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Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Curious Case of Arbitrary Law Enforcement in Eastern Oregon

After watching young black males get shot by the police or some wandering yahoo carrying a gun for the last several years, I have been amazed at how law enforcement is bending over backwards for the white militia members (some call them terrorists) in eastern Oregon who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for the last month.

Like most folks, I had to look up the reason for why the white militia members took over the wildlife refuge. It honestly seemed like a joke to me. It apparently started when heavily armed anti-government zealots were protesting the arrest of Dwight Hammond and his son who were arrested for arson. For some inexplicable reason, the armed white militia members took over the refuge, even when the Hammonds asked them not to. Apparently, the anti-government protesters are against what they feel is government overreach when it comes to land use. Though they have been regularly asked about the reasoning for their protests, their answers have been mostly ambiguous and based in their belief that their constitutional rights are being taken away.

I am sure the anti-government protesters are sincere in their beliefs, but I also will say I have absolutely no idea how taking over a wildlife refuge is supposed to restore their constitutional rights. I respect people taking action, but they have expressed their dissatisfaction in a way that is abhorrent and illegal and are now falsely crying martyrdom because they have willfully broken the law for nearly a month with no accountability for their actions.

I have no problem with civil disobedience to draw attention to injustices. I was arrested twice to protest the Obama Administration’s horrific systemic deportations of immigrants. I paid the fine and accepted the culpability of breaking the law for a higher purpose on both occasions. Civil disobedience is a powerful and strategic tool in the movement for social change. I feel our civil disobedience efforts have helped to mobilize the faith community to more strident support for immigrants and also helped to highlight the governmental indifference to the plight of immigrants who daily face state-sponsored terrorism from the Obama Administration.

But during neither of these efforts did we ever consider openly carrying weapons, or did we threaten law enforcement with violence, or did we illegally occupy government property for almost a month. If we had, there is no doubt in my mind that we should be guilty of major felonies and certainly incarcerated for months if not years.

But the white militia members have done all of this and are now being told by local and federal law enforcement officials that if they just go home they will face no penalty whatsoever. That’s right, it is ok to openly carry arms, threaten the lives of law enforcement officials, and illegally occupy a government building – costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in having to pay the law enforcement to keep watch round the clock outside the refuge. It is ok to do all of this, but by no means will society allow someone who perhaps might be suffering from addiction, or face over 50% unemployment in their community and so turn to selling low levels of drugs to people. Threatening to overturn the government is accepted, but we must imprison nonviolent, low-level drug dealer to, in some situations, decades of prison time. As you can guess, this is where I am utterly lost.

I can’t figure out what is more bizarre with this story – a group of heavily armed white militia members taking over a national wildlife refuge and crying about the make-believe encroachment of their constitutional rights, or the nonchalance of law enforcement officials at the breaking of some fairly serious laws.

What the media has not raised, but what is obvious to everyone except the pseudo-martyrs inside the refuge, is the simple fact that if the white militia members were people of color, there would not have been a month-long standoff. There is clearly an enormous difference in how people of color are treated by law enforcement from that of even armed white militia members. People of color who act in this fashion would be deemed terrorists and society would not stand for a month-long standoff – probably not even a day. Where are the politicians who seem to have no qualms about long sentences for people of color in the use or selling or small amount of drugs calling for law and order to be reinstated in eastern Oregon?

If anyone ever had any question about the implicit racism of this country’s criminal justice system, they only need to look at this bizarre story of the brazen actions of armed white militia members who, if they can take a minute to suppress their fantasies of governmental persecution, will have committed major crimes and are now being the chance of walking away scot-free while young black men have a greater chance of winding up in prison than in college.

Absolutely shameful.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

There is a Time for Action - the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

Even under the best of circumstances and with the most supported of proposals, passing legislation and changing policy in the U.S. Congress is an extremely long and arduous effort. I remember working for several years on passage of the Second Chance Act: legislation that reduces recidivism by providing much-needed resources to those returning home from prison in the areas of substance abuse/mental health treatment, as well as aid to help find employment and housing. I participated in hundreds of advocacy meetings on the Hill, coordinated fly-in’s of religious leaders, and never once had an office that opposed the bill on its merits. Yet, even with that, it took more than a few years for it to pass.

Well, we are here once again. We have a piece of legislation that is supported by groups from the far left to the far right. The entire faith community stands behind it. The bill is called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA). The SRCA is a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ). Yep, that’s pretty bipartisan! The bill would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug sentences and make those reductions retroactive and allow many federal prisoners to earn time credits for completing rehabilitative programs in prison. This represents the biggest step forward in reforming the criminal justice system – a massive and enormously expensive system that is fundamentally racist and classist – in forty years. It is long past due.

Everyone with an ounce of common sense is behind this bill. But that is obviously the catch – the ounce of common sense. According to a Politico article, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is working diligently to stop the bill. Why, when practically everyone, including law enforcement is behind this bill? Because he and a handful of others in the Senate have wrongly characterized this legislation as a get-out-of-jail-free card for “thousands of violent felons.”

Not surprisingly, no matter how wrong they are Tom Cotton and his Senate pals aren’t about to let facts get in their way. This bill would not apply to violent felons and the sentences that would be reduced by this legislation would only be available to those who are currently incarcerated who make application to a judge. Therefore, this is no get-out-of-jail-free-card for anyone!

I don’t know about you, but it irks me to no end that supposed “leaders” like Tom Cotton use baseless attacks on good legislation to essentially scare off any progress or movement. So, me and you can either take it and just shake our heads in disgust or we can do something about it. I vote for doing something about it.

Let’s call Senator Cotton’s office and tell him to back off the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and to support this vital legislation. Here is a sample script:

Hi, my name is                                    and as a person of faith I want to strongly urge Senator Cotton to support the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. It will help restore fairness in the criminal justice system and keep our communities safe.

His number is 202-224-2353. Call if you are from Arkansas or not!

I get tired of empty-minded negativists stopping positive and much-needed legislation and the only way we can ensure this progressive legislation gets enacted is if we take on people like Senator Cotton.

Call today, call tomorrow, and urge everyone you know to call as well.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

An Easy Fix or Compassionate Solutions?

I love my neighborhood in South Arlington. It is racially, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse and filled with really good people. This is why I was sad the other day when I saw signs for the first time on my block and the block behind us limit parking to only those who live here.  
There are low-income apartment buildings just across the street and the owners of the apartment buildings charge an exorbitant fee for tenants to park their cars in their own parking lots. As a result, most of the time the parking lots stay empty. Folks making minimum wage or barely higher can scarcely afford the apartment and the car they drive, much less the large fees being charged to park there. It is one of the many hidden ways the poor remained trapped in poverty that affluent folks from the outside will never see.
So, the people in the apartment buildings have often parked on our block and the one behind us. This situation has naturally had some headaches. We have had a lot of messes when it comes to people who don’t live on our street parking on our street. Folks who are inebriated park halfway on the curb or even partly in someone’s yard. People have parked their cars in front of someone’s driveway making it impossible for the person living there to leave in the morning. Others park their car in front of someone’s house for a week or more at a time and never come and get it. I admit, there are times I get bugged by it all.
And so, for many of my neighbors, the signs restricting parking to only those who live in my neighborhood is a welcome sight. In fact, the day we moved in, some neighbors – and these are good folks who I genuinely like – came by our house asking me to sign a petition which requested the erection of these signs. I politely refused.
Putting up these signs makes good sense to some because it is an easy fix to an obvious problem. Now, I didn’t say it was a solution – just a fix for the people on my block and the block behind me. The overall problem of affordable parking for people who live in the apartments does not go away. There are still enormous challenges to the people in the apartments who cannot find a place to park that isn’t 5-10 blocks away or exorbitantly expensive.
Easy, overly-simplistic fixes to complex problems seem to be in vogue right now because it is election season. Carpet-bombing Syria and Iran, keeping all Muslims out of the US, monitoring all Muslims who reside in the US, deporting all undocumented people, building a wall on the Southern border that somehow Mexico will magically pay for, eliminating all forms of social services because the poor are just “lazy” – these are all easy fixes because at their root these empty-minded, nonsensical slogans tell us the problem is not ours. The problems can all be laid on “them.” These kinds of mindless rants remind us that we supposedly share no culpability in the problem so, therefore, we share no culpability in finding real solutions.
The problem is that this is public policy devoid of compassion.
This kind of ridiculous jingoism will get big cheers and God knows, Congress will even enact – has enacted – policies that reflect this brand of ethnocentric, detached nationalism. But it betrays who we are not only as people of faith, but even as human beings who exist on the same planet with other human beings. It is the worst part of tribalism.
Answers to complex problems are simply not easy. Nuance is necessary and requires the thoughtfulness that does not draw big crowds or that can be summed up in a tweet. But most importantly, what is too often missing in our politics and even in our neighborhood decisions is compassion – seeing the other as we see ourselves. Jesus put it best, “loving our neighbor as we do ourselves.”
In my neighborhood, we have sadly chosen the quick and easy fix over the harder, but richer, road of compassion. We have chosen to restrict our neighborhood to ourselves and we are just completely ignoring the larger problem of a lack of affordable parking (which represents the larger problem of a lack of affordable living in our area) for the working poor. For the last two years, through walks in the neighborhood, using public transportation, and talking to the folks who park on our street, the folks I have started to get to know are just hard-working people. They are from all over the world. They are just looking for somewhere to park their car. And my neighborhood just said no.
We have found an easy fix to the messiness of parking on our street. But we haven’t found the solution. And we will be the poorer for it. Hospitality is messy and doesn’t always make us feel good. Solutions are hard and require compassion, which at its root necessitates relationship. The cars aren’t on our street anymore, but the world is still all around us. My block had a chance to say welcome, but instead we have said go away. Maybe me and my block deserve Donald Trump as President. Our actions do not seem all that different from his rhetoric.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Frank Capra was Right

The Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life, has long been one of my favorites as it is for so many others. The underlying theme is that it is through the small, faithful, mundane actions that we do for others that in the end brings about our own redemption. We do reap what we sow. George Bailey is saved from jail and finds that his life has meaning beyond what he could have ever imagined. And Mr. Potter is presumably left alone, eaten up with his bitterness and envy.

George Bailey does not get a chance to see the meaning of his life until he is faced with certain failure and shame, and even possible prison. I won’t liken myself to George Bailey, but this last week I feel like I got a chance to hear from others what my work for the last ten years has meant to them.

I was fired Tuesday from my job. It has been a painful week for I loved what I did. For ten years I had the greatest opportunity of working with United Methodists across the United States (and at times, across the world) to build movements of justice to defend the rights of immigrants, to end mass incarceration, to end gun violence and to abolish the death penalty (among many other issues).

Outside of getting married to Marti and being a dad to Eli and Isaiah, working with United Methodists incarnated among people directly impacted by systems of injustice will always be the greatest blessing of my life. When I first got the job I felt like I won the lottery. And every time I was out in the field working with United Methodists, passionate for people directly impacted by injustice, I felt the same feeling.
I have seen United Methodists live and love sacrificially those who are the most vulnerable in our society and who so often are dumped on by those who deem themselves “leaders.” I have marched, planned, prayed with, been arrested with, cried with, and laughed a helluva lot with some of the most committed, brave and passionate people in the world, many of whom labor for God's Kingdom justice in relative obscurity. They simply amaze me.

So yeah, it hurts to no longer be able to work so directly with them.

As word spread of my unexpected departure, the texts, phone calls, Facebook messages and emails began to roll in. I honestly still am trying to reply to all of them. There have been literally hundreds of them. I am overwhelmed, but in a good way. They have carried some of the most meaningful messages: from promises to pray for me to stories of times they felt like leaving the church or the ministry until they saw that the Body of Christ could actually bring about tangible change for people society would like to dispose of.

This is the part I feel like George Bailey. So much love, so much support, so much encouragement. This is God's grace made real and job or no job, God is good.

I have no idea what is next. But man, no matter what, Frank Capra was right: it really is a wonderful life.

Thanks y’all!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down on Movies in 2015

Here is my list of the great and not-so-great films of 2015. Until the New York Times hires me to review films for a living I refuse to go see what I know to be horrible films so you won’t see any of those on this list. But take it or leave it, here are my picks for films to check out and films to leave alone!

Thumbs Down!
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
A quirky, but provocative story about an unlikely friendship between a girl dying of cancer and a generally depressive, somewhat selfish, but yet very creative high school boy who makes parodies of films with a “friend” who almost seem like they aren’t friends at all. This film probably is generationally trapped. I wanted to like this film more – it really is very sweet. But I honestly did not like the characters in the end and found myself more depressed by the selfishness the “Me” character seems trapped in. Not a bad film, but just one I wouldn’t recommend.

Run All Night
To show how forgettable this one is I had to reread the premise for this film online and I am pretty sure I saw it. Lots of action, little thought, dumb, dumb, dumb.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron
I had a hard time locating this film. I like the Avengers film series and will likely go see the next one. But these films are so easily forgettable. This is exceptionally entertaining, but not a whole lot beyond that I am expect more from my thumbs up movies. Sorry Avengers fans, but this one gets a thumbs down.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop II
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Just because you can make a sequel does not mean you should. I have no idea why I saw this.

Thumbs Up!
McFarland, USA
Thankfully, this is more than just a story of a down-and-out coach coming to a poor school and renewing his passion and reviving a disheartened sports team of some kind. The coach, played by Kevin Costner, and his family also must deal with their ethnocentrism/racism. It’s a feel-good story but also thankfully, it is true and that makes it worth the see.

Inside Out
I am not a big fan of kids’ movies, but this is easily the best animated film in years. The film combines sentimentality with a poignant story about our own hurt can control us in ways that can be destructive. Hard to find a film that can effectively make both of these work seamlessly.

This wasn’t the best film of the year, but it is a solid action movie with an underlying message of how good intentions detached from ethical means can be quite destructive. A principled FBI agent is in over her head when she joins a CIA-directed special force which is going after the head of a Mexican drug cartel. This isn’t uplifting, but it does remind us of the perils of making retributive justice preeminent over and above law and order.

Yeah, this is barely a thumbs up, but it is entertaining in terms of action and Paul Rudd is funny so I will keep it here. I expect the sequel to be just as entertaining and just as funny, but to be a thumbs down.

Straight Outta Compton
A fascinating look at not only the rise of NWA, but the rise of West Coast hip hop. The film shows not only the challenge of maintaining creative control, but also the inherit racism in the music industry. Not being a huge fan of hip hop I also had no idea of the number of great songs that were part of the soundtrack. A great film not only for fans of hip hop but for all fans of music.

This is the best film about journalists pursuing a story since All the President’s Men. The story follows the journalists for the Boston Globe who begin to uncover the cover-up by the Catholic Church of pedophile priests. At each stage the journalists think they have exposed all that there is to the cover-up only to discover the cover-up is deeper and bigger. It is a truly important film with excellent acting that shows institutions are not geared for justice, but rather, are geared to maintain the prominence of the institution itself. This is a must-see.

Black Mass
Finally a Johnny Depp film l I wanted to see and that lived up to its billing. This is a brutal film about the rise and government support of Whitey Bulger and the performances here are certainly Oscar-worthy.

Another film about standing up to enormous institutional pressure as the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, an eccentric and brilliant writer, comes under social and political pressure to renounce his ties to the American Community Party. This film, like Straight Outta Compton, also shows how artistic creative freedom is truly a key aspect of our proposed ideal of freedom. Bryan Cranston deserves an Oscar nomination for this portrayal.

The Bridge of Spies
Another excellent film from Steven Spielberg. The film is based on the 1960 U-2 incident during the Cold War and tells the story of lawyer James Donovan who is entrusted with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers—a pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. Donovan is ultimately exchanged for the Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel. The film combines action and intrigue and is a should-see, though not a must-see.

I did not hold out high hopes for yet another Rocky remake, but this was far and away the best one since 2 or 3. I might even see the next Creed.

The Big Short
A terribly difficult film to make, given the complexity of subject matter, this film is truly excellent. The film covers the story of the very few people who saw the impending financial collapse due to the not just risky practices, but ultimately fraudulent actions of the financial industry and the US government. The film creatively helps the audience better understand what is happening though I have to say, a lot of that went over my head. But nonetheless, we are left with the same feeling we had in 2008 – we are bailing out the people who should be in prison for what they did. The best line of the film is at the end when the principles in the film wondered whether there would be accountability for those who perpetrated the crimes on the American people and Steve Carrell’s character responds essentially by saying, in 5 years no one will remember and they will just blame immigrants and poor people. Enter Donald Trump.

This film is important, but sadly, is too slow and quite frankly, overly-dramatic. Still, every parent with a kid who is playing or who wants to play football should see how the NFL has lied to its players and to us for years.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
This is a no-brainer. Not often will you find a film that has the highest of expectations not only live up to those expectations but wildly exceed them. But this one did. Truly the best film of the year.

Films I still want to see:
They Call Me Malala, Suffragette, The Danish Girl, Woodlawn, Trainwreck, Brooklyn