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Two Cities-One Heart: An Appeal to Listen to El Paso (with Juan Ortiz)

They say that El Paso/Juarez are two cities with one heart. While the rest of the nation views Juarez only through the eyes of the media, folks here look across the wall with affection towards the homes of people they love. Here in Southern Arizona, where people who grew up on the border call it Ambos Nogales, we can understand that. As dialogue and debate rages throughout the nation about what should be done along the border, those who actually live here have continued quietly and tirelessly laboring to make things better. This is how they have always lived. Knowing and living the cruelty of a people occupied by the Federal Government. Seeing and loving their family on both sides of the border. Being forgotten and overlooked by those that see this as a line on a map rather than a community.

Even now, as the home of their heart is suddenly a trending topic of trauma and dialogue and debate, they still find themselves often forgotten, ignored, and left out of the conversations that they should have been invited into decades ago. The reality of la Frontera is that there are people who have been living here and have been working for justice here all their lives, and they cannot be ignored any longer by those of us who say they want to make things better. We should know that the solutions to a community’s biggest dilemmas come from within that community. We must listen. It is those who have had boots on the ground for a lifetime, whose blood and sweat and tears have watered this land, some whose ancestors were here long before there was a border, who know what to do.

The time I spent in Tortilla was hot and difficult and dangerous, but what I did not share with you was the time I spent in the evenings. Time listening to and learning from some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Time learning from women to give birth to a new day. My wish would be that every person who cast their eye towards the border, with a thought to help, would first pause and listen and learn from those doing the work and then summon all their strength and resources to lift up those who are so tired and have been laboring for so very long in these trenches.

The following is an initial attempt to further that conversation. To profile some of the amazing local people and organizations that had such a huge impact on me during my time in El Paso/Juarez and Tornillo.

The majority of what follows, as well as the conclusion to this blog, was written by the my colleague, artist, scholar, activist and University of Arizona doctoral candidate, Juan Ortiz. A Pasean (person from El Paso) whose love for his community runs as strong as the Rio Grande that runs through it and as high as the mountains that rise above the two cities with one heart. 

The Annunciation House in El Paso, whose stated mission is to serve in the Gospel spirit of service and solidarity, and to accompany the migrant, homeless, and economically vulnerable peoples of the border region through hospitality, advocacy, and education. “We place ourselves among these poor so as to live our faith and transform our understanding of what constitutes more just relationships between peoples, countries, and economies.” It houses and provides refuge for refugees, immigrant and the homeless alike through the spirit of service and advocacy. It is deeply rooted in the community and housed in one of our most historical neighborhoods.  https://annunciationhouse.org

The Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee works hand in hand with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and the Annunciation house. The partnership allows local organizations to be able to aide immigrants from release to housing and desperately needed legal services. https://dmscelpaso.wixsite.com/dmscelpaso https://www.facebook.com/DMSCElPaso/

They also do the work of a community bail fund, to raise much needed money to bail the most vulnerable of our neighbors out of immigrant detention: https://www.fianzafund.org

Paola Fernandez is a member of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee. The DMSC is a citizen-led gathering of people dedicated to raising community funds to then use to release detained mothers in the surrounding Ice detention facilities. Including families and mothers who have been separated from their children. Paola also works in other capacities in the community including with the Catholic Dioceses, El Paso del Sur and Movimiento Cosecha. Paola is one of the many young leaders in El Paso changing the face of activism and advocacy in our town, as well as one of the people bringing her community organizing skills and strength and positive energy to the movement!

Edith Tapia is a native to the El Paso/Juarez region and also a member of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee. In addition to her support of detained migrants through their efforts, she also works as a Policy Research Analyst with the Hope Border Institute. In a short amount of time, she has packed in a profound amount of experience supporting, learning from, and advocating for the vulnerable on both sides of the border and throughout the United States. To learn more about the work of the Hope Border Institute: https://www.hopeborder.org

Las Americas is a 25-year-old non-profit on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, dedicated to serving the legal needs of the most vulnerable among immigrants: Asylum seekers, battered women and abandoned children. The El Paso port-of-entry sees the second highest number of people crossing into the United States by land, second only to San Diego. El Paso also has three major migrant detention centers in the surrounding areas. Las Americas being one of the most important service providers in the entire borderlands. http://las-americas.org 

Christina Garcia Christi is an El Paso native and has lived here most of her life. She has worked with Las Americas for the past 5 years. Besides her work at Las Americas, Christi is a first generation U.S. citizen, college/university graduate, and professional who is deeply invested in El Paso and in the immigrant rights/human rights community. She is a deeply caring and devoted person who always does her best to accommodate the many requests made of her and the agency during these times of crisis.

Linda Y. Rivas (pictured speaking in banner photo) was born in Mexico and raised in El Paso from the age of 4. Linda attended The University of Texas at El Paso and received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a minor in legal reasoning. She received a Juris Doctor from Loyola College of Law in New Orleans and was a legal intern with the Department of Justice. Linda is a lifelong advocate of human human rights. Linda’s first job as an attorney was as the West Texas VAWA Legal Supervisor at the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project where she worked in immigration law under the VAWA and U-VISA programs and engaged in domestic violence advocacy. She is currently the managing Attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center where she is focused on serving detained asylum seekers, a crucial role in what Las Americas does. She is also a new mother and a lead organizer for the El Paso Women’s March.

Melanie Gleason Melanie Gleason is the “Attorney on the Move”, investing her life fully in offering pro-bono support to immigrants along our Southern border. Having worked in southern Arizona for the past year, Melanie has recently moved to El Paso to support immigrants there and to collaborate with Las Americas. A true lawyer for the people, Melanie fit everything she owns into her tiny SmartCar and took the trip from Tucson to El Paso to dive even deeper into the places of greatest need. She is an incredible inspiration and someone who is willing to selfless give everything that she can for others. The daughter of an inner city Clevelander and a Thai immigrant, Melanie brings to all the work that she does her depth and breadth of experience and her sense of urgency and compassion. She is currently almost to her goal to cover the expenses of her work through November. To support her, give here: https://www.mightycause.com/story/Elpasoattorneyonthemove http://www.attorneyonthemove.com

In closing:

El Paso has had a long and proud tradition of immigrant advocacy and social justice practice since the Mexican Revolution up to the Chicano Movement of the 1960’s. As marginalized people living in oppressed conditions, people across the borderlands have come to understand and to demand the recognition of both their people and their city. The tragic events that have unfolded in our community that led to the internment and separation of families has had profound effects on our community. Yet, the community in response has learned come together in solidarity to decide next steps. We as a community are asking folks to consider actions that build the existing community groups, organizations, people and institutions that have and are doing the work and that will be here, far after the national spotlight has subsided.

The organization I belong to Movimiento Cosecha decided instead of committing to a short term direct action, instead to commit to long term relationships within the community and to give the funds raised directly to the community bail fund. A fund that has released many mothers in ICE detention facilities. Movimiento Cosecha is national organization led by directly impacted people fighting for the dignity, respect and permanent protection of all undocumented people in the United States. http://www.lahuelga.com

At the end of the day that is what should take precedence and guide the actions of anyone wanting to ally in this struggle. Potential “Allies” should ask themselves some very important and germane questions: Are the funds we are raising (in the name of the oppressed) directly helping those suffering from those oppressions? What are going to be the lasting consequences of our actions, what will they build? Will they be additive and constructive? Or will they be temporal, reductive, intrusive or destructive?

If you haven’t asked yourself these questions, please do so before you decide to come to a site of great trauma and dehumanization.

 

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Not All Is Lost.

The news today felt like a tidal wave. Like that time I stepped on a yellow-jacket nest and they swarmed me from all sides. Yet, despair could not seem to find a good spot to land on me. I just kept hearing her words: “Not all is lost.”

Driving from El Paso to Tornillo with a woman directly impacted by our cruelty towards immigrants from Central America, she looked around at my car full of white folx and her response was, “Now I know that not all is lost.” 

This week, of all weeks, when it feels like the whole world is crashing down around us, this is the week she decided that not all is lost?

“After the election,” she explained, “everyone was saying such hateful things about us. It felt like nobody loved us. It felt like everyone wanted to get rid of us. But now I see you are all here willing to risk everything with us. Now I know that not all is lost.”

Not all is lost. If she can believe that, then so can I.

Not all is lost, because all it takes to change this is enough of us to get up and actively refuse to let it happen. All it takes is a Rahab living at the wall and shielding the servants of God from the wall patrol that was searching for them. All it takes is a Ruth binding herself in solidarity to a Naomi of another land, refusing to let her walk through struggle and uncertainty alone. All it takes is an Esther, saying, “I will go to the king, though it be against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

All it takes is one person to say, “You are not alone.”

All it takes is you. You, creating a ripple in your neighborhood, that joins with all the others making ripples in their own, that turns into “justice running down like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is what can push back this tide that feels like it will crush us all: you. 

Not all is lost, because we are not alone. If she can believe that, then so can I.

When we arrived at Tornillo, we planned to send up a balloon into the air, with a banner hanging down from it that read, “No estan solos” (You are not alone). We wanted the kids imprisoned in tents at Tornillo to know that there were people that cared about them, and that were fighting for them on the outside. It was simple, it would not have changed the world, but it would have given them hope. It would have reminded them that not all is lost. For us, that was worth the risk. 

Unfortunately the balloon never got up high enough for them to read. A local rancher, who had been encouraged to feel free to engage in vigilantism by CBP, interrupted and eventually pulled a revolver out, waving it around and threatening to shoot down the balloon. 

Despite the fact that he oversaw the alfalfa field next to where the kids were held in tents, where the crop duster had passed over the day before, he believed that all of this was fake news. The control of those who seek to undermine the truth was so strong upon him, that he believed what he heard from the administration on Fox News rather than what he saw with his very own eyes. The pressure from CBP was so great on him that he was waving a revolver around a bunch of people simply holding a big balloon. 

As she stood in front of his gun, her previous words echoed in my mindp1080645.jpg, “You are all here willing to risk everything with us. Now I know that not all is lost.”

Eventually through peaceful dialogue, he was deescalated, and perhaps began to realize how foolish he was being. He put his revolver in his front pocket. But that did not stop him from saying, “Well, I’ll let you do it if you pay me $5,000.” I wondered how much, if anything, CBP was paying him to outsource their intimidation. 

Eventually the balloon was deflated, as were our spirits, and we all went our separate ways. 

Still, not all was lost.

Not all is lost because she is not alone, because we are not alone, because you are not alone. 

As we wanted to tell the kids, “No estan solos.”

We will stand together, and we will stare directly into whatever threats come our way, and we will endure them as a people united. Like Ruth chose Naomi over her country. Like Rahab shielded the spies that climbed over the wall. Like Esther broke the law for a people threatened with obliteration. 

We will love one another and we will tell the truth, no matter how many lies and how much hate come our way. In order to stop atrocity, there just has to be enough people to say no – you are one of those people. We need your “No.”

Today I called my mother, and I told her that for the third time since the election of Donald Trump, I had stood within range of the weapon of a white man who was willing to do harm in his name.

And I do not stand here alone. The truth is that there are already so many people who already stand in the range of harm, regardless of what they do or say, but simply because of who they are. Simply because of the religion they practice. Simply because of the language they speak. Simply because of the country where they were born. Simply because of the color of their skin. Simply because they came desperate for help, and trusting we would aid them rather than kidnap their children. 

I’m not asking you if you will stand with me in the way of harm, I’m asking you if you will join me in standing with those who have no choice in the matter. Those who do not have the privilege of walking away. 

There is someone in your community who is tempted today to believe that all is lost. They cannot avoid the danger and fears they face by simply refusing to “talk politics” or trying not to “make people uncomfortable.” Their reality is discomfort, and there is no escape. They need to see that they are not alone. They need to see that you will stand with them. They need to trust that you will stay. 

Not all is lost. If she can believe that, then so can I. 

“Do not press me to leave you

    or to turn back from following you!

Where you go, I will go;

    where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

    and your God my God.

Where you die, I will die—

    there will I be buried.

May the Lord do thus and so to me,

    and more as well,

if even death parts me from you!”

Ruth 1:16-17

*Conversation quoted with consent.

Seven Sisters

Throughout time, the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, have roamed the heavens, offering to each people over whom they passed a gift. People have used their appearance in the sky to tell them when to plant and grow, and have used their location to help them navigate and find their way. They have been revered and treasured, even seen as relatives by those indigenous to Austrailia. They were named Subaru, meaning unite, by the Japanese. The Pawnee also, seeing them as symbols of unity, sought to learn from them how to be unified. 

On the night of June 22, however, when a van drove into the Tornillo internment camp carrying seven teenage girls, the Seven Sisters were nowhere to be seen. Here, where the Wall splits the earth open like a wound, seven girls became prisoners under the light of a different set of stars.

According to Senator Udall of New Mexico, by the time the sun rose on June 23, there were 250 teenage boys, and a newly arrived 7 teenage girls imprisoned in the cluster of tents at the Tornillo-Guadelupe Port of Entry on the US-Mexico Border. 

I want to be clear about my use of the term ‘Internment Camp.’ The government and media has preferred to label these ‘tent cities’; however, that deeply fails to capture what is happening. Regardless of denotation, the connotation within most of our culture of ‘tent city’ is something that individuals have had agency in creating. Outside of Arizona, we most often use this term in the United States when referring to communities created by our homeless neighbors. There is no agency, or choice on the part of the children being held in these cruel conditions, however. They are prisoners, sent outside to play soccer and look happy when politicians come; they are not children at a summer camp. Therefore, I avoid the use of the language of tent city, because I believe it is intentionally misleading and intended to calm the outrage that the general public ought to be feeling. 

I want you to feel the truth of what this is.

While the Pleiades had been guiding humankind’s navigation and migration for thousands of years, they were nowhere to be seen this night. In their absence, was also absent the unity, family and power that they had come to represent to peoples throughout all time and place. 

I can tell you much more about those stars, those Seven Sisters, than I can tell you about the young girls who entered this space that night. I know nothing, no names, no countries of origin. Yet, we know something of them nonetheless. We have been them, or taken care of them, or taught them, or loved them in all the ways that they reflect those closest to us. At least one of those girls is the same age my eldest niece will turn in October, the same month the Seven Sisters will return to our sky. 

These young women are our nieces, our daughters, our cousins, our sisters. They walk across a hard packed dirt with dust flying in the wind to get their meals. They sleep in a tent with only a layer of plastic between them and the beating sun. They drink water that comes from a huge plastic tub on the back of a truck that says, potable water, driven into the camp as the water sloshes back and forth under the beating sun. 

The Maori and Arapaho peoples have a different explanation for Pleiades. The Maori tell of Matariki and the Arapaho of Turtle Island tell of Alcyone. In both cases, Matariki and Alcyone burst apart, one star shattering into many (The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades: Stories From Around the World, by Munya Andrews, p. 25-26). 

One star shattering into seven pieces like the seven hearts of seven mothers whose seven daughters now bake in the West Texas sun. 

Like the 250 hearts of 250 mothers whose 250 sons now bake in the West Texas sun.

Like the 4,000 hearts of 4,000 mothers whose greatest treasures are expected to be held here before our cruel work is done.

Free the mothers. Free the fathers. Long for their children to be in their arms, not ours. Donate to bond funds to release them. Fight alongside them to get their children back. Play no part in the termination of family rights and forced adoptions that may come. Play no part in the criminalization of parents that takes place when we build a wall in our hearts and minds between their children and them. 

They say that November is the best time to see the Seven Sisters in all their glory. This November, may their return to our skies mark the changing of this cruel tide that has swept so many families away in its current. May we be guided back to smoother seas. May we be guided back to unity.

Amen.

Tornillo: The Turning of the Screw

Tornillo. In Spanish it means screw – as in turning the screw – as in taking something bad and making it worse. That is exactly what has happened in this place.

Tonight I stood before the closed gate to the Tornillo-Guadelupe Port of Entry, beyond which sits the newly populated “tent cities” for children separated from their parents. I took it all in and struggled to find words. My colleague from University of Arizona, Juan Ortiz, had brought me there, weaving through the pitch blackness and utter isolation that lies east of El Paso, Texas. We drove as far as they would allow, and then I got out and walked the rest of the way while Juan kept watch. I’m a white woman in a clergy collar: my risk is infinitely less.

It was so dark. It was so isolated. I imagined that must be how the children held beyond this gate must feel. I imagined the tears that wet some of their pillows, like the Rio Grande winding through El Paso.

We are horrified. Finally. Why did it take us so long? Separating children from their parents is not new, but here it is – in Tornillo – that we find the turning of the screw. The point beyond which we cannot tolerate the pain. Dear God, I plead, let us not tolerate the pain. Let us not get used to it. Let us not rationalize and find comfort once again, while others are tortured. Torment us.

Throughout our history, this is what we have done when we have wanted to break the spirit of a people. What are we trying to do now, if not that? We seek to break the Spirit. To break apart families, to break hearts, perhaps in ways that can never be repaired.

Let me take a moment to be clear about what I mean when I say “we.” I mean the powers that be, and all of us that are not on the receiving end of their abuse but are merely mentally tortured by their constantly escalating atrocities. We who will not be the ones whose children are taken. We who cannot imagine a cause for our arrest, rather than dreading it’s arrival constantly. We who do nothing. Let us not be that we.

Let us step away from that “we” and into another. Let us resist. Let us embrace discomfort. Let us refuse to be silent.

The thing that I want us to remember is that while these conditions are horrible for children, there are no conditions into which we can place them that will diminish the horror, trauma, abuse and damage that you inflict upon a child when you separate them from a parent who loves them and is willing to risk their lives for that child. The separation itself is the horror.

Yet, that separation already happens when a family arrives together to seek asylum – a human right – and one parent is taken and held. That separation happens when a parent is deported away from their children.

That separation happens in our mind when we create a narrative where the child is a victim and the parent is a criminal, when in reality their parent is all too often their savior. We have already separated parent from child mentally, before we separated them physically. We have already placed them in separate categories, before we placed them in separate cages.

To end this, it will not be sufficient to end their physical separation. We must also tear down the walls that we have constructed between parent and child in our minds. Until we do that, we will remain complicit. It is our mental divide that has led to their physical one.

Let us bring them back together in our minds, so that we can bring them back together in the flesh.

Below is a portion of the El Paso mural by Francisco Delgado and Juan Ortiz.

20180618_210051

64 Hours for Sandra Bland: The First Night

“You’re going to be arrested tomorrow,” my neighbor said to me solemnly.

Sitting on the front stoop of his house, the street was silent. The laughter and mariachi music from the birthday party down the block had long since morphed into a pile of tables and chairs awaiting pick-up. Only a few neighborhood dogs walking their patrol kept us company as we huddled over my iPhone, watching DeRay McKesson’s Periscope lifestream from Baton Rouge. All of a sudden the shot tilted sideways as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground and an officer seemed to tackle and arrest him. With countless people watching around the country, we were filled with outrage. He had just pointed down to the road lines to show he was not walking in the street or breaking any laws.

Only 250 miles away in Texas, we were preparing for an action of our own. It was Saturday night; the next morning, a Sunday morning, would be July 10th. Exactly a year earlier, on a Friday afternoon, Sandra Bland had been arrested. In preparation, we had worked on all kinds of plans for arts events to make people in the surrounding cities say her name. Yet, as the date had approached, it had became clear that we still needed the same thing that we had needed a year ago: Action in Waller County.

So many days of 2015, 80 in fact, we had sat in front of the jail where Sandra had died, and every day I had prayed that it would make some difference, not only in the communal struggle, but some difference in her personal struggle. I had stood at the back wall of that jail, where she had spent her last days, and prayed that somehow in her last moments she would have some peace. I prayed that somehow she would know we would hear her. I prayed that somehow she would know we would come.

All of the ways Sandra Bland was being remembered had created a sledgehammer strong enough to break through the walls of deception; an ax strong enough to cut through the roots that dug into fear, allowing only silence to grow. Yet, the blow still needed a place to land. It became clear what we needed to do.

For every hour that Sandra Bland spent in custody in 2015, we would be there in 2016.

At the time of her arrest, we would have the powerful voices of women like Aerio, Blanca, Rayla, Kayenne Nebula, Jasminne Mendez speaking from the spot under that tree where Encinia threw her down. We would show them she could not be silenced.

From the scene of her false arrest, we would go to the scene of her false incarceration, and every hour that she was there we would be there. Personally, I knew that I was called to be there the full 64 hours that she spent there: whether that be outside of the jail or inside of a cell. We had not been there with her in 2015, we would be there for her every moment in 2016.

We had prepared. No wine for a month in advance. No caffeine for two weeks in advance. No television or videos for a week in advance. We knew that those 64 hours had the potential to be just as dangerous and physically grueling as the 80 days before.

Then the eve of the action arrived, and there we sat, watching DeRay be arrested just a few hours drive away, for seemingly no reason at all.

On the night before our 64 hours was to begin, we knew we had the right to freedom of speech and freedom to practice religion. Yet, as DeRay’s phone fell to the ground, the reality was more plain than ever that rights were conditional in this nation.

As we watched the lifestream of DeRay being taken away, my neighbor said out loud the concern that everyone around me had only been saying in whispers: “You’re going to be arrested tomorrow. Things are changing. They are cracking down. Trying to send a message.”

A single tear slid down my face. I could not let it linger. Wiping it away, I measured my words out carefully: “What do I need to know?”

He told me what to expect If I was arrested in Waller County. How it would be different from being arrested in a city with news cameras present. What they would do to me as a part of an arrest and booking procedure. What they would do to me. What they could do to me. What they might do. What they would want to do to me after a year of rising tensions between us. He told me that in this nation it did not matter any more if you were resisting in a non-violent manner; resistance, regardless of the manner, was what they wanted crushed. I informed those who planned to be there – Joshua, Mirissa, Jeremy, Lena – not to interfere if they tried to take me, I asked them to promise to step back, remain peaceful, and stay out of custody themselves.

At 4:30 pm on July 10, we gathered at the scene of Sandra’s arrest in front of Hope AME in Prairie View, Texas, just a couple blocks outside of the gates of Prairie View A&M University. Two officers sat in a car across the street watching as dozens of poets, local residents, children, and Prairie View students came to the scene of Sandra’s arrest to show the community that Sandy still speaks. Setting up a microphone the first voice heard was that of Mirissa Tucker, a Prairie View A&M senior, followed by Linda Clark-Nwoke, one of the sorority chapter advisors during Sandra Bland’s tenure at PVAMU. Then the poets begin to speak their truth on the microphone, and the singers sang theirs out.

Close to the end, some students from Join the Movement at PVAMU came forward and Joshua Muhammad took the microphone to share some of the successes they had seen that year and some of their goals for the coming year. Those of us headed to the jail invited those at the Speak Out to join us for a service of Holy Communion at the jail if they chose and we slipped away to follow the road down to where Encinia had taken Sandra.

Upon arriving at the jail, we began to prepare the elements for Communion, using a chalice and paten given to me by Pastor Mireya Ottaviano; Hawaiian sweet bread, the favorite of Methodists like Sandra and myself; and the first of 6 cans of grape juice that we would need if made it through the full 64 hours.

Others began to arrive, and we were uncertain of what would happen when the Jail realized our intention to stay. Just then, two of the more senior local activists surprised us by pulling into the parking lot unexpectedly and radically transformed the atmosphere. DeWayne and Hai began setting up chairs for us, gained consent from the Jail to plug into their electricity for our phones, and made it clear to the Sheriff that the local community was watching, and that he did not want the audience to become larger than that.

Within moments we were live-streaming the first of what would be 6 services of Holy Communion, each one becoming progressively longer and more fully developed until by the third day we were having full on church in the parking lot of a jail.

Yet, that night we did not know all that would lay ahead as we projected Sandra’s videos on the wall and made the community see her face and hear her voice throughout the three nights and two days.

That night, we simply gathered, as 13 friends had done 2,000 years before, not know what would happen next. We gathered and we said the words from the Methodist liturgy, slightly adapted for the occasion.

Merciful God,

we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.

We have failed to be an obedient church.

We have not done your will,

we have broken your law,

we have rebelled against your love,

we have not loved our neighbors,

and we have not heard the cry of the needy. 

We have not heard the cry of Black Lives Matter.

Forgive us, we pray.

Free us for joyful obedience,

      through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

The Distortion of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

The cover article of the May 9-16th issue of The Nation Magazine is an article entitled “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” It takes the words first used by alumni of Prairie View A&M University who were mourning Sandra Bland the week of her death, and ultimately used to express a movement, and repurposes them to make whiIMG_8595te people more comfortable. In a rhetorical move as equally unconscious of bias as the #AllLivesMatter shift, the author uses her platform as a journalist and award-winning author to write an opinion piece masquerading as an investigative piece. The article takes the discomfort that has been rising amongst White liberals and defuses it. It converts it from White responsibility back to White guilt.

It does so not by honoring the intention of the words – a persistent and yet unanswered question – but by delivering the author’s answer.

I was there in the Opal Johnson Smith Auditorium when Debbie Nathan requested an insider interview from Sandra’s family. I was there when she was turned down. I was there when she said she would write the article with or without them. At the time, I did not understand their response. I liked Debbie well enough. Now I understand.

What would motivate her to dig more deeply into the personal affairs of the grieving family than she dug into the circumstances surrounding Sandra’s death in a Texas jail?

To understand her article, you have to start by working backwards, realizing that Debbie Nathan is not asking “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”; she is telling her opinion of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

Debbie Nathan had already decided the culprits. She committed one of the biggest errors of investigative journalism, she investigated in order to prove her theory rather than to find the truth.

I first met Debbie Nathan when she came to the Houston area with the conviction that she was the one who would write about Sandra Bland. She had become so fixated on Sandra, seeing her as a daughter figure; and consequently had become a student of my work as well. She had studied both of us on Facebook, and felt so attached to me that she had brought me a red scorpion made of beads that she had picked up for me while on vacation. She felt like she knew me. She did not. She felt like she knew Sandra. She did not.

Through a narrative filled with assumptions, such as the assumption that Sandra Bland cut herself in response to Dylann Roof’s murders, Nathan provides the nation with a way out of the discomfort that has become almost unbearable for many. She works to subtly convince the reader that the only intelligent, educated, reasonable answer is that Sandra Bland killed herself, while simultaneously emphasizing the refusal of many in the African American community, especially Sandra’s close family and friends, to accept those results at face value. She even uses a Black child’s refusal to accept that ‘truth’ as the closing line of the article. Pair such logic with the subtle racism of White liberalism, and the results are obvious: A translation of the experience of the Black community utilized to discredit rather than empower their perspective.

Nathan communicates that it was oppressive systems and structures that killed Sandra inch by inch, wearing down her psyche until she was primed for suicidal thoughts: Sandra Bland died from a “thousand tiny cuts.” Diffusion of responsibility.

This rhetorical move will conveniently remove the thing that the dominant culture abhors most: holding individuals responsible for the actions that they carry out as willing participants in racist and oppressive structures. This terrifies us, because to hold any of us accountable raises the possibility that any of us may be held accountable.

Let me be clear, we do seek to hold the system accountable. We do seek to dismantle the system of white supremacy. However, in order to dismantle the system, there must be accountability for the individuals within it. Without accountability, there can be no motivation to change. First, we made corporations people so they can bear our rights, will we next make systems people so they can bear our sins?

Fundamental to the Christian faith, and many others, is the concept of both corporate and individual fault or sin. While we must seek to deal with the crimes we commit as a corporate body, we cannot lose sight of the sins we commit as individuals. Both are important. Repentance for our corporate wrong-doing does not relieve of us accountability for our individual wrong-doings.

By framing her answer in such a manner, Nathan does dishonor to the reason why we sat in front of a jail for 80 days with a sign that said, “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” We were not asking what happened to Sandra Bland before she got to Texas. We were asking specifically what happened to her from July 10-13, 2015. By using the words of our question to avoid the intent of our question, she relocates the answer from Sandra’s present to her past. She colonizes our query, seeking to replace its original inhabitants.

She takes a big question: “What Happened To Sandra Bland?” and makes the reader believe there are only two answers, A or B; homicide or suicide. That binary is exactly what we have been trying to avoid and expand.

This rhetorical move is so subtle in the article that it is helpful to have gotten the chance to hear her May 5 on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC to discuss her true intentions in writing the article:

Arun Venugopal (substituting for Leonard Lopate): “In terms of the time [Sandra Bland] spent, the last few days, you’ve really tried to clarify and sorta get past the conspiracy theories. What are some of the conspiracy theories that you were trying to sort of put to rest?

Debbie Nathan: “Well, um, the basic one is that she didn’t commit suicide. That was the finding of the autopsy. And so there is a theory that that was wrong and that she was murdered. That it was a homicide. So, you know, I tried to look at all the facts, all the evidence and see if there is anything that would reasonably support the theory of homicide. And the only thing that I could come up with is that since there is no evidence of homicide, there’s no physical evidence of homicide, um, that you would have had to have a pretty big conspiracy. You’d have to have several people in that jail, including the administration, do things like tamper with the film, do things like study for weeks beforehand about how you, um, strangle somebody but make the mark on the neck look like it was a suicide mark, which you’d have to be a genius to do. I mean, I think you’d have to be Hannibal Lechter to figure out how to do this. And, um, there’s just sort of like many things that a bunch of would have to get together and do. So who are these people? I mean like brilliant, psychopathic, really malign racists? I mean, when you look at who was working in that jail, um, many if not most of the guards were either African American or Latino. um. They are low-paid, not very well educated people; to the extent that any of them have education they’ve often gone to the historically black college, to Prairie View, because they live in that community. um, they all have their social media too. I looked at their social media before they all took it down because they got sued. They were doing things like Martin Luther King food drives, they didn’t seem like the kind of people that would be capable of engaging in a very viscious, racist, brilliant, psychopathic conspiracy.”

There it is: the bias. Without even giving notice to the shade thrown at HBCU’s, her belief that it is not possible that footage has been edited would contradict Selma producer Ava Davurnay’s absolute confidence that it has been. Her presentation of the Facebook activity of the guards has portrayed them as saints focused on “Martin Luther King food drives.” She seems to have missed their sinister joking about cell 95 where Sandra Bland died: “Be nice, or else you’re going in 95 and talk with your friend” (Dormic Smith to Elsa Magnus).

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You do not need conspiracies and “tall tales” to know how Sandra Bland was treated. To quote directly from the Waller County Sheriff’s Office Committee Recommended Police & Jail Practices, released in April of 2016: “Epithets such as ‘turd,’ ‘thug,’ ‘gang-banger,’ and ‘piece-of-shit’ were sometimes used to describe suspects. Such ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ language is not only dehumanizing in itself, but tends to be a cultural value passed down to other, more junior deputies and engenders an atmosphere that denigrates the rights of suspects and invites misconduct. The risk is that dehumanizing language will be translated into inhumane actions.”

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So where did Debbie Nathan go astray? To understand that, you have to look at another article that she wrote for the Boston Review. In the article, she writes affectionately of Sandra Bland: “Watching the footage these past few weeks, I have felt like one of her queens, and I wish we could all experience the royalty she offered us.” It is there that she shows her cards.

See, the thing is those words were not for us; they were not meant for Debbie and I. They were not meant for white women at all. And that is perfectly okay.

When Sandy was addressing white people, she made it clear, “To my white folks…” and she usually had a loving but firm challenge to go with it. When she was addressing her African American brothers and sisters, she made it clear as well, “My Kings and My Queens” and she also usually had a loving but firm challenge to go with it. But her advice was different for the different audiences. Her challenge for white people was different from her challenge for black people.

Nathan’s inability to understand that crucial difference and boundary is the key to understanding why she may not be the one to look to for an understanding of “What Happened To Sandra Bland?”

She stepped outside her lane. She forgot that the Lemonade being served up in our culture right now is for Black women. It belongs to them. They do not have to share with us. They do not have to give us the recipe. We will not be able to figure out how to make it by watching them. It is not ours.

There are many things I have seen, heard and witnessed about the experiences of Black women in America, but I’m not going to be the one to analyze it. Why? One simple reason: Black women in America are fully capable of doing so themselves. It is not my place. Not my lane. There are plenty of Black women talking about the pain and burden of Black women. Our role as White women is to amplify their voices, not to silence them by telling their stories for them.

Our role is to speak from our own experience: How have we experienced privilege? How can we talk about the impact of racism with other White people? We need to stop thinking that the only way to talk about racism is from the perspectives of those suffering from its effects; we have to start talking about how we benefit from its effects economically and socially, even as it wounds us spiritually.

There was so much real investigative journalism to be done in Waller County. The truth is not even hard to sniff out. It lies on the surface like the algae in my father’s pond. You only have to reach for it and it is in your hand. Yet, Debbie Nathan has chosen to tell the nation through The Nation, that corruption is not there. There is so much white-people work to be done in Texas. Yet, Debbie Nathan left Texas to fly to Chicago; and finding no one close to the situation willing to talk to her, she found people who would say what she wanted to hear, and she let her displeasure with the grieving family’s reticence be known through her writing:

“Geneva Reed-Veal—her mom had gotten married—has acknowledged in recent press interviews that she and her daughter had long-standing conflicts. She and Sandy’s sisters declined to speak with me on the record; what those conflicts were about, Reed-Veal has not said publicly… She contacted a sister who was hardly in a position to send $515, since she was being sued by her landlord for back rent, to the tune of more than $1,500.”

The amount of effort that it must have taken to dig into the struggle of the woman who had been the most supportive of her sister’s Sandy Speaks videos and activism could have been put to so much better use in seeking the truth in Texas. Yet, maybe that was not the goal.

Sometimes it takes a whole lot of facts to distract people from seeing the truth.


The pain and struggle of Black women in America is not one more possession for white women to claim. Their lives and minds are not ours to pick apart, to analyze, to interpret. We have our own work to do. Clearly.

If you want to listen and amplify:

Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy A Yoke

Everything on Candace Benbow’s Lemonade Syllabus

 

Yvette Smith Verdict: No Comment Necessary

*Photo is of a building about 15 minutes from where Yvette Smith died, off the side of the road near the Bastrop County Line. It is the first significant building drivers see welcoming them to the County. 

Today Judge Albert M. McCaig, a Waller County Judge visiting for one case in Bastrop County, rendered verdict in the murder trial for ex-officer Daniel Willis’s killing of Yvette Smith. Beginning mid-May, he will oversee the trial of ex-officer Brian Encinia on charges of perjury for lying about his arrest of Sandra Bland.

On April 16, 2014, Daniel Willis responded to a 911 call, calmly speaking to a man in the front yard when he got there who told him the situation was diffused. Getting a call on his radio that there was a gun in the house, he went and got his AR-15 assault rifle from his car, stood behind cover in his body armor, and waited. When the door opened shortly after, he yelled “Police!” and fired immediately without giving any warnings or commands, and without taking the necessary time to ascertaining if the small African American woman who had opened the door to check on her boyfriend was armed.

He killed Yvette Smith on the threshold of her own house.

Daniel Willis has never shown any signs of regret or remorse: neither in the dashcam footage at the scene, nor in the two years that followed. Today, his attorneys reiterated that he had no regrets and that if put in the same situation again, he would do it again.

Before concluding his remarks by honoring Daniel Willis as “the man in the arena” described by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, Judge McCaig spoke for about ten minutes as Yvette Smith’s family clung to one another, two rows strong. In those ten minute remarks Judge McCaig made this statement: “So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom.”  Although our agenda is more of a communal one than a personal one, to honor the fact that black women’s lives matter, it seems wisest to take his words to heart. Therefore, the clearest way to communicate what took place today is to simply allow you to offer Yvette Smith’s family the solidarity they deserve by reading what Yvette Smith’s mother, identical twin sister, and son had to sit through: All of it. Every last word. Without commentary from me. You can draw your own conclusions. His words speak for themselves.

It would be very disingenuous of me, as well as very short-sighted, to believe that this case is nothing more than a routine case in which Daniel Willis is accused of murdering Yvette Smith. Since the law is certainly what I’m bound to follow, it is that, in simplified terms, the legal question is whether Daniel Willis knowingly [put to death?] Yvette Smith, or alternatively whether he did an act which is clearly dangerous to human life that caused her death. And the question of whether his conduct was objectively reasonable is the controlling issue. I fully understand the law, the indictment, the issues. I also understand the facts, having heard most of these facts through a total of almost three weeks of actually vigorous and well-presented trials of this case from both sides.

This case is also, as Mr. Sanderson had pointed out in his opening, about what we as a culture and as a society expect from our law enforcement officers. They do an incredibly difficult job often in very difficult and intense circumstances, and it is a tribute to the overall professionalism of the police in general that so few situation such as this one actually take place. But I’ll go a step further and say that its not only about what we expect from our law enforcement officers, but also what we should expect from ourselves. Each and every one of us as citizens of this great nation as we react to circumstances that occur within our society.

I’m fortunate in that I answer to very few people in this case. I’m a visiting judge and I don’t run for office over here in Bastrop County. In fact, I doubt if I’ll run for office again due to my age and the length of service that I already have. But regardless of the decision that I make here today, there will be a lot of commentary about what it is and those that are affected by this decision. And certainly all that I do is subject to review by our courts here in Texas and perhaps even higher.

I’m fortunate in that I do not answer to political correctness, I do not answer to the media, I do not answer to politicians. I answer to the law and to the facts as they relate to this case. Also, and I’m fortunate that I have the only other entity that I’m ultimately responsible to, that is my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but I do not invoke his great name in making my decision here today. I believe that would be very shallow and weak of me to do that. My decisions and my comments are my own and I stand by them on my own.

But before I go further, to the family of Ms. Yvette Smith, I tell you truthfully that I am sorry for your loss. I’ve come to find through these proceedings that she was indeed a good person, a kind person, and a gentle person trying to do the right thing. And I know that you will miss her greatly and will continue to miss her for the rest of your lives.

In this situation there is plenty of blame to go around, and there are several people beyond Daniel Willis who share this tragedy that eventually took the life of Yvette Smith. There may be those who may ask how would I dare judge the actions of those who were not on trial here today, but as the fact finder, and as the person rendering judgement on the law, that is what I am entitled to do. And as I look at the facts of this situation, I see that both Willie Thomas and Chris Thomas got a large part leading up to the events that evening. Had they not fought. Had one of them had the ability to walk away from the fight, ultimately that 911 call just after midnight on February 16 of 2014 would never have been made. Whether it was alcohol, fear, or passions, whatever the reason, each of them could have changed the outcome had they changed their actions.

I believe we can all certainly regret that Yvette Smith walked out that door. Yvette Smith is without a doubt the victim in this tragic situation.

And now I do have to come to Daniel J. Willis. You know I was not there in the incident when Deputy Willis fired his weapon and took the life of Yvette Smith. Yet, I have heard a great deal of testimony from all of the witnesses. All of whom may have more experience than I do in highly charged, tense and stressful situations. You know I have had my share of intense situations in life, especially in my time in the military, but I have not personally dealt with a situation like this. I’ve seen the video and I’ve heard the audio many, many times and I’ve come to know it well. I do respect Ranger Verina and the balance he attempted to bring to these situations, attributing good police work and good police conduct to Mr. Willis when it was deserved, and clearly stating his disagreement with his actions in firing the fatal shots. Ranger Verina is also good enough to recognize that a lot of what was said by the other experts in this case was accurate and consistent with his own training. I believe it takes a very strong man to be able to agree with an opponent, and I congratulate you sir.

I appreciate what the other experts brought into this courtroom as they used their training, experience and education to try to make some logical sense from what can only be described as a chaotic and illogical situation. All of that added to my understanding of what happened, and ultimately was a great aid in my coming to a decision in this matter. The expert reports themselves were not all that persuasive, but the testimony of those experts and especially the vigorous cross examination from both sides certainly was very helpful. In retrospect, all of the officials actually agreed on many of the same points, they only differed in their conclusions. And as we all know this all boils down to a very few seconds.

We all know there was no weapon, but was there a reflection? Was there a piece of plastic? Was there a piece of junk on the porch? Was it a large and bright silver earring as those worn by Yvette Smith that reflected back the light from the flashlight? Or was it about the last radio message that Mr. Willis received, the man behind the door with a gun, that priming that was talked about by several of the witnesses. Those are questions that cannot be answered with any certainty. At least two of the professionals gave me an opinion that Daniel Willis should have waited longer before he fired. So my question to myself then became: do I convict a man based upon those opinions alone or do I look at the totality of the circumstances to find the proof beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt. I had to look deeper, knowing it would be easier, literally, to sacrifice one person for the good of some others. 

So regardless of my decision, there will be those who will attempt to use this tragic situation to further their own personal agendas. To all of those, I ask only that you tell the truth of what happened in this courtroom. The truth that both sides have been given a full and fair hearing of all of the available facts. Both sides have been represented by very competent, capable advocates, and no short cuts were taken by either side.

To the attorneys from both sides, you’ve done a tremendous job with a very difficult task and regardless of the ultimate ruling that I make, you may each look at this body of work with a great deal of satisfaction. None of us are rookie attorneys, but you have all truly done what we all dreamed about doing when we were back in law school. You have zealously, courageously advocated your positions with skill, knowledge, understanding, even coming whenever was necessary. And I do commend you for that. And I thank you for the trust that you have given me in allowing me to hear this case and render a verdict in this manner.

To everyone watching this case unfold, I know that you will each carry away from this courthouse your opinions of what I should have or could have done or not done. Frankly, we may agree or disagree on the ultimate decision, but frankly I’m pleased that you’ve come and watched regardless of your reasons for being here.

So Mr. McCabe, Ms. Jernigan, is there any legal reason why the court should not render its verdict in this case?

Will the defendant please stand.

And please bear with me as I read to you one of my life-long favorite passages from Theodore Roosevelt, from April 23 of 1910. It’s a really great passage. It goes this way: 

“It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or whether the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who actually does strive to do the deeds. Who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions. Who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement. And who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Mr. Daniel J. Willis, you are the man in that arena, and it is the verdict of this court that you were not guilty of the charges stated.