Quest for existence


“A section of the white population, perceiving Negro pressure for change, misconstrues it as a demand for privileges rather than as a desperate quest for existence.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr. “Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast.”  Saturday Evening Post (pdf). November 1964.


Art favorites: Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman

I am typically not drawn to Modern design, but the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman speaks of beauty and comfort. (Disclosure: I have not had the opportunity to try one out so I do not know really how comfortable/uncomfortable they are.) Somewhere or other I saw a video of how they are made and was smitten by the craftsmanship that went into them.

The chair and ottoman show up in design collections in museums but are still in production and sold. For just under $5,000, you too can own a genuine Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman from Henry Miller.

Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman
Charles Eames and Ray Eames (Designers)
American, 1907-1978 and 1912-1988
Henry Miller (Manufacturer)
Art Institute of Chicago

Movie review: 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets (2015)

I was woefully ignorant of the case this documentary covers. So the outcome of the trials (there were two) was a surprise to me. I literally gasped.

3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets premiered at Sundance and quickly drew accolades. (The movie currently has an 100% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) The documentary covers the trial of Michael Dunn, who was accused of shooting at a car holding a quartet of African-American teenagers on November 23, 2012. Jordan Davis died. The three other teenagers miraculously escaped harm.

Scenes from the trial are interspersed with clips from the parents of Jordan, the teenager killed. The documentary also shows clips from Michael Dunn’s interview in police custody following the trial as well as recordings of his phone conversations from jail to his finance, the woman with him at the time of the shootings.

The killings and the trial can be seen from a multiplicity of perspectives. At its center, though not belabored at the trial or in the documentary, is Florida’s controversy Stand Your Ground law, which allows people to shoot to kill if they perceive that they are threatened. This boogeyman of a law potentially hampers justice. Even if you think justice would be served by convicting Dunn of killing Davis, the law demands that you not convict for murder if you think that Dunn perceived that the teenagers were a threat to him. (Incidentally, Jordan Davis’s murder occurred after Trayvon Martin’s.)

In a society and country where black men are often perceived as threats, this is incredibly problematic. The US has a long history of killing black men for perceived or imagined threats. And the law asks jurors to know the killer’s state of mind, ignoring the racial layers overlaying perceived threats.

The idea that one can take the life of another with impunity because of a perceived threat is appalling to say the least. Add the layer of race and our history of perceiving the Other as a threat and it is unconscionable. (As a woman, I can think of times that I felt threatened by men. It is unreal to me to think that a Stand Your Ground law would have allowed me to kill these men because of the real or perceived threat that they represented to me.)

According to Michael Dunn, he feared for his life. That was the justification for shooting ten bullets into the car parked immediately next to his. But what led to him to fear for his life? Loud music. What kind of music? So-called thug music. Michael Dunn perceived of the teenagers as being thugs. In fact, all were from good homes in the suburbs.

The documentary records enlightening conversations about this characterization and perception of the teenagers and their music. Thug is the new racially charged term in place of the much maligned N word. Dispensing justice based on perceptions is flawed in a society where the presentation of blacks in the media, the only view of blacks that some non-whites have, is a negative one. All blacks are criminals, carry guns, engage in violence. With that erroneous view, all blacks then are threats.

Michael Dunn presented himself as the victim, the aggrieved party, and the one who was being discriminated against. He rejected any idea that he was racist and accused others (the teenagers? Jordan’s parents? the police?) as being racist. His defense rested on the teenagers being a threat. Michael Dunn saw the barrel of a shotgun or a gun. Jordan, he claimed, opened the door and was coming for him.

An expert testified that the trajectory of the bullets into the car made no sense. The bullets would not have entered Jordan’s body the way they did if the door was open.

No weapons were found in the car to corroborate Michael Dunn’s claim that he saw the barrel of a gun. To be fair, the police dropped the ball in the investigation with regard to this point. Understandably, the teenagers fled the scene when the shooting started, but circled around and came back. The defense lawyer argued at the trial that they could have ditched a weapon then; the police did not search the area for weapons.

Things were not looking good for the prosecution. And then things took a turn when Michael Dunn’s (former?) fiancée retook the stand. Michael Dunn claimed that he told his fiancée immediately after the shooting and later that the teenagers had a weapon. The fiancée testified that he did not.

All was not smooth sailing for the jurors. They took a long time to deliberate. On two separate occasions they sent questions to the judge. Does the Stand Your Ground law apply to all four teenagers? Not necessarily. If they can’t agree on all five accounts, does that result in a mistrial for all counts or just the one that they can’t agree on? Just the one.

The jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts except first-degree murder of Jordan. Michael Dunn was going to prison but not for the murder of Jordan Davis. The Stand Your Ground Law saved him on that count.

Two years later another jury on the retrial of the first count of killing Jordan Davis found Michael Dunn guilty. The Stand Your Ground Law ultimately didn’t save him. In fact, he got caught in another judicial reform that has a proportionally greater negative impact on minorities (kind of ironic considering that Dunn is white!): mandatory minimum sentences.

Across the US, judges have been stripped of their abilities to actually hand down situation-appropriate sentences. Communities and states across the country have enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws are often incredibly harsh. According to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the judge in the case was required by law to give Michael Dunn a life sentence without chance of parole for the murder of Jordan Davis. (This is in addition to 90 years for the attempted murder of the three other teenagers.)

3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets not only takes you through a trial and a senseless killing, but forces you to look at the misappropriation of justice based on laws that we have passed in an attempt to be tough on crime. The real victim, I would argue, is justice itself. Our laws more easily allow us to kill others (Stand Your Ground) and to imprison people without any case of rehabilitation (mandatory minimum sentencing). In this case, the latter law may have brought some sense of justice, but a perverted one through automatic sentencing that too often leads to distorted outcomes of plea bargains by innocent people who seek to avoid mandatory minimum sentencing.

Leora Brown School

I meandered through the Corydon streets looking for a small school building. I found it on a hill with the St. Joseph cemetery in front and the Cedar Hill cemetery (est. 1808) across the road.

The building was the site of the 1891 elementary and secondary school for African Americans in Corydon. The school, originally called the Corydon Colored School, graduated its first class on May 14, 1892. In 1925, high school students were integrated in Corydon, followed by grade school students in 1950. (Why the heck did it take so long to integrated the younger students?)

I am a bit unsure of the building’s history following 1950. In 1987, the building was renamed for Leora Brown, who taught there from 1924 to 1950. In 1993, it was rehabilitated and apparently used as a meeting house/event center.

When I saw it, it seemed somewhat abandoned. Vegetation around the building was overgrown. Peering into the windows, the building looked a bit in disarray with folding tables and odds and ends scattered inside. But it was incredible to see a piece of Indiana history—one of the oldest African-American schools still standing in the state.

Book review: Anarchism and Other Essays

Anarchism and Other Essays is a collection of writings by Emma Goldman, compiled in 1910 by Emma herself. The essays cover a wide range of topics important to anarchism, such as education, sexual freedom, women’s rights, and marriage.

Reading the essays one hundred years removed from their creation provides a glimpse into history. In some cases, arguments or points seemed dated and a bit archaic. In other cases, I had trouble understanding the perspective from which she was arguing. On the whole, my impression is that Emma and anarchism was grounded in idealism and belief in the goodness of humans. In many respects, her critiques of our political and social organizations are spot on. Sometimes her solutions seem progressive, even today. Often though, better possibilities do not seem to exist.

Her writings and the ideology behind them are definitely products of the time and reactions to centralization, machinization, and industrialization, which destroy the individual. I hear echoes of libertarianism, which derides all things government. Anarchism is the freedom from religion, property, and government.

She argues for individual liberty and living a creative life.  Again, she seems to be reacting to the times in which she lived, where industrialization was replacing individual artisans. Artists are slaves to economic necessity. The masses do not appreciate art; artists are forced to cater to their whims and tastes. Thus, artists are not truly free. She derides the masses and upholds the individual. “Every effort for progress, for enlightenment, for science, for religious, political, and economic liberty, emanates from the minority, and not from the mass.” (page 44)

Emma recounts several violent acts, such as the Haymarket Riot of 1887 or the Homestead Strike of 1892. These violent acts, she argues, are really acts of compassion committed by people suffering from violence in the world. The people who commit these acts of violence do so in response to the injustice they see around them. Which is worse: the acts of violence they commit or the injustice they see around them? The answer for Emma, of course, is the latter.

She examines prisons, the reasons typically given for imprisonment, and the reasons behind crime. Most crime, she argues, is due to social and economic inequalities. Prison can be used for revenge, punishment, deterrence, or reform. Prison definitely does not do the latter two, she argues. What can prevent crime? “Nothing short of a complete reconstruction of society will deliver mankind from the cancer of crime.” (Emma definitely does dream big.) She argues progressively for work in prison that will lead to employment once the convict is released, and for shorter sentences so they have some hope for rejoining society.

She rails against patriotism as a means to control and use the lower classes. Military excursions and standing armies are used to protect the money-class. (I am hearing echoes of John Reed’s stance on World War I.) Capitalism and militarism support each other and need each other. And, here Emma’s observation seems spot-on today, people enter the military out of economic necessity.

Emma mentions Ferrer in passing and then devotes an essay to him. She discusses Ferrer and the Modern School but doesn’t go into great detail about the type of education that Ferrer advocated. The impression is one of freedom and nurturing of the individual over strict authoritarian forms of education.

She attacks Puritanism, which is at the root of America’s history. This repressive –ism is the root of all real evil, repression, and lack of creativity. Its sexual mores demand celibacy for single woman OR forced sex/reproduction for married women. From this comes illegal, secret abortions and prostitution, which brings with it disease. No matter how you slice it, women are getting a raw deal, all thanks to Puritanism.

She discusses women and the impact of the lack of freedom on their lives. Women are reared to be sexual commodities, kept ignorant and chaste for marriage or forced into prostitution out of economic necessity.  “…it is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution.” (page 101)  Government suppression and moral crusades only make things worse. (Brothels where women have some protection are replaced with streetwalking.) Prostitution is a product of economic and social conditions and can only be abolished if industrial/economic slavery is abolished.

I found her writings on women’s suffrage and emancipation the hardest to understand and follow. She seems to be against both, recognizing that neither movement will really set women free. In countries where women can vote, are labor conditions better? Are women happier? Are there no double standards? Are women no longer seen as sex commodities? A resounding no to all of these, even today.

Being able to vote doesn’t affect economic conditions for women. For Emma, it is all about economics rather than having the same rights as men. The suffrage movement is “a parlor affair, absolutely detached from the economic needs of the people.” (page 116) Labor as her first allegiance is clear in another quote: “Susan B. Anthony, no doubt an exceptional type of woman, was not only indifferent but antagonistic to labor; nor did she hesitate to manifest her antagonism when, in 1869, she advised women to take the places of striking printers in New York.” (page 116)

Emancipation is really no emancipation. Women strive to be allowed to do the same as men, only to find that they now have to do the same as men AND their old role in the house and family. No wonder, she cries, that women are retreating from emancipation and seek marriage as a way to retreat and be taken care of. Also, the role of an independent woman is a lonely one due to moral and social prejudices. Better, some find, to acquiesce to the societal role for women as mother and wife. “…we find many emancipated women who prefer marriage, with all its deficiencies, to the narrowness of an unmarried life; narrow and unendurable because of the chains of moral and social prejudice that cramp and bind her nature.” (page 123) True emancipation is the freedom from external AND internal tyrants (i.e., ethical and social conventions).

Perhaps as expected, Emma is not a real fan of marriage. As with prison, she looks at the reasons given for it and then deconstructs them. Marriage is an economic arrangement/insurance pact. (In some respects, although we moderns claim to marry for love, this assessment is still true.) Women pay for marriage with their name, privacy, self-respect, life; they are condemned to “life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness, individual as well as social.” (page 126)

Work is expected for men. For women, it is transitory. She is saved through marriage, but she is not free because now her labor and economic slavery increases. It is a myth, she argues, that marriage exists for the child and protects the mother. She argues instead for motherhood outside of the bonds of marriage. How this could happen with women’s economic subordination is unclear.

Emma’s arguments are a combination of clear-headed realism and idealism. Some seem insightful. Others fanciful. Economic justice and equality trumps other concerns. Freedom from religion, property, and government is key. She has a strong belief in the goodness of the individual, and justifies violence as a compassionate reaction to violence and injustice. “No real social change has ever come about without a revolution.” (page 41) What would be interesting is to read some of her writings after her deportation to Russia where she encountered post-revolution Russian society and recoiled from the horrors she saw.