July 4th: The Freedom That Wasn’t, and Still Isn’t, For All.

This day commemorates a day where wealthy white men wrote out a list of grievances against a King who wasn’t treating them with the same level of harm as they themselves were treating the people of African decent whom they were holding in literal bondage.

These white men complained of high taxes while they supported laws that would allow people of African decent to be murdered on a whim.

Does this sound at all familiar to you?

Right now, many white people are saying they are living in a fascist state because they have to wear a mask. They’re saying the measures being asked of them to save lives is akin to fascism even though no one is arresting them.

Meanwhile, black women are killed by police while asleep in their beds. Black boys are killed by police for holding toy guns. Black girls are physically assaulted by police for “talking back.” I can’t even list all of the ways in which black people are hassled, arrested, assaulted, or murdered just for being black because that would be its own essay and requires daily updates. Our indigenous people are also over policed, over incarcerated, and there is an epidemic of missing indigenous women.

Particularly, during this time of COVID-19, many white people are exaggerating their own lack of freedom while ignoring that the suffering of black, brown, and indigenous people is much worse than their own. No one can be free if they can’t even feel safe sleeping in their own bed. Yet, I routinely see white people who never speak up about racism complaining how this country has become a totalitarian state.

The past mirrors today. That’s not a coincidence.

Until we truly reckon with the past, until we are willing to face that these “founding fathers” were not merely flawed, were not merely “a product of their time,” until we acknowledge the hypocrisy of writing out beautiful words about “liberty” while supporting the capture, rape, torture and murder of African peoples, until we acknowledge the genocide of Indigenous peoples- until we do that- we will not change. We will not grow and we cannot be better.

False arguments abound that taking down statues is erasing history.

No. What we are looking for his more history.

This isn’t erasure. This is the opposite. This is revealing what was already erased. This is excavation of what was buried.

Let’s teach the 4th of July, yes. Let’s know its importance in our history but not as the birth of a great nation of freedom but as a day when a promise was made that has yet to be fulfilled. But it hasn’t been fulfilled because it was written by wealthy white men *for* wealthy white men. So, in a way, it has exactly been fulfilled. But then how we teach it is the lie.

I grew up watching the musical 1776. That movie makes a huge show of how much some of the founders wanted to abolish slavery because of a passage that Jefferson wrote condemning the practice (though Jefferson owned slaves). But in the end, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin “compromised” in order to create the country because they couldn’t get the Southern states to sign the Declaration if they kept a passage that critiqued slavery.

I ask, if you are not personally affected by the existence or abolishment of slavery, what kind of compromise was it for you? If you are willing to postpone the literal physical freedom of others so that you may have more freedom than you already had, should we call you noble and keep statues of you?

Given the language of the Declaration, which makes it sound like these men are themselves enslaved, you can be sure they wouldn’t have made that compromise if it had affected their own lives- if they were the ones losing that kind of freedom.

Please read through the Declaration. Especially if you claim to be a patriot, how often have you actually read the full document? Read it. Read it and remember that (a) this country was birthed out of riots and rebellion and (b) it was also birthed with a lie so big that we are still lying to ourselves today. Read the Declaration then read Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.”

To celebrate today is to celebrate a day where people cheered for freedom while holding chains in their hands that keep others precisely away from freedom.

I don’t want us to erase the past (as if we could). I want us to own to the full truth of it.

I used to have the wistful hope one finds in Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.” I suppose I may still hope for that ideal because the Declaration also states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Those words were written to justify a rebellion of wealthy white men. Those words were written to justify riots and treason. But if we now claim that the Declaration should be for all people, then all of the protests of Black Lives Mater are perfectly justified within this passage. They are not just justified, they are sanctioned.

We must decide if freedom is only for white people. We must decide if rebellion is only for white people. We must decide if sovereignty is only for white people. If we are stating the Declaration is now to be regarded as a document for all people, then freedom and rebellion must also be for all.

Standing Rock. Why Checking In Matters: A Conversation About Visibility

There is a huge battle going on in North Dakota.

The Standing Rock Sioux have been in a legal battle and an on-the-ground stand off with the US Army Corps of Engineers.   The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) means the destruction and desecration of sacred lands, as well as the eminent threat of an oil spill, or leak, which would poison the nearby water supply.

The development of DAPL means a continuation of American dominance, exploitation and brutalization of our Indigenous people.

If you’re not aware of this issue you can get up to speed reading here, and here.

As the pipeline construction has continued, those who have gathered peacefully to protect the land and water with nothing but their own bodies have faced a military style opposition equipped with tanks, drones, tear gas, sound cannons, and snipers.  Water Protectors (as they call themselves) have been doused with pepper spray for minutes on end.  Rubber bullets have been fired at those holding cameras.

As of October, there had been few articles written about the Dakota Access Pipeline and none of the mainstream news agencies had sent out any reporters to observe.  This seemed incredible given that Democracy Now‘s reporter, Amy Goodman, had been arrested while filming the abuse taking place at Standing Rock.

Last week, I saw many friends use their Facebook pages to make a virtual check in at Standing Rock.  The original meme/post asking people to check in had presented this as a strategy to thwart any attempts from law enforcement to track people who were actually, physically there.

Over the course of the week, there were more than a million people who had checked in to Standing Rock via facebook, which is astounding considering the previous week I’d seen hardly anyone sharing about this issue on social media.

However, not everyone thought checking in served a purpose.  Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu’s photo was used in a piece in NY magazine which stated that:

“there’s very little evidence that checking in to Standing Rock on Facebook makes much of a difference.”

I asked Vaimoana to weigh in on this issue with me and she was generous enough to give me some of her time:

I know you were really upset about your photo being used in NY magazine.  Can you just expand on -on having your photo used, and seeing it used in that way?  

Yeah.  Well first of all, I looked up who the writer is and the writer is not an Indigenous writer, or a person of color.  The writer is a white woman, and so, I just feel like… it’s over 1 million…the count is over 1.4 million people who checked into Standing Rock.

Right, that’s huge.

Clearly, that shows a difference.  That shows solidarity which makes a huge difference to people like myself.

Where I come from- that’s definitely invisible to people.  People don’t know where that is.  So, if over 1 million people checked into where i come from-and where I was born which is Nuku’alofa- that makes a huge difference.

Living here in the United States I get asked every day-not only where I’m from- but they ask, “Well, where is that?”  So it would make a huge difference for just my life and how i exist in this world if people not only knew where i come from but they acknowledged where i come from, and that it’s Indigenous land.

So, as a white woman writer for New York Magazine, I think if she’s going to have that- that certain opinion and perspective -she should have a picture of herself.  Or, just other white people, who are definitely visible in this.

Whereas, putting a picture of me sitting at an Indigenous rally at Washington Square Park with my friend Emilio who is Zapotec, who is an indigenous person from Mexico…  you know, it’s like- why would you put a picture of us when we’re from places and people and culture that aren’t visiblized, or talked about, or acknowledged in mainstream United States of America?

Right, right. Yeah, I honestly was going to ask- I’m so glad that was where this went right away because I was going to ask you if, in a way, that’s a continuation or an extension of Colonialism because it’s kind of um – it’s still usurping. Right?

Yeah, most definitely.

Okay.  And, I was also going to ask, as a white woman writing any pieces covering any of these types of things myself, what types of things can white writers do.  

I mean, you answered some of it already but what would you recommend for any white writers to do when they want to  cover any situation involving somebody from a group they don’t belong to.

Mhm. Well, I think they first and foremost have to acknowledge their privilege- that their identity as a white writer, their privilege for being able to write this and therefore speak to people of color and just have that awareness-and say that.  And also speak on why do they even want to say this in the first place when they could give that opportunity to a person of color, an Indigenous person, a black person, a black Indigenous person…

Right, right.  

So, I wanted to ask you about some responses I saw to people who were talking and -this is just from Facebook but-folks who were looking at the check in, and some criticisms I saw, and what you think of them.  

One of them was saying,  “Is this all folks are doing? They should do more.” And, of course they should.  

So, I just wanted to know, um-you know, what do you think about..it’s sort of – I view that as kind of a throwaway like -“Well then they shouldn’t even bother”. You know what I mean?

Yeah, totally.  I mean, for me I’m just like, “Well, what are you doing?” You know?  Like, just for someone to say “They should do more.”  First of all- as people who are on the ground and on the street and who work with the communities every day and who’s a part of these communities every day it’s like- who are you talking to, again, who are you talking to? Is your audience white people? Like, I don’t know who you’re talking to.

People who do this work every day- and they don’t say that they do this work everyday.  Or, they don’t really say, “Oh, I’m an activist for Standing Rock.”  Or, I would never say “I’m a social activist” or, “this is social activism” Like who created that term.  This are our lives we’re talking about.

Of course we’re going to share this.  Of course we’re going to check in.  Of course we talk to our families and for Indigenous people everyday, who are at Standing Rock every day, who’ve been at Standing Rock everyday, who organize, who have these types of conversations every day or our lives.  So, for them to be like “You should do more.” It’s like ..okay.  Again, who are you talking to.  Address a specific audience who does not – who do not have these conversations every day, who do not live this life- every day.

Right.  I think that answers the other two, too.  Because one of them was, “Is this actually thwarting law enforcement” and, um, my feeling was – we can’t know that for sure even if they tell us that it’s not thwarting law enforcement because who would let us know that it was. You know?  And then the other one was “You’re just letting people collect data about you,” which I found the most amusing ‘cause I thought-so you’re not going to risk that?  That’s like the least amount of thing you could risk is making a status update on Facebook, but that’s too risky?

Yeah, again, it’s like “Where are you coming from?”  Because, clearly, we’re checking in.  We’re putting as much from Standing Rock- for those who cannot be at Standing Rock- on our pages because this is what we’re talking about everyday.  We live invisibility every single day in this country.  And so, it’s like, of course we’re going to do everything  on our Facebooks, everything on social media, and it’s a given that we’re organizing every day.  And, an action every day.

Right.  Yeah, I have to say I definitely had made the mistake of calling what was happening out at Standing Rock “protests” until I read to only be speaking of it as “Water Protectors.” And, it made sense when I read it.

But I have people who are asking me “Well, I can’t go out to Standing Rock, so what can I do.” Which, we’ll get to that question in a second- But before we even get there, you know, you said the thing about “Where does that term even come from – social activism”.  So, you got me thinking well, I call myself a “Social Activist” but I guess that’s really it is that-  most of the issues that I’ve gotten involved with have not directly affected me at the time I got involved with them.

You know, getting involved in the Fracking movement- it hadn’t hit New York yet, so you could argue that it wasn’t directly affecting me yet.

I’m sorry, sorry.  Say that one more time.  I missed couldn’t really heard the first part.

Oh, okay.  Sure. Regarding the term “Social Activism” when I got involved in the Fracking Movement, it wasn’t affecting me yet.  It was affecting- you know I had gone to see the documentary “Dear Governor Cuomo,” and I watched how it was affecting people in Pennsylvania who were being poisoned.  And so my desire to be involved was really on behalf of other people at that point, with the threat that it could be affecting me in the future.

But most of the things I’ve gotten involved with are not things that affect me, directly. So, I’m not sure- I guess I’m trying to get some clarity.  Would I still call myself a “Social Activist” but it’s important to recognize that that’s a third person struggle term? Kind of empathetic…you know what I mean?

Mhm.  I’m sorry I made the mistake- I didn’t mean “Social Activist” I meant “Social Media Activist” that that is what the writer said on her article. She was like -“Social Media Activism”. That’s what I meant.  I don’t understand “Social Media Activism”.  Like, who created that term?  You know. Cause to me social media is just social media. I’m sorry.  I definitely think it is activism with the direct face-to-face relationship and building with community that’s how it becomes…or,  it’s a part of a person’s activism. But I don’t think it stands alone.  Social media… I think just doesn’t stand alone for a person to say like “Yes, I’m a social media activist.”

I definitely understand Social Activism!


Okay! For a second I was like..I’m always trying to learn new things so I was like…Oh! maybe I shouldnt’ be saying that.  

Yeah,  I think that’s awesome.  Social Activism.  Social Justice Activism.  I think that’s amazing.  And, I think there’s nothing wrong with not having it directed towards you- I think that’s great. And I think that’s a big thing that white people say:  “Well, it doesn’t directly affect me.” Just how they say that about racism.  And I think that’s a really privileged thing to say.

And, I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just saying that that is what white people need to understand – it does affect them directly. And those kind of conversations-  it is an impact of this whole thing of Colonization, or racism, or even patriarchy from men, and they’re like, “Well, it doesn’t affect me directly.” Well, it does- it just…it’s underneath.

It’s a privileged conversation for you have that because you get to be either saying like “Well, I feel so guilty because I’m a man.” you know. Which is another privileged conversation because that should give you even more umph to be like- “Man, where I’m at-  where I’m standing of privilege should give me that much more – I should be in action and be organized to stop patriarchy, to stop racism, to stop what’s happening, because it does affect us.”  I mean it does affect everyone.


That’s the whole point of why they’re called “protectors” and not “protestors” is because they are saying like- this affects every human being on the planet.


Not just Indigenous people.  And, Indigenous people are grown up to know that we’re all connected to every single person.  But then you’re raised in the United States of America, and the history, and mass media tells us we’re not; we’re so disconnected. And, that’s the biggest lie that this country has shown because the Imperialistic country is saying that we’re separate from other people, which we’re not.

Right. It’s an illusion of the mind-an abstraction right- to create that separation. Yeah, cause scientifically we’re… I mean everyone who studies science knows everything’s connected..so


Yeah, right? Exactly so.

Yeah. I was going to say, that when you mentioned this thing about guilt, I was mentioning to somebody that if they were following my page there’s probably people who think all sorts of things about me, and one of them would be like- Oh, she has white guilt.

But I responded to this one person and I said “I don’t have white guilt I have white responsibility and white accountability.” You know, and I think it’s a difference- a subtle difference to be able to  look at it and and say…I think the guilt part leads to despair the responsibility leads to action- so it’s a different road.  And the guilt part means that you’re looking at yourself.


I was looking and thinking, I think that checking in- I thought it was incredible to see because the previous week I didn’t really see, too many people talking about this issue..

Yup.  You’re so right.

And I was looking, I was looking for it.  I was hashtagging on twitter, and I was looking, and reading, and saying “who else has stuff?” And it just really wasn’t that many people.

And again, and again- i think you need to be specific.  Are you talking about white people? Cause I mean – because I work with Indigenous communities around the world, it’s like Standing Rock is on my feed all the time, every day.

Well, I was seeing it, yes, but if I just that’s because of who I subscribe to but if I look at overall, and you know like I said- if I hit the hashtag and put it into twitter and see how many people are posting on it-it’d kind of be the same people over and over again, and not as wide… I guess I wanted to see more people, do you know what I mean? I wanted to see a wider group.

And, I started to see people who- up until that point- they hadn’t said a peep, you know they hadn’t put anything and here, and they are checking in.  And yes, I did think- for all the people doing the criticisms that they should do more- I was thinking, it’d be great if you could take it one step further and post and article about it, and educate people around you.  

But one thing I did think was- I think checking in can have the same effect as a hashtag in that it creates a measurable sense of how much a given population supports an idea.  

Totally agree with you.

Cause I mean that’s one thing that -everyone knows that from twitter that that’s -oh look, by this hashtag we know this is trending and what does that mean? That suddenly it’s a bigger issue and news agencies will have to pay attention to it.

This is so true.  You’re so right.  And therefore- just right after those check ins now ABC and NBC these mass media outlets now they have -they are at Standing Rock and they have shown what has happened at Standing Rock in the past 48 hours.

Right.  I mean – one of the things I was looking at in writing this was- you have this major event taking place and the media isn’t there, and you have more alternative media like “Democracy Now” being there, and Amy Goodman getting arrested, and for any reporter who actually has any integrity- if you saw another reporter  being treated that way that should be your call-to-action of- “I’m going to show up, everyone show up, we all have to be there no matter what the issue is.” You would just say, “Listen- we all have to be there now.” And when I didn’t see that happen, I was like “Wow, what are they DOING?” And of course, we can all think of what they could be doing..

And- in analyzing this- when people were so dismissive about the check in- it made me think about Trayvon Martin, and how when he was murdered I didn’t hear- I only knew about him again from alternative sources that I read about, and there was a change.org petition to get George Zimmerman arrested because- at that time when he was first murdered no one was arrested and it was only in the local paper the article that I shared it was only from the local newspaper in Florida. It was not nationally known. And, it took people sharing it, and sharing it, and sharing it on social media before the major news industry started to pick up on this and say – “Well I guess we have to pay attention to this.”  So, checking in- I feel like it’s another way to force their hand to say- “Are you going to ignore this??”

Totally.  Especially because we understand -people who are invisible-people of color, black and brown people, queer people, people who are invisible to the mass media.   And people who are also woke.  They know why.  We know why we’re not visiblized.  Because we’re part of a system that oppresses us, and that live and thrive on us.  It’s not like- “Oh my gosh, why wouldn’t they show that?”  A black man got killed in the Bronx just yesterday.  It’s not on mass media.  Our stories are- it’s a normal thing.  So, of course we’re going to organize.  So, the checking in- people don’t realize that this is intentional.  This is organized. This is a whole group of people who are like- “What are other ways that we can be visible and we can share this?”

Yesterday, when CNN shared our story- it was my friend Lorena Ambrosio’s footage that they used.  So these mass media outlets really are coming to us to be like- “Man- can we use your pictures? Can we use your footage, now?”  Because- of course- they don’t have staff writers or hire people or pay people to be in these Indigenous groups-right?  They don’t know anyone, so of course they have to come to us now.  Which I think is amazing.  Of course they have to come to Facebook.  My friend Kyle Goen- his footage was used for NBC.

You know, so, it’s like because of the over 1 million- and I love how you said that- how it’s a measurable result because people look at measurable results, right?  Man, if over 1.4 million people checked into Standing Rock?  That equals viewers, that equals consumers, – that equals money.

What is going on now?  Because we know this is all connected to not only our homelands- which were international.  This is what happens in Syria, about Syria, this is what happens about Palestine…which… the US funds Israel.   They’ve been using rubber bullets for how many decades in Palestine, which they’re using at Standing Rock but is that on the mass media? No, it’s not.  Why?  Because they just want to keep people sleeping and keep people not awoke on what is happening all over the world.

Right.  So that gets to- this is tying together so nicely.  One of the things I analyze, too, is just how we get information out there.  And so, from an activist point of view, when I have a lot of people who ask me about activism: “How do i get involved?” “What do I do?” “I can’t physically go out to Standing Rock; how can I be supportive?”  One of the first things I tell people is – click on every article you can about something because that tells all the news agencies- guess what? There is an interest.  

But then also you educate yourself about it, but then, really i feel like – if i go back to the Fracking movement I was able to see this there-  that the first job was to teach people.  To raise awareness about it. Because you’re talking to them and they don’t even know what Fracking is, and so, how can they think there’s a problem?

So if I mention what’s happening at Standing Rock and someone says, “What’s that?” And… I had that happen earlier this week. I was in a conversation with someone. I was working, and he didn’t know what it was.  And when I told him, his face just dropped. I said “Yeah, can you believe this is our government this is our tax money and we’re still continue to do the same thing to our native people that we have always done?” Like can you believe this? Please go home and look this up.

So, he couldn’t even be opposed to it if he didn’t know about it.  And sadly, of course, he was relying on mainstream media to tell him about it.  Well, how do I know about it?  I have to say that I’m following some different sources.  

So, I feel like it’s about raising awareness, first. Because, you know, people can say “What’s the goal?” And we can say the goal is to not break treaties, and respect native voices, but obviously to get there…you can’t get there without raising awareness. And you can’t get there without putting pressure.

Yesterday I had shared about President Obama saying he was looking for alternative routes and then- the bad news -when he says he’s going to let it “play out” for a couple of weeks.  

And I was thinking “play out?” What does that mean?  Are you waiting for someone to die?  What are you waiting for here?  And my sister’s response was “Well, you know what that means- he’s waiting to see enough white people show that they actually care about this issue.”  And she’s being sarcastic but also…not.  

It’s one of those things where you’re actually asking – who does matter? Right? When did you have to pay attention?  From an activist standpoint it’s still important for us to push it and to do it.  But it’s an important for us to realize for all of those who say “Oh, everything’s great and racism isn’t here”… you know looking at… when did they respond?  

And I know some people will say that’s about money, too- there’s so much money involved in this.  But they moved it away from the white community – they moved the pipeline away from Bismark.

First of all, I just want to say that I totally agree with you in terms of having conversations and raising awareness.  That to me is super huge and I like to put that within the context of building relationships which is an education in itself.  For white people to talk to other white people who have access to certain knowledge, and access to certain things, and then teaching each other about- “Hey, this is what’s happening at Standing Rock.” That’s a big deal.  That’s great.  That’s amazing.

That said, just connecting to Standing Rock-  the video I watched was the police taking out a white woman medic from her car.  There is a lot of white people on the line that Obama doesn’t even care about- that have been on the line since months ago- that have been hurt, that have been doing the work with Indigenous people, and have been putting their bodies on the front line. And that has not been shown at all to the world.

And again, I think that’s just part of the separation, you know?  I mean going to Grand Central the other day- it was mostly white people there.  Who knows, maybe they had to miss work.  And I think it’s a class issue as well.  That it’s just like these white people again – putting themselves lives on the line- and the cops and police yelling at them, looking at them as shit. That’s not shown on the mass media…which I definitely think it should.

And also a lot of white elders.  One of our great friends Laurie, who has been part of “We Will Not Be Silent” for how many years, her and Sara, are both white women- Jewish women- they’ve both been on the front lines for Black Lives Matter, for Palestine, or Standing Rock.  She just came back from Standing Rock a week ago and now she’s going back. And, she’s an older white woman.  She’s on the front lines but no one wants to share that story.  She’s a queer woman and she’s going today, actually, to Standing Rock to be with other older white women who’ve been at Standing Rock for several weeks now.  You’ve probably seen her signs -they make these black signs.  It’s white bold words on black signs.

Yes, yes!

And they’re like- at so many rallies.  They’re at Standing Rock.  They’re seen at Standing Rock.  They’re beautiful. They’re amazing.

So, we’re talking about racism and at the same time we need to not only acknowledge the Indigenous black and brown voices, but we need to acknowledge the white voices that are acting on the front lines and are giving their time, money, and energy, too.

Yeah, I’ve certainly seen them. And then… I can say the propaganda from the gas people takes it to the other direction.  I’ve seen comments that said that there aren’t even native people there; it’s all a bunch of white people who are…you know…have all this time on their hands. And you know of course- gas people- you can always identify who they are because their comments are so outrageous.  


So, I think, just one last thing I had here- this gets back to what else people can do.  Before the internet people had letter writing campaigns…well, they still do.  

Yup, that’s right.

And I remember my Mom telling me when I was a kid that one letter was considered to represent a lot of people.  If they just got your letter they knew that most people didn’t have the time, or the courage, or writing ability, to voice their opinion.

So, do you think that in a way, this is similar and we can be generous with people who don’t have much of a voice but can take time to  check in on Facebook, or to do any smaller activity?  We should probably also follow up with larger activities that people can do.  But if we look at smaller activities and I see people being dismissive -and I can already hear you say, “Well who are these people? And are they actually doing anything” cause that’s all I thought, too- are you involved in the movement because I think you’d be more generous with what people contribute.  But even those tiny actions – they still matter.

Of course they do.  First of all- it all matters.  This conversation you’re having with me, it matters.  I think it’s amazing. Just standing alone as a conversation.


Because you and I as human beings are connecting.  And when I go out in my day, I’ll probably share this with my friends.  It totally matters- you know- and it’s a ripple effect.

These so-called small things that people do are huge.  They’re magnanimous.  They’re just – they really are.  And I think, again, that’s just the context of  “Well, those are small things and they don’t matter.”  That’s coming from a context of people who don’t realize their power.  And realizing that their voice, and their actions, and their non-actions have an impact on people.

Me living in New York City when someone smiles at me, people may say that is  just a small thing.  Actually, that’s a big thing, cause that just made my day.  Cause there’s so many people who don’t connect And they’re just like machines, really and, right?

Yes, yes.

So, when I’m on the train and people look at me in the eye- that’s a huge thing for me.  Because I have experienced where people don’t look at me in the eye. Or, white people don’t look at me in the eye.  Where men harass me- all the time.

So, when I have a man who is looking at me in the eye but isn’t sexually harassing me, but is just connecting with me as a human being to another human being, that really has changed my life.  Because I’m like -wow, I’m seen for who I am, you know…for how I want to be seen.

So these actions of writing letters, of making calls, they make a huge difference- of talking to your friends, of talking to your parents, of putting something on Facebook- that’s huge.  Because that could impact of someone being like “Oh, why did she post that on Facebook?” I think all those actions matter.

I love that this just came back full circle because at the beginning you were  talking about brown and black people and just being invisible and needing to be seen and I think that with any- any of the struggles where there is somebody who’s being exploited, you know, there’s that kind of idea that evil likes dark places, like somebody who’s not watching what you’re doing and nobody’s seeing what’s happening.  So that usually that’s going to be the case that whatever is happening that person feels like – well nobody sees me nobody cares, and I’m alone.  And why isn’t anyone paying attention?

So much of this seems to be about visibility, and amplifying visibility.  Right? Of anything that’s negative.

Totally, yup.

And in that sense- you know I thought I was making this kind of corny at the end but- one of the thing’s I’d written was:  Checking in matters because it left the folks at Standing Rock know that the world is watching, they can feel less alone.  Think of the words “courage”, “encourage”, “heartened”, and “disheartened” and um- what do you feel from that? How that… I’ve always loved that “courage” and “encourage,” and that -you know -encouraging someone…you’re giving them more courage, right?  Even if you can’t physically be there, right?  

And a lot of people can’t..again..people ask me..”If I can’t go out there…” I’m thinking- most people can’t.  Most people can’t drive out there.

Most people can’t! It’s so true. But you can talk about it.  Yeah. There’s…so many things to do.

Right, right.  So, I think we’ve pretty well established that that article and people who were dismissing check ins were not valid.  So, beyond that for someone who does have a little bit of extra time but maybe can’t go to Standing Rock, what else could people do?

Well, like you said, educate yourself and educate other people.  And just bring a self-awareness to Indigenous people.

Well, that’s happening in Standing Rock, how is that happening in my neighborhood?  You know?  And what are other pipelines, too?  Standing Rock is just a – what can I say- is on the forefront so it has bigger visibility to us, but there’s a pipeline that’s being built here- in Upstate New York.

Right, exactly.

All of us are on Indigenous occupied land, so how can we take what’s happening in Standing Rock and bring it to our local places.  What is “settler colonialism”?  What is “racism”? What does it mean- “to matter”?  These are great conversations to have with ourselves, and with our  friends, and our family- if we don’t want to necessarily be a part of an organization.

Also, I so acknowledge just where people are at, whether they want to organize on a community level, or just have conversations with their friends is fine.  And, that matters.  But yeah- what is “Indigenous identity”?  What is the white activism legacy?  Who can I talk to about this? And what are my strengths?

Colin Kaepernick is a football player.  So, he’s chosen to kneel during the National Anthem.  That’s huge.  That’s great. But he’s not at rallies. He’s not you know- because maybe that’s not necessarily what he wants to do. He’s created his own activism.  So people can create their own ways.  And I say, do it in a way that you love and that you’re passionate about.

I’m an artist so of course I’m going to create art, and banners, and things that talk about Standing Rock, talk about Palestine- right? So, that’s my forte.  But my friends who are cooks they love to talk about the colonization, and colonialism, through food, and where food comes from, and how is food given to people.  So, wherever people are at, I say – use that.

Right. That’s wonderful.  Yeah, oh that’s great. That’s so empowering.


Vaimoana Niumeitolu is an Artist and Educator born in Nuku’alofa, Tonga and based in NYC.

This conversation took place on Thursday, November 3rd, 2016. The number of people virtually checking in at Standing Rock continues to grow.  On November 1st, President Obama did say that the Army Corps is looking for ways to reroute the pipeline.  Sadly, he added,

“We are going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans.”

Meanwhile, it’s clear that President elect Trump intends to help all pipelines progress.

This work matters. People need their voices amplified; a great organization to follow is Food and Water Watch.

Religious leaders have gathered to add their voices and presence:







checking in, using hashtags like #NoDAPL and #StandWithStandingRock.  Google “Standing Rock” and click on every article.  Talk with your friends. Talk with strangers.  Ask all your representatives to speak out on it.  Ask people who know about it first hand and then share that knowledge.  More than ever before, we will need to learn, teach, and have conversations to raise awareness.

It all matters.

Rape culture: How we all contribute and what we can do to change

Just a day before the Trump video was leaked, I read a boldly written piece on rape culture you can find here.

I shared the essay on my Facebook, knowing that most men  would not sit well with the text (for the purpose of this essay “men” will refer to cisgendered men).

As it turned out, only women liked it and few women at that.  It isn’t easy to read over and over “men ain’t shit.”  But, it’s important to realize the author is saying, “We ain’t shit when it comes to rape culture.”

I did not read that as a condemnation of men as human beings.  The friend who’d initially shared it is a man; I never got the feeling the author was saying that men have no worth.  He was specifically addressing the work that doesn’t get done when any of us think we’ve arrived at enlightenment.

None of us have arrived.  We need to keep arriving.  If we think we’ve already arrived we can no longer learn about what work we still need to do.

I had more men in my life favorably receive this article which importunes men to own their  responsibility as it pertains to participation in rape culture.

We all are aware that there are people who rape.  Our laws have called such action a crime and we have a system of justice to hold people accountable for the act of rape.

The term “rape culture” acknowledges that while rapists are responsible for their actions there may have been many people along the way who led each individual to believe that the rape was warranted and excusable.

Most women are raped by someone they know.  An acquaintance.  A neighbor.  A friend.  A boyfriend. A husband.  A doctor.  A coworker.  A mentor. A teacher.

I think one of the more frightening realizations is that sometimes the person raping may not even regard what they have done as rape.

Many women who’ve been raped have yet to come to terms with the idea that they were raped.  As a society, we’re so good at blaming women that women who have been raped continue to blame themselves, and excuse the rapist.

I’ve heard many men say, “Well, this woman doesn’t think it’s rape either,” as though that settles the matter.  But this ignores that the woman who defends the rapist  grew up in the same culture that told her women were to blame, as a rule.

Yes, women have also participated in rape culture.

The culture of rape is a system of stories we’ve be told and keep telling, again and again, to young girls and young boys. These stories are remnants of a past when women were literal property to be completely controlled by their fathers until they were given off to a husband who would continue that level of control.  Of course, that dynamic still exists in the world.

After millennia, narratives which supported the exploitation and abuse of women were maintained as truth regardless of the merit or contradictions within.  Those stories say things like:

Boys want sex all of the time.  Boys can’t control their behavior when it comes to sex, therefore, it is up to girls to keep their legs shut.  Boys can’t control their behavior so girls must wear modest clothing (“modest” will be different for each culture).  Boys can’t control their behavior.  Boys can’t control their behavior.  Boys can’t control their behavior.  Boys can’t control their behavior.

We needn’t have been instructed by our parents, either.  Words from peers, coaches, mentors, song lyrics, movies, TV shows, politician’s speeches- all may have elements which to reinforce the culture which tells us that rape, or groping, or harassment, is excusable for men because they have no control -so we must be in control.

A clear example of this are rapes which occur in the military.  Often it’s said “What did she expect?” and “That’s why we keep women out of the military.”  Reckon that justification with the reality that more than half of the sexual assault victims in the military are male.

The truth is that much of the motive behind sexual assault is a show of power and dominance.  The cover story in our narratives remains that men have no control over what they do because their sexual desire cannot be contained.

This narrative exists side-by-side with the narrative that boys are better suited for leadership because they are less emotional.  Western culture prizes the rational mind as superior and categorizes men as more rational, on the whole.

Emotions can be volatile things, I will agree.  In what sense does passion escape that same category of emotion?  Anger is an emotion, yet the culture allows that passion and anger are acceptable- even expected- traits among men.

Men are simultaneously granted the monopoly on mastery of one’s self as it pertains to the ability to execute in positions of authority (she’s too emotional to lead) while still getting monopoly’s “get out of jail free” (often literally) when we’re speaking of self-control as it pertains to sexual desire.

Men and women both have sexual desire though the level of desire varies within each gender.

We shame men who have little desire to the point that it’s not even discussed.  If not for the commercials for Viagra,  we might think a lack of desire in men was a myth.

Conversely, women are told that they don’t have sexual desire, particularly when compared with men.

The message in our narratives maintains that men are out of control of their own bodies when it comes to sex; they are ruled by their own desire. All in our society are taught that men can’t control their sexual impulses so it’s expected that they’ll verbally harass, leer, grope, cheat, sexually assault, or fully rape you.

Men are encouraged to pride themselves on control so when the control is lost, the blame is placed with the woman whose body caused his desire.  Again, many stories throughout time have reinforced that narrative while others merely reveal that the culture has encouraged men to use women as a scapegoat for their own lack of control.

Men have been excused of responsibility and, instead, the responsibility is placed on women. Your woman’s body is too attractive and too irresistible.  Really, your body made them do it.

What happens when we do encounter a woman with sexual desire?  She is immediately called names to let her know that she is a lowlife in society.  “Slut.” “Whore.” She is a lowlife for having the same desire as a man.  In some cultures, they cut out all of the areas of pleasure because of the fear they have over women’s desire.

No one seems to notice that this woman with desire wasn’t supposed to exist in the first place- after all it was the biological difference in men’s level of desire that was supposed to excuse men’s behavior.

If a woman has desire but isn’t harassing, isn’t groping- isn’t raping- we’d have to acknowledge that women exhibit more control over their own bodies than men do.

I do not feel that the level of control, or lack, is innate in any of us.  We have either been trained from an early age to self-police our desire, or to be libertine.

If a woman is verbally harassed on the street, or physically assaulted, someone will ask “Well, what was she wearing?”

If she was raped they’ll ask:

“Did she drink?”

“Has she had sex with many (or any) other men before?”

“What was she doing there?”

Women are trained that they must be the ones to cover up, stay sober, and not ever have sex (unless they are married in which case they have to always say “yes”).

Men can wear what they want.  Men can drink.  Men can have sex- in fact they are compulsive seekers of sex in our narratives.  We give men freedom to do all these things; they can be wherever they choose to be.

Men can have sex but they cannot get pregnant.  Men cannot get pregnant but they can brag about getting women pregnant and will not be shamed.

Women who have children from multiple partners will be shamed.  Women who choose to abort will be shamed.  Women who want the option to abort will be told that they cannot have control over their own body.

When pregnancy begins a man leaves some blue prints but the woman builds the fetus out of her own blood, her own cells, her own life.  It is a part of her body.  That is the entire concept of viability- the point at which a fetus can live separate from its creator.  Up until that point, the fetus is her body.

Men are not in control of their own bodies but are somehow allowed control over yours.

Whether we’re speaking about how society excuses sexual assault as “boys will be boys” or we’re letting the state tell women they can’t have an abortion, really we’re telling young girls and women- “Your body is not yours.”

If abortion were not at all about control of women’s bodies and sexuality, then those who wish to see fewer teen pregnancies and abortions would encourage us to nationally adopt the same strategy which has worked in Colorado.  There, the birth rate and abortion rates both fell nearly 50% in merely five year’s time.  It’s insincere to state that you are against abortion and fail to embrace such programs.

Men are not in control of their own bodies but are somehow allowed control over yours.

Trump’s words regarding his sexual assaults and his statements regarding punishing women for abortion continue to foster the environment which told the boys and men in our lives that our bodies existed for them.

We’re taking back our bodies for us.

Our bodies exist so we can breathe. Our bodies exist so we can learn.  Our bodies exist so we can experience, teach, love, dream, sing, and dance. Our bodies are not here for you.

Our bodies are our own.

Your eyes don’t have to be beautiful; they are here so you can see the sunrise, the trees, and faces of loved ones.

Your legs don’t have to look the way anyone else wants them to look; they’re here for you to walk and explore your world.

Did we even remember that women have minds? This seems lost in the narrative where women only exist to give sex or children to men.

Women’s bodies are not here so that men can experience them but so that women can experience the world.  That is the story we need to tell now.

We’re taking back our bodies for us.

Women: your body is your own.  Your body is your own. It’s here to serve you.  Your body exists for your edification, your enjoyment, your adventure, your teaching, your learning, your pleasure.

It’s insulting to men to suggest that they have no control over their own bodies – particularly to men who do exhibit control and don’t feel the need to speak every thought which pops into their head as though they were a child.

I would ask even of those men to remember that the purpose of a woman’s body is not to be beautiful for you, or even to be beautiful at all.

The purpose of her body is to serve her adventure and exploration of this life.  If you love the women in your life, please promote that narrative.


Healing from the Past: Why Columbus has to go.

Staring up at the gorgeous statue of Christopher Columbus, I could only think one thing: When do we tear this shit down?

Today, much of the nation will “celebrate” Columbus Day.  I place that word in quotes because few Americans will think of the day beyond gratitude for a long weekend.

However, a growing number of us are fed up with celebrating a man who was no better than a lost pirate.  Cities and states across The U.S. are replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

It’s amusing that a Italian-Americans were a major force in pushing for this holiday given that Columbus worked for the Spanish.  I can understand why they felt the need at the time but I think it’s time to reconsider what was overlooked.

(TW: rape, violence, child abuse, sexual abuse)

Many historians still portray Columbus as a heroic and laudable figure and defend criticism of him by saying he was “A man of his times.”  This suggests that all others would have acted as barbarically as he did.  However, if we examine the reaction of his contemporaries, we can see that -even back then- many were horrified by his actions:

…he sent some 500 slaves to Queen Isabella. The queen was horrified–she believed that any people Columbus “discovered” were Spanish subjects who could not be enslaved–and she promptly and sternly returned the explorer’s gift.

In May 1498, Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic for the third time. He visited Trinidad and the South American mainland before returning to the ill-fated Hispaniola settlement, where the colonists had staged a bloody revolt against the Columbus brothers’ mismanagement and brutality. Conditions were so bad that Spanish authorities had to send a new governor to take over. Christopher Columbus was arrested and returned to Spain in chains.

I called Columbus a pirate for, even though he did not steal from ships, he lived a life of theft and violence.  He lived for his own greed and ego- murdering, raping, and enslaving as he went.  There is nothing here for us to celebrate; this is not anyone to admire.

We cannot heal our nation without acknowledging the past.  We’ve still yet to reconcile with the brutality of our origins.  As we tell these fairy tales of a hero, we hide a monster  whose actions helped to foster an environment of subjugation, rape, abuse, slavery, and murder.

One day this summer, I found myself at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. I’d been there many times but I’d not truly thought about the name of where I was until I crossed into the area where his statue is planted.

Staring up at the gorgeous statue of Columbus, I could only think one thing: When do we tear this shit down?   Though I did mean that I wanted to literally watch a wrecking ball smash Columbus, I also wanted it to be as simple to smash away all that we’ve devoted to his memory and what it means to us.

It was clear to me in that moment that the need for the  Black Lives Matter marches I’d been participating in were directly connected to maintaining these myths.

The myths prop up white supremacy with the lies of the noble intention of those who invaded.  There was never nobility.  It was a continuation of the Roman tradition of conquering.

We hold contrary views in these narratives:

  1. Our origins aren’t worse than anyone else’s (Other people have stolen land)
  2. Our origins are better than everyone else’s  (We believe in “freedom”)

We may believe in freedom but we have never extended freedom to all.  You may as well say “I love you” to someone you’re abusing.  Do the promises and words stop you from hurting if you’re being hit?

In individual families where there is abuse, the child who is abused covers for the abuser.  The rest of the family enables the abuse by ignoring or excusing the abuse. Every person in the family must lie to those around them, to each other and even to themselves about what it happening.

When the adult child is ready to acknowledge the abuse, the family becomes angry with them.  By merely speaking the truth the abused becomes the one “destroying the family with lies.” The reality is that they are destroying the lies with truth.

That is what we must do: Destroy lies, and myths, with truth.

Our nation cannot move forward and heal until the enablers are ready to acknowledge the abuse of the past and the harm it’s still causing to this day.  Wounds have not been healed.  The damage has never been tallied because it’s still occurring.

Every time we state that we must hold on to the noble dream of past villains we continue to harm the ones who were abused.  We’re gaslighting all of those in our population who’ve inherited the emotional scars of terror and death and who continue to face terror and death.

Imagine being told that this is your country while simultaneously being asked to celebrate the people who murdered your ancestors.

The enablers of the lying myth are fiercely invested in maintaining the lie of our “heroes” and of obscuring what the past really was.

When Bree Newsome took down the Confederate Flag, I saw people defend a flag with more passion than they’d ever defended the right to live of any person of color (so much for being “right to life”).  Some unfriended me when I stood in support of taking down the flag.  It’s a flag, not a person.

We face a time of reckoning with all of our past symbols, songs, and myths. Now is the time to ask ourselves if those lies and symbols matter more than actual living human beings?

Must we keep holding onto old things?

I loved watching the show “Clean House.”  They’d visit hoarders who were living in untenable situations because they were emotionally attached the the past as it was represented in objects they’d kept.

You can’t move forward while also holding onto the past.

It’s good to grow.  It’s good to move forward.  If we keep defending the past “heroes” with the caveat that “they were products of their times” can we then admit that the times were bad?  Can we finally put some distance to them?

I’ve loved the myth of America and the dream of a land where everyone is free and can live their dreams.  It sounds beautiful.  I wish for this place which never existed.  What is the exceptional quality of our freedom if it doesn’t exist for all?

Since Donald began his campaign, I’ve said that the answer to “Make America Great Again” is Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again.”

In the poem Hughes details all of the Americans who have been failed by the dream. Yet, Hughes states with hope at the end:

“America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath—America will be!”

I also would still love to see this country be that “America” I’ve heard about.  I want it to be  a land which lives up to the promise and the hype sold by it’s marketing team (marketing team=school books).

If we want to move closer to becoming a nation which respects all people, we must stop lying about the nobility of the wealthy white men who founded this country.

Thomas Jefferson was capable of writing about beautiful ideals but living up to them proved much more difficult.  He wrote extensively about the evils of slavery while never managing to free more than a handful out of hundreds of his own slaves.  Love his words?  Sure.  Admire the man?- problematic.

In truth, if we admire the words of Jefferson, we can find instruction which lends itself to this well needed demolition and recreation:

“whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”

We need to tear down the statue but we also need to tear down all the romanticism of the past.  These lies and myths pretend that genocide and slavery were not the foundation of this country’s “prosperity.”  In this instance, the quotes are to remind us that prosperity has always been reserved for only certain groups.

We can’t keep the name “Columbus Circle”.  When I started to think about all of the things we’ve named after Columbus  it’s rather daunting to think of replacing all of it but it’s vitally important that we do. Leaving them there allows us to continue the lie that he ever deserved such regard.

As a nation, we are only in control of those homages we created.  What new name can we use for  “District of Colombia?”  If you’re already feeling the resistance to this change remember- even old “New York” was once “New Amsterdam.”

Romance is in the Sky

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Not feelin’ it? It get it.

If you’re in a relationship, there can be a lot of pressure to make sure you’ve made the day special enough.

I’ve been raised in a family who, thankfully, doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on celebrating on specific days. Why can’t we show our love all of the time? And why would it need to be shown through how much money you spend?

My mom has never wanted to go out on Mother’s Day. “Take me out when it’s less crowded,” she’d tell me.

A misery of capitalism is that it preys on insecurities and exploits them to sell products. If you are uncertain you’ve done a good enough job loving someone then maybe you can purchase that love.

Of course, the people hit heaviest on this day are those who are alone and have believed the myth that romance and love and intimacy are reserved for someone we call “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” “husband,” “wife,” or any term related to that type of dynamic such as “significant other.”

I have no boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, or significant other. Yet, I have love. I have romance. I have sensuality. I have intimacy.

How can this be?

The term “romance” has never been limited to the one most associated with Cupid. I have been in love (of that kind) and I know the feeling it can give. There is, at first, an otherworldly quality about it as though one is in a dream.  I can find that same feeling when I stare at the sky, moon, and stars, and in any beauty I can see, hear, or witness.

I remember taking a walk in the woods a few winters back. It had been a hard winter and we were experiencing a warm day in the midst of it. I was so inspired by the beauty of the land that, out of nowhere I yelled, “I’m in love!!” If anyone was close enough to hear me they probably thought I was making an exclamation in the way that Mitzi Gaynor does in “South Pacific.” That is what most people think when they hear those words.  However, my exclamation was inspired by an overwhelming appreciation for the beauty around me, and the serenity it provided. I was in love with the world, the land, the trees, and the feeling was filling my heart so much that it could not be contained.

In that same way I experience sensuality. I used the term to refer to living in my senses. I actively appreciate that my eyes can work to see beauty and my taste buds function to experience flavor. If I can be like a child as I touch things, appreciating how different each surface is, there can still be joy in such a small activity. It’s about being intentional with the act of touch. It seems too many adults can only activate such fascination with the assistance of drugs but, I assure you, it is possible to engage without.

If there are loved ones around me- family or friends- I can take the time to hug them and appreciate them in this way, also. Cuddling may also be an option, though each person has a level of comfort we should all respect in this regard.

Touch has been proven vital. Babies can’t thrive without it and we all receive oxytocin from it. It seems our puritanical roots still default to a sexual association with touch once a person is no longer a child.

We don’t say to a ten year old, “You’re growing up now, you should toughen up and stop needing food.” Essentially, that is the message we’re given regarding touch. While we will not immediately die without touch, science is only finding more evidence that our health is compromised without it.  I wonder how often people connect sexually simply because they need touch of some kind.  I hope we will learn to respect this need; I’ve been excited to see the increase of cuddle parties and professional cuddlers.

Intimacy is available at all times. This is also about a conscious intention to be present but, in this case, the focus is on the other person. If I can be open and share, I allow room for others to do the same. I experience the joy of this intimacy often in my life with close friends, or with strangers with whom I will only share a vignette of experience and time.

I’ve also taken to speaking “I love you” to myself. I regularly say, “I love you, Susan.” I began this practice a couple of years ago. When I first started, it would make me cry, sometimes. Then it became routine. Eventually, I was surprised one day when during a time I would normally berate myself with accusation “why were you so stupid” instead I found myself saying, “I love you, Susan.”

I am now a firm believer that we should speak these words as often as possible. Of course, we should also realize that the words mean nothing if the action does not follow. Many of us speak things to ourselves that we would never say to others. Replacing that inner dialog can allow us to move toward goals in life; as we believe we are worth more, we can take greater risk. Failure is needed as a path to success but can be unbearable if we don’t already believe we are loved and loveable.

I realize that those who have been fully immersed in the myth that the highest quality of love and intimacy is the one we most associate with this holiday will not be consoled by this and will think I’m a fraud. They will probably assume I can’t be happy and content. There cannot be joy without “the one.”

I can do nothing for those who are thoroughly convinced.

However, I encourage all to find love, romance, sensuality, and intimacy with each moment of each day. None of us can remember this all of the time, of course. Life gets in the way. But if we can remember it even some of the time, we will have much more joy.





The Danger of Hero Worship

Our world has lost an artist who inspired and affected people across age and cultural boundaries.  As we have mourned and reminisced over the loss of David Bowie, many of us have become aware of stories that might threaten the memories we cherish.

Important dialog is taking place on the internet, in blogs and in comments. Like most important dialog, it makes people uncomfortable.

Did David Bowie rape a 13 year old girl? From what I’ve been reading, it seems likely.

Instead of dissecting the past in terms of what one individual may have done (as many  have done with others like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby) I will examine why we, as a society, and as individuals, don’t want to look.

Many people live in fear that if they begin to examine these issues, they will lose something they love. They fear they will no longer be able to enjoy the art and music that has shaped and deeply impacted their lives.

They also wish to hold onto the person who inspired them as an untarnished hero.  Rather than lose something precious to them, they turn away from the discussion, altogether.

Artists are not their art.  Art exists independently of the artist.  

I come from a family of artists and musicians.  Never once have I felt that the art I create comes directly from me.  I’ve felt that art moves through me.  What intention I have when I make the art, if I have intention at all, may have little to no bearing on how the art is experienced by others.  The art is its own, after it is birthed.  Because of my own feelings toward my creations, it’s been easy for me to view art independent from the artist.

I can read the dialogs of Plato and still find instruction despite the fact that his culture would have had little room for my voice, as a woman.  If a book, concept, or quote stands on its own, I can use it to feed me apart from how the author may have intended.  I can read Enlightenment thinkers who were never able to live up to their own beautiful ideals and still find inspiration.

There is, of course, a valid concern that we may not want to give monetary support to living artists, musicians, writers, and entertainers, if we feel they did abuse people, or may still be abusing.   Each person can examine whether they want to remain patrons of any individual, though I’d ask those same people to give as much thought regarding each dollar they spend in any regard.   I doubt any of us is unscathed by connection to exploitation in this way, even when we try (we should still try).

However, I don’t think we need a moral crisis over the consumption of art. If you’re looking for art/music only from saints, you will likely be left with no art and no music.

Artists are people.  People are complex.

Do we need to lose our heroes? Maybe. Or, perhaps we need to redefine what “hero” means.

Hero worship relates in some fashion to family pride and nationalism.  It draws on the same desire to protect that which we hold dear as though it were a part of our own body.  We have difficulty finding fault in any person, or group, to whom we’ve developed that kind of attachment.

Hero vs. villain is a flawed notion, as presented in our culture. We deify our heroes and view attention brought to failings as an offense.  I’ve witnessed this reaction, in the past year alone, in regard to criticisms of  Bill Cosby, Jon Stewart, various political figures, and police officers.  It appears that people are allowed to either love or hate someone.  Yet, finding flaws can be a high form of love when we ask, “Can you do better?”

Certain people in our society have bonded to the concept of police in general and glorify the officers in abstraction, while others find all police to be villainous.  Neither group are able to view police as individuals.  The nuance of the individual is also lost with those who will bond to one political party, and malign another.  Read any comment section on a political article and you’ll find ad hominems of: “That’s what I’d expect from a (insert “Republican” or “Democrat”) like you.”

Furthermore, it’s important that we examine which groups we, as a society, readily and consistently vilify.  I’ve seen many people share articles  showing that rowdy white people at sporting events are portrayed as “revelers” while rowdy people of color protesting are portrayed as “thugs.”  We can witness statistics which bear out that people of color are policed in ways that white people are not; it’s impossible for me to imagine a black militia being allowed to take over a portion of Baltimore and claim it as their own.  I don’t believe the response from authorities would be at all the same as we’ve seen with the militia in Oregon, even if the occupied area were uninhabited.

If we are able to search for excuses for our heroes, who essentially are strangers to us, how can we fail to extend the same understanding to those who are, actually, equally unknown to us?  In all of these circumstances, people are seeking to prove that a person is good, or bad.

In truth, there are no good people. There are no bad people. This oversimplification is a false dichotomy.

In a strict definition, a good person would find it impossible to do something bad and a bad person would, likewise, never do anything good. That’s just not how humans are.

Yet, there is good action, and bad action.

Good and bad are what we do, not what we are.

As individuals, we are all made up of the sum of *all* of our actions. But that doesn’t come out to a grade at the end. It’s more like each action still lives on, with all of its consequence attached. Each of us should appreciate that all our own actions play out in this way.

It’s important that we focus on the culture (that’s us) that supports these events rather than singularly focus on any one individual.  In what way does our society prime young women to offer themselves to men, sexually?  In what way do we prime men to treat women as something which exists for them? In what ways do we still excuse the men and blame the young girls?

Do we treat a young girl who has been with a rock star with a similar attitude that we treat a young boy who has been with any older woman: you were so lucky.   When we do this, our reactions make it harder for a person who was harmed to say, “This wasn’t what I wanted,” even to themselves.

I wonder how much of what our culture does relates to family dynamics within households.  I know of too many situations where a child was abused and if the child wished to speak out, the rest of the family condemned them and essentially said the victim would be the one ruining the family.   It seems like we still get angry at the ones who are telling us they’re hurt.  This is part of what is meant by the term “rape culture.”

If you start to read articles, you’d be hard pressed to find any musician of the 70’s era that isn’t linked to sex with teens. Given the way the music and art scene is described, even if one could argue Bowie wasn’t involved with any 13 year old, he was certainly surrounded by friends who were.

This means everyone around, at the time, was aware of what was happening.

I watched a video of Dinah Shore interviewing Iggy Pop where he talks about cutting himself with a bottle while on stage to punish himself because he feels guilty about leaving a 13 year old girl stranded, at the airport. Bowie is sitting next to him during this interview. I had a bad feeling about what that might imply even before reading anything about Bowie’s possible involvement with a minor. Yet, Dinah Shore doesn’t seemed fazed one bit.

I don’t believe we have to abandon art because the artists have done things we abhor but we do need to have the courage to look at what has happened so that we may say “how did/does our culture foster this?”

If I have a friend I love who has done something wrong, I will call them out on it. It doesn’t mean I’m saying, “You are bad.” I’m saying “This *action* is unacceptable.”  Similarly, we can condemn an action of a beloved artist of any kind and still make use of whatever they created that had merit.

I think it’s important we call out those artists who may be currently harming someone, or who have yet to own to past abuse.

For artists who have passed on, we must accept that genius does not equal greatness in terms of ethics. It never did. It also doesn’t equal a pass.

If we can separate the art from the artists, perhaps we can allow ourselves to look more closely at things which we may not want to, and ask questions, and have conversations about these topics.

Understanding that Bowie was an addict, and owned to harming those around him while an abuser, I’d like to think he regretted any action he took, or failed to take, regarding other abuse around him. I’d like to think that. Is it true? I’ll certainly never know.

It’s hard for me to reconcile a man so evolved in so many ways, championing so many virtues, who would fail so glaringly in this one. Yet, sadly, it’s not uncommon in our society.

For me, I don’t want to look at the past with accusation and say “they.” I want to look to the present and the future to say “We” can do better.

I think we are already doing better because, in my youth, these conversations were not happening. Women were always blamed for anything bad that happened to them. Let’s, at least, safely discard that concept and move forward, with courage, to face the failings of heroes so we can all learn to be better.

I don’t think we have to abandon the art. I do think it’s necessary to abandon the hero.



*Correction: an earlier version of this piece asked if Bowie “had sex” with a 13 year old girl.  This has been corrected to properly state this as rape.

America’s Forgotten War Zones

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As the 4th of July holiday weekend approached, I saw posts online that cautioned sensitivity to those veterans for whom fireworks might trigger PTSD.   The sound is too much like gunfire.  We should be more sensitive to the trauma our veterans have experienced and carry with them.  This is progress.  Yet, while I was glad to see this new awareness, I couldn’t help thinking of an awareness that we yet lack, and of a story I’d recently been told by a friend.

He had grown up in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn.  In 2014, Brownsville’s police precinct, the 73rd, logged more shooting victims than any other precinct in New York City. My friend told me of growing up in such a crime-laden neighborhood.

When he was a child, he didn’t go outside on the 4th of July.  “Who knows if that sound is a firecracker, or gunfire? You’re just better off not being outside, at all.”  I was stunned and saddened to think of a young child so afraid to be outside while others were in full revelry.

In Brownsville, the sound of gunfire was normal.  Going to sleep and listening to it was a part of life.  His realization that this was not the norm came as an adult, when he moved to a different neighborhood.  “I didn’t know there was a life where things could be quiet. When we were kids, you had your blocks in your neighborhood and that was the only reality you knew.”

A seven-year-old boy was shot and killed this 4th of July, in Chicago.  Over the entire holiday weekend, 34 more people were also shot in Chicago.  This was a decrease from the violence and death of 2014’s July 4th, holiday weekend.  As upset as I was to hear this news, my friend was deeply troubled: “Brownsville, to me, was as bad as I thought it could get. But I’ve been keeping track of Chicago for a couple of years now and Brownsville at its worst doesn’t seem nearly as bad. I feel horrible for the kids there. Not all of them are “bad seeds.” You know what I mean?”

How often do we hear stories of children in cities being hit by a “stray bullet?” How do we react when we hear this? What level of sensitivity and outrage do we show compared to how we react to when other members of our society are exposed to terror and trauma? If these events occurred in a rich, white, “good” neighborhood, would our reactions differ?

What bothers me so much about this is that most in our nation just accept these occurrences. If a child is murdered in a “bad neighborhood,” the news will spend a few minutes on it; people will shake their heads and say “so sad.” Then they move on. There is no grand statement of our leaders saying, “We must stop this” and “Never again!” Instead, most maintain that bad things happen in bad neighborhoods just as rain happens more in Seattle than in San Diego.

We encourage people, and applaud individuals, if they “got out.”  Americans like to claim our country as “the best in the world” so how can we find it acceptable to have cities so harmful that all we can do is hope to survive and leave?  An adult can, possibly, “get out” but the children who are there have no choice.  They are exposed to violence, the sound of gunfire, and general terror as a standard part of growing up.

The popular blog Humans of New York created a fundraiser after showcasing a school in Brownsville where Principal Nadia Lopez had a simple goal to allow her students a safe haven in which to exist during the summer months:

“My scholars can’t even go outside. It’s too dangerous. As an exercise, my teachers broke into small groups and took a walk through the community. We wanted to understand how our students live. We went inside the housing projects. The parks and playgrounds were empty because it’s too dangerous. Even the library isn’t a safe zone. Just last Saturday, one of my scholars had two guns pulled on him while he was walking to the community center. In broad daylight. It’s just too dangerous to be outside, so my scholars stay inside all summer. They aren’t learning to ride horses or drive boats, and they certainly aren’t traveling. They miss out on the enrichment available to children from more affluent neighborhoods. They need a safe place where they can do activities and continue to grow their minds. I tried to put together a program last summer, but I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t really put together any activities, and I could only use teachers-in-training. I need the funds to put together a program with my own teachers so my students have a safe place where they can continue to grow outside of school.”

Why should such a basic standard of living- freedom from fear- be something a school principal needs to champion for her students?  This should simply be a priority of our nation.

There are many aspects to poverty.  It is not merely that one has no money.  There is no where to simply exist and have a childhood full of play.  Play is such an essential aspect to curiosity and growth of both mind and spirit.

The student, Vidal Chastanet, who inspired Humans of New York to focus on Brownsville, described his living conditions:

“The buildings are filthy in the housing projects. Some people poop and pee in the hallways. And some of the people around here aren’t friendly. I don’t think it’s a sadness or an anger that they feel, but a sort of emptiness. You look around and see a lot of negative things, and you can’t help but feel like you’re a part of something negative, and that maybe you’re something negative. Part of me wants to leave. But part of me wants to stay, because I have a lot of family nearby, and I don’t want to live far away from them.”

How can we find that this is tolerable? If we want less violence in the city, we must begin to examine the contributions such standards of living play into crime in those areas.

This is America, yet these stories relate experiences that are more like living in a warzone. They are living in terror and the threat of death is daily and it is real.

Those growing up in such an environment are living with PTSD before they reach adulthood.

There is a link to vast increases in physical illness associated with early childhood trauma.  Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in the Bayview, CA.  In her TED talk, she explains:

“Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed”.

I don’t have a solution in writing this.  But I do wonder at the fact that there are certain parts of the country with no “bad neighborhood.”  I’ve yet to see the correlation of this where it doesn’t line up with one thing: money.  If there is enough money, then there is virtually no crime.  Poorer neighborhoods have more crime.   There are no stray bullets in wealthy neighborhoods.  I’ve been to areas in the U.S. where there is no “bad side of town.” How do they manage that? Those places are always wealthy and that ought to demonstrate how much of an economic issue this truly is.

Gangs are a huge part of this equation.  We could say, “We need to find and arrest all gang members.”  But it makes so much more sense to ask, “Why does anyone join a gang?”  If we can answer to the needs of teens who are pressured to belong, feel afraid, and have no strong sense of pride for any other aspect of life, I think that would be a better way of fighting gangs.

Just as poverty exists as more than just cash, wealth also exists in many facets. Someone in a wealthy home may have more time with parents. They have opportunities to develop an identity based on achievement when parents drive them to karate, gymnastics, or involve them in theater. We need programs to specifically address the needs of young people in these environments.  We should be providing safe spaces where teens can learn what it feels like to be supported to pursue dreams and become proud of their accomplishments.   Principal Lopez, already knew how money could be spent to help create more safety. The way in which she engages her students helps to create a strong sense of self and pride.

Foreign terrorists had one good day in this country where they managed to murder many people.  From that, we have entered into costly wars, allowed laws to be passed, which limit our freedoms, and fostered more xenophobia, all in the name of safety.  And, if the TSA is any indication, much of this is merely a waste.

What does it say about our country that we cannot fuel the same passion (and tax dollars) toward safety for those who must live in certain neighborhoods?  Why do we feel that we can write off a group of people as “hopeless” instead of asking ourselves “How do we provide hope?”

The Humans of New York fundraiser proved that Americans do care about these children.  Our tax dollars should work to benefit all of our society toward freedom from fear, not just the wealthy.

I’ve heard people argue that charities are how our society should handle these problems.  We are willing to take tax dollars to support corporations and keep them alive while relegating the task of keeping children alive to independent groups who may, or may not, have enough funds for gang prevention.

Children grow up in neighborhoods that are like war zones, listening to gunfire, afraid to go outside.  Is that America, the sweet land of liberty? Not for those children. To me, it is one of the largest failures of our nation that any child grows up like this.

If we want this to change, we should make it clear to our representatives at all level of government that we care about it. We should be active in volunteering in whatever way we can. The whole “this is the way it’s always been” is a poor moral excuse to sit back and do nothing.

Politicians speak about the middle class. How many speak about poverty in our country and about children afraid to go outside in their own neighborhoods? I can only think of a couple that do. What these children go through is more of a form of terrorism than most of us will ever experience, first hand. We should be as determined to eradicate it as any other kind of terror.


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