Friday, January 16, 2009


(Holly Near singing "Two Good Arms" at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1987)


In 1977, Charlie King wrote a song about Sacco and Vanzetti called "Two Good Arms". The chorus uses lines from letters they wrote trying to prove their innocence, and the title comes from a phrase in one of those letters. Holly Near eventually recorded this song on one of her albums, but before that she sang it at concerts. As a teenager, I had read "Justice Denied in Massachusetts", the very famous poem about Sacco and Vanzetti by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who used her influence as a poet and Nobel Prize winner to try to keep these innocent men from being executed. I was devastated by this wrong which had been done before I was born.

Later, when as an adult I heard Holly's rendition of "Two Good Arms", I felt the same emotions of grief and outrage come up in me. I was singing along one day when my daughter, still very young, came into the room. I had tears on my cheeks and my voice was pulsating with feeling. She asked me what the song was about. I hesitated, but I told her. She begged me to say Sacco and Vanzetti had not been killed, that no one would have coldbloodedly sent them to their death. I saw, in that moment, the reality of capital punishment land in her consciousness, the immorality of killing to punish murder. I wanted to take it back, to give her a chance at living in a world where we had other methods of dealing with extremely damaged people.

(Photograph of a protest against the Briggs Initiative organized by the Metropolitan Community Church, located in their "In Our Own Words" History Project -- date, location, and photographer unknown, but likely 1978 and Bay Area)

When I moved to San Francisco in March of 1978, I immediately plunged into radical political organizing. There was a lot to choose from, but most of the lesbians I knew or wanted to know were focused on two main issues at that time: Defeat of the Briggs Initiative (Proposition 6), and defeat of expanding the death penalty (Prop 7).

The Briggs Initiative would have removed gays and lesbians from school teaching. The way it was written, it was also a club that could have been used against straight teachers, and that angle was successfully exploited by the grassroots work of Lesbian Schoolworkers (the group which got my attention) and BACABI (Bay Area Coalition Against The Briggs Initiative). The mainstream gay organizations (predominantly white, male, non-working-class) put everything they had into defeating the Briggs Initiative. But when it came to the death penalty effort, I found myself surrounded by working folks, people of color, and/or political dykes.

The preceding June, two-thirds of California's electorate had passed Prop 13, which began the decline in California's school funding that continues today. For the past few years, measures against lesbian and gay rights had been passing in state after state. These were the first lapping wavelets of conservative rise to power, portending a tsunami (Ronnie Raygun) on its way. It's important to remember they were trying out several planks: Hate queers. End public funding of essential community services. Build more prisons and kill more prisoners. This is an interrelated ideology, and taking on only one of their toxic tentacles made no sense to me.

On the evening of 7 November, 1978, I and my friends were part of a huge crowd on Castro Street listening to the election results come in. When it was clear Prop 6 had gone down, a massive party began. But I didn't join the celebration. Prop 7 had vastly expanded the death penalty in this newly adopted state of mine, golden California, the land of freedom and promise. I went home, crawled into bed, and wept.

Prop 6 was defeated by 58% of the electorate. An almost identical percentage voted for the death penalty expansion. I had a lot to think about.

(Matthew Shepard)

On the morning of Sunday, October 18, 1998, I attended Meeting For Worship at the Friends' Meeting House in Austin, as I did most Sundays. Worship was silent for the first half hour that morning, with no one rising to speak. I was sitting on the south side of the room so I could see the trees out the high windows on the north wall. But I was also in a perfect position to see the face of a young man I'll call Sullivan (to protect his confidentiality) when he rose from his chair opposite me to speak during the second half of worship.

His standing created an immediate air of anticipation in the room. Sullivan was openly gay, partnered with Antonio, another man in meeting; they were both admired for their hard work. I had never seen Sullivan speak in Meeting; indeed, I'd seldom heard him speak anywhere. He clasped his hands that morning, but I could see they were shaking. He stared at the floor for a minute, gathering himself.

Six days earlier, Matthew Shepard had been murdered.

I'll do my best to repeat exactly what I heard Sullivan eventually say, in a strained, halting voice:

"It's been a hard week...When I heard the news, I wished Antonio were home. I had trouble waiting for him to come home, so we could talk. Finally, I did what I often do when I need help. I opened the Midrash and began reading.

"I turned to a section about when the Israelites fled Egypt in search of freedom. When they fled across the Sea of Reeds, in a way opened by Yahweh, the Midrash tells of how the angels in heaven were gathered around G*d, watching the events unfold. They were filled with fear as Pharaoh's army came after the Israelites, chasing them into the gap, closing on them. But when the Israelites reached dry ground and the waters behind them closed over the chasing soldiers, all the angels broke into gleeful celebration. As they cheered and danced, one of them noticed that G*d was sitting slumped, tremendous sorrow on his face. The angel asked 'Why are you not happy that Your people reached safety?'

"G*d replied, 'How can I be happy, when My people are drowning?'"

Sullivan stood a few seconds more, as shock reverberated around the room, then sat down, twisting his hands together. More than one of us burst into tears.

(Curved Corridor, Island No. 3, Ellis Island 1998, gelatin silver print by Stephen Wilkes)

Last June, a divided Supreme Court ruled out use of the death penalty in this country for anything except first-degree murder, even child rape. The New York Times article reporting the decision stated it was "the third in the last six years to place a categorical limitation on capital punishment. In 2002, the court barred the execution of mentally retarded defendants. In 2005, it ruled that the Constitution bars the death penalty for crimes committed before the age of 18." The article went on to insist "there was no suggestion from the majority that the court was moving toward the abolition of capital punishment." Not from this Supreme Court, no, I wouldn't expect a movement toward joining most of the rest of the world in re-examining the meaning of justice and punishment.

We are, for the time being, still held sway by John Walsh notions of retribution, of seeking some amorphous definition of "closure" when violence intrudes into our personal lives and takes away something irreplaceable. When I hear family members claiming they want the death of someone who murdered one of their own because it will bring them "peace", I always suspect they are mistaking closure for denial. If a murderer is dead, it's easier to shut away the emotions and thoughts attached to the murder. The problem is, capital punishment not only doesn't work as a deterrent, not for most of the people who commit murder -- it actually, over time, creates a culture where we are desensitized to the value of human life.

I know what it is to live with this kind of loss. I myself have felt homicidal in response to seeing irreparable damage and death of those I love, administered by the hands of people who need to be stopped. But I hold myself to a different standard, and I'd like to live in a society where our highest goals are perhaps beyond our everyday reach, yet we do not abandon them as goals.

(Hammer and Nails glass sculpture by Hans Godo Frabel)

Several years ago, I was close friends with a couple of dykes who were building their own house on 70 acres near Hamilton Pool, west of Austin. They lived hand to mouth and were in dire need of other carpentry-skilled hands to help them, so they created a series of weekend workshops to teach women the basic trade, in exchange for a small fee and the chance to camp out on their land. I signed up for one weekend, driving back and forth each day because it was hotter'n'hell and I liked to sleep without fireants around.

Also, to be honest, it was a vegetarian weekend, with one woman attending whom the rest of us called The Vegan Cop behind her back because she was so militant about trying to govern the eating habits of others. Friday afternoon, on the way out there, I'd passed by a favorite barbecue joint and stopped to buy two chopped meat sandwiches with a big RC and a side of slaw -- eating my dinner in advance so I could fore go the uncertain potluck later. After I'd eaten, I got worried about my breath smelling like carne, and had brushed my teeth beside my car, drawing the stares of cowboys in pickups.

Each workshop involved a special project, and our weekend task was to build a large deck on a rocky ridge overlying the Pedernales River valley. Late afternoon on Sunday, we were to the point of nailing down the plywood decking, having completed the frame, steps, and railings. Laney, the main carpenter, had instructed us to drive the nails fast and hard, with the intention of making the nail head bite down into the wood on the final blow, leaving nothing to stick up above the level surface. There were about a dozen of us spread out over the large deck, whaling away with great volume and vigor, an exhilarating end to a hard-working weekend. I had started a nail and kept my spread hand on the wood next to it, a couple of inches away for safety. But I allowed myself to become distracted by the conversation of a couple nearby, whose incessant bickering made it fairly certain they were in the throes of breaking up. My brain, without my direct guidance, decided what I really wanted to do with my right-handed hammer swing was connect to my left hand instead of that measly nail. The blow came down on my left index finger with all the force my biceps could muster. The end of my finger burst like a ripe tomato.

It didn't hurt for a few seconds. The shock was in the appearance. I held up my finger stupidly and said to the nearest woman, "What happened?"

She was a clipped-of-speech butch who worked as a prison guard. She said "Put something cold on it" and went back to hammering. When I didn't move -- her sentence didn't really make sense to me, I was in such shock -- she got up irritably and went to the nearby cooler. But all the ice had melted, and the only thing left was a Pepsi in a can. She brought that back to me and said "This is still cold, hold it again your finger."

As if sleepwalking, I did what she said. It didn't help, and contact with the ruptured flesh finally registered as pain. I cried out "Oh my god, oh my fucking god." This got the attention of others, and Laney rushed over, her back and breasts covered in sweat, her workpants stiff with sawdust.

"Come on" she said. "Let's walk you back to the house." She helped me stand and led me gently through the mesquite, a direct path instead of by the dirt road, so we'd get there faster. Once we were out of sight of the work crew, she stopped and lifted my chin, looking kindly into my eyes.

"That must hurt like the end of the world" she said. "You don't have to pretend to be all tough with me, and those other butch wanna-bees can't see you now, you can let go."

I did. I promptly dropped to the ground and began wailing as if I was three years old. She was startled, but squatted beside me and rubbed my neck as I cried my heart out. When I was done, I felt better and worse -- I wasn't in shock any more, but the throbbing in my finger was all-consuming.

At the house, I washed the wound myself and bit onto a towel while Laney poured peroxide over it. I should have gone to an ER and gotten stitches -- the scar is still very visible and utterly numb -- but I didn't want to do it by myself and no one else was available. She wrapped a thick bandage around it and recommended I hold my hand in the air, to keep the swelling down. When the others arrived for dinner, I sat a little apart, afraid someone would jostle me, while I picked at my tofu pasta salad. Before it got inky dark, I left, determined to drive home. I don't remember the trip. In particular, I don't remember negotiating the two bob-wire-and-post cattle fences I had to get out and open, drive through, and loop shut again before reaching the main road.

The next day I tried to work but could not type, of course. My supervisor, a buddy, sent me home but first he explained to me about the concept of closure: How if you don't tell the brain what to while you are in motion, and if it does not have muscle memory to direct it, the brain will search for closure on its own. What it knew best was where my other hand was, so it closed the circuit for me. He said this is why when you stub a toe, you'll often keep stubbing that same toe: Your mind is now hyper aware of an injured part and if you don't pay attention while you're walking, closure will involve making contact with that wounded part of the body again.

It was a great lesson. Ever since, when I've begun doing something new with my body, I've reminded myself "closure" which means "pay attention, or else some other part of you will be making the decisions".

(Homecoming by Herlinda Spahr)

When one becomes a pacifist, an opponent to the taking of human life under any circumstances, it's not a final destination you reach and set up a comfortable home. It requires constant thought and work to stop wearing your sword.

The airwaves are now filled with stories related to the US Airways story: 150 passengers, 3 flight attendants, and 2 pilots walking away from a controlled crash landing in the Hudson River. It's pre-empting everything right now, including (and seemingly especially) Bush's departure. More than one blogger has pointed out it's a return of the wheel, with implicit redemption offered, i.e., fratboy fuckup allows terrorists to fly planes into New York's most vigorous symbols and never catches the perpetrator behind it, instead using all his power and influence to dismantle the economy, military, and culture whose best qualities were what the terrorists objected to in the first place. (Like he forced hugs on all those Katrina victims.) But now, with hope standing in the wings, we return to what us most proud about being American: Competence, genuine compassion (not the mealymouthed judgement-poisoned kind of conservatism), and community response.

I agree, we're responding as a culture to the symbolism. One literary/arts blog (Dykes To Watch Out For) has a fascinating thread about how many of us are weeping over this story without clear comprehension. But I think the relief and catharsis we're experiencing has its roots much farther in time. I'm remembering the jeering campaign slogan Reagan used for re-election: Are you better off than than you were four years ago?

It was shocking to hear this coming out of the TV screen. It was a dogwhistle for the middle class (and those who aspired to it), who wanted to claim moral superiority over dirty working people whose obvious failings (not being white, not being married, not being Christian) were what was keeping them/us from individual financial prosperity. It was permission to begin the polarizing hatred that is the ultimate conservative weapon against dismantling pluralism, tolerance, and shared prosperity -- which the fundies hate every bit as much as Osama Bin Laden does, and for the same reason (terror of modernity).

[In a related vein, I recommend you read Sara Robinson's essay at Campaign for America's Future on how Their use of the phrase "moral clarity" does not mean what we mean when we say it, found here.]

After catharsis, we have an opportunity to think freshly about the nature of the world and our place in it, as those passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 are undoubtedly doing this weekend. What will justice and closure mean for us, as we click shut the door on Bush? I for one make a distinction between punishment (tempting as that is) and accountability. I'm willing to give up on holding accountable all those of you who voted for Bush, once or twice. You're already being punished for your mistake, and though it is likely whatever you're suffering is not as severe as those in other parts of the world because of his having been granted the power to shit on the planet, still, I'm hoping for more learning to come out of this nearly incomprehensible mess. For me and for you.

I'm not willing to relinquish accountability for those who sought public office, however, and claimed our trust. When I separate out the feelings that push me toward wanting vengeance -- when I assert my intellect and deny my lizard brain the right to make decisions (beware your fingers) -- then I'm clear: Only those who still dream of a place in the system as it was would be deluded by the "hope" that perhaps we can leave the culprits free to go on doing more of what they've already done. I believe in rehabilitation, but it must be demonstrated, not declared as an intention. Or, as we say in 12-step circles, action not words. And, since we're dealing with the spree of a dry drunk, that is especially apt.

Real hope resides in a vision which steps outside of the system as it has existed and seeks complete disclosure of all that has remained concealed, with a belief that we'll know how to respond when we have that information. Restore transparency, fully empower investigation, and trust our process (our once and future process) to set us back on the path of being a force for good in this world. I do believe everything else will follow, if we begin there. The wheel will turn again without a jarring lurch, because for me, closure is remembering all which has happened without letting pain determine my future place on the spinning rim.