Category Archives: News and Current Events

You Can’t Want What You Want

by Matt McKinnon


I am somewhat taken aback by the national and international attention to the Rachel Dolezal story. When I first read of it (on the BBC website of all places) I was confused: why is this news, much less international news?

It has only gotten worse.

I shudder at what amounts to a feeding frenzy from both conservatives and progressives alike, with each new detail from her past trumped only by each successive interview she gives.


But what I find fascinating is how we think of and treat the question of “race” itself. We know it’s not biologically “real,” that it is a social construct, that it is actually a relatively recent convention born out of a Modern misapplication of biology to earlier attempts at classification based first on language and later physical appearance.

Contemporary science no longer thinks in terms of “race” as a biologically-based set of qualities that separates groups of people used for taxonomic purposes. For science, “race” has been rendered antiquated at best and completely useless at worse.

We know all this.

Yet in most any given discussion of the Dolezal case, little of this subtlety ever seems to be displayed. Or when it is displayed, it carries relatively little weight, especially when, in the light of the very public transgendering of Caitlyn Jenner, the possibility of being “transracial” comes up and is summarily dismissed.


Mikhail Lyubansky, a specialist in the psychology of race at the University of Illinois, explains the history of the idea of “transracial” in describing adoptions where children of one “racial category” are adopted by parents of another. These children are understood “to be spanning their own and their adoptive parents’ racial categories.” Thus these folks, he contends, are really “transracial.”

But the attempt to call Dolezal’s identity “transracial” and compare it to Bruce Jenner’s transgendering into Caitlyn Jenner is met with disapproval. Lyubansky continues:

This description…makes sense when describing both trans men and trans women, meaning that it fits equally well regardless of direction. Applying this concept to race makes little sense to me. ‘Trans’ refers to a lack of fit between biology and identity, but there is no biology involved in race.

Exactly. There is no biology involved in race the way there is biology involved in one’s sex: biology determines one’s sex while society and culture determine gender, and one’s gender identity is determined by him or herself. Gender identity is more like “race” in that it is a social (and psychological) construct: the issue for transgender people being that their biological sex does not match their gender identity.


But then, why can’t “trans” here refer to a lack of fit between a social construct (race) and one’s racial identity? We are left wondering: maybe perhaps, because a social construct is harder to overcome?

If race is not based in biology and is completely and wholly a construct of society and culture, then why is it impossible to move within this social construct (from “black” to “white” or vice versa) and yet it is possible to move when the biological fact of one’s sex does not fit one’s identification of their gender?

As Lyubansky suggests: a transgendered person is “trans” in that her sex (male) does not correspond to her gender identity (female). She is really a woman, despite what her biology is. But, it seems, a transracial person cannot be “trans” in that her race (white) is not decided by biology but by social convention. And while this is not biology, is it something more?

Jay Smooth

After all, no one with any sensitivity towards the trans community would ever suggest that a transgendered person is “pretending” to be someone she is not (charges many have levied against Dolezal) but rather is changing the appearance of her body to match her sexual identity—being who she really is despite her physiology—since who someone “really is” ultimately comes down to how they identify themselves, right? Like changing the physical appearance of one’s body to match one’s racial identity?

Not so fast.

Lyubansky argues that the application of “transracial” in the case of someone like Dolezal is “logically flawed and socially problematic in that it ignores the oppression of both those who are transgender and those who have had to live with real racial discrimination.”


So the problem is not the biology of race, since there is no biological basis there. Nor is it the social construct of race itself (since gender is also a social construct), but rather the fact that this social construct has been used to oppress other groups by the dominant group.

But can’t this also be said of gender?

And moving from the dominant group to an oppressed group is “logically flawed and socially problematic” because it ignores the oppression of both those who are transgendered and those who have lived with racial discrimination. But a person who is biologically a man can become a woman because that is how she identifies herself even though some of the same dominance-oppression issues undoubtedly apply between male and female.

Something does not quite add up.


I want to be clear here: I agree that a transracial move is socially problematic and that there may be more than a little “white privilege” at work in the concept of an avatar-like existence manifesting in any old racial group it likes, but I fail to see how it is illogical. Historically insensitive? Perhaps. Outside the norm? That too. But illogical? No, not if race really is just a social construct. After all, social constructs get deconstructed and reconstructed over time. And the growing acceptance of the transgendered community is a prime example. Race, in fact, is another.

It’s true that the specifics of this case are troubling, and I suspect there are some psychological issues that need to be addressed. I also don’t think Dolezal went about any of this in the right way (though I’m not sure what the right way would look like) and her past actions while at Howard (like suing the school for racial discrimination because she is white) leave her credibility more than a little questionable.

But this doesn’t get to the underlying idea: why switching sexual identification is possible, logical, and even socially acceptable but switching racial identification is not.

Unless we simply don’t want it to be.

Unless, regardless of the science involved, we really do think that race is more than biological, deeper than mere appearance or culture: based in our bodies and social histories and constitutive of who we are in a way that is even more basic than chromosomal. We seem to have an essentialist mentality when it comes to race, despite having dispensed long ago with “essences” in the way we think about things. Perhaps this “social construct” of race is so real (more real than biology in fact) that a person really is African American—or they are not, based not on identification, but rather on something more, something essential, something ontological that transcends an individual’s assent, choice, or identity.

This would explain the criticism directed towards folks our society identifies as African-American but who either don’t display the characteristics expected of them (Bryant Gumbel) or have the audacity to think of their identity in more complex terms (Tiger Woods). From this perspective, you cannot choose to be African-American any more than you can choose not-to-be—if indeed you really are African-American (a judgment left to society and not the individual).


Lawrence of Arabia told us as much in the 1962 film of the same name while taking part (as a white Englishman) in the Arabian Revolt against the Ottoman Turks. While recovering after being flogged by Turkish soldiers who discovered he was white, T.E. Lawrence announces that he is leaving the revolt:

Lawrence: “I’m not the Arab revolt, Ali. I’m not even Arab.”
Ali: “A man can be whatever he wants. You said.”
Lawrence: “I’m sorry. I thought it was true.”
Ali: “You proved it.”
Lawrence: “Look, Ali. Look.” (Shows him his white skin.) “That’s me. What color is it? That’s me. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Ali: “A man can do whatever he wants. You said.”
Lawrence: “He can…but he can’t want what he wants.” (Still displaying his skin.) “This is the stuff that decides what he wants.”

This seems to be the way most of us tend to think about race, at least when we don’t really think too much about it: that there really is something physical if not biological about what it means to be African-American, or Arab, or white. Or rather that there is something more than physical that includes but goes deeper than appearance and determines one’s “race” and “racial identity,” something that, unlike sex and gender identity, we cannot escape or change.


Ponder on that for a moment: Caitlyn Jenner can escape the misalignment of her sex and gender identity but Lawrence and Dolezal cannot escape the misalignment of their “race” and “racial identity.” That seems strange to me.

The fact of the matter is that most of our classification systems when it comes to humans are hopelessly flawed and messy, based in linguistics (Celtic, Germanic, Hispanic/Latino, Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, etc…) but having outgrown their parochial origins to become descriptions of ethnic groups and the individuals who comprise them.

The uncomfortable truth seems to be that our society is wedded to race: that we are wedded to race. Oh sure, we may speak ill of it, admit that it is a social construct, deny that it is actually rooted in biology or science, pretend that we don’t see it, opine for a society that transcends it, and so on. But the fact is, we cling to it in an essentialist and ontological manner that says more about our own history, hang-ups, and issues than it does about any “real” identifiers.


And the even more uncomfortable truth is that the idea of changing one’s racial identification seems absurd and illogical—more absurd and illogical than changing one’s sexual identification.

I cannot help but wonder if underlying this is the assumption that the real absurdity, the real illogicality is the suggestion that non-whites would ever be able to do this, or that most whites would want to.

I’ve noted in this forum before that Benjamin Franklin was opposed to the influx of Germans into “English” Pennsylvania, arguing that they could no more become “Anglified” than they could become “our Complexion” (southern Germans were regarded as “swarthy” and not “white”). But guess what? They did become Anglified as well as “white.” As did many other “ethnic” populations who were historically regarded as “not white”—Italians, Jews, Irish, Eastern Europeans. After all, social constructs change over time.

But I suspect that underneath the way most of us so easily cast off this idea of transracial identity lurks the notion that “white” is a pure category and that “real” non-whites (those of recent African descent and not Germans, or Jews, or Irish, or Italians) could never make the switch. It is not, as Lyubansky argues, applicable “regardless of direction.”


Only certain light-skinned folks, this line of thinking goes, would be able to do it. Historically called “passing,” this in itself raises all sorts of issues about white hegemony and the effects it has on the psychology of being “non-white” in America. Furthermore, many would suggest that no sane white person would choose to identify as black for any other than sociological study (John Howard Griffin) or personal gain (the movie Soul Man unfortunately comes to mind). But then again, I wonder if not so long ago folks thought the same way about the idea of men identifying as women and women identifying as men. And yet, we are working to change those social constructs as well.

For now, however, it seems pretty clear: Rachel Dolezal, like Lawrence of Arabia, can do whatever she wants…

…but she cannot want what she wants.

We have bound ourselves to a social construct that is skin deep.

But made it so much more.


The Phantom Wind

by Matt McKinnon


It’s hard to imagine how a 25-year old man can be handcuffed and put into a police van, seemingly in reasonable health, and then emerge 30 minutes later barely breathing, almost unable to walk, with three cracked vertebrae, a crushed voice box, and a nearly severed spine.

Hard to imagine how he had no other broken bones or even visible signs of trauma—other than those fatal injuries to his neck, injuries normally associated with a high-speed car accident.

It must have been some phenomenal force that did such damage to those three neck vertebrae and nearly severed his spinal cord and yet had no effect on the van itself or the officers safely strapped in their seats.

It must have been some supernatural force that hyperextended his neck, backwards and forwards, and caused those vertebrae to fracture and crush his spinal cord.


It must have been some invisible ghostly force that mysteriously left no trace on the metal cage that housed him or the van that transported him or the officers who arrested him.

A phantom wind that blew across the Charm City on that breezeless Sunday morning, capable of such selective destructive force—tornadic almost in the way it chose a victim there in the back of the van but left those in close proximity untouched, secure in their gentle fate.

No high gale warnings that still spring day, the waves on the harbor lazy, unconcerned, unaware of the hurricane wind with sniper precision that passed, unseen by human eye, untraced by Doppler radar, unyielding through the city streets and touched down there at only one place, only one time, only one victim.


Like some violent demonic wraith called forth from the aether itself, or out of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.

That chilling wind.

That killing wind.

That specter wind that blew before in Baltimore.

There are names for the ride it takes you on—names that some in Baltimore know all too well:

A rough ride. A cowboy ride. A nickel ride.


Its ghosted trace is known well enough by courts and juries too, and by police departments whose “official policies” betray its shaded existence and try in vain to soften its deadly blow.

But somehow still it howls.

In 1997 that same wind blew Jeffrey Alston, arrested for speeding in his BMW, handcuffed, shackled, and supposedly strapped to a bench in the back of a police van, but, officers later claimed, in Houdini-like fashion, was able to free himself and leap headfirst into the partition, breaking his neck and leaving him a quadriplegic, later to die from complications. A jury disagreed with this “official” account to the tune of 39 million dollars.

But the wind remained aloof.

In 2005 that same wind blew Dondi Johnson, arrested for urinating in public and also placed, handcuffed but not in a seatbelt, in the back of a police van. It likewise blew him clear across the vehicle, breaking his neck and snuffing out his life. A jury awarded his family 7.4 million dollars.

But the wind escaped notice.

It blew again just two years ago, though this time the victim, a young white woman named Christine Abbot, survived to tell her story…and to sue the sue the City of Baltimore. Since, well, you cannot sue a phantom wind.


It has also blown in Philadelphia, paralyzing two in similar fashion.

Undoubtedly it has blown elsewhere before, outside of public gaze, this astral gust that appears briefly from nowhere, mysteriously tracks only police vans, and then is gone, leaving only the broken bodies of handcuffed detainees in its wake.

It’s hard to image such a phantom wind.

It must make for one hell of a rough ride.


Mere Murder?

by Jay Parr


A month ago, around 5:15 PM on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 10 (right about when our transfer information session was getting underway here at UNCG), about 50 miles down the road from here in a neighborhood adjacent to the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, 46-year-old Craig Hicks entered the condo of his twenty-something newlywed neighbors Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha, and firing seven or eight shots, murdered them both and Yusor’s younger sister Razan Abu-Salha. I will not use the word “allegedly” here because Hicks turned himself in just hours later, and readily confessed to the killings. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you’re well aware of this incident by now. It’s not even news anymore.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around these shootings ever since.

Mr. Hicks’ that’s-my-story-and-I’m-sticking-to-it is that it was all over a parking dispute. It is pretty widely known by now that Hicks was in ongoing conflict with any number of his neighbors, about the use of limited parking spaces in the complex and other similarly-urgent matters, but murdering three people over it seems—well—just a tad disproportionate to me. There’s obviously more going on here, even if Hicks really does think it’s that simple.

More importantly, there’s more going on here even if Hicks is just a nutjob.


The problem here is that the dead are three observant young Muslims, while the killer is a white man who, in the end, represents mainstream America as a whole. That is to say that, for the vast majority of us, gentle reader, Craig Hicks ultimately represents you and me. That being the case, this senseless killing spree—carried out by one unstable individual, with no evidence of any real forethought or planning—can’t help but be much, much more than just one senseless killing spree by an unstable individual.

Let’s take a look at the players here. The dead are Deah Barakat, a 23-year-old second-year dental student at UNC Chapel Hill and and an active participant in an international charity working with displaced refugees; Barakat’s wife of six whole weeks, Yusor Abu-Salha, a 21-year-old graduate from NC State, who had been admitted to begin the same dental program in the fall and who was heavily involved in the same charity work; and her younger sister Razan Abu-Salha, a 19-year-old sophomore in architecture and environmental design at NC State, active in a charity for deaf advocacy.


They were kids. A married couple in the first third of their twenties, and her younger sister who was still a teenager. I don’t consider myself all that old (my firstborn is only two and a half), but I was already married and getting divorced when Mr. Barakat was born, so it wouldn’t be a bit of a stretch to say that I could have been their father. For that matter, so could Hicks.

They were achievers—if not overachievers. At 23, Deah was already in the second year of dental school. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve advised who at that age had yet to figure out that if they couldn’t handle general bio, general chem, and calculus in the same semester, maybe they shouldn’t plan on going to medical school. This guy had already been in dental school—no less rigorous than med school—for a year and a half. His new bride was no less of an achiever, having finished her bachelor’s degree and been accepted into the same dental school at the ripe old age of 21. I know less about her younger sister, but being a sophomore in architecture at 19 is nothing to sneeze at. They were clearly dedicated students, and they came from families that obviously valued education. Among the few things I know about their families are the facts that Deah’s sister has a doctorate degree and that the girls’ father is a psychiatrist (i.e., an M.D.).


They were also very giving people. Deah was heavily involved in a charity that provided dental care and support to refugee children. Yusor gushed on her Facebook page about the time they had spent in Turkey, and the people they met and the work they did while they were there. Razan was also involved in charity work, at an age when most mainstream-American teenagers are routinely and utterly self-involved. I guess what I’m saying here is that, had these kids been Christian instead of Muslim, other students their age would have been openly making fun of what pious goody-goodies they were. I mean really, married in their early twenties? Don’t drink at all? Up to their eyeballs in charity work? What are you guys, some kind of evangelicals?


Those are the dead. Three overachieving, charitable youths, who also happened to be observant Muslims.

From what I can find of the killer, he’s a paradox in many ways: Skeptical of all forms of religious extremism, loudly in favor of marriage equality and women’s equality and access to reproductive healthcare including abortion when needed (all of which I can get behind), but also kind of an extremist in his anti-theism and apparently rather belligerent about running around intimidating folks with his firearms, both of which I have problems with. I took a look at the public postings on his Facebook page. Once you get past all the clickbait it’s an interesting glimpse into his anti-theistic views.


But here’s the thing: For all his paradoxes, and for all the ways in which some of us may find his opinions distasteful and his actions reprehensible, in this case he represents all of white mainstream America. He’s the old white boy with the Midwestern background and the revolver on his hip. The one who shot three young Muslim students to death in their own home.

Sure, he’s not exactly a shining example of the mainstream American. I mean, he is in his mid forties and was studying for an associate of applied science, so not exactly an outstanding scholar. He’d had a series of crappy jobs and a couple of failed marriages, and a daughter who didn’t really want anything to do with him. He seemed to have had frequent altercations with any number of his neighbors, more than one of whom had complained about him, and it would seem he had a penchant for showing up armed to air his grievances. Apparently that wasn’t the first time he had shown up at his neighbors’ door over parking or noise, and he’s also reputed to have mocked the young women over their hijab on several occasions. So not exactly a friendly neighbor. And not exactly someone I want representing me as a white male mainstream American. But the fact remains: He’s the white dude here. He’s the “American,” regardless of where any of his victims were born or raised.


Hicks also had a collection of guns. Something on the order of a dozen of them. That does not make him exceptional among gun owners in the United States. However, it has been established that among developed nations, the US has considerably more guns per capita—and considerably more gun deaths per capita—than pretty much anyplace else. That alone puts every single one of us at greater risk for gunshot-related injuries or death, just by virtue of being in the United States.

But it goes beyond that. Despite what the fear-mongering portion of the media might have you believe, most of the people with those guns are not minorities. In fact, most of them are conservative, rural, white males. Even fewer of the open-carry activists (I prefer “bullies”) are minorities. Brown people in this country seem to learn that brown people carrying guns in this country are a bit more likely to get shot on sight, so you’re not going to find a lot of brown open-carry activists. No, the open-carry crowd is almost exclusively white. In fact, I would argue that strutting around in suburban shopping centers while openly loaded down with military-grade weaponry takes a level of hubris that is almost exclusively associated with white privilege.

That was Hicks. The white guy with the guns. In a country that has an exceptionally high percentage of white guys with guns.


For the record, I’m not completely opposed to guns, personally. I have on occasion enjoyed shooting targets at firing ranges and shooting cans out in the country. I won’t have one in my house, but that’s partly because I have a toddler who isby mere virtue of being a toddlera very unpredictable variable. However, when she is of an appropriate age, I do want her to learn to handle and use a firearm, if for no other reason that when she inevitably stumbles across one she will be able to handle it safely and confidently. If I did own a firearm, I can tell you that when it was not at the target range it would be stowed in a secure and locked gun safe, empty, maybe even partially disassembled, with any ammunition (if there was any ammunition in the house) locked up in a separate location. I sure as hell wouldn’t want it out and loaded and on my person on a daily basis. There’s just way too much to go wrong there, and for my personal anxiety level the risk of an accidental shooting outweighs any security I might gain by walking around armed.

The other problem with having firearms around constantly is that, put simply, people get angry. We all have irrational moods. Granted, some of us have them more often than others, but we all, without exception, get into moods when we are tempted to do things—or maybe we actually do things—that we wouldn’t do in a levelheaded state of mind. As a friend of mine, a writer and generally placid person, pointed out in a discussion on this topic, “I have been angry enough to want to shoot someone in the face.” If we’re all honest with ourselves, I think most of us have been there at some point or other in our lives.

The problem becomes when a bunch of usand inevitably the more belligerent among usactually have handguns strapped to our hips, because that’s when it becomes a matter of mere impulse control between “angry enough to want to shoot someone in the face,” and someone (or as it were, three someones) actually getting shot in the face.


Compound an overly-well-armed America with an Islamophobic America, and the odds get even worse for these victims. And before we start saying we don’t live in an Islamophobic culture, let’s take a look at the major spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the last few years, much of it seemingly related to a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media. Let’s take a look at the disproportionate attention given to violence by Muslims—even if it’s a video of a single murder by ISIS extremists, specifically designed to be a spectacle, and the media are playing right into the terrorists’ hands by lavishing it with attention. Let’s take a look at the disproportionate attention given to the fact that the perpetrators of that violence are Muslim—not that they’re off-the-deep-end radicals, or that the vast majority of their victims are Muslim, but that they themselves are Muslim. Let’s take a look at the fact that any time a Muslim commits an act of terrorism, every single Muslim in the Western world is suddenly at a higher risk of a retaliatory attack.

Seriously, how much anti-agnostic rhetoric did you hear after Tim McVeigh blew up a huge chunk of downtown Oklahoma Citykilling well over a hundred people and well over a dozen children—in the largest terrorist attack in the United States before 9/11? I was loudly agnostic at the time, and I don’t remember getting so much as a second glance. How much did the US media shout that the IRA were Catholic terrorists? And how many pundits did we hear shouting that we should ship all the Catholics back to Rome or wherever they came from, or that we should ship all the agnostics back to I-don’t-know-istan?


But two radicalized young brothers blow up a trash can in Boston, killing the same number of people that Hicks did last month (yes, a lot more were injured), and they’re terrorists, and even though they weren’t affiliated with any Islamist terror organizations, a lot of attention is given to the fact that they’re Muslim. They’re Muslim Terrorists. And while yes, the rest of us are reminded that extremist violence can affect our lives at any given moment, every Muslim in America is at higher risk of being attacked just for being Muslim.

Two shooters representing a very radicalized arm of al-Qaeda storm into the headquarters of an irreverent Paris publication and shoot most of the editorial staff, and almost all of the attention focuses on the fact that they were Muslim, and that the publication had published images mocking The Prophet (pbuh). Not that they were Muslim extremists, mind you, but that they were Muslim. And they get presented by some particularly loudmouthed pundits as representing the entire Muslim world. And suddenly every Muslim in the Western world has to actively and loudly disavow the attack to avoid being associated with it. Because the assumption is that, as Muslims, they’re complicit. And even with all that disavowal, innocent Muslims all over Europe and the U.S. face a resurgence of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and mosques and schools are vandalized, and Muslims are harassed and attacked on the street, and the hate sites have a field day, and most of us don’t hear a word about any of that, because it’s not what sells advertising space.


And the end result of all this attention is that being identifiably Muslim in the United States (or much of the Western world, really) means constantly being under a heightened level of scrutiny from all directions. And it means being a lot more likely to encounter microagressions, intentional aggression, and even outright violence. In fact, on a daily basis a Muslim in the United States is five times more likely to be the victim of a hate crime than before 9/11.

Despite Hicks’ professed equal-opportunity anti-theism and despite his claim that it was all about parking (and maybe noise), I have trouble believing that the fact that these young students were Muslim had nothing to do with it. Had they been something a little less Other in the American zeitgeist, some plain-dress Christian denominationsay, Mennonite for sake of argumentwould Hicks have been so compelled to murder them in their own home? I kinda doubt it.


image © Kevin Schoonover

Maybe in Hicks’ mind it really wasn’t about them being Muslim. Much like in various law enforcement officers’ minds (or in one particular wannabe law enforcement officer’s mind), maybe the decision to shoot really wasn’t about their victims being black. Not on the conscious level, anyway. However a lack of conscious motivation on the part of the shooter doesn’t make those victims any less black, or any less dead. Just as Deah, Yusor, and Razan are no less Muslim, and no less dead.

Maybe somewhere in Hicks’ mind this killing really was all about a parking dispute. It begs the question of how a mere parking dispute got so ridiculously out of hand that three innocent people ended up being ruthlessly executed in their own home (and clearly I don’t buy it anyway). But regardless of Hicks’ motivations in the momentand regardless of whether or not he intended to make any statement larger than that of an enraged neighborhis actions, in the wider context of our gun-toting and Islamophobic culture, make him the face of American terrorism: An armed, entitled, angry white male attacking an unarmed brown innocent (or three) because he felt threatened in some way or another. An attack which ultimately reminds everyone in that Other demographic that on some level they are outsiders, that they will always be outsiders, that they are hated, and that at any moment that hatred could blow up in their faces and end their lives, or the lives of their dearest loved ones.

That is not a mere murder. That is an act of terrorism.


Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech, and Islamophobia

by Carrie Levesque


I do not think that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo are acceptable or justified in any way, shape or form. It is always reprehensible to respond to verbal or written attacks, real or perceived, with physical violence. Period.

But the range of responses to these attacks has made me ask myself what the kind of journalism published in Charlie Hebdo contributes to the struggle against Islamic extremism, and what impact this kind of speech has on how we as a culture talk about and educate ourselves about these issues.

My intent here is not to shame or blame the victims. I am simply asking us to consider this: Going forward in this conflict of global proportions, how can we sanction reprehensible words and actions (like terrorist acts) in a forceful and effective way, without either escalating the tensions with offensive content or compromising our right to freedom of expression?


My intent is not to criticize Charlie Hebdo. This conflict is much, much bigger than Charlie Hebdo. It is about each one of ushow we talk, how we think, and our willingness to see and respect others’ points of view.

We have to first look beyond recent headline-grabbing bombings and massacres and acknowledge there isand has long beenviolence on both sides. In the Western media, we treat Islamist extremist aggression as one-sided. As if all the world’s Muslims just woke up one day and decided they “hated our freedoms.” However, if we fail to acknowledge the centuries of Western violence, colonialism and exploitation that have shaped the world as it is today, and that validate extremists’ claims of injustice and persecution, we cannot hope to truly understand the problem or address the violence.

We have to secondly believe that we do have the power to address the violence. Most of usMuslims and non-Muslims alikefeel fairly powerless to stop extremists’ attacksor our government’s latest misguided war in another predominantly Muslim land. But before young Muslim recruits pick up guns or sign up for flight school, before we choose to effectively ignore reports of the Other’s devastation after a poorly-placed shelling by simply sighing and reaching for the clicker to see what else is on, there are words that shape those responses. There are words, media, that encourage us to see the other side as less than human. Words are weaponsof peace or of warthat we all can use.


Certainly, both sides exploit media to attack the other and spread hate, intolerance and violence. In Inside Terrorism, a text we study in MLS 620: Dangerous Minds: Terrorism, Political Violence, and Radical Orthodoxies, author Bruce Hoffman meticulously categorizes the many ways terrorist groups use media to recruit, coerce and terrorize outside their ranks, and to strengthen morale or dampen dissent within. Unfortunately, extremists’ use of media and language is something we cannot really control.

But what about our own?

The violence that has gripped Paris in the last week has been horrific. But for me, no less chilling is the response I see across Europe attacking Muslims and “the Muslim world” indiscriminately, shifting focus from the real problem of extreme Islamist fundamentalism. The anti-immigration movements’ fears about the “Islamicization” of Europe strike me as racist fabrications, but for many, the media of the far right have them convinced they are real. As in the days of Nazi Germany (or 1990s Yugoslavia or Rwanda), sometimes propaganda is all it takes.


In the US, too, people rarely distinguish between Muslims and Muslim extremists. Our media make sweeping generalizations daily about “the Muslim world,” as if it consisted of one cultureone primitive, intolerant, bloodthirsty, anti-Western people. Many viewers don’t have much problem with this: It conforms to what they think already or they don’t have (and don’t take the time to find) access to more carefully vetted information. Not surprising then that such prejudices trickle down to the next generation, made insecure by the mess that is the world today.

A friend here was telling me recently that a couple of months ago, her 7-year-old daughter said at breakfast, innocently, apropos of nothing, “I hate Muslims.” My friend struggled to stay composed as she asked, as casually as she could, “Why do you say that?” Her daughter sensed she’d said something wrong and was embarrassed and confused. She confessed it was just something she’d heard, that Muslims were bad. My friend explained that some Muslims are bad, just like some people in every group of people are bad. She mentioned some recent events that may have caused people around her to say something unfortunate like that.

My friend reminded her daughter that two families among their family’s closest friends are Muslim, people her daughter loves and trusts like family. They’d had discussions in the past about their friends’ faith, why one friend wears a head scarf, why neither family eats pork. But, my friend now understood, her daughter didn’t see their friends as Muslims. Was part of her blindness to their faith an effect of this idea she’d gotten about what or who Muslims are? Their friends aren’t terrorists or refugees living off “our oil money” (another racist attitude shared by many in Norway as in France). How could they be Muslims?


The prejudices we ourselves carry today doom us to a present full of violence.

What we are teaching our children dooms them to continue these conflicts into the future.

The things we say, write, and draw matter. They make impacts beyond our intentions. One commentator seeking to put some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in context said, “Just because we think it offensive and we are not free enough to publish this doesn’t mean it has the intent we ascribe to it, or that in France people should also lack the freedom to publish it. I won’t deny it’s mean and utterly tasteless, but as with much American comedy content, people choose to consume it or they don’t, and they well know what they’re getting” (source).

I have two problems with this. First, we and our children are exposed to media everywhere. What we consume is only sometimes a conscious choice. Second, it is a rather naïve and problematic assumption that just because some individuals don’t “choose to consume” something, that that something has no effect on the culture at large and that those individuals won’t feel the effects of that something indirectly (for example, Muslims experiencing the fallout of anti-Muslim attitudes fomented by anti-Muslim texts, written or graphic).

When we tolerate uncareful speech about Muslims, whether from media that are just careless or that are aggressively offensive, we perpetuate and condone harmful attitudes toward Muslims in the same insidious way we have for generations in our own country with African-Americans and other minorities. We insist we’re not racist because of course we make exceptions for individuals: “Oh, but I’m not talking about you. You’re not that kind of black person/gay/Jew/Muslim.” But such excuses were not convincing then, and they are not convincing now.


When we make offensive jokes or cartoons, we normalize these words, ideas and images; we continuously push the line of what is allowed into darker territory. Protecting this kind of speech at the expense of privileging or promoting a culture that insists on respect for others’ beliefs often escalates the prejudice, misunderstanding, alienation and violence. At the same time that we lament how nothing’s sacred anymore and how all is irony, we prize our right to mock what is sacred to the Other in the crudest, basest terms.

In conclusion, my thinking falls in line with Hoffman, our terrorism expert from MLS 620, who suggests that religious terrorism can never be completely eradicated, but that we can try to ameliorate the underlying causes of religious terrorism, and its violent manifestations, through creative solutions that build bridges rather than exacerbate divisions. He points to how the War on Terror and our heavy-handed foreign policy have only worked to support extremists’ portrayal of Islam under siege. The same, I would argue, can be said for much of what I see and hear in the media. What are we fighting? Islamic extremism or Islam? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

I think we all have to decide what we consider the most serious threat to our world, whether that’s racism, threats to free speech, terrorism, or something else.  For me, it’s racism.  That’s what I want to protect my children from most.  If we work to combat racism, to teach everyone to respect and value all other human beings equally, I think all the other problems will eventually take care of themselves.



I Owe My Life to White Privilege

by Jay Parr


Who‘s the armed gang here?

I had a nice article from Carrie all ready to publishabout foodperfect for the holiday season that basically begins this week. But then the grand jury decision over the Michael Brown shooting was announced and Ferguson, Missouri erupted into a new wave of outrage and protests and tear gas and pundit commentary, and my news feed became a discussion of racial inequality both in Ferguson and beyond (because I’m fortunate to have a friends list of mostly thoughtful people), and that was when I realized I needed to drag out this post I was too busy to finish back in the weeks after the shooting.

The killing of yet another unarmed black teenager at the hands of the police really had me thinking about the persistent and serious problems in our ostensibly “colorblind” culture. I mean, I’m glad it opened up a little bit of discourse about racism, and classism, and access to education, and the role of law enforcement, and the unfortunate necessity of code-switchingat least for a couple of weeks, anywaybut at the end of the day, yet another teenager is dead. Let me repeat that. Yet another teenager is dead. For the oh-so-grave offense of acting like a teenager. I felt like I needed to write something about that, but I hadn’t been able to find the right approach. Then it occurred to me.

Had I grown up black, I would probably be dead.

Seriously. Given my own teen years, had I been black instead of white, I probably would have ended up dead. Or in prison. Or both. I certainly wouldn’t have a master’s degree and a steady (if unglamorous) job in academia. No, I can thank my white privilege for all that.

Let’s take a look at the factors, here.

The house in Shepherd Park.

The house in DC. Just a city bus fare from the Smithsonian.

I was poor. When I was fourteen and my parents divorced, my father left the ministry and Washington DC to go do cabinetmaking in southwestern Virginia, and then ended up severely disabled after he broke his neck in a motorcycle wreck a few months later. He never provided a dime of child support that I’m aware of. The church in DC had provided our housing in a manse next door, but as it was part of my father’s compensation and he was no longer their pastor, it was decided that after the end of the school year, if my mother and brother and I were going to stay we would have to rent the house at market value. My mother had just finished nursing school in her late forties, and had almost no work experience (she had spent most of her adult life raising seven children), so there was no way we could afford to stay in that three-bedroom, two-bath house, or even in the racially- and ethnically-diverse, well-educated, upper-middle-class DC neighborhood of Shepherd Park. So my mother moved us down to Virginia to be near my father, and we bought a run-down fisbo in the crappy neighborhood where my father was renting an apartment. Even after she managed to get her Virginia nursing license, my mom had a hard time finding anything but casual work for quite a while. So that was how she supported my little brother and me for years. As a nursing temp. Finally she landed a steady job at a nursing home, but the pay was far from glamorous, and the benefits were nonexistent. None of us had health insurance for many years.

Mine is the white house left of center. That porch has always been a busy place.

Ours was the white house. That porch next door has always been busy.

I lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Let me put it this way: The first night we spent in that house, a couple of the neighborhood punks got into a scrap right out front, and one of them ended up in the hospital with stab wounds. I have bleary memories of red and blue lights, squawking radios, and a line of people a few years my senior sitting on the curb in handcuffs, right below my window. That was our first night there. We would soon discover that anything not chained down would walk away, and that locked doors just meant the windows would get broken when someone wanted to come in and look for valuables. And every once in a while one of the old fire-trap houses would burn down. As if that weren’t enough, among school administrators and law enforcement personnel, my address itself was sufficient cause for them to assume my criminality. Thing is, we could afford to live there (well, sort of). My mom bought the house for $9,000 in 1980, and the sellers even financed it with no down-payment. They were a working-class family accustomed to doing things informally, so when we couldn’t make a house payment, a simple phone call was all it took to put matters right. With all that, buying that house was more affordable and more secure than even a crappy little apartment somewhere else in town. In short, we were trapped.

Whereas the neighborhood in DC was educated and genteel (and maybe even a bit pretentious at times), most of the adults in the new neighborhood had not finished high school. Those who worked had the kind of jobs that involved polyester uniforms with embroidered name patches, but much of the local economy was welfare, theft, and the black market of drugs and “hot” merchandise. Even with all that, the culture of racism was such that the mostly-white denizens of that neighborhood would have referred to my old neighbors with a plethora of xenophobic slurs and held themselves above their more educated and well-off counterparts by virtue of their skin color alone.

I had an undiagnosed and untreated mood disorder. Clinical depression and bipolar disorder both run in my family. I’m fortunate to have been blessed with the lesser of those ills, but left untreated (see “uninsured” above), in a hormonal teenager, it led to all sorts of fun. I was prone to sudden fits of self-destructive rage (e.g., hurling a broken bicycle chain at a motorcycle cop—thank heavens I missed, and he didn’t see it), and equally self-destructive apathy (“So suspend me. I’ve got a book I’d rather be reading anyway”). Sometimes my affect was so flattened that people thought I was on drugs when I wasn’t, which was merely a little awkward when that was the school guidance counselor, but could be a little more dangerous when it was some gung-ho rookie cop who was obviously scared shitless of the neighborhood he was patrolling.

Mixing a gig in high school. The collared shirt was a total fluke.

Mixing a bar gig in high school. The collared shirt was a total fluke.

I looked like a tweaker. That’s a meth addict, for those of you who haven’t been educated by Breaking Bad. I was scrawny, partly from genes and partly from poor nutrition. Food was scarce at times, and I never had lunch money at school (I spent it on smokes instead). I had a tendency to chain-smoke and drink a lot of iced tea when I was hungry, leaving me hangry and over-caffeinated. So not only did I look like a tweaker, scrawny with the sunken cheeks and hollow eyes, but I was also twitchy and cranky. Especially if I was out of smokes. Add that to a strong sarcastic streak and a complete lack of respect for authority, and it was a recipe for trouble.

I smoked. Duh. I started smoking at fourteen, because to not smoke in that neighborhood was to be a pariah. A misfit. A narc. A pussy. Better to learn to smoke than to invite the all-too-often-physical disdain of the abused and abusive teenagers who were my peers in that neighborhood. But the thing is, nicotine is also ridiculously addictive, so I was a smoker everywhere I went. Even when I was somewhere that my smoking only further labeled me as worthless trash (i.e., pretty much anywhere that wasn’t my neighborhood).

Later on, I switched to hand-rolled cigarettes, which had a tendency to look like joints. Especially when you got down to the dry crumblies at the bottom of the pouch. That got me into quite a few shall we say, conversations with law-enforcement personnel.

The corner where the local hoods hung out.

The corner where the local hoods hung out.

I got suspended, and skipped school, on a regular basis. Smoking got me suspended from my junior high school several times. Losing my cool with a teacher got me a vacation from my first month of high school. Sometimes I would just skip school with a pack of the other neighborhood kids, and we would shoplift and/or get someone to buy us beer. Then we would go wander along the railroad tracks, or trespass in derelict buildings or desolate industrial areas, and vandalize stuff, and just generally act like young hoodlums. Other times I just wouldn’t wake up in time (see: untreated depression), so I would just stay home and read books.

I dressed like a hoodlum. Most of what I wore came from charity bins or through some other hand-me-down channel, and I wore it long past the point that pretty much anyone else would have thrown it away. To give it some character other than just hand-me-down rags, I would decorate everything with magic markers, safety pins, scraps of random fabrics, and anti-mainstream (or anti-establishment depending on how you saw it) buttons, slogans and symbols. I got into punk rock a little bit, and the “fashions” that went along with that scene gelled fairly well with what I was already doing, so I added a few re-purposed dog chains and some metal spikes to my style somewhere along the way. This was the ‘80s, in southwest Virginia; it wasn’t a style that was cute and retro then. It was generally viewed as a pretty loud “f*** you” to people in positions of authority.

I usually carried a knife. Part of it was the influence of the neighborhood. Part of it was because in high school I got into theater tech, and a knife is a handy tool there. But it still meant that pretty much every time I came in contact with law enforcement (see: neighborhood) I had a knife in my possession. One of them kind of looked like a switchblade. Among my peers, a knife was just another accessory, as essential as smokes or a light (butane, matches, a Zippo if you were really swanky). But I can’t tell you how many times I was interrogated about what I was “planning to do with that knife.”

Clearly the only reason anyone would ever carry a knife.

Clearly the only reason anyone would ever carry a knife.

One of those times I was walking to get smokes and found a cop behind an old VW Beetle with his headlights pointed at the open engine cover. I knew a bit about old Beetles by then; we’d had several, and my mom had long since enlisted me as her designated VW mechanic (see: poor). So I went over to see if I could help. Turned out it took me five minutes to figure out the problem and a twist of a knife blade to fix it, but the cop had been obviously suspicious of me since he saw me approaching in the dark, and after that girl drove off in the convertible Beetle her daddy had bought her, the cop turned on me and interrogated me about that knife. For a little while I honestly wondered if I was about to spend my first night in jail. I will tell you that the whole time I was excruciatingly careful not to make any unexpected moves. I’ve tried to write that story several times, but it always just sounds too contrived.

I took suspicious shortcuts. Before I got my motorcycle, I walked pretty much everywhere I went, and I was always trying to shave a few steps off my route. I would cut through brownfields, derelict service alleys, along railroad tracks, between houses. My neighborhood had a lot of abandoned spaces that made good shortcuts, but merely being there was suspicious. And trespassing.

I rode a barely-legal motorcycle. When I got a little older and could gather the means, I got my hands on a cheap old ugly motorcycle for transportation. It turned out the mufflers were too rusted to pass inspection, so I fixed it the least expensive way I could, which was with a set of little loud rattle-cans. So even my “car” shouted that I was trouble.

Sometimes I would hang out with some other young rat-bikers. I’ll never forget the time a gaggle of us were hanging out around our bikes at a roadside parking area in the city park not far from my house, when a preschooler  came running past us on a bee-line for the road. I reached down and snatched her up before she could get run over, then scanned for an adult only to see the horror in her mother’s eyes. I played it cool, with a smiling “Is this yours?” But I can only imagine how that could have played out if nothing else were to change but that I had been a young black man.

One of my old bikes (not the first, but a similar aesthetic).

One of my old bikes (not the first, but a similar aesthetic).

I was a smart-ass to cops. Or really, to anyone who was pushy about wielding authority. I could get into my complicated relationship with my authoritarian (but also rebellious) father, but I’m just going to own it instead. I had problems with authority. Specifically, I had problems with authority being wielded in any way that I considered inequitable or arbitrary. I still do, for that matter, but these days I’m older and mellower, with better outlets for venting my frustrations. And better mood-stabilizing pharmaceuticals. In those days, I was more prone to fume in silence right up to the bursting point, when I would lose my temper right at the teacher or vice-principal or cop I was being confronted by. As I mentioned, It got me suspended more than once. How it never got me in handcuffs, I have yet to explain.

The list goes on. For example, I got all my binge-drinking out of the way before I was of legal age (which was 19 at the time). I stole road signs and decorated my room with them. Pretty much all my friends were holding weed at any given moment, and most of my acquaintances in the neighborhood were holding something strongermeth, or acid, or pills, or hash, or sometimes heroin. Between insomnia and my involvement in theater tech, garage bands, and bar gigs, I was often out and about in the ungodly hours, either walking the crappy part of town or out on my ratty motorcycle. I had the vocabulary of a sailor. And I had a strong sense of social justicea strong sense of the injustices often perpetrated by those with more power on those with lessand I wasn’t good at hiding or tempering my outrage at those who had the power. Even though they were also the ones with the power to make my life much more difficult.

So, with all this, how did I never end up in jail? Or dead? Or with a criminal record? Given the times I argued with cops, or got pissed off and threw something in the presence of a cop, or failed to restrain my body language from letting a cop know I thought he was being completely unreasonable, had I been a black teenager, who lived in a black neighborhood (or worse yet, who lived in a white one), the statistics show that I would have been much more likely to have been detained, arrested, imprisoned, or even killed. By the authorities whose job is ostensibly to ensure our safety.

But I was white. I had grown up in the rural Midwest and mainstream D.C., so I didn’t have to code-switch to sound like the people on TV. Or the white cops I encountered. I wasn’t rich, but I was still given a certain benefit of the doubt in some situations, simply because I was white (I really don’t like to think about what might have happened had I been a black teenager when I pulled out my knife under the hood of that old VW). When I got a little older, I could cut off my ponytail, put on a collared shirt, and blend right in with the country-club-and-beach-house set (or at least the country-club-and-lake-house set). Because I was white. Had I been black and tried to do that, I’m pretty sure someone would have assumed I was an employee.


But in a more general sense, my whiteness meant that, clean-cut or not, flat-broke or not, in an industrial brownfield or a moneyed neighborhood, I could smile at a cop and say hi, and have it be assumed that I was innocently taking photographs, or taking a walk, and not that I was “up to something.”

The population of Ferguson, Missouri is 67% black. However, the mayor is white, and the police chief is white, and 94% of the police force is white. Black citizens are subject to 86% of the traffic stops, 93% of the arrests, and 92% of the searches (despite the fact that of those searched, whites were 65% more likely to have contraband). Another report shows that black citizens in Ferguson are about twice as likely to be searched, and about twice as likely to be arrested, despite the fact that whites are half-again more likely to be carrying contraband. Nationally, black citizens are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of their white counterparts, according to NAACP data, mostly for nonviolent, drug-related crimes.

Don’t tell me we’re a colorblind society. The numbers prove otherwise.

When I was thirty and divorced, and finally managed to escape that neighborhood, I moved up to New York City for a while. One of the things I though I was escaping, in my naivete, was the racism of the South. I had been there a few weeks when one day I saw a black teenager on a pay phone, having what was obviously some kind of lovers’ quarrel. He stopped mid-sentence, and having apparently been hung up on, got flustered and slammed the phone down. As a passerby having only witnessed what I had overheard, I thought it was a perfectly normal response to what appeared to be happening. Too bad there also happened to be an NYPD cruiser passing by at that exact moment, because within seconds the poor kid, still keyed up about his relationship drama, found himself slammed over the hood of a squad car with his arms pinioned behind his back, and two white cops labeling him as a criminal. My relationship with my first wife having been what it was, I couldn’t begin to count the times I had slammed down a phone, public or private, every bit as hard as that poor kid had just done. But I can count the times I found myself handcuffed over the hood of a police car for having done it. Precisely zero.


Further reading: “The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men”why-cops-shoot

Ebola, Kaci Hickox, and Fort Kent, Maine

by Carrie Levesque


Let’s be honest, what small town doesn’t love a little drama? A little controversy? The pot stirred? Something to keep the conversation hot as another cold winter approaches?

Normally, there’s nothing my hometown  of Fort Kent, Maine loves so much as some good gossip. But the media circus that has recently engulfed our isolated community of about 2,500, on Maine’s northern border with Canada, has been a lot for even the most seasoned gossips to handle. While the locals respect and admire the service that nurse Kaci Hickox has provided to Ebola victims in Sierra Leone, many are a bit less enthusiastic about her refusal to abide by a state-imposed quarantine to ensure that she has not been exposed to anything that could bring such a horrific disease to a small community with limited resources for fighting such an outbreak.


Let me first say that I understand that Kaci Hickox is extremely unlikely to pose any threat to those around her. She is asymptomatic, and as numerous authorities on the issue have vigorously insisted (including the Centers for Disease Control and the New England Journal of Medicine), there is no scientific basis for ordering quarantine for asymptomatic healthcare workers returning from West Africa. Kaci Hickox, at this time, is not contagious.

But it seems to me that what Kaci Hickox is, is her own worst PR headache.

In her defense, her actions over the last week are understandable. She has been through an exhausting, emotionally draining experience that few of us could ever imagine—and that was before she touched down in Newark. What has happened to Hickox since she revealed to airport personnel where she had been and what she had been doing would certainly anger, frustrate and demoralize any of us.


She was detained for hours at the airport and interrogated repeatedly, sometimes, according to her account, by people who didn’t bother to introduce themselves. She was tired and hungry from a transatlantic flight and given a granola bar and water for her troubles. After four hours of this, her temperature, recorded by a forehead scanner, registered 101. Her doctors at University Hospital in Newark would later concur: her ‘fever’ was the likely result of being flushed and upset. At all other times during her confinement, Hickox’s body temperature was normal.

I imagine you know much of the rest of the story. Her ordered confinement, her vow to sue for the violation of her civil rights, the invitation from the eloquent humanitarian Gov. Chris Christie: “Whatever. Get in line.” Her eventual release and escort back to Maine, where she first went into hiding in an attempt to avoid the networks that had already schlepped cameras and crew hours through the Maine wilderness to the town where the road ends, to her rural home in Fort Kent, ME.


But here is where my empathy for Hickox’s story is tested. Not because she disagrees with the recommended 21-day home quarantine (Yes, “science,” I understand), but for her combative insistence on the rightness of her actions and for her repeated threats at litigation. For what I perceive as a failure to defend her laudable and legitimate interests while also addressing the concerns of the community with a bit more sensitivity.

The unavoidable fact is, whether there is a scientific basis for it or not, many people are concerned for their own safety and for the safety of their loved ones. Concerned for the “what ifs” in this situation which, while unlikely, are, as of this writing, still possible. In the absence of any guarantees, these concerns are understandable. Even if they should not be what drives policy—even if, in an ideal world, we could reason them away—it is not unreasonable to expect Hickox to acknowledge the feelings of the community when she makes choices about where she goes, and when.


Having lived now in another culture for 2 years, it’s hard not to see the situation as characterized by a very American attitude that my individual rights are more important than the community’s peace of mind, that I will insist on my individual rights whatever the social consequences. As someone in my town said to a journalist friend of mine, “She’s holding this small Valley town hostage to a point of principle.” I think it’s worth asking why doctors returning to other countries are willing to submit to quarantine, but it becomes a civil rights battle in our country.

At the end of August, a Norwegian newspaper reported on the experiences of a doctor who had just returned home after serving with Doctors Without Borders in Liberia. He quietly quarantined himself at his family cabin for three weeks, waiting out the incubation period.

No drama, no fuss, no lawsuits, no government. Just simple concern for the community around him in an uncertain time.


After all the fear that the media have stirred up around ebola (yes, even in Norway), including an article linked to the one cited above that ran with the headline “WHO: Ebola epidemic can infect 20,000 people,” is it honestly so surprising that people are not putting aside their fear so easily?

What’s more, as Hickox has witnessed firsthand the hell that so many others in less economically-developed parts of the world live every day, I have a hard time accepting the idea that home quarantine is a serious civil or human rights issue. That seems pretty insulting to the people who experience oppression (and global indifference) in their lives every day, circumstances that endure for much longer than 21 days. While we often discuss in my BLS courses the unfairness of comparing or ranking oppressive situations, I also think if we throw around the term “civil rights violation” too liberally, it ceases to be taken seriously. It becomes just another media sound bite.


Yes, the situation is unfairly tough for Hickox because she is one of the early cases of her kind and states are still figuring out how to proceed. Yes, I support her demands that governors craft policies based on science and not fear, and that she be allowed reasonable freedoms, like her recent bike ride. But in the meantime, her situation is not Guantanamo Bay, and the current discourse has done little locally but escalate the drama and rhetoric, and, once again, distract us nationally from real human rights violations taking place every day.

My friend Julie Daigle, the local journalist mentioned earlier, said something that seemed to me very fair. “The thing is, she may in fact be making a point that needs to be made in the bigger picture, and in the long run, we may all be better off for her refusal to allow her behavior to be affected by the fears of those around her. But to castigate people for a very predictable response to having to face a sizable fear (again, regardless of how reasonable that fear is) and their clear understanding that she is choosing to ignore their fears is as demonizing an action as those seeking to cast her in the role of the witch.”


I understand Kaci Hickox’s anger. I understand that she feels that she has already given enough—and in all fairness, she has given far more than any of us. She’s right. At the same time, especially in a small community, it is sometimes better to be generous and patient with a difficult situation. Even when we’re right.


Author’s update: Hickox responds to a judge’s order lifting the quarantine, and members of the Fort Kent community respond to the whole debacle.

I think my main concerns are still valid—that this whole media circus is avoided in cultures where people just put the concerns of their neighbors first from the start. What do you think?


Miscarriages of Justice

by Jay Parr

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

This past Tuesday, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated of the brutal rape and murder of a preteen girl, a crime for which they had been falsely convicted, condemned, and imprisoned for thirty years. One of them spending the entire time on death row. McCollum was released on Wednesday morning, after spending over half his life facing execution. Brown, his half-brother, was released from his life sentence at a different prison later in the afternoon.

Both of these men were convictedand condemnedbased on confessions that were wrung out of them when they were teenagers (McCollum 19 and Brown 15), after many hours of high-pressure interrogation. Confessions which were written by others for them to sign, despite the fact that neither of them was functionally literate or intelligent or educated enough to read and understand what they were signing, or legally astute enough to understand the consequences of signing it (in an interview from death row, McCollum says he signed believing that if he did they would finally let him go home). These menscared teenagers at that time, who had only recently come to North Carolina and who had never had a run-in with the police beforewere convicted and condemned based on confessions which they signed with no defense counsel present, and which they have both consistently recanted from that point on.

Brown at the hearings.

Leon Brown at last week’s hearings.

Based on those coerced confessions, these two men have been imprisoned, removed from society, forced to live in the sterile and hostile environment of the penal system for decadesas men convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl and then thrust in among a population that is notoriously unfriendly to child sex offenders. Both of them have spent years on death row, and both of them have endured a long series of trials and retrials. Hearings in which their very lives were at stake. Literally.

A cell in North Carolina's death row.

A cell in North Carolina’s death row. (WRAL)

There are two distinct miscarriages of justice here.

The first happened 30 years ago, when two naive teenagers were coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. That miscarriage of justice was exacerbated when the system that was supposed to afford them a fair trialthe system that was supposed to presume their innocence until the evidence proved their guilt beyond a reasonable doubtfailed to recognize that there was not a scrap of physical evidence tying them to the scene of the crime (that in fact there was evidence implicating another man who lived near the crime scene and who had been arrested for a very similar crime), and that their confessions were wrung out of them under conditions so flawed as to render them utterly invalid.

That miscarriage of justice has been perpetuated anew every time someone in the political and legal sphereincluding a Supreme Court justicehas trotted these men out as examples, as heinous criminals who brutally raped and murdered a preteen girl, as justifications for keeping the death penalty active, or as reasons their political rivals (who may have been so ridiculous as to point out flaws in the case) were “soft on crime.”

Reverse view of death-row cell. (WRAL)

Reverse view of the cell. The ultra-wide-angle lens makes it look bigger. (WRAL)

The second miscarriage of justice happened this past week, when after thirty years, these two men were exonerated and then simply released, with not so much as a mention of compensation for the decades of which they had been robbed. Think of the opportunities that were lost along with those decades; to have that crappy first job; to have that young-and-foolish relationship doomed to fail from the start; to finally stumble into that long-term (if unglamorous) job, and to meet that certain someone who would end up becoming their companion for decades to come; to know the joys and frustrations of being fathers, and likely grandfathers by this point. To live, that is, something resembling normal lives. In something resembling a normal world.

These men don’t have the decades of experience that is going to be taken for granted by everyone, given their ages. They’ve never used an ATM or a debit card. One article I read mentioned McCollum gushing to his parents recently about getting on the internet for the first time. But I have seen nothing about the justice system assuming any responsibility for helping them acclimate to the lives they’ve been denied. As a representative of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation points out, these men don’t even have the minimal support offered to ex-cons who exit the penal system under normal conditions. “It’s not like being on probation or parole. It’s just—good luck.”

The same article points out that there are processes by which the men could seek a pardon of innocence from the governor—essentially a statement that they had been wrongly convicted and sentenced—at which point they could then go on to seek some unspecified compensation from the state.

The death row day room; McCollum's world for decades.

The death row day room; McCollum’s world for decades.

These men, McCollum at 50 and Brown at 46, have never had the opportunity to learn the skills they would need to make it on the outside. They’ve never had to keep a job, or pay rent, or keep track of a variety of utility bills, or make their income cover their expenses, or plan a week’s meals and shop for them. They haven’t been in a grocery store in thirty years. If either of them ever learned to drive, it has been at least that long since they’ve done it. Not only will they be living in new, unfamiliar towns, the very concept of getting around in any town is going to be foreign at this point. Partly because it has been so long since they’ve done it and partly because so much has changed in the meanwhile. As adults, they’ve never been in the regular presence of women, or mingled with the variety of people who make up any normal public place. In fact, for the past three decades, their only regular company has been the other (male) inmates on death row and the uniformed corrections officers assigned as their guards. Their worlds have been the prison blocks and complexes where they have been housed, with occasional forays out into the world (most likely in shackles) for court appearances. For thirty years they haven’t had the option to decide where to go at a given moment, or to close their own doors, or to turn off their own lights. For thirty years they haven’t had a moment of true privacy. Having lived in the penal system and on death row for so long, and having been thrust there at such young ages, they literally have none of the skills and none of the experience they need to function in the everyday world. One article points out that McCollum, climbing into his parents’ car upon his release, didn’t even know how to fasten the seat belt.

McCollum faces reporters outside. What awaits in the outside world?

McCollum faces reporters upon his release. What awaits in the outside world?

It is no more in the interest of justice to release these men into the world so unprepared, and so uncompensated, than it is to keep them incarcerated in the conditions that, horrid as they may have been, are the conditions to which these men have spent the majorities of their lives being acclimated.

These men have spent three decades fighting to prove their innocence. They have spent decades fighting for their very lives. They shouldn’t have to fight anymore. It has been proven that their convictions were invalid and that their incarcerations were unjust. It is obvious at this point that the state of North Carolina owes these two men very comfortable retirements.

Something like this.

Something like this. With a staff.

If we can afford the cost of keeping these men as inmates, one of them on death row and the other for life, we can afford a roughly equivalent sum as pensions, in exchange for the lives that have been wrongly stolen from these men. If we can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, spent repeatedly condemning them to die in prison on the basis of inadmissible, coerced, and disprovable confessions, we can afford to provide them with the guidance, the training, and the support to manage their lives in a world for which we have prevented them from being prepared. If the state of North Carolina were to take the initiative, to arrange for that level of compensation to be awarded and implemented quickly, without requiring anything further from these men or their tireless advocates, then it just might be possible to claim that justice has finally been served. Maybe.

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

Note: Thanks to Saundra Westervelt (who literally wrote the book on this topic) for taking the time during a busy weekend with Witness to Innocence to read and offer valuable feedback on this article.