Georgia Johnson, the great-grandmother, expert wordsmith, and longtime Lower Ninth Ward resident about whom I wrote in We Shall Not Be Moved, has not followed an easy path to recovery. When I interviewed her for the book in October 2008, she sat happily in the living room of the small Creole cottage she good-humoredly called the “raggedy mansion,” newly returned from years of exile in Mississippi. We both thought then that she was nearing the end of her journey. In fact, it was just beginning.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, Georgia’s house was not in good shape. The ceiling leaked, the floor was uneven, the uninsulated bargeboard walls left Georgia cold in the winter, and the bathroom was too small to accommodate her wheelchair. Ironically, although the flood deposited a thick layer of oily mud in Georgia’s living room, destroyed her possessions, and ruined her electrical system, it also should have been her chance to fix the house. She applied for rebuilding money from the federally funded Road Home Program, and after pushing her way through the red tape that frustrated most of the program’s applicants and waiting patiently for more than a year, she received enough to properly renovate the house. But like thousands of other Gulf Coast residents, she fell victim to contractor fraud. Unable to live in a FEMA trailer because of her wheelchair and debilitating asthma, she tried to oversee the renovation from Mississippi. Twice, builders took her money and ran. With her limited remaining funds, and with help from several of the resident-led neighborhood organizations I featured in the book, she managed a bare-bones renovation.
On September 4, 2005, eight years before the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born, officers of the New Orleans Police Department opened fire on two families crossing the Danziger Bridge. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the city six days before. The officers were on site for an unrelated distress call. All the innocent victims were black and unarmed. A harrowing story of blue on black violence, author and investigative journalist Ronnie Greene’s Shots on the Bridge vividly recounts the crime and the ensuing case. With the anniversaries of Katrina and the crime coming up, we caught up with Ronnie Greene to ask him a few questions about his book.
I was first drawn to this story in August 2011, when I happened to read an AP account of the federal court conviction of officers with the New Orleans Police Department, who had fired upon two groups of people on a small bridge and then covered up their crimes.
In reading that first story, I instantly felt these events were worthy of a book. I was struck in learning about the victims, including Ronald Madison, a forty-year-old with the mental development of a six-year-old. With Katrina coming, Ronald stayed back to be with the family dogs. His older brother Lance, a onetime professional football player, stayed to watch over him. Now I was reading that Ronald was killed—shot in the back—and his brother, his protector, had been falsely arrested for allegedly firing at officers. I read about the other family on the bridge, the Bartholomews, along with their nephew Jose Holmes Jr. and his friend James Brissette Jr. JJ, was killed, and several in the Bartholomew family were critically wounded. The mother, Susan Bartholomew, had to have her arm amputated. As the bullets were coming that morning, her daughter, Lesha, lay atop her mother to try to protect her.
In truth, each of the victims was unarmed, yet police hatched a cover-up to conceal their actions.
On July 30, the whole world watched as thirteen Greenpeace activists dangled from ropes tied to the St. John's bridge in Portland, Ore., red and yellow streamers catching the wind. They were blocking the exit of the Fennica, Shell's ice breaker headed to the Arctic to facilitate drilling. These young activists hung there for forty hours in makeshift platforms and slings during some of the hottest days on record, before the police and Coast Guard brought them down. One hundred feet below them, filling the river with their colorful small boats, were Portland's "kayactivists" from the local Climate Action Coalition—some were experienced paddlers, others kayaking for the very first time. On shore stood over five hundred people, cheering and chanting "Stop that boat!" Some were moved to tears by this unprecedented spectacle and by the courage of the protesters.
But everyone was not so thrilled. The Oregonian printed several letters from readers castigating the activists for disrupting traffic on land and sea and for wasting tax money. One wrote: "Make them pay serious fines or spend time in Portland jail." Another complained: "Congratulations, Portland! You've confirmed that this is a city where it's important to be weird." There arises a legitimate question: what is the difference in civil disobedience and simply breaking the law? Was this an instance in which such a protest was justified? Perhaps it would be useful to look at the history and purpose of this radical form of protest.
While July 26 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we need to recall that discrimination against people with disabilities is not over.
The ADA accomplished a lot. It banned employment discrimination, made public transportation accessible, opened places of public accommodation and added closed captioning so the Deaf could watch television, to name a few. But discrimination against people with disabilities remains.
There is economic discrimination. When we talk about the ninety-nine percent and the one percent, we may forget that within that ninety-nine percent there are some groups that suffer the most. There is no group in the US as badly off as people with disabilities who are the largest and poorest US minority.
In the last three months The Family and I have twice piled into the car for eight-plus-hour (one way!) road trips to Washington, D.C. As family road trips, the journeys necessarily included junk food, some nausea, lots of laughter, sunburn, bickering, loud music, crowded hotel rooms, and unscheduled bathroom breaks. Unlike the usual family road trips, however, it’s been the season of Civic Road Trips.
On April 28, with thousands of others, we cheered for marriage equality before the steps of the Supreme Court building as the justices heard oral arguments. Road trip preparations had included learning more about the multiple state cases, interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, looking backwards to the 1968 case of Loving v. Virginiathat declared bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional, and arguing about the purpose of dissenting opinions. We fell out of the DC Metro carrying our homemade signs and looking like the out-of-towners that we are. We cried as the plaintiffs emerged from the Supreme Court at the end of the day, weary, optimistic, and surrounded by the love of family. Two elderly men from Nebraska, who had been in love for decades, asked if we would adopt them because their own extended family had rejected them. In the midst of the profound we mundanely argued over who had to stay awake in order to drive home.
President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act into law
This weekend, celebrations marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act will be in full swing. Members of our country’s largest minority will be at pride festivals honoring the history of fighting for the overdue rights that made the world more accessible to them. Published this month on the 14th, Enabling Acts by University of Illinois at Chicago professor Lennard J. Davis—whose mother and father are both deaf—traces the nearly twenty years of activism and legislation that gave rise to the ADA. They were, indeed, an intense twenty years. Here we present the opening of his book, and the forty-six words that changed history for those with disabilities.
Trying to find a moment when the ADA began is like trying to find the source of the Nile or the Amazon. So many tributaries flow into the making of the ADA that you cannot say if any single stream is the true source. But you can say that at some point, like a mighty river, the movement toward the ADA surged powerfully and in a sense became inevitable.
But as inevitable as the act now seems in retrospect, Congress might very well have failed to act sufficiently to create a meaningful bill rather than a document simply expressing general platitudes. Certainly, an ADA could not pass Congress today. In fact, ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was defeated in the Senate in 2012. Bob Dole, who was instrumental in getting the ADA through Congress, arrived on the Senate floor in 2013 to argue emotionally that the convention should be ratified. At eighty-nine, he’d been in and out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center for two years and appeared drawn and fragile. Despite his dramatic appearance, the convention ratification was defeated. Dole, Harkin, and Hoyer all have asserted that if the ADA came up for a vote in 2015, it would be defeated.
On the steps of Gombe, 2008. Merrick is seated next to Goodall in the company of family and others.
Fifty-five years ago today, young Jane Goodall arrived on the shores of Lake Tanganyika to begin the study of our closest relative, the chimpanzee. Accompanied by her mother, she arrived at a time when it was unthinkable for a young woman to “risk” the African jungle alone. It was also an era when humans were viewed as the sole makers of tools and the only beings capable of intelligent thought and complex emotion. How wrong we were.
Dr. Jane arrived, little suspecting the significance of that day—or of how she was about to rock a number of the world’s fundamental concepts. A former secretary without college education, could she have imagined she would earn a doctorate from Cambridge University, become one of today’s most influential people, and reorder the world’s thinking?
I was seven years old at the time, and unaware that a young British woman was beginning a mission that would one day so enrich my life. Twelve years later, I would arrive on those same Lake Tanganyika beaches to become Dr. Jane’s research assistant—and life-long friend. It has been a privileged journey, witnessing firsthand so many seasons of the remarkable Dr. Jane Goodall.
The EPA recently released a review draft of its long awaited study of hydraulic fracturing in the United States entitled “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources.” This report, which totaled almost one thousand pages, was undoubtedly read by very few people, but the news coverage was astounding. Oklahoma’s senator Jim Inhofe stated in a press release: “EPA’s report on hydraulic fracturing confirms what we have known for over sixty years when the process began in Duncan, Oklahoma—hydraulic fracturing is safe…” Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institutesaid, “After more than five years and millions of dollars, the evidence gathered by EPA confirms what the agency has already acknowledged and what the oil and gas industry has known: hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry-best practices…” But is that the message from the document itself? Tom Burke, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s office of research, explained the impact of the document: “It’s not a question of safe or unsafe” but rather “how do we best reduce vulnerabilities so we can best protect our water and water resources?”
If we accept Tom Burke’s explanation, how did so many news outlets get the story so wrong? The document itself states: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” This was the quote that was taken out of context and drove the breathless news coverage. A very different picture emerges if one actually takes the time to read the document.
Update: As of June 1, Bruce Jenner has officially announced that she would like to be known as Caitlyn. We have updated this blog to reflect her name change and pronoun usage.
Since coming out last month as a transwoman during her interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20, former Olympian, track and field athlete, and TV personality Caitlyn Jenner has cast more light on gender identity. Her celebrity status grants her a privileged position to do so and has been propelling a paradigm shift in American society’s regard toward the standard female/male dichotomy. That Jenner came out to millions of viewers while still phenotypically male is encouraging. In fact, she inspired singer and actress Miley Cyrus to come out and admit her non-binary gender. These and the stories of others give guidance and hope to those living between and outside of the narrow definitions of masculine and feminine. If you or someone you know is at the crossroads of gender identity, we would like to share some books and resources that we hope will be helpful in the journey.
Matt Kailey lived as a straight woman for forty-two years until he took the steps toward becoming a man. In Just Add Hormones,he shares the story of his transformation through surgery and hormone therapy, the change in the behavior of others because of his new gender identity, and the transition towards acceptance of one’s self as a person who straddles two genders. For those who have been questioning their gender, Kailey’s book is full of sound advice and answers all the questions you may have about what it’s like to live as a transsexual.
Trans Liberation is a collection of activist Leslie Feinberg’s inspirational speeches in which ze calls for acceptance and tolerance for those who live at the boundary of sex and gender expression. Pointing out the similarities between the struggles of the trans and gay, lesbian and bi communities, Feinberg advocates for respect towards the cross-dressers, transsexuals, intersex persons, Two Spirits, drag kings and drag queens.
It’s hard to believe that the world lost Matt Kailey and Leslie Feinberg just last year, but we hope their lives and work continues to inspire and help others.
In My Gender Workbook, author, performance artist, playwright, and gender outlaw Kate Bornstein provides a hands-on, accessible guide to help readers discover their own gender identity. Through quizzes, exercises, and puzzles, you may discover that you’re a “real man”, a “real woman”, or “something else entirely”.
Professor J. Jack Halberstam appoints Lady Gaga as a symbol for the new era of gender identity in Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. With the burgeoning influence of pregnant men, late-life lesbians, SpongeBob SquarePants, and queer families in the twenty-first century, gender and sexual politics have broken away from the status quo of heteronormativity. Halberstam urges readers to embrace the gender and sexual fluidity of the new feminism that Lady Gaga embodies.
Our parent organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), offers a Transgender 101: Identity, Inclusion, and Resources section on their website that includes a list of ten ways to be more welcoming and inclusive of transgender people, basic gender identity definitions, films for congregational viewing, and much more. You may also be interested in Standing on the Side of Love, a public advocacy campaign sponsored by the UUA that participates in LGBTQ activism. The campaign’s mission is to challenge exclusion, oppression, and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, religion, or any other identity.
In his speech “The Burning Truth in the South”, Martin Luther King, Jr. says the appeal of nonviolence has many facets. Though he wrote this speech half a century ago, we have been watching the facets of nonviolence at work again, this time against police brutality and racial injustice in Baltimore. The media frenzy centered on the purge riot of 27 April was inevitable. Violence, as always, elicits an immediate reaction, the most immediate attention. Up until the riot, the protests were peaceful—and still are. Student protesters Korey Johnson and John Gillespie Jr. have recently organized peaceful outlets to demanding justice for Freddie Gray. Johnson and Gillespie are shining examples of what King extols as the facets of nonviolent of direct action.
"An electrifying movement of Negro students has shattered the placid surface of campuses and communities across the South. Though confronted in many places by hoodlums, police guns, tear gas, arrests, and jail sentences, the students tenaciously continue to sit down and demand equal service at variety store lunch counters, and extend their protest from city to city. In communities like Montgomery, Alabama, the whole student body rallied behind expelled students and staged a walkout while state government intimidation was unleashed with a display of military force appropriate to a wartime invasion. Nevertheless, the spirit of self-sacrifice and commitment remains firm, and the state governments find themselves dealing with students who have lost the fear of jail and physical injury.
It is no overstatement to characterize these events as historic. Never before in the United States has so large a body of students spread a struggle over so great an area in pursuit of a goal of human dignity and freedom.
The suddenness with which this development burst upon the nation has given rise to the description “spontaneous.” Yet it is not without clearly perceivable causes and precedents. First, we should go back to the ending of World War II. Then, the new will and determination of the Negro were irrevocably generated. Hundreds of thousands of young Negro men were mustered out of the armed forces, and with their honorable discharge papers and GI Bill of Rights grants, they received a promise from a grateful nation that the broader democracy for which they had fought would begin to assume reality. They believed in this promise and acted in the conviction that changes were guaranteed. Some changes did appear—but commensurate neither with the promise nor the need.
To commemorate May Day, we’re putting the spotlight on Bill Fletcher, Jr. Fletcher has been involved with the labor movement since he worked as a welder in a Massachusetts shipyard after graduating from Harvard in 1976. He moved on thereafter to become a labor activist and organizer. With hands-on experience from the bottom up, Fletcher is in the prime position to bust the myths bent on dismantling unions. Watch him bust ten in “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths about Unions.
MYTH 1 Workers are forced to join unions.
Fact: Unions are created when a majority of the workers in a workplace either vote for a union or sign cards to join the union, and are recognized by the employer. Whether one must become a member of a union depends on (a) a negotiated agreement between the workers and their employer that all union members can ratify and (b) state law.
MYTH 2 Unions are destroying the economy.
Fact: Problems with the U.S. economy have little to do with labor unions but instead stem from a global capitalist economy and polices that perpetuate inequality. Labor unions seek to more fairly distribute the results of labor.
MYTH 3 Unions are run by labor bosses.
Fact: Leadership is chosen through an electoral process. Local union leaders are elected by individual members, while delegates sent from local unions then choose national union officers, including a president and an executive board.
MYTH 4 Unions are always on strike.
Fact: The number of strikes, a nonviolent tactic for asserting worker needs, has declined from an average of 352 per year in the 1950s to 21 in the last ten years.
I’m certain being in the spotlight for not wanting the PBS show Finding Your Roots to include mention of your slave-owning ancestor has been a real pain. The unwanted headlines, the online comments, the “Dear Ben” letters must be getting old. I’m sure you want this whole episode behind you. I get that: I’m related to the most successful transatlantic slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history.
I thank you for your honesty in admitting you were embarrassed. Many white people, upon discovering enslavers among our ancestors, feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. But as I learned from Will Hairston, a white descendant of one of the wealthiest Southern enslaving families in American history, “Guilt is the glue that holds racism together.”
I appreciate you writing on your Facebook page, “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing.”
Yes it is. And I can tell you from personal experience that what you choose to do next to continue that examination is what matters now.
2015 marks the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. This could be the most dynamic year in environmental history. Economic growth and sustainability, once mutually exclusive, have begun a symbiotic relationship. Citizens and experts have set up defenses for their homes and the survival of other species from the encroaching effects of ecological devastation and extinction. New business ventures have transformed renewable energies into a viable market. As challenging and daunting as these issues are, it has become more apparent that we still have a chance of preserving our home. This Earth Day, we at Beacon Press are featuring titles that showcase individuals and organizations taking a stand for our home and encourage readers to take the stand with them.
Environmental journalist Fred Pearce presents a unique twist on a taking the lead on progress. In The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation, he implores environmentalists of the twenty-first century to celebrate the dynamic nature of invasive species and the new ecosystems they create. The case for keeping out invasive species is not only flawed, but also contradictory to the environment’s capacity for change, accelerated now by climate change and widespread ecological disaster.
California’s limited water resources have made headlines at the start of this year. It won’t be long until the rest of the country is affected by threats of shortage. Journalist Cynthia Barnett calls for the simplest and least expensive call to action in Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis. Selected as one of the Boston Globe’s top ten science books of 2011, it outlines a water ethic to reconnect Americans with our rivers, aquifers, and other freshwaters . This blue movement will turn us to “local water” the way the green movement turned us to local foods.
Most people know that the earth is warming, and as the dominant creatures on the planet, humans are at fault. Two out of three people believe climate change is happening, and 89 percent are "somewhat worried" or "very worried." After all, 14 of the 15 warmest years on record in all of history have occurred since 2000. Wildfires in the West burned out of control last summer, and they are expected to be just as serious this summer. The snowpack in California is about 6 percent of normal, and so the state is putting mandatory curbs on water use, for the first time in history. The effects of global warming are not predictions for the future; they are fast becoming the realities of our daily lives.
So why all the silence about climate change? Why isn't this topic filling our conversations, the way a tsunami would, or a major earthquake?
Count me in with the "very worried" group—actually, count me in with those who are feeling filled with fear, steeped in grief. Some of the smartest people I know think we will not be able to act in time, that we will continue to delay until we can't stem the rising waters, the droughts, the refugees, the failed states, the wars fought over precious resources like arable land, food, water. In a recent New Yorker article, novelist Jonathan Franzen writes, "It's important to acknowledge that drastic planetary overheating is a done deal...no head of state has ever made a commitment to leaving any carbon in the ground." When I asked a poet I know about our chances of averting disaster, she sighed and said, "Humans are a very flawed species."
The movie Selma deserves the accolades it has received not just for its artistry but also because it lays bare for modern day activists the kind of strategies that are necessary to work a social transformation. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Christian theologian but he was also a tactician. He recognized the power and absolute moral authority in love and nonviolence. He championed agape love. It was not romantic love or the love between friends, but the hardest kind of love to show—a love indifferent to human merit. You raise a billy club to me and I will kneel and pray for you. I can’t say that I could be as brave or as disciplined as the marchers who lived this history and code. The moral authority that flowed from John Lewis and others crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, getting beaten and not retaliating did much to render the movement “everybody’s fight”—the words that Viola Liuzzo used to justify leaving her five children in Michigan to join with civil rights activists in Alabama.
Dr. King saw in his increasingly multiracial band of civil rights soldiers an early example of the beloved community he espoused. The movement itself could be an approximation of the spirit of agape love and community that he envisioned for the whole of America. One expression of this love for community was seeing the mutuality in all types of human suffering. As King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the end he did not turn away from the hardest part of community building. In “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Christmas Eve 1967, he proclaimed, “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”
As distasteful as it is to anticipate the next shooting of an unarmed African American by law enforcement officers, it’s also sadly inevitable. When it happens next, government officials and the media will attempt to diffuse the righteous anger on display in the community protests just they have done before in demonstrations against the killings in Ferguson, Missouri, in New York City, in Los Angeles, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and elsewhere. The mayor and the police commissioner will suggest that “justice” will be served and the murderous officer prosecuted. But justice rarely arrives despite videos and testimony.
Indictments of law enforcement are almost impossible to obtain for three very simple reasons. First, local District Attorneys are elected officials and voters (whites and even many voters of color) are ambivalent about curbing police power. Second, prosecutors do not want to antagonize the law enforcement agencies they depend on to do their jobs. Law and order protect each other.
President Obama delivered a fiery State of the Union earlier this week, immediately making headlines (and exploding the Twittersphere) for a now-famous ad-libbed line about winning both elections. Chatter about the unplanned quip, however, threatened to overshadow the more substantive parts of the President’s speech, in which he promised to tackle inequalities in income, education, and immigration as well as offering concrete measures for slowing climate change, benefiting veterans, closing tax loopholes, and the like. It was also, notably, the first time a President has used the word transgender during a State of the Union address.
For those looking for deeper insight into some of the issues Obama spoke about, we’ve created a State of the Union reading list, and highlighted a few specific titles below:
As the year comes to a close, we’re looking back to some of our most popular posts of 2014, as well as some gems you might have overlooked. Consider it a countdown of a different sort, a look back at a year that was both volatile and filled with possibility, with posts that reflected both the intensity and diversity of our readers. And consider it a promise, as well, that our 2015 posts will be filled with the same inquisitive spirit and intellectual curiosity. Happy New Year!
In our book The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food, we discuss the de facto moratorium on unconventional oil and gas extraction in New York State and the NYS Department of Health review of the process. On December 17, 2014, the NYS Department of Health announced that the public health review had been completed and the recommendation was made that New York State should not permit high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF). The acting commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said, “I have considered all of the data and find significant questions and risks to public health which as of yet are unanswered. I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done. I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.” The commissioner of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Joe Martens, added:
“For the past six years, DEC has examined the significant environmental impacts that could result from high-volume hydraulic fracturing. DEC’s own review identified dozens of potential significant adverse impacts of HVHF. Further, with the exclusion of sensitive natural, cultural and historic resources and the increasing number of towns that have enacted bans and moratoria, the risks substantially outweigh any potential economic benefits of HVHF. Considering the research, public comments, relevant studies, Dr. Zucker’s report and the enormous record DEC has amassed on this issue, I have directed my staff to complete the final SGEIS [Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement]. Once that is complete, I will prohibit high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State at this time.”
With those statements, months of speculation ended. This was a considerable victory for the grassroots environmental movement that grew up in response to this issue and indeed for citizens of New York State.
There’s an article making the rounds on the internet that’s become quite popular among a certain sort of feminist. “Why Hasn’t Anyone Tried This Before?” by Marie De Santis, executive director of the Women’s Justice Center in Santa Rosa, California, claims that within a span of five years, Sweden has reduced street prostitution by 65% and that “sex-trafficking” of immigrant women has ceased.
Swedish feminists accomplished this “miraculous” abolition of “male violence … [and] the exploitation of women and children” by convincing legislators to look at prostitution from a “female” point of view (47.3% of the Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament, are women). The female POV holds that no woman wants to be a sex worker and that every woman working in the sex industry is coerced into it. By this logic, men are the criminals: they are sexually violent and should be punished for paying for sex; women are victims who need re-education and opportunities to hold safe and respectable jobs. According to De Santis, this is an idea “so firmly anchored in common sense” that it’s a wonder not every country has similar laws.