Christian Brotherhood

I attended a white, Southern, fundamentalist church during the Vietnam War years. Having heard preachers who poured out enough fire and brimstone to get the whole church moaning, I was not impressed with all the fuss about Barack Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. In my church I heard the minister say things that were bellicose, callous and misogynistic. By that church’s interpretation of Revelations, the Holy Land was destined to end up as a glass-bottom parking lot. Or maybe a nice, flat landing strip for the Second Coming. If you went trolling through the sermons preached in those years you would have found plenty of sensational statements, especially when they got speaking in tongues. But in all fairness, they spent most of their time telling their congregation to live right and follow the Bible. I left that church not because of what the minister said, but for spiritual differences. I’m just a natural pagan is all.

Contrary to the shocked, shocked impression some commentators have, church members don’t jump up and leave every time the minister says something they disagree with. It’s not a huge aberration for a minister to use strong, or even shocking language. They are preachers, not politicians. It’s not fair to pull some words from sermons and present them without any context of the whole sermon or the whole ministry of the church.

It is disappointing that Senator Clinton seems to want to pull attention back to the Reverend Wright controversy. She’s made it fair to take a look at her own history. Talking Points Memo has posted an opinion by the minister of a church that Senator Clinton attended, Foundry United Methodist. The minister, Rev. Dean J. Snyder, defends Rev. Wright. By the way, Foundry looks like a church where Sen. Obama would feel right at home.

The Reverend Jeremiah Wright is an outstanding church leader whom I have heard speak a number of times. He has served for decades as a profound voice for justice and inclusion in our society. He has been a vocal critic of the racism, sexism and homophobia which still tarnish the American dream. To evaluate his dynamic ministry on the basis of two or three sound bites does a grave injustice to Dr. Wright, the members of his congregation, and the African-American church which has been the spiritual refuge of a people that has suffered from discrimination, disadvantage, and
violence. Dr. Wright, a member of an integrated denomination, has
been an agent of racial reconciliation while proclaiming perceptions
and truths uncomfortable for some white people to hear…

Check out the website of Foundry United Methodist Church for the whole text, and Talking Points Memo for commentary. Even though I’m just a pagan I have to admire this show of Christian brotherhood.

Testify for Building Schools on Safe Land

There will be a hearing this Wednesday, March 26, from 4:00 to 5:00 pm in Room 135 of the State House, on a bi-partisan bill to stop building schools on contaminated land in Rhode Island. The bill is controversial (as evidenced in this post by Alex Moore on and the ensuing discussion) in that Woonsocket is currently in the process of building a new middle school on a remediated site, and members of the community there want to maintain control over their project and move forward. It is unclear how this issue will be dealt with — some have suggested that strategically, it might make sense to make an exception to the bill for Woonsocket’s project. Others have questioned whether this would be allowing another school to be built on a site which has contamination issues with long-term health hazards.

In this post, Alex fleshes out the history of environmental justice and the way in which this bill will help move us toward better environmental safety for our schools:

Some legislators at the State House have thankfully decided to put environmental justice on this year’s agenda by putting in a bi-partisan bill to stop building schools on contaminated land (H-7577). Please take one minute to thank these legislators and ask other decision makers to support this important bill by clicking here.

Why do schools, especially in low-income districts & communities of color, continue to get built on contaminated land?

–They are in desperate need of new schools.
–They are stuck with a lot of contaminated land – usually due to factories shutting down – that developers won’t touch.
–They think it’s cost effective because they can foot most clean up and construction costs to the state.
–They don’t take expensive monitoring and long-term maintenance costs into account; schools built on contaminated land in Providence are already exhibiting expensive problems (faulty air quality equipment, broken foundations, etc.) shortly after being constructed – not only are these problems costly in financial terms, but they put kids and teachers at risk of health problems.
–They don’t take into account that scientific standards for “safe” levels of toxins are changing fast; today’s standards may no longer be applicable in a few years.
–They sell communities on the idea of a wonderful new school, but usually keep parents and kids in the dark about potential hazards and use unfair, expedited review processes to rush jobs through. When the community learns the truth, it’s usually too late.
–More lucrative & desirable land is sold to developers who tend to build condos or offices on it; kids get stuck going to schools on former dumps and toxic waste sites.

This is nothing new – it has been going on for over 3 decades in cities and states across the country.

The question is, how much longer are we knowingly going to allow this shameful practice to keep happening?

As Dr. King said:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.�

If you can’t attend the hearing but still want to encourage your legislators to support this bill, you can participate by clicking here.

Naturally Grey

I started to go grey in my thirties when I was still kind of buff. It was a statement then. But when the middle-age spread started I pulled back and made a drastic transition from grey to whatever shade of brown was on sale at the discount store. Not that I don’t love my hairdresser. Claudia Curl rules, I see her at least twice a year. (You can see how cheap I am.)

A few years later I hit a minor life crisis. Have you ever had a really bad job? I felt so disrespected that I decided to let my hair go back to its natural grey. People might still condescend, but at least I had come out as an old person. Also, a couple of women who were doing better in that job than me were natural grey, and they looked kind of cool.

I told Claudia that I wanted to lose the dye but keep the hair. It takes a long time to grow past shoulder length. Step by step she stripped color and added streaks, and about six months later it was all natural color. Grey. With white highlights. I like it. Now if I could only get buff again I would be totally self-satisfied.

Going grey helped me get in touch with my ethnicity.

It was St. Patrick’s Day at Patrick’s Pub on Smith Hill. Irish-American ground zero. I walked in and there was wall-to-wall people who looked like they could have been my cousins. Lots of them had the same grey hair. It wasn’t until then that I really understood that there is an Irish look and I have a visible ancestry.

I think it’s a generational thing as well. I see a lot of women in their forties and fifties letting their hair go grey. We let our hair grow straight when we were teenagers and our mothers were still doing curlers and perms. Or else we didn’t straighten our hair, and let it be afro or kinky curls. It seems logical that we would let our natural color, or lack of it, be what it is. We are the boomers, after all, and when we get old we do it our way.

So the grey thing was a little bit of a transition, but no big deal. I was surprised to find out it’s a Trend. Not only is there a website, Going Gray, but a book. I regret that I didn’t write it, but it really never occurred to me. Darn.

Just to show that everything that goes around comes around, here’s an excerpt from ‘Barbara Frietchie’ by John Greenleaf Whittier. Interestingly, it has a pounding rhythm that would work very well as a rap. Say these lines out loud if you don’t believe me…

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.

Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced; the old flag met his sight.

“Halt!” – the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!” – out blazed the rifle-blast.

It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf.

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word;

“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.

Best of all, Barbara Frietchie made her brave stand for the flag of the Union. Which we are always trying to make more perfect.


For four years now I have been standing on South Main St. in Providence with the ‘No Time to be Silent’ vigil for peace. I hold a worn-out sign that has the day’s numbers of Americans killed in Iraq, taken from the New York Times, ‘Names of the Dead’ column.

I first started reading the New York Times after 9/11, when they printed an obituary for each of the 2,819 people who died in the attack. For days pages were filled with their pictures and stories. In 2003, as the UN testimony proceeded and our leadership prepared for war, New Yorkers filled the streets in protest.

Here in Rhode Island I stood with a small group on the lawn of the Statehouse in another futile demonstration. We shivered in the March cold. At the time the pundits were wondering how many casualties the American public would tolerate. Hundreds?

I knew it wouldn’t be that way. The deeper in we got, the harder it would become to accept that the war is mistaken, that our soldiers died for lies.

About a year into it, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz showed that he wasn’t agonizing over our losses when he underestimated the number of Americans killed in Iraq by about 200. He was one of the architects of the war. One of those who promised us that it would be short and victorious.

WASHINGTON — Asked how many American troops have died in Iraq, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian estimated Thursday the total was about 500 — more than 200 soldiers short.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was asked about the toll at a hearing of a House Appropriations subcommittee. “It’s approximately 500, of which — I can get the exact numbers — approximately 350 are combat deaths,” he responded.

“He misspoke,” spokesman Charley Cooper said later. “That’s all.”

American deaths Thursday were at 722 — 521 of them from combat — since the start of military operations in Iraq last year, according to the Department of Defense.

(Wolfowitz was later appointed to a post at the World Bank where he disgraced our country by having to resign for corruption.)

This small incidence of callousness from a Bush insider inspired me to make a sign with the numbers, so that we would not forget. Four years later, public opinion surveys claim that Americans can’t remember how many have died. The economy is the number-one concern. But the milestone of another thousand puts our loss in the headlines once again.

The losses to the Iraqi civilians, who did not ask for this war, who are on the front lines, number in the hundreds of thousands.

If we are an empire, content to go shopping while our volunteer military and our hired contractors fight and suffer far from our daily lives; then only their loved ones will watch the news and agonize over the casualty count. Everything is on track. The war is going as planned.

If we are a democracy, and our soldiers fight in our name, whether we bother to vote or not, then we bear some responsibility. If our government is waging a war that the citizens largely oppose, year after year, with the burden falling almost entirely on those who fight it, then we must remove these misleaders and change our course. To do less is to abandon our troops.

Garabedian Suggests Eminent Domain Seizure

Even though he probably won’t win this one, council President Garabedian is impressive in his tenacity. He just won’t let go of the fundamental issue regarding the Cullion Concrete plant — that the original building permit was granted wrongly. He’s like a bulldog going after the same bone again and again. You can almost hear him — grrrrr, GRRRRR, grrrrr…

From the Projo:

[…] But Garabedian, who has hired a lawyer with his own money to pursue the idea, dismisses those concerns.

Like other Cullion critics, he argues that the building permit the city issued the concrete company in March 2006, under the administration of former Mayor Stephen P. Laffey, was flawed in several respects.

And if a judge invalidated the permit during eminent-domain proceedings, Garabedian argued, Cullion’s claim on the value of the land would drop sharply.

With Cullion lacking authority to build and operate a plant, he said, the land would no longer be worth $1.9 million. [full text]

We keep coming back to that original permit, and the still unknown circumstances surrounding its issuance. It seems like a classic case of those on the inside protecting others on the inside. And all of us plebians on the outside are supposed to accept that this is the best we can do. I like that Garabedian is still saying, “we can do better.”

Children, Disabled, and Elderly to Lose Health Insurance

It’s good to know in our difficult financial times, the right people are being asked to make up the difference. This article from the Associated Press has more details:

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Financially strapped states are looking to take away government health insurance and benefits from millions of Americans already struggling with a souring economy.

An Associated Press review of the budgets in all 50 states reveals coverage would be eliminated for hundreds of thousands of poor children, disabled and the elderly. More than 10 million people would lose dental care, access to specialists, name-brand prescription drugs or other benefits. About 20 million could see their care jeopardized by further cuts to doctors’ reimbursements.

Health care is a choice target as governors and legislators confront the worst deficits they’ve faced in a decade or more, but that’s not their only target: They’re also considering cuts in aid to schools and universities, shrinking state workforces and even releasing prisoners before their sentences are completed.

Safety-net programs for the elderly, disabled and out-of-work also could be cut, even as the demand for those services is on the rise.

Despite the dire conditions, only a handful of states are seriously considering general tax increases or even modest hikes on the wealthy to close the gaps. Lawmakers say they fear such actions would only further stress the economy.

Instead, states are looking to increase lottery ticket sales, promote Indian gambling or further raise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. Those taxes disproportionately hit the pocketbooks of the same poor and working-class that would be hurt by the spending cuts, studies show. [full text]

Sabrina Harman, Abu Ghraib Photographer

In some ways, it feels fun to me to talk about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton because, all inter-party jabbing aside, they are both about hope and both about a better future. It’s fundamentally a question of what flavor of hope suits your particular fancy, and that fancy can be liberal or conservative, as indicated by the recent endorsement of Barack Obama from young Rhode Island conservative Don Roach. (Yay, Don! Yay, Obama!) The bottom line is, it just can’t get much worse than what has happened under the leadership of George W. Bush.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s post: an excruciating but fascinating and important article in this week’s New Yorker called Exposure. The article, a collaboration of Philip Gourevitch and filmmaker Errol Morris, is mainly about the experiences of Sabrina Harman, a soldier in Iraq in 2003 who took pictures at Abu Ghraib.

This is the stuff about our nation and our future that is not so easy for me (or a lot of people) to talk about. It’s about how badly we failed our own standards, and how much we can be corrupted. It’s about how some of our young people went over to Iraq and participated in organized torture.

But there is good news, and part of that good news is Sabrina Harman, who had the guts and the will and the sheer hope about how the world would react to do something very important: document. She took over a hundred pictures of the occurrences at Abu Ghraib, and, despite that she was court-martialled, despite that she is smiling and giving a thumbs-up in some of the pictures taken next to tortured corpses, despite all this, Sabrina Harman is, in my opinion, a commendable American.

From the article:

All that the soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company, a Reserve unit out of Cresaptown, Maryland, knew about America’s biggest military prison in Iraq, when they arrived there in early October of 2003, was that it was on the front lines. Its official name was Forward Operating Base Abu Ghraib. Never mind that military doctrine and the Geneva Conventions forbid holding prisoners in a combat zone, and require that they be sped to the rear; you had to make the opposite sort of journey to get to Abu Ghraib. You had to travel along some of the deadliest roads in the country, constantly bombed and frequently ambushed, into the Sunni Triangle. The prison squatted on the desert, a wall of sheer concrete traced with barbed wire, picketed by watchtowers. “Like something from a Mad Max movie,� Sergeant Javal Davis, of the 372nd, said. “Just like that—like, medieval.� There were more than two and a half miles of wall with twenty-four towers, enclosing two hundred and eighty acres of prison ground. And inside, Davis said, “it’s nothing but rubble, blown-up buildings, dogs running all over the place, rabid dogs, burnt remains. The stench was unbearable: urine, feces, body rot.� [full text]