Let’s Talk Ferguson — Chicago Symposium January 14

Urgent update:  We have just today, Jan 13, received word of a priceless opportunity occurring the evening of January 14 in Chicago.

The Yearly Meeting has joined with various Monthly Meetings in discussing the social issues raised by the events in Ferguson and elsewhere in the country.  There is a remarkably related event planned for January 14, as follows: Continue reading

What we can do about prisons

She hired the killing of her husband, admits she did so for molesting their daughter.  She regrets.   She owns responsibility for the pain she has inflicted on others.  She has served more than three decades of a seventy-five year sentence and has become a senior prisoner in one of our prisons.  And the prospects for parole remain distant.

This case raises questions.  The hired killer received a twenty-five year sentence and has been released.  But she remains behind bars.  If prisons are designed for the public safety, what danger does this elderly woman pose to us?  If our Department of Corrections is designed to work corrections or to achieve rehabilitation, what purpose is there in locking up this person who owns her responsibility, expresses regret, and poses little likelihood of killing another?  The answers may come with careful review.  But there is no agency in the state government that is asking these questions.  Her case is not subject to review.

The Illinois legislature is considering a bill (HB 3668) that focuses on the growing number of prisoners who are over fifty years old and have served more than twenty-five years.  This modest reform proposes the establishment of a procedure by which such inmates could petition for parole.  The bill is judiciously couched.  Victims would be notified of the petition and be given the opportunity to respond.  The review board might modify the sentence if it is satisfied that the prisoner presents no threat to the public safety.  Moreover, the board would be authorized to set conditions for release such as wearing an electronic monitoring device and doing public service.

This carefully considered legislation affects a small but growing population in our prisons.   One prisoner, for example, serves a life sentence without parole.  He killed while under the influence of PCP.    Although not a suspect, he was so overcome by guilt that he turned himself into the police.  He has served twenty-nine years and at age fifty-two is designated an elderly prisoner.   Again, no one in the state prison system is authorized to ask whether this person is a danger to us or whether he is fit to return to society.

By writing to our state lawmakers, each of us can help to work change so that these questions can be asked and the sentences of elderly prisoners can be reviewed.   This proposed legislation is a small but important step toward working change.  When we consider our prison system, for example the sentencing practices, we may feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.    That immensity may numb imaginations and cripple our ability to act.   We may ask: what can I with my limited time and resources do to work a change in this prison system.  Many of us may be concerned but are restrained by limited resources.  We might not be able to attend a rally in Springfield or lobby lawmakers in the state capital.   No matter such limitations, we can write our local lawmakers, talk to friends, or write out local newspapers.

Such actions are important not just because they will lead to passage of this modest piece of legislation but because they contribute to a growing movement calling for changes in the way we think about our prison system and how we will behave in the future.   The campaign to close the maximum security prisoner at Tamms illustrated the broader concern about our prisons.  Closing Tamms illustrated the effectiveness’ of concerned citizens.  We are also awakening to the need for “ban the box” legislation that eliminates the requirement that released prisoners when applying for a job check the box that they were convicted felons and thereby closes opportunity for successful re-entry into society.   Our fellow citizens are awakening to the need for revising sentencing procedures.  That Michele Alexander’s The new Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks testifies to the significance of this issue in our society.  (For more on HB3668 and work in Illinois on our prisons, go to Changing Minds Campaign at illinoisinstitute.net/index.html)

A conscience driven movement has arisen.

Within these several movements broader question emerge.  At stake is not only the prisoners without hope but our collective identity as a society.

While emphasizing the need for people to take responsibility for their actions, we have emphasized punishment—stern punishment.   But what has happened to the simple proposition that people can change, can become better?   While addressing the need for public safety, have we forgotten the possibility of reconciliation and restoration to society?  Have we allowed fear and the rhetoric of punishment to overcome us?  Are we making ourselves into a punishing society?  We are asking these questions in different ways.  In so doing we are looking to large changes in the culture.  This will take time.

We are asking that question in different ways.  Changing the way we think or returning to the proposition that the wrong doer can change will take time.  Supporting HB 3668 is a small step.  The bill can be passed.  And by taking action, no matter how small, each of contributes significantly to invigorating the larger movement for justice tempered by compassion.


Torture and a step to respond

Torture is practiced in national and state governments.  This we know.  What we need to know is how we can respond to this horror.  The Quaker Initiative Against Torture (QUIT) and the National Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) help us to address this question.

Looking at torture is risky business.  It moves us to thinking about the unthinkable.  With the pictures from Abu Ghraib, we shed the illusion that torture was something done by people in the past or that it was done by other people.  Today we are learning that torture cannot be considered an isolated or aberrant act.   Realizing that torture is practiced in our backyards, in our prisons, not just in black holes in some unknown places overseas, may inform but also may overwhelm us.  What can be done?  Realizing that torture includes not only water boarding but solitary confinement for months and years may teach us how pervasive and varied this practice is.  Listening to public servants speak as if they are not sure that water boarding is torture warns us how pervasive and acceptable the justifications for torture have become in this culture.  But still we ask what can be done.

Left unanswered this question forces good people to sink into resignation.  And this is why QUIT and NRCAT are important.

Acting for the sake of the tortured may not be the only reason for supporting QUIT and NRCAT.   Today we are coming to a place where the unthinkable continues to force itself upon us.   Denial and evasion offer refuge; the mechanisms are readily provided us.  But denial costs us too.  What am I saying when I say that torture is there in all its manifestations but that is the way the world works?  We may grasp for justifications: our public servants protect us by torturing people; torture for some is a small price to pay so that we can sleep soundly; torture isn’t so bad if it does not leave permanent physical damage.  But the justifications fall short of justification.  Inevitably beneath the rationalizations questions remain to haunt us.  What kind of world do we create for ourselves and our children when we accept torture as a part of our lives?  Once we accepted and justified child abuse as necessary for the child’s welfare.  We don’t any more.  We can remember good citizens in another place and recent time who retreated from the horrors before them by pretending ignorance.  But pretending may mean knowing somewhere in our consciousness.  Can we allow torture by proxy without damaging ourselves?

And this is why supporting QUIT and NRCAT may be important for our good health.  By supporting these two groups, we do so not only for the faceless, nameless person in orange suit in Springfield or in Guantanamo.   We do it for ourselves and for our children.   Friends meetings, including  Chicago’s 57th Street, have joined with a broad spectrum of faith groups to endorse NRCAT.  The times call for others to face this crisis of conscience openly

Those seeking more information may wish go to: http://www.quit-torture-now.org/quit/home/ or  http://www.nrcat.org/

Are we asking the wrong question? (Drones Part Two)

A query in search of words.

“My son is a soldier in Afghanistan. If a drone will protect my child from harm, so be it.”

​I listened and I trembled inside. The parent spoke at a public lecture critical of our government’s use of drones. For a few moments a stillness settled on the room. I do not take the parent’s statement as rebuttal to the speaker. Rather, I remember it as an implicit question: how do I reconcile my concern for my child with criticism of government behavior?

​For that moment we stood on common ground: the speaker, members of the audience, the parent, and myself. Discussion stopped. In the stillness I felt this common ground slipping from beneath us. And after a few heartbeats, the room was filled with words about legalities, disclosure, and accountability.

I continue to reflect on that moment, remembering that I have, as many of us have, witnessed similar moments since the days of Vietnam. During those five decades we have seen these moments repeated when shared concern, even skepticism, about a foreign venture is deflected. Whatever the defects in the policy, we hear that we need to support our children in uniform or that our security requires that certain prices be paid.

When the parent spoke, how might I have responded? I remain uncertain. While analytical arguments about political systems and cultural values and about complexities of effective dissent provide necessary perspective, that talk seems insufficient by itself to address this question in search of the right words. After all the talk about constitutional questions, this place may remain barely explored. The parent’s response silences criticism of state policy. And criticism of state behavior often evades the parent’s question. The answer lies somewhere beyond the question: do I stop the drones or do I support our loved ones?

And so I feel drawn to this still point in time. At once I empathize with the parent and remain no less convinced that the drones are wrong. Moreover as a parent I know that these killing machines kill children over there. Today a parent in Afghanistan may be saying that if it were not for the drone, he would be having dinner with his daughter.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are asking the wrong question. Today I do not know the words for my question. Yet I feel it necessary to continue searching. I feel so when I stand at my community’s Saturday peace vigil and meet neighbors who are friendly to the dream of peace but conditioned to be fearful for their security. Again, the problem is posed as a choice between either peace or war with little ground between. Repeatedly though in different ways, I feel common ground slip away. Perhaps a first step may be taken simply by taking a deep breath and not stepping out of that still place.

Good work is being done that may enable us to sit in that still place between seeming opposites or irreconcilables for a bit loner. Last year neighbors in my community gathered in groups to read and discuss Karen Armstrong’s “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” and the Charter for Compassion project. That discussion continues in several forms including the Nonviolent Carbondale project. Parker Palmer comes to this place in his “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit”. And Living Room Conversations works to bridge political division.

​I am imagining a long process of undoing deep habits of thought that we share and that stymie our imaginations. But the wars have been going on for a long time, so long that we may simply call it The War. Learning the facts and calling for disclosure of government behaviors informs the discussion. But I wonder. The facts alone about drones or other policies once disclosed may not mean that they bring us forward. Intellect helps, no doubt, to address recurring concerns. Yet intellect alone may remain stymied, as it was that evening, without union with compassion and listening. Perhaps then we can work with that parent.

Drones fulfill the dream that opposition at home will be deterred (Drones Part One)

If the United States government had drones during the Vietnam war, would it have stayed in Vietnam?

“​What-if” questions may cause us to roll our eyes with impatience. But this one offers perspective on the significance of the current controversy over the drones. The question leads to another: why did the United States abandon its Southeast Asian venture? One answer lies in the public protests that pressed our officials in Washington to bring the troops home. In some way protest was sparked by the draft and the steady increase in American dead. There were other reasons, but these are two good places to begin.

​The Vietnam catastrophe taught government leaders important lessons. First, avoid a draft. Second, avoid foreign adventures that disturb voters to ask provocative questions and that undermine support for their leaders. Thus the government fights in the Middle East without a draft and with volunteers. Large sectors of the public are not affected directly. Yet the volunteers do die. And public concern remains as long as young Americans return home in coffins. And so at first the government attempted to prevent photography of the coffins.

​If policy makers pursue overseas adventures that require shedding blood and wish at the same time to shield Americans from the human consequences, then mechanized warfare is the answer. Machines do the fighting. American soldiers are less likely to be put in danger. Thus the deterrent to pursuing a violent foreign policy is diminished. The military in Vietnam invested in technologies for this end but did not succeed. Drones represent the fulfillment of that dream.

​Today’s discussion of the drones is, however, distracted by attention to questions of transparency and accountability. These are important questions. But if demands for transparency and for accountability were satisfied, even completely, would we be addressing underlying questions: should our government use such instruments of death so that it can meddle in the lives of other peoples and do its meddling by violence?

Such questions were being asked during the Vietnam War. To tell the story of the anti-war movement by focusing on the draft and dying Americans is to tell a portion of the story. Consciences were pricked by the photograph of the little girl running naked, screaming in terror from her village that had been turned to a blazing inferno by American forces. They were numbed by the photographs of the dead women and children at My Lai. And this rousing of conscience was also part of the story that roused an opposition.

Questions about the drones that focus on constitutional issues of accountability, while important, do not yet bring us to the human costs that are daily being paid by families in the Middle East. We do not yet see the photographs. Perhaps we do not because of the nature of this war. But we know enough to know that children and parents live in daily terror of these unknown instruments that descend from the sky. They see the mangled bodies.

And so there are continuities between Vietnam and Afghanistan. The continuities are traced easily when we look at the objectives of policy makers to wage wars that appear bloodless. Other continuities seem less obvious but are implicit and call for revived attention. These are the moral questions that guided a significant portion of the opponents of the Vietnam carnage. They focus on the children like that Vietnamese child fleeing her village in terror. How then will we address these enduring questions? This task will require far more sensitivity and wisdom than is needed to answer the constitutional questions. The answers will not emerge from documents pried from government agencies. They may come as we look within ourselves and learn to talk with our neighbors.

Next: Part Two – ways that meetings might attend to this issue.

Building bridges across political divides

Parker Palmer writes (on Facebook):

Joan Blades is co-founder and co-chair of the well-known political organization MoveOn, which promotes liberal and progressive causes. Some people (and I’m one of them) are grateful for MoveOn. Some are not. But this post is not about taking political sides. It’s about building bridges across political divides.

Joan has launched a new project I’m excited about. Called “Living Room Conversations”, its purpose is to foster civil discourse between folks who differ politically and help them make common cause.

Want to see something hopeful? Check out the conversation. You’ll see and hear a dialogue between Joan and Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots: two people who are poles apart politically, but who found overlapping concerns and mutual respect through this project.

The site is full of resources for starting your own Living Room Conversations with family members, neighbors, colleagues and friends. This kind of conversation can help “We the People” overcome our divisions and become a political power again—the power on which American democracy depends.

Joan and her colleagues are “putting wheels” on some of the things I wrote about in “Healing the Heart of Democracy”. So I’m very grateful for Joan’s endorsement of the book, which you can learn more about at the site below:

“Can we keep our sights on the vision of what we aspire to be while working constructively to transform realities that do not yet fulfill that vision? How do we remain ‘open hearted’ so that we can engage creatively with citizens who hold different views of the challenges we face? ‘Healing the Heart of Democracy’ asks these necessary questions and inspires us to answer.” — Joan Blades

Testing our students for military service

The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) is the military’s entrance exam that is given to fresh recruits to determine their aptitude for various military occupations. The test is also used as a recruiting tool in 12,000 high schools across the country.

The four hour test is used by military recruiting services to gain sensitive, personal information on more than 660,000 high school students across the country every year, the vast majority of whom are under the age of 18. Students typically are given the test at school without parental knowledge or consent.

The National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy is working to prohibit the automatic release of student information to military recruiting services gathered through the administration of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) Career Exploration Program in high schools across the country.

None of the cities or states with ILYM meetings seem to be currently addressing this issue, but you can learn more about how school districts elsewhere in the country are:

Is your Meeting working to address the privacy of students mandated to take the ASVAB?

Earlier this Spring, The National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth reported on the work of the Texas organization, Peaceful Vocations, who presented to the Texas State Board making the request that “Option 8” be the choice for all Texas schools when administering the ASVAB. Since students and parents may not currently determine how test information is released, if a school chooses “Option 8” it will allow for a parent to decide: they may still give permission for the test results to be released to military recruiters, but with this policy change the decision rests with the parent, not the school.

Learn more about the work of The National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy and The National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth to explore what you and your Meeting can do to address this issue.

It has been reported that there was local activity several years ago up in the Chicago region under the name “Chicagoland Coalition Opposed to Militarization of Youth” who gained attention in 2006 for their efforts (read article here). Might anyone know if their work continues?

Quaker Peacemakers Project: Elizabeth Mertic

Elizabeth Mertic is a member of Lake Forest Friends Meeting and attends Evanston Monthly Meeting. She has lived in Evanston since May 2001. Elizabeth’s strong interest in peace began when she was an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin-Madison where she met Francis Hole from Madison Meeting. When Elizabeth moved to Chicago in 1958, she began attending 57th Street Meeting and joined the Peace & Social Concerns Committee.  In 1960 she was a participant in the Ring around the Pentagon demonstration along with hundreds of other Friends from across the country. Elizabeth shares: “I have gradually moved toward the goal of growing more peaceful with myself, which will help me live peacefully with the rest of humanity.”

Click the play button below to hear Elizabeth’s reflections on peacemaking.

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The Peace Resources Committee interviewed Elizabeth alongside Joey Rodger and Sara Gmitter in front of a live participatory audience at Evanston Monthly Meeting in November 2012. Listen in to hear her talk about peacemaking as a daily practice, being active in commuinity, and remaining hopeful. Elizabeth shared of her experience with the Iraqi Student Project, supporting two young Iraqi women attending DePaul University in the Chicago.

Click here to learn more about the Quaker Peacemakers Archive Project where you can nominate Friends in Illinois Yearly Meeting you think should be included in this effort. The project aims to compile and preserve an oral history of Friends whose contributions to peace building offer wonderful opportunities for reflection. As Friends tell their stories in their own words, these recordings will capture and preserve unique and inspired personal acts and thoughts which enrich our Yearly Meeting.

Music: “On Reflection” by The Appleseed Cast (Low Level Owl: Volume 1, 2000)

Quaker Peacemakers Project: Joey Rodger

Joey RodgerJoey Rodger serves as the Acting Executive Director and Co-founder of PeaceAble Cities: Evanston, is a Chaplain with the Evanston Police Department, and actively represents Friends in local interfaith efforts. She moved to Evanston 25 years ago to work as an executive for public library organizations, and following her retirement from librarianship, her commitment to peace and justice – nurtured by 40 years as a Quaker – led her to help found PeaceAble Cities: Evanston. Joey deeply believes “we are all meant to live together with respect and a graciousness toward the possibility that we can work together to create a richly diverse city completely free of violence.”

Click the play button below to hear Joey’s reflections on peacemaking.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/95039684″ params=”color=007aff&auto_play=false&show_artwork=false” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

The Peace Resources Committee interviewed Joey alongside Sara Gmitter and Elizabeth Mertic in front of a live participatory audience at Evanston Monthly Meeting in November 2012. Listen in to hear her explorations of peacemaking today, peacemaking as strategy as well as leading, collaboration, discomfort, exploration, joy and focus towards peacemaking as the priority. Joey truly lives for peace. Reflecting on the theory of change presented by James Gillian in his book Preventing Violence, she has strong words for Friends truly committed to peace: “you can actually make a difference.”

Click here to learn more about the Quaker Peacemakers Archive Project where you can nominate Friends in Illinois Yearly Meeting you think should be included in this effort. The project aims to compile and preserve an oral history of Friends whose contributions to peace building offer wonderful opportunities for reflection. As Friends tell their stories in their own words, these recordings will capture and preserve unique and inspired personal acts and thoughts which enrich our Yearly Meeting.

Music: “Sunset Drama King” by The Appleseed Cast (Low Level Owl: Volume 2, 2000)

Quaker Peacemakers Project: Sara Gmitter

Sara GmitterSara Gmitter began attending at Evanston Monthly Meeting four years ago, and today considers herself a convinced Friend. As a playwright and an educator, she spent 12 years as a member of the Lookingglass Theatre company, is a founding member of New Suit Theatre Company, teaches stage management at Northwestern University, and has also taught beginning Circus Arts for the Lookingglass Young Ensemble. In 2008 Sara participated in a workcamp sponsored by the African Great Lakes Initiative at the Mutaho Widows Association in Burundi. In the spring of 2009 she worked with David Kersnar and the Lookingglass Young Ensemble to create Waging Peace an original play about conflict resolution. Sara attended the University for Peace in Costa Rica where she earned her Masters degree in Peace Education.

Click the play button below to hear Sara’s reflections on peacemaking.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/95038483″ params=”color=007aff&auto_play=false&show_artwork=false” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

The Peace Resources Committee interviewed Sara alongside Elizabeth Mertic and Joey Rodger in front of a live participatory audience at Evanston Monthly Meeting in November 2012. Listen in to hear her reflections on peacemaking today, daily habits that inspire her as a peacemaker, her understanding of today’s culture of violence and how we can all work towards the creation of “a culture of peace.”

Click here to learn more about the Quaker Peacemakers Archive Project where you can nominate Friends in Illinois Yearly Meeting you think should be included in this effort. The project aims to compile and preserve an oral history of Friends whose contributions to peace building offer wonderful opportunities for reflection. As Friends tell their stories in their own words, these recordings will capture and preserve unique and inspired personal acts and thoughts which enrich our Yearly Meeting.

Music: “The Waking of Pertelotte” by The Appleseed Cast (Low Level Owl: Volume 1, 2000)