Born This Way

We went to see Lady Gaga at Fenway Park last night, a spur-of-the-moment decision back in February. Y’all, Gaga is a powerhouse performer, all strange angles and motion and a huge non-stop voice, every song stunningly produced to keep thirty thousand people joyfully on their feet for hours. There’s a lot of drag in her costume and a lot of vogue in her dancing and a lot of personas, and she constantly seems a bit alienated from herself. I don’t mean that as a critique. She has no banter and no jokes and most of her lines between songs are actually song lyrics. And yet even as I reflected on how odd the transitions sounded, we were all up and dancing. She moved us, literally, all thirty-odd thousand of us.

And how can I express the deafening roar when she asked the crowd “How many of you are part of the LGBTQ community?” How many people screamed, not part of the crowd but shrieking their own selves personally to her, when we heard the opening chords of Born This Way?

There was a moment, towards the end of the show, where I felt and regretted a kind of superficiality of her message, a kind of “ey, love is love, we’re good” approach. And then the show finished, and I waited outside the women’s room for Violet, watching:

a lot of 65-year-old Italian women with their daughters lining up with:
punk young East Asian women in heels and:
a couple persons in drag and:
women in summer dresses whose faces strongly coded male and:
glitter spread liberally across every demographic,

all moving through the women’s bathroom at Fenway Park together, effortlessly, unconcerned, in perfect community.

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How I totally rocked a bystander intervention to stop a drunk white man from goading a young black man into a fight on the subway, and how you can too

Wednesday night I went to a play with my dad and my sister and then I took the train home and between Central and Davis I totally used my bystander intervention training to stop an older drunk white man from provoking a young black man into a fight. I’m going to tell you how.

If you wish you could be effective in a similar situation; or if you want to do something to thank me; please sign up now, NOW, for a bystander intervention class. Most are organized around sexual assault. That’s fine. If you want to help communities who’ve educated me, you could also donate to BLM Cambridge, or your local BLM, or the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. https://www.youcaring.com/themarshapjohnsoninstitute-767071

First of all, I’ve been preparing myself for this. I’ve been thinking a lot in the last couple of years about intervention; about intervening when the police are involved; about filming the police and knowing what my legal rights around. I’ve increasingly learned about the importance of trying to defuse situations before the police are called, and about the danger to people of color when white community members feel comfortable calling the police for any problem. I’ve also thought and learned quite a bit about intervening in street harassment and the general Creepy Dude problem. A month or two ago I took a bystander intervention program (shout-out to JVP and BARCC). Although I didn’t consciously think about it at the time, everything I did was supported by this work. I’ll reference the “Four Ds” framework they gave us: Delay, Distract, Delegate, Direct.

I also spend a surprising amount of my work life in touchy interactions with people who feel hard-done-by and don’t want to do what I want, even when all I want is to make their lives better. This was unexpectedly super-helpful in the moment.

What happened: I was playing Best Fiends on my phone and I noticed an altercation going on down at the end of the train car. I looked up and saw two men, an older white man (later it became clear that he was incredibly drunk) and a young black man, maybe high school or college-aged, right up in each other’s faces, shouting. What I thought was this: if that young man throws a punch, he could suffer terribly. I got up and walked a little closer and kept watching.

This is step one. Observe, assess, find out what’s happening, check if it’s going to be dangerous to intervene. A key principle of bystander intervention is to STAY SAFE. I saw: two men who weren’t actually hitting each other; many people around who looked tense and concerned but not scared for themselves; a lot of open space; a quiet murmur of “Guys, you don’t have to do this” from a number of people. A white woman near me was saying over and over, “Guys, please, you don’t have to do this, please stop.” There were also at least half a dozen black passengers, including an older black man I recognized as a Spare Change seller, and several younger black men, looking really tense and concerned, some of them also urging the two participants to stand down. The situation was clearly volatile but, in my assessment, not to ME.

Step two: “Delay” technique. This means observe, watch, wait, stay in the situation and decided what to do. This step can also involve making your presence known, visibly observing, but without contact. I moved closer and recognized the young man from a previous stop. He had cut his hand and a white woman had offered him a couple of Band-aids and he’d taken them and wearily thanked her. I also saw that the older white man was goading him in a super condescending and aggressive way, and the young black man at the end of a shitty day just couldn’t take it. He was wearing a backpack and several times threw it on the ground in preparation for fighting and I couldn’t help coding him as a high school student, though he might have been older.

I joined the chorus, gently saying “Hey man, you don’t need to do this—please don’t do this—please stop.“ The young black man was yelling at the drunk guy “You fuckin’ white people” so I decided to focus on the white guy. I made eye contact with him—he was facing me over the young man’s shoulder—and kept saying the same thing. After a while I started saying to him, “Hey man, you’re an adult, you don’t need to do this, you can let this go.” I would call this a combination of “Direct” which is just direct action, telling him to stop engaging, and “Distract” because if he was complaining to me, he wasn’t taunting the young man.

I also looked specifically at the other passengers to make sure they were still engaged. They sure were. The black passengers, mostly or all men, clearly felt like their intervention would escalate things. I was very aware that as an older, middle class white woman I was both non-threatening and protected. I also looked at the other white women and we made eye contact and it was clear we were both going to keep working on it. This is “Delegate” which just means get help, mobilize or recruit other people.

All of these people were essential to the success of this intervention. I can’t emphasize that enough. If you are wondering what you could have done to help, BE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE. The people watching and murmuring; the other woman making it clear she had my back, and then putting her foot in the door so the train couldn’t leave.

The young man stormed off to the other end of the train at one point but the drunk white guy starting yelling at him and taunting him. I was so pissed off. I started saying, “Come on, man, cut it out! Let it go!” He focused on me and I moved up closer to him and started talking directly to him, “Hey man, it’s cool, you can walk away, you’re the grown-up, you don’t need to do this.” I also switched to calling him “Sir.” “Sir, come on, let him walk away, leave him alone.” In retrospect, the main thing I’d change is that when the kid was out of the frame, I wish I’d just changed the subject. “Hey man, what’s the problem, can I help, how are you doing, what’s going on,” blah blah.

The kid kept coming back to re-engage and I was really hoping he’d get off at the next stop but he didn’t. At some point in here a line came to me clearly from an essay I’d read a while ago, by a black man who’d been pulled over by the cops, and seeing a black woman watching, and mentally saying to her, “Sister, don’t leave.” Right then, and this was honestly the most important part, I decided to stay on the train until it was resolved. (This involved, at most, riding one extra stop to the end of the line and then waiting for the train to turn around. We’re talking a 5-10 minute investment.)

Older white guy kept telling me about how he knew how to take care of this kind of thing, he’d been in the military etc, he’d “done psychology” and he knew all about it and I shouldn’t try it on him. I had gotten much closer to him to block his view of the young man, who’d gone to the other end of the car. I could smell the booze on him. I realized that if I just stood them and listened to him, we could last for a long time. I started responding to these statements by looking interested and sympathetic and saying “Oh yeah? Really?” He told me he’d been in the first Iraq war and I said that sounded rough. Then he told me that the young man was getting blood all over the train [there were maybe a couple smears on a pole] and that was clearly the trigger for him. He appealed to me to be on his side about this. I said I would call an MBTA worker to clean it up. In a very bizarre twist, he said to me, in a rambly disconnected drunken lurching way:

“But that shouldn’t be YOUR JOB! Just like it’s not your job to be here! And now you’re going to coach me? You’re here and you’re gonna coach me? Which—aha!!—you DID. All right. All right.” And then he offered me a goddamn fist-bump. Which I reciprocated in just the most tentative way you can imagine.

At this point we’d been at the station for a long time and I didn’t know why we weren’t leaving, but I was glad because it was my stop and I was really hoping to run out the clock.  The other white woman, bless her, got off the train and asked the conductor for help, and after getting the brush-off she just fucking stood in the doorway so the door couldn’t close. And eventually, EVENTUALLY, around the time the station personnel arrived, the white dude left and staggered his way up the escalator.

(The station people were like “YOU CAN’T PUT YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR” and the other woman was like “WE NEEDED SOME HELP DOWN HERE,” just fabulously DGAF. They told her to push the emergency button. She said “Well I didn’t know that.” And I! using my student and faculty management skills! said “Thank you for telling us that, I appreciate it, what should we do in this situation?” and they literally got bored and one of them walked away and the other one started asking what had happened.)

A ton of people were on the platform watching, and they asked if the other white woman and I were okay, and we said of course. A pair of people—I think a white woman and an Indian or generally South Asian man—asked me what had happened and I explained that a drunk white man had been taunting a young black man and trying to pick a fight, and I was really worried that if anything happened the young man would be in danger from the police. I saw their faces change and they thanked me very earnestly.

Then the other white woman and I thanked each other and I IMMEDIATELY posted on Facebook and then I went home.

If you are thinking now that you wish you could be effective in a similar situation; or if you want to do something to thank me; please sign up now, NOW, for a bystander intervention class. Most are organized around sexual assault. That’s fine. You could also donate to BLM Cambridge, or your local BLM, or the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. https://www.youcaring.com/themarshapjohnsoninstitute-767071

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We are right to protest, and when we fight, we win.

This glorious post, Drop Apocalyptic Thinking and Get in the Streets: On White/Male Voices Stifling Resistance, inspired me to think about how I keep from despair.

Almost immediately after the election, I pulled out my old collections of the Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip. Remember the 80s and early 90s? Remember the AIDS crisis? Remember those tapes of Reagan laughing about it? Remember the Iraq war? I cannot even express how profound it was, to see these reminders, these glimpses of a life filled with resistance and fear and joy and celebration and protest and love and chaining yourself to buildings and communal dinners.

What is happening right now in the new administration is unprecedented in some ways. But my dears, resistance has infinite precedent, and so does joy, and so does love. I urge you, I beg you not to despair. This moment is a rupture, but to win and to survive we need to integrate our resistance into our lives. Protest must not be something that takes us away from the life we meant to live–it must become in fact a nourishing, sustaining part of our daily experience.

We fill the streets not because we expect our shouts to magically transubstantiate into legislation, but because our hearts are broken and we cannot sit still; because we need to feel the resonance of a crowd shouting, in our feet and in our chest; because silence equals death; because we will not allow powerful institutions to speak for us and to represent us to the world; because our faces shine to one another; because we are not alone. We are right to protest, and when we fight, we win.

From the article linked above:

“Marginalized groups, through their lived experiences, recognize the long-standing brokenness of things in society and, alongside it, the need to build constructive ideas for action. They know that there is no viable alternative. White people, especially white men, have always operated under the illusion of being able to depend on institutions. So when those institutions are bad, the world is over. People of color never had the luxury of trusting institutions. In fact, as Dawn Phillips of Causa Justa Just Cause says about people of color and vulnerable populations:

“We have always resisted. Resisted the lies of the two-party electoral game. Resisted police beatings and murders. Resisted environmental degradation and the evils of corporate polluters. Resisted male violence and transphobia. Resisted the rich bosses and landlords who own the airwaves and politicians. Resistance is our legacy. Resistance is our duty. We have resisted a long time. We will continue to resist.””

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How to host a postcard-writing party

I feel like it’s been a thousand years since that ACLU training session. Apparently 29 days is now a thousand years. I’ve been out at protests and rallies every weekend since the inauguration and I’m thinking about buying a huge pack of chemical hand-warmers. However, I also hosted a postcard-writing party and it was pretty great.

IMPROVEMENTS: It would have been GREAT to have a list of key issues, legislative bills, etc, and who we should write to about those issues. I didn’t have a chance to do that but I will next time. Also, everyone brought cookies and coffeecake and so on, so if you have that kind of people, don’t buy cookies. I wish I had known this. I have a LOT of cookies right now.

My inspiration was a pair of postcards sitting on my table unwritten for a week. Which is ironic because I didn’t get a chance to write them during my party, either. Like every other major event in Boston this month, way more people showed up than I expected. It was a very warm, sustaining, communal event. I had people from work, college friends, local friends, kindergarten friends, family members, etc. Everyone was delighted to meet everyone else. (I had name tags too.) Afterward everyone kept saying: “Thank you SO MUCH for doing this, I feel better.” It was restorative for me too.

Here’s what I did: I provided coffee, tea, snacks, and a lot of postcards. I kept them all and I’ll stamp and mail them. Many of my guests brought their own, too: some tourist cards, some notecards with the backs torn off, some pre-printed with slogans or information. One guest brought a bunch of pre-printed address labels which were great–although it’s probably more effective to hand-write the addresses. If anyone has trouble/pain writing by hand, this would be a great resource. Many people really enjoyed selecting postcards with specific images. You can get these printed easily and cheaply at Staples, Kinkos, etc. You can just print four images on a regular sheet of cardstock (I used 100 weight white) and quarter them.

A friend shared this set of documents that can be printed as fronts and backs. I chose the heart-made-of-tiny-people (“collaborate in love”) and “Everyone is Welcome Here”, and also a set with the Women’s March logo. I printed them at my university copy center and the customer behind me was also picking up a set of similar postcards. One guest also brought a hundred pre-stamped postcards from 1988 with 15 cents of postage on them! I bought 21 cent stamps to make up the difference. This will probably not happen to any of you.

Some people just wanted to express themselves. Some people wanted community. We wrote a lot of thank-you notes to our reps, because in my area our reps are pretty well on board. If you have the information, it’s great to thank them for specific actions. “Thank you for your affirmation of Somerville as a sanctuary city.” “Thank you for supporting the ACLU Freedom Agenda.” “Thank you for supporting the Safe Communities Act and I hope you are also supporting the Fundamental Freedoms Act.” Or, ask for specific things. “It’s time to take a stand and declare MA a sanctuary state. It’s what your constituents want!” You could also write solidarity messages to local mosques, queer organizations, immigrant groups, your local BLM or NAACP, etc. I didn’t get that info but I want to do it next time.

I spent some time looking up extra addresses for people. I also suggested wording; it didn’t take much. (For instance, my mom asked what to say to our local mosque and after some thought I settled on “Dear neighbors” and then it all clicked into place.)

A bit more preparation could have made it run a lot more smoothly, but we did manage to write a few postcards though. Some people thoughtfully, reflectively wrote four or five; some whipped through fifteen. In the end, we produced 140 postcards and a feeling that we might be okay. I recommend it.

Version 2

 

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Civil rights advocacy at the state level

Last weekend I attended an ACLU training event on state-level civil rights legislation in Massachusetts. The line I found most inspiring, oddly, was: “Advocacy isn’t difficult or tricky. It’s about being persistent, strategic, and thoughtful.” We can do that, y’all.

First, go to http://wheredoivotema.com/bal/MyElectionInfo.aspx and find out everything about all your reps. This post discusses the STATE legislator so look for your STATE senator and rep. (But you should find out who your federal rep is too. Your senators are Warren and Markey.)

The ACLU of Massachusetts sets priorities at the state level, called the “Freedom Agenda.” This training addressed five key bills currently in development for the 2017-2018 legislative session. Before January 20th, the language of these bills will be finalized and lead sponsors will be identified. The lead sponsor files the bill.

**BETWEEN JANUARY 20th AND FEBRUARY 3rd, our task is to CALL OUR REPRESENTATIVES–in MA this can be senators AND reps, since most committees are joint–and ask them to cosponsor a bill.** This is a two-week window after which we have a much longer process to get through hearings and potentially to the floor. When the bills are filed, I will get information about each bill and its name, docket number, and lead sponsor. We’ll start calling then.

The five bills address: 1. Electronic privacy (requiring a warrant to get information from e.g. your cell phone provider); 2. Anti-Registration Act (forbidding MA from participating in any identity-based registration system); 3. Automatic voter registration; 4. Contraceptive Access Act (ensuring that even if we lose ACA, insurance plans will cover contraception); and 5. Broad criminal justice reform. For me personally, the anti-registration act (aka “the Not This Time Motherfuckers Act”) and automatic voter registration are top priority. All of them are deeply valuable and important.

Because the MA legislative session is a whopping two years long, things slow down a lot after Feb 3rd. At that time, a clerk (! I didn’t know this!) chooses a committee or committee to refer it to. Committees are drawn from both parties but typically (maybe always) chaired by a member of the majority party. Surprisingly, bills are passed out of committee based on the decision of the chair–it’s not a vote. The FIRST committee hearing must occur by March of 2018. That’s a year out. So, that’s a long slow process.

(Fun fact: the NH legislative session is only six months long. This may be because NH legislators aren’t paid. !!!)

If the bill is passed out of all its committees, it goes to the Ways And Means committee, which I believe looks at money stuff. It then goes to the floor of whichever chamber originated the bill (e.g. a House bill goes to the floor of the House) and then, if it passes (?), to the floor of the other chamber. I believe it then goes to the governor.

Our tools during that time frame include: attending and speaking at a hearing; writing a letter to the editor in your local newspaper; organizing friends and neighbors to attend an in-district meeting; attending town halls; etc.

When we get the info about those five bills, I’ll post more about how to call your rep!

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“SING” takes on the music industry

This morning we took V. and a friend to SING! I’d heard iffy reviews but in fact it’s a brutal exposé of the sexism and racism of the music industry. SING! traces the careers of several women including a brilliant self-taught engineer (Rosita); a flamboyant gay man (Gunther); and a low-income POC immigrant (Johnny) who’s depicted in conventional anti-black racist imagery. As these spectacular singers develop and come into their own, they’re ridiculed, dismissed, sabotaged and exploited by the men in their lives and in the industry. An uncredited quartet of Japanese female pop stars round out the ensemble of disrespected musicians who nevertheless are asked to save the day. 

What should be a tale of their triumphant rise to well-earned stardom instead becomes a tragedy in which their (unpaid!) performances fuel the usual tedious rise of a talentless white man (the obviously named “Moon”) who feels entitled to a producer’s career just because he really wants it and his father (!) worked hard for it. In one of the most haunting scenes of the film, Moon returns to the working-class job at which his father spent his whole life, visibly disgusted by the car-washing labor he claims to value and honor. The movie ends with Moon, the recipient of an enormous gift from a wealthy grand dame of the stage, desperately pulling the camera towards himself as the true stars are shoved to the side of the screen. Kudos to ILLUMINATION for this brave, honest depiction of oppression packaged as a kid’s movie.

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Turing test

Folks, I need to tell you about an amazing customer service call yesterday. I was trying to find out why my insurance wouldn’t pay for a refill of something, and the customer service rep was so slow, and had a weird accent that I couldn’t quite manage, and she was obviously reading from a script the whole time, and her timing was all off. She’d say, “Can I ask you for your address?” and I’d start to say, “Sure, it’s–” and she’d talk over me saying, “Thank you for that, Jessie.” And then I’d have to start again. It was so annoying. She said she’d have to call me back after she talked to the pharmacy rep, and she did, and when I talked to her for the second time I realized

SHE
WAS
A
ROBOT

Her accent was the distortion of an imperfect computer-generated voice. Once I heard it I couldn’t un-hear it. That’s why she didn’t seem to remember anything from the previous call, asked me the same questions, said everything the exact same way, etc. OMG. I talked to a robot, y’all, and I didn’t know it.

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