Figure it Out

December 10th, 2017

Karin and I went to visit our loved one in jail. I was the first one called into the room to speak with her. I sat down and she motioned me to pick up the telephone receiver. Her buzz cut is starting to grow out. She no longer has that funky, Sinead O’Conner look. Her hair is still a reddish color from some dye she used several weeks ago. I wonder what her natural hair color actually is. I can’t seem to remember.

The young woman looked visibly upset. She seemed to be at the verge of crying.

I asked her, “What’s up?” I didn’t ask her how she was, because I already knew the answer to that question.

The loved one started weeping softly. Then she calmed herself and said, “When I leave this place, they will probably send me to Taycheedah, near Fond du Lac. That’s where they sort out which prison to send you to. They decide how violent you are, and then you go to either maximum security or minimum. I don’t think I’ll be going to maximum. I had that battery charge, but they downgraded it to disorderly conduct.”

“Okay”, I replied.

She started sobbing, “I don’t know what to do about visits when I get there. I have to send you guys a letter or something…but I don’t know the procedure.”

She paused and said haltingly, “I’m worried that I won’t ever get to see you guys again!”

I looked away for a moment.

Then I told her, “It’ll be okay. We’ll figure it out. With all the stuff that’s happened before…we figured it out. We always figure it out.”

She wiped away her tears with her hand. Her breathing became more regular.

“Okay”, she said.

I looked at her, and said softly, “We’ll figure it out.”

 

 

 

Whitewashed Tombs

December 6th, 2017

“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you are like to whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all filthiness.” -Matthew 23:27

Washington D.C. is truly a beautiful city, especially at night. After eating supper, our group of demonstrators walked from the National Museum of the American Indian to the Lincoln Memorial. That long stroll took us from near the Capitol Building almost all the way down to the Potomac River. Floodlights illuminated many of the monuments and memorials.  The structures looked almost like they were glowing in the dark, the white marble reflecting the artificial light. We went past the Smithsonian Institute and the Washington Monument. We wandered around in the WWII Memorial. We hiked up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and were subsequently told by a cop to leave because we still had our protest signs with us. The figures of soldiers in the Korean War Memorial looked eerie in the half-light of the street lamps nearby. The Martin Luther King Memorial was impressive in a massive, heroic sort of way.

In some of the locations I felt a sort of reverent awe. This was particularly true when I stood inside of the Lincoln Memorial, reading the man’s words carved into the stone walls. The MLK Memorial also made me stop and think. I’m not sure why that was. Maybe it’s because these men served their country so well, and I felt the need to honor their memory.

Two other buildings were lit up: the White House and the Capitol Building. If we turned around as we walked, we could see them shining in the night. I felt nothing at all for those two buildings. To use the words of Jesus, those are just whitewashed tombs. They are beautiful and majestic from the outside, but within they are full of greed and the lust for power. People say and do terrible things in those places.

The White House and the Capitol should be left dark at night. It’s bad enough we can see them during the day.           

The Generation that Follows Us

December 6th, 2017

[Father:]

I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy
To be calm when you’ve found something going on
But take your time, think a lot
Why, think of everything you’ve got
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not

[Son:]
How can I try to explain, cause when I do he turns away again
It’s always been the same, same old story
From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen
Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away
I know I have to go

-Cat Stevens, from “Father and Son”

 

Nothing makes me feel old like being in the company of a group of teenagers. I don’t dislike being with them, but it is difficult for us to connect. At least, I find it a bit difficult to do so. It is hard for me to remember what it was like for me to be that age. Hell, it’s hard for me to remember what it was like for my kids to be that age. In many ways these young people are just like I was, but some things really are different for them, and that is disconcerting.

I spent two full days hanging out with a large number of high school students, and a few of their friends who have already graduated.  We rode on a bus (actually there were two buses) to Washington, D.C. to join a rally to prod Congress into passing a clean Dream Act. Since Trump discontinued DACA, about 800,000 young people (like the ones on the bus), are now or will be subject to possible deportation. They will also lose their ability to work or pursue an education. About one hundred of us went to D.C. to demonstrate. We did it because, as one of the older people in our group pointed out, “The issue is no longer theoretical”. The longer these youths go unprotected, the greater the chances that they will get hurt.

Many of the young people on the bus were Latino. A few were not, but even they realized what is at stake. They all have skin in the game. Every one of those kids either is undocumented or knows somebody who is. Each one of those teenagers is painfully aware of how important this issue is. They didn’t come on the trip just to get out of a couple days of classes. As one of them said, they came because “it is a noble cause”.

The journey was organized by Voces de la Frontera and its subsidiary, YES (Youth Empowered in the Struggle). All the students were somehow involved with YES. Besides the transportation, Voces and YES made the banners and signs. They also ensured that there was plentiful food and water for the trip. We all got two massive sandwiches, and everyone seemed to have snacks with them.

It wasn’t like everything was completely serious. After all, we are talking about teenagers. There was a kind of wild energy on the bus as we left Racine in the afternoon. There were many lively discussions, and more than enough loud music on the ride. Sleep was optional, at least on the way to Washington. Folks were too wound up, even those of us who qualify as old. A few of the elders were designated as chaperons. Somehow Voces never thought to use me as a chaperon, and I am eternally grateful for that. I’ve spent most of my adult life herding people, and I was very pleased to just be an innocent bystander this time.

I got to know a few of the teens on the bus ride. Anthony and Emelio sat behind me. Anthony is an old hand at this sort of thing. He was in YES for several years, and he worked at the Voces office in Milwaukee. Now he manages a restaurant. Emelio is still in high school. He’s interested in joining the military. I tried to clue him in that there are costs involved with that kind of decision. I’m not sure that he understood, but then how could he? There are things that a person can only learn by experience, and he doesn’t have much of that yet.

Somebody cranked up the tunes as the evening progressed. I was deeply impressed by the fact that the kids sang along with “Killing Me Softly with His Song”. I don’t think they were listening to the Roberta Flack version. I think it was the Fugees cover. However, they knew all the words. Then they played tracks from Kid Cudi. I actually own a Kid Cudi album (Man on the Moon II). He’s not bad at all. Then they shifted over to some Mexican music. Some of riders sang along in Spanish. It sounded pretty cool. After that, they played hip hop, rap, and whatever else they liked. At 11:00 PM the party stopped. The bus was quieter, but not entirely silent. Too much tension.

We had breakfast at Bob and Edith’s Diner in Arlington, Virginia. It’s an old school diner. I really don’t think the management expected to see fifty people walk into their restaurant at one time. However, they handled the crowd well. We all found a seat. I sat in a booth by myself for a while. Nobody wanted to sit with a scary-looking old guy. Finally, a boy named Tyler slid into the booth. Then two girls showed up: Gabi and her blue-haired friend (whose name I have forgotten).

The conversation was awkward. I asked the usual, lame, adult questions. You know, like “What classes are you in?” and “Do you like sports?”. They gave me mostly monosyllabic answers. It was pathetic. The girls were juniors at Horlick High School, and Tyler was a freshman there. I wanted to have a conversation, but it seemed forced. The teens and I were looking at life from opposite ends of the continuum. Besides the fact that we were all motivated to help immigrants, we had almost nothing in common. The gap was just too big.

We got off the bus at Union Station and we all walked to the Capitol Building. Most people carried signs. I helped to carry a big, black parachute which had the image of a mother and child on it. In both English and Spanish, there was the message: “Keep Families Together”. It was impressive to see. It was a bit hard to maneuver with the parachute, but it was fun to flap it once it was all stretched out.

It was cold and windy outside the Capitol. The sun peeked through a grey sky. The crowd was big. There were people there from all over the country. There seemed to be an endless amount of speeches. We stood around for a while, and then moved into a strategic position to get near the front of the march. It’s easier to get media attention if you are in the front.

Civil disobedience was scheduled for 3:00 PM at the Senate side of the building. We were going to march there, and support the people risking arrest. The action was planned well in advance, and was going to be about as spontaneous as a space shuttle launch. That’s just how those things work. A number of people were going to sit on the steps of the Senate wing, and then refuse to get up. The Washington cops would arrest them, and the media would take note. It’s kind of political version of Kabuki theater.

Christine from Voces was one of the folks waiting to get busted. She sat with at least one hundred other people on the stone steps. The police were there, heavily armed and looking all badass and shit. The show would have been amusing if the underlying problem wasn’t so critical.

The people sitting on the steps came in all shapes and sizes. There were members of the clergy there, dressed in their religious garb. Each of them wore neon green gloves, and each one had a green band around their right arm. I found this to be odd. It occurred to me that maybe this was a way to ensure that the group of protesters wasn’t infiltrated by some hooligans. The idea was to have a peaceful, non-violent action. One or two idiots would screw that up quickly.

The police gave the sitters a chance to leave. Nobody budged. Then the cops slowly, but surely, arrested each one of them. From my vantage point, it was really hard to see who was getting busted. The crowd was thick, and people were huddled close together. I tried in vain to find Christine on the stairs.

Al, one of the chaperons, told me, “We don’t need to watch. The kids need to see this.”

He was right. The older protesters in our group didn’t need to watch the event. All of us have either already watched friends get arrested, or we have been arrested ourselves at some point. However, the teens really did need to watch the arrests. They needed to see that there are costs involved in working for justice. They needed to see that free speech isn’t always free. They needed to know first hand, up close and personal, what happens when you buck the system. They needed to be made aware.

When the demonstration finally ended, and we left the park, people were a bit more subdued. We were all kind of tired. The experience was sobering.

The high school students all left that place just a little bit older.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dreaming in Washington

December 6th, 2017

“Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

-Hunter S. Thompson 

“The dream is over
What can I say?
The dream is over
Yesterday”

-John Lennon, from the song “God”

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”

-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

We were riding in a cramped bus through the December darkness along the Ohio Toll Way. We were all on our way to Washington, D.C., for a political rally to support a clean Dream Act. Fifty people were crammed into tiny seats, and for most of the ride I was surrounded by loud talking and music. I sat next to Ron, an older gentleman with a pony tail and a bad left knee. His knee caused him great discomfort during the bus ride, as there was no room at all to stretch out or move his leg. Sometimes Ron would painfully get up and walk toward the back of the bus, where he would stand for a while. I stayed in my seat and stared out the window, watching the shadows of the landscape flow past me in the moonlight.

Moonlight is conducive to remembering and dreaming. This wasn’t my first bus trip to D.C.. I had been on a similar bus almost eleven years ago, tracing the same route eastward through the night. It was in January of 2007. I was with a group from Peace Action Wisconsin. We were going to the Capitol to protest against George W. Bush and the Iraq War. On that earlier journey, the bus had been filled with anti-war activists of all varieties: aging hippies, Che Guevara wannabes, radical feminists, Vietnam vets, and the Skinheads for Peace. The two skinheads were my favorites; they dressed just like their rightwing comrades, but they were totally against the war. There was one other person on that peace bus who was important to me: my son, Hans.

As I sat on this newer bus, I thought about Hans. He had been sitting next to me on the trip we took eleven years ago. He was nineteen at the time. His memories of the journey are different than mine. He claims that I conned him into going to the peace demonstration. I remember him whining that I was going to Washington, but he wasn’t. In any case, we both wound up on that Peace Action bus. We both sat there for hours on end, alternately observing the scene and attempting to catch some sleep.

The population on this week’s bus was different from the one I took all those years ago. Ron and I were riding with a group of high school students from Racine, Wisconsin. They were mostly Latino, and they were all somehow affiliated with YES, Youth Empowered in the Struggle. YES works to promote social justice issues, primarily the rights of immigrants. The students had all the hallmarks of youth: boundless energy, intense idealism, and a total inability to focus. The few elders on the bus were excited about the rally, but we also exuded a sort of melancholy. As Ron stated, “This isn’t our first rodeo.” We had all been places and done things. Some of the kids probably had never even been out of Racine before. Did having a mix of old and young mean that we had experience versus enthusiasm? Maybe experience combined with enthusiasm.

A multi-hour bus ride gives a person a chance to engage in lengthy conversations. Ron and I did just that. Ron told me about his time as a pastor in the Church of the Brethren. He also went to law school and worked as a corporate lawyer. I told Ron about my time at West Point and my years as a Army helicopter pilot. We talked about our families. Ron told me about how he very nearly joined the military back in 1967. He changed his mind after speaking to a high school classmate who had just returned from his first tour in Vietnam. Several of Ron’s friends had gone to Vietnam, but he didn’t. Ron spoke with a certain amount of sadness because those separate paths divide him from his friends, even today.

In the pre-dawn hours we stopped for a break at a rest stop in western Pennsylvania. The students went to the bathrooms, and then sat down in small groups to chat and to gaze intently at their smart phones. I wandered aimlessly past the closed food kiosks, and I stood by the main entrance, simply grateful for the opportunity to stand for a while. Elliott was there too. Elliott is a thin, young man with glasses and an infectious smile. He was the captain of the bus, although he shared that duty with Valeria, a young Latina from Racine. Neither Elliott nor I had any desire to get back on the bus just yet, so we struck up a conversation.

Elliott and I talked about the rally in Washington. I told him about how Hans and I took this same path a decade ago. I told him about the crowds there, and how Hans spent his time in the museums while I stood around listening to leftwing rhetoric. I frowned when I mentioned the aftermath of the journey. I told Elliott about how, just two years later, Hans joined the Army, and how he went to Iraq in 2011. I felt a wave of sadness when I told him that Hans killed people in the same war that I wanted to end. The irony was bitter.

Elliott listened. He said that we can’t expect that this demonstration will get us all that we want. We might not get a clean Dream Act. Our efforts may be for naught. Then he said,

“But what is the alternative? Do nothing?”

He went on, “I want us to succeed. I want to be smart and get results.”

I want us to succeed too. Both Elliott and I realize that this long trip may not achieve that. However, we both also know that it may be a catalyst for other things. We may succeed in ways we don’t understand and that we can’t imagine. Sometimes, the intention is the most important thing. Sometimes, we just need to try.

Much later, after the rally was over, and we were all walking around in the dark near the Tidal Basin, we stumbled on to the Martin Luther King Memorial. The lighting made the image of MLK seem heroic. I was astounded by the detail in the stone. I could even see the veins in King’s hands. I read some of the quotes in the wall behind the stone carving. Martin Luther King had not achieved his dream during his lifetime, but he hadn’t failed either.

A dream achieved is no longer a dream. It is reality.

I’m home again. Hans called me on the phone last night. He wanted to tell me that it was snowing like hell down in Bryan, Texas. He said that Gabi, his bride-to-be and a Texas native, loved it. I could hear her laughing in the background.

Hans asked me, “Where did you go?”

I told him, “I went to Washington for another demonstration.”

Hans sighed, “What was this one about?”

“Immigration. We were trying to keep undocumented kids from getting deported.”

Hans said, “Yeah, they should have a law that lets people stay here if they got brought to this country when they were little.”

“Well, yeah. That’s what we were trying to get Congress to do.”

“That’s okay.”

There was giggling in the background again.

“Well, Dad, I just called to tell you about the snow. Talk to you later.”

“Bye Hans.”

“Yeah, Bye.”

Hans remembers our trip to D.C.. He wants his own kids. He has his own dreams for them.

 

 

 

Don’t Use the Stairwell

December 3rd, 2017

Another Sunday, another trip to the Kenosha County Jail. It’s amazing how quickly we adjust to new patterns in our lives. What initially seemed horrendous is now the new normal. An arrest and incarceration of a family member is shocking at first, but then it just becomes an accepted part of our reality. The visits to the jail are just as much part of a typical Sunday for us as going to Mass is. Now, it’s just what we do.

Karin and I went to the jail early, but we were not the first ones there. There were already two other people in the lobby, and they seemed a bit confused. I don’t think that is all that unusual. The jail is an environment that breeds confusion. Visiting hours are usually only on the weekend, and there is often nobody available during that time to give direction and guidance to the people who are showing up for the first time. It’s not a good system.

A woman in the lobby of the building spoke to Karin and me as soon as we walked into the place. She said,

“Whatever you do, don’t use the stairwell!”

“Ooooookaaaay…”, I replied.

She went on, “I was here on Friday, and tried to use the stairs. I got myself locked in the stairwell!”

I wondered about that. There are signs in the hallway indicating where to go. The signs clearly direct a visitor to the elevator that goes to the second floor of the jail. Why would this woman use the stairs? How did she get out of the stairwell? Why was she even here on a Friday?

I shook my head to clear my mind. The lady kept up her monologue. It was pure stream of consciousness. I tuned out most of what she was saying. We all took the elevator to the second floor. We walked down another hallway, and she said,

“Look! The office is closed! There is nobody at the window!”

“Uh, no…that’s not the correct window. We have to go a little further down this hallway.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

We arrived at the window where we had to fill out a small slip of paper and show our ID cards. The woman had clearly never been to this place before. It was all new to her. I kept wondering, “So, where was she on Friday, if she never made it here?”

There was a already a crowd of people waiting in the narrow hallway, and visitation didn’t even start for another ten minutes. The seats were all taken, so Karin and I stood next to the wall. Karin took out her drop spindle, and started to spin raw wool with it. A man near us was rather impressed with Karin’s skills. Karin always has some knitting or spinning with her. She is never bored.

The visits started. Each person only got ten minutes with an inmate, so things went fast. I saw our loved one first, then Karin came into the room immediately after I was finished. Our family member was in good spirits, relatively speaking. There wasn’t that sense of utter panic and hopelessness. I was grateful for that.

On our way out, I stopped at the kiosk to put more money into our inmate’s commissary account. When I finished using my credit card, a black woman came up to the computer kiosk to do the same thing. She had never used it before, so I stayed and walked her through the process. Like everything else in the jail, this device is not user friendly. I was lucky that somebody held my hand when I first tried to enter money into the account. Otherwise, I am sure that I would have eventually given up in despair. I took the woman through each step. Even so, it was still a tedious task. I get the impression that this kiosk was designed by somebody who knew that it would be the only option available to people, and that there was no need to worry about them taking their business elsewhere. Monopolies don’t have to be concerned with customer service.

We’ll try  all this again next Sunday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newton’s Laws

November 30th, 2017

Nada brought her homework to me. I’m not sure what grade she’s in, but it looked like something that a middle school student would be studying. She had some geometry to do. We finished that up pretty quick. The lesson was mostly about comparing rectangles of similar shapes, but different sizes. We had to determine size ratios. Nada is good with math. She’s sharp that way.

Then we worked on some physics problems. Nada had a sheet of word problems to solve. The idea was to match the event described in each problem to one of the three Laws of Motion. One scenario was that a student had left her homework on a desk in a classroom, and nobody had made any attempt to put the homework elsewhere. The student had returned to the classroom and found her homework exactly where she had placed it.

I asked Nada, “What law goes with that?”

She pointed to the Third Law: “A force exerted on a body is matched by an equal and opposite force”.

I shook my head and said, “Uh, no.”

Nada gave me that puzzled look that said, “Why not?”

I told her, “Well, think about it. Was there any force exerted on the girl’s homework?”

I got the blank stare. This is where the language issue raises its ugly head. Nada doesn’t know English well enough to understand me all of the time. I know a smidgen of Arabic; enough to make small talk, but definitely not enough to teach science. I needed to try this explanation another way.

“Yeah, well, did anybody move the homework?”

“No, she replied.”

“Did a breeze from a window blow it around?”

“No.”

“So, did anything at all move the homework from the desk?”

“No.”

I pointed to Newton’s First Law: “A body at rest will tend to remain at rest, and a body in motion will tend to remain in motion, unless acted upon by another force.”

“Does that match up with the story about the girl’s homework?’

Nada smiled, “Oh yeah!”

“Good. Let’s try the next one.”

Nada and I would have made significantly more progress with her homework if there had not been constant interruptions by her siblings. Any house containing eleven kids will have a high level of chaos. I know this sort of thing from experience (I had six younger brothers). Nada’s little brother, Yusuf, kept coming to the table to show me things. He smiled and laughed, and demanded my attention. At one point he tried to climb up some rickety shelving, and I told him firmly to get down from there. I didn’t want to test the Law of Gravity, and have Yusuf bang his head on something.

Nisrin came to me also. She wanted help with her math. Nisrin isn’t as good with numbers as Nada is. I tried to explain some multiplication problems to Nisrin, and she nodded that she understood when I knew full well that she had no clue what I was talking about. Once again, the language barrier was there. I just don’t know how to explain a math problem in Nisrin’s Syrian dialect, although I suspect that she might not have understood even if English was her native tongue.

Amar, one of their older brothers, brought me my hot, sweet tea. Amar is an intelligent young man. He learns quickly, and I sense that he is street smart. He think he has had to be that way in order to survive this long.

Nada and I finished up the physics worksheet. It was an arduous process. I downed four glasses of tea, and felt like I was floating. We read a short book together about a kid and his pet housefly. That was oddly disturbing. Then I went downstairs to say goodbye to Um Hussein and the other children.

“Ma’a assalaama”, I said.

“Ma’a assalaam”, they answered.

 

 

 

 

 

All the Same, But All Different

November 29th, 2017

There is apparently no universal standard for how jails operate, at least with regards to how they manage visits to inmates. Over the years, Karin and I have visited a family member in three different jails, and each facility has had its own peculiar way of doing things. Each jail has had its own quirky system.

This is not to say that there are no similarities between the various lock ups. They all suck. That is consistent. Visiting a prisoner is always a hassle. Even when the guards are relatively friendly, the environment is intimidating. The buildings are universally cold and austere; usually lots of concrete, locked doors, and tinted glass. The seats are apparently designed to be uncomfortable. A jail is by its very nature ugly and forbidding. A reasonable argument can be made that jails are unpleasant so as to deter people from committing crimes that put them in there. However, I am convinced that nobody wants to be there; not the prisoners, not the guards, not the visitors.

Karin and I first visited our loved one when she was in the Milwaukee County House of Correction. At that facility a friend or family member has to register for a visit 24 hours in advance. The visit can last up to 30 minutes. A visitor can come to the jail on any day of the week, except Tuesday. Visits at the Milwaukee County House of Correction are all done by video. The visitors never actually get to see the inmate. They view the inmate on a screen. That is about as impersonal as a visit could possibly be. I found it interesting that I was required to go through a metal detector at the House of Correction prior to entering a locked room in order to watch the inmate on a fucking TV. That must have been a Sheriff Clarke idea. The only advantage of video interactions for a family member is that a visitor can speak and view to the inmate online (for a price) from home.

The Walworth County Jail was a bit more humane. There you had to register for a visit 48 hour in advance, but a person could visit on most days, and stay for half an hour. The visits were face to face. True, the conversations were conducted by telephone, but the visitor could physically see the inmate. That makes a difference. You could almost touch the other person. Apparently, in the last year, Walworth County has also gone the video route. More technology, less humanity.

The Kenosha County Jail is kind of chaotic. You don’t make an appointment for a visit. For us, it’s first come, first serve on a Sunday afternoon from 1:00 to 3:00. It’s a free for all. A person comes up to the service window, fills out a form, shows an ID, and waits…and waits…and waits. The visits are only ten minutes long, so the turnover is quick. Ten minutes isn’t very long, but sometimes it feels like an eternity if I can’t think of anything to talk about. I find that I remember all the things that I wanted to say just as soon as I put the phone down and leave the little booth. In Kenosha an inmate gets to see each visitor only once a week, so you have to make those ten minutes count.

When I was in the Las Vegas jail back in April, the thing that bothered me the most was the fact that I couldn’t let my wife know what was happening to me. I wasn’t in the jail long enough to need a visit, but I could already feel the isolation and the powerlessness. There was a sense of being totally disconnected from the outside world. A visit makes a huge difference to a prisoner. For some reason, jails often do their best make visits difficult and/or impersonal. That is the opposite of what they should be doing. Inmates need to know that somebody gives a damn. A visit is the best way to do that.