January 16, 2018

The wheel keeps on turning

The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on this date in 1919. This constitutional modification was championed by sundry groups seeking a more pure and godly nation, and saw a means to that end by constitutionally barring the demon rum.

Unfortunately, the outcome was far different from what was expected. Instead of abstinence, we witnessed the birth of a new and highly lucrative small business model. This held particular attraction for some enterprising Italian and Jewish immigrants. Once the legal sale of alcohol fell under the prohibitionist ax, bootlegging gave a giant leg up to La Cosa Nostra (which roughly translated to English means, This Thing of Ours.).

It took Americans a little time to fully realize the futility of the teetotaler agenda, but fourteen years after the ratification of the 18th amendment, it was effectively repealed by the passage of the 23rd. The mafia, however, was firmly entrenched and had no intention of rolling up the carpets and putting up the Going out of Business signs. The mob immediately branched into more hardened criminal activities; most notably the protection racket, gambling, and prostitution. Initially at least, they avoided the drug trade. That would come later. It wasn't until the late 60s that the FBI effectively broke the mob's back, and it took until after the turn of the millennium for the last of the major Dons to be convicted and sent to prison.

Almost a century of organized crime was birthed by sincere puritan efforts intended to save humans from themselves, yet in the interim saw terrible violence and bloodshed. We witnessed massive increases in violent crime and soaring murder rates. Prohibition extracted a heavy price on this nation.

This did not deter the passion of the prudes. They weren't done yet. Coincidental with the anti-alcohol efforts came the effort to demonize and prohibit by force of law yet another substance... cannabis. A fact that seems lost in this 21st century is that cannabis was freely cultivated in this nation in the 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th century. It was a good cash crop; used in  the production of medications, rope, and textiles... and yes, it was used to get high.

On the surface, the cannabis prohibition effort was played as just another of the do-gooder causes, but the true tale of how the substance fell into the cross-hairs of law enforcement is both interesting and disgusting. It harbors a vaguely European and very American narrative... racism.

Following the end of the Mexican revolution in 1920, the U.S. began to see an influx of Mexican and Central American migration. Although every state received migrants, it was seen mostly in the southern border states and into Louisiana. These migrants brought with them their native cultures, customs, and languages. One of the customs shared by most was the use of cannabis as a relaxant, yet just like Americans, the migrants also used it in medicinal preparations. Their word for the substance was marijuana rather than cannabis. Americans were familiar with the cannabis plant, but the word marijuana was a new and foreign term. This ignorance was seized upon by the prohibitionists as they mounted their new campaigns. Those folks had unlikely allies in this prohibition effort... in the form of white supremacist groups... most notably the "Christian" Ku Klux Klan.

So an unholy alliance between the prohibitionists and our good old and ever-present American racist elements took form. The campaign began by implying that this stuff they brought from down south... this marijuana... must be evil. That slowly morphed into strong hints that the Mexicans themselves were evil. New terminology also began to enter our lexicon; Cannabis became the demon weed, devil's lettuce, killer herb, skunk weed, wacky tobaccy, killer reefer, and a host of other such monikers clearly intended to demonize something that Americans knew to be beneficial. The media, fed with the false and exaggerated claims about disruptive Mexicans and their dangerous use of the evil marijuana, joined in on the campaign. It was disguised as law and order... yet was in reality little more than the latest racist attempt to keep America white.

The average American, ignorant of the fact that this terrible marijuana was in fact the very same as something with which they had grown comfortable... something already in their medicine cabinets. In great numbers the uneducated jumped on the prohibition bandwagon, torch and pitchfork in hand. The fabricated rhetoric stoked fear among the public back then, and continues to have a direct connection to the anti-Mexican movement we still see today.

We had seen previously seen where controlling citizens by controlling customs could be successful. By making marijuana a controlled substance and banning it from use or sale, our government successfully implemented a national strategy for keeping certain populations under the watchful eye of law enforcement. This suited our American bigots just fine. The more Mexicans sent to prison, the better.

Eighty some-odd years ago the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 became law. Since then the pitch and volume of the rhetoric has peaked and ebbed like a roller coaster, but the past two decades have seen attitudes change considerably. The reversal of the ill effects brought by this unjust prohibition has come more slowly than it did for alcohol, yet as of this writing, thirty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that in some form or another legalize marijuana, while eight states and the District of Columbia have adopted recreational use laws. Voters in Massachusetts and Maine recently passed legalization, but at the time of this writing, those states have neither written rules for growers and retailers, nor have they begun accepting licenses applications.

A major hurdle is that cannabis remains illegal under federal law. In 2013, then President Obama ordered his Justice Department to not enforce federal law in the jurisdictions where cannabis had been legalized by voters. As the public becomes more  aware of the fabricated health claims used to justify prohibition and its implied racial bias, the clamor for legalization grows louder and making it highly likely that others will follow the majority's lead. Some of the holdout states are having discussion and voters may soon find ballot initiatives addressing the issue when they go to the polls.

In spite of these popular calls for legalization, we now have another president and another Attorney General; both intent on reversing Obama era initiatives. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions recently stated that his department would be paying no attention to the Obama mandate or will of the people, and immediately launched a new crusade. His goal is to once again raise the specter of "the evil others and their demon weed." In Sessions’ eye and apparently that of his boss, the mission should again be to turned toward authoritarian control, with a desired result of ensuring a good supply of detainees marching in chains toward the for-profit, private prisons.

So here we are for another ride on the roller coaster, and this too shall pass. We'll see what comes next, but this author predicts full repeal of all cannabis prohibition laws within his ever shortening lifetime.

The wheel keeps on turning.


January 15, 2018

But I haven’t given up. And you cannot give up.

Why Getting Into Trouble is Necessary to Make Change

I’ve seen unbelievable changes during the past 50 or 60 years. When people say, “Nothing has changed,” I feel like saying, “Come and walk in my shoes.” I truly believe that if there is faith and hope and determination, we can continue to lay progress and create an American community at peace with ourselves. The next generation will help us get there.

When I was growing up as a child in Alabama, I saw signs all around me–I saw crosses that the Klan had put up, an announcement about a Klan meeting. I saw signs that said White, colored, white men, colored men, white women, colored women. There were places where we couldn’t go. But we brought those signs down. The only place you will see those signs today will be in a book, in a museum or on a video. When I was growing up, the great majority of African Americans could not participate in a democratic process in the South. They could not register to vote. But we changed that. When I first came to Washington to go on the freedom rides in 1961, black people and white people couldn’t be seated together on a Greyhound bus leaving this city. They travel to the South without being beaten, arrested and jailed.

Now all across the South and all across America there are elected officials who are people of color. In the recent elections in Virginia and some other places around the country, you saw more people of color and more women getting elected to positions of power. They are African American, they’re Latino, Asian American, Native American. Our country is a much better place–a much different place–in spite of all the setbacks and interruptions of progress.

I heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say on many occasions, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I still believe we will get there. We will redeem the soul of America, and in doing so we will inspire people around the world to stand up and speak out. I believe that it’s true today, and it was true when Dr. King said it years ago. I tell friends and family, colleagues and especially young people that when you see something that’s not right or fair, you have to do something, you have to speak up, you have to get in the way. When I was growing up, my mother and father and grandparents would tell me, “Don’t get in trouble. This is the way it is.” But then I heard Dr. King speak when I was 15. To hear him preach, to be in a discussion with him sitting on the floor, or in a car, or at a meeting in a restaurant or a church, or just walking together … He instilled something within us. I never in my years around him saw him down. Never saw him hostile or mean to a single person.

Dr. King and others inspired me to get in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. And I think we’re going to have generations for years to come that will be prepared to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. And lead us to higher heights. It’s a struggle that doesn’t last one day, one week, one month, one year. It is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe many lifetimes.

The next generation will help make this society less conscious of race. There will be less racism, there will be more tolerance. Dr. King said we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. There was a man by the name of A. Philip Randolph, from Jacksonville, Fla., who moved to New York City and became a champion of civil rights, human rights and labor rights. At the March on Washington in 1963 he said, “Remember our mothers and our fore-fathers all came to this great land in different ships. But we’re all in the same boat now.” That is true today.

You have to be hopeful. You have to be optimistic. If not, you will get lost in despair. When I travel around the country, I say, “Don’t get down–you cannot get down.” I’m not down. I got arrested, beaten, left bloody and unconscious. But I haven’t given up. And you cannot give up.


January 1, 2018

Hymn, by Sherman Alexie

Why do we measure people's capacity
To love by how well they love their progeny?
That kind of love is easy. Encoded.
Any lion can be devoted
To its cubs. Any insect, be it prey
Or predator, worships its own DNA.
Like the wolf, elephant, bear, and bees,
We humans are programmed to love what we conceive.
That's why it's so shocking when a neighbor
Drives his car into a pond and slaughter–
Drowns his children. And that's why we curse
The mother who leaves her kids—her hearth—
And never returns. That kind of betrayal
Rattles our souls. That shit is biblical.
So, yes, we should grieve an ocean
When we encounter a caretaker so broken.
But I'm not going to send you a card
For being a decent parent. It ain't that hard
To love somebody who resembles you.
If you want an ode then join the endless queue
Of people who are good to their next of kin—
Who somehow love people with the same chin
And skin and religion and accent and eyes.
So you love your sibling? Big fucking surprise.
But how much do you love the strange and stranger?
Hey, Caveman, do you see only danger
When you peer into the night? Are you afraid
Of the country that exists outside of your cave?
Hey, Caveman, when are you going to evolve?
Are you still baffled by the way the earth revolves
Around the sun and not the other way around?
Are you terrified by the ever-shifting ground?
Hey, Trump, I know you weren't loved enough
By your sandpaper father, who roughed and roughed
And roughed the world. I have some empathy
For the boy you were. But, damn, your incivility,
Your volcanic hostility, your lists
Of enemies, your moral apocalypse—
All of it makes you dumb and dangerous.
You are the Antichrist we need to antitrust.
Or maybe you're only a minor league
Dictator—temporary, small, and weak.
You've wounded our country. It might heal.
And yet, I think of what you've revealed
About the millions and millions of people
Who worship beneath your tarnished steeple.
Those folks admire your lack of compassion.
They think it's honest and wonderfully old-fashioned.
They call you traditional and Christian.
LOL! You've given them permission
To be callous. They have been rewarded
For being heavily armed and heavily guarded.
You've convinced them that their deadly sins
(Envy, wrath, greed) have transformed into wins.
Of course, I'm also fragile and finite and flawed.
I have yet to fully atone for the pain I've caused.
I'm an atheist who believes in grace if not in God.
I'm a humanist who thinks that we’re all not
Humane enough. I think of someone who loves me—
A friend I love back—and how he didn't believe
How much I grieved the death of Prince and his paisley.
My friend doubted that anyone could grieve so deeply
The death of any stranger, especially a star.
"It doesn't feel real," he said. If I could play guitar
And sing, I would have turned purple and roared
One hundred Prince songs—every lick and chord—
But I think my friend would have still doubted me.
And now, in the context of this poem, I can see
That my friend’s love was the kind that only burns
In expectation of a fire in return.
He’s no longer my friend. I mourn that loss.
But, in the Trump aftermath, I've measured the costs
And benefits of loving those who don't love
Strangers. After all, I'm often the odd one—
The strangest stranger—in any field or room.
"He was weird" will be carved into my tomb.
But it’s wrong to measure my family and friends
By where their love for me begins or ends.
It’s too easy to keep a domestic score.
This world demands more love than that. More.
So let me ask demanding questions: Will you be
Eyes for the blind? Will you become the feet
For the wounded? Will you protect the poor?
Will you welcome the lost to your shore?
Will you battle the blood-thieves
And rescue the powerless from their teeth?
Who will you be? Who will I become
As we gather in this terrible kingdom?
My friends, I'm not quite sure what I should do.
I'm as angry and afraid and disillusioned as you.
But I do know this: I will resist hate. I will resist.
I will stand and sing my love. I will use my fist
To drum and drum my love. I will write and read poems
That offer the warmth and shelter of any good home.
I will sing for people who might not sing for me.
I will sing for people who are not my family.
I will sing honor songs for the unfamilar and new.
I will visit a different church and pray in a different pew.
I will silently sit and carefully listen to new stories
About other people’s tragedies and glories.
I will not assume my pain and joy are better.
I will not claim my people invented gravity or weather.
And, oh, I know I will still feel my rage and rage and rage
But I won’t act like I’m the only person onstage.
I am one more citizen marching against hatred.
Alone, we are defenseless. Collected, we are sacred.
We will march by the millions. We will tremble and grieve.
We will praise and weep and laugh. We will believe.
We will be courageous with our love. We will risk danger
As we sing and sing and sing to welcome strangers.
©2017, Sherman Alexie