Innocent/Guilty “Until”


Having just heard the verdict about the policeman who murdered Philando Castile, seeing Nick Cave’s exhibit “Until” at Mass MOCA was not only timely but even more devastating.

Cave’s installation was mounted in September 2016 and remains until September 2017. “Until” refers to “innocent until proven guilty.” Or does it? Guilty until proven innocent is what is really implied, because Cave’s art is built on, and haunted by, the ghosts of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Yvette Smith and more.

The program says that the installation began with Cave asking himself, “Is there racism in heaven?” His answer is an experience rather than just a matter of looking at one art piece. One is confronted by masses of glittery mobiles twisting and turning. They are mostly beautiful and mesmerizing; then one sees that many of the mobiles depict guns, bullets, and targets.

One walks through this maze of glitter to a crystal cloud atop which is a huge garden of ceramic birds, gramophone horns, and, startlingly, black-face lawn jockeys. One has to climb a very tall ladder to see this site of mainly found objects.

After passing through and around a wall of plastic beads that look like netting, from far away, you enter a dark room with a giant lifeguard chair in the center and a frenetic video that plays on the walls. While my sister and I were there, we were the only museum-goers who stayed to watch the whole video, which is unsettling and somewhat sinister at times. It ends with a chorus of black-face tap dancers; all the while, a video of swirling shallow water is cast on the floor, so you feel off-balance anyway.

IMG_20170621_123518488The last part of the installation is a metaphorical wall of water meant to seem cleansing. It is only the last part, though, physically. I promise that if you go, or have a chance to see it elsewhere, you will carry the installation in your mind and heart for a while.

To see a slo-mo video of the mobiles, go to Nick Cave installation.



The Moral Universe – Self-Interest Well Understood


Okay, I do have to write about Alexis de Tocqueville again, so bear with me. You can blame him for being so wise in addressing issues that are universal and timeless and also for being so prophetic.
Have you ever practically flown out of your chair upon hearing a concept described that you had thought about for a long time but never knew there was a name for?

This happened to me while listening to the second set of CDs in the “Tocqueville and the American Experiment” Great Courses series.

“Self-interest well understood” is the term that Tocqueville gave to participation in political associations, meaning that when people are involved in serving others, they are also serving themselves. He does relate it fairly narrowly to the importance of participation in democracy and cites all kinds of ramifications in not doing so.

But the term hit me so hard because it is something I’ve given much thought to and had discussions about with my sister. It is a concept I started to define in my own mind in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election, when we’d had almost four years of Tea Party campaigning and scare tactics. Since I had come to know people who self-defined as members of the Tea Party, I was trying to understand where they were coming from but finding it difficult to discern anything in their comments but fear and selfishness. The bulk of their objections to the Obama administration started with the words “My” or “I.” “My taxes,” “my health insurance,” “my guns,” etc.

I never heard concern expressed for others who aren’t members of the Tea Party. I heard nothing that expressed a zeitgeist that included one’s neighbors, the country as a whole, or the rest of the world.
As we talked on the telephone while awaiting the results of the 20I2 election, I said to my sister that I never remembered voting for someone because of what I thought that person could do for me personally, but what that person could do for the greater society, whether on a state or national or international level. Since I first voted for George McGovern in 1974, it just never occurred to me that my personal concerns had anything to do with my vote, but that my vote was meant to consider a broader constituency.

My sister felt the same way; I don’t know where we got this from, though we tend to credit our mother with much of the way we look at the world. erhaps growing up in the 1960s also had something to do with it. We protested the Vietnam war not because we personally were going to lose or gain by it, but because we thought it was an unfair, imperial action that was costing too much in terms of both American and Vietnamese lives.

We also grew up during the hottest part of the Cold War and were taught to be afraid, to be very afraid, of atom bombs raining down on us with just the meager protection of a schoolroom desk. That might have formed in us a selfish outlook and overarching concern for our personal safety; instead it taught us that atom bombs are bad for Planet Earth and every living thing on it.

We watched the evening news from an early age and saw black people being fire-hosed and set upon by police dogs and somewhere in our brains we formed the idea that, though those hoses and dogs were not set upon us, it was a bad thing for the country that anyone should be treated this way. We did take it personally when Martin Luther King Jr. and, shortly after, Bobby Kennedy were assassinated because we felt that the country needed them so desperately.

Ultimately, somehow and from whatever inspiration, we grew up feeling that what was good for the larger community was good for us. We had learned self-interest well understood. As adults now in our 60s, we are even more concerned about the reign of terror (I can’t really speak for Sally, but that’s how I have come to see it) unleashed by the hateful war waged against the Obama administration. It has not only paralyzed Congress from acting in any positive way, but it has also seemed to give bigots the audacity to act out their prejudices again as in the days of Jim Crow. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, John Crawford and others have had to pay the ultimate price for the Tea Party’s fomenting of us vs. them.

I shall have much more to say about the NRA in a future blog, but what else but fear and selfishness allows people to think that their right to have military-grade weapons handy trumps innocent people’s right not to be killed by passing bullets and/or psychotics whose voices in their heads tell them to go to an elementary school and kill as many children as possible? It is the ultimate in self-interest not only not well understood, but ignored and trampled on.

It defies belief, but I have to hope it doesn’t defy the hope that if the Beloved Community that John Lewis wrote about really comes together and walks toward this problem, it can be solved. Too many futures have been shattered; we must see that other futures come to fruition.

The Moral Universe – The Shooting at Fruitvale Station


by Cynthia Pease

We’re going to jump forward this week to 2009. I recently saw “Fruitvale Station,” and it’s been haunting me. Ryan Coogler’s film about the murder of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) policeman on New Year’s Eve is not only heartbreaking, it’s senseless as well and could be classified as a lynching.

oscar grantI do not remember this tragedy, although the young star, Michael B. Jordan, who plays Grant said in an interview that he heard about it on the radio and went right to YouTube to see the footage that witnesses were shooting. It all happened at Fruitvale Station in San Francisco, and many people who were on the train filmed the murder with their cell phones. In fact, the movie opens with the actual footage from a cell phone, and it’s watching a nightmare that you know no one can wake up from.
Oscar Grant was on a train with several friends and his girlfriend Sophina, with whom he had a young daughter, in the wee hours of January 1, 2009. Oscar got into a scuffle with some other passengers, and the operator called ahead to the BART police. Arriving at Fruitvale, Oscar and two of the friends got off the train and were standing on the platform talking. BART officer Anthony Pirone approached them yelling and holding Tasers on them. Pirone pulled another friend off the train by his hair, using expletives. Sophina, meanwhile, was on the lower level of the train station and called Oscar on his cell phone. It was at that point that Pirone pinioned him to the ground, making it difficult for Oscar to breathe. Officer Johannes Meserhle had joined Pirone and shouted that he was going to tase Oscar. Instead he pulled his revolver and shot Oscar pointblank in the back. Oscar died seven hours later.
The spare movie goes over the last day of Oscar’s life, having to sum up the parts of a young man in very little time, and does it excellently. Oscar ‘s not a hero; he’s got lots of issues, but there is a sense that he is someone who wants to figure out his life, become more stable, and take responsibility for his daughter and his girlfriend.

There are flashbacks to his time in prison when Oscar’s temper gets him into trouble. During a visit with his mother (Octavia Spencer in a role made for her), she tells him she can’t see him until he can get himself together. While she’s visiting, a white prisoner gets in Oscar’s face and Oscar lunges for him. His mother walks away quickly, the pain of tough love etched in her face.

Oscar has lost his job because of chronic lateness, but Sophina thinks he’s still working. While she’s at work, Oscar goes to the grocery store where he used to work to ask for his job back. While there, he flirts with a young white woman who is going to cook for her boyfriend that night and doesn’t know what she’s doing. Oscar calls his grandmother for a recipe and gives it to her. It will turn out later that the young woman is one of the people filming Oscar’s murder early the next morning.

Oscar doesn’t get his job back, which his girlfriend finds out about later in the day. This young man has charm to spare and manages to convince her that he will get another job soon. They go to dinner at his mother’s house and later they meet up with some friends to go into the city for the evening.
And all the while, you know what’s going to happen and your heart is breaking over and over again.
Pirone is portrayed in both the film and in witnesses’ statements as a bully. The film does not portray the racial epithets that the trial transcript says he hurled at Oscar. He appeared, though, to be looking for trouble and, when he saw a group of young black men, he inadvertently found it, though they weren’t the problem.

Mehserle’s defense was to be that he mistook his revolver for his Taser, but he never mentioned this at the scene, though witnesses said he did look surprised. What he kept repeating at the time was that he thought Oscar was going for a gun, though the young man obviously couldn’t move and one of his arms was trapped under his pinioned body.

Meserhle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which he appealed saying that there should be a lower standard for police officers. He was denied a re-trial and sentenced to two years in prison though he was out 11 months.

Last August, Bob Egelko of The San Francisco Chronicle reported that appeals cases could find the BART system itself responsible for the incident.

“But in this case, the appeals court said, evidence already presented to a federal judge would entitle a jury to conclude that Pirone had no reason to believe the men had committed any crimes, had no reason to hold them for investigation, and ‘had no lawful basis to detain the group’.” he wrote.

“The court cited U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel’s findings in 2011 that Pirone had never asked the train operator if anyone was injured, if any weapons were used, if anyone had come forward to talk about the fight, or if the operator could identify any of the five men as participants. Pirone, by his own admission, never entered the train himself or looked for evidence of any crimes, Patel said.

“A jury could rely on that evidence to conclude that Pirone had no reason to detain Grant and his friends, Judge Mary Murguia said in the appeals court’s 3-0 ruling.

” ‘Pirone encountered a group of black men who were doing nothing but talking when he arrived’ at the Fruitvale Station, were not committing any crimes, and posed no apparent threat that would justify his pulling a weapon and holding them,’ Murguia said.”

If you watch this movie, that’s what you will conclude as well. And I do urge you to watch it, though you know how it ends, though it will break your heart. We must witness to the ongoing racism inherent in this country and then do all in our power to eradicate it.