“Criminals,” “Illegals,” “Terrorists” and #AllLivesMatter

My heart broke just a little bit more every time I saw the reactionary #AllLivesMatter hashtag. Because mostly, white people were using it as a rude rebuke to undermine the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. That’s sad on so many levels.

And of course, all lives do matter, so I think we should take over the #AllLivesMatter hashtag, — specifically, I think we should apply it to all online conversations about the use of torture by the government (like the recent revelations of the use of torture by the CIA). And in discussions about why people migrate and how migrants should be treated. And eventually, once we are able to reclaim its meaning, use it in conversations about how we’re going to end police violence towards African American people.

The U.S. government – our government — is routinely surveilling some people, stopping and searching some people, demanding that some people prove they’re citizens, arresting and torturing some people, all based on different pieces of racist profiling. For different communities of color, the details of how this unfolds differ, and each community has its own historical context.

The loaded trinity of words: “Criminals,” “Illegals,” and “Terrorists” are central to institutional racism. Each of these terms, when used to describe human beings, are used to first teach us to dehumanize certain people, then to remind us to keep dehumanizing people.

Although changing the way we speak cannot itself change our lives, it’s difficult to improve our lives without confronting and removing language that reinforces racist stereotypes and dehumanization.

“Criminal” is not a noun unless it’s being used to scare you

When we use “criminal,” to describe a person, there are two immediate problems. A—we are trained to think of a black person way too fast and B—we are generally talking about someone else who we neither know nor care about.

“Criminals” – most of us, if we’re being honest with ourselves, understand that this word is generally coded to refer to people of color, and generally African-American people. Some of this can be traced to the post-Civil War U.S., when slavery was no longer permitted except for when a person has been duly convicted of a crime. The need to duly convict as many black people as possible so that as “criminals” they could be returned to slave labor began in earnest.

Criminalization was also part of the pushback against the hopeful notion being advanced by black and white abolitionists that Black people shouldn’t be slaves because they were fully human. Slavery depends on the premise that some people aren’t fully human.

So first there is the way we have racialized that word. Then comes part B: many of us know on a gut level that if you can empathize with someone, you don’t generally call them “a criminal.”

This has led to a whole host of related problems, because then, sometimes, when someone we love or can sympathize with commits a criminal act, we think, “he can’t have done that, because I don’t think of him as a criminal.”

Yet, our loved ones can and do commit crimes. And the framework of “but my loved one isn’t a criminal” has led to hurtful and damaging minimizing of people who have experienced violence or serious crime.

“Criminal” is best used as an adjective. Criminal acts are committed by all sorts of people. Defrauding the taxpayers is a criminal act. Sexually assaulting someone is a criminal act. Stealing a loaf of bread is a criminal act. “Criminal” as an adjective just describes an action that’s against the law. All of us have broken the law at some point in our lives. Some of us have broken the law for great reasons, like being opposed to apartheid.

The place in our minds where we use the word “criminals” to refer to other human beings is where we implicitly say, “that’s not me” and we start treating people as if they are “the other.”

I don’t use “criminal” as a noun. I’ve found “person with a previous felony conviction” is a reasonable substitute.

Two “I-words” that go together: “Illegals” and Indifference

A- The point has been made any number of times, yet bears repeating, that describing a person as “an illegal” is not particularly descriptive nor is it factually incorrect. There are many types of laws any person can be violating at any time, and yet “illegal” in common usage only refers to a person breaking one type of law – immigration law.

B- Come on, this usually refers to only one racial/ethnic group of people who have violated immigration law: Latinos/Latinas.

Killing people doesn’t make you “an illegal,” renting out vacant apartments using an online service that allows you to break landlord/tenant law doesn’t make you “an illegal.” And in neither case should they. Actions and objects can be illegal. People cannot be “illegal.” Unless you want to dehumanize and ignore them.

In our current time, “Illegals” is a word that has become a justification for all manner of cruel and dismissive behavior directed at Latinos in the U.S. A vast system of prisons, jails and detention centers has sprung up over the last decade to disappear people, without event the assumption that they are entitled to a speedy process to clarify their legal status.

Massive numbers of deportations have happened over the last decade, with little concern about their effects on families and communities – to prove that our current administration is “tough on immigration.” And yet, no matter how many people are deported, it’s not enough for the public appetite given how much people believe they have to fear immigration and “illegals.” Apparently, we’re even willing to abandon children who fear for their lives, because they are “illegal immigrants.” This indifference is a clue that we have strayed far away from good sense.

On a basic level, we have too few conversations about the roots of migration here in the Americas, and why so many people from nearby countries have migrated here in the last thirty years (hint: it started when we started messing with other people’s governments.)

There is no way we can have useful or practical or intelligent conversations about immigration until we get rid of the dehumanizing baggage shown by people using the word “illegals” and “illegal immigrants.”

This is the only one of these three words that already has a campaign to stop its use: “Drop the I-Word.

“Terrorists” is a word used to manipulate you

A– Although terrorism surely existed before 2001, (believe me, I know), in the post-Sept 11th world, the U.S. government started peddling a business model in which the world contains so many “terrorists” that want to destroy us that we need to be willing to spend any amount of money and trade any number of civil liberties away to contain this “threat.”

B– Oh, and let’s be honest, the person you’re supposed to picture in your head when someone says “terrorist” is Muslim. They are supposed to scare you because they’re nothing like us. And you’re not supposed to worry about things our government does to a person labeled a “terrorist.”

The word “terrorist” is not even particularly descriptive, because there are many settings in which groups of people are acting in ways that are terrifying–yet, most of the times, we don’t call those groups of people “terrorists.” “Terrorists” is a malleable word, and once a government uses it, we are supposed to allow, or even welcome all manner of exceptions to civil liberties, the rule of law, and plain old common sense.

For example, this week it became clear that our government tortured non-U.S. citizens who are Muslim or Middle Eastern. We disappeared people into secret prisons around the world to be held without charges, but because they were labeled as “terrorists,” we are supposed to accept it as the cost of a “war on terror.” As in all wars, “our” lives are precious, and “their” lives are expendable.

Some Senate Republicans, who in the spirit of true conservatism would actually have to stand by the rule of law and be glad we live in the sort of country where the government periodically investigates itself, attempted to suppress the report because they think people in other countries will become enraged and violent. They are unconcerned about people being kidnapped and tortured because those people could have possibly been “terrorists.” That label justifies the mistreatment of people, especially when it’s used to describe Muslims.

We cannot allow ourselves to be manipulated into allowing any group of people to racially profiled as terrorists — in part, because it’s unfair to assume anyone is a terrorist because of their racial or religious group. And we also have to call for an end to the use of the word “terrorist” to mean someone doesn’t have civil and human rights. Because once any person’s civil rights get taken away, everyone’s rights are in jeopardy.

“I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

“Criminals,” “Illegals,” “Terrorists.”

We’ve all heard these words, and many of us have used them. None of these words are neutral. They each have a political agenda embedded in their use, and each is routinely used to marginalize and dehumanize a community of color.

Each time I hear them, I think to myself, “wait a second, what exactly are we talking about here?” And I think about how to shift the conversation away from the fear and indifference these words are supposed to invoke.

Because without that conscious shift, we can’t prevent crime and violence, we can’t figure out the puzzle of immigration in the modern world, and we can’t end acts of political violence. Those are all problems worth solving, they each require an approach where we stop acting like “we” are fully human and somebody else isn’t.

And any of us who are targeted by any one (or two) of these words need to be vocal about rejecting all three of them. Like these folks marching in Jackson Heights last week.

So, yes, #AllLivesMatter. I suggest using that hashtag when talking about immigration and torture. (We may have to let it sit for now in reference to police violence against Black people, since that hashtag has been used so recently on the pretext of ignoring racism targeting Black people).

Let’s reclaim #AllLivesMatter from its obnoxious origins to redirect us to the reality that words can be used to separate us, but that when it comes to humanity, all of our lives do matter, without qualification.

Image from www.restorefairness.org

I think I’m a resident of the Capitol

The first time I saw an ad in the subway for the movie Mockingjay, my first thought was, “oooh… should I put that date in my calendar?”

It’s an unusual thought for me about a movie opening. I don’t make it to the movie theater that often, but I LOVED the Hunger Games books. The movies based on the first two books in the series, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, are the only movies I’ve seen on opening day since An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.

Like many great pieces of fiction, The Hunger Games story is compelling because it’s well written enough that as the reader, I want to insert myself into the story. Then the logical questions of great fiction follow close behind: if the conflicts in this fictional world represent something real about the world we live in, which side of these conflicts am I on in my own life?

Kathleen shooting a bow and arrowOooh, am I like the hero, Katniss, reluctantly becoming a leader in the resistance to the Capitol because I’m a great warrior and the people I love are being hurt? Am I her mentor, Haymitch, scarred from my experience of being a victorious tribute yet willing to not just survive but to help ensure that others can ascend? Am I the stylist Cinna, cleverly finding a way to resist the cultural domination of the Capitol at great personal risk? Who am I most like in this story of resisting injustice?

Hmmnn… I want to be like Katniss, but I’m more worried I’m just another resident of the Capitol.

Why? Like many Americans, my daily life includes comforts that are not equally distributed among most people — for starters, I have on-demand access to drinkable water. Thanks to the way food production is subsidized and manipulated, I can buy the food that I want or need from the store without much regard to the season or the distance required to get that food to my plate (as long as it’s on sale). I have access to meat, grains, and alcohol in many forms. I have constant access to electricity. When I want an electronic device (or clothes, or whatever), I can go to the store and buy it, or have it mailed to me within a day. All these things come to me as long as I pay my bills, and don’t ask too many questions about where all this stuff comes from.

Residents of the Capitol, who we see throughout the series, but especially in the final book of the series, live in denial about the social and economic extremes that must be maintained for their comfort-driven way of life to exist. They rely on the twelve districts to produce everything for them, and it’s clear that for the district residents (as in, everyone who does not live in the Capitol) their lives revolve around producing things for the voracious appetites of Capitol residents.

In one of the more telling facets of the books, we see that residents of the Capitol are starkly incurious about the residents of the districts: they learn enough about the districts to make the Hunger Games more dramatic to them, and not much else.

For residents of the Capitol, if their way of life exacts a high cost from other people, they don’t want to know. They would rather just eat and watch the games. Sound familiar?

Every day I see advertisements for the upcoming Mockinjay film: subway ads, web-based ads, magazine covers and more. The millions of dollars spent on visually arresting ads and clever promotions for the movie will generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the movie studio that created what will probably be a great film.

And the irony of it is that the advertising is designed to get me to pay top dollar to see this movie by telling me over and over that I’m just like Katniss Everdeen. But the reality is that if the advertising works to get me to the film — and I expect that it will — it’s because I’m just another resident of the Capitol.

Yes, go somewhere and read the names of people killed in Gaza

On Tuesday, I went with my wife Dana to one of the actions calling for an end to the violence in Gaza organized by “If Not Now,” a Jewish group here in NYC. I wanted to thank them, and also encourage everyone I know, Jews and non-Jews alike, to participate in their events if you’re in one of the cities where this movement is happening.

This particular event was one of those creative Jewish reinterpretations of something — in this case, Tisha B’Av, a day in the Jewish calendar set aside to grieve past tragic events that have befallen the Jewish people. There was also much to grieve regarding Gaza — by then, over 1,800 Palestinians had been killed, and Israelis live with daily fear from the ongoing bombardments and their own casualties.

In addition to some readings, we read aloud, together, the names of people, some Israelis but overwhelmingly Palestinians civilians, who had been killed in Gaza since the previous Friday.

When reading the names, which generally includes the place where they were killed, and sometimes their age of death, there are things that I couldn’t help noticing. The name of an adult woman, then the names of her children who died with her. A pair of two year olds with the same last name (twins). Five people with the same last name and the same place of death — a family. That happened repeatedly while reading the names: three, four, even nine people from a single family killed together.

Many of us are aware of the sheer number of people being killed (as of the day I’m writing this, it’s now over 1,900) but we shy away from looking at lists of individual names, or looking at pictures of each of them. But by reading the names, this situation becomes more real and demands further action from us.

It’s important not to just read the names and immerse ourselves in righteous anger, but to notice that we are grieving, and to think about how to proceed. We cannot, even in our justifiable grief, just demand retribution — although I guess you could, but then you would will have to go later and read more names, then more and still more. That’s not the way for me. Instead I’m focused on getting to the roots of violence and despair that are at the base of this, and support for the families experiencing the long-term effects of war.

As part of the event, we turned to a stranger to talk for a couple minutes. I talked to a woman named Rachel, and we talked about what had brought us there. I told her that I was grieving the deaths in Gaza, but also my brother, whose yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death) was in a few days, and he had also been killed in an armed conflict. My brother Eddie was killed by the Red Army Faction in 1985 while serving in the US Army, in an attack targeting the US Airbase at Rhein Main. So along with the many civilians killed in this event, my thoughts are with the families of all combatants killed as well — which we also read at the event, names drawn from this site that the IDF keeps of solders killed in this conflict.

Afterwards, Dana and I agreed that we had to find something to do. Speaking the names out loud with that group of people forced me out of despair and into action. We decided to start by supporting organizations that address the overlying political issue but also the need for humanitarian aid. We picked two groups:

It’s sad to read the names. You might mispronounce them, you might cry. Take someone with you — it’s a little overwhelming.

There’s a principle in physics called the observation effect — the sheer act of observing a phenomenon changes it. Well, there is the life-version of that as well. The act of observing war or violence changes it, probably because it changes us from spectators into actors.

Go be with people and read the names, and then see what you can figure out in terms of action for a long-term sustainable peace in Gaza. If you need more ideas for things you can do, let me know and we’ll think together.

To get you ready, here’s a clip of If Not Now in action:


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