Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Racism No End? Sickening Tales of White Supremacist America

Dear Friends,

There have been many ugly violent incidents and cold-blooded killings in the last several years that have illustrated again and again how deeply and sickly racist America is. There have been many heart-breaking, stomach-turning examples of African-Americans killed by policemen or others posing as policemen. It seems the police in too many cases and places in America regard African-American men as a dangerous species of vermin to be exterminated at the slightest provocation without overmuch concern for their right to breathe and walk the earth. For an overview as well as a deeper look at the numbers of African American dying from police-inflicted killings in the USA, see the BBC news article "Why do US police keep killing unarmed black men?" at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-32740523.

The most well-known incidents--and keep in mind that many others have never received the benefit of media attention--range from the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Florida on February 26, 2012, who was walking home from buying a few items at a convenience store, by the police wannabe shooter George Zimmerman to the slaying of 12 year old Tamir Rice on a playground in Cleveland, Ohio on November 22, 2014 by two shots from a policeman's gun to the killing of 53 year old Eric Garner on July 17, 2014 on the streets of Staten Island from the effects of a chokehold administered by NYC policemen who then allowed him to die on the sidewalk, gasping for air, without administering any first aid or medical services, even though they are supposedly trained to do so.

All of these individuals were unarmed, except Tamir Rice, who was holding a toy gun, a pellet gun. Somehow I don't think a white boy with a pellet gun would be judged a threat by police and executed in this same manner. Like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice died on the pavement with no attempt at medical assistance, showing the same callous disregard for the preservation of African-American life. In fact, when his sister came screaming with horror at what had happened to her brother, she was treated like a criminal and rudely tossed into the back of the killer policeman's car.

It seems that "shoot first and ask questions later" has become standard operating procedure for many American cops, along with an assumption that if any black male resists arrest or is in any way uncooperative with police requests, he essentially signs his own death warrant, and it is not the policeman's fault if a death results. Really. Any black man who does not behave toward police like a happy puppy greeting his owner is asking to be killed; That is the sick and sorry status quo we have arrived at. A sad irony is that since police so often kill African-American males, it makes it entirely rational for black men and boys to want to run away from police who approach them. If you knew that many people like yourself had been killed by police with only minimal provocation or justification, wouldn't you run for your life if a cop stopped you? Sadly, if your skin is black and you feel afraid of a cop, or dare to speak back to a police officer who you feel is treating you wrongly, it might just get you killed. That is one ugly truth of African-American life in the USA today.

2015 has shown no letup in the procession of police-administered deaths of unarmed African Americans. I am particularly saddened and sickened by the case of Walter Scott, slain in Charlotte, South Carolina, on April 4th of this year. His crime? He was stopped for a broken tail light and ran from the police, of whom he was quite rightfully fearful. Mr. Scott ran when confronted by a policeman in a parking lot, and was first tasered, and then, when he ran again, was shot to death. He was a former Coast Guard member, with a checkered past, who had recently been trying to better himself by studying Massage Therapy in a local college. I shudder to think how many African-American students I have known like Mr. Scott, who have had their ups and downs and tried to chart a new course through education. To think that any one of them could end up like Mr. Scott, gunned down for the most minor of offenses and for failing to behave as policemen like black people to behave, ties my stomach in a knot, and makes me ashamed to live in a country where this is not only possible, but predictable.

This was followed this year by the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police on April 19, 2015. Freddie Gray was a 25 year old African-American man with a past history of arrests, which may explain why, when a police officer made contact with him that morning on the street, he panicked and ran away, the police then pursuing him, handcuffing him, and placing him in a police van, where he would meet his death. It should be pointed out that running away from police is not a crime, and might even be considered rational for someone like Freddy Gray in a place like Baltimore, where local people often perceive the police as a hostile force. This perception proved to be entirely justified in this case. When the police finally caught up with Mr. Gray, he was found to be in possession of a knife, though he was not threatening anyone and it is not illegal to carry such a knife in Baltimore. Gray was handcuffed and thrown into a police van, then driven around for several minutes without being secured with a safety belt, with the result that he was tossed around the van at each sudden turn or stop, resulting in injuries to his neck and spine that soon caused his death. This way of placing prisoners in a police van in a way guaranteed to cause them pain and injury was known in Baltimore as a "rough ride." The very fact that this practice had a name, that it was a known thing, suggests that Freddie Gray was not the first African-American to suffer this kind of injury-inducing treatment at the hands of the police. Note too that the practice is designed to inflict harm without the police having to raise a fist or fire a shot; it "just happens" in the course of a ride around the city, helping the police dodge any culpability for the death of individuals under their power. Mr. Gray was right to run from the police, because when they did catch up with him, they killed him. He was brought to a hospital for treatment, but he was already beyond help.

Freddy Gray's death came about as the result of police practices that seem to have been designed for no other purpose than to cause harm and terror to African-Americans in a cynical, sadistic manner, as if watching a black prisoner helplessly tossed around in the back of a van with no way for him to escape injury or even death was someone's idea of good fun, a happy time for the Baltimore boys in blue.

And now comes a new racist killing, not the execution of an single individual by police, like the ones mentioned above*, but a mass murder carried out by a young man with explicitly racist and white supremacist affiliations and motivations. Twenty-one year old Dylann Storm Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina on the evening of June 17th and joined a Bible Study meeting in progress that evening. After an hour, Mr. Roof pulled out a .45 caliber pistol and began shooting, not stopping until nine African-Americans were dead, including the church pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney, who was also a Democratic state senator with a bright future as an inspiring African-American political leader. Mr. Roof was arrested the following evening, and it has since emerged from multiple sources ranging from photos of Dylann Roof proudly displaying symbols of white supremacy such as the flags of the racist regimes of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa in its Apartheid days along with the Confederate flag to blog postings by Mr. Roof spouting standard issue white supremacist ideology to statements by friends and relatives that Dylann Roof had been voicing increasingly hostile racist comments in recent years.

Dylann Roof is a standard issue white supremacist zealot of the sort that the Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking for years. In fact, I wonder if his "storm" middle name is anything other than a tribute to the racist organization and web site "Storm Front." The only different thing about young Mr. "Storm" is the degree to which he was willing to put his racist animosity and white supremacist principles into practice. On Roof's blog, he explains that he felt a need to take action as he did not see the KKK (the Ku Klux Klan, formerly the leading organization for white supremacist terrorism against black Americans, I will note for younger readers) or anyone else doing what needed to be done to stem what he believed was a rising tide of African-American dispossession and disadvantagement of white Americans and to strike the first blow in what he hoped would inaugurate a race war of white against black. Though some have tried, predictably in cases like this, to put his murderous rampage, his politically driven act of racial terrorism, down to mental illness and to sidestep his ideological associations and motivations, which are quite strongly stated and unequivocal, anyone who looks at the facts I have cited above should have no doubt that Dylann Roof was acting out a plan that was rooted in a long history of American racism, including organized racist terrorism such as that purveyed by the KKK, and which is only explicable in relation to that deep-rooted, widespread and continuing racism, a racism with different forms, degrees and levels, from the unacknowledged, implicit and structurally embedded varieties to the more flagrant, confrontational and openly genocidal type espoused by Dylann Roof and others of his ilk.

His crime is horrible and will sadly win him the place in history that Mr. Roof sought, as a white man willing to stand up for white America and slay black Americans. It is sobering to consider that if Mr. Dylan Roof had approached his mission a little differently, he could have joined the police force in any number of American cities, done even more damage to black Americans over a longer period of time than he did that sickening night in Charleston, and have very likely escaped arrest or punishment. As we mourn the deaths in Charleston and grind our teeth in anger and sorrow over the actions of young Mr. Roof, let us not forget the bigger picture. Sensational crimes and mass murders like the one carried out by the racist terrorist Dylann Roof can actually blind us to the more mundane but cumulatively greater harms, including not only violent deaths but stunted lives, wounded families and broken communities engendered on a regular basis by the less obvious and more insidious forces and faces of racism in this disturbed and violent nation called America.

In future I will speak more about how the continuing reality of racist terrorism in America presents a special obligation and a promising opportunity to Pagans of today.

*granted, George Zimmerman was not a police officer, but he saw himself as a self-appointed public safety officer, and to that extent, Trayvon Martin was also slain by police, albeit a fake, wannabe police man.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Cape Cod Contemplations

Dear Readers,

It has been four months since I have had the time and energy to write in this blog. The spring semester was an insanely busy time for me. First of all, in addition to my busy teaching schedule at my NY state college, I also took advantage of an opportunity to teach a Religious Studies course one evening a week at another college in a different state, which required nearly 4 hours drive each way and an overnight stay--quite exhausting physically even if delightfully refreshing and stimulating intellectually. Then I also got involved in protesting a frack-related power plant that is on the road to being built in my corner of New York. It will provide few benefits to people in my area, but many harms, from air and water pollution to destruction of historical heritage sites, landscape and environment, all the while posing a constant risk of explosion from large tanks of chemicals that the plant will need in order to function. Resisting this petrochemical juggernaut has been a terrible uphill struggle, and a real education for me in seeing how hard it is to stop something like this when big money is involved, big corporations are pushing the thing forward, and the public is too apathetic, ill-informed or simply stupid to resist. On top of that, I organized a trip to Lithuania and Latvia that required much more attention that I expected, with constant uncertainty about size of group and cost of travel that made the whole thing very difficult and stressful. In the end, the trip did take place in May and went fairly well...but afterwards I was about ready to collapse, and so here I am.

I am visiting Cape Cod over this long June weekend, a place I have vacationed in since childhood, first with family in my youth and teens, then with friends and girlfriends in my twenties and thirties, then on a farewell trip with my mother as she was dying in my forties, and more recently by myself. This place has always been a refuge to me across many years and relationships and all the inevitable ups and downs of one man's life. Over-built and over-commercialized as some of the Cape may be, there remains a magical combination of natural beauty and Old New England charm that touches something deep inside of me. Route 6A...Sandy Neck Beach and Barnstable Village...Wellfleet, Truro, Provincetown....these are my touchstones, my old friends who greet me with a warm and silent smile that I prefer to many conversations each time I come. I used to enjoy long walks on the beach to feel the sand beneath my feet, looking to one side to see scrubby pines beyond the sand dunes, while on the other side beckoned the endlessly crashing, draining and replenishing ocean, but on this trip, I find my old bones too tired to do very much walking. Instead I have enjoyed sitting in a chair on the sand and watching the waves dance back and forth on the shore, while I read a book or write in my journal or watch the gulls circling the water, the people strolling by, or the seals popping up out of the waves. When not on the beach, driving or walking around towns from Barnstable to Provincetown and seeing the weathered old traditional grey shingle houses, the old fences and trees all likewise provides a welcome balm to my weary and worn-down little self. The combination of the natural and the old....that's what does it.

The reason I find this worth sharing in this blog is that I see the same set of factors at work in the appeal of Modern Paganism. Gods of nature, rites of old. Nothing manufactured or marketed, owned, operated or controlled by a corporation. Ritual behavior with no obvious economic value, simply because it feels good to honor that which cannot be bought in Walmart or sold on Wall Street. Our modern life is so frantic with buying and selling and consumption that the whole "business" of living becomes more and more frantic and stressful, as we dance to a consumerist tune that grows ever more hectic and hollow. In a similar way, Paganism allows us to get at least a temporary break from the mindless rush into a mechanized, robotically efficient and number-driven future that the masters of technology are insisting is the only possible reality for the human race. With Paganism, we touch other notes in the symphony of the universe, we look backwards as well as forwards, and we embrace what we feel to be eternal rather than the latest mass-marketed trend. We turn off You Tube and the boob tube, disable the chatter of endless advertising, reject the frantic claims and sly seductions of the New... and seek refuge in the Old, like a gull diving into seawater without relying on GPS or a beach plum blossoming on a sand dune without permission from Microsoft or Monsanto.

The tree grows as trees have done forever, the tree is real as trees have been forever, and so we hold the tree sacred. The sand dissolves and returns as the shoreline sings and dances and sky and sea rejoice. This is our religion. This is our truth. This is our Paganism: a search for fundamentals beyond the buzz and chatter of modern distractions.

Thank you, Cape Cod, for this chance to reconnect on many levels...to the ocean of eternity, riding waves of memory, knowing that the seemingly random order of stones on the beach is the truth beyond our arrogance.

To my late mother, you were right, this place indeed has magic.

To the gods that whisper in the trees and illuminate the silence, I hear you and I breathe you.

May all be well....even if we cannot see the way, may there be a way to follow.



Sunday, February 15, 2015

Needed: A REAL Sharing Economy

Consider these two statements: The economy is working just fine. The economy is not working at all. Which of these statements rings more true to you probably depends a lot on your socio-economic position in our society. If you are in the privileged class that has been raking in enormous piles of money from tech-company expansions, stock investments or high-level financial maneuverings like mergers and acquisitions, you probably feel we are living in a wonderful time, as you are practically swimming in wealth. However, if you are a member of this privileged class, you are not at all representative of the vast majority of people in our society who are finding it increasingly difficult to get ahead, or even feel comfortable, not only financially,but generally, because the stress of financial insecurity is chipping away at their general well-being, making it hard for them either to plan ahead for a better tomorrow or to enjoy the here and now.

Perhaps you dream that by some lucky stroke of fortune, you will find a way to join the techno-financial elite, and live a life of privileged splendor like a feudal baron of old, comfortable in your castle, well-fed, well-positioned, expensively equipped, and surrounded by fawning subordinates, separate from the suffering masses, who you will now feel free to scorn as lazy losers, even though your own business ventures very likely depend both on the labor of such people and your capacity to deny them a decent paycheck and any measure of security. However, you probably realize on some level that you are highly unlikely to ever attain such a privileged position. For you and most Americans, and an increasing number of people in other places as well, in places like Greece and Spain, for example, the economy is not working very well at all.

Furthermore, you may feel quite powerless to do anything about this situation other than moan and grumble, work harder and harder at your current job to make sure you do not lose it, and seek to pick up extra money at a second or third job, because that is, quote, "the way it is." However, this "way that it is" is not some sort of basic structure of reality that has been in place on earth forever like the periodic table of basic elements or the law of gravity. The aggregate of buying, selling, banking, working, living and legal and financial arrangements that structure our lives, as well as the underlying understandings, expectations and beliefs that together constitute what we term "The Economy" is a totally man-made thing that is entirely subject to fluctuation and transformation due to pressure from any number of factors... including human will and collective pressure.

There are, after all, many more of "us" poor and working people than there are of "them" in the techno-financial elite. One of the main hurdles that prevents our current economy from changing for the better for the majority is the sad truth that too many people have accepted that the current kind of economy that we have is in fact "the way it is," something natural and immutable, as far beyond human analysis,control, question or challenge as an asteroid, an earthquake or a hurricane. If ordinary people do not conceive of the possibility of change to the current economy and undertake to pressure the current arrangement to become more conducive to a more secure and happy life for ALL people, not just the fortunate elite, then there really is no hope for the future. The majority of people will increasingly live their lives as hard-laboring serfs with little hope of security or advancement, while the fortunate, greedy few will live lives of privilege and splendor--a brave new world of techno-financial feudalism.

One of the key differences between those in the techno-financial elite and the rest of us is one of attitude toward the current reality. Those in the elite, with the most obvious example being the carbon-based, anti-environmentalist, ultra- conservative life forms known as the Koch Bros., expect to be allowed to control and shape the future of economic arrangements in ways that will continually improve their level of wealth, degree of personal and political power, and quality of life, like the right to own multiple expensive residences while many others go homeless or live in constant fear of losing their homes, and make every effort to maintain or even increase their influence and control over future economic structures and conditions. The suffering masses do not expect to have any influence on the shape of things to come, and make no efforts to achieve any control or influence. And so one group ends up with all the power, influence and control, and the other does not.

This "way that it is" is not democratic at all. It is economic oligarchy. It is not a "free" market. It is a market shaped and controlled for the elite, for the few, not the many. For the many, the main "freedoms" in our supposedly "free" society and "free" market economy are the freedoms to toil increasingly long hours at increasingly less secure employment, to worry with good reason about the future, to fall into debt for basic needs like housing, education and health care, and to experience unending stress and anxiety, which many are only able to imperfectly escape from through activities and products, from Hollywood films, sports competitions, Reality TV programs and ultra-violent video games to pharmaceutical concoctions, that are largely owned and operated by the techno-financial elite, who encourage dependence on such escapism and mind-dulling pursuits and discourage any challenge to the existing order, which works so very well.... FOR THEM.

We who are the majority of humanity need a NEW economy, one that better distributes the proceeds of economic activity for the benefit of all. The response of those in the elite and of conservatives, libertarians and free-market fundamentalists is to scream, "Impossible!" "Heresy!" "Communism!" and of course, "That's not the way it is!" However, we can look around the world and into societies of the past and discover that there are indeed other models for how to structure the economy, how much power to allow to corporations and wealthy elites, how much power to give workers and citizens to make decisions about pay, benefits, location of business facilities, like whether a factory should be in Buffalo or Beijing, how much executives should be paid compared to what workers are paid, and many other such factors. If we raised the pay of workers in huge companies and lowered the pay of executives, the executives would bitch and moan, and the businesses might have to reorganize, but guess what: businesses are constantly having to adapt to new conditions and reorganize. Having to adapt and reorganize to treat their workers better might be a real "challenge" and might cause some serious "disruption" in the way things now work, but I believe it is quite common in techno-financial circles to talk about adapting to changing conditions and "challenges" and "disrupting" the status quo.

OK, business geniuses, you supermen and superwomen, darlings of the stock market, deity-like entrepreneurs and CEOs and CFOs. You are so smart, so wise, so techno-savvy. Here is a "challenge" to you, an invitation to "disrupt" current conditions. Let's see if you can find ways to employ MORE people, not fewer, provide better pay and MORE security, not less, to the greatest number of people, not the fewest, not just you and your techno-elite friends. Are you up to the challenge? Or do we have to hire someone else?

To be continued, with reflections on how the attitudes and values of ancient Pagan traditions can be applied to this situation, to clarify the kind of economy that would be better for the human race and better for the natural environment as well. It's funny how taking care of the one often involves taking care of the other too. Perhaps they are related... :)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Little Poem: To Remember What is True Forever

Tonight
we come together
to remember what is true forever

On this dark
and frozen night
we dedicate ourselves to light

In the ice
and in the wind
we are warmed by a fire within

That is why
we have come together
to remember what is true forever

In the cold
and in the dark
we will raise a timeless spark

On this longest
night of all
we will answer that ancient call

That tells us
to come together
to remember what is true forever

And to hold
in our hearts the light
that will see us through the darkest night

Though the ground
is frozen hard
we know the skies are filled with stars

And that is why
we have come together
to remember what is true forever

The wind that now
cuts our face
will return to a gentler place

And the light
that we find within
will grow stronger as the year begins

And so it is
we come together
to remember what is true forever

(for reading or chanting tonight, the night of the Winter Solstice)






Friday, December 19, 2014

Free Speech, Hate Speech, and "The Interview"

For the last few days, there has been a lot of media hubbub about the hacking of the SONY Film corporation by agents either in or from North Korea or acting on its behalf who have objected to the release of the Seth Rogen-James Franco film, The Interview, a comedy which depicts the assassination of North Korea's dictator, Kim Jung-un, by two bumbling journalists guided by America's [paramilitary intelligence service, the CIA. Today it was announced that the film, which was scheduled to open on Xmas Day, will not be released in the immediate future, and possibly not ever, owing to fears about what further actions, such as terrorist attacks, might be visited upon SONY and American theaters were the film to be shown. The general reaction in the American media has been to denounce North Korea for daring to threaten American freedom of expression and SONY for its cowardly surrender to North Korean threats.

There is much that I find lacking in this collective and apparently unanimous response among my countrymen. Few have paused to ask whether it was ever a wise idea, let alone a tasteful choice, for American filmmakers to craft a major studio Hollywood comedy around the theme of US assassination of foreign leaders, considering that America has, through its CIA as well as other means, overthrown and/or assassinated quite a few foreign leaders over the last century, not to mention the numerous times we have unleashed our military force on other countries,or imposed embargoes and sanctions that caused economic devastation and massive hardships among the population of countries on the receiving end of our policies. I don't think the citizens of the countries which have been through these events are clamoring for a Hollywood laugh fest about something that has actually happened to them. Such a film is a grim reminder both about the many times that the USA, despite its often-trumpeted role as "leader of the free world" and a champion of "freedom and democracy," has violated international law and human rights to impose its will on other countries, and about America's jaw-dropping lack of historical memory and self-awareness and chronic incapacity for moral self-reflection.

The wisdom of making a film which so merrily speculates about killing the leader of North Korea is particularly questionable considering that the USA and many other nations have a very tense and unfunny relationship with this country. North Korea is a traumatized,isolated and impoverished yet highly militarized country whose people are suffering and starving while the government devotes the greater part of the nation's resources to equipping and maintaining a huge army capable of invading South Korea and causing massive carnage and desolation at the drop of a hat. In recent years, North Korea has engaged in such actions as shooting missiles that killed people living on small islands off the Korean coast, and test-fired missiles that came dangerously close to Japan, causing massive fear and anxiety in Japan and raising the specter of war. Provoking such a dangerous, unstable country is not funny. It is reckless and stupid, morally bankrupt and simply disgusting when you consider that it is all being done for the benefit of Hollywood egos and profits. There is a long-standing, common-sense notion that freedom of speech should not extent to crying "Fire!" in a crowded theater, for fear of causing a panic and bodily harm. Same principle here, and on a much larger scale, you Hollywood narcissists!

There is also a long tradition of engaging in political satire that comments on actual persons and situations while not naming them directly. When Charlie Chaplin made "The Great Dictator" mocking Hitler and the Nazis' anti-Semitism, he did not use the name of Hitler for the character obviously modeled on the Nazi Fuhrer. When the film "All the King's Men" was made about the American governor Huey Long, Long's name was not used. One reason for all of this indirection is to avoid lawsuits and legal conflicts, as well as an artistic impulse to make the situation more universal and less bound to specific times and places by placing the persons and events on a fictional pedestal for us to contemplate. There also is, or at least used to be, a sense of respect and decency that restrained the makers of mass market entertainments from creating films or other such spectacles that would appear to endorse assassination or murder of public figures. Those who defend Seth Rogen and SONY want us to think that is now perfectly fine to entertain the public through fictionalized killings of actual public figures.

Yet there is a definite double standard here. When American films or TV shows dramatize or satirize American Presidents and politics, from "The West Wing" through "Scandal," they usually create fictitious Presidents and politicians to function as stand-ins for actual Presidents and politicians. Please show me an actual American film or television program that shows us the killing of a living American President. More to the point, I don't think Americans would find it quite so amusing if, say, a film maker in some country that America has a tense, unfunny relationship with, like Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan made a film or viral video that offered the same scenario as "The Interview" applied to America, with two foreign journalists coming to America and assassinating presidents Bush or Obama. I think you would see a massive outcry, accusations of "terrorism," investigations by committees in Congress, and some even calling for economic sanctions or military strikes against that country.

There is also somewhat of a bullying dynamic here. It is hard to imagine anyone making a film about killing the top leaders of "major" countries such as the UK, Germany or China (David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping). That is because these countries are respected in the United States and no one wants to get on their bad side, particularly China, since it is now seeming like the world's next superpower both economically and militarily. Even the film "Borat," which made fun of Kazakhstan in a quite disrespectful and vicious manner that was either brilliant or boorish, depending on your point of view, did not go so far as to suggest it would be yuk-yuk funny to kill the leader of the country. North Korea, being one of the world's most poor and unfortunate countries, a status that our decades-long embargo and sanctions have contributed to considerably, is a country that people find easy to make fun of and mock even to the point of laughing about killing its leaders. The strong beating up on the weak. Is that really such a novel idea? Is that comic brilliance, or just a very old, very sad and sick joke?

America, and Hollywood, please look in the mirror, and not just into the camera or at your profit margin. "The Interview" is not a wonderful example of free speech. It is hate speech, an incitement to violence that caters to our worst impulses and threatens to pour unnecessary accelerant on an international situation that is already smouldering. The film deserves to be suppressed. There are better ways to make funny films and political satire, and I hope Seth Rogen and his associates will work on them.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Denouncing American Authoritarianism

It has been a dispiriting time in the United States, which feels more and more like a dis-united, deeply divided and disturbingly dissociated society. Again and again we see the same sad drama being repeated of unarmed African-American men being killed in our cities by heavily armed, highly militarized, and seemingly trigger-happy police who are then exonerated by a very forgiving and police-friendly court system for murdering members of the very society who they are duty-sworn to protect. Opinion polls, journalistic and sociological investigations and, I would add, discussions in my own classes reveal that white Americans tend to trust and support the police and excuse what they do as necessary and proper, whereas black Americans are outraged and ready to explode in grief, anger and the cumulative weight of trauma and stress at decades of abuse and threat, living in a violent, hypocritical land where black lives don't seem to matter. This is why many people marching to protest the police's long history of violent actions against African-Americans have taken up the slogan, "Black Lives Matter."

Sadly, this proud assertion bears within it the anguished accusation that black lives may NOT matter to many Americans, a fear that seems borne out by the lack of compassion many white Americans show for the growing numbers of African-American human beings gunned down without mercy by "public safety" officers. Apparently, to some, only authority figures like police and soldiers deserve respect and compassion, and there is plenty of concern on the right wing side of American society that police officers who commit such killings of black Americans might suffer any consequences for their actions. The right-wing defenses of the police range from the hackneyed old favorite, "They were just doing their job," a reliable rehash of the old Nazi Nuremberg defense, to a sense that those who were killed deserved to die because of their own improper conduct. After all, Michael Brown had grabbed some cigars out of a convenience store before his run-in with the police officer Darren Wilson, and young Tamir Rice had dared play around with a toy pellet gun on an empty playground. Clearly, the extermination of such dangerous individuals by our heroic police is not to be questioned or lamented, but applauded and held up to a warning to all African-Americans that they should be more careful about their behavior. I am reminded of Nazi Germany, where the abuse and even slaying of Jews and other "undesirable elements" by Storm Troopers and other uniformed forces would be held up as exemplary. I am also reminded of the Ku Klux Klan, whose ranks have often been known to include police and justice system officials.

The dying words of Eric Garner, "I can't breathe," have also been echoed across the land, including by some leading athletes, showing a moral courage and ethical compass lacking in some previous generations of American sports stars. I find this phrase extremely poignant, even prophetic, because America is becoming a place where many of us feel we can no longer breathe--or speak--or think--freely. Everywhere you turn, rising authoritarianism, what might even be characterized as 21st century Fascism, is stifling the freedom that our society supposedly aspires to. I want to believe in this country's ability to be a place where people can live in peace and security and have a decent life, but that belief is being constantly tested by what I see around me. In addition to the mistreatment of African-Americans, we have the continual grinding down of poor and middle-class Americans by a cold and uncaring corporate economic structure, which expects people to work harder and harder for less and less of a share of the wealth that their labor produces, under harsher and harsher conditions as labor unions and anything else that might give the workers a better shot in life are dismantled. And, with the scarcity of good-paying jobs and the lack of job security even for those with decently-paying positions, the corporate state runs a reign of terror over its labor force, whose members are understandably worried that they will lose whatever security and prosperity they now possess. Many people are too scared to speak out. They "can't breathe" either.

Remember what happened to the Occupy Wall Street protests of Fall 2011? On the very same day in November of 2011, the mayors of many cities activated their police in a coordinated, nation-wide effort to sweep the protestors out of the public spaces where they were conducting their peaceful protests. What was their crime? Were they really a threat to public order? No. They were a threat to Wall Street, our true seat of government. They were challenging the right of the financial order to dictate the terms of life in our society. On that day when the police swept those protestors away, we got to see who the police really work for. And in the pools of blood that congealed around the dead bodies of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, among others, we have been provided a vivid demonstration of who the police see as expendable enemies.

Occupy Wall Street withered away because of its unfocused leadership structure, which was admirably open and democratic but open and democratic to the point of confusion and disorganization. Nonetheless, the Occupy movement did succeed in raising issues of financial impropriety and income inequality that leaders like Elizabeth Warren are now elevating in the public forum. The new "Black Lives Matter" protest movement seems better organized for the long haul, and I believe it will endure and serve as the backbone of a new civil rights movement that is very much needed in a country sliding backwards into old patterns of discrimination against minorities and indifference by the majority.

As a Pagan who has been striving for some years to oppose racist and militaristic strands in Modern Norse Paganism/Asatry/Heathenry, and in other forms of Paganism as well, I find my resolve hardened and my fighting spirit roused by these recent events. Pagans who like swords and guns and weapons and armies and soldiers may find themselves siding with the police in regards to the situations unfolding in Ferguson, Cleveland, NYC and elsewhere, but I am very proud and clear in my opposition to police brutality and the cult of weapon-love and soldier-worship that can blind us to the inhumanity that soldiers, police and other armed authority officials and state security figures can be tempted to engage in, a temptation that may then come to be seen as a virtue and shut off from rational critique and consideration. I respect policemen, policewomen, soldiers and others who carry out their work with respect for the public and who do not believe that because they wear badges and uniforms and carry guns that they are some kind of master race that society should respect, accept and never question, no matter what they do. As a teacher, I too have power and authority and accept that if I were ever to abuse my power and cause harm to my students, I would be questioned about my actions, disciplined for any misbehavior, and even released from employment and put on trial in the most extreme case. I want to see the same standard applied to police across this land.

And, when I see how racialized perceptions of African-Americans as unreasoning, dangerous beasts seem to have led the police officers involved in the Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice incidents to conclude that these black males had to be subdued with maximum force as quickly as possible, I am all the more committed to advocating for forms of Asatru and Paganism that are not merely non-racist, but anti-racist. We cannot just look away and say, "Too bad about those race problems... now let's enjoy our all-white fellowship." We should actively seek to invite non-white, non-European individuals into our ritual activities and fellowship groups to ensure that our Paganism is most emphatically not a modern form of racism disguised as spirituality with a bit of medieval lore camouflage sprinkled on top. Let us all be conscious of these matters to ensure that our religious groups uphold the highest moral and spiritual values that we can aspire to rather than catering to the most base and regrettable tendencies that continue to haunt our world.
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