The clip wasn’t a parody, let’s make that clear.
Most of the people who were shocked were either too young to have been alive in the 1960s, or too young to remember that time. At the time blatantly racist beliefs were considered not just a legitimate opinion to hold, but was largely accepted as reasonable interpretation of reality. Now, there were always people who thought those beliefs were wrong, but they were still very much in the minority when this particular show was recorded.
That minority was growing. Over the next many years more and more people came to the conclusion that not only were those racist beliefs factually incorrect, but that adhering to them was seen as immoral. A tipping point was reached, and there was a wave in which a number of conservative pundits and opinion columnists and such found themselves being dropped by mainstream news organizations.
And they freaked out a bit.
The freak out is understandable. For example, a particular columnist got fired by the New York Times, I think it was, after writing a column criticizing busing (where students were bused to schools further from their neighborhood in order to try to achieve racial balance in public schools). And it wasn’t the criticism of bussing itself that got him fired, it was the fact that one of the reasons he said desegregation of schools was bad was because the white students would be held back by the Black and Latino students because the latter were obviously less intelligent. It was an assertion the columnist had made many times in editorials before this one, so you can understand why he thought it was still a legitimate argument.
The expectations of polite society had shifted around him, and he had failed to keep up. A year earlier, it was still socially acceptable to believe white people were inherently mentally superior to people of other ethnicities. You could express that belief in print and in person and still be welcome at people’s parties and so forth. Many might disagree with him a year or more earlier, but they still viewed it as a topic upon which reasonable people could disagree. And then, you couldn’t any longer.
Racism didn’t end. What changes was how blatantly racist someone could be and still get accepted in polite society.
Plenty of conservatives adapted. They figured out ways to continue making arguments for their positions using euphemisms and dog whistles. Maybe even a small number saw the light, somewhat, and recognized that systemic social and economic biases were what caused the disparities they saw between the races. But it was almost certainly an extremely small number.
I bring this long anecdote up to set some context to a much more recent hot topic. Changing social norms of what expressions of bigotry are considered acceptable isn’t something new. It is an ongoing thing. And while it is a gradual thing, these tipping point moments can catch some privileged people by surprise. It seems sudden and even disconcerting to them, in part because they usually go through much of live in a bubble of privilege.
And to clarify, I don’t mean that only rich people live in these bubbles. Privilege takes many forms. One of those forms is that people who disagree often don’t feel safe (physically, socially, financially) to express their disagreement. People who stand up for themselves or challenge certain kinds of comments in various social or work situations are perceived as “making waves” or “creating unnecessary conflict” and “not being a team player.” So, speaking up when a co-worker makes a misogynist or homophobic or transphobic joke carries a risk of everything from not being considered for promotion to being let go.
So people who are offended, feel attacked, or otherwise disagree with the sentiments—whether expressed explicitly or implied—learn to laugh nervously and change the topic, or otherwise not rock the boat. This perpetuates the mistaken belief of the bigot that what they said is perfectly reasonable. Some people laughed, right?
And it isn’t just the workplace where these bubbles happen.
The bubbles can insulate people holding those bigoted views right up until that tipping point is reached.
The recent flurries of pushback from the bigots has been to try to appeal to free speech and to bemoan so-called cancel culture. There are two problems here: you can’t make a free speech argument when you are specifically trying to silence your critics. And marginalized people have been “canceled”—losing jobs, entire careers—for years. When I mentioned above about losing one’s job for speaking up? That’s something that happens to women, people of color, queer people, trans people, and so forth all the time.
The reason these guys are upset is because it’s happening to them instead of to us. More of us feel we can speak up about other people’s bigotry, and we are. They were perfectly happy to live in the bubble and watch others miss out on promotions, lose their jobs, sometimes get driven out of neighborhoods, et cetera. But suddenly some people are actually subjecting them to (in most cases) mild consequences, and suddenly they think they are the victims.
No. They have been the privileged aggressors acting like jerks to other people. It’s not that suddenly people are offended by things that used to be just fine. Those those were always offensive. All that’s happened is that far fewer people are willing to give these jerks a free pass.
‟Speech without consequence isn’t free, it’s privilege. And more and more, we are using free expression and digital tools to fight back against harassment that has always been there—but for which it’s never been the harassers’ problem to deal with.
And if these hypersensitive men can’t deal with responses to their abusive behavior online, maybe the Internet isn’t for them.”
This isn’t what I thought I’d be writing about today, but here we are! I missed this piece of local news over the weekend: Confederate memorial toppled at Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery in Capitol Hill. The first time I wrote about Confederate monuments and why I thought most of them should be torn down was in 2017 (a post which I republished recently with a little bit of additional commentary). In that post I talked about one of those monuments here in my local community:
Washington territory was never a part of the Confederacy, and the few inhabitants of the state who served in the [civil] war did so as part of the Union Army and Navy. A local family, some years after the war, donated land in what would one day become the Capitol Hill neighborhood to the Grand Army of the Republic (which was an organization made up mostly of Union side Civil War Veterans) for a cemetery for Union soldiers. And that’s who was buried there. But decades later, during one of those surges of monument building, the Daughters of the Confederacy paid to have a monument to soldiers of the Confederacy erected in the cemetery. There are no Confederate soldiers buried there. Not one. And there are no soldiers’ names engraved on the massive monument. But there it is, erected in a cemetery full of Union soldiers, a monument to the so-called noble cause of the Confederacy.
I have since learned that some of facts in the above paragraph are an over simplification. Some of the land in the cemetery was donated to the Grand Army of the Republic, and at least 11 Union veterans are buried there. But the cemetery holds a bunch of other people (included actor Bruce Lee). But one fact that is still not in dispute: there are no Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.
The Confederate Monument was erected near the graves of the 11 Union soldiers, though. It makes as much sense to have a Confederate monument in that cemetery as it would to erect a monument to the army of Nazi Germany in a military cemetery full of U.S. World War II veterans.
Each time that organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy have gone on these binges of raising money for monuments and then bullying local governments into letting them be erected, has been a time where racist groups have felt a need to terrorize black people. The purpose of those monuments is not to teach history. They are meant as both propaganda and a threat.
A local news blog I read all the time posted a story today which only partially answers the question it poses in its headline: Wait, Why the Hell Does Seattle Have a Confederate Monument?
Yes, the Daughters of the Confederacy got the monument placed in the cemetery, in part by not just paying for the monument’s construction, but by making a donation to the non-profit that owns and manages the cemetery. A non-profit which has, by the way, ofter struggled with raising enough funds to adequately maintain the grounds. I think it is very interesting to note that no one at the non-profit wants to talk publicly about the monument.
In response to the news of this toppled monument, I’ve seen a couple people on social media try to put forward a “what-about-ism” argument because there is another monument in the cemetery which honors people who aren’t buried there. This is the Nisei War Memorial Monument, which was originally raised to honor 47 local Japanese Americans who served and died in World War II. In many cases the bodies were never returned to the U.S. I haven’t found a list of how many of those soldiers whose bodies were returned wound up in this cemetery, but apparently more than one did. Additionally, local Japanese American soldiers who served in the U.S. military and were killed in action in subsequent wars have had their names added to the monument
There is a very big difference between a memorial that lists actual names of local people who died in a war (at least a couple of whom are buried in the same cemetery), and one that lists no local names (and for that matter, no names at all!).
The local Japanese American community has been an important part of the history of Seattle and the surrounding area for about 140 years. The Confederacy—which barely existed for five years!—has absolutely no connection to Seattle. There is no good reason for a Confederate monument to be here, only a lot of bad reasons.
Laws have frequently been used to target minorities and marginalized people who are not doing what most people would think of as criminal activity. When writing about the origins of Pride Month, I often mention that before the early-to-mid-seventies it was illegal for a woman to wear pants in public. This seems crazy to most people now, and it sometimes came as a shock to people back then, but there it was.
Other laws sound more reasonable until you understand how they were actually applied. For example, in 1968 the Nixon campaign committee came up with the idea of the War on Drugs as a way to target two groups which opposed all of Nixon’s priorities: black people and those opposed to the Vietnam War. Many years after the fact, Nixon domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, explained it:
“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Long before that loitering laws were used to harass anyone that the powers that be found undesirable. Loitering was usually defined as “a person simply being in a public place for no apparent reason.” In 1972 the Supreme Court ruled that loitering ordinances and vagrancy ordinances were unconstitutional for two reason: they were so vague that a common citizens couldn’t be sure what behavior constituted the crime, and police were able to arbitrarily enforce it on people who were poor, members of minorities, and so forth.
Historically, the laws were almost always used to target minorities.
The Supreme Court ruling led many jurisdictions to replace the ordinances with so-called “loitering plus” laws. These were ordinances supposedly didn’t make simply being in a public place a crime, but rather being in public for various nefarious purposes. And one of the most popular in the late 80s and 90s were so-called “drug loitering” laws. These laws allowed police to demand ID and to perform personal searches on anyone who was in public and behaving in a way that made the cop suspect that maybe they might possibly be trying to buy or sell illegal drugs. Common activities that could get you arrested under these laws were such horrible criminal acts as: looking at the cars driving by on the roadway, waving at someone, appearing to be trying to make contact with other pedestrians on the sidewalk.
And the sad thing is that even though people tried to appeal these laws to the Supreme Court, it hasn’t accepted such a case for review in decades.
The City of Seattle passed one of these laws back in the 90s. I donated money to a campaign that tried to appeal the low through the courts. When that didn’t get anywhere, I donated money and even volunteered to phone back for a campaign that tried to get an initiative on the ballot to repeal the law. We didn’t succeed.
Year after year people brought forward evidence that both the drug loitering ordinance and the prostitution loitering ordinance were disproportionately used to target black people and gender-non-conforming people, the laws stayed on the books. A few years ago a new city attorney was elected he ceased prosecutions on the two laws precisely for those reasons, but it didn’t really solve the problem, because the next city attorney could just start filing the charges again, and cops would know they could start harassing people in the name of those laws again.
Finally, the laws have been repealed: Seattle City Council Repeals Loitering Laws – The council has voted to repeal two loitering ordinances, which they say had racist origins and disproportionately targeted minorities.
This is a direct result of the Black Lives Matter protests still going on in the city. So we’ve made a teensy bit of progress!
There are many other problems to address. The biggest problem is that virtually all politicians and most common people believe that myth that police forces protect the public from crime. Statistically, they don’t. Of the most common categories of property crime (burglary, larceny, auto theft), only between 13% to 22% of those reported result in an arrest. And those percentages have been so low, that by best estimates, less than 29% of burglaries and larceny are even reported—that means fewer than 4% of such crimes are ever solved!. Heck, fewer the 70% of car thefts are reported to police!
Only abut 38% of rape cases reported to police are cleared (and a laughably even tinier percentage result in any conviction). And since only 25%-40% of sexual assaults are even reported to the police, again we’re looking at fewer than 10% leading to an arrest. Only about 60% of murders are ever solved.
Meanwhile, through abuse of asset forfeiture laws, law enforcement agencies steal far more from the people in their communities that all the burglaries and other robbery categories combined!
There are many reasons for this. One is that in most police departments across the country, the units tasks with investigating robberies and sexual assaults get the lowest budgets, and for various reasons even then, they are the departments most likely to be understaffed (as in, fewer officers actually working in those divisions than is budgeted for).
And then there are the cultural issues. K.L. Williams is a former police chief who now runs the Institute of Justice and Accountability, trying to reform police training (among other things). He sums up the police culture problem this way: about 15% of officers will do the right thing no matter what. And approximately 15% percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70% could go either way depending on whom they are working with.
At first glance that might not seem too bad—only 15% of cops are abusing their authority, right? But with 70% willing to look the other way and even cover up for the bad cops, that means that it’s 85% of cops who are bad, nut merely 15%. And surveys of cops have shown that a clear majority of cops admit that most of the colleagues routinely look the other way and often help cover up misconduct by other cops.
It’s just just that systemic racism, homophobia, and misogyny leads policing to victimize, rather than protect, minorities and marginalized people—those things combined with police attitudes about the public in general and anyone they perceive as being worth even less than the public means that queer (especially gender-non-conforming) and trans people have been oppressed, harassed, and abused by police forever. And as the article above explains, race, perceived ethnicity (not always the same thing), and perceived immigration status simply amplify that.
Which brings us full circle back to the trans women of color who threw the first bunches, the first bricks, the first shot glasses, that started the Stonewall Riots.
I know this is something I’ve written about before on this blog, but as we approach what would have been the weekend of the Pride Parade here in Seattle (and many other cities around the country)—while the world is engulfed in a pandemic, and many protests about police brutality and racial inequality—it is vital to remember that the first Pride was a riot. Or, rather, a series of riots the continued for several nights after that first uprising in response to yet another police raid on a gay bar. No one knows for certain why that night people started fighting back. I think it was simply that a bunch of those trans and gender-non-conforming women of color were simply fed up.
And no, the Stonewall riots weren’t the first time that queers had protested and rioted over police brutality of queer people.
In 1959 in Los Angeles, for instance, there was the Cooper Do-nuts Riot. Cooper Do-nuts was a 24-hour donut shop located about halfway between two of the city’s gay bars. It was a place where queer people often congregated at night. At the time it was illegal in California (and many other places and would remain so for many years after), for a person to appear in public wearing clothes traditionally worn by the opposite gender. Because cops liked having an easy excuse to harass queer people, the gay bars didn’t like lots of trans people and street queens to be inside. Cooper Do-nuts served everyone, so it was always full of not just LGBTQ patrons, but specifically trans people, drag queens, and other very obviously gender nonconforming people. So the cops routine showed up there, demanded to see people’s ID and would arrest anyone whose legal ID showed them to a different gender than how they were dressed.
And remember, at the time, that law meant it was illegal for women to wear pants.
Anyway, in May of 1959 a couple of cops came into the shop, demanded to see everyone’s ID, and then tried to arrest two drag queens, two male sex workers, and a gay man. As at least one of those being arrested protested, the crowd erupted, pelting the cops with donuts, trash, and in some cases hot coffee. The cops fled the scene without arresting anyone. Unfortunately, the cops came back with backup and blocked off the entire street. A lot of people wound up arrested.
In 1966 in San Fransisco the management of a Compton’s Cafe decided they didn’t like how many transgender people were hangin out in their cafe, and they started calling the police to get the customers arrested. This caused the community to organize a picket line outside the cafe. Cops were called to arrest the trans people again, and this time a riot broke out. The windows of the cafe were smashed, along with a lot of furniture and all the windows of the first cop car. Eventually reinforcements came in and the riot intensified, but a lot of the riots were beaten, shoved into paddy wagons, and thrown in jail.
While the riot didn’t inspire a national movement, it did motivate a lot of homeless queer youth and others to join an organization called Vanguard Street Actions which staged various mostly peaceful protests, and over time the city began to try making changes in policy to reduce police harassment of queer people.
On New Year’s Eve 1967, at a Los Angeles gay bar called the Black Cat Tavern, a busy New Year’s Eve party took place. The newspaper accounts later said the party was “hopping” and the crowd was happy. Right up until midnight, when couples all over the bar started kissing to ring in the New Year. And then a bunch of undercover police started beating and arresting those kissing couples. Fourteen people were arrested that night. There was no riot. Some weeks later there was an organized public demonstration, and organizations that were lobbying government officials for LGBTQ rights raised a lot of money for among other things to try to appeal the convictions of some of the arrested same-sex couples. The Advocate, which remains a leading queer news source, was founded as a newsletter as part of the organized protests because of the Black Cat raid.
Seven months later, at another Los Angeles gay bar called the Patch, police raided one night, and started arresting people. The owner of the bar, Lee Glaze, jumped up on stage and got the crowd to chant various slogans and tried to convince the cops to let the arrestees go. When they didn’t work, they did not riot. Instead, Glaze led the rest of the crowd up the street to a flower shop, where they bought every single flower in the shop, and then marched to the police station, handing out flowers and chanting as they went. The protested peacefully outside the precinct until everyone arrested made bail and was released.
One of the protesters was a formerly-closeted pastor (who had been kicked out of the church) named Troy Perry, whose boyfriend (Tony Valdez) was among those arrested. After making bail, Valdez told Perry that his jail experience convinced him that god doesn’t love queer people. Perry decided to stop trying to fit in at the established churches that looked at his queerness as a sin, and to found a gay friendly church, which is how the Metropolitan Community Church came into being.
And then the next year the Stonewall Riots happened in New York City…
So that night at Stonewall wasn’t the first time that queer people got fed up with police harassment and brutality, but it was the first time where the protests and rioting continued for many days afterward. And probably because one of the newspapers that tried to cover the events objectively, The Village Voice, was read by a lot of professional journalists and academics far outside of New York City, is why Stonewall seemed to kick off a more organized fight for LGBTQ rights. Within a year, chapters of the new Gay Liberation Front had opened in many cities around the country, and within a couple more years nearly every college town in the U.S. had a chapter.
Most of the people targeted by the police in all of those incidents were those who were gender-nonconforming and/or not white. The cops harassed any queers that they could, but those were the people who got singled out every time. And in most of the cases they were the ones who get fed up and fought back.
I’m an old, white-bearded, cisgender blue-eyed white gay guy who is college educated and work in the software industry. A lot of people think that the LGBTQ rights movement is about and for people like me. But the real heroes, the first leaders, were the trans women of color. And just as we should never forget that they only gave us rights because queers gave them riots, we should remember that it was those trans and gender-non-conforming people of color who started and inspired the riots by fighting back against police brutality.
Because I almost always compose my Friday Five on Thursday evening, I debated whether to just find a story related to today’s fourth anniversary of that massacre to include, or do a separate post. I decided that I would have time to finish a post during my lunch break, and that there might be one or two stories posted this morning that would be worth linking to.
Well, that worked out a bit differently than I expected.
Before I jump into the cruelty, let’s start with a reminder of what the Pulse massacre was: Democrats Mark Fourth Anniversary Of Pulse Massacre:
“Four years ago today, 49 people were murdered in the single deadliest attack on the LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities in U.S. history. What should have been a night of celebration was overtaken by hatred and bigotry.”
Four years ago today, a guy armed with assault rifles shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando, taking people hostage and taunting authorities online and over the phone, engaged in a barricaded stand-off (with hostages), until he was finally killed by the police. There were so many bodies on the floor, that EMTs and cops had to ask people who were still alive to raise their hands. Four years later there is still some debate about the motives of the shooter, I’ll get to that later. Whatever the motives, victims were at a queer nightclub celebrating Latinx Night during Pride when the shooting started. As noted in the article above, the single deadliest attack on the queer and Latinx communities in U.S. history.
So what is the current occupant of the White House doing to mark this solemn occasion on this, the second Friday of Pride Month. Well:
As a large number of people have already noted, the cruelty is the point. The alleged president of the United States was elected on the most homophobic election platform ever adopted by any political party in U.S. history, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. But just because we expect this sort of hateful cruelty doesn’t make it any less painful or infuriating.
The sooner we get these evil goons out of office, the better.
The last few years when I have mentioned or linked or reblogged news stories on the anniversary, some randos have felt the need to slide into my mentions or try to post a comment explaining that this wasn’t actually a hate crime against queer people. And I want to talk about that.
While in the immediate aftermath of the shooting there was a lot of reporting that pointed to all kinds of motives, there was also an immediate push from Fox news and Republicans to insist that it wasn’t a hate crime. It took more than a few months for the FBI to interview witnesses and to investigate the mountain of tips that came in. Most of the evidence pointed to in those first days trying to tie the shooter to Islamic terrorist groups and so forth were debunked by the following fall. Just as all but one of the people who claimed to have proof that he was a closeted gay man were also proven to be cases of mistaken identity. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, because the pictures of the shooter that were circulated to the public were of a frankly very generic dark-skinned man.
More than a year after the shooting, federal agents arrested the shooter’s widow and charged her with conspiracy, claiming she had been part of the planning of the crime. In statements made to obtain the warrant, and during the bail hearing, the feds argued that it was definitely an Islamic anti-American plot and had nothing to do with queer people. However, during her trial, the prosecution slowly was forced to admit that all of those things they had asserted were false.
It’s hardly surprising that the jury acquitted her.
The case was so ludicrously weak that lots of news people were asking why the administration pursued it at all. My personal (admittedly cynical) theory is that then Attorney General Sessions, and Vice President Pence, and other vehemently anti-gay members of the administration needed to get that story out there to overshadow the fact that a gay club was the target of the attack.
Since that case collapsed, there are two pieces of evidence left to support the claim that homophobia had little if anything to do with the choice of the target. One is that based on his internet searches and the tracking of his cell phone that night, it appears that three different nightclubs (including Pulse) were under consideration for attack, and the other two weren’t specifically gay clubs. The other piece is that the statements he made on social media and to police were all generic anti-American statements and references to places America has bombed.
Let’s look at a different hate crime altogether to get a little perspective. In the mid-90s federal agents sent in an undercover agent to one of the White Supremacist compounds in Idaho because they had evidence indicating some people there had purchased illegal weapons. The undercover agent discovered that the White Supremacists were plotting to bomb some targets in Seattle. He got himself put onto the team. Groups left the compounds and traveled by different routes, each carrying only some of the ingredients necessary to make three bombs. The checked into a motel, and while some members of the group went out to investigate their chosen targets, others assembled the bombs.
The three targets were: a Jewish synagogue, a gay nightclub, and a Korean Baptist Church. The plan was to plant all three bombs, each with a timer set to go off at times when each of the three places were expected to be very crowded (Friday evening shabbat service, Saturday night at the night club, and Sunday morning church service). Federal agents arrested them all a couple of days before the bombs were to be planted.
Two of the three targets the White Supremacists chose for that (thankfully) foiled operation were not a gay nightclub. Does that mean that homophobia had nothing to do with their choices of targets? Of course not!
There’s more. At the trials of the White Supremacists, one of the pieces of evidence introduced was a statement that they had intended to release to the press after the last bomb went off, taking responsibility for the crime. The statement was filled with anti-American sentiments and referenced a couple of infamous shoot-outs between federal agents and anti-government groups. The statement didn’t have specific anti-Semitic, racist, nor homophobic language—just generic slurs against undesirables. Does that mean that racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism had nothing do do with their choices of targets? Again, of course not!
Maybe the shooter really was so stupid that he didn’t realize it was a gay club. Even with all the rainbow flags and other things on display inside and outside the club. Maybe it is an insanely improbable coincidence that he had been ranting about the evils of gay people to his father, other family members, and acquaintances in the days before the shooting. It’s possible.
But more likely: he was a man filled with a lot of hate for a lot of things he saw as wrong with America. And one of those things was clearly the existence of queer people and the fact that we were allowed at least some rights. Just because he happened to also hate a bunch of other groups and ideas that didn’t happen to be clearly connected to that gay nightclub that night doesn’t mean that it wasn’t still a hate crime directed at queer and latinx people.
Studying history means actually studying it—not looking at statues that were put up for non-historical reasons with misleading if not outright false plaques on their bases. When we remove symbols of racism, colonialism, and genocide, we aren’t erasing history, we are removing propaganda. As I tried to explain when I posted the following on August 22, 2017:
I wasn’t born in the South, but because of economic factors too complicated to go into at this juncture, the small town in Colorado where I was born was inhabited almost completely by recently transplanted southerners. All of my grandparents had been born in former Confederate states, as had most of the teachers at the public school, and the parents and/or grandparents of 95+ percent of my classmates. And even though my father’s job had us moving around to other parts of the central Rockies through most of grade school, because our family attended Southern Baptists churches, I continued to be exposed to certain myths about the Civil War that descendants of Confederate families tell themselves. I was taught that slavery wasn’t the primary issue of the war, for one. I was taught that most soldiers on the Confederate side had been involved for economic reasons, and certainly not because they believed that whites were superior to blacks, for another. And I was taught that just because the Southern Baptist church and many other institutions still advocated for the segregation of that races, that it wasn’t because they still believed that one race was superior to the other.
Each of those statements was a lie.
I was a teen-ager in the 70s when the Southern Baptist Convention finally endorsed desegregation of its churches. And it was as a teen that I learned most of what I’d been taught about the history of our denomination and the Civil War was untrue.
Historically, every state that seceded to form the Confederacy (not just Mississippi a portion of whose declaration is pictured above), explicitly listed either slavery or the superiority of the white race (and some mentioned both), as their reasons for seceding. The infamous cornerstone speech delivered by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens explained that the foundation of the new Confederate government was “the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
It can’t be any clearer than that: the primary mission of the Confederacy was the perpetuation of slavery of black people and the entrenchment (nay, glorification) of white supremacy. And Confederate soldiers did not volunteer, fight, and die by the thousands because of some need to preserve the mythical idyllic pastoral culture of the Southern plantation—most of them were too poor to own plantations, for one thing! No, the typical Confederate grunt believed that if slaves were freed, working class whites would surely lose their livelihoods. The collective self-esteem of the white working class was shored up by the explicit statement that at least they weren’t slaves, so while they might have worked hard in exchange for less than their fair share of societal prosperity, at least they were better off than those black folks! The abolition of slavery was then perceived as an existential threat to the white working class. Of course they were willing to take up arms to protect slavery!
In the immediate aftermath of the war, symbols of the Confederacy weren’t displayed publicly. There were memorials erected in a few places to those who died in one battle or another, and certainly individual tombstones were occasionally emblazoned with Confederate symbols, but there wasn’t a stampede to erect statues to the leaders of the Confederacy afterward. For one thing, there wasn’t a lot of pride in having been on the losing side.
The first big rush of Confederate monuments was years after the war ended as Reconstruction officially ended and Federal troops were withdrawn in 1877. Across the former Confederacy, state legislatures started enacting Jim Crow laws, designed to make it difficult or nearly impossible for black people to exercise their right to vote and to enforce segregation of the races. And statues and monuments went up all over the South. The plaques usually talked about the bravery of the person depicted, but there were also language about the nobility of the cause for which they fought. Blacks living in those states, most of whom were former slaves, knew exactly what that cause had been, and the message the statues and monuments was clearly: “white people are in charge again, and don’t you forget it!”
Most of the Confederate monuments were put up in the 1910s and 1920s, coinciding with an increase in activity of the KKK and similar organizations terrorizing blacks. And the next big surge was in the 50s and 60s when civil rights organizations began having successes against some of the Jim Crow laws. The purpose of those monuments was not to honor the culture of the South; the message was still “stay in your place, black people, or else!” A great example of this resides not many miles from my home. Washington territory was never a part of the Confederacy, and the few inhabitants of the state who served in the war did so as part of the Union Army and Navy. A local family, some years after the war, donated land in what would one day become the Capitol Hill neighborhood to the Grand Army of the Republic (which was an organization made up mostly of Union side Civil War Veterans) for a cemetery for Union soldiers. And that’s who was buried there. But decades later, during one of those surges of monument building, the Daughters of the Confederacy paid to have a monument to soldiers of the Confederacy erected in the cemetery.
There are no Confederate soldiers buried there. Not one.
And there are no soldiers’ names engraved on the massive monument. But there it is, erected in a cemetery full of Union soldiers—a monument to the so-called noble cause of the Confederacy.
Now that some communities are rethinking these monuments—many of them extremely cheap bronze statues erected during times of civil rights tensions—other people are claiming taking them down is erasing history. No, taking down these post-dated monuments in public parks and so forth isn’t erasing history, it’s erasing anti-historical propaganda. The other argument that is put forward in defense of the monuments is that “both sides deserve to be heard.” That’s BS in this case, because there aren’t two sides to racism. There aren’t two sides to bigotry. There aren’t two sides to genocide. White supremacy is not a legitimate side to any argument.
When we defeated Hitler’s armies, we didn’t turn around and erect monuments to the government that murdered millions of people in concentration camps. We destroyed their symbols. When we liberated Iraq, we tore down the statues of Saddam Hussein, we didn’t enshrine his image in an attempt to give both sides equal time. Those few Confederate monuments that list off names of people who died are fine (even if a lot of them have cringeworthy language about the cause they were fighting for). Cemeteries where actual Confederate veterans are buried of course can have symbols of the Confederacy on the tombstones and the like. But the other monuments, the ones erected years later? They don’t belong in the public square.
They belong in the dustbin of history.
I’ve written more than once before about how who owe a huge debt to the people who stood up and fought back that night, 51 years ago, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Most of the legal rights that LGBTQ+ people have in the U.S. today is thanks to those Black and Puerto Rican queens who fought back, threw bricks, and so forth when the cops raided that bar.
Miss Marsha P. Johnson (which is how she identified herself whenever asked), was impossible to ignore—always appearing in public wearing a flowered hat and flamboyant dresses. Once when appearing in court on a disorderly conduct charge, after the judge asked her what the middle initial P stood for replied airily, “Pay it no mind!” Some early accounts of the Stonewall Riots said she was the one who threw the first brick or the first shot glass at a cop. In interviews she would admit that she threw several things at cops that night, but wasn’t certain she was the first person to throw anything. After the riots, she was one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front, and also co-founded the gay and transvestite advocacy organization S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera. A note here about terminology: at the time several terms that would he considered slurs by transgender and gender nonconforming people today were commonly used within those self same communities. At different times Marsha identified herself as a street queen, a drag queen, and a transvestite. But she also always insisted on female pronouns and consistently introduced herself as Miss Marsha. Which is why most of us refer to her as trans.
Silvia Rivera was only 17 and living as a self-described drag queen at the time of the Stonewall Riots. Most historians (and her friend Miss Marsha P. Johnson) agree that she wasn’t at the Stonewall Inn the night of the raid, being at a party at another location that night. Her whole life she asserted that she had been there. And there were others who agreed and said she was the person who threw the first brick at a cop car. She certainly joined the protests and rioting that continued the following nights, and later founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) along with Johnson. She was also a member of the Gay Activists Alliance. In a speech she gave at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally (what they called the annual event commemorating the riots for the first several years), she espoused a definition a belief that people such as herself belonged to a third gender.
Stormé DeLarverie was often described as a butch lesbian. Before Stonewall, she had been part of a touring theatre troupe which, among other things, performed a number called, “Who is the one girl?” and audience members seldom guessed correctly that the tall latino “guy” in a tailored suit wearing a false mustache was the one woman in the dance number. She was one of several who resisted arrest the night of the Stonewall police raid. Many witnesses claimed she was the woman who broke loose from the cops before being loaded into one of the waiting paddy wagons several times, to run, get caught, and dragged back through the crowd, each time making the crowd more angry at the cops. Of the events at Stonewall that night, DeLarverie always argued that it should not have been called a riot: “It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.” She remained active in many gay rights groups and activities in the years after Stonewall, but was most often remembered as the self-appointed guardian of lesbians who patrolled the neighborhood at night with her baseball bat to drive off bashers.
Raymond Castro was another Veteran of Stonewall. Because we was not dressed in gender nonconforming clothes, he was not arrested, and was told he could leave. When he realized a friend was being arrested, he went back inside to try to help the friend. This got him arrested and put in handcuffs. He struggled with the cops, managing to knock a couple of them down. This seemed to encourage several other people nearby to start struggling. One of the officers that eventually wrestled him into the truck commented that he was “some kind of animal.” Castro was active in several gay rights organizations in the years after Stonewall.
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was at the Stonewall Inn with her girlfriend the night of the police raid. She was one of several to fight back. Unfortunately she was struck unconscious during the fight and was taken into custody. Miss Major has been active in a lot of transgender right organizations, civil rights organizations, and in the 80s became active in multiple HIV/AIDS organizations. She was the original Executive Director of the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, which advocates for the rights of incarcerated trans and nonbinary people. And Miss Major is still alive today, still fighting! Her Instragram account shows her at a Black Lives Matter protest earlier this week. She suffered a stroke last year and has a lot of medical expenses, which you can help with by donating here Miss Major’s Monthly Fundraising Circle.
If you aren’t sure what to say today, NPR has some suggestions: Don’t Say ‘Thank You For Your Service’ This Monday.
The other set of feelings I get revolve around the revisionist history everyone publishes about the history of Memorial Day. Memorial Day didn’t become an official holiday until the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968. You’ll find scores of articles and web pages telling how the Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day (true), which was first celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868 (false). Decoration Day was celebrated in several parts of the country, mostly in the South, long before the Civil War.
Leading up to Decoration Day, volunteers from the community would cut the grass in the cemetery and pull up weeds and generally do maintenance. In modern times, city and county governments take care of cemeteries that are not maintained by a company or a religious organization, so we don’t think about things like the grass and weeds around grave. Then come Sunday was the day to bring flowers to put on the graves, have family reunions, and celebrate the lives of all of our deceased family members. My Grandmother observed that version faithfully her whole life. ‘Decoration Day’: The South Honors Its Dead.
“…on that day, everybody who’s connected to each other and to the people underground convene and have in effect a religious service in the cemetery.”
—Alan Jabbour, the author of the book Decoration Day in the Mountains
As I said, Grandma celebrated the old version her whole life, and she was literally in the process of placing a silk flower arrangement on the grave of Great-aunt Maude (and pulling up some crab grass that was obscuring the marker) when she died. So you may understand while I have strong feelings about the missing history of Decoration Day.
Anyway, for Grandma (originally posted on Memorial Day 2014):
Memorial, part 2Grandma always called it by the older name, Decoration Day. As I’ve written before, the original holiday was celebrated in many states as a day to gather at the grave sites of your parents, grandparents, et cetera, to honor the memory of their lives. It was often a time of picnics and family reunions. At least as much a celebration of their lives as a time of mourning. The connection to military deaths didn’t happen until 1868, and particularly in the south, was often seen as a pro-Union, pro-war, anti-southern celebration.
I didn’t understand most of those nuances when I was a kid. The modern version of the holiday, celebrated on the last Monday in May, didn’t even exist until I was a fifth-grader, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect.
Grandma observed it faithfully. Every year, as May rolled around, she would begin calling distant relatives and old family friends. Grandma knew where just about every person descended from her own grandparents was buried, and she made certain that someone who lived nearby was putting flowers on the graves of those relatives by Memorial Day. She took care of all the family members buried within a couple hours drive of her home in southwest Washington.
She was putting flowers on the grave of my Great-aunt Maud (Grandma’s sister-in-law) on the Friday before Memorial Day, 2007 when she died. My step-grandfather said he was getting in position to take a picture of her beside the grave and the flowers (there are hundreds and hundreds of photos of Grandma beside graves with flowers on them in her photo albums) when she suddenly looked up, said, “I don’t feel good!” and pitched over.
One weekend she had blown out the candles on the cake celebrating her 84th birthday. The following Friday, while putting flowers on Great-aunt Maud’s grave, she died. And one week after that a bunch of us were standing at her graveside. It was just down to a few family members, and we were at that stage where you’re commenting on how pretty the flowers that so-and-so that no one had heard from in years were, when someone asked, “Isn’t grandpa’s grave nearby?”
Grandpa had died 23 years earlier, and was buried in one of a pair of plots he and Grandma had bought many years before. And after Grandma re-married, she and our step-grandfather had bought two more plots close by.
Anyway, as soon as someone asked that, my step-grandfather’s eyes bugged out, he went white as a sheet, and said, “Oh, no!” He was obviously very distressed as he hurried toward his car. Several of us followed, worried that he was having some sort of medical issue.
Nope. He and Grandma had been driving to various cemeteries all week long before her death, putting silk-bouquets that Grandma had made on each relative’s grave. Aunt Maud’s was meant to be the next-to-the-last stop on their journey. Grandpa’s silk flower bouquet was still in the trunk of the car. My step-grandfather was beside himself. He’d cried so much that week, you wouldn’t have thought he could cry any more, but there he was, apologizing to Grandma’s spirit for forgetting about the last batch of flowers, and not finishing her chore—for not getting flowers on Grandpa George’s grave by Memorial Day.
The next year, several of us had the realization that without Grandma around, none of us knew who to call to get flowers put on Great-grandma and Great-grandpa’s graves back in Colorado. None of us were sure in which Missouri town Great-great-aunt Pearl was buried, let alone who Grandma called every year to arrange for the flowers. Just as we weren’t certain whether Great-great-aunt Lou was buried in Kansas or was it Missouri? And so on, and so on. One of my cousins had to track down the incident report filed by the paramedics who responded to our step-grandfather’s 9-1-1 call just to find out which cemetery Great-aunt Maud was in.Mom and her sister have been putting flowers on Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves since. Our step-grandfather passed away three years after Grandma, and he was buried beside her.
Some years before her death, Grandma had transferred the ownership of the plot next to Grandpa to Mom. So Mom’s going to be buried beside her dad. Mom mentions it whenever we visit the graves, and I don’t know if she realizes how much it chokes me up to think about it.
We had put the flowers in place. We had both taken pictures. Mom always worries that she won’t remember where Grandpa’s grave is (it’s seared in my head: two rows down from Grandma, four stones to the south). Michael helped Mom take a wide shot picture that has both Grandma’s and Grandpa’s spots in it.
I thought we were going to get away with both of us only getting a little teary-eyeed a few times, but as we were getting back into the car, Mom started crying. Which meant that I lost it.
Grandma’s been gone for more than 10 years, now. But every time we drive down to visit Mom, there is a moment on the drive when my mind is wandering, and I’ll wonder what Grandma will be doing when we get there. And then I remember I won’t be seeing her. It took me about a dozen years to stop having those lapses about Grandpa. I suspect it will be longer for Grandma. After all, she’s the one who taught me the importance of Those Who Matter
And if you are one of those people offended if I don’t mention people who served our country in the armed forces on this day, please note that we also put flowers on my Grandpa’s grave. Grandpa served in WWII in Italy. He didn’t drive a tank, he drove the vehicle that towed tanks that couldn’t be repaired in the field, and one of the two medals he was awarded in the war was for doing a repair of a tank while under fire. After the war, he came back to the U.S., met Grandma (who was at that point working as a nurse and trying to support her two daughters), and eventually married Grandma and adopted my mom and my aunt. Many years later, he was the person who taught me how to rebuild a carburetor (among other things). He was a hero many times over. And this post is also dedicated to his memory.
So here we are (at least on this side of the International Date Line) at the fourth day of the month of May, where one of the things that tends to happen on the internet are various references to Star Wars, because of the pun, “May the Fourth Be With You.” So, happy Star Wars Day to those of you who observe it.
The fourth of May has other significance for other people. And we would be remiss not to acknowledge these important events that ought to be commemorated on this day. So:
- On May 4, 1436 Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson was assassinated. Englebrektsson was a Swedish nobleman who led a rebellion against the King of the Kalmar Union, an event which eventually led to Sweden becoming a kingdom of its own. Englebrektsson is considered a national hero of Sweden because his actions gave peasants a voice in government for the first time, creating a Riksdag (a deliberative assembly or parliament) structured so that peasants and laborers would have equal representation with the number of nobles.
- On May 4, 1886, in the midst of a long-running strike, police marched on demonstrators in Hay Market Square in Chicago, Illinois. Someone threw a bomb. The police began shooting randomly. And I really mean randomly, because autopsies determined afterward that almost all seven of the policeman killed in the riot were the victims of a bullet from another officer. Four of the labor demonstrators also died from gunshot wounds, and more than a hundred other people were wounded by either gunfire or shrapnel from the bomb. While May Day parades and demonstrations by labor had been occurring for a few years before this occurred, this event is often credited as solidifying the significance of May Day as a Worker’s Rights commemoration.
- On May 4, 1930, the leader of India’s civil disobedience campaign, Mahatma Gandhi, was taken into custody by the British police for the crime of making salt from seawater. His arrest sparked an upsurge in civil disobedience, generating world wide publicity and incredible pressure on the British to come to terms with the protestors.
- On May 4, 1970, during a protest at Kent State University against the bombing of neutral Cambodia by U.S. military forces, the Ohio National Guard fired on unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine others. In response to this, students at other universities went on strike, shutting down many campuses. The event also was significant in turning more public opinion against the war in Viet Nam.
- On May 4, 1983 the British warship, HMS Sheffield, was struck by missiles during the Falklands War. The excess rocket fuel in each missile ignited, killing 20 members of the crew. The ship’s diesel stores burned for days after the crew had been evacuated. The ship sank while it was being towed in for repairs.
Important historical events, all.
But while two of those occurred within my lifetime, one must remember that I am a white-bearded old man. The median age of the human race is currently 29 years old. Which means that half of the people currently alive on the planet were born in 1991 or more recently.
Which means that none of those events can be considered “current.”
Which isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be remembered, but there isn’t really a good reason that any of those events should be considered more important in history than the others.
Which also means that there is nothing wrong with people sharing a silly pun on this same day.
Regardless, we’re in the middle of a world pandemic. The more people you get wearing masks (and feeling socially shunned for not wearing masks), the more we reduce the spread of the disease. That’s just science. It’s also the moral thing to do.
So, wear a mask. Wash your hands. Keep observing social distancing. Let’s all do our part to keep as many of us alive until there’s a vaccine as we can. Okay?
As I said, this comes from years of debating issues such as bus service, various ballot measures to build or extend light rail or commuter train service and related policies. It’s also grounded in my own experience growing up in rural and suburban U.S. communities.
For a bit of cultural context: to graduate from high school in this state back in the year I graduated one of the courses you had to complete was a Civics class. And there was an entire chapter in the state-approved textbook my high school was using at the time called “America’s Love Affair with the Automobile.” I very distinctly remember that there was an essay question on one of the tests in which we were to describe the procedure for changing a flat tire.
This knowledge was considered to be of the same level of importance as how to register to vote, read a voter’s pamphlet, and fill out a ballot.
So, to get back to the question about trains…
Cars represent self-determination and self-reliance. They are seen as being more flexible than trains, because they aren’t limited to running on a track. Cars are also perceived as being the responsibility of the individual owning it. You choose how often to buy a new car. You decide what kind (and how costly) of car you want to own. You pay for your gas and maintenance. And so on.
On the other hand, all types of mass transit are perceived (at least by those of a more conservative bent) as being primarily for the use of people who are too poor to afford a car of their own. Transit is therefore perceived as being paid for primarily through taxes, and specifically the taxes of folks who are not so poor as to need public transit. Add in another myth popular with that crowd—that the vast majority of poor people are only poor because they are lazy, immoral, or both—therefore taxpayer-funded transit being used mostly by people who don’t deserve it.
Whenever I have tried to point out that virtually all roads which cars drive upon in this country are built and maintained entirely by the taxpayer, people are unpersuaded. Because of another myth—this one is believed by people of virtually every political stripe—which is the myth that roads are paid for by taxes on gasoline. Therefore, it is believed (incorrectly) that people who own gas-burning cars are paying for all of the roads all by themselves.
While it is true that most gas taxes are spent on highway projects and the like, what people fail to grasp (or fail to remember once it’s explained to them) is that gas tax revenue is not sufficient to pay for highways, and none of it (at least not in any state where I have lived) is ever used for surface streets within towns and cities. The portion of highway costs that aren’t covered by the gas tax comes from the general tax revenue, of course. And all other road construction, likewise, is paid for by all tax payers, not just the ones buying gasoline.
On the very rare occasion that I have convinced someone in one of these discussions on the latter point, we get to yet another myth that is widely held by conservatives in this country: poor people don’t pay taxes—at all. Again, while if one makes less than a certain amount of money, one does not pay federal income tax, that isn’t by any means the only taxes there are. If you are earning a paycheck so small that there is no federal income tax withheld at all, one still pays social security tax, medicare tax, and state unemployment tax
And that’s still not the entire tax picture. Most states have a sales tax. So everyone who buys things pays those taxes. Most states have property tax, and if you don’t own the property yourself, your landlord is charging you rent to cover those property taxes, it’s just indirect. Depending on the jurisdiction, there are many other taxes that folks who earn too little to owe federal income tax do, indeed, pay.
I’ve skipped over another bit of the issue, though it is implied in one of the earlier points. A lot of right-wingers (because they believe that the only reason one is poor is because one is lazy, immoral, or both) adhere to the firm conviction that any service which makes life less than completely miserable for poor people simply encourages them to continue being poor. Therefore, buses, light rail, commuter trains, and so forth are seen as things that encourage laziness and immorality.
There are a lot more aspects to all these misconceptions. The idea that cars are more flexible than trains overlooks the fact that roads are no easier to move than train tacks. And that most cars aren’t suitable for extended off-road use. Even for those cars which are, most car owners would not be happy with what extended off-road use does to their paint job. And since 80% of the population lives in cities, the only way 80% can get more flexible than existing roads is to drive through other people’s yards. Not a good kind of flexibility!
The above misunderstanding about gas taxes also contributes to why so many right-wingers sneer at electric cars and hybrids, for another instance.
And so on.
But, really, most of it comes down to that dogma I talked about near the beginning: cars represent self-determination and self-reliance, while mass transit (especially trains) are perceived as a tax-payer giveaway to people too poor (read lazy/immoral) to afford a car.
And thats why right-wingers in America hate trains.