The US and the First Nations

2020 has magnified long-standing structural racism in the United States. This has been most visible in regards to black Americans, as the legacy of slavery, violence, and repression over centuries have led to lower wealth and income, poorer health outcomes and access to care, higher levels of police brutality, and other injustices, now brought more strongly into the national spotlight by the pandemic, the killings of unarmed black men and women by police, the #BlackLivesMatter marches, and the removal of Confederate symbols.

There is hope that the United States is finally undergoing the kind of systemic and social change that will address the grievous wrongs against black people. I also hope that our country will acknowledge and redress the wrongs against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, who have suffered many centuries of oppression, violence, theft, and dehumanization at the hands of the United States government and society.

[A note on language: Generally, if I were referring to an individual, I would identify them by the tribe/nation to which they belonged. In this post, which is about all the indigenous peoples, I have decided to use the term “First Nations” even though it is more often used in Canada than in the United States. I hope that this term conveys the respect I intend.]

The First Nations have suffered many, many losses since the arrival of Europeans, from disease, violence, forced dislocation, theft, broken treaties, environmental degradation, attacks on language and culture, and more. People of the First Nations who live on reservations have high rates of poverty and chronic disease and sometimes lack access to running water, electricity, appropriate medical care, and educational and employment opportunities. There are also terrible problems with legal protection that have led to an alarming rate of murder or disappearance of women and girls.

This year has brought attention to the plight of the First Nations in two ways. First, COVID has afflicted some of the reservations very badly, as one might expect among communities that were already struggling. The Diné and Hopi Nations in the Southwest have some of the highest infection rates in the United States. Second, the public debate on removing statues of Confederate figures and/or slaveholders has broadened to consider those involved with oppression of the First Nations. This was heightened further by the president’s July 3rd speech and fireworks at Mount Rushmore. The monument there desecrates a site holy to the Lakota, who, by treaty, should have sovereignty in the Black Hills.

I hope that this greater awareness will result in concrete action to redress the centuries of damage done to the peoples of the First Nations. 2020 is increasingly appearing to be an inflection point in United States – and, perhaps, world – history. May the United States finally embody its highest ideals of equality, justice, and promotion of the common good.

A quiet Fourth

Yesterday was celebrated as Independence Day in the United States. We usually just call it the Fourth of July, which it is, of course, everywhere in the world.

Celebrations this year were muted by the ongoing COVID catastrophe. While we still have the virus pretty well controlled where I live in the Northeast US, much of the rest of the country is experiencing a rapid spread which is threatening to overwhelm the health care system. Many states in the South and West are breaking their records for new cases daily and some are belatedly issuing mandatory use of masks in public and closing bars, indoor restaurants, and beaches, in hopes of reducing their infection rates.

It breaks my heart to see the level of suffering, knowing that much of it could have been avoided if leaders and the public understood and respected what the public health experts have been telling us. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Stay six feet away from people who don’t live in your household. Avoid gatherings. Stay at home except for essential work and errands.

The advice works! We proved it in New York State and other states in the Northeast. This is also how most of the other countries that have gotten their transmission rate to low levels did it.

On Independence Day, the United States commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that all are equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some of the people who won’t wear masks say doing so is an affront to their liberty, but liberty is not a license to abandon responsibility. I recently saw a political cartoon by Dave Whamond where a man was declaring his right to drive his car in the opposite direction on the highway. (It didn’t end well.) No person’s “liberty” should be allowed to interfere with someone else’s rights.

The Declaration of Independence ends, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” It was clear that the document was not about something so small as personal desire or preference or grievance.

We each bear a responsibility to others.

Don’t drive the wrong way down the highway.

Wear a mask.

unprecedented

For decades, public opinion polls in the United States have asked how satisfied people are with the way things are going in the country, which is often referred to often as the country being on the right or wrong track. A Pew Research Center poll released on June 30th reveals that only 12% of respondents are satisfied with the direction of the country.

Twelve percent is a shockingly low number, but the number today could be even lower, given that the poll was conducted before the revelations about Russia paying bounties for the deaths of United States and coalition troops in Afghanistan, before the daily national number of new positive COVID tests reached 50,000+, and before 38 of 50 states reported rising numbers of cases on a 14-day rolling average.

The COVID numbers are going to get worse in the coming days because the seven-day rolling averages are already worse and because there are likely large numbers of people who are positive but not yet showing symptoms or being tested.

The rise in COVID cases is all the more upsetting because much of this precipitous spread was avoidable. I have written often, for example here, about the battle against the pandemic in New York State, where I live in its Southern Tier region. By following the science and metrics, our state went from having the worst infection rate in the country to the lowest. Mask-wearing, physical distancing, travel restrictions, and enhanced sanitation are part of daily life for nearly all people here. New York, which suffered the first wave of COVID cases coming in undetected from Europe, pioneered many ways to crush the coronavirus curve and keep infection rates low through robust testing, contact tracking and quarantine. It breaks my heart that other states and the country as a whole are not following a similar path to protect their residents and visitors. Governor Cuomo’s office has been in contact with governors’ offices around the country, offering assistance in fighting the virus, but it seems that few are willing to put the lessons we learned into practice in their states.

While we continue to methodically re-open different types of businesses and increase the size of (reasonable and still distanced) gatherings allowed, we keep constant watch on our testing numbers, ready to change plans immediately if the number of positive tests starts to rise. Our greatest threats at this point are complacency among people here leading them to get sloppy with our preventive measures and the risk of travellers bringing the virus with them from another state or country. New York does have quarantine rules in place for those entering the state from places with high infection rates, but we would be much better off with a national policy based on science and metrics.

I think the national polling numbers with which I began this post show that our ship of state is seriously off course and in danger of shipwreck. The vast majority of the country knows it, as does most of the rest of the world. Travel from the United States into the European Union is banned. Both our allies and our adversaries wonder how a strong and proud democracy could have a national government in such impotent disarray.

Long-time readers know that I occasionally indulge in political fantasy. I had one for a while that both DT and the VP were forced to resign due to corruption and that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would become the first woman president of the United States. During the impeachment of the president, some argued that we should wait for an election to get DT out of office. I don’t think any of them imagined the dire mix of pandemic, attack by foreign adversaries, economic collapse, and cries for long-overdue justice and equity with which we are currently dealing. To avert more disaster and to safeguard lives and well-being, we need new leadership now, not on January 20, 2021.

I call on the president, the vice-president, and all appointed Cabinet and high-ranking officials of agencies who are not career professionals within their departments to resign, so that Pelosi, aided by experienced civil servants, can put in place national policies to stem the pandemic and to run a fair election in November, so that the newly elected president has a chance to inherit a country that isn’t a complete disaster area. Some problems could be addressed by executive order and, one hopes, others could be handled legislatively, if enough Republican senators step up to govern, instead of letting Majority Leader Mitch McConnell kill nearly every House-passed piece of legislation that lands on his desk.

2020 has been a year in which we hear the word unprecedented on a regular basis. My suggested course of action certainly would be unprecedented, but I think it offers hope of alleviating at least some of the suffering around us and averting more. It is also constitutionally valid.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.

One-Liner Wednesday: a tyrant

Fearful lest they grow strong and so stout of heart as no longer to brook his wicked despotism, but resolve in companionship to enjoy the fruits of peace, a tyrant is constrained to destroy good people’s confidence in one another, lest they band together to throw off his yoke.

Thomas Aquinas

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June birthdays

Already this month, my younger daughter T turned 30 and my granddaughter ABC turned 3.

This is simultaneously wonderful and terrifying.

I am very concerned for their future, the future of all young people, and the planet.

When I was thirty, I was at a home that we owned with two young daughters and a spouse whose job supported us all comfortably and enabled us to save for the future. T and her Millennial friends do not have anything approaching that kind of economic security. Even if they are well-educated and skilled workers, most available jobs don’t pay enough to live on, even as a single person, much less a family. The pandemic and ensuing economic collapse have made matters worse and it is unlikely that recovery will be rapid. The best case I can hope for is that this economic and health catastrophe will re-set priorities and policies so that economies and governments serve the common good and recognize human dignity.

The pandemic taught us an important lesson. Those who were hit hardest – people of color, low-income communities, the elderly, and those with complicating medical issues – were also those who were already being ignored or discriminated against. The death of George Floyd, the killing of yet another unarmed black man by police, underscored the racism still in evidence in the United States, a message that has resonated around the world, as white people have been examining their behavior toward people of other races in their countries, too.

Women who are my age (almost 60) shake our heads in disbelief that so much discrimination and harassment and belittling of women and girls still exists. I am sad that our fight for equal rights is not yet won and now falls onto the younger generations as well.

Over all of this, lies an atmosphere so polluted with excess carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases that the levels are higher than they have been at any time in human history. The consequences of that are far reaching and serious, the efforts thus far to address it wholly inadequate.

While I have been in stay-at-home mode because of the pandemic, I have been deluged with opportunities for webinars, a number of which are looking at a path forward from the current massive disruption of “business as usual.” It is heartening that so many are looking to #BuildBackBetter, looking at structural change that addresses climate change, pollution, racism, income inequality, sexism, all manner of discrimination, and the call to honor human dignity. I have become accustomed to linking human welfare with planetary welfare, articulated so well five years ago in Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. This follows the tenets of Catholic social justice doctrine and has been my basis for activism, looking for systemic ways to address problems and injustice holistically, rather than trying to rectify a problem narrowly, which could inadvertently cause adverse effects. (There are specific instances that can be addressed with a narrow solution, but systemic change can solve many smaller problems more completely and rapidly.)

If this truly is a pivot point in human history, perhaps we can work together and construct a new way of living which respects all life and the planet, as well. That would give me hope for T’s generation, for ABC’s generation, and for the generations to come. The work will be difficult, but it is what is called for at this critical moment in history.

SoCS: New York State re-opening

I live in the Southern Tier region of New York State (USA), where we are undertaking a methodical re-opening of businesses after we successfully drastically lowered our number of COVID-19 cases.

Every day, I listen to the press briefings from Governor Cuomo. He has been very transparent on what the state is doing and what the role of the public is in protecting public health during our stay-at-home period and now our phased re-opening.

The Southern Tier region is about to enter Phase 3. One of the services that is allowed in phase 3 is nail salons. Hair salons were allowed to resume, with masks and other safeguards in place in phase 2, but nail salons had to wait for phase three as it involves longer face-to-face interaction.

I don’t do manicures, but I do have an appointment for a haircut in a couple of weeks. After that, I’ll be able to go without the headband that has become part of my wardrobe in order to keep my bangs out of my eyes.

Long bangs is an infinitesimal price to pay for what has been great news for New York State. Unlike other states that were less careful about re-opening businesses, our infection rates have continued to decline. The numbers are constantly monitored with widespread testing and contact tracing for positive tests so that we know we are not starting an outbreak. As soon as the numbers in a region start to creep up, there are plans in place to cut back on the re-opening until the infection rate is under control again.

I’m proud of everyone in New York and our leadership team for the thoughtful, caring, science-based, and successful way we have tackled this challenge. I hope that more states and countries, seeing our approach working so well, will follow our lead and be able to save their people from further suffering from the pandemic.
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “nail.” Join us! Find out how here: https://lindaghill.com/2020/06/12/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-june-13-2020/

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JC’s Confession #13

In the first few seasons of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert did a recurring skit, now a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.

JC

I haven’t gone to a march or demonstration against racism since the murder of George Floyd.

This is something I absolutely would have done pre-pandemic. I know many at-risk people have chosen to participate because of the importance of the cause and the present moment’s possibilities for progress on human rights, trying to fulfill the call for justice that has been so long denied.

Still, I can’t bring myself to attend a public gathering, knowing that I will be seeing my 95-year-old dad and possibly some of his senior-community neighbors in the coming days. I always wear a mask, but I’m not comfortable having any more exposure to people than I absolutely must in order to function as a household.

On the day of George Floyd’s funeral, there was a brief ecumenical gathering to kneel for 8 minutes, 46 seconds in his memory. While I stayed at home, T attended, so our household was represented. The gathering was outdoors, it was sunny and windy, T wore her mask, and people spread out as best they could, so it’s unlikely she was exposed.

Still, it feels odd to not have a physical presence myself at this crucial time. I will try to be content with my efforts to educate myself and keep updated online and through the media, as well as to pursue lobbying and advocacy opportunities with the social justice organizations with whom I have relationships.

I also have my platform, however small, here at Top of JC’s Mind. Every voice, every action, adds something to what must, finally, this time, be permanent changes in the US and the world.

#BuildBackBetter

I know that I am privileged. I’m white and well-educated. I grew up in rural New England with great parents and was sheltered from a lot of the temptations that get young people into trouble. My spouse B and I have been happily married for almost 38 years. We live in an area in the northeastern US that is affordable enough to live comfortably on one salary, so I could raise our family, help care for elders, volunteer, and pursue artistic work without the added pressure of needing to earn income. I have never lived in a big city with a high crime rate, so I can move about without worry, other than the usual caution that all women employ. I can speak freely and follow my religion, although that comes with some built-in sex discrimination. I am relatively healthy and have access to good-quality, affordable health care. When B retires, we have retirement savings and our house to live in. While not rich by US standards, I am aware that I have more wealth than the vast majority of people in the world.

Yes, I am privileged in so many ways.

Because I grew up in a tiny town, only about 200 people when I lived there and even smaller now, there was not a lot of racial diversity. My parents, though, were diligent about exposing us to the wider world and modeled the dignity and equality of all people, as did Catholic social justice doctrine. As a young child in the 1960’s, I watched as the civil rights movement was translated into law and hoped and, perhaps took for granted, that progress was being made toward the equality that the United States had so long touted.

While acknowledging that some progress has been made, there is still so, so much wrong, which is why the death of George Floyd at the hands of police – on top of so many other deaths of black and brown people in police custody; decades of inequality in education, housing, employment opportunities, and pay scale; violence; the higher rate of illness and death from COVID-19 among people of color and those living in poverty; unequal laws and enforcement resulting in large numbers of black men in prison; obstacles to voting; the recognition that many of our essential workers are poorly paid people of color; discrimination; and personal attacks of all kinds – has caused such anguish, outrage, and action across the country, not just among the black community, but among people of all races. People in other countries are demonstrating not only in support of the US civil rights and Black Lives Matter movement but also to highlight discrimination in their own countries against indigenous and black and brown people.

The vast majority of these protests have been peaceful, which made the recent clearing of the park near the White House all the more appalling. There have been other instances of violence against peaceful protesters and the press, which are totally unacceptable and against the US Constitution and laws. I also oppose any violence against the police or other protesters, arson, theft, and the destruction of property.

Because of my age and the need to protect myself and my family against COVID-19, I have not been to any protests in person. There have been several peaceful protests locally, including some directed against our county jail, which has a percentage of inmates who are people of color much higher than our population and a distressingly high number of inmates who have not been treated sufficiently for medical conditions and/or who have died. We have not had the kind of looting here that has happened in larger cities. There has been a very sad case of arson, the destruction of the premier accessible playground in our area, although no one knows whether or not the person/s involved were motivated by the murder of George Floyd. There has been an outpouring of donations to re-build this special place as soon as possible.

As a white person, I can’t know what it is like to be a person of color, but I do have a window into it from members of my family. Two of my brothers-in-law and my son-in-law, as well as their children, are people of color with personal or family roots in Asia and Africa. They have shared stories with me about fear when being stopped by police, about being followed and asked to leave a store while shopping, and about loss of educational opportunities. They hear derogatory language based on their race. Sometimes, their status as a family is questioned because they are bi- or multi-racial.

Our Declaration of Independence says that all “are created equal” and entitled to the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We need to carry this out, however belatedly, and maintain it for generations to come. As the late Rep. Barbara Jordan said, “What the people want is very simple – they want an America as good as its promise.”

How do we accomplish this? When I wrote this post a week ago, I did not have concrete ideas, but I have since heard a number of proposals, some around policing and legal practices and some that attempt to rectify consequences of racism in the areas of health care, housing, education, and employment. This gives us an opportunity to advocate with our local, state, and national representatives to enact new laws and policies to move us toward equality. It also means that we can use their positions on these proposals to evaluate candidates in upcoming elections.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to attend several webinars about the path toward greater environmental and social justice. Hearing leaders articulate needed actions and policies gives me hope. Another very hopeful thing for me is seeing the two youngest generations, often called Millennials and Generation Z, stepping forward with ideas and action to shape our future. These young people are more diverse and generally more accepting of personal differences than their elders. Much of the recent energy behind environmental justice, gun reform, and racial/ethnic/gender equality has come from these younger people. I know that I am a better advocate for these causes because of what I have learned from my daughters and their peers.

To me, all of this work is about respect for the dignity of each person and a moral obligation to care for others and for our global environment. There is so much work to do, but, together, we can #BuildBackBetter.

Where am I?

Yesterday, June 1, 2020, was one of the darkest and most frightening days of my almost sixty years as a citizen of the United States.

President Trump is pressuring governors to use the US military against protesters in their states and is threatening to use the military, beyond the National Guard which is under the jurisdiction of each governor, within the states if the governors refuse. To do this, he would have to invoke the Insurrection Act, which, in the rare instances in which it has been used, has only been applied to a small, specific area for particular isolated incident. If the president tries to invoke this act across different states and regions, is he surmising that a widespread insurrection is underway? The Cambridge Dictionary defines insurrection as “an organized attempt by a group of people to defeat their government and take control of their country, usually by violence.” This is not at all what is happening. Even if you add civil unrest as a possible cause, the vast majority of the country is seeing non-violent protests, which are within our rights to free speech and assembly. The limited amount of violence and destruction/theft of property are matters for local law enforcement, sometimes aided by the state’s National Guard, if the governor sees fit to use them.

The president seems to think that his bravado makes him look strong, but the opposite is true. His resorting to such threats shows how weak he is as a leader that he cannot talk to the nation to calm the situation and take effective action to address the injustices that have so many millions across the country taking to the streets.

The most horrifying part of yesterday was that the area near the White House was cleared of protesters so that the president could go to a nearby church for a photo op. These protesters were non-violent and the curfew had not yet taken effect when they were attacked with teargas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, and physical violence. Clergy and volunteers who had been offering water, snacks, and assistance to the protesters throughout the day were also driven from the area.

These actions ordered by the president violated the free speech and freedom of assembly rights from our Constitution, as well as interfering with the religious expression of those who were there to serve others to fulfill the calling of their faith. The president also did not inform the clergy of St. John’s or the Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde that he would be clearing the church grounds and using their sacred space for a photo op. Rev. Budde and other Christian faith leaders have objected to the president’s actions and rhetoric, pointing out that he is espousing views antithetically opposed to the tenets of Christianity.

Donald Trump has no moral authority whatsoever. He says that he wants “law and order” while himself violating the Constitution that he has sworn to uphold.

I am afraid of what will come next. I don’t have a vivid enough imagination to envision what will happen beyond the pandemic, injustice, and widespread suffering we have all around us.

We need competent and compassionate national leadership as soon as possible. There are millions of us all over the country ready to embark on the gargantuan task of building back a country worthy of our highest ideals of equality, unity, peace, and community.

Overwhelming news

The pandemic has highlighted inequities in the society of the United States around race, ethnicity, national origin, and socioeconomic status, problems that have existed in our country since before its founding and that have insidiously endured through the centuries.

A few days ago, white police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, while horrified onlookers tried to intervene and recorded Mr. Floyd’s final minutes and death.

Our nation, already mired in grief and denial from COVID-19, is now grappling again with deadly racism. George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers is appalling but, sadly, not unusual.

There are protests against racism and violence/death by law enforcement in cities around the country, remembering George Floyd and calling for justice while adding the names of other black men, women, and children who have been killed or injured by police. Depending on the location, there are different victims who are commemorated, as many cities have seen this type of violence.

The demonstrations have been peaceful during the day and have even seen protesters wearing masks and leaving space between them so as not to spread the coronavirus. In the evening, though, the anger sometimes gets out of control and results in looting and arson from the protesters and flashbang grenades, teargas, and pepper bullets from the police.

All racist incidents are bad and should be universally condemned, but they aren’t and racism continues and mutates and injures and kills.

Again and again.

I wish I had some helpful insight to offer that could make a difference.

All I can do is reiterate the universal message to treat others with respect, recognizing their inherent dignity.

Now and in the future.