Category Archives: Activism

About that protest at the Vatican

So I watched footage of the Femen protest at the Vatican, where a topless woman grabbed the Baby Jesus statue out of the crib with the words “GOD IS WOMAN” on her bare chest.  I am conflicted.

On the one hand, I’m really uncomfortable with the whole protesting topless thing that Femen does.  Not because I’m a prude about nudity, but because (according to a recent documentary) Femen actions are largely directed by a heterosexual man who ostracizes women who won’t go topless or who don’t fit his ideal of beauty. The group claims noble ideals of feminism, but I don’t think that choosing conventionally attractive women to take part in the actions does a lot to further full equality of all women regardless of size, skin color, or (dis)ability.  And I don’t buy the argument that naked breasts are the best or only way to get attention to promote gender equality.

On the other hand, I love a creative, provocative, direct action protest, and grabbing Baby Jesus from the crib at the Vatican nativity scene while shouting “God is Woman!” is pretty fabulous.  A lot more thought provoking than holding up a sign.  Christmas is the day Christians believe God became incarnate, a human being.  And many Christians hold on to a centuries old unfounded assumption that God is solely male and could only become incarnate as a biological man.  It is a harmful theological assumption that continues to devalue women and keep women from living lives free from oppression.  So a protest that interrupts the standard Christmas narrative, subverting the assumptions about who God is and how God is gendered?  I love that. I don’t believe God is a literal woman (any more than I believe God is any literal human form we can imagine, male or female), but I love the fact that this protester stopped the traditional Christmas festivities for even a moment to prod us into considering the implications of God as something other than a baby boy or an old white man with a long beard.

How might we treat baby girls if Jesus was born a little girl? How might we treat women if we truly believed them to be in the image and likeness of God?  I’m grateful for the woman who snatched up the Baby in the nativity scene and reminded me to ponder these questions.


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I’m not defending Michele Bachmann, but…

Michele Bachmann will not be running for another term in Congress.  There will be a lot of celebratory posts online today, and I’m bracing myself for a final round of otherwise thoughtful individuals posting lazy insults based on her appearance, gender, and perceived mental health status.  This happens to a lot of women in politics, regardless of political party,* but it seems to be especially vicious with Bachmann.   There are so many ways one could criticize her Tea Party priorities and her conspiracy theory influenced actions.  Yet when it comes to women we find unreasonable, the quickest route is often to make fun of her appearance (and deliberately publish unflattering photos), to attack using gendered insults (witch, b*tch, c*nt) and to demean by using ableist mental health related slurs (batsh*t crazy, insane, nutjob).  It’s continually disappointing to see people I count as friends and allies so gleefully insult her this way, not realizing that these kinds of insults don’t harm Bachmann, they instead perpetuate stereotypes about women and people with mental health conditions.  It reminds women to keep silent, because women who speak up and say the wrong thing aren’t debated on the merits of their argument, they’re just called a b*tch and told to shut up.  And every time someone says “she’s bats*t crazy” instead of explaining why her beliefs are contrary to basic human decency, that person is feeding the harmful cultural narrative that says that having a mental health diagnosis is shorthand for being dangerous, intellectually inferior, and not worth listening to.

So yay, Michele Bachmann will no longer have the power to pass legislation that harms women, immigrants, and sexual minorities.  Hopefully the rest of us can stop using her as an excuse for making cheap insults and opt for more respectful rhetoric when it comes to talking about how we disagree with someone.

*See also Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, etc.


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must be the medication

OK, I get that there are people who are upset about the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  I imagine there are reasonable, well-informed people who are disappointed by the decision.  And in their disappointment and even anger they are trying to make sense out of the fact that a conservative justice like John Roberts not only upheld the ACA, but authored the majority opinion for it.  But then there are some who are so full of anger that they’re not being reasonable: they’re willing to take a cheap shot at Roberts and blame his actions on his disability. 

I’m not going to support the particular talk radio personality who started this slander by linking to his words, but you can do a quick search to find the comments at issue.  In short, this radio host can’t imagine how someone like Roberts could possibly come to the decision that he did, so of course the only logical conclusion is that he must be mentally impaired in some way.  So the host latches on to the fact that Roberts has a history of epileptic seizures, and says that the justice must be so doped up on anti-convulsant medication and that explains how he came up with such a wrong-headed decision.  It must have been the medication making his brain into this liberal mush of mistaken thinking.  Of course.

But maybe I’m being uncharitable.  Maybe this radio personality really does have a point.  I mean look at my own life as an example: I used to have very conservative political and religious beliefs when I was a teenager.  I also began having epileptic seizures when I was a teenager, and I started taking anti-convulsant medications.  Then I leave the small town I was raised in and start college in a big city, and pretty soon I’m taking women’s studies courses and going to radical protests and pretty much rethinking most of the moral and political beliefs I thought I knew to be true and right.  And now 20 odd years and who knows how many milligrams of medication later, I’m so far left that I am morally opposed to capitalism and racism and heterosexism and every other lefty “ism” you can think of, and I believe housing and healthcare and bodily autonomy and clean air and clean water are not just nice things but fundamental human rights.

It must have been the medication.

Or, you know, it may have been the dedicated educators who gave me the tools to think critically about the world, or the many people from different backgrounds and life experiences who helped me question my assumptions about the world, or the religious elders who taught me to use reason and conscience instead of unquestioning obedience when learning how best to live my faith.

I can’t speak for Roberts or the rest of the members of the Court who upheld the ACA, but I imagine they used a similar combination of intellect, reason, and conscience to come to their decision.  If only talk radio hosts would hold themselves to a similar standard before they spoke.

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share food, wash feet, change world

5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him… 12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13:5, 12-15)

A lot of people who share my political opinions are confused about my Christian beliefs.  How is it that I can support anarchist ideas of anti-anthoritarianism and doing away with structures that put a single leader in charge of others, and then also be associated with a religion that has a long, sad history of abusing power and elevating leaders who unfairly dictate how the rest of the world should act?

Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) is one of my answers.  It’s the day when Christians remember the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples before he was arrested and executed by the state authorities of the Roman empire.  But there’s also another event that is remembered on this day: Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.  He was the leader, the teacher, the one they looked up to for guidance, the one they followed.  And he turned that top-down power dynamic on its head.  He stepped out of the role of leader, and did the most menial of tasks, the job that servants and women (those lowest in social standing at the time) were expected to do.  I think it’s an example of what the Zapatistas of southern Mexico call mandar obedeciendo — leading by obeying.

Jesus told his followers it was also up to them to wash the feet of others.  This was not a one time symbolic performance, this was a model of how to live in community.  It is the task of Christians to continue this practice of washing feet, not just in a ritual performed once a year, but by finding ways to lead by serving, by challenging the notion that having power means wielding it over another, and instead sharing that power to serve the entire community.  It’s a belief and practice that informs both my faith and political ideals.

Share a meal, and wash one another’s feet.  No, it’s not exactly the anarchist slogan of “no gods, no masters,” but I think it describes a beautiful way for transforming the world, a way that transcends both religion and politics.

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Chris Hedges, please try again

Chris Hedges recently wrote a painfully ill-informed essay about black bloc tactics and violence in protest actions.  It’s a shame, because I think he does have some valuable wisdom to impart to activists who find themselves engaged in confrontations with law enforcement (regardless of how the violence starts).  Unfortunately I didn’t see any of that wisdom evident in his tirade.  Here’s what I wish Hedges had spent some time writing about.

Hedges wrote about the effects of war and violence on the human psyche in his book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, and I wish he’d applied some of his insights from that book to his critique of black bloc tactics.  His book reflected on his years hopping from war zone to war zone as a journalist, and how those constant brushes with death turned him into a sort of adrenaline junkie, always needing a new fix of danger.  He convinced himself that it was necessary to continue to expose himself to dangerous situations, arguing that he was doing it for a noble, greater good and not out of a desire to experience an emotional rush that proved his life held greater meaning.  This constant exposure to violence and trauma took a toll on him, and caused him to rethink his work as a journalist.  I think his experiences have some some definite parallels for activists to examine.

These are not easy to questions to bring up, but I think activists need to candidly and honestly examine what kind of meaning we each attach to violence, whether done to us or for some, done by us.  For example, has it become the case that for some of us, violence can feel at once terrible and yet also exhilarating?  Have we begun to judge our actions not by how much social transformation happens, but by how hard the police clamp down on a protest?   Is there an unacknowledged desire to experience violence as a way to validate our cause, as proof that we are part of Something Important?

Again, these are questions that are difficult to raise, and they are even more difficult to talk about when folks are on the defensive because of condescending and inaccurate essays like the one Hedges wrote.  The left is in serious need of inter-generational dialogue and frank discussion about tactics and long term goals, but rants like the one Hedges wrote are not going to help.  We need to hear from veterans of protest movements and from those who have experienced trauma in their work to create a better world, we don’t need blame-tastic lectures on The Right Way to Protest.  Chris Hedges, please try again.  Folks pissed off at his rant, try to not dismiss him entirely.


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two executions, two murders

“You can’t fight murder with murder.” – Ross Byrd, son of Robert Byrd, Jr

I am opposed to the death penalty.  I believe it is murder.  I was opposed to last night’s execution of Troy Davis.  But I was also opposed to the other execution that took place.  I’ll be honest, I shed tears over the death of Troy Davis, but I did not cry when Lawrence Brewer was killed last night.  Brewer was an unrepentant racist who gruesomely killed James Byrd, Jr. in a hate crime that still turns my stomach to read about.  Brewer was most certainly guilty.  It was still wrong to execute him.   

Another execution is scheduled for tonight, this time in Alabama.  I know very little about this particular case, but for me, ultimately, the details of the case are not the point.  There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty, such as the disproportionate number of men of color on death row, or the number of people who are wrongly convicted and not guilty of the crime.  But even in a case such as Brewer’s, where there is no doubt whatsoever of the person’s guilt and the condemned shows absolutely no remorse, the death penalty is wrong, period. Even the most despicable murderer should not be murdered by the state.

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The Slacktiverse

I’m very excited to be a part of The Slacktiverse blog as a regular contributor.  My first essay for the site, “There are no neutrals there” was posted today.  Take a look, and check out the great posts from the other new contributors (as well as the archive of Slacktivist posts by the site’s originator, Fred Clark).

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A new look for democracy

City Hall, San Francisco, 5 February 2011

My favorite sight at today’s solidarity demonstration in San Francisco.  Egypt and Tunisia are teaching the United States how to re-imagine democracy.

(“¡Que se vayan todos!” is a chant popularized in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, and means “All of them must go!”)

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question mark at the end of the sentence

Today is that day that Johannes Mehserle will be sentenced for killing Oscar Grant.  I don’t think it’s going to bring anyone closer to closure.

sticker pasted on a newspaper box

As it stands right now, there are pro-Mehserle individuals who don’t even think he should have been brought to trial in the first place, who think he was just doing his job as a cop, who give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he really did think his gun was a taser when he aimed and shot Grant in the back, and, though he he made a terrible, fatal mistake, should not have to spend even a few years in prison for it.  Even more extreme opinions on that side insinuate that Grant himself was to blame for causing his own death, calling him a thug or a criminal who, if he didn’t want to get shot, shouldn’t have been (allegedly) creating a disruption on the train that night.  (In other words, if there’s a chance that police will get a report that you’ve been in a fight, be prepared to get shot for it.)

The pro Oscar Grant side is already angry that Mehserle only received a conviction of involuntary manslaughter, and it’s unlikely that the sentencing will do much to relieve that.  From what I understand, chances are slim that he’ll receive the maximum possible fourteen year sentence, and may even end up released on probation with time served.  While I’m admittedly more sympathetic to the Grant side, I’m also seeing on a more systemic level how this is becoming a missed opportunity to ask some bigger questions about what justice looks like.  I know so many people who strongly believe that the criminal “justice” system in the U.S. is beyond broken and that locking someone up for an arbitrary period of time does little to help the victims of a crime nor rehabilitate the person convicted.  Yet how many of us fell into the trap of spouting cliches of how Mehserle should “rot in prison” or some other such nonsense?  The restorative justice model is admittedly difficult to envision, but if we only give it lip service in order to prove our virtue or correct political ideology and then in the next breath rant about what heartless pigs all cops are, then are we any better than the pro-Mehserle camp?  I’m not saying anger is uncalled for (and I want to be clear I’m speaking as a white ally, and not directing this at the communities of color that live daily with the threat of police violence), but I think we need to do more critical thinking about how we respond to injustice.

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bombs and blue angels

Fleet Week is underway in San Francisco, which means the next few days will be filled with the near constant sound of the Blue Angels and other military jets flying overhead.

Hearing the roar of the Blue Angels always reminds me of June, a resident at an assisted living retirement community where I worked in Chicago many years ago.  As a personal care attendant I sometimes had less enjoyable duties to perform (like trying to convince residents to take medications or helping change soiled undergarments), but one of my other tasks was to simply accompany June during her doctor recommended walks.  We’d chat a little if she wasn’t feeling out of breath, usually about family or some other lighthearted topic, and the walk was usually the favorite part of my work day.

One of our walks took place during a weekend when the Blue Angels were in town.  At times we would have to pause our conversation as the planes flew overhead because it was hard to shout or be heard over their noise.  At one point when the noise subsided, June set aside our usual light conversation and suddenly made this sad yet forceful statement:

“Only a country that has never gone through days of bombing could take pleasure in such a display.”

As I hear the jets this weekend, I will be thinking of the places in the world where the sight and sound of a military jet triggers fear and uncertainty.  Places where civilians will not gather in crowds to “oooh” and “ah” at the planes overhead, but will instead run for cover and hope that they and their families will not be the next “collateral damage” statistics.  I will remember June’s words, and the sadness in her voice as she spoke them.  I feel a lot of that same sadness.

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