.  Across this time the abuse Mr. Browder experienced at the hands of prison staff and inmates is heartbreaking.  It is state sponsored trauma, documented on video.   If you haven’t heard his story, upon release he struggled mightily to craft a good and productive life, but the trauma got the best of him and he ultimately took his own life.

“On the morning of Monday, July 13, 1863, thousands of white workers in Manhattan erupted in what’s still the deadliest rioting in American history. Mobs rampaged through most of the week in an orgy of savage murder, arson and looting. They hung black men from lampposts and dragged their mutilated bodies through the streets. They beat and murdered the pitifully small squads of policemen and soldiers the city initially mustered—and grotesquely defiled their corpses as well. It took federal troops to start restoring order to burning, rubble-strewn Manhattan that Thursday. The published death count was 119, but many New Yorkers believed the actual toll was hundreds more.” (from “White Riot: Why the New York Draft Riots of 1863 Matter Today” by John Strausbaugh, July 11, 2016, The Observer)

They were protesting the new draft law, which mandated military service except for those wealthy enough to pay a fee to escape it.  The mob’s rage on the black community because blacks, as non-citizens, were exempt from service.  Of course, many eventually fought and suffered and died in the Civil War on both Union and Confederate sides.

On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was apprehended for suspected drunk driving after a car chase.  He was brutally beaten and tased by four Los Angeles police officers.  The incident was caught on video and shared with a news station.  The bystander caught on film the same kind of brutality long experienced at the hands of the LAPD, the kind that could only be stopped by witnesses.  It was this same brutality that prompted black men in 1966 to follow police, and stand bearing witness with loaded weapons during traffic stops.  These men were “policing the police”, and they later became known as the Black Panthers.

In 1838 and 1839 the US enforced The Treaty of New Echota, which was signed by a member of the Cherokee without the support of the larger tribe.  The Cherokee people fought the treaty and were forcibly removed by the US in a brutal capture and marching of their people to their new territory.  About 25% of them died on the way.  Their removal was so brutal it became known as the Trail of Tears.  We called the native Americans savages, but we prevailed only because we were more savage.  We fought with heavier artillery and a lighter sense of honor, often breaking the promises we made in the treaties we signed. 

Before dawn on December 4, 1969, FBI and Chicago police forces raided the apartment of Fred Hampton, a leader within the Black Panther Party.  These forces shot almost 100 times into the apartment, Hampton and a colleague died.  He was 21 years old.

In 1865, the formal institution of slavery ended, and so began the period of terror to ensure black people remained as a controlled workforce in the south.  

“[The Ku Klux Klan] would take people out of their houses or their cabins in the dark of the night, strip them out in a road, make them run down the road, make them sometimes lie on a rock where they would be whipped, where men would line up to whip them. Sometimes they would burn parts of their bodies.

These were sadistic tortures, the intention of which was — we know this from testimony — to stop these people from engaging in politics, to stop these people from trying to be independent economic actors, to stop these people from trying to get educated, from trying to be citizens.

The basic goal of the Ku Klux Klan was not this kind of sadism. It wasn’t even murder. It was to put black people back into their place as the labor force of the South, and not much beyond, and to drive out of business the political force, the Republican Party, that was trying to take them to higher places.

…This is a part of American history that isn’t easy to face. It tells us that we had a moment in our history when our politics broke down, our society broke down, our police power broke down; the government wasn’t functioning sufficiently enough to protect one group of citizens from another who simply engaged in wanton vigilante violence of the worst kind. We don’t like to face that. We don’t even want to know about it. We like to believe we are a society of security and progress and improvement. Reconstruction makes us face an era when we were something else.” – David Blight, Historian, Yale University (American Experience, PBS)

On the Smithsonian website there is an image of a chilling symbol from the mid-1800s of how our colonization of native tribes changed their way of life – the ration ticket.  People who for centuries lived as hunter gatherers or more agrarian lives were forced into white commercialism, a system that now decided how much tribal members could receive to eat.  Those systems often failed tribes, sometimes by incompetence, and others through sheer cruelty and intentional starvation.  

On May 19, 1920, conflict between anti and pro union forces concentrated into a gun battle on the streets of Matewan, West Virginia.  Ten people were killed including the town’s mayor.  Violence continued for a couple of years as the battle over workers’ rights waged into a near civil war.  A movie called “Matewan” made in the late 80s documents just how fierce this battle between labor and company became.

In the early 1900s a Black business district in Tulsa known as Black Wall Street thrived  This community was an example of Black abundance not common in the early decades after Reconstruction.  But an elevator ride for a young black teenage boy and white female elevator operator set whatever tensions existed on fire.  As the teen sat in jail black residents came to assist in his protection, and a mob of many more white men came and the black men retreated.  The white mob then descended on this black community, killing hundreds and destroying thousands of properties for over 18 hours, ending on June 1, 1921.  Just over 400 miles away in Memphis, my father was born on this same day.  

Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, shot at least twelve times by rivals within the Black Muslim community.  The week before his house had been bombed and his wife and children went into hiding.  While not the only point of conflict, he was once admonished by the Nation of Islam and much of the nation for saying of the assassination of JFK, the “chickens had come home to roost.”  By that he meant the violence white America long tolerated had come to turn on them.  He was judged by this as though he celebrated JFK’s death.  I don’t believe he did.  I believe he, as he said at the time, was trying to hold America accountable for its tolerance of violence. But his words were silenced by violence from within the community to which he had devoted his life.      

Much has been written about why Floyd’s murder awakened the world in a way other events had not.  We witnessed his murder, yes, but his murderer watched us watch him do it.  Derek Chauvin looked back at us.  His face showed no remorse, no self consciousness, no shame.  He looked us in the eye while he extinguished the life of another.   While we see Chauvin’s face, it is easy to forget he is not looking at us.  He is looking at a young woman who dared point her phone at armed police officers.  Chauvin’s disaffected expression is as impervious to her presence as it was to George Floyd’s life.

I have painted a brief swath across our brutal history.  These are just a few highlights.  I’ve missed lynchings, the Birmingham church bombing, many assassinations, the march on Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the rap sheet of almost every police department in America. And I have bypassed entirely our behavior outside our borders.

From the earliest formations of America to today, our history is riddled with violence.  When we say this is not who we are, we must take another look.  Yes, racial disparity and racism are common features, but it all began with greed sated with violence.  America was built on the premise that forced labor was not only allowed, but a noble entitlement to the superior endeavor of the colonists.  The notion that the fruit of capitalism could and should be born of the oppression of others was integral to all our endeavors.  From every step thereafter, we refuse to own the lies that allowed that oppression.  

We didn’t become a racist society because we were averse to dark skin.  We became a racist society because we wanted to build a great and profitable nation.  The only shortcut was the oppression of others.  We needed someone to exploit for cheap labor to do it.   We had to find a group and label them as other –  less than – to justify kidnapping them and forcing them, generation after generation, into hard labor.  

Now the lies we told ourselves to justify this behavior have been ingrained in our psyches for 400 years.  We’re not brutal because we’re racist. We are brutal because we are greedy.   Skin color and culture are the means of our cognitive dissonance and they always have been.  This dissonance we conveniently sowed centuries ago is ingrained in our policies, our attitudes, our behavior, and ourselves.  It has been there so long even the most well meaning among us often cannot see it.  

I write this on February 14, 2021, the day after the US Senate failed to convict Trump of inciting the fatal violence his supporters inflicted on the Capitol last month.  Malcolm X’s words ring true today.  Our tolerance of violence is once again defining who we are.

Author note: this piece is an excerpt from Shoot The Arrows, a book of essays to my children, available late 2021.

The Year of the Hike

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I set an intention, an area of focus for the coming year. 2020 was The Year of the Hike. No set parameters, I just wanted to hike more and learn to independently navigate trails. Quick tip: this is a great idea if a global pandemic is looming,

My endeavor is documented on Instagram under @isallyvardaman, and in case that gives a false impression, I remain a novice. Some interpreted my posts as those of a seasoned hiker. #100, a milestone I did not expect to see, was the three mile walk from Tires Plus to my home so I could leave my car there for service. The whole point for me was that “hike” is a broad and simple concept.

Photo by Charlotte Johnson

Two years ago, a chilly November had me quickly overwhelmed by “winter.” This Mississippi kid has been here almost two decades, long enough to know I had to either give in to months of depression, or get out in the cold. When I opted for the latter, a friend suggested a hiking group through meetup.com.

Before that I had hiked only while on vacations which involved following handsome men. It never occurred to me I could do this at home, by myself, or even with total strangers. From the very first snowy December hike, I absolutely loved it.

It was easy. Sign up for a spot, dress for the weather, show up on time. I could follow along without a care as long as I could keep up, and I could! The company was great and our local trails are beautiful in winter. Content to follow the crowd, it was not about learning something new.

Slots filled quickly and my schedule didn’t align as often as I wanted to go. I grew curious about trails I didn’t know. It became clear I would have more fun more often if I learned, literally, to chart my own path. Maybe I could get good enough at it to lead others. Then I could give what had been so kindly offered to me by this group. 2020 was the place to start.

It began with informal outings with friends, smaller trips to practice trail navigation, with as many willing guinea pigs as I could fit in my minivan. I only got a group lost once early on. “Hike” as a loose term was my theme. We mostly hiked but sometimes did other fun things, like fat tire winter biking in Owatonna in February, during which I had to pause for my anxiety attack to subside. Some leader I am!!

Then COVID shut everything down.

I hiked with a friend the Saturday before my employer mandated us all home. I hiked with a friend that Sunday after. We let the distance widen as the protocols indicated. According to my official instagram record, I had 101 hikes, not including my almost daily walks in my neighborhood.

Travel was not in the cards this year.  Our vacation to New York City for spring break had to be cancelled just two weeks before. The reality of a pandemic had only begun to enter our psyches.   Seven months later, a brief jaunt to South Dakota was a welcome first for all us.    By then we were crafty at avoiding human interaction, a skill I’m not sure will serve my children long term. 

For the last 10 months, every social engagement in real life I had was in motion and on foot. In a small group or one on one, paved or unpaved, my walking habit kept me sane and connected. I saw graffiti and nature coexist. I saw the destruction of my city and its community lovingly tend to its aftermath. I processed all this with my kids and friends, putting one foot in front of the other. I breathed fresh air and basked in sunlight when I was down. My daily neighborhood walk frequently connected me with neighbors I rarely see otherwise..

I found my way on an uncertain path when I felt insecure. I learned to huff and puff while wearing a mask. Sometimes I got lost, even while leading others. I learned I could shift gears and recover on the fly, and still accomplish the intended goal. I met and got to know new faces in a year where that seemed impossible. I learned people are happy to follow me on a journey. They don’t even seem to mind mishaps if I establish risks and expectations up front.

This year reminded me of things I’ve long known, but fail to capitalize on. I love the quiet solitude of a walk alone. And with others, conversation naturally turns more meaningful when we move together.

I learned that adventure for me is simply loving movement – going from point A to point B, flanked by scenery, scents, sounds, company, or the unexpected. Adventure is anything I create it to be, anything I want it to be.

The last few days of the year I listened to Three Marriages by David Whyte, a lovely exploration of our primary commitments in life and where our self lies within them.  In it he looks back on a time he felt himself very off course

 “By what steps had I forgotten the promise I made as a child, not to fall into a false form of maturity, which is actually a form of non-participation; of not seeing, of not hearing, and not imagining.” 

I had no such awareness of what I gave up as I chased the independence of adulthood decades ago. How Whyte knew to promise himself such a thing is beyond me, much less how to revisit that goal later. As I listened to his tender wisdom, it occurred to me what I actually learned this year was how to play – really, how to give myself permission to do so.

I can play when I’m sad. I can play when I’m lonely. I can play when I celebrate and when I grieve. To play isn’t to have a game. To play is to fully engage with my surroundings.

And I will play more as I enter 2021, The Year of the Book. 

5 October 2020 Things

As we head into the scariest election of my lifetime, I am inspired by the ways people continue to live and attempt to thrive.

  1. I am a lifelong fan of Beth Henley, native of my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. I stumbled upon this glimpse of one of her many plays I have yet to get to see, and look forward to the day I can see a production: Laugh.
  2. I’ve fallen in love with the work of Larry Madrigal, who elevates the beauty and intimacy of the mundane and everyday.
  3. I love this essay, but especially the truth it holds: “Art is always a performance. It can be true, but it is never completely honest.”
  4. I just finished Hunger by Roxane Gay. It is hard to read a memoir about sexual assault and obesity, but the words of humanity and survival also make it hard to put down. Both experiences are common, and we should not pretend otherwise by looking away.
  5. I frequently say my favorite setting is change of scenery. This is me yesterday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at Falls Park, basking in the sunshine, time with my kids, and lots of pretty sights.

5 Truth-Tellers

  1.  I watched the Joan Didion documentary on Netflix currently, and was surprised to discover her essay on the Central Park Jogger case, asking important questions a decade before these gentleman were acquitted – an insightful consideration of competing resentments indeed.
  2. Like in #1, as I age I am always surprised to hear voices had shouted the truth, but the sentimental narrative is still what sticks in our national psyche.  That is clearly true of Hiroshima and our national vengeance.
  3. That very sentimental narrative we cling to likely will resist the truth of this.
  4. And among legendary truth-tellers, Fannie Lou Hamer did just that 56 years ago today at the DNC.
  5. You can argue big government and small government all day long, but when we fail to recognize the interdependence within our large economic system, we waste valuable resources in the name of saving money.

5 Things, week of August 10

  1.  I wish I had heard this gentleman’s wisdom long before I became a parent.  Not sure if I had the maturity to listen.  His vlog on YouTube is everything I think really matters in parenthood and family.
  2. I overheard my son selling his sister on the merits of reading A Choice of Weapons by Gordon Parks.  Thank you Minneapolis Public Schools.
  3. A friend suggested I read this book.  When I got a hold of a copy (551 page, plus 300 pages of notes!)  And now I am taking it as a personal challenge to do so.  I am giving myself through the end of the pandemic.  🙂
  4. I have a renewed appreciation for the United States Postal Service and hope you do to.  I’ll be either voting early or personally dropping my ballot off to be counted.  How did we get here?  Because we did not believe it could be this bad.  Remember that when you vote this November, and every time you have the opportunity to vote.  You can drop off your mail in ballot but not at your polling location.  Use your friend google and make sure you follow instructions.  For Minnesota friends, see here.
  5. The most brilliant ad play I’ve seen in a long time is UBS hiring a spokesperson who is the widow of a rock & roll icon who notoriously cut her out of his will before his death.

5 More Things

1. Regina King is directing a movie and I cannot wait time see it.

2. For Mrs. America fans, this is a compelling editorial pushing to recognize a different version of history.

3. This is what terrifies me most lately – crisis at the Post Office when we need ballot by mail the most.

4. When the world seem to be falling apart, there is always someone making a difference. Thrilled to see New Rules and Christopher Webley recognized Forbes.

5. I finished a great tale of learning confidence and strong decision making in face of adversity and uncertainty. Poker isn’t personal. I’ll be nagging my kids to read it.

5 Voices

I love seeing the work of many black authors get attention, but equally saddened that black is often perceived as a limited, one-sided perspective.  Many of us go looking for the black experience, and it is about time we did.  But what is found is the human experience, made more honest by the wisdom of a pain we white people can never fully understand.  These voices have the nuance and compassion that is carved from having to reconcile the worst parts of our humanity.  That lens of pain yields a wisdom on things like love and parenthood and justice that we – all of us – desperately need.

These voices move me this week.

1. Intimations by Zadie Smith, written and published in the wake of COVID-19 and the impact of losing George Floyd. A powerful juxtaposition of what insidious virus most plagues us, and ponders what America we really want to be.  

2. Myrlie Evers on the Mississippi flag removal, and what it was to love and be loved by Medgar Evers. Love is powerful indeed.

3. Breathe by Imani Perry. This is strong motherhood.  No sugar coating.  No romanticizing.  This is real and gritty and intellectual and philosophical.

4. A grateful remembrance of John Lewis by Barack Obama.

5. And the inspiring last words of John Lewis himself, a man whose strength and bravery were stunningly anchored in love.  May we honor his legacy and continue the progress he relentlessly sought.  

john-lewis-blm

5 Things

I question the value of saying anything on social media, a cacophony of shouts in itself. I see so much that enrages me, amuses me, breaks my heart, and inspires me. I doubt the value of engaging with any of it. When I have the urge to speak, I wonder what unheard voice I help crowd out.

So for now, I’ll just do this.  These are 5 things this week that occupied my mind, and to which I wish everyone would pay attention.

  1.  Just when I think we could not be any more off the rails as a society, the federal government is sending federal agents into cities it deems not brutal enough on their own to snuff out protesters.  Among them is Chicago, which pays annually about $100 million in policy brutality case settlements each year.  Despite experts and research all over the country demonstrating that butality is not the way, we are about to have multiple brutal and uncoordinated factions in one city.  The Department of Homeland Security “was not established to be the president’s personal militia.”
  2.  I’ve seen plenty of subtle sexism in my career, but in 2014 I had a manager go off complaining about how awful it is to have to work with women.  As he tried to clean up his outburst the next day, his non-apology included “I’m not sexist.  I mean, I married.”  If for no other reason, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speech last week resonated with many of us because we are so tired of this bullshit defense.  She nailed it.  If, as NYTimes journalists claimed, this is simply AOC “amplifying her brand,” then sign me up for #fuckingbitchsquad.
  3. And as you carry your weariness from tired narratives about and toward women, this short bit by Katherine Ryan is gold.  CW: it’s also filled with profanity.
  4. There are too many lovely memorials to the great John Lewis I cannot pick just one, but in doing so Fresh Air also included an old interview of civil rights attorney J. L. Chestnut, whose largest focus was on changing laws that interfered with black people’s access to their natural rights as citizens.  It’s inspiring and worth a listen.  The high arc of our moral failings against people of color is so recent, and the laws on our books matter.
  5. Heaviest on my heart and mind this week, I just finished Waiting for an Echo by Dr. Christine Montross, a psychiatrist who has worked both in prison and psychiatric hospital settings, and describes the patients at each as “virtually indistinguishable.”  While there is plenty of evidence that our carceral system is a trauma farm, and failing at its stated purpose of ensuring a safe and just society, this is a compelling new piece of work.   We as a country are committing the very crimes against the incarcerated that we claim the system protects the rest of us from, and we are doing it to some of our most vulnerable members.

echo

 

 

 

A Stranger Held My Heartbeat

I love collaborations – the more different the contributors are, the more their shared product surprises me and opens my mind.

The Weisman has an exhibit on display called Walk Back To Your Body, a collaboration between healthcare researchers and artists. I loved the concept so much I did the unprecedented – abandoned my kids on a weeknight to go to the opening presentations last week.

And there, a stranger did hold my heartbeat.

I was able to lie in The Daydream Chapel, also with a total stranger. I guess we adults need a fancy art gallery to give us permission to return to the simple forts of our playful youth.

But my absolute favorite was the work of psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Cullen and poet Yuko Taniguchi. As the placard below from the exhibit indicates, adolescents struggling with behavior disorders learned to find a powerful identity as an artist rather than a person with a diagnosis. I missed their talk that night, but Taniguchi has a different one here that is worth a watch.

I could only stay for the start of the presentations, but was deeply moved by what I did hear. Dr. Jakub Toler, Dean of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine is also a bone marrow transplant surgeon. He talked about how art teaches us how to work with humanity. He said he learned 5% of the skills he uses in his work life from medical school – that he learned more from David Hopper about how to work with human beings as they suffer.

Another gem from the evening that lingers with me is from the curator, Boris Oicherman. He defined collaboration as the labor intensive work of different people finding a shared meaning.

I cannot tell if this exhibit is otherwise available, but I highly recommend if it if you have the chance.