Peace is not the same thing as non-violence


A few years ago Kris and I got into an argument.  It was one of the very few times we have outright screamed at each other.  I don’t remember what it was about.  It doesn’t really matter now, but I do remember where I was.  I was at the kitchen sink scrubbing pots and pans – good ones – that I had bought her for Christmas.  She stormed out of the room and I, in a rare fit of rage, smashed the pot against the counter.  It still has a dent.  I think about that moment every time that pot is on the stove – the moment when I had hit my limit of contained anger and broke something.

Later, after we made up about whatever it was we were fighting about, I admitted what I had done, showed her the pot and apologized.  There has never been and will never be a time when I would aim a violent gesture toward my wife, but there have been and will be plenty of times I am angry.  There will probably be very few where I reach the end of my tether and do the proverbial table flip.  In my case, Kris and I have equal power in our relationship.  She could very well throw my cell phone in the toilet or something and we would have to work it out.  Are either of these scenarios rational and calm?  Not really, and truth be told my little fit is embarrassing.  But they aren’t violent either.

I share this story to illustrate the difference between violence and property damage, specifically in light of the last few days of protests here in St. Louis and the multiple calls (from mostly white people) for peaceful protest citing Dr. King’s marches –  when what we really mean is non-violent protest.  I’ll admit I’ve used the term peaceful protest myself, equating peace with the absence of violence.  But I was wrong.

Anger is not peaceful.  Outrage is not peaceful.  Peace has no place in protest – it is the result of successful protest and other long-term work to achieve equality.  

Over the last couple of nights, thousands of angry people marched the streets of St. Louis.  As I type, another group is protesting again.  They are (and I am) outraged at the not-guilty verdict in the Jason Stockley case.

I’m angry, but I can tell you that the people around me – the black people around me – are pot smashing, cell phone in the toilet angry.  The difference is that there is no balance of power in this anger – this centuries old affront to human decency.  No miscommunication that gets resolved.  It’s injustice that just sits there with no place to go because the people with the power to change it don’t.

And also in the last couple of nights people broke windows and spray painted buildings.  Sometimes (and I’ve seen it personally) the breaking of windows is done at the very end of a protest by (many times white) people who just want to break stuff.  And sometimes the breaking of windows is end of tether, nowhere to go with your impotent rage property damage.  And while it is destructive and dangerous, it is different than hurting people.  The violence occurs after that, when the police use tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, clubs, shields and vehicles to inflict injury on people armed with rocks, spray paint and nothing to lose. (I’ll add here that even if the window smashing is being done by white boys with mommy issues, the police can easily contain that without gassing a neighborhood.)

I’m a white guy who co-owns a business, so I’ll try to stay in my lane.  I won’t pretend to speak on behalf of anyone but myself.  I won’t tell anyone how, why or when they should protest – and I won’t tell them to be peaceful.  I will hope for non-violence on the part of the police and protesters because violence – injuring or killing – diminishes humanity.  Violence is abhorrent.

I’ll be nervous about my bookstore, the staff who works there and the cat who lives there.  I’ll support the small businesses around me who have broken windows and I’ll help build a community that cares deeply for its citizens.  I’ll support the movement for equality and justice for all because lives are at stake.  I’ll march when I can and be a hermit when my mental health demands it.

But I won’t call for peace.  No justice, no peace.

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Every Little Thing -In Search of the American Soul


I’m pretty sure my son voted for Trump.  I can’t bring myself to ask him directly, but I’m relatively sure his opinion hadn’t changed between the beer I had with him to celebrate his birthday in September and the election in November.  I don’t know what he thinks of things now either – whether he regrets his vote or not.  For an anti-racist, progressive transgender man such as myself, this is a gut check.

He looks at politicians with a raised eyebrow and barely contained eye-roll.  He doesn’t see much honor or honesty among any of our elected officials in any capacity, and I think I may have taught him that.

We’ve spent hours over the course of his life talking about things that matter -love, honor, truthfulness, dreams, the future, critical thinking.  Those are the conversations you get when you’re distilling a week’s worth of parenting into a weekend visit or dinner at Olga’s Kitchen in the mall.  There’s no time for idle chatter before the inevitable drop-off at the end of the visit. Then that’s followed by the drive home with grief and regret that you didn’t get to everything.  Every. Little. Thing.  Because every little thing is what I missed.

As he got older, his reality parted from mine.  He didn’t go to college even though he is smart enough.  He couldn’t justify the debt without the guarantee of a salary that would pay for the student loans.  What he did instead was follow his other parent into metal working (which is kind of bad ass anyway).  He’s had a few good jobs, but a few jobs isn’t what he really wanted.  It’s not what anybody really wants. But he’s a responsible, caring, funny and thoughtful man – a certain kind of happiness finds that kind of person no matter what they do for a living, and I am proud of him.

During our shared birthday beer we argued over policies and debated about candidates.  We talked about schools and banks and business.  We fundamentally agreed on mostly everything.  He is a smart, engaged voter.

And we still came to different conclusions.

Every time I hear my friends – many of whom I respect, many of whom I have stood beside during protests, parades, marches, educational talks and author events – say they’ve blocked out everyone who voted for Trump I am gut checked.

This is a time like no other.  The structure of our government is in peril.  I can barely keep up with the daily onslaught of regressive, destructive mandates from a racist sociopath who surrounds himself with other racist sociopaths.  I mourn because it’s evident that our country has elected a functionally illiterate celebrity to silence the press and mock and dismantle our government like it’s a reality tv show.

My social media feeds are electrified with outrage, fear and calls for resistance.  There are pleas to contact representatives, calls to action, marches unlike any other in history – a collective scream and chest clutch that reaches around the globe.

And I still love my son.  I think he mistook entertainment and manipulation for truth telling.  I think he was conned.  But I still love him, and I won’t give up the precious hours I have with him (that are now fewer and fewer) talking about things that don’t matter.  And I won’t give up any time with him that I can get.

Yesterday I posted on Facebook:

“Simultaneously
– Watching a screaming man being taken away to a psych ward in leg shackles for squatting in an apartment,
– getting news of DeVos’ confirmation on the phone i took out to film in case of a violent turn of events, and
-calming a dog terrified of loud sounds
is too much for me to process at the moment. Layers of processing there.

I will say this though –
When park rangers and teachers are dissidents, we have clear and indisputable evidence of a sick society.”

My good friend Alfred replied:

“Or a society that is beginning to know where to turn to find its healing …”

This stuck with me.  Another gut check. I’ll advocate.  I’ll call my senators. I’ll resist.  I’ll fight fascism like my life depends on it – it does.

But what it comes down to every time is the brave trust we have in each other, one on one, to take care of each other.  The heroes of this story won’t be our congress or lawyers.  They never have been.   We are.

We have to turn to each other once again, make and keep small promises, teach the truth even if it’s dangerous, speak even if it’s softly, listen even if it’s hard – even if it hurts – and argue about the things that still matter.

But above all, if we’re going to be the heroes of our own American story, we must take leadership from others who have fought oppression for generations and learn this lesson –

Our institutions won’t save us. We the people are the only ones capable of saving ourselves.  Each of us, one by one, two by two, must choose to be brave enough to keep the fabric of our common dream intact.  We must fight each other like hell and choose to love each other anyway.

I think I’ll call my kid now.

My Bernie-Hillary Struggle


Let’s talk about politics. Specifically this tedious primary race. I have to start in a church nursery circa 1983.  I know, it doesn’t seem to relate, but trust me with a few minutes of your time.

When I was about 9 or 10 years old I asked my mom if I could babysit with her during church.  The nursery at Gospel Baptist* was in a completely different building, a small converted house, that sat adjacent to the church. I didn’t care about watching the little kids, but I didn’t want to sit still on a pew with my dad, so I sat in the baby room with my mom listening to the transistor radio on the changing table. Brother Ray’s* sermon was being broadcast over a local station and we could hear him building momentum through the tinny speakers.  The toddlers in the room next to us had already built a fevered pitch so mom turned up the volume a little.  Just as she did, Brother Ray hit his stride. You could practically see him wiping his face with the handkerchief.  You could hear the calls of AMEN coming from the congregation.

“You can take this to the bank, my friends. This way is God’s way. God’s way is the only way. And all the other ways are the wrong ways!”

“AMEN”

“And I’ll tell you what,” he continued. “The Catholics and all the rest… the Pentecostals speaking in tongues, they’re all wrong.”

He got quieter. I was familiar with this rhythm.  The slowing and building, each swell outsizing the last.

“And brothers and sisters, I may get into trouble for saying so.  No, no I may!  There are those who won’t want to hear what I’m about to say, but I have to say it. God put the words in my mouth so they must be heard.”

I was riveted. There is no cadence quite like a Southern Baptist Preacher who has a belly full of righteous anger.  It is captivating.

“I’ll say it now and you’ll all be my witness, you here in the pews and you out there listening on the radio.” That was me.  He was talking to me.

“They are CULTS that’s what they are. The only way to heaven is through Jesus, through giving yourself to his will by repenting your sins and giving your life to Jesus, the son of God right here in this church! And I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this on the air and they might take me off the air but I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE.  I TELL YOU, I WILL NEVER APOLOGIZE!”

His voice boomed through the speakers.  I looked out the window to the church to see if armies of other religions had surrounded us.  I worried that the radio feed would be cut for his proclamation, that the heathens would try to silence him.  I was ready to defend.  Let them come.  We had the might of right on our side!

But the heathens never came.  We went to Wendy’s for burgers after the service like usual.  Still, that explosive bad boy/good boy fire stuck with me. I was intoxicated.

I didn’t stay with the church. Mom & dad got divorced and I’m queerer than they’d like, plus the higher power I serve now is bigger than a jealous god. Gospel Baptist probably wouldn’t have me back anyway. But good god, I love fiery passion.  I love the underdog. I love righteous anger. I love holding back the masses to preserve the sacred.  (I am a bookseller, you know.) But I also know about messiahs and how they almost always disappoint you.

And that brings me to this year’s primary race for the Presidency.  Specifically the Democratic primary.

It’s easy to point to a guy like Trump and recognize his self-proclaimed deification as ridiculous and dangerous. Cruz draws from the same pool as Brother Ray. That’s familiar and easy. But Clinton and Sanders?  They’re from the side of the aisle that fights over issues – not personalities.  Progressives are about secular politics, about civil rights, about rational thought and science. Right?

And here we are, supporters of both candidates,  loading our Facebook walls with 40 year old photos of arrests as evidence of civil rights involvement, un-vetted accusations of corruption, memes featuring the other candidate as false and untrustworthy-  bitter arguments among the faithful about which messiah is going to take us to the promised land.

The Clinton camp calls Sanders supporters Bernie Bros or Bernie Bots and condescend based on age and class. Sanders supporters practically paint flames and horns on Clinton, painting her as the embodiment of the establishment, the whole problem with the world.  The entirety of the Democratic base is in a competition to be the surrounded tribe whose underprivileged leader is righteous and holy and we are all convinced, CONVINCED that our choice is the only one. That all others are wrong.

And this brings me back to the church nursery in 1983.  When Brother Ray shouted into the microphone that he WOULD NOT APOLOGIZE for calling all other religions illegitimate cults he had the zealot’s rage of a David spitting in a Goliath’s eye.  It was Gospel Baptist Church of Effingham against literally everybody else in the world.  To quote from the  Tinker Tailor Solder Spy movie, “He’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.” To protect himself from that doubt, he had painted himself into a corner where his religion could not survive if others did and other religions could not survive if his did. There was no room for growth. No room to bring anyone in, just to call everyone out.  Incidentally, a few years later we discovered that Brother Ray had been cheating on his wife with the church secretary and he left in disgrace.

Sooner or later, one candidate will win enough delegates to be the Democratic nominee, and now I fear that each candidate’s supporters have painted themselves into the same corner.  I think that one or the other candidate could end all of it all at once if instead of vilifying anyone or naming their endorsements they just answered a question about a past bad vote or bad position on an issue like this, “I’m sorry.  I apologize for not being where I needed to be on that issue, but I am being the best I can be now and learning every day.  I am not a messiah, but a public servant.  I am a human being who learns from my mistakes and will do my best to represent you.”

The antidote to the overblown narcissism and bellicose rhetoric is humility.  Simple as that.  Real leaders listen. Revolutions succeed because the revolutionaries love each other as much as their cause.

I’ll vote for one or the other.  It’s none of your business who.  But I will say a Clinton-Sanders or Sanders-Clinton ticket would be unstoppable if the supporters of both candidates would stop burning the bridge between them.

*I changed the name of the church and preacher.  Exposing that church and his family would pretty much negate the growth and humility I ask for here.