Notes from a Slide into Totalitarianism

The snatch-and-detain situation in Portland terrifies me. This practice run for terrorizing Americans and seizing power is playing out in real time on our social media and in the news.

If the US had been invaded by a powerful enemy and was now under siege, I would expect to hear stories like the ones coming out of Portland. But, then, I shouldn’t be surprised because that is exactly what has happened. The US has been invaded by a powerful enemy … they just happen to be the ruling party in Washington. Caligula and his masters and minions are taking what little is left of our democracy and grinding it under their heels. Well, not really, though. They’re far too weak to do the grinding. They are happy to sit back and let the military do it for them.

Unidentifiable military police are disappearing people off the streets of an American city … and we all just go on with our days — place another Amazon order, wonder if the Key Food has toilet paper, hope we can get to the bakery before the baguettes sell out.

Not that I have any kind of idea about what to do. Yes, write to my senators, post rants on FB, rock myself to sleep in fear … beyond that, I’m at a loss. What can I do?

Portland is just a test run, a dress rehearsal. There are, as I see it, multiple goals:

  • See if Caligula can get away with laying siege to a city within our borders.
  • See if this terrorism succeeds in shutting down protests.
  • See how easily people can be swept away … and what it would take to sweep up large numbers of people.
  • Make people think twice before speaking out about anything.
  • Testing the will/strength/capacity of the opposition party and the courts to see how the situation might play out in other cities, in November.

Is there anyone who doesn’t think Caligula has an encyclopedia of dictators in the residence … or, well, board books with one brightly-colored tome for each despot? He’s clearly been captivated by the volume on Pinochet.

I don’t think I’ve ever kidded myself that the US is the “more perfect union” the founders dreamed of in the Constitution’s Preamble, but I never thought we’d be here, either. Never thought I’d have to think seriously about dictatorial rule in this democratic republic I call home.

I’m puzzled by one thing, though. How are the military police okay with carrying out these orders? How are they not standing in support of the freedoms we’re all supposed to enjoy, the freedoms they’re supposed to have enlisted to uphold? How are they so comfortable and casual about enacting violence on their countrymen? How is this possible?

I am, actually, this naive. Yes, it turns out that I am. I wouldn’t have thought it so, but here I am.

Who fights for us, the fools like me who thought we had a firmer grasp on how things could work in this country? Who fights for us if the people who signed up to defend the country are now actively fighting against us?

Turns out, I’m even more naive than I just realized. After federal law enforcement attacked the BLM protesters in Lafayette Square in June, General Mark Milley acknowledged that he should have participated. And lots of folks saw that as a signal that we could count on Milley to side with the country and not the titular head of the country. I let myself be lulled, figured all those people who make a living analyzing this stuff must know what they’re talking about. And Mark Esper said some words, and those same thinkers papered those words over top of Milley’s statement and said we should all feel a little bit of optimism.

And I grabbed onto that optimism. So naive.

And here we are, on the knife’s edge, watching people who could so easily be any one of us grabbed off the street, bundled into unmarked vehicles and taken away.

As I said, Portland is a dress rehearsal. Not a full dress rehearsal, though. This is a first run, a chance to see how everyone reacts. The disappeared have been released (so far as we know), and they have mostly been unharmed. In the next run-through, there will be far more violence so that Caligula can see how we respond to that threat. And then, in the full dress rehearsal, we’ll see the kinds of for-real disappearances the people of Chile could tell us stories about. Where will the mothers of the disappeared gather in this country? Who will create the American version of Madres de Plaza de Mayo?

Yes, yes, yes. Maybe you’re thinking I’ve gone from dangerously naive to histrionic. But have I? Have I really? Does what’s being done in Portland seem like business as usual to you?

And I sit here, choking on my impotence. Because, really, what do we do? I have been able, until now, to convince myself that my pen is my answer, my weapon in this fight. But what can my pen do for me now? My minuscule readership isn’t likely to mobilize and take on the anonymous troops in Portland, and I wouldn’t want them to. But there has to be more I or any of us can do other than look on in horror.

A venal monster by any other name …

I have taken to calling the president “Caligula.” Seth Meyers put this in my head by referring to him a few weeks ago as “our drooling, potato-brained Caligula.” It felt perfect. I used the whole description for a bit, but have given up the adjectives. They offer too much cover for evil.

At the start of the administration, I refused to put the word “president” beside Caligula’s name. Also wanted to avoid using his name. I started calling him “THOTUS” instead: Titular Head of These United States. (I was pretty proud of that one, I have to admit.) THOTUS worked for me on many levels. It gave a nod to the man’s baseness by including “tit.” It acknowledged the obvious fact that the decisions he was making were guided by his masters even as he wore the crown. And it let me bypass saying his name or calling him by the office he held.

Eventually, I had to give up THOTUS. It still worked for me, still felt satisfying, but the damage being done to and by this country was too great to be tossing around a cutesy name for a greedy, self-aggrandizing, painfully unintelligent, insecure, hate-monger bent on theft and destruction. And so I finally succumbed, began calling him both by his title and his name.

But now the power and horrific majesty of “Caligula” has been presented, and I find it too fitting to pass up. I’ve been using it almost daily, and it satisfies utterly. Or … almost utterly. Sure Caligula’s rep is that he was a monster and a sexual predator who thought he was a god. That all tracks. Yes, the homework I did that turned up questions about the accuracy of those accounts, but it still felt right. But somehow not enough right. And, of course, that’s because of Caligula’s grand-nephew, Nero.

Nero keeps getting in my way. Famous for “fiddling while Rome burned,” which definitely feels right if you sub in playing golf for fiddling. But “Nero” doesn’t feel as right for me, and “Caligula-with-a-side-of-Nero” is just ridiculous.

And, too, there is the concern that saying anything other than his title and name is just repeating the mistake of THOTUS, the mistake of being funny when there isn’t a single funny thing happening.

I’m sticking with Caligula for now, despite the inaccuracy of the comparison — the Romans at least got one good year of not-insane rule before Caligula turned into a horror legend. I’ve dropped the almost cutesy, doddering-old-fool additions of “drooling” and “potato-brained” and settled fully into this usage. Hoping that I only need to use it for the next seven and a half months.

Hoping.

Reverberations

So last weekend the news was about Elizabeth Lederer’s decision to stop being a lecturer at Columbia University Law School. It’s a little satisfying, seeing people put in the spotlight, seeing the (at-long-last-and-finally) negative impact caused by the harsh lens of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries about the Central Park 5, When They See Us. I am glad enough that Lederer won’t be a vaunted lecturer at Columbia’s law school anymore. I am, however, totally not here for her effort to control the narrative, saying she stepped down because she doesn’t want the distraction of publicity to affect the college rather than acknowledging that she has culpability. Notice that the weekend’s headlines aren’t about Lederer being fired.

I read a NYT article from a few years ago, an article written in 2013 after the airing of the Ken and Sarah Burns documentary about the jogger case, and after Frank Chi created an online petition demanding that Columbia fire Lederer from her teaching position. The article acknowledges that Lederer was involved in the perpetration of an injustice, but it clearly faults Chi for wanting her to have to pay any consequences for that involvement.

The five boys who’d been sent to prison were still trying to build lives after the justice system had done everything in its power to destroy them, and the writer of that Times piece was upset that anyone should point a finger at Lederer for her part in that heinous miscarriage of justice.

The writer, Jim Dwyer, says: “The petition against Ms. Lederer, in part, reduces her life in public service to a single moment, the jogger case. In fact, she has a lengthy résumé of unchallenged convictions in cold cases, having pursued investigations of forgotten crimes. No one lives without error. And designating a single villain completely misses the point and power of the documentary. The jogger case belongs to a historical moment, not any one prosecutor or detective; it grew in the soils of a rancid, angry, fearful time.”

Could he really have been serious? Does he really believe that, because she tried other cases that didn’t involve harming innocent people, that we should forget about what she did in this case, in this case in which she participated in the destruction of five innocent boys’ childhoods, in this case which impacted the families of each of these innocent boys? He says “the jogger case belongs to a historical moment,” as if we weren’t, at the exact moment he was writing that line, living in the reality of a system that regularly brutalized Black and brown people. Ferguson wouldn’t become a national flashpoint for another year, but it’s not as though anyone actually trying to look would have been able to miss the simple fact that the justice system treats Black and brown folks unjustly on the regular.

And even if we really could consign the jogger case to history, why should that mean the people who carried out that hideousness should be allowed to thrive and make money, in part because they point to their success in that case? Chi was absolutely right to call for Lederer’s dismissal. Columbia didn’t listen, though. Not then and not in the years since then when students at the school made the same call. Only now, in the wake of When They See Us being the most streamed show in Netflix history, are any dominoes falling — or, more accurately, are some dominoes falling and a few others removing themselves from the game.

 

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to watch When They See Us. I knew a) it would be painful, b) it would be enraging, and c) that I wouldn’t be able to sleep well after watching because d) my brain wouldn’t be able to stop running through the story, through all the moments when people in power could have decided another way, through all the moments when one or another of those innocent children was harmed.

I finally watched on Sunday. I went to a friend’s house and we watched together. We watched two episodes, took a short break, then watched the final two. She drove me to the train and I made my way home. I stayed up awhile, even though it was already late and I had an early meeting Monday morning. I was afraid to go to sleep, certain I would dream the worst parts of the show.

I didn’t dream the show, but I didn’t fall asleep right away, either. I couldn’t … because, every time I closed my eyes, my brain did what I’d known it would: began running through the moments of choice in the story, through the moments of casual brutality. I tried thinking about other things, tried reading a book, tried playing games on my phone. No good.

I did finally sleep. I had an equally hard time sleeping Monday night. I’m practically a zombie right now, running on a combined total of about 5 hours of sleep in 72 hours. I will probably have this same issue for several nights to come.

If I can’t sleep, and I am 100 percent not culpable of anything in this case, how do the people entirely responsible sleep? How have they been able to live their lives without remorse? I don’t make room for the possibility that they honestly believed they had served justice. There is no chance they aren’t guilty of pushing children into harm’s way to benefit themselves: to resolve a terrible crime … and to feed a popular narrative that enabled them to build and strengthen their own careers by showing how tough on crime they were, how skillfully they could win high-profile cases.

I don’t feel any kind of sorry for Fairstein or Lederer. I’m also not surprised that the primary fallout from the show (so far?) has centered on women. That’s predictable and problematic, but it doesn’t make me feel sorry for these two. Not at all.

Rather, I want everyone with dirt on their hands to suffer blowback. All the cops who beat and lied and terrorized confessions into those children.? The cops who decided to scoop up Korey Wise because he was 16 and they could do what they wanted with him without calling his mother. Every person along the way who saw lies being constructed and put their heads down and let it happen. Every prison guard and inmate who harmed Korey Wise during his years of incarceration. I want every single last one of the people connected to the criminalization and brutalization of those five children to face consequences. It’s good that Lederer and Fairstein don’t get to keep making money off the unforgivable thing they did, but it’s not enough. Do I sound like some raging angel of vengeful retribution? I am truly okay with that.

After Chi’s online petition took off six years ago, Chi asked Ken Burns to sign on. That was a no-go: “Burns said […] he and the other filmmakers wanted nothing to do with the campaign. “It is just simple retribution, and we are appalled by it,” he said. “We don’t subscribe to any of it.”” It was simple retribution. Yes. Exactly. Why not? Lederer had used her success in that trial to burnish her reputation. She benefited directly from the harm done to those boys. Retribution sounds entirely correct. But Burns couldn’t let himself get too close to that. It might get in the way of his ability to keep making documentaries and winning accolades for his compelling historical narratives. (He’s made 10 documentaries since 2013. That isn’t a gravy train you’d want to stop.) I obviously have no idea what Burns was thinking when he made that comment about the “fire Lederer” petition, but how could he have dug into the case and seen what was done, yet not felt that Lederer and everyone else involved had a price to pay?

And now, in response to When They See Us, New York City’s Public Advocate, the Legal Aid Society, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and the New York County Defender Services have called on Manhattan’s District Attorney to a) fire Elizabeth Lederer, who continues to work as a prosecutor for the City, and b) reopen and re-investigate sex crime cases that were handled by Lederer and Fairstein between 1976 and 2002. The Manhattan DA has said that the jogger casewas a profound injustice” … but he has no intention of doing anything about it, at least not anything like holding “an attorney in good standing” on his team accountable for her part in that tragedy.

Lederer won’t get a bonus check for lecturing at Columbia anymore. Her choice. Columbia didn’t fire her. She still has her well-paid job with the City. She’s fine and she’s going to be fine. Fairstein can run around slandering Ava DuVernay, skating on the edge of calling that woman out of her name. Her books will still sell. She’ll write new ones and some publisher is going to pick her up. She’s pissy right now, but she’ll be fine.

Yeah. I mean, I’m not at all surprised, but I’m entirely disgusted.

Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Yusef Salaam. We don’t call their names at Black Lives Matter events. Of course not. They are all still alive. They have all managed to grow up and make lives. Thank God. But there’s no question but that the child in each of them was killed in 1989.

 


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

original-slicer-girlgriot

It’s Slice of Life Tuesday! Click over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the other slicers are up to!

Our Lives Hold No Value

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Korryn Gaines. Say her name.

Is there still any question
that our lives hold no value to the police?
At moments like this,
I think of Korryn Gaines, I think of her son.

Our lives hold no value to the police.
Gaines son, five years old,
I think of Korryn Gaines, I think of her son.
Police knew he was at his mother’s side.

Gaines’ little boy, only five years old,
saw police kill his mother, saw them try to kill him.
Police knew he was at his mother’s side.
His presence didn’t impact their decision to go in shooting.

He saw police kill his mother, try to kill him.
What his mother told him about the police proved true.
His presence didn’t impact officers’ decision to go in shooting.
Our lives hold no value to the police.

What Korryn Gaines said about the police proved true.
They took her ability to broadcast, then killed her in secret.
Our lives hold no value to the police,
they were determined to gun Gaines down.

Police took Gaines’ on-air voice, then killed her in secret.
There to serve a traffic warrant, they decided the sentence was death.
They were determined to gun Gaines down,
and made sure their actions weren’t caught on tape.

There to serve a traffic warrant, they decided the sentence was death.
A young mother, gunned down in front of her baby.
They made sure their actions weren’t caught on tape.
Nothing else mattered.

A young mother, gunned down in front of her baby
because she had the nerve to fear and distrust the police.
Nothing else mattered
except taking her out, punishing her audacity.

She had the nerve — the intelligence — to fear and distrust the police,
and they proved her right,
taking her out, killing her as punishment for her audacity,
for a traffic violation.

They proved Gaines right
and proved it to her son by shooting him, too.
For a traffic violation.
They couldn’t have cared any less for that woman or that baby.

They showed Gaines’ son that his mama had been right —
they wanted to shoot her, wanted to shoot him, and they did.
They couldn’t have cared less for the welfare of that woman or that baby.
Gaines and her son’s lives had no value.

They wanted to shoot Korryn Gaines and her son, and they did.
That baby has learned his lesson.
His life had no value to the police.
He’ll know it for the rest of his life.

That little boy learned a horrific lesson,
his mother murdered before his eyes.
He’ll know it for the rest of his life.
The wounds will scab over, but will they heal?

I think of Korryn Gaines’ son. Will he heal?


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

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Her Last Breath

[Content warning: violence, state violence, police killings of Black women]

Shereese Francis. Say her name.

Imagine the terror of running through your house
chased by four police officers,
when you’ve done nothing wrong,
when what you need is mental health care.

Chased by four police officers,
Shereese Francis must have been terrified.
She needed mental health care
but instead received brutality.

Shereese Francis must have been terrified.
Does “Protect and serve” only go for white folks?
Shereese Francis received brutality.
Her life squeezed out as she lay face down on a bed.

Is “Protect and Serve” only for white folks?
It certainly wasn’t on offer for Shereese Francis
as her last breath was squeezed from her body.
One more beautiful life taken.

There was no protection or service for Shereese Francis,
only the loss of her last breaths under the weight of four cops.
One more beautiful life taken.
Keep that count grinding down to zero.

The loss of her last breath under the weight of four cops.
Imagine Shereese’s desperation and fear
as the count kept grinding down to zero.
One more beautiful life taken.

One more beautiful life taken.


Pantoum — A poem of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final line can be a repeat of the first line of the poem.

Say Her Name — A movement calling attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes. Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every April for almost the full life of this blog, I have taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day. A year or so in, I upped the ante ton the challenge and decided to choose a specific poetry form each year and write that form for the month — 30 tanka, 30 rhyme royals, etc. It’s been a hard slog most years, as I struggle mightily with writing poetry, with feeling “allowed” to try writing poetry. So why make it harder by adding onto the base 30/30 challenge? Well, that’s kind of who I am, isn’t it? I continue.

napomo 1