By Subhash Kateel

If you’ve followed Let’s Talk About It!, you know that we were among the first media outlets to cover the case of Marissa Alexander, a victim of domestic violence who was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Florida court after firing a warning shot at an abusive husband (a warning shot that hurt noone). The case caused international outrage.  Well, Marissa is back in the news today.  This time, however, with good news.

It seems like an appeals court granted her a new trial.  Details are coming in.  You can be sure that we are going to have a lot to say about this in the coming days.  In the mean time, read the decision from the court. Stay tuned.

pic:Freedom House/Creative Commons
By Subhash Kateel
You have to pardon me for being really tired of hearing
highbrow justifications for murder from people that should know better.  I have spent the summer watching the murders
of two Miami teens named Trayvon and Israel
be justified by a bunch of people that should know better who misinterpreted
and intentionally misrepresented
the law and basic norms we should hold sacred. 
I have spent the past decade as an ex- New Yorker hearing
other people who should know better (I stopped calling them experts) use bad
intelligence and worse intentions to justify a war in Iraq fought in our name that
killed thousands of civilians and US troops
I have also spent most of my living years watching an
earlier cohort of people who should’ve known better explain away the arming,
training and propping up of “freedom fighters
who killed Soviets in Afghanistan in the 70’s and 80’s before birthing a
movement that turned those tactics on the city I called home a decade ago.
I have spent this week feeling horrified by our nations
ability to commemorate Martin Luther King’s eloquent expressions of nonviolence
in the “I Have A Dream” speech while simultaneously creating
a consensus
to bomb Syria. I just can’t fight the feeling, as I said on
Facebook, that Martin Luther King is probably rolling in his grave and throwing
The fact that I respect some of the people pushing that
conversation, such as Van Jones, who
was on CNN Tuesday
making the case for “surgical strikes” against Syria, is
a particularly hard punch in the gut, even after Van took the time to engage me
personally and talk me through his reasons for supporting surgical strikes.  But this is not about Van per se, as much as
it is about all of us who should know better, especially those of us who just
a decade ago, fought hard against the lie that you can save people by bombing
Sadly, this is not about Syria either.  Because while the Syrian people definitely deserve
justice, democracy and the ability to not be killed by their leaders, I am
finding it hard to believe that any foreign
playing politics or proxy wars in their country really give a damn
about Syrian life. 
To believe that, I would have to believe that the Saudi
government, perhaps the most oppressive in the world, is arming
Syrian rebels
out of a sudden urge to end oppression even after helping
their Bahraini counterparts
rain down murderously on the Bahraini people’s own
Arab Spring.
I would have to believe that the same Israeli government
that is building illegal settlements on land they are perpetually promising to
swap for an elusive Palestinian state has an eye on Syria because they envision
it teeming with democracy. 
I would have to believe that the French government is supporting
air strikes because they seek to end senseless slaughter, ever after they shut
their eyes
and closed their mouths in 1994 as their Hutu allies in Rwanda massacred
with machetes (not chemical weapons) a half million Tutsis in one month.
Believing that is easier than believing that the Russian
leadership has set aside their internal gay
and crackdown on Chechnya
to stick up for Syria’s various minority groups, some
of whom
fear the fall of the Assad regime.
But I would also have to believe that our own government has
finally acknowledged the evils of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle
East despite helping
the formerly friendly Saddam Hussein gas scores of Iranians to death, sending
the Saudis
enough cluster bombs to turn Damascus into a parking lot, and
tolerating for decades Israel’s presumed
of a nuclear weapon.
But it is hard to believe any of those things, let alone
believe that the President or his supporters believes any of those things.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe Syrians are dying by
the thousands, that the Assad dictatorship bears the responsibility for a bulk
of the killing or that Syrians don’t have the right to defend themselves.  It doesn’t even mean that I don’t believe
that chemical weapons were used last week, even if I do believe that it
wouldn’t hurt to wait
a few days
for the UN to verify it. 
I just don’t believe that American leaders have shown American people
how bombing Syria will stop any of it.    
American leaders can’t even prove that the rebels they have covertly
for a couple years are any better than the Assad regime.  While plenty of members of the Free Syrian
Army and millions of Syrian civilians fight in earnest for a free Syria, some of
the strongest rebel factions are said
to be close
to Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda affiliates. There is at least some
evidence that the same Syrians that rose up peacefully against Assad have also stood
to those same Al Qaeda-esque elements in rebel controlled areas.  Precisely which faction of the loosely
coalesced Free Syrian Army and which segment of Syrian society will be helped
or hurt by surgical strikes is anyone’s guess.  

“Syria is for the free, not for Zawahiri and not for Bashar” pic:
But the people tasked with educated guesses can’t even really
tell us if the other
we have surgically striked, covertly supported the opposition in
or outright invaded such as Libya,
Iraq or Afghanistan
are any better or worse after our government’s stated attempts to change
regimes, eradicate weapons of mass destruction, kill terrorists and stop the
killing sprees of dictators.  We don’t
even know if Americans are better off after all of this. 
In that context, people should know better than to push Americans
that barely know anything about Syria into agreeing to bomb it to freedom with less
less public support
and less clarity of purpose than either of the Bushes
had when they went to war with Iraq or Carter/Reagan had when they supported the
covert action in Afghanistan that we are still paying for today.
But some of my friends that should know better have asked
people like me, who barely know enough, what our alternative is.  It is a partially fair/partially perverse
question to answer for those of us far from positions of power. 
The people with the least resources and the least monopoly
on violence are always asked and expected to be the first to seek alternatives
to violence. And throughout American history, those who are less resourced
generally comply.   That is why we
celebrate the words and actions of a Martin Luther King, who never picked up a
gun (despite at one time owning
) while pursuing a path of principled non-violent resistance to stop
people from being killed, kicked and kept at the bottom of America’s caste
The fact that the less resourced of us are always expected
to choose the path of peace while those in power with the most resources and
biggest monopoly on violence are never saddled with that expectation shouldn’t
sit well with any of us.  If there is a
redline, it should compel us to never again pretend that we are bombing,
shooting and killing in a country under the pretext of saving it. It should force
our leaders to spend the same energy and money they do on military hardware and advisers to build the infrastructure that can create an alternative to armed
conflict. It should force our diplomats to spend more energy ending conflicts and
less fighting to extradite “fugitives” like Edward Snowden.  It should push all of us to stop audaciously
hoping and start effectively seeking peaceful solutions to violent problems.  Doing any of this doesn’t require us to be pacifists,
isolationists or cut-and-runners.  It
just requires us to know better and act on what we know.  

By Subhash Kateel

This past week another young
man from Miami with a promising life was cut down needlessly. Another mother is
left to mourn her son while spending the next several holidays staring at an
empty chair.  Another group of friends
will reflect in the past tense about a friend that is no longer with them.  And yet again, another killer will likely
walk the street, spend holidays with his family and hang out with his
friends.  This time the killer will probably
even get his job back…as a Miami Beach Police Officer. 
By now you probably know
that young man’s name is not Trayvon Martin, it is Israel
. His friends call him Reefa.  He was killed Tuesday after police caught him
spray-painting an “R” on the wall of a vacant MacDonald’s in North Beach (where
most people are familiar with the building’s abandoned-ness and ugliness).  Several police chased the 18 year-old for ten
minutes before catching up to him and tasing him to death, reportedly to avoid “physically restraining him.”
There are plenty of
differences between Reefa and the also-needlessly dead Travyon Martin. Reefa was
originally from Colombia, Trayvon was born and raised in Miami.  Reefa was 18 when he died, Trayvon was 17.
Trayvon’s killer was a neighborhood watchman while Reefa’s killer is Miami
Beach Police veteran Jorge Mercado. 
Trayvon was never accused of a crime when Zimmerman started following
him, Reefa was tagging a vacant building when cops chased him, a crime
many consider an art form. But the similarities are important to note.  Like Trayvon, legions of Miamians loved Reefa.  In both cases, there
is plenty in the law
to charge and convict the killers of both teenagers,
but the system is stacked against either ever seeing a day in prison.  Finally, the way the public responds to both teenagers’
deaths has the potential to change the system so that no young person will ever
again meet their fate.
I have said a million times
, Florida law, however flawed it may be,
does not allow a person who provokes a conflict to categorically claim self
defense as George Zimmerman did.  He
should have never been able to claim he stood his ground.  But the system (the police, prosecutors,
judge and jury) never followed the law as it is written. The law in Israel’s
case is even more clear, yet the system is not used to treating law enforcement
officers as if the laws they enforce should ever apply to them.  In other words, officers who act above the
law have almost always been allowed to do what Zimmerman did, claim they are
standing their ground even when they aren’t.
State law
, (the same set of statutes that contain Stand Your Ground) clearly
says that an officer is justified in using force in three circumstances:
1. [In] which he or she reasonably believes [it] to be
necessary to defend himself or
herself or another from bodily harm
while making the arrest;
2. When necessarily committed in
retaking felons who have escaped; or
3. When necessarily committed in
arresting felons fleeing from
The Miami Beach Police Department’s own
say that the first five factors an officer is suppose to
consider when using force are:
1. Seriousness of the crime committed;
2. Size, age and weight;
3. Apparent physical ability;
4. Weapons possessed by or available;
5. Known history of violence
Additionally, their guidelines
for when an “Electronic Control Device” (X26 Taser) is to be used on humans (as
opposed to animals) is limited to when:
a. The subject is not in the physical
control of the officer yet posses a
; (misspelling is theirs, I assume it is meant to read “poses”) 

b. The officer, based on objective
reasonableness, perceives an imminent
threat of
physical force against himself, other persons, property or self-inflicted injury
Reefa’s detractors declare
that he was a criminal who tagged a privately owned building, however objectively
ugly and abandoned it may be, and was therefore asking to be tased to death. But the likely crime
he was tased for is a misdemeanor
(punishable by few months in jail and a fine) not a felony as the law kind of indicates it should be if police are
going to use force.  Furthermore, by all
accounts, Reefa stood about 5 foot 6,weighed 150 pounds and “hardly
posed a threat to anyone
.”  He had no
weapons and no criminal history.  Under
no objective measure could he be seen as a threat to several well-armed
police officers who
allegedly high-fived
each other as his tased body lay dying in the
Those are the facts based on
the law and on the Miami Beach Police Department’s own policies.  With those facts there is enough evidence for
the Miami Dade State Attorney (prosecutor) Katherine
Fernandez Rundle
to file criminal charges against Officer Jorge Mercado immediately.  There is enough evidence for the US Attorney
in Miami (a federal prosecutor)Wilfredo Ferrer  to file Federal criminal
against Mercado immediately. 
There is also enough evidence for the Miami Beach Police Chief, Raymond Martinez,
to fire Mercado immediately.  Every
minute that goes by that none of these things happen is a minute in which the agencies
that are tasked with upholding the law are failing at their jobs. 
In the coming weeks there is
bound to be a plethora of spin, excuses and justification for why the man who
murdered Reefa is not really a murderer, why Reefa is not really a victim and
why his killing is not really illegal. People will talk about how safe Tasers
are as opposed to real guns, even though over 500
people have been killed by them since 2001
, more than have been killed in mass
during the same period.  The
officers will likely claim that they felt threatened by Reefa, even though
their alleged actions seem to indicate the opposite.  Prosecutors will likely say that the law
prevents them from charging Mercado, even though the letter of the law
disagrees. Lastly, there are bound to be tons of Internet trolls that cast Reefa
as a thug and the cop who killed him as a hero. 
The loved ones, friends and supporters of Reefa should acknowledge all
of these things for what they are, excuses for murder, and prepare themselves
for the long fight for justice.

UPDATE:  Check our show on Israel “Reefa” Hernandez-Llach here:


pic: Amber Stephens
by Subhash Kateel
Trayvon Martin’s murder, his murderer’s acquittal and everything
we are seeing unfold now is making me question many things. What is common
about common sense? Is reasonable doubt really reasonable? Does great power truly
require great responsibility? Is killing people really wrong? But regardless of
what side you take on the murder of Trayvon Martin, even if the fact that there
are sides to this ordeal personally horrifies me, aspects of this case give
everyone a right to question their faith in the system.
Our collective faith should have been shaken much earlier. Over
the years we’ve watched as civilians
became terrorists, wallets
became guns, victims became perpetrators, human
became aliens and the innocent became guilty in order to justify
murder. Few things, however, can shake your faith like an adult murdering a teenager
who was walking home from the store.
But faith in the system persists because someone always
manages to make excuses for injustice.  “Was
that 17-year-old child really a victim or a suspect?” “Maybe his murder was
justified.” “Even if it was wrong, the law doesn’t say it was illegal.”
In this case, the excuses are based less on facts and more on
a faith in pundits, personalities and professionals who have been wrong about
virtually everything, from where our money should go to how many carbs we
should consume to which country we should go to war with. Yet we entrusted them
to tell us how to feel about the murder of a child.
I remember when the case was far simpler.  The week the case went public, I remember
talking to Floridians from all walks of life who mostly gasped at the horror of
a high school student being killed and his murderer not being arrested.  Who wouldn’t? Common sense dictated that the
killing of a teen was a GOD-awful thing.
Common sense also dictated that a person trying to defend themselves
would’ve behaved the opposite of how George Zimmerman behaved the night he
killed Trayvon. Ask Vic Grechniew, a firearms instructor from Central Florida who
teaches the classes that George Zimmerman would have taken before receiving his
concealed weapons permit. “If Zimmerman would have stayed in his car, none of
this would have happened,” he told me last year and reiterated again last week on my show.
But common sense stopped being common when self-defense started meaning killing
someone you were pursuing.
The debate on the reliably notorious Stand Your Ground laws
never helped.  If anything, it may have harmed
the case
irreparably. It’s easy to forget now that Stand Your Ground
started off as another excuse for injustice and incompetence.  It was an excuse used first by the Sanford
police department and then the original prosecutor in the case, State Attorney Norm
Wolfinger, to explain away
improper investigations
(e.g. not interviewing witnesses immediately,
securing crime scene or testing Zimmerman for drugs or alcohol) as well as the
failure to arrest and charge a murder suspect in a state where people have been
arrested immediately for letting
their pants sag
What started out as an excuse transformed into a mantra recited
over and over again by the debate-o-sphere (even supporters of Trayvon) and imprinted
into the minds of everyone, including potential jurors.  “George Zimmerman will never do
prison time because Stand Your Ground laws gave him the right to kill Trayvon
But everyone, even legal experts, were only reading half
of Florida’s laws
and allowing that half-reading to become conventional
wisdom. The central question in this case should have never been whether George
Zimmerman had the right to stand his ground on the night he killed Trayvon
Martin. Instead, everyone should have asked if George Zimmerman provoked a
confrontation with the teen before killing him. If so, then he should have
never been able to justify his murder of Trayvon Martin in court.
Even though Florida’s Stand Your Ground provisions are vague,
badly written and poorly placed, they have the same exceptions as non-Stand Your
Ground states like New York. The
law explicitly
that if you provoke an encounter with someone, you cannot claim you
are defending yourself unless you are in “imminent danger of death or great
bodily harm” AND exhaust every means
available to remove yourself from that confrontation.
Because talking heads were busy barely knowing this part of
the law exists (except for writers like Alafair
) they failed to report one of the biggest injustices in the case;
this vitally important exception to claiming self-defense barely made it into
the public conversation, the courtroom discussion, the closing arguments or the
jury deliberations.  In fact it never
made it
into the jury
! Zimmerman’s defense attorneys managed to keep the Florida
Stand Your Ground provisions, which
they never even brought up
in court, in
the jury instructions while blocking prosecutors
attempt to explain in those instructions that you can’t claim self-defense if
you are the “initial aggressor.” What the jury was left to consider was Zimmerman’s
right to stand his ground when he
killed Trayvon Martin but not his responsibility
to avoid provoking a fight with him. If, as Juror B37 told
Anderson Cooper
, half of the jurors were truly confused about Stand Your Ground
but still wished to convict Zimmerman, his fate may have been different had they
been correctly instructed on the law.
That wasn’t the only injustice in the courtroom.  According
to new revelations
, the jury wasn’t as “sequestered” as we thought.  And while Zimmerman may have been tried
before a jury of his peers, Juror B37 never seemed to view Trayvon Martin as
her peer.  Out of six jurors, none was African
American despite the fact that Sanford and Seminole County are 30%
and 12%
Black respectively.  Oddly
enough, at least some of the blame for such a melanin-deficient jury rests with
the prosecution, who allegedly struck one of the only potential Black jurors
from consideration because he
watched Fox news
From the beginning, putting faith in “special” prosecutors,
led by State Attorney Angela Corey, meant pinning hopes for justice on someone
accused of committing her own share of egregious injustice. To be sure, few
people know how to put someone claiming self-defense in prison like Angela
Corey. Not only did Corey manage to win a 20-year
against Marissa Alexander for shooting at a wall instead of an
abusive husband, she also sent 65
year-old army vet
Ronald Thompson to prison for 20 years for shooting at
the ground (he is now out on appeal). She also made a name for herself trying
juveniles as adults
.  She
allegedly did this by overcharging defendants with few resources and little
community support for offenses that come with stiff penalties, pushing them
into taking a guilty plea and punishing them if they don’t.  For example, discharging a firearm in the
course of a felony in Florida, even if no one is hurt, unleashes a 20-year
mandatory minimum prison sentence.
However, George Zimmerman had a way better legal team, more
community support and a far bigger war chest than most people prosecuted by
Corey and had zero likelihood of ever copping a plea.  By overcharging him with second-degree murder
as opposed to manslaughter, which many
legal scholars think
better reflects what he actually did, Corey’s team put
themselves in a position where they had to paint George Zimmerman as a horrible
person with evil intent and hate in his heart.
If they failed, some juror was bound to sympathize with him and at least one did.
Zimmerman did deserve to be charged with more than murder or
manslaughter.  It’s not unusual for a
defendant in criminal court to be charged with different crimes by different
agencies. But the Justice Department, who spent tons of resources investigating
George Zimmerman for civil rights violations could have charged Zimmerman more
easily for the financial
crimes he committed
while trying to withdraw the small fortune he made via
his legal defense fund from his PayPal account without the Feds and his judge
finding out. Even though Zimmerman was caught
on tape
committing the federal crime called “structuring,” (punishable by
five years in prison) it is yet another crime he may walk for.
Only a fool could watch all of this unfold and not lose
faith in the system.  But we are also
losing faith in our own ability to talk to each other about race. The fact is,
George Zimmerman made a mistake when he killed Trayvon Martin by assuming that
Trayvon was a suspect when he wasn’t.
That is something even his defense concedes.  There is also no dispute that George
Zimmerman is not a Neo-Nazi skinhead.  He
did disparage “Mexicans” on his old
Myspace page
but he also spoke out
for an elderly Black man who was assaulted after being called the “n” word by a
Sanford police lieutenant’s son.  But he
never needed to be a skinhead or a bad person to make a fatal error that ended a
teenager’s life.
All Zimmerman needed was to be a little racist to assume
that a kid with a hoodie and skinny jeans “looked” suspicious. The police, who
Zimmerman spoke out against previously, only had to be a little racist in
believing Zimmerman was a victim who was hit first by Trayvon (no one ever
corroborated that “first punch”).  The
prosecutors only had to be a little racist when deciding not to charge
Zimmerman. The jury only had to be a little racist in believing Zimmerman’s
fantastic Wild West self-defense scenario more than Rachel Jeantel.  And the public only needed a little racism to
believe that skinny jeans and a hoodie make a thug.
unless you think he looks suspicious too
The criminal justice system works (or not) by compounding
people’s little racisms to create big injustices: the belief that people who
smoke crack are
worse than
the ones who snort coke, that some high school students are
mischievous while others are
, that witnesses who don’t sound like Anderson Cooper are less
credible or that someone who paid their debt to society cannot
serve on a jury
.  Those small
assumptions combine to make the criminal justice system profoundly,
indisputably and destructively racist.
It will remain so as long as good people believe that acknowledging
their little racisms makes them horrible people rather than believing that
denying those little racisms  makes our system horrible.
We all suffer the scary consequences of a horrible system.  The misapplication of self-defense laws mixed
with the misuse of mandatory sentences creates real incentives for people
defending themselves to kill so no witness can put them away for 20 years.  Hotheads have incentives to pick fatal fights
so long as they create a plausible enough reason to claim self-defense.  People can be acquitted or convicted based on
misreading of the law and misinterpretation by a jury.
But while losing faith in a horrible system makes sense, losing
faith in our ability to confront it doesn’t.
After the verdict, when cynics expected riots, youth commandeered cars to
the Florida State Capitol. Instead of creating race wars, people created Tumblr pages
discussing white privilege.  There are
several more things we can do to fix the system we should no longer trust.
Dream Defenders and Power U at State Capitol
1.  Change the law but change all of it. The
push to change laws shouldn’t just prevent more Trayvons, it should prevent
more Oscar
, Marissa Alexanders, etc. (the list goes on).  Despite my
about the role of Stand Your Ground laws in the murder of Trayvon
Martin, our self-defense laws do have to be re-examined. But that is not enough.
No law should give
rogue law enforcement officers
the power to kill the unarmed and innocent
without ever being held responsible.  No
jury should ever be able to consider the parts of the law that give you the
right to defend yourself without considering your responsibility to not provoke
violent fights.  No prosecutor should
ever have more power than a judge to dish out harsh punishments that don’t fit
defendants’ crimes. No person who has paid their debt to society should be
prevented from serving on a jury.
2.  Speak out for Marissa Alexander.  There is no reason to have faith in a system
that puts a victim of domestic violence in prison for 20 years for shooting a
wall but gives a man who
decapitates someone
a 15-year sentence.
No prosecutor who failed to convict Zimmerman while managing to throw
several books at Marissa Alexander should spend the last year doubling
on misinformation rather than restoring justice.  People that stood up for Trayvon must learn about and start
speaking out for Marissa Alexander.
3.  Prosecutors must fear voters who believe in
  In states like Florida,
prosecutors (state attorneys) are the most powerful elected position that few people
care to vote for.  They often have more
power than judges and their actions help define how just or unjust the entire
system is in their district.  A
prosecutor that cared about justice and feared their constituents would have
charged George Zimmerman immediately, wouldn’t have charged Marissa Alexander
at all or would charged her with a crime that wouldn’t carry a mandatory 20-year
sentence.  Prosecutors across the state
that care about justice and fear their constituents would be more likely to
investigate corrupt cops and less likely to encourage the school to prison
pipeline or the overcharging of defendants.  But they will only fear their constituents if
we make getting them in and out of office as important as electing a President,
Governor or Mayor.
4.  We must support fresh faces pushing new
.  The work being done at the
capitol by Dream
and Power
doesn’t just regurgitate talking points. it captures the imagination while
creating new conversations.  Members of
the Florida Rights Restoration
are forcing us to rethink the way we treat returning citizens who
have paid their debt to society.  Sybrina Fulton
is no longer a mother mourning the death of her child, she is actively doing
the hard work of standing up for change.
The sooner we nourish new ideas the quicker old horrible systems will
fade away.
5. We have to start
talking and listening to each other
The culture wars that this case created made listening to shock jocks a
stand-in for real conversation.  A little
bit of all of us needs to change for us to restore and rebuild a society we can
believe in. Yes we have a right to lose faith in our system but we also have a
responsibility to not rest until it is fixed.
But fixing it means having faith in our ability to have hard
conversations with one another.


by Subhash Kateel
(Originally published in the Examiner)

In 2005, when our decision makers wanted
desperately to stop young Americans from being killed in the streets,
they knew they could do it by investing millions in the people that were
doing the shooting and killing. But those streets were in Baghdad.
As the debate on “gun violence
(apparently the only type of violence worth stopping) carries on, we
are stuck recycling the same solutions with the same dubious results. As
I noted in my last piece, “Beyond Banning Bad Guns and Arming Good Guys,
“ some measures, like background checks, may actually have an impact on
violence. Others, like a much touted assault weapons ban, or the
increased armed presence of…um…”resource officers” in schools very likely won’t. Even though everyone admits that horrible school shootings are “exceedingly rare” and current proposals probably wouldn’t stop them
even if they weren’t, the race to respond to Newtown has made it
abundantly clear that leaders of all parties lack the political will to
stop the next wave of killings in New Haven, Newark or New Orleans. 
To understand how bankrupt our solutions to the
American culture of violence are, you only have to compare them to the
decisive action taken in Iraq as American lives where being cut down by
Iraqi insurgents…KEEP READING HERE

By Subhash Kateel

“Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)

Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do it.” (Proverbs 3:27)

“…and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.” (Surah 5:32)     

It was those verses, from three different faiths, all swirling around my head as I watched the carnage in Sandy Hook on TV several weeks ago.  2012 marked a year in which many people I know had already lost so many loved ones.  For a while, I had no thoughts, no analysis, no theories…just verses.

Then the debates emerged.  To say that they became poisoned by posturing, divisiveness and sanctimony is both understandable and an understatement.  People’s anger, sadness and defensiveness charged a discussion in ways I haven’t seen since 9/11. In our current climate, it is increasingly hard to see how some of the alternating proposals flowing from these debates, namely, a “good guy with a gun” in every school or a generic “gun control” that bans all bad guns (“assault weapons”) and gun accessories (magazines, pistol grips etc.) will be anything but a distraction from truly understanding and addressing the root of what is causing people to die.

My own beliefs on the culture of violence have put me at odds with many friends.  I consider myself a progressive to the bone. I am pro-immigrant, anti-war on drugs and anti just about any war based on false pretenses and built on destruction.  Like many people, I have seen enough needless death and violence to know how much I hate it, whether it comes from the barrel of a gun, the blade of a knife, the missile of a drone, a US-issued Stinger in the hands of the Taliban or a baseball bat. But even though my parents never owned guns, I grew up around many people that did and I have always believed in what the Second Amendment fundamentally stands for. I never saw the label progressive as meaning a little left of liberal.  To me, it always meant that we address the root cause of every problem we face in a way that challenges ourselves as much as we challenge the powers creating those problems. 

As a community organizer, I witnessed with my own eyes a War on Drugs that left communities littered with drugs, violence and mass incarceration, a War on Terror that terrorized communities and an undeclared War on Immigrants meant to “secure communities” that has left many families torn apart. So when I hear folks recite the mantra of “gun control” or “a good guy with a gun” as the cure-all for the culture of violence in this country, I pause.

For another “banning of bad guns” or a “giving all good guys guns” proposal to be held up as a solution to any of this madness means that we are answering our own questions with self-serving facts that reinforce what we are already thinking. The actual facts don’t support any side of this debate completely and desperately scream out for new solutions.

The facts behind “the facts”

Among the most self-serving facts are the constant comparisons between violence in the US and what Piers Morgan calls “the civilized” world. So yes, America leads most of Europe in an intentionally misleading measure of violence called gun deaths. But over half of US gun deaths are suicides that may have still happened without a gun and over a third of US murders take place without any gun whatsoever.  For perspective, if every suicide in gun death-less Japan happened with a gun, it would have a much higher gun death rate than the United States because it has way more suicides. If all gun murders in America miraculously disappeared, we would still have a much higher murder rate than Japan.

Gun rights advocates who point to Switzerland’s’ high rates of gun ownership and low rates of murder are rightly reminded by gun control advocates that the Swiss also have significantly stricter gun laws than the US.  But gun control advocates, while pushing to ban “assault weapons,” also forget that hundreds of thousands of those Swiss guns are full-fledged automatic weapons which have been illegal to the general American public for decades and not semi-automatic “assault weapons” (a term that means virtually nothing).  When comparing the US to countries that don’t have the same history, population, land mass or (lack of) access to a social safety net, people leave out the only country in Europe that even slightly compares to the US in size and population, Russia, which has way fewer guns per capita (9 vs. 89 per 100 people) but more than twice the murders. Even Yemen, which the media often describes as an anarchic open air gun market/haven for terrorists, has much less murder per capita than Russia.  

Murder Stats from 2009 UN Data, Gun Stats from Small Arms Survey

Strangely, when you only compare European countries to other European countries (see graph), you see that all have stricter gun laws than the US but the ones with more guns tend to have fewer murders.  While there is no proof that one causes the other, for how good the UK has been at eradicating gun possession (or not), it still has more murders than Germany or Switzerland which have five times more guns. European countries do have horrific mass killings far less frequently, but the scale of the ones that have taken place (even in the UK) are no less shocking. Norway, an extremely stable country with a strong social safety net, strict gun laws and extremely low murder rate had a horrible mass shooting in 2011 by a neo-Nazi at a youth camp that killed 69 people, twice as many as America’s worst modern-day mass shooting, the Virginia Tech Massacre.  Even, peaceful, gun-less Japan had a deadly sarin gas attack on its subways that killed 13 people and injured thousands in 1995.

An honest look at “civilized” Europe would tell us that our gun laws can use a few more regulations, our country can use a better social safety net, having more guns doesn’t mean more murder, having “assault weapons” doesn’t mean they will be used in mass murder and sometimes, you can do everything right and still have insane mass killings. Oh, and calling European countries the “civilized world” is really dumb and freaking racist (that’s means you, Piers Morgan).  You can’t fit that into a meme.

I tried

A basic accounting of mass killings on US soil, not “school shootings,” “mass shootings” or another carefully concocted term, should really help us question why anyone is recycling the idea of an assault weapons ban or more “good guys with guns” as a serious solution.  The largest American school massacre took place in Bath, MI in 1927 after a deranged school board official set off bombs in a schoolhouse killing 45 people, mostly children.  It is highly unlikely that any “good guy with a gun” would have known to stop a school official or that banning any gun could have prevented him from secretly planting bombs.  The worst domestic violence-related mass killing took place in 1990 after an angry ex-boyfriend set fire to a Bronx club, killing 87.  One of the first high profile mass shootings, the Texas Bell Tower shooting of 1966, was perpetrated by an ex-Marine who killed 16 people after shooting at University of Texas-Austin students and staff from a school clock tower using a Remington 700 bolt-action (non “semi-automatic”) hunting rifle still widely used today. The worst American school shooting, the Virginia Tech massacre, was committed in 2007 with zero “assault” or high-powered weapons. Many of the 33 murdered students were killed with a .22 caliber pistol (with no high capacity magazine), among the least powerful and least likely to be banned of any gun in America (or Europe).  Both UT Austin and Virginia Tech had armed police on the scene at some point.

Perhaps the largest civilian massacre (with the exception of 9/11) on US soil since Wounded Knee, the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building, was perpetrated by a First Gulf War vet who chose a truck and fertilizer-laced explosives to blow up the relatively secure government office, killing 168 people including 19 children of the same age as those in Sandy Hook.  Columbine, one of the most high profile school shootings in recent memory, took place six years after the Federal Assault Weapons Ban’s passage at a school with an armed security guard.  Neither the banning of a bad gun nor the arming of good guys was enough to stop needless slaughter in any of the above circumstances.

To really grasp how much of a failure political quick fixes have been, one must only visit Stockton, California.  A week after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Stockton marked the 23rd anniversary of a crazed gunman opening fire on a playground full of Asian American school children at the Cleveland Elementary School, killing six and injuring 30.  The unreal bloodshed set the stage for the first Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. While many news outlets made the links between Sandy Hook and the Stockton schoolyard, none highlighted how much California’s conservative, liberal and “centrist” policies had failed the people of Stockton.  California has by far the toughest gun laws in the country, laws so tough that some gun manufacturers refuse to do business in the state.  It has the mandatory minimums and the three-strikes laws that conservatives hold up as the real answer to violent crime.  It has every zero tolerance policy in schools and anti-gang injunction on the streets that would re-elect either party’s get-tough politicians.  Yet even with the toughest of all types of laws, two decades after its own version of Sandy Hook, Stockton is considered one of the ten most dangerous US cities.  Its murder rate in 2012 is set to double what it was in 2011. 

Quite simply, policies like “assault weapons bans,” “SWAT Teams in Schools” or “Tech-9’s for Teachers” don’t and won’t eliminate violence because they are not meant to. They are proposed because they make politicians look good, make liberals and conservatives feel good in their respective positions and give us another excuse to put off working together to find real solutions to stopping violence.

Another Failed War?

Gun and accessory bans, specifically, don’t stop murder for the same reason the War on Drugs never stopped drug addiction or Prohibition never stopped alcoholism (except that neither drugs or alcohol have been enshrined in the Constitution). In addition to their inability to tame large illegal markets, the enforcement of our gun laws plays out on the street the same way the enforcement of our drug laws do…badly. Drug addiction has always been the disproportionate domain of White folks but the Drug War’s jail cells have always been disproportionately reserved for Black and Brown folks-so much so that the prison system has been called “the New Jim Crow.” Similarly, “common sense” gun laws are rarely enforced on middle class socially maladjusted rural/suburban kids like Adam Lanza. Black and Brown folks are far less likely to own guns than White folks, more likely to live in places (e.g. Washington DC, Chicago) where gun possession is severely restricted but also more likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested and jailed on gun charges.  The least unevenly enforced gun laws at the federal level still jail disproportionately more Black folks than Whites.  

Inherently unequal gun law enforcement is nothing new and predates the War on Drugs by a couple centuries. In fact, most of the country’s early gun laws were obsessed with preventing Black and Native American folks from owning guns.  What has hundreds of years of gun control in Black communities, through the eras of the old and new Jim Crows, produced? Today, Black men are six times more likely to be victims of homicide than White men. 

The liberal understanding that the Drug War failed miserably and destroyed communities it claimed to protect doesn’t seem to translate into an understanding that the same criminal justice system tasked with leading the failed War on Drugs would be tasked with making a “War on Gun Violence” successful.  Whenever I ask my friends what would be different, I am merely told, “we have to do something” or “it’s a start.”

Proposed gun bans are effective, however, at creating artificially high demand that floods the country with whatever gun or accessory is at threat of being banned.  In this respect, they do the opposite of what they were meant to, much the same way those Parental Advisory warnings from the 1990’s probably encouraged my friends to listen to more violent music.  Several older gun shop owners have told me that there wasn’t such large-scale demand for “assault weapons” until the first push to ban assault weapons in the early 90’s.  As we speak, AR-15’s (one of the guns used at Sandy Hook) are moving off the shelves at guns shops and gun shows at a rate as high as a dozen an hour per dealer.  By the time the ink is dry on any weapons or magazine ban, at least a million more AR-15’s and even more high capacity magazines will be in the hands of Americans.  Regardless of the rhetoric, assault weapons ban proponents admit that no ban will retroactively seize any of these newly acquired guns or magazines.  But none of this seems to stop the same media outlets, who refuse to make the man that shot the children at Sandy Hook a household name, from running a virtual 24 hour infomercial for the AR-15, selling more than any Bushmaster ad campaign could imagine.  Is that really a good “start?”

Much distresses me about this entire debate.  For one, some of my liberal friends that lament “the other side’s” ignorance on things like climate change similarly ignore the basic statistics saying that more Americans are killed with bats, knives or bare fists than assault weapons or the government research describing the last assault weapons ban’s effectiveness as tenuous at best.  They also keep insisting on banning things that are already illegal (machine guns ), that semiautomatic rifles are never used for hunting, or that rifles used to kill a 400 lbs. deer at 250 yards away are somehow less powerful, not as “armor piercing,” or less deadly than “assault weapons.”  While hoisting up the need for gun bans and gun buyback programs, which are among the least effective anti-violence measures, they allow all sides of the debate to ignore proactive things like gang intervention programs and other successful anti-violence efforts that are constantly left starving for resources.

Meanwhile, using a culture war on guns as a stand in for stopping violence also gives some conservative gun owners a codependent crutch for fatalistic views on violence that run counter to their own values (personal responsibility, etc.). Many swear off American violence as the inevitable product of evil intent, making stopping it with force the only logical solution.  I swear, for how many gun owners I know that call themselves Christians, you would forget that they belong to a faith that puts a premium on redemption, responsibility and reconciliation. 

In either case, the responsibility to stop violence is always someone else’s and can never happen until a mythical world is created where the Brady Campaign and the NRA either completely agree with each other or, depending on whose world, cease to exist.   

False Prophets of Peace

Perhaps the worst part of the current debate is that it lionizes politicians as prophets of peace that are anything but.  New York State has hosted some of the most egregious examples. George Pataki, New York’s Republican Governor from 1995-2006, was often lauded as a voice of reason in the gun debate for passing some of the strictest gun laws in the country, making the assault weapons ban in New York permanent (which the current Governor promises to make more permanent). These same gun laws couldn’t prevent William Spengler from killing two firefighters in Webster, New York barely a week after Sandy Hook. But few of the forces that anointed Pataki a centrist savior want to remember that he also cut college programs for incarcerated people.  These programs moved scores of people that I know personally from being participants in the culture of violence to being social workers, computer programmers and legitimate small businesspeople.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has become a Mahatma Gandhi/Daddy Warbucks of the gun control world while overseeing a police force (NYPD) that he affectionately calls his personal army (no he really said that).  On his watch, rogue members of his “army” have been accused of planting evidence, murdering unarmed men with impunity, stealing guns and selling them to drug dealers, creating a mass shooting by trying to stop one and many other things that Gandhi would never ever do. 

Many gun control advocates still hold up the Empire State as a success story.  But anyone that has actually worked in New York City neighborhoods for longer than five minutes can tell you that the “safe” New York is more a product of policies that turned the city into a playground for the superrich (who feel safe no matter where they live) while pushing many working people into significantly less safe locales both within (Buffalo, Poughkeepsie) and outside the state (New Haven, Philadelphia and Orlando).  Cities in the “safe” New York State like Buffalo and Poughkeepsie have murder rates nearly three times the national average.

Connecticut politicians, whose tears post Sandy Hook are no doubt genuine, are similarly credited with being strong enough to stand up to the NRA, making Connecticut’s gun laws the fourth toughest in the country.  Unfortunately, they never stood up to the realities of a state where one of the wealthiest and most prestigious universities in the world, Yale, runs a virtual company town, New Haven, that is considered one of America’s most violent cities.

Sadly, pro gun and anti-gun politicians share much in common. Both crave a zero tolerance, low intensity police state that uses violence and force whenever it makes their rich friends happy, whether it is conducting selectively dehumanizing stops and frisks, the use of eminent domain for questionable “community development” or breaking up completely legitimate First Amendment activity.  At the same time, almost all have stood in the way of real community strategies that actually stop violence.

A New Way Forward?

With all of that said, there is far too much violence in America. Facts, politicians and politics be damned; when you are a parent attending a child’s funeral, one death is a statistic too many and a problem in need of an immediate solution. Finding real solutions means coming together to do practical things now to stop violence that are based in reality. 

America’s reality is 1) the Second Amendment will never ever be repealed and guns will never be banned or even restricted to the point where we will become the UK or Japan. 2) Americans will never have enough “good guys with guns” to stop every murder or insane act of violence. 3) There is far too much violence in America, with or without guns.  4) The things we have tried rarely address the root causes of violence.  5) No one in their right mind wants people to die.

Taking collective responsibility to stop the culture of violence now means working with people we disagree with to come up with solutions not contingent on our collective agreement on the Second Amendment. After talking to many people I trust for the past month, I have heard of a few things we can do now.

1.  Preventative gun policy (vs. prohibition).  Calling everything “gun control” doesn’t distinguish between policies that ban things, which just make politicians look good, don’t stop violence but have bad side effects (disproportionate incarceration and increased demand) and preventative gun policies. Amazingly, researchers cited by pro and anti gun control camps who disagree bitterly on everything seem to agree that strengthened background checks (possibly even Joe Biden’s “universal background checks”) work in reducing violence without confiscating anything or putting anyone in jail.  Many gun owners I have spoken to tell me that they oppose any ban but believe that everyone buying firearms should have a reasonably thorough background check to prevent, for example, the severely mentally ill or perpetrators of domestic violence from obtaining guns.  Some have even suggested being ok with background checks for high capacity magazines while opposing their prohibition. Even if the NRA would oppose expanded background checks, very few of their members would. While stronger background checks wouldn’t have stopped the Sandy Hook killings, they may have stopped the Virginia Tech massacre, the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado and the mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona that injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.  Besides better background checks, there are plenty of other preventative gun policies that would significantly reduce violence way better than banning anything.

2.  Tax credits and incentives for gun safes and smartgun technology. Connecticut already had an assault weapons ban and strict gun laws.  While no law was enough to stop Adam Lanza from getting his mother’s guns, securing those guns might have stopped something. It is easy to balk at a proposal to proactively help gun owners better secure their firearms until you consider that every year, at least 500,000 guns are stolen, sometimes by relatives and often from homes without quality gun safes.  Those guns are exponentially more likely to be used in the 300,000 or so gun-related violent crimes yearly than the 270 million guns that aren’t stolen. Most gun owners want and would use a quality safe.  Using incentives, as opposed to requirements, to encourage investment in high quality safes could over time potentially keep millions of guns out of the illegal gun market and away from violent crime scenes.  Although controversial, research is also underway for smartgun technology that customizes guns so that only the owner may use them.  While requiring gun owners to invest in controversial and untested technology would be a non-starter, encouraging more research and incentives for future use opens doors to new strategies to drastically reduce death.

3.  Invest in domestic violence intervention and prevention. To understand domestic violence is to understand Adam Lanza’s mother, who intimated to community members that she feared her son’s mental trajectory, as a victim.  The Justice Department says that over half of murder victims were killed by someone they know (almost a quarter by family members).  A boyfriend or spouse kills a shocking third of all female murder victims, regardless of weapon used. Violent intimate partners have also been involved in their fair share of mass killings.  Making sure that there are better support services for survivors and perpetrators while investing in best practices to keep survivors away from violent circumstances and keep high-risk perpetrators away from survivors and weapons can have immediate and lasting impacts on violence. Ensuring that domestic violence institutions are fully equpped to deal with these circumstances is something that pro and anti gun control people can support regardless of their politics.  For example, former US Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, one of the Senate’s most respected progressive members, was both a strong supporter of gun rights and a strong supporter of policies protecting survivors of domestic violence. 

4.  Invest in other creative violence intervention/prevention projects. Gang truces, college degrees for the incarcerated, street violence “interrupter” projects.  Many of us have seen all of these programs have a direct and dramatic impact on reducing “street” violence and transforming lives. But these programs are labor intensive and often require investing in the redemption of people walking away from the culture of violence. Research shows that these programs are much more effective than feel-good things like gun buy back programs.  But when budgets are cut, they are often the first programs to go, when they are funded at all. Whether it’s the government, Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns or the NRA funding them, ensuring that they are effective and well resourced must become a cornerstone of any fight against the culture of violence.

5.  Create holistic treatment of the violently mentally ill or chemically addicted.  The most welcome, yet first to be dismissed, conversations post-Sandy Hook emphasized this country’s crisis in mental health and substance abuse treatment. The mental health link to Sandy Hook was downplayed partly by well meaning activists with legitimate fears that folks with mental illness (who are more likely to be victims than perps) would be scapegoated as potential serial killers. That doesn’t change the fact that in Florida, where I live, the number of people that are being declared a threat to themselves or others is skyrocketing while the services for them are disintegrating.  Yes we need better background checks to prevent the sliver of mentally ill/chemically addicted that are a threat to others from obtaining weapons, something that is completely doable. But we also need to make sure that we are creating holistic and effective care.

6.  Create more peace building institutions.  A big mistakes made in this debate is assuming that you can create a peaceful society by forcing people to give up their guns (even rhetorically). Martin Luther King, a gun owner, didn’t become a proponent of peaceful resistance because of gun laws. He made a conscious commitment to it. To create a peaceful society, we need to spend way more time encouraging the creation of things like effective conflict resolution programs in schools (that aren’t just for overachievers) and less time getting boiling mad over divisive debates. 

7.  Creating a different gun culture.  America’s gun culture isn’t going anywhere, but it doesn’t have to be inherently intertwined with the culture of violence. Martial arts instructors, despite knowing twelve different ways of killing someone with their fists, are in my experience among the least violent people I know.  Additionally, acknowledging that we had 14,000 too many murders last year (about 9,300 with a gun) is to acknowledge that murder and violent crime have dropped for five straight years and that we have over a 100 million gun owners from all walks of life that aren’t committing murderous acts of violence. Gun club organizers, firearms instructors and gun shop owners are, in fact, in a unique and far better position to positively stop gun violence than those that want to wish them out of existence.  In Aurora, Colorado before the theater shooting, there were two people that thought something was not right with the shooter, his psychiatrist and the owner of the gun range that the shooter unsuccessfully tried to join. Our current culture war has created a scenario where that intuition never prevented tragedy. Encouraging a culture where people that spend every day with people with guns can detect early warning signs and find proactive, non-“creepy big brother” ways to address those signs could stop scores of violent acts before they start.  Additionally, encouraging a culture where gun owners actively support anti-violence work seems like a better use of time than demanding that Mayor Bloomberg and the NRA’s Wayne La Pierre shake hands. 

Will these things stop all murder 100%? No.  Will they stop much more violence than any unproductive culture war debate with mostly symbolic legislation? Absolutely.  Will they give us ways to work with people we don’t agree with to stop violence that we all agree has to stop? Definitely. 

The starting point can’t be waiting for the right law or right fully armed/disarmed society.  We(I) have to take the collective responsibility to address our culture of violence as it appears in our lives.  As a man, that means taking the responsibility to address the way that us men are often socialized to express anger, depression and cries for help.  As a friend, that means investing in the redemption of friends and family that wish to walk away from the culture of violence they once participated in. As a community member, it means making sure the institutions that keep people truly safe and healthy survive.  It also means challenging ourselves to come correct with our best thinking and actions. After talking to tons of gun owners and non-gun owners, I realize that the best parts of us believe in building a better and safer world for the people we care about.  The sooner we can put our best beliefs forward, the sooner we can do that. 

Don’t forget to check out our show every Wednesday night at 7pm right here.

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The Anti-Violence Effort That Saved American Lives…In Iraq  

By Subhash Kateel

I have gotten so tired of spending every Columbus Day trying to tell people that celebrating Columbus Day, no matter how, ironically, culturally sensitive its origins are, is just an awful thing to do.  It is even more awful to give people the day off on a day that commemorates a dude that actually kidnapped people.  So instead of trying to get people to stop celebrating, I decided to celebrate in my own way.  I created a #celebratecolumbus hashtag on twitter and inserted my most inspiring thoughts:

1. Sooo, do you mind if I crash at your crib for a day…year…century? 
2. “Officer, I didn’t steal this car. I DISCOVERED it.” 
3. Mlk 2 columbus: “u aren’t american, don’t spk english, entered illegally, & I had problems getting a holiday in AZ?” 
4. Your majesty, it’s curry. I swear. 
5. Cold, unspicy spanish chorizo=progress. 
6. Leif Ericson: “really? That dude gets a fed. Holiday and I don’t?” 
7. U should come with me to meet the king. Do u mind putting these shackles…I mean…magic travel bracelets on first? 
8. An Inca: “right, because we always needed male-pattern baldness in our gene-pool” 
9. A taino: “look if you’re gonna force us to speak spanish, can we at least not speak with that freaking lisp?” 
10. An arawak: “right, so if I don’t read this book that told you not to kill people, you’re gonna kill me? Just…wow” 
11. A mayan: ain’t these the guys that are gonna educate us by forcing us to stop learning math? 
12. Indian in india: “glad that columbus dude didn’t discover us. Wait…you see that ship? Oh, sh*t.” 
13. #celebratecolumbus…Because isn’t Europe a better continent with syphilis? 
14. A Carib:”rotflmao, that dude thinks he is eating a samosa!” 
15. Borinken: “oh sh*t, now they are gonna make us dance like them.” 
16. #celebratecolumbus…because we should always honor the dudes that get lost driving 
17. Iroquois: “Wait, so one day lacrosse will be the whitest sport? smdh” 
18. Wampanoag: “I swear if this dude makes me show him how to pull plants from the ground one more freaking time…” 
19. Taino 2 Taino: “Why these Spaniards so mad?” “Wouldn’t u be mad if the Moors made u eat couscous for a few hundred yrs?” 
20. Tecumseh: “Yeah, you believe in #guncontrol…right” 
21. Mayan 2 Mayan: “dumba$$, I told u to invent googlemaps instead of spending all that time discovering the number zero!” 
22. Iroquois to Mayan: “you mean one day he is gonna teach us about democracy and astronomy? stfuwtbs!” 
23. An aztec: “you want us to destroy our idolatrous statues & gaudy temples and replace them with what again?”
24. Aztec to montezuma: “you fool, if he’s really a god, then why is he sunburned and allergic to mosquito bites?”
25. Mayan architect’ spouse: “all this time you’re spending on pyramids, they r just gonna say that aliens built it anyway”
26. A Mayan: “You know what would be some funny sh*t? Make this calendar end on 2012! Ppl will flip!” 
27. Mexica: “yea man, whatever, we’ll follow your religion. Check out this Virgen de guadelupe shrine.” 
28. Geronimo: “Nah bro, how bout I keep the rifle and you keep the nasty hipster thrift shop blanket!”

I know, you probably think that I have way too much time on my hands.  I don’t.  The truth of Columbus Day is a hard one to reflect on.  Almost as hard as reflecting on the stuff Columbus actually said…in his own journals:

“They [the Arawak] are the best people in the
world and above all the gentlest—without knowledge of what is evil—nor
do they murder or steal…they love their neighbors as themselves and they
have the sweetest talk in the world…always laughing…They are very simple and honest and exceedingly liberal with all
they have, none of them refusing anything he may possess when he is
asked for it. They exhibit great love toward all others in preference to
themselves…They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could
subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”


I want you to read that a few times and think about it.  This is the man we celebrate.  This is the mentality we celebrate.  A lot of people, when I talk about this seriously, instead of in crazy, ranting hashtagged tweets, will tell me that this is the past and that we should stop focusing on it.  If we should stop focusing on it, we should stop celebrating it, too.  Feel free to check out this article by the late Howard Zinn.

Let’s keep moving forward by celebrating the values and attributes that we aspire to and the people that represent them.

I’m out.

The Khanda: the symbol of Sikhism

by Subhash Kateel
Being South Asian American (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi,
Sri Lankan, etc.) means understanding unity and disunity in times of
crisis.  Our shared and fragmented
history has been a product of both. Our families descend from one of the most
diverse and divided regions in the world. 
Conversations within our American-based communities can sometimes
degenerate along the same ethnic, religious and even caste lines.  But extreme crisis, from colonialism through
partition, from 9/11 to its aftermath and even a terrorist attack at a
Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) that kills seven can exacerbate those lines
or destroy them all together. 
Like every kid raised in a South Asian household, I learned
about the ties that bind and the lines that divide.  But one of the things I care to remember this
week is the lesson my folks taught me when addressing the people I love. Growing
up, our parents taught us to call our elders and their friends “uncle” and “auntie.”
No matter what their blood ties and ethnic or religious affiliation meant to us
or what part of the sub-continent and its diaspora they called home, that was
who they were to us.  Depending on the
parent, that title would even extend to our Black, Latino and White elders. It
was always meant to be a term of endearment and respect.  It was also a cause for confusion when trying
to figure out who we were actually related to. 
But I would like to think that it was our parents’ way of telling us
that our families are bigger than biology. 
That didn’t mean that our parents were free from the “isms” that defined
being a South Asian, American or human. 
It did mean that our parents, like all of us, are capable of
transcending those differences.
This week, as I see the press weaving through the difference
between Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus; and clarifying that Sikhs are “peace-loving”
and not deserving of massacre, I would rather remember the lessons I learned
from family and friends.  I could care
less if my uncles, aunties, brothers and sisters were Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Catholic.  Shoot, I could care
less if they were Westboro Baptists
Someone shot at our uncles and aunties…while they were praying…with
their families.
While some experts and talking heads are quick and careful to
point out what separates the traditions of Sikhs, Muslims and whoever else, I
would rather remember the lessons of Udham Singh, a Sikh freedom fighter who at
the height of the Indian independence struggle with England voluntarily changed
his name to Mohammed Ram Singh Azad to reflect a universal fight for justice.  I want to remember the lessons of the
Stockton Gurdwara in
California during the early 1900’s, which opened its doors to Punjabi Americans
and Indian Americans of all religions at a time when they couldn’t own land or become citizens.
I want to remember the lessons I learned as immigrant rights
organizer at Families For Freedom, when I received a joint letter from hunger
striking detainees in a Deep South detention center signed by Muslim,
Rastafari, Sikh and Christian detainees of all races who were more
un-affectionately known as “boy” by their detention center guards.  Their petitions where a protest by most of
the detainees against, among other things, attempts by guards to forcibly shave
some of their heads and faces in violent violation of their religious
But I am not just a romantic (in fact my wife doesn’t think
I am very romantic at all) and so there are other lessons I want to remember as well.  While the media is making a mockery of a
white supremacist’s fatal case of mistaken identity, I would like to remind
them that as a former Army-man (where people are often far more educated about the
world than most average Americans), he probably knew very well what country and religion
his victims were from and probably didn’t give a damn.  I would like to remind them that his alleged
case of mistaken identity was no smarter or dumber than the actions taken by former
Attorney General Jon Ashcroft’s Justice Department right after 9/11,
when dozens of Sikhs and Hindus joined Pakistani Americans, Egyptian Americans
and Yemeni Americans in the county jails-turned-detention centers that littered
the landscape of New Jersey during the “special interest” round-ups that
weren’t that special but were (according to an FBI whistleblower) “mostly for
PR purposes.” 
The man who shot families while they prayed is also no smarter
or dumber than our former President and Vice President who sold a war to the
public which we were told was to destroy Al Qaeda by attacking a country and its people led by a dictator who sucked but who had a long track record of hating groups like Al Qaeda.  Nor is Wade Page’s (the name of the shooter at the
Gurdwara) ability to identify his victims any more or less “mistaken” than our
current President’s reclassification of civilians as “insurgents” during drone strikes for the
purpose of lowering civilian body counts. In each case, a turn of phrase and a
change of perception can easily turn one’s “uncle” into another’s “enemy” and
destroy a life.
But beyond politics, in the weeklong public crash
course on Sikh religion, philosophy and culture, there are lessons my friends
and their parents, my “uncles” and “aunties” taught me that I also want to hold close.  Those lessons made me, as a
non-Sikh, love the core of Sikhism.
In college I wondered out loud to one of my closest friends
how so many Sikhs (men and women) could handle the
taunts, stares and violence that wearing a turban can bring in America.  He explained to me that in the first century
of the faith, wearing a turban was a privilege reserved for chiefs, kings and rulers.   The
Gurus’ (first ten Sikh holy leaders/teachers) instruction to every baptized Sikh
to wear a turban signified self-respect, courage and faithfulness.  But it was also a symbol of equality and a pronouncement that we are all kings (and queens).  It is either pathetic or ironic that the man, whose
racist punk band screeched laments of the loss of freedom in America, targeted men and women at a place of worship where the most visible symbols represent concepts like “equality” and “defense of the oppressed.” 
In the week that we can remember and reflect before the news
media goes back to criticizing Serena William’s Olympic Crip walk, I
hope we can think about the language we use to describe tragedy.  For one, I hope that the respect, thoughts and
attention that the Sikh community deserves doesn’t mean an over-emphasis on the peace loving, “not deserving of murder-ness” of a community. 
The culture of violence that is mainstreamed in our collective heads has told us to
create lines between those who deserve and don’t deserve violence and
death.  The people that deserve are often
somebody else that we don’t know, understand, or care about: the country whose
children deserve a pre-emptive strike, the boy who deserved to be lynched, the
woman who asked to be hit, the innocent victim who didn’t deserve to be cut
down by a white supremacist. The more our words and thoughts (including mine)
create those categories of who does or doesn’t deserve to die, the more we
ensure no amount of hate crime legislation, “jail all-racists” bills, mental
health counseling or anti-gun/anti-drone/anti-box-cutter ordinance is going to
stop the root causes of violence.
While some have said that on Sunday, we all became Sikhs, I
can’t claim to wear my aspirations for equality and courage on my head everyday.  But I can say that the men and women who are
burying their loved ones and searching for answers are my uncles and aunties…my
brothers and sisters.
Note:  There are a lot of things that others wrote that far better describe the moment we are in.  While I may not agree with all of their points, I suggest that you check out this, this, this, this and this (I am probably missing a few).  Here are profiles of those that were murdered last Sunday.  Hopefully we will get a chance to have a deeper discussion on our show Wednesday night too.