The Best Book of the 21st Century (so far)

Junot_wao_coverIt’s Monday and I don’t know what you did this weekend but I finished one book (Americanah) and started another (Descent). Since I quit teaching, reading has returned as my favorite thing to do. I always had the time but never took it, something about the frenzy of teaching that made it so I could only make time to read books I wanted to during the summer. Several summers ago I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I’d read Drown, his collection of short stories and so I knew the novel would be good because you can tell a lot about a writer by a short story and his were wonderful, compact tales punched with reality.

Recently, the BBC polled several U.S. critics in search of the best fiction book of the 21st century. They ended up awarding it to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoPublished in 2007, it took Diaz eleven years to write and it’s no wonder. The footnotes kept me up doing late-night searches on Wikipedia and reading about the history of the Dominican Republic.

And it’s a fun and funny book, not something I’d usually write about a book that explores socio-political history, love, the immigrant experience, and what it means to be an American (and who gets to call themselves American). But that’s the talent of Junot Diaz. I don’t know what he’s like in person but I really liked Oscar Wao. Oscar is not a typical hero protagonist and is in fact, a huge nerd. If you were a weird, socially awkward sci-fi kid who loved Lord of the Rings and comics, you’ll love him too.

Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to. -JD

If you click the link to this article, you can see the top 20 books the critics selected. I was sad that my beloved favorite The Goldfinch didn’t make the top 20 but then that is how it is with books and critics. Many of my favorite books (The Four Seasons by Stephen King) will never make a critics list. But that’s for another blog. In the meantime, check out this list and head to your local library (you do have a library card, don’t you?). Of the 20 on this list, I’ve read and enjoyed #’s 1, 5, 6, 11, and 13 (now you have to click the link!). How about you, what are you reading these days?




Yes, Feminism Has a Class Problem

From fieldnotes, October ninth, 2004: The Red Tent: A gathering of women

According to the program, it’s time for the final event at The Red Tent, titled: “Living our wholeness” with Donna Carlson-Todd, certified life coach. Before us is a petite blond woman in her fifties who is passing out business cards and telling us about herself and that we are here to celebrate what it is to be a woman. While finishing up, she says we need to stand and stretch, voice aloud what we’re feeling at that moment—everyone stands up and some “Aahs” and whispery moans are voiced from the group. Then she tells us to sit down at our tables where two sheets of paper have been placed during our stretch, one a worksheet the other a guide to it that outlines the “Universal cycles of change” and the “10 keys to living your wholeness”. Donna Carlson-Todd guides us through the worksheet, prompts us to fill out each section honestly, tells us no one will look at our answers. 

After a half hour of being guided through the worksheet, she asks us to stand again, to leave some space in front of ourselves. She tells us to close our eyes, imagine a circle in front of us—doesn’t matter how big—where we place (figured out from the worksheet we just completed) our intentions, groundedness, hearts desire, beliefs/imprints, and goals. We are told to imagine the colors in our circle, the feelings we felt when we filled out the worksheet. Then she asks us to step into our circle of intentions, groundedness and hearts desire, etc and then, step out, step back in again, “how do you feel inside your circle?” she asks.  A woman exclaims, “I feel better!” She asks us to vocalize how we feel, and several women’s Oohs, Aahs, and hums fill the room. She continues in a soft voice, telling us to step out (a woman behind me moans) then back in, and a woman exhales to my left. Then, Donna Carlson-Todd asks us to step out of our circles one last time and bend over and pick them up, hold them in the palms of our hands, and then close our eyes again. 

I’m not bored, but I’m feeling inauthentic, so I squint my eyes and peek at the women around me. Two women to my right are stroking their circles, another holds hers up, close to her chest, as Donna Carlson-Todd is telling us to place our circle to our hearts so that we always remember how it feels and have access to it. Then she tells us to sit quietly with our group and unwrap the purple blobs of cellophane-wrapped clay in front of us to create with it the feeling we felt in our circle of intentions, groundedness, etc.

So, I play with my clay, while everyone else at my table is quiet and busy with theirs. Fae is good, obviously knows what she’s doing, she’s sculpting a woman laying down with her arms entwined above her head, but the others are just making odd shapes that don’t look like much except Connie’s, which looks like a punk Christmas tree to me. I wind up making a heart shape, stick a rose petal in the middle of it and run off to the bathroom for some quick jotting.

When I return everyone is standing in a large circle holding hands and singing. I run in and stand between Connie and Monica and we are lead in several choruses of “Woman Am I.”

Woman am I

Spirit am I

I am the infinite within my soul

I have no beginning          

and I have no end

All this I am.

Several years ago I attended this all-woman gathering as part of my MA thesis research (participant-observation/ethnographic interviews). I wanted to explore the ways women relate to other women in organized, formal spaces such as work and feminist social gatherings. I grew up in a working class family where the women didn’t “return to work” they just worked. And mostly in pink-collar service work: clerical, food service, and light bookkeeping. I was the same as them and worked in low wage, service-oriented jobs with mostly women co-workers. The kernel of the idea for my thesis was the result of a few years of bookselling at Barnes & Noble where I worked with almost all women employees and a male boss. I may be a bad feminist for saying this aloud, but there was plenty of conflict among my women co-workers, what I call bullying and microaggressions these days when I consult with organizations that have problems with employee conflict.

Through my participation in The Red Tent (a public event held on a university campus that served as a means of ritualizing women’s experiences) I hoped to understand what is meant by ‘sisterhood’, this sense of community that middle class feminists talked about and what I observed was lacking at Barnes & Noble. In the process of interviewing women, I started to develop a hunch that the ways women relate in everyday life were influenced by larger cultural ideas (including from mainstream feminism) about how women should relate rather than how they actually do.

What I know now—after the research plus life experience—is that I was right, there are heavy expectations placed on how women should interact, and they are based on cultural and gender norms. That yes, women do have conflict with each other and that it has to do with the structure of the patriarchy. The big question however, the one that still sticks in my brain, is what of class norms? The Red Tent (and I’ve never told anyone besides my husband this) was one of the most awkward social experiences of my life; if I hadn’t been doing research I would’ve quickly made an Irish exit. Despite being a student, I didn’t feel connected to the white women there, I felt like an outsider in the most Goffmanesque way, the stigma of my social class was obvious, I didn’t dress like the other women or look like them, and I did not experience feelings of “sisterhood.”

I thought of all this last June when I read, “Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?” I’ve been stewing about it ever since, wanting to write a giant YES rather than bore you with my MA thesis and why I’m concerned about the state of feminism. Plenty of women have reaped the benefits of mainstream feminist policy, heck, where would middle class white women be without affirmative action? The problem is (and if you’re on twitter you already know this) is that mainstream feminism does little for women of color and working class white women. Mainstream feminism focuses on things like “leaning in” so that women can have it all and encourages women to push against gender norms and over work in the same way as men in order to secure the corner office. But, where does this leave a woman who doesn’t have the resources, the particular motivation, and/or the education to do these things? Where is feminism for them?

What Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In did best was expose the tremendous class and race divide in feminism. I saw it when I was teaching at a community college, several working class women who said they weren’t feminists because they were stay-at-home moms. Or the woman who thought a two-year degree and dental hygienist career was just fine, thank you very much; she said that she couldn’t be a feminist because they were “into getting more education.” The mythology of feminism being man-hating, well-known but what I heard was something more nuanced, it seemed like feminism was perceived as something academic and thus, completely out of touch.

Yes, feminism has a class problem (and a race problem too, which you can read about here and here). A little navel gazing isn’t a bad thing and singing songs and holding hands with other women is nice too; sisterhood is possible but hardly a guarantee in the competitive space of work. What’s nicer though is raising the minimum wage, family-friendly labor policy, free childcare for single parents (women and men) that are also college students, reproductive rights, and greater assistance and outreach for woman headed families struggling to care for elderly and/or disabled family members and children. Real stuff, because what middle class feminists don’t understand, is that leaning in was never a problem for busy, multitasking working class women. What I want middle class feminists to understand is that individual empowerment gets a real boost when the bills are paid, food is in the fridge, and gas is in the car. It’s the simple things, like good policy.


On the Culture of Binge Drinking in a Residential College Town

Culture: The values, beliefs, behaviors, and expectations of behaviors or social norms of a given population of humans.

Do you know what I find amazing? I find it amazing that I never see people burning couches and cars in the streets of my neighborhood. And I find it amazing that I never find discarded red plastic cups in the gutters outside my house. And I never find my neighbors passed out in the bushes in front of my house. Never. Not once in the 7 years that I’ve lived in my neighborhood. And there is never a Beer Pong table set up in the front yard of any of my neighbors’’ houses, ever. It’s kind of disappointing, really, because from what I remember from my college days, drinking games can be fun.

My students laugh when I express my amazement at these events, or the lack of these events in my neighborhood, because more than likely, it does happen in their neighborhood. I have the privilege of teaching at California State University (CSU), Chico, which, unless you’ve been living under a rock with no internet access, was the first college in the U.S. to top Playboy Magazine’s first list of Party Schools more than 25 years ago. We unfortunately held that title for 15 years, only because Playboy didn’t bother to print another Top Party School list in that time. It’s been a dubious honor, one we were all more than happy to shed in 2002 (Dear Arizona State, thanks for taking the heat off of Chico and making us #2). But still, the reputation lives on, even with the current students, most of whom weren’t alive when we first were honored in Playboy.

I think, at the time, that we may have earned the title. During a few debaucherous years in the mid 1980s, Pioneer Days in Chico, which was the equivalent of Spring Break in Florida, produced, what some would call, the heyday of the party era in Chico. As a result of several years of increasingly publicized partying, local college students and thousands of out of towners flocked to Chico for special event weekends, and for Pioneer Days. Thousands of young people filled the streets of Chico during Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, and Pioneer Days celebrations, and filled the Sacramento River on Memorial Day and Labor Day, floating down the river with tens of thousands of other young people.

Chico made national news with alcohol-fueled rioting in the streets in the name of a good time, cars were overturned at the infamous intersection of 5th and Ivy Streets, and MTV even offered directions on how to get to Chico for Pioneer Days. The result was catastrophic, and stained the reputation of any student who attended Chico State at the time.

But 1987 was a long time ago, especially for popular culture references to still be relevant, without some continuing activity that reproduces the culture and supports the cultural references of Chico as a party school. Today, there is not as much of a debate in our little city about whether an excessive party culture exists; most residents of both the town and the university agree: there is a problem here at Chico that revolves around drinking alcohol.

Stories float through the halls of Chico State with a fairly regular pattern about alcohol related incidents both on and off campus, and in Fall of 2012, four young adults died in Chico due to alcohol related incidents. The fatal incidents range from the slightly bizarre (falling out of a tree while intoxicated) to the expected (driving while intoxicated) to the quiet (not waking up after ingesting multiple forms of drugs and alcohol). The non-fatal incidents range from waking up in bushes, getting lost on the walk home from partying downtown, injury or assault, sexual assault, or just not remembering what happened the night before. Both on the record and off, alcohol related incidents permeate the discussions around campus and have for many years.

Sit in a classroom in the few minutes before the beginning of class, and you’ll hear students boast about the previous night’s escapades, most with fuzzy detail, a bit of bravado, and a hint of awe that they survived the night. Listen at the Union cafeteria on Thursday afternoon and you’ll hear plans of the best places to find a party for the night, how much they can spend on alcohol, and who will be hanging out with the group. Honestly, the conversations probably aren’t too dissimilar than that of most other college campuses around the U.S.; recent studies have found that about 80% of college students in the U.S. drink alcohol, and of those, about half binge drink.

But what makes Chico, and Chico State, so different from most of the rest that at one time in our history, Playboy put us at the top of the Party School list? And what makes Chico culture so different, that in a 2011 study of alcohol consumption at California State University campuses, Chico students reported the most frequent use of alcohol, and the most alcohol consumed on each drinking occasion, of the 14 CSUs in the study, and 20% of Chico students report drinking enough alcohol in one sitting on a weekly basis to be intoxicated,

My students describe the consequences of too much alcohol, and too frequent consumption in great and heartbreaking detail, but the 2011 study illustrates the consequences much more succinctly. In the report, students reported risky sexual behavior, including not using protection, having sex with someone they did not previously know, and having sex with a new partner following drinking. Additionally, 16-20% of students who attended parties at either Greek organizations, in campus residence halls, and at private residences reported passing out after drinking at least once during the previous semester. Perhaps most disturbing, students at Chico State were the least likely to report there was a system in place at the parties they attended that was designed to look after anyone who became intoxicated, and Chico State students were the least likely to report that obviously intoxicated partygoers were refused alcohol at those parties. Chico has a culture of drinking alcohol unlike any other CSU.

How did we get to this spot? This place where students drink more frequently, drink more in each sitting, have riskier behavior, don’t bother to take care of their friends and fellow students when drunk, and continue to serve them alcohol when they are obviously too drunk to care for themselves?

I don’t doubt the statistics, by the way; the statistics mirror what my students tell me in class: they drink hard and fast, and a lot, at Chico State.

This is what we talk about in my sociology classes here at Chico: why does the party school behavior continue at Chico? What makes it different than all the rest? What is our culture here at Chico that perpetuates the behavior and reinforces the reputation? Also, how does the larger culture influence drinking patterns in our youth?

There are a unique set of geographic and environmental factors that play a role in the drinking culture here at Chico. Chico State is a highly residential campus, with a high concentration of student housing in a very small area.

Lack of late-night opportunities in neighboring businesses such as movie theaters, concert venues, and alcohol-free clubs for people under 21 years old contribute to the excessive drinking culture here at Chico. The biggest movie theater is over two miles away from the closest university neighborhood, and three to four miles from the farthest neighborhoods. There are no cheap late night movies on or near campus, no dance clubs geared for the under-21 year old crowd, and only two concert venues that have limited seating (both are small former movie theaters) with shows rarely scheduled.

Approximately 80% of the 16,000 students enrolled at Chico State live within two miles of the university campus. The residential area immediately north, south, and west of the university, is comprised of apartment buildings, dozens of old Victorian homes that can house 10-20 residents each, a dozen or so fraternity and sorority houses, and University Housing, which houses over 2,000 students a year. This concentration of student residences creates a climate where the norm is college life, where college hours dominate the neighborhoods (in other words, no pesky middle-aged folks with 8-5 jobs who will complain about loud parties). It’s not uncommon for house parties to flow onto front yards, sidewalks, and meander from house to house in a neighborhood.

Most students live within walking distance of the main party area in Chico, and thus, don’t worry about driving home from bars and parties, so no one needs to abstain from drinking to be a designated driver. They can walk, or take a pedicab, or just sleep on someone’s couch, at a moment’s notice, when coming home from a night out. Walking to and from areas where parties might occur is more convenient than going to the movies, taking in a concert (few and far between in Chico), or going to any restaurant in town.

Within the College Town are 8-10 liquor stores, depending on where one draws the boundaries of College Town, and in the adjacent downtown area, there are dozens of restaurants and bars that sell alcohol. Statistically, Chico has a severe over concentration of liquor outlets, and those outlets are centered in and around College Town. More access to alcohol outlets increases consumption and binge drinking.

Big houses: Chico enjoys large lot sizes, with very large houses that can physically support large parties. Walk down 5th Street on any weekend evening during the school year in Chico and you’ll find a party, or three or four. Everyone is usually welcome as long as they aren’t looking for trouble. Large porches offer couch seating and a place to watch people walk by, and invite them in to join in the fun.

Moderate climate: During the traditional academic year, Chico enjoys fairly moderate weather. Sure, it gets hot here during the summer, and occasionally, we have rain and cold nights in the winter, but generally, Chico enjoys temperate weather during the school year, which means large parties can congregate on lawns and streets. Also, college students walk in Chico, especially in College Town because of the geography of the area around the university, but also, due to the weather. It’s almost always nice enough to walk in the downtown area and College Town because of the weather. It creates a very social environment, and influences the number of people out in the neighborhoods.

A side note here: Incoming first year students are discouraged by the university administration from bringing vehicles to Chico due to the high rate of auto thefts in the area, but more importantly, the lack of parking space at the university. What does this create? A situation where students have to walk, ride a bike, ride the city bus, take a taxi, or rely on friends to take them out of the downtown area. Pedicabs are available in Downtown, but are limited in schedule, passengers, and area of service.

From the micro-culture of College Town, to the larger university culture, the excessive drinking culture at Chico persists. Faculty often condone drinking excessively by reminiscing of their own drinking exploits in college and canceling classes the day after big party holidays. Students are the servers at the downtown restaurants where their professors have dinner, and drinks, and get drunk. It is a not-so-subtle acceptance of both underage drinking and excessive drinking.

Consider this: students at Chico reported that they drank 2-3 drinks BEFORE going to parties; this is called “preloading”. Mostly, preloading happens with shots of hard alcohol. It gets the party going before students even leave their home. Why do they do this? My students report that they do it for a number of reasons, but mostly, they do it because they are afraid they won’t be able to find alcohol after they leave their homes since they are not yet 21. But at Chico, that’s not likely, given our culture. Regardless, preloading happens still. Once students leave their homes, they have another 2 or 3 drinks while they are out often due to peer exposure, then finish off the night with a drink or two at home. That’s the average. Some people drink less; some people drink more. By the end of the night, the average person will have consumed enough to be intoxicated.

Most students underestimate how much they drink and overestimate how much their peers drink and in the CSU alcohol survey, most students thought that their peers drank significantly more than they did. That skews the “normal” behavior expectations to the higher end of alcohol consumption, and increases one’s own alcohol consumption.

The underlying problem with alcohol consumption at Chico State does not begin with Chico State. Sure, we may help it along some with our climate, our geography, our access to alcohol here, and the lack of alternate social activities in the area, but these things would not be a problem if the larger culture, the American culture, didn’t contribute to irresponsible and excessive alcohol consumption as well.

Ask yourself this question: Where and when were you first exposed to alcohol? How did you learn how much to drink? What to drink? How do you know who to trust to make you a drink?  Was it modeled in your home with your parents’ drinking habits?  Was it your friends in high school, who had limited access to alcohol but likely binged when they did get access? Was it in college? Maybe, it was here at Chico State when you were 18 years old.

How did you learn to drink alcohol?

I ask my students this same question every semester. They giggle with nervous laughter when I ask them how their parents taught them to drink. Forgive the pun, but it’s a loaded question. A few, less than 10%, tell me they have never had a drink of alcohol, and they’ll wait to drink until they are 21, and do it responsibly. Fair enough. More students tell me they started drinking with their friends in high school or earlier, but the alcohol was usually beer, often pilfered from their parents’ refrigerator, and with limited access. A few tell me their parents allowed them the occasional beer or glass of wine at the dinner table in a limited manner. But the majority, the vast majority, tell me they learned to drink when they came to Chico State at 18 years old (most have some alcohol before they enter college, but they don’t start drinking regularly until college).

It’s a rite of passage, I hear people say about drinking regularly in college. Maybe, but maybe not. Regardless of the rite of passage argument, most people who learn to drink at college, learn to drink while partying with their peers. They tend to model the behavior of their peers at this age and in this environment, especially if they’ve never had responsible drinking modeled for them by adults previously.

We know, through extensive research, that parental attitudes and behavior modeled to children play a significant role in teen and young adult drinking patterns, either positively or negatively. Parents who binge drink, are more likely to have children who binge drink, and the opposite is true as well. Parents who tell their children that they disapprove of underage drinking, will have children who delay drinking compared to children whose parents are more permissive.

Parents are suppose to set the limits for their children, and we do that with bedtimes and eating vegetables and curfews on Friday nights, and who our children can hang out with, but many parents are afraid, or don’t know how to model positive drinking behavior to their children. Maybe parents, too, reminisce about the glory days of college drinking, maybe they binge drink, or fail to monitor their own attitude about underage drinking and shrug it off as not a big deal.

Regardless, we have failed, and are failing every day, as a culture, at socializing our youth and modeling positive drinking behavior, Binge drinking is on the rise, irresponsible drinking is epidemic, and as a result, 3 college students die each day in America due to alcohol related injuries.

Your children will likely come to a place like Chico one day. We have no limits here when it comes to access to alcohol, the weather’s nice so there’s always a place for a party, our students have a skewed view of peer drinking habits, and we let other young adults model the worse drinking behavior a young adult can see. It’s a place where the odds are stacked against your children in terms of responsible drinking behavior, and if you don’t socialize your children to drink responsibly, they’ll likely learn to drink here. And what they learn here, will likely stick with them throughout their entire life.


Sociology, the Running Conversation, and the Murder of Marc Thompson

The Synthesis is a local weekly newspaper in small-town Chico, California, generally specialized in Entertainment news—stories of local bands, the bar scene, and arts.

Recently, the small paper is branching into more critical hard-hitting news analysis. Emilano Garcia-Sarnoff published “Heart on Fire: The Murder of Marc Thompson” on September 29, which is about the recent death of a Chico State Sociology major found in a burning car in a remote area. Emiliano wrote about a young African-American man he knew casually from a card game, but who was dead September 3, some six weeks after the card game.

On December 13,’s Julie Garza-Withers who knew Marc quite well, is following up with a hard-hitting analytic article in the Synthesis about Marc’s death “A Season of Homicides: The Murder of Marc Thompson.” The article is about the inability of the police to conclude the murder investigation yet. Three months after his death we do not yet know how Marc died, how he arrived at the remote area, or why the killers burned his car a little over three hours after he was last seen alive. Who killed him? Why was the car set on fire? How did the person who set the car on fire leave the remote scene? And most importantly, Julie asks, why has there been so little reaction by the local press, authorities, and other opinion leaders in Butte County? There are after all only 6-10 murders per year in a County of 220, 000 people. Murder is thankfully rare—and the circumstance of being found murdered in a burning car even rarer. Can’t the police investigate this murder, which is so strange? Except for the Synthesis—which is first about entertainment, not crime—the story has disappeared from the news.

As sociologists, Julie and I are particularly pleased that the Synthesis described the role that “the running conversation” in framing—or not framing—Marc’s death. “The running conversation” is a sociological term first developed by Herbert Blumer in the 1950s describing how societies frame and reframe particular events so that a palatable “narrative” develops. This talk, the running conversation, is shaped by people in power, not the little folk who do not have access to the bullhorns of society which in Butte County include the local newspapers, press officers from the police and university, politicians, radio stations, and a television station. In developing the “running conversation” opinion leaders frame “the story” in a way that helps society challenge its own problems. Or not—after all many stories are ignored and never framed and never become a source for social change, or anything else.

Julie fears that this is happening in Marc’s case after only three months. The strength of Julie’s article I think is that it offers up a number of plausible frames, without forcing the reader into any single one. Why was Marc killed? She doesn’t know and is challenging the police to find out so that the greater Chico community can give meaning to what still otherwise a meaningless murder.

The first question seems to be was race involved? Marc was a 25-year-old activist for racial justice, and played a major role in a locally produced film about the nature of race on college campuses. Only 1.8% of Butte County is African-American, and four African-Americans were murdered in Butte County and then burned up in cars in 2013-2014, which is 20% of all murders (and that doesn’t count blacks who were murdered and not found in burning cars!). Last year’s “murders in a burning car” resulted in the quick arrest and conviction of the perpetrator—or perhaps not. The same person did not kill Marc, obviously, but maybe this is a group? Or a copy-cat? We just don’t know.

Or maybe it was a robbery gone badly, and Marc was unlucky? But then why would a car have been left in such an odd place and burned in a way that the body was sure to be quickly found? Again, we don’t know.

And then why was Marc’s father’s name on the second report in which the fire was reported, even though he did not make the call? Such questions unnerve Marc’s family and his friends. The running conversation has of course begun on the streets, but still has not made itself into the press, a situation Julie’s article is attempting to remedy. The problem is that without the help of the sheriff and the investigative process, no one really knows, and the catharsis that is needed in the aftermath of such a horrible event slips back to only those who knew and loved Marc.

Anyway you can read Julie’s Synthesis article yourself. Many thanks to the Synthesis for letting a concept like “the running conversation” slip into the article. Such a willingness to experiment journalistically is what keeps good newspapers alive, and communities thriving.


The Truth About Police

Another unarmed Black man died at the hands of law enforcement on Thursday night. The NYC Police Commissioner was quick in calling the incident an “unfortunate tragedy” at the same time that the mainstream press has included that the officer was a “rookie” in most of their headlines. Akai Gurley, the 28-year old Brooklyn victim and his girlfriend were leaving her apartment via the stairwell when they ran into two officer’s who were in the midst of conducting a vertical patrol and had just entered the stairwell on the floor above. Officer Peter Liang shot Akai Gurley in the chest after drawing his gun as a safety precaution while entering the stairwell.

Photo By Peter J. Smith

The NYC police are saying things like “probationary officer,” “accidental discharge,” and “dark stairwell.” The kinds of things that the police will say when there is absolute certainty that the victim wasn’t doing anything wrong and they have a P.R. nightmare on their hands. They were also quick to take responsibility and talk the talk of changing police culture and conducting a full investigation.

We’re hearing things like that from police muckity-mucks a lot these days. I hope it makes a difference but it doesn’t change the fact that another Black man is dead as a result of a brief encounter with a police officer. The circumstances don’t matter when you’re dead. All that’s left is his grieving loved ones and a righteously angry community.

For the rest of us, it’s another opportunity to think about police authority and bureaucratic discretion. In NYC, an officer has the discretion to draw their weapon while patrolling. But patrolling in a dark stairwell while also carrying a flashlight and experiencing heightened stress seems like a recipe for disaster. I grew up with the myth (and I do believe it is a myth) that police officers rarely if ever draw their weapon. To read the mainstream press, it seems like police are drawing their weapons more often than not because they feel “afraid.” That’s a real bag of power right there, the privilege to feel afraid and brandish/fire a weapon with all the authority of someone the people hired to protect and to serve.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? A whole lot of people already know the truth about police, this isn’t anything new under the sun. It gets a lot of press because it’s a tragedy but also because there are two grand jury verdicts we are waiting to hear. The Michael Brown verdict in Ferguson, MO and for choke-hold victim, Eric Garner. There is much fear in Missouri and calls for calm as the community there and communities across the country await the outcome. I want to be hopeful, really I do, but I know the truth about police authority and discretion.

Video Animation by artist activist Molly Crabapple

UPDATE: A Cleveland, Ohio police officer shot a twelve year old boy in the stomach yesterday, he died in a hospital early Sunday morning as a result of his injuries. The name of the child has not been released but he was Black and deemed a “threat” because he was holding a BB gun while playing at a local rec center. The police were following up on a 911 call that there was “A guy with a gun pointing it at people.” During the recorded call to the police, you can hear the caller say that the gun is “probably fake” twice. Per usual, the muckity-mucks are pointing out that the cop was a “rookie” with less than a year on the force. They also pointed out that the BB gun’s orange safety marker had been “scratched off,” as if that was just cause for shooting a minor at a rec center. If you read this article here (link) you can view the “Official Statement” from Cleveland Police where they insinuate the boy was trying to “commit suicide by cop.”


Searching for Answers: Retracing a Hmong Heritage

Today’s post comes from Guest Ethnographer Dee Thao. This is a beautiful and honest film Dee directed and edited about her search for information and connection to her Hmong heritage and identity. Her “advisor extraordinaire” (and co-star) on this project was’s Tony Waters.

Dee Thao is a documentarian based out of northern California. Click this link to read her bio and view her most recent work.




Is Your Class in the Way?

By: N. Jeanne Burns

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A few weeks ago at the YWCA Midtown I sat outside the gate to cool down from my run. I scrolled through Twitter posts about the Dunn trial and read about whites fearing blacks. Then I heard the desk clerk say, “You can only use your driver’s license three times. After the next two times, you won’t be admitted until you get a new YWCA ID.”

I looked up and saw two black women walk toward the locker rooms and I said to the clerk, an older white man I’d seen there before, “Really? That’s the policy?” He nodded yes.

“Because I lost my YWCA ID and got in with my driver’s license for WEEKS and was never challenged.”

“I guess you’re just likeable,” he said.

I was stunned. I surprised myself and went on.

“But I’m white. Those women were black.”

He got flustered, defensive and then said, “I’m offended. I’m not even going to talk to you about this. Not at THIS institution.”

After calming down a bit, he asked for my last name. When I asked why, he said he wanted to see what other privileges I’d been given, as if it were a problem with me personally. I certainly didn’t do anything wrong. Eventually he asked who was on duty when this happened, but since I go every other day, I’ve gotten checked in by many different people. No one person is to blame here, I don’t think.

I see the trust I got over and over again (by people of all races at the YWCA) as integral to the system that demonizes black men by making me as a white woman as trustable. If we can’t talk about race openly, how are we going to undo it? If an institution that I’ve witnessed doing work around race is replicating this system in small ways (and maybe big), what hope do we have for the future of racial justice work Minneapolis?

I also see the problem with talking about race openly. Middle class people avoid conflict and value their own individual place in their work, communities and world over justice.

In Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, author Barbara Jensen talks about the language differences between middle and working class people in Chapter 3: Belonging vs. Becoming. She says she found that the two classes used the same language for different purposes:

“The middle class groups used language and discussion to think and argue, to display their individual ability, and to uncover differences of opinion and debate them within the group. The working class groups used language and discussion to find agreement within the group and to connect emotionally with one another.”

And that “…middle class language and culture tend to promote individual achievements and competition between outstanding individuals, or people who ‘stand out.’ Working class language and communities tend to recreate values of social connection, solidarity and mutual aid.”

Yes, in the moment I thought at the YWCA that I could find agreement with staff, find a source of solidarity; I thought that they’d be well-trained in open dialog about race, that they’d understand what I could see.

Now I understand that what I thought was just stating a fact was challenging his individual ability. He then sought to find ways to reaffirm his individuality and uniqueness.


Barb Jensen’s emphasis in Reading Classes is about the inequality in schools because of some of these differences. But I wonder if social class gets in our way in addressing race and racism. Specifically, if the middle class way of communicating, which is highly valued and rewarded in our schools and organizations and companies, is keeping race and racism a quiet topic of discussion instead of an opportunity for solidarity and mutual aid.

I mess up all the time around race. Recently I posted an article on Facebook about the Minnesota Supreme Court striking down a law that would incarcerate parents who refused to pay court-ordered child and spousal support. I was outraged. But a friend posted a comment reminding me about the “justice” system that unfairly targets men of color and poor people, and how that law has been used unequally. I was embarrassed that I didn’t think about race when I read the article, but I didn’t take her comment personally. She was direct and plain speaking. And I thanked her, remembering that we are on the same side, that we both want justice for families AND for people of color, that it’s not one thing or the other. That we do have a lot in common on the issue. That we are on the same side, even when I fail.

I know a lot of white people who care about race and racism. A lot of those people are middle class.

Is your class getting in your way toward doing something about it?