Choose Life

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the death of a former student this week.  She was 28 years-old, super creative, smart and hard working.  More importantly she was one of those people who was just a bright light in rooms where too often we’re surrounded by dim bulbs.

This is not to exalt my student into a deity.  It was just that her essence seemed to radiate outwards and make people feel good.  This was confirmed to me in the last few weeks where dozens and dozens of people posted similar testimonies online.

Some people really do seem this big and full of life… she was one of them

My student was not ill nor was she the victim of a crime.  Her death was apparently an accident, and, as a young white woman, it was unsurprisingly not at the hands of law enforcement.

This observation is not meant to be snide or timely. It’s more to put it into a 2020 shorthand that can be most easily understood given the reality of what we’re all living through right now.

Loss is loss but death is death and life, such as it is, is life.

Yes, you may write that down.

Roger that, Chairy

Loss hurts, loss makes you angry, loss can overtake your every waking hour and loss can take a lifetime to heal, if it ever fully does.  Of course, the truth is it never quite does, nor do you really want it to.  The loss, whether you like it or not, becomes a permanent part of the ever-evolving imprint of you.

What you choose to do with the loss is your own business and your own decision.  But if it’s true loss there will be a scar, visible to others or not.  To expect this not to be is to pretend your face in middle age and old age will look exactly the same as it did when you were 28 years old.

That statement alone brings up all kinds of images to me of my lovely former student whose face will now never change.  But it is also a reminder of the luxury of aging and the opportunities it can afford if you make it past 28 years old.  Most of us spend so much time wishing or trying to believably look frozen in our late twenties as time rolls on that we forget the true cost of what it is to actually do so.

This brings us to life and death.

It might not sound cheery but, trust me, it is.

Coexisting

Anyone who has managed to navigate deep loss and come out the other side, no easy feat, can tell you that there is no real choice in the matter despite how he/she might have been leaning in any given moment.

However crappy life and the current events that accompany it may seem, it still beats the alternative of trading places with that person whose time was cut so drastically short and for whom a tiny part of you will always mourn.

Watching tens of thousands of people line up in the streets of most American cities and towns demanding racial justice and shouting that Black Lives Matter these past two weeks is both powerful and enraging.  But the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans (Note:  Now about 67% of us) say they support both the cause and the demonstrators is encouraging.

Powerful art right in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater

Still, even more discouraging is the irrefutable truth that an endless daisy chain of non-white families will continue to sacrifice a loved one to systemic racism and law enforcement right before our eyes, live on our screens, unless we get over ourselves and what passes for our lives at this particular touch point in time.

Despite two weeks of nationwide demonstrations the latest public sacrifice happened Saturday morning in Atlanta to 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, an African American male, father, sibling and child.

Yet again

Mr. Brooks was asleep in his car at a Wendy’s parking lot when police approached, woke him up and spoke to him for a while before putting him under immediate arrest for no pressing crime.

A scuffle ensued and they pulled out their taser gun to shoot but Mr. Brooks grabbed the taser away, turned and ran in the opposite direction on foot, only to be shot dead in the back at point blank range.

They never got to the almost nine-minute knee on the neck public police execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis several weeks ago that ignited the current ongoing national uproar. Instead Mr. Brooks’ very public death mirrors the more commonplace executions of youngish people of color by law enforcement that the American people have been out in the streets demonstrating against in the name of George Floyd to begin with.

How many more faces will we need to add to this? (New Yorker cover by Kadir Nelson)

This latest iteration of “disruptors” standing directly on the Atlanta interstate blockading traffic as buildings crumble in fiery protest across the city are what pass for the principal signs of life in that area.

Meanwhile, the rest of the city and country reels in a sea of loss, none more so than the family, friends and children this latest “incident” leaves behind.

In this current scenario, of course Mr. Brooks is cast against his will as death, his being the latest in a very specific epidemic that merely serves to remind us of all the many iterations that came before it.  Not to mention the many other memories of loss and death that surface for those of us living through this modern day dystopia unrelated to him or his family.

A sign for our time

One could argue, of course, that to choose this kind of life on the streets of America is to not choose life at all but rather one long infinity of prolonged pain leading into our masse eventual death.

Yet as the body counts rise and the mourning pain deepens it might help to remember that the one cool constant thing about life is you can still change your mind.  Meaning that you always have the choice to do it a different way until death comes knocking, or rather, barreling through your door.

Unlike Mr. Floyd, Mr. Brooks and the many other ageless faces of those who’ve touched our lives whose choices were taken away long before their time.

George Harrison – “What is Life”

The Past, The Protests, The Privilege

I’m a middle aged white guy who grew up with that privilege.   Sometimes I’ve been aware of it and sometimes I’ve been blithely unaware.  Right now, well, it’s hard not to be fully awake.

Many tens of thousands of us of all colors have taken to the streets this week, both physically and virtually, both non-violently and occasionally violently, to demand consequences for the death of a 46-year-old Black man, George Floyd, at the literal hands (well, knee) of a Minneapolis police officer as three of his fellow men in blue watched.

Found in Minneapolis

I dislike violence but I’m not surprised or even OUTRAGED by it.  Frankly, I wouldn’t blame many of us if we burned numerous landmarks in numerous cities down at this point.

Don’t take this as an endorsement of violence but more as an observation of the breaking point of human nature and what it seems to take, now and at various points in our history, to achieve any sort of meaningful social change.

Target will recover, trust me

Mr. Floyd, compliant and handcuffed, was nevertheless prone in the gutter with that police officer’s knee to his neck for a full EIGHT MINUTES, cutting off his air.  As Mr. Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe and called to his dead Mom for help, the officer kept pressing down, on his neck.

In the last three of those minutes Mr. Floyd was no longer breathing and likely dead as the officer blithely looked around him and up at the sky, just sort of passing the time.  Yet his knee never moved, nor did any of his fellow officers.

It’s all captured on video from numerous angles and on numerous cameras.  So don’t even try arguing about it.

The impact of the iPhone cannot be understated

Mr. Floyd’s death is the latest of dozens and dozens and dozens – and dozens – of similar acts perpetrated by police all across the country on an ever-growing list of Black and Brown men, and sometimes women, in the last number of years. They have crossed over the line of guilt or innocence to techniques of interrogation engagement that end in viral recordings of Roman Coliseum-type murders.

What once seemed to many of us informed white Americans as complicated, perhaps nuanced issues of policing are now live examples of what is being perpetrated by representatives of the white patriarchal power structure in our names.  It’s the cost of doing business and what’s perceived as being needed to keep us at the top of the social order and ensure our continued and absolute white privilege.

It’s time to listen

I used to think as an openly gay, Jewish guy from New York City who could never hide who he was because of my surname and less than macho affect, I was not truly the beneficiary of all of this.

But over the years when I’ve considered the fact that I’ve never feared the police, have never been suspected or questioned by law enforcement about crime, and have certainly NEVER been warned by any relatives or friends on how to behave if a policeman happened to pull me over or approach me, I began to recognize the undeniable.

From the perspective of the law, I am LUCKY to be white.

Recognizing your privilege is step 1

Not only was that revelation embarrassing, it was enraging.   Until I indulged in the luxury of partly forgetting about it until the next viral act of racial injustice at the hands of the law came along.

These days it happens if not daily, then weekly or monthly.  So while I am more than able to forget where I put my keys and my wallet I’m seldom EVER able to misplace my white privilege.

What a sorry turn of current events.

Watching spots in Minneapolis and other cities burn as our POTUS fanned the flames of racial injustice and re-tweeted old law and order threats from the 1960s designed to incite more rioting and thus distract from his epic failures in so many other areas, everything seemed hopeless.

It’s hard to even look at a cartoon of him…

But then I began thinking about the death of Larry Kramer, a writer, AIDS activist and one of my personal heroes of courage, and I somehow began to have a vague scintilla of hope – and change.

To call Mr. Kramer a mere AIDS activist is, of course, to sell him short.  By all accounts he was THE FIRST AIDS ACTIVIST in the early 80s, someone who possessed a personal, unrelenting megaphone of activism so loud, unpleasant and in your face that it demanded to be heard until it finally was.

Don’t take my word for it.  Read his NY Times obituary. 

and consider the words of the leading voice of our medical community (Note: And one of Mr. Kramer’s chief nemeses) in 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci: There is no question in my mind that Larry helped change medicine in this country.

The reason Larry did this was that, as he looked around the streets of his neighborhood, he saw dozens and dozens and dozens – and dozens – of his friends being brutally murdered by a relentless foe – the AIDS virus.  But crazy as it was, the white power structure, of which he was theoretically a member of like myself, was doing little to nothing about it.

Worse yet, they seemed to have little interest to radically change their ways and pay more than a little lip service to it despite the pile up of bodies not only in his neighborhood but all across the country.

So he realized if anything were to get done he and his comrades in arms (nee other potential victims) had to take to the streets and do it themselves.

1989, ACT UP protest, Wall Street #thanksLarry

Mr. Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and later ACTUP, two organizations that slowly, and eventually in very impolite ways, pushed AIDS activism and solutions into the public square by EVERY means necessary.

ACTUP, and Mr. Kramer in particular, set a road map for the modern day, post-1960s activists, creating loud, live events that were so disruptive they couldn’t be ignored.  These included theatrical demonstrations that interrupted Mass presided over by unsympathetic priests inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral and other Catholic Churches; die-ins at the White House and on Wall Street; name-calling political leaders murderers and much worse on national TV (Note: Dr. Fauci included); as well as very publicly outing any closeted gay person (or suspected gay person) in power who he deemed hiding (nee murdering us) instead of helping.

Combine this with more cutting-edge research done by younger people in the movement that backed up his demands with black and white science, and proposing well thought out solutions for improving current policies using logic, medicine and, most of all common sense.

Rather than say something was impossible based on what had happened in the past, they saw things that were possible by dreaming of and then inventing a better future.

It was yet another iteration of any number of American protest techniques that came before but at a different speed and adjusted to yet another time.  Think Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and the Freedom Riders of the 1960s demanding civil rights, the Suffragettes before them fighting for a woman’s right to vote and to use birth control and then go back a century and a half to the Boston Tea Party and the birth of the American Revolution.

The Boston Tea Party, or as POTUS would say, “Thugs”

Americans have ALWAYS been all about taking to the street, rattling the cages and engaging in very public, and yeah sometimes a bit over the line and occasionally violent (Note: On BOTH SIDES) social protests.

Of course, those were the pre-social media days, not to mention even pre-Internet, so cutting edge radical solutions look quite different now.   In these times we intellectually refer to it as the weaponization of social media via sophisticated disinformation campaigns using fake bots, algorithms and any other means necessary to achieve our agendas.

That friggin bird

If it’s receiving help from foreign actors, such as Russia, China and North Korea, states hoping for the devaluation of our country, it’s never been more available for the average protestor.  We’re all just any number of clicks and screen windows away from marshaling aid from any where in the world.

The ends justify the means is much more than a dusty old bromide of how to get ahead these days.  In many circles it’s a contemporary marching order that you WILL achieve your agenda by any means necessary, dire consequences of their domino effect into any other areas be damned.

And we’re bridling at people blocking traffic and setting fire to a few landmarks??

What is it that writer and philosopher George Santayana, once said:  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it?

Exactly.  And in endless iterations over time.

Hozier featuring Mavis Staples – “Nina Cried Power”