I remember the term having a negative connotation when I was a young woman. The word equated to “troublemaker” or “undesirable.” I never wanted to be those things as I struggled to make my way in the world.
Now I understand that oftentimes being branded a troublemaker simply means speaking your mind. Funny how the context of words changes over time depending upon where we are in our life.
Not so funny is how our patriarchal society consistently throws shade on nonconforming females because women in every society have always had to struggle for—well, just about everything. Even though I tried to disavow the label, the truth is, I was born a feminist.
Last month I had the privilege of attending lectures by two of the most accomplished Feminists of our time: Gloria Steinem and Margaret Atwood. While Steinem has always been the face of Feminist culture, the loud in your face kind of activism that threatens and terrifies the male-dominated culture, Atwood’s literary career has been a more subtle Feminist path. Both are accomplished writers and activists, but while Steinem built her brand on activism and came to writing later, Atwood used her literary skills to deliver lasting messages. Together, these two powerhouse cultural and literary icons nourished my soul and spoke to my heart in ways I could not have anticipated.
I was struck by the similarity of messaging from both women. I expected Steinem to rage against misogyny and sexism. When she said, “The first step towards fascism is to legislate the uterus” I wasn’t surprised. Steinem has never been shy about using language to shock the country’s collective consciousness. The original bra-burning femi-Nazi cultivated that brazen image and turned it into a movement that shifted the landscape for women like never before.
Just like the civil rights movement, the backlash on equal rights for women was swift and severe. So severe that unlike the Civil Rights Act, Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has never won approval in enough states for constitutional ratification. (As of today we’re still two states short of the 38 votes needed for ratification.) Steinem remained a fixture in leading the fight for women’s rights, founding Ms. Magazine, which remains the only Feminist magazine still in print today. Steinem proudly told the crowd that Ms. has always focused on women-centric reporting and topics, to tell our stories and educate women in ways no mainstream publication would dare.
Margaret Atwood’s 1983 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is enjoying a resurgent popularity with the release of the Hulu original series based on her novel. She was quick to point out that they began production prior to the last election, however, the rise of sexist language and daily examples of conservative assaults on women’s reproductive and civil rights has made her novel a more prescient work than ever.
Atwood is equally riveting as a speaker. She addressed her status as a feminist leader by saying, “When we use the word Feminism, I always want to know: What do you mean by it? What are we talking about? Women’s rights are human rights, unless we’re saying women aren’t human. If we can be honest about what we’re talking about, then I’ll tell you if I’m a feminist.” I found her comments fascinating because lately, in the media there has been a tendency to construe her words as hedging on identifying as a feminist. I didn’t think that was her meaning at all. I took the point as a pushback against anti-feminists who attempt to dehumanize women.
I’ve had a few weeks now to process both lectures and mull these fabulous women’s messages over in my mind. Women and Words couldn’t be a more appropriate description. Both women spoke briefly and eloquently about their life’s work, but their most powerful message came as they opened the floor for comments and discussion. These fabulous, accomplished women made it clear that the real goal was empowering other women and raising the cause of Feminism as Humanism. Women on equal footing. Period.
Gloria Steinem repeatedly told young adults seeking advice, “You know many things I don’t. You have power within you far beyond mine.” Margaret Atwood challenged writers not to think of themselves as amateur or insignificant. Writing, as all the arts, is essential to our humanity. Storytelling gives meaning to our experiences. After all, she said, at the most emotional times in our lives—weddings, funerals, social gatherings—we don’t recite our bank statements.
We tell stories. Women’s stories. Lesbian stories. Feminist stories.
The power of women’s stories will change the world.
I’m old enough to remember when the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin L. King, Jr became law. In September, 1989, after a couple of years of debate and rejections, the Tampa City Council finally approved a measure to rename Buffalo Avenue as Dr. Martin L. King, Jr Drive. Controversy around the name change was fierce, but time has a way of blurring details and obscuring facts. As I perused a Google search this week, much of the explanations focused on objections from businesses and concerned citizens as to the cost of new street signs and business stationery.
Oh, but I remember those days.
In 1989-90, during my first year as a police officer, the debate raged. I distinctly recall how many of my colleagues stated emphatically their refusal to say Martin L. King. Many used it as a badge of honor, purposely putting themselves out on calls along the road just to say Buffalo with emphasis, and some dispatchers gave calls out in the same fashion. In contrast, African American officers and dispatchers said the name of the street with pride evident in their voices.
By 1992, I bought my first home in a suburb east of the city and I traveled sections of Martin L. King Jr. Blvd on my trip to and from work. Many residents east of the city limits continued to refer to the street as 574, the state route number, and for years it was commonplace to see the street signs vandalized or missing as I drove around. My friends with the sheriff’s office acknowledged that many in their agency used 574 instead of Martin L. King Jr Blvd.
Sometimes I heard the excuse that Buffalo or 574 is just shorter and easier to say, particularly on a police radio. Fair enough. But, other streets in the city have long names that were shortened for expediency, while maintaining the reference to the honoree. John F. Kennedy Blvd is a prime example. It’s commonly called Kennedy. Those of us who simply wanted a shortcut did almost immediately start calling Martin L. King Jr Blvd, MLK for short. That, at least, didn’t feel like a refusal to acknowledge the name.
Obviously, my co-workers didn’t have a financial beef with the street name change. It was defiance to the idea of honoring Dr. King—defiance to honoring a black civil rights leader. To my recollection, nobody in police leadership ever made it clear that Buffalo was unacceptable. The stark divide played out every shift and went on for years, fading eventually as most grew accustomed to the name, leaving only diehards still holding out, their bigotry refusing to yield. I wonder how that felt to my African American brothers and sisters in blue or to citizens of color who may have heard them.
When I hear people say that issues of race were settled long ago, that slavery and Jim Crow are ancient history, and they personally treat everyone equally, as a way of dismissing the frustrations of African American citizens, I think of the examples of subtle bigotry like the streets dedicated to our greatest civil rights leader. Acronyms with racial undertones for learning streets in public housing. Endless slurs directed at the President and First Lady with primate references. Ugly social media posts, unabashedly racist. These experiences are certainly not ancient history, nor are they uncommon. They are the realities of daily human interaction where bigotry lives if not refuted.
So, this year, in the wake of a contentious political season that openly challenged political correctness, ignored open shows of racist behavior, yanked the lid off a simmering anger by all sides who feel they are not being heard, I’m imploring us all to look inside. We can do better in addressing bias. More whites than blacks say that our government policies and laws treat both races equally, but once again reality casts doubt on the way race truly plays out, often in less obvious ways (at least to whites). Facts about the MLK holiday provide a useful example.
In 1983, President Reagan signed the MLK bill into law after 15 years of Dr. King’s supporters fighting for passage following his murder. Did you know the last state to fully ratify the King holiday was not until 1999? Again, not ancient history. If that’s not bad enough, the saddest facts of all are that four states, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, to this day, recognize the date in conjunction with Confederate heroes such as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. What does that say to African Americans in those states when the day is called Robert E. Lee/Martin L. King Day? Or to see the rise of white nationalists and hate crimes in the wake of this last election? Our fellow citizens of color must interpret our deafening silence and refusal to call it out as tacit support or at best, indifference.
Martin Luther King spoke extensively about moral justice. His was a movement of nonviolence, which also spoke truth to power in order to shine a light on injustices of race, social justice and poverty. His legacy has never been more important than in our current national discord and rupture along fault lines of party, class, race, or religion. Dr. King called us to live up to the ideals of our founders and strive to overcome our differences in the name of justice for all. We have opportunities each day to reject the small-minded slurs and hard hearts of bigotry if we summon the courage to stand up. Hate in any form has no place in our world. The change must first come from our hearts.
Everyday when I drove to and from work I cringed when I reached the apex of interstates 4 and 75 on the outskirts of Tampa. The reason for my reaction? A Confederate flag the size of a football field flying at that location. The day we moved, I was glad to know that I would never have to look at that again.
I’ve heard all the rationale and excuses. Heritage, Southern Pride, and whatever else people choose to explain the use of that flag, but for me it doesn’t fly. The flag has historically been used as a symbol of hate, no less than the swastika used by the Nazis. It’s no accident that the neo-Nazi’s continue to use that as their preferred symbol. Germany, unlike us, understands the power of such hateful symbols and long ago banned the use of the swastika. When symbols are so closely aligned with hate and massacre, they should be banned. The removal of such vile imagery should not cause any uproar.
So, why, after more than 150 years, do parts of our country continue to cling to the Confederate battle flag? It’s not a question I have an answer to because I really don’t get it. If somebody has a plausible explanation—no, not the BS “heritage” claim—I’d really like to hear it. What if it was a Taliban flag? An Isis flag? Would we be so accepting? We are so quick to judge the symbols of hate, genocide, and tyranny in other cultures—rightly so. But what about us? Are we saying that our home-grown symbols of hate are less offensive? Really? All of these symbols give inspiration and cover to those on the fringes who act out violently, because they are messages of legitimacy. We are all to blame for allowing it.
The fact that the United States Flag is flying at half staff over the South Carolina state house as a sign of grieving, while the Confederate battle flag arrogantly flaps at the top of its pole is a slap in our collective faces as citizens of this country. Have the common decency to take the offensive symbol down while your community grieves. Then commit to a real conversation and reckoning about what it really represents.
No. It is not heritage it is the symbol of hate. It represents taking up arms against our country to preserve some perceived “right” to hate. It represents the enslaving of Black people, and people willing to go to war to defend the institution of slavery. Read your history. Mississippi’s declaration of secession spelled it out in the second sentence: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” The flag is a symbol of this belief. It is not some benign “aw, shucks” symbol of harmless country folk. The Klan and other hate groups have always used that flag as a symbol of intolerance and violence. No amount of revisionist history to absolve the Confederacy can change any of this. It is a battle flag and the fight was rooted in oppression. Its continued presence in communities and even government buildings, sends a dark message that we have not overcome. The solution is simple. Remove the Confederate flag from all government buildings. Now.
“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” These are the famous words of former Alabama Governor George Wallace during his inaugural speech in 1963. On June 11th of that year, Wallace himself blocked a door to prevent African American students from registering at the University of Alabama. President Kennedy then sent federal troops to enforce federal law and the governor grudgingly stepped aside. Since 1963, Black students have attended the University of Alabama an every other school in the country along White students, and what do you know? The sky hasn’t fallen.
It’s worth looking back at those shameful events in US history because once again, Alabama is next up in our current generation’s civil rights fight. Full equality for LGBT citizens is on the line and gay marriage is the new hotly debated issue. Once again, a federal judge has issued a ruling for equality that is causing great consternation. District Judge Callie V.S. Grande issued a ruling that called the state’s prohibition against same sex marriage unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court declined to hear the case, thus allowing Judge Grande’s order to stand. Alabama would now start issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples, right? Not so fast.
Enter state supreme court Chief Justice Roy S. Moore. Justice Moore issued an order to Alabama’s probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. Apparently, Justice Moore believes that the state of Alabama has no obligation to follow the order of a federal judge. In response, some of the state’s probate judges have decided to simply stop issuing any marriage licenses. Talk about acting like petulant children rather than supposedly highly educated legal minds. Their actions scream, “If I can’t keep gays from marrying, then nobody is getting married!”
Even George Wallace didn’t decide to just close all the schools in Alabama if he had to let Black students in. The states rights crowd loves to use this anti-federal government rallying cry whenever they find a law they think offends their religious sensibilities (read bigotry). Justice Moore states emphatically that judges need not enforce laws that violate the state constitution or state law. Unfortunately, they need reminded time and again about United States law. See, our founding fathers totally understood that there would be disagreements and squabbles from time to time between states, so they told us how to handle that. Article VI of the US Constitution, the Supremacy Clause, dictates that federal law is the “supreme law of the land”. This means, sir, that when laws conflict, federal trumps state, meaning the federal judge outranks you, dude.
As much as I’d love to see National Guard troops standing at the door of an Alabama courthouse enforcing the rights of same-sex couples, it looks like that won’t be necessary. Thankfully, there are judges in the state who understand the US Constitution, and have begun issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. Kudos to those wise justices who have decided to be on the right side of history. As for Chief Justice Moore, the people of Alabama have shown him the door before, and should do so again at the ballot box. I don’t think the citizens of Alabama want their state to be seen as the symbol of bigotry yet again. Maybe someone will write a song supporting tolerance this time. Something like: I hope Judge Moore will remember, fair-minded folks don’t need him around anyhow.
The tragic train wreck on the NY Metro-North made me shake my head because, as many of my former public safety peers well know, it was totally avoidable. It brought to mind all the countless tragedies I witnessed throughout my police career. The most frustrating of all were the traffic fatalities because of the senselessness. Some of the crashes (we stopped calling them “accidents” years ago) were no doubt caused by straight up human error, what we’d call a mental lapse. However, the vast majority are different. They are caused by human selfishness in the form of impatience, such as running a red light or criminal behavior, like driving under the influence.
One of the most despised law enforcement duties is issuing traffic citations. I think that is the task that keeps the public from loving cops the way they do firefighters. Both voluntarily work in dangerous conditions, risking personal safety for the public good, but firemen don’t also occasionally write you a ticket. Police officers sometimes hate this part of the job, too, because they’re working stiffs just like you, and recognize the financial burden a $100+ ticket will place upon that driver. Really. Cops do think about that.
Lately, much public debate has centered on the “small” or “frivolous” types of law enforcement action, like traffic stops. People feel picked on or that the cops are unnecessarily targeting them. Every cop alive has heard “Why don’t you go arrest a criminal?” on too many traffic stops to count. Well, here’s the answer: It’s not about writing tickets, it’s about saving lives. We all hate it when we get stopped, but let’s be honest, we also love seeing the jerk who’s been tailgating, speeding, weaving erratically get stopped. Right? We brand everyone who flies past us and does these things maniacs, while any person going slower is an idiot. Sound familiar?
Let’s be honest, if it were possible to allow people to make their own decisions about how to drive, we would. But it is absolutely not possible. Our own selfishness prevents that. Our egocentric attitudes are what make us run red lights, block intersections, shatter speed limits, and violate the railroad crossing warnings. According to the National Safety Council, 35,200 people died in motor vehicle accidents last year, and a staggering 3.8 million suffered injuries requiring medical attention. About 1000 traffic deaths each year are due to red light violations. Crashes involving passenger cars and trains have declined in recent years, but still cause an average of around 250 deaths a year. Statistically, about half of the deaths are innocent drivers in other cars, or in the latest NY train case, three innocent people killed and many others badly injured. That’s why cops write tickets. To prevent these tragedies. Sadly, it seems that news footage of carnage doesn’t get the public’s attention as much as shelling out a couple hundred bucks for a ticket. So be it. Responding to horrific crashes for so many years has made me only sympathetic to the innocents in the other vehicle, not the at-fault driver.
It’s up to each of us to make better decisions while operating our cars on the road. Yeah, we have a lot of rules governing how we drive and that’s because we’ve collectively shown we need boundaries. New railroad crossings and safer roads can only do so much. You have to do the rest. Stop trying to blame the short light cycle at the intersection or that the railroad crossing is defective. They’re not. Starting tomorrow, give yourself and others a break, leave earlier, obey the rules of the road, and if you have to sit at the railroad crossing or red light, just chill the heck out. It’s not the end of the world. You’ll find that your commute is less stressful, you won’t get a ticket, and most importantly, you’ll arrive in one piece.
Politicians violate their vows of public trust and then sob in front of the camera, preachers molest children and wail about sin and sorrow, criminals prey on victims in the most violent ways, then cry for their mommy’s when handcuffed, sports figures and celebrities act out and then blame their fame for the transgression, and fanatics commit atrocities in the name of religious beliefs. Journalists struggle to write columns, pundits rage, but no one can skewer the elite, illuminate our darkest behaviors, or touch a nerve like the political cartoonist.
With a dose of genius wit, these mental giants wield writing instruments that sharply define issues and make us laugh or cringe, but always they make us think. Paris is in mourning for the victims of this latest act of brutality, and the rest of the free world stands in solidarity. Once again, a stark reminder of the real war we are waging against radical religious zealots. The most dangerous happen to be Islamic at the present. Their biggest fear is a woman with a book or a journalist with a typewriter, or a cartoonist’s pen. When your position is so weak that you cannot allow free ideas, your ideology is doomed and desperation takes hold. That is why Paris stands with signs reading “Not Afraid” and we must stand with them. Without free thought, we are all to be conquered and fascism will overrun more victims.
In the end, we should consider the power of a little cartoon. My hope is that all individuals on the side of free thought will understand the importance of these moments. We cannot waver or surrender, coddle those who would shut down creativity under the guise of some disgusting perversion of a religion. Any religion. And those who wish to practice their faith peacefully: You must understand the responsibility you hold. Silence equals tacit approval. Ideas and free thought are the lifeblood of humanity. Join us in celebrating the power of the pen, which has always been mightier than the sword.
I had a talk recently with a good friend that weighs heavily on me. My friend is a cop. She is honest, dedicated, and brave. So, when she told me that the current climate of ant-law enforcement has her wondering about her career, I was stunned. I wondered how many other really good cops are so beaten down by today’s messages—and yes, hateful climate—that they are second-guessing the job they’ve been called to do. That makes my heart hurt.
I want to have honest conversations, but we can’t until we regain a bit of balance. The rhetoric has reached such a fever pitch that it seems impossible for reasoned dialogue right now. The police-are-evil bandwagon is going to run over us all if we’re not careful. Those of you blindly forwarding inflammatory posts by so-called journalists who have their facts wrong, or quoting so-called witnesses that flat out lie are throwing gasoline on the fire. And it has to stop. I’m sick of hearing the cop bashing without considering all sides. How is it that we cannot see that judging an officer by virtue of his profession is no different than judging citizens by skin color? How is tearing at the fabric of legitimate policing beneficial to our community? For those in law enforcement: How can you not see that purging our bad apples is one way to regain some community support? We must be willing to listen to different perspectives if we are ever going to make any difference.
Here’s what I know after 25 years of policing. For every cop who does something wrong, there are thousands who are doing good. For every arrestee who is shot, there are hundreds of thousands who are arrested without incident, even after some attempt to injure or kill the arresting officers. Recently, I’ve read many articles making light of the threats officers face in their daily work. We hear about one officer shot on a traffic stop, but not the thousands of other daily incidents where officers are attacked and thankfully survive due to their training or better equipment. In 2013, FBI statistics show 49,851 officers were assaulted on duty. Imagine that you might be randomly attacked physically or with some weapon every time you step out of your car or knock on your neighbor’s door. How might you respond to the world differently if that was a constant possibility?
People are outraged when police officers shoot a person—especially a child—who is armed with a toy gun. Killing a person is not easy for a cop, and shooting a child is horrific. Let’s set that record straight. It is tragic. No cop is celebrating. But instead of piling on the critique in your holier-than-thou fashion from your living room couch, let’s talk about why even the most basic, common sense laws can’t be passed that might help prevent such a tragedy. By illustrating the reality, maybe you can see what an officer is up against.
Quick! If someone points one of these at you, tell me inside of 5 seconds, in the dark, under stress. Which one is real? Impossible to tell. What do you do? No citizen, not even a cop, is required to wait until the lead flies out of the muzzle before defending themselves. No one.
Today, Congress finally passed a piece of legislation. A bill requiring that all law enforcement agencies catalog police shootings. My former department already does, but a standardized national system would be good. But listen folks, a database isn’t going to address the real issues. Most police agencies put cops in the areas of statistically higher crime. That, unfortunately, is currently in the poorer neighborhoods, which also unfortunately have higher populations of people of color. THAT is what puts police into contact with higher numbers of minorities. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 31.4 million citizens called for police service in 2011. They go where they are called. But it’s far easier to bash the police and pass a bullshit bill, than to tackle meaningful gun legislation or to work on real ideas to reduce poverty or crime in poor neighborhoods.
Most people don’t interact with the police unless something has gone terribly wrong in their lives, and officers carry the weight of witnessing the horrific things that humans do to one another. I still get choked up when I think about the little girl who was beaten for twenty minutes straight by her mother’s boyfriend because she cried when he tried to shove a cookie in her mouth. I still see the man shot in the head at a robbery where the suspect got fifteen dollars. I recall the child I pulled from the river and gave CPR until I handed him over to paramedics. I cried when I learned he died at the ER. I’ve watched my fellow officers’ blood pool on the street and attended the funeral of too many friends, black and white wearing blue. Officers have these kinds of memories and many worse. Those invisible wounds never heal. Still, when someone is kicking in your door, stealing your purse, or robbing your bank, and you duck behind the counter to dial 9-1-1, the police officer runs forward, toward the threat. Be thankful they do.
There are endless reports detailing the economic disparities that exist between White and Black Americans. Cops don’t need reports to know this. They work in the most challenged neighborhoods of every city in this country. Ask a street cop about the link between poverty and crime and they’ll tell you: “If a person feels no hope, they have no self-respect. If they can’t respect themselves, then how can we expect them to respect the police or anyone else?” The citizens in those neighborhoods know they need the police. In fact, those neighborhoods generally represent the vast majority of the calls for police service. A citizen calls about a group of kids hanging on a specific corner, which they know frequently escalates into violence, and the zone officer responds. Once the officer arrives, the details related by that citizen caller, combined with the actions of the individuals he’s approaching is what dictates his/her response. If the caller has mentioned anything about violence or weapons, certainly the officer will take steps to lessen the threat to himself and others around him. Wouldn’t you?
NY mayor DeBlasio jumped on the bandwagon to speak about how he worries that his own biracial son might become victimized in a conflict with a cop. I’ve spoken to friends about my own biracial nephew, and my fears. My fears are that some out of control neighborhood vigilante like George Zimmerman might stalk and harm him, or that an over-zealous store security person will target him, but do I fear his contact with real, professional police? No. And do you know why? Because the real statistics tell us that only 1% of police interactions involve uses of force and 92% of all force used is not excessive. Perceptions are very different, mostly due to biases. Questionable statistics that combine shootings of black males with “armed vigilantes” and security guards, equating them with professional police officers, is both dangerously incendiary and offensive to police officers. My sister and her black husband don’t tell their son that the police are his enemy and will mistreat him just because of his skin color. I know lots of people aren’t going to like that assessment, but if you’re going to say police training makes them predisposed to racial fears and biases, then you also have to acknowledge what happens when young black children are told from day one that the police will harm them. Both of these examples of perpetuating bias factor equally into the sad state of affairs today. The anti-police rhetoric, made worse by public officials condemning “the police” in tragically sweeping terms, have kept the anger bubbling, and now college professors are hurling rocks and garbage at police officers doing nothing but escorting peaceful protesters. We’ve officially spun out of control folks.
So, please, instead of throwing stones at the profession, remember that the police are human, just like you. If one does wrong, then they should face the consequences. No question. I am open to discussions about specific reforms or improvements in community relations. Bring on the bodycams. I believe they will prove the vast majority of cops are doing a great job. But I can’t abide the continued irresponsible rhetoric. Just like most of folks in minority neighborhoods are good, hardworking folks, the majority of cops who wear the uniform are good people who do their job with honorable intent. Let’s take a breath and have an adult conversation instead of hurling insults and twisting statistics.
I thank every man and woman who still dons a uniform to serve their community, even while the storm of hatred swirls around them. Continue to do good. Know that you are needed in these times of unrest and mistrust. Your example shines as a beacon of hope to citizens everywhere. Our most vulnerable, law-abiding citizens want you in their neighborhoods. Do we really want the good cops to leave because they fear there is no longer support for the dangerous and difficult work they do? Let’s stop this harmful rhetoric before it’s too late. The absence of professional policing is something none of us should want to contemplate.