The Bail Project

This week on PBS Newshour, Robin Steinberg, the Executive Director of The Bail Project discussed their mission. A former public defender, Steinberg established The Bail Project to combat mass incarceration of people who could not afford bail.

In America, she noted that 75% of those incarcerated are there because they could not afford bail. They either pleaded guilty to a crime of which they were accused or are awaiting trial. Bail was created as a form of release, but it is not a choice for far too many. Steinberg said you don’t want innocent people in jail for crimes they did not commit.

She added in our country we believe people are innocent until proven guilty and that should not depend on race or income. So, her organization posts bail for these individuals, so they can be home preparing for their trial. She added the money is returned once they stand trial and could be used again.

This idea has merit and is both sustainable and replicable. We already have over-crowded prisons coupled with many prison guard vacancies. Avoiding prison will help avoid recidivism and not expose innocent people to more hardened criminals.

Looking at their Board of Directors, I noticed three names: actor Danny Glover, singer/ songwriter John Legend and billionaire businessman Richard Branson. Hopefully, their notoriety and support will help others become more aware.

A few good news stories which can change minds

It is apparent that the move to pull down the Confederate flag was spawned by the reaction to the killing of nine Black church members in Charleston. For family members of the deceased to look at the killer and forgive him may be one of the greatest acts of faith I have ever witnessed. And, I was not alone, as they showed what faith looks like to many. Their reaction and that of the citizens of Charleston, where the Civil War started, may have helped bury the Civil War lingering fight 150 years later. My fervent hope is they have created a dialogue that will continue to improve race relations and racial injustice in America.

If we scroll forward one week after the Confederate flag came down from the South Carolina state capitol grounds, members of the KKK marched on the capitol grounds to protest the removal of the flag. If you have ever been to Columbia, it is one of the hottest cities I have ever been in. On yet another hot day, a member of the KKK became ill with heat exhaustion and needed help. The symbolic irony is a Black officer came to the aid of this member and helped him to care. He noted he was only doing his job, but his efforts created a justifiable YouTube sensation.

In a related issue, several Black and multi-racial churches have been burned and vandalized in the past few months. These have occurred primarily in the South, but some have occurred in the northern states and up through Canada, as well. What has gotten less notice is several Islamic mosques have donated money to some of these churches to rebuild or repair the vandalism. This outpouring of help is inspirational and should get more notoriety than it does. These vandals were not Muslims, but that mattered not. The Muslim worshippers wanted to help other churchgoers.

Finally, I have written about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. This orchestra has pulled young musicians from across the Middle East and Spain. The greater story is the young adults are Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, Protestant and from other faiths. They cross the bridges which divide us to play together. We can affect young minds in a positive way and they can teach us in return, if we let them.

My hope is these actions can help change more minds around our country and in the world. Because, beneath the surface, we are all the same. Imperfect.

 

 

Strange Fruit – why that flag means what it does to many

I applaud the state of South Carolina for making a long overdue, but nonetheless courageous decision to take down the Confederate battle flag. What many fail to realize its heritage has two meanings, neither good. It was the initial symbol of rebellion that wanted to keep the right to slavery and not be dictated by people in Washington. Do not let people try to rewrite history using the terms we southerners liked to call it “the War of Northern Aggression.” That was propaganda then and remains propaganda today.

Yet, it also carries the meaning of Jim Crow, a period which allowed the reinforced condemnation and control of Blacks in the south, in spite of their rights on paper. This condemnation included the purposeful killing, often by hanging, of Blacks who were deemed guilty of contrived crimes or because they tried to exercise their paper rights in practice. I would ask you to watch “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Mississippi Burning” to get a sense of what Jim Crow was all about.

Or, we could heed the words of Billie Holiday, who sang the impactful song “Strange Fruit.”

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Songwriters
WIGGINS, DWAYNE P./PEARL, MAURICE/ALLAN, LEWIS

If you want to listen to the words, please go to the attached link. http://www.metrolyrics.com/strange-fruit-lyrics-billie-holiday.html

Taking down the battle flag is a great, symbolic step, but it has to be more than that. We need to treat everyone like we want to be treated. Jesus made no caveats with his words as to who should not be so treated. Neither should we, especially with our history that includes “a strange and bitter crop” of people who did not come close to such treatment. This is also why we should not whitewash history, as we should never allow such treatment again on our soil.

 

The best of religion – creating community conversations around differences

Last night, my wife and I attended one of a series of “talks” around improving racial relations. It is a weekly chat sponsored by a multi-faith group based in our city. In essence, it is facilitated small group and large group discussions on breaking down barriers and listening to others who do not look like you do. It was well done and very meaningful.

To hear stories about small and large examples of racism is very important. To hear about how assumptions can be made and, if not corrected, can be become more concrete in the eyes of the beholder. Children learn lessons whether you want them to or not, even when you try to do the right thing. So, it is imperative to have open conversations about treating people like you want to be treated and listening to comments, so that they can be reinforced or amended.

Yet, it is we adults that need to do better. A few themes we discussed include:

– do not indict a group for the actions of a few;

– recognize that small sleights can be hurtful, as well;

– try to walk in another person’s shoes; understand that a white person has more liberty to go anywhere, while a black man, even when dressed-up, has restricted access;

– shine a light on hateful speech or behavior; tolerance must be viewed toward a greater good, so it is OK to be less tolerant of those who use words to demean and diminish;

– speak up and speak out to people who share your skin color who are indicting others who are different; a white person’s voice will be listened to when admonishing the behavior of fellow white people;

– be the change you want to see and see people for whom they are; and

– recognize that racial injustice is also the result of a larger poverty issue, which affects people of all colors.

There are many more lessons that were conveyed during the session, but one of my takeaways is this is religion at its finest. Welcoming, including and helping. Let me end with one more tidbit on how religion can help provide solutions and create a welcoming dialogue. The Kindness Blog is a compilation of good news stories from around the world. People need to read this blog to balance the many negative stories that we are bombarded with. Their latest post, which can be linked to below, is evidence of the best of religion.

Jesus said it so well in his Golden Rule. Treat others like you want to be treated. If we do this, we are way ahead in the game. So, welcome, include and help.

http://kindnessblog.com/2015/07/07/walked-past-a-church-yesterday-had-this-poster-on-the-door/

I might not survive this encounter – racial injustice lives on

Last week on “Real time with Bill Maher,” one of his panel guests was actor/ director Wendell Pierce, who has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies. I should note that Pierce is an African-American male, as this context is important for his viewpoint. During a discussion on domestic violence, Maher introduced the concept of race playing a role in how people perceive alleged perpetrators. Pierce’s opinion was very informative and well thought out. But, there was one particular commentary he made that needs to be stated again and again, as there are some who believe racial injustice does not still exist and is blown out of proportion by the media.

Pierce was dressed in a suit and tie for the show, which is important for his example. He said people who are not an African-American male do not and can not appreciate when he is stopped by a police officer or patrolman, that the thought goes through his head that “I might not survive this encounter.” He used a recent example where he said he was driving to a funeral in Mississippi, dressed like I am tonight, with two young children in the backseat and another passenger up front. He noted he was pulled over by a patrolman.

Pierce said he did what he always does when stopped and pulled his wallet out of his pocket and set it on the dashboard awaiting the officer’s arrival. African-American men do this to avoid the perception of going for a gun as you get your wallet out. He said it was a very hot day, so he turned the car off and left the AC running. After a few minutes of waiting, he looked in his rearview mirror and saw an officer pointing a rifle at his car mouthing the words to get out of the car, #$%&#$. So, a situation that did not need to be tense, was because the officer presumed malintent.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Blink,” he notes that there is a predisposition to act that is based on our experiences. The theme of the book is we make subconscious decisions all the time based on our experiences. These hunches have been formed over the years. He notes this can be good or bad, and cites as an example of the latter in the story of “41 Shots” that Bruce Springsteen made famous in his song “American Skin.”  In essence, an “English as a second language” person was perceived as a perpetrator as he did not understand questions officers were asking and, feeling in jeopardy, ran. Not condoning this flight, Gladwell notes the person was trying to pull out his wallet and was shot 41 times on a stoop. 41 times!

The recent death of Michael Brown in Ferguson is another example of this predisposition to act. As a result, someone is killed with his hands raised as confirmed by several sources. Trayvon Martin died because self-appointed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, presumed he was up to malintent and pursued him even when told not to by the police dispatcher. Something similar happened at a gas station where a civilian shot into a car and killed an African-American teen because they were playing their music too loudly.

As a white person, let me state the obvious. While I can empathize greatly with Pierce and other African-American males, there is no way I can walk in their shoes. There is no way for me to know what it is like to fear for my life in circumstances which should not warrant fear. There is no way for me to fully understand how racial injustice continues, when it is obvious that it still does. I have read the excellent book by Michelle Alexander “The New Jim Crow” which speaks to the higher preponderance of incarceration for African-Americans for drug crimes, when whites are equally guilty as indicated by the data. The book also speaks to the number of African-American teens who are in adult prison and, as a consequence, are being taught more to be a better criminal rather than a better citizen. So, they leave prison with few opportunities and may resort to a life of future crime.

Per Pierce and others, the solutions lie in education. The solutions lie in better after school programs.The solutions lie in providing opportunities. The solutions lie in better parental guidance. The solutions lie in better training of police officers to handle confrontations. The solutions lie in community based policing where the efforts are to reduce crimes through positive interaction. The solutions lie in better remedial sentencing where kids can be taught an education, skills and how to be good citizens. And so on. Racial injustice may have lessened, but it is alive and well in America. Anyone who thinks otherwise, needs to do some more homework or look to better sources of information.