Friday, February 16, 2018

Being Human in America: Thoughts on Guns, Grief, Rights & Responsibility

My daughter. July 4th, 2017.
A few days after the latest school shooting, social media overflows with debates about gun control, as well as monologues sending “prayers and condolences” to Florida. As a thoughtful American human right activist, I feel inspired to share what I'm noticing within the fray.


The biggest beneficiary of the gun lobby in 2016 was Donald Trump, who received over 31 million US dollars. A series of other Republicans who have received anywhere from 130 thousand USD to 7 million USD are named by the Huffington Post in the video linked here.

These leaders have been paid, more by a single special interest group than what some Americans earn within a lifetime, to make it easier for more people to own more guns. This is not an example of NRA lobbyists championing the average American's constitutional right to gun ownership. This is a reflection of the degree to which political allegiances are bought so that specific industries can grow their market and profits—at the potential expense of innocent human lives.


More guns = more shootings. This conclusion comes from both common sense and consistent science detailed here and here . Since the amount of guns within the USA is record-setting, so is the number of gun-related deaths. The USA also stands out in that it is one of only three countries, alongside Guatemala and Mexico, which views gun ownership as a citizen's right rather than a privilege to be earned. These things are not opinions or personal truths. They are quantifiable facts about gun ownership, shootings and the US Constitution.


There are many people whom I count as friends, and even respect as human rights activists, who proudly take the position that gun ownership is an important expression of American freedom. They argue that guns provide many with a sense of personal security—against potential invaders, against government officials turned into totalitarians, against dangerous wildlife and (at times) against starvation. They also argue that guns can be used responsibly for sportsmanship. Some of them support ownership with greater regulation. Others take talk of gun control as a personal slight and are quick to make statements about how criminals will just seek out weapons on the black market and about how it is humans, rather than the guns themselves, which commit crimes. On one end of the spectrum, avid supporters of gun ownership will advocate for stricter security in schools and more discipline from parents and teachers. On the other, they will advocate for a culture filled with more love and less violence in the media—mirroring their liberal peers on pretty much every point except for the one which views guns as inherently symbolic of destruction.


In The Guardian's statistics about gun-related violence in America, a few things are clear:

  1. As stated already, more guns = more shootings.

  2. The USA holds a majority of the world's guns. 

  3. While there are enough guns within the USA to supply 88 people out of every 100 American citizens with a firearm, only 3 percent of American citizens actually hold the majority of guns in America. 

  4. While mass shootings are increasing and becoming more deadly, the vast majority of gun-related deaths have always been, and seem on track to continue to be, suicides. 

  5. All gun-related civilian deaths are massively out-numbered by those resulting from auto-accidents, plane crashes, illness or natural disasters.

One may reasonably conclude from this data that Americans aren't, by and large, a bunch of trigger-happy rogues, nor has the risk of venturing into a school building suddenly become more dangerous than the risk of riding on the bus to get there. Nonetheless, I feel it is easy to understand that gun-related deaths are less anticipated by victims and families and often have a uniquely gut-wrenching impact. After all, being shot to death is often the result of an individual or group's highly personalized aggression, fear, or hatred—whereas dying from a crash, sickness or natural disaster is a known, accepted and impersonal hazard which comes with being human.

My Conclusions.

  1. Being shot to death—like dying from a crash, sickness or natural disaster—is also a hazard which comes with being human. 

  2. Nonetheless, being shot to death is genuinely unique in that it is often the result of an individual or group's highly personalized aggression, fear or hatred. 

  3. Our society can take major steps toward shifting our culture to foster less unchecked aggression, fear and hate. However, this is a complex and nuanced process. Neither “all love” nor “tough love” will get us there. I once heard of “radical love.” That may be a start, but even it most likely isn't enough on its own. 

  4. Metal detectors and security officers can help make environments safer. These measures can also breed paranoia, increase despair and fail due to technical error and genuine human fallibility. 

  5. Evidence based data shows that increased gun control will lessen gun purchases and decrease shooting related deaths, even though guns are still available illegally. 

  6. Meanwhile, gun ownership is a Constitutionally protected right. In and of itself, the right to choose is unique and worth fighting to maintain—whether that choice relates to one's religion, gender identity, marital status, decision to abort, decision to homeschool, decision to vaccinate, decision to use drugs, or decision to own a gun. 

  7. When taking a stand for gun ownership, it is important as a politician to do more than take money from the NRA and offer your condolences to the victims of mass shootings. 

  8. When taking a stand for gun ownership, it is important as a civilian to understand that your right comes with inherent responsibilities—one of which is to respect gun safety and the many discussions on that topic without jumping immediately to the conclusion that logical concern over wrongful death is being purposefully leveraged against you. 

  9. Mass shootings are national tragedies which require mourning. Generally speaking, humans are ill-prepared to mourn, even though death is perhaps the one aspect of life we are all guaranteed to share.

Personally, I mourn the loss of life in Florida this Valentine's Day. I advocate for the right to responsible, better regulated gun ownership. I advocate for stronger school security coupled with dedicated counselors who are able to focus more on students' mental health than on test scores, detention and study hall. I advocate for gun safety education classes and mass shooting survival classes. I advocate for literature, art and media which illustrates the pervasive destructiveness of hatred, aggression and fear—while also showing a way to transmute this via social justice and radical love, for the benefit of both those who might suffer from, as well as those who might perpetuate, destruction. 

Finally, I advocate for better victim care. In Florida today, recovering people need blood transfusions, and the families of the fallen need a space to tell their children's stories and to receive unconditional compassion during a time of grief. For more on how you can step outside the gun-control debate and offer direct help to those in need, go here:

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A NORML Mom Returns to the Capitol

Me w/ activists Kim Smith & James Meissner
Following my attendance of the town hall for the #Cartersville70, I headed to the Georgia Capitol to lobby for marijuana law reform. I had been there once before two years ago. Back then, I'd stood outside chamber doors holding a booklet about the medical benefits of cannabis. Georgia had recently passed a measure to legalize the limited use of CBD oil for treating a narrow list of approved conditions. Our hope as lobbyists that day had been to expand the qualifying conditions, as well as to add a provision allowing in-state cultivation.

When I returned to the Capitol earlier this February, the Georgia cities of Clarkston and Atlanta had decriminalized possession within city limits, and a few conditions had been added to the list of approved medical conditions.  While we still have a significant journey ahead, we were armed not just with the request that our representatives read a handbook and do something, but rather with the names of 10 EXISTING MEASURES for them to support:

HB 465 and HR 340 for Industrial Hemp

HB 645 and HB 764 to facilitate the cultivation and possession of low THC oil

HB 505 to halt the civil forfeiture practices detrimental to many people facing marijuana charges

SB105 for reducing penalties currently associated with marijuana possession

SB 295 for regulating the retail sale of marijuana

SB 296 and HR 36 to expand Georgia's existing medical marijuana program

SR 317 to authorize the study of medical marijuana in Georgia

Whether it takes days or years, some form of these bills and resolutions WILL be up for vote by Georgia citizens, and the majority of people reading this WILL EXPERIENCE an end to marijuana/cannabis prohibition in Georgia.

Peachtree NORML had planned a rally to follow the lobbying, but the permit was pulled one day prior to the event due to an increase in the prospective attendees. Georgia State Senator Michael Williams spoke out in favor of Peachtree NORML before the General Assembly and asked that we still be allowed to gather. While the number of attendees diminished significantly after hearing the announcement that the original permit had been pulled, a few of us heeded Senator Williams' call to come out anyway. Among those present were the typical mix of patients, parents, veterans and civil rights activists, as well as creative and corporate community leaders. Spanning a spectrum of political and spiritual beliefs, our highly personal experiences with cannabis have consistently inspired each of us to stand in compassionate solidarity. With Senator Williams among us, Atlanta musician and activist Aviva guided us in forming a circle, from which many stepped forward as individuals to share our stories and call for support. 

With real change on the horizon, this is a crucial time to step up and use your voice. Please be confident in telling your representatives and senators to end prohibition. You can get started doing this by going online HERE and discovering who your personal congress people are.

While NORML operates at both the national and state level, it is also important to become active within your city and county. For those who live in my area, I am presently working with fellow activist Melissa Leachman-Taylor to form an Etowah chapter of Peachtree NORML. For updates, please follow us on Facebook here. Also, please follow Peachtree NORML here for information about a re-scheduled rally in Atlanta.

Finally, let this post be like a seed. Share it, and watch the movement grow.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A NORML Mom Supports the #Cartersville70

Dee Dawkins-Haigler & I supporting #Cartersville70
On New Year's Eve 2017, I heard fireworks popping off in every direction around Kingston, Georgia, the small rural rail town where I live within Bartow County. A few miles down the road in Bartow's county seat, Cartersville, Georgia, fireworks were also being fired, and a 21-year-old was celebrating her birthday.

While investigating a call from someone who thought they heard gunshots, local policemen found nothing in the area other than the birthday celebration, which they proceeded to raid. Allegedly some attendees were simply asked to go home. Meanwhile, in what seems to be an extreme act of racial profiling, 70 others were arrested and held within the Cartersville jail for three days or more pending charges.

Rumors about a drug and artillery ring flew across the local and national news, but the only contraband actually discovered among all 70 apprehended young people was less than one ounce of marijuana. The case quickly drew the attention of Racquel McGee, a leader of the Atlanta-based Georgia Alliance for Social Justice. Racquel grew up in Cartersville, Georgia, and quickly set about bringing justice to those within her hometown. With the aid of civil-rights minded defense attorney Gerald Griggs, charges against 69 of the #Cartersville70 were dropped, and he is optimistic about the future outcome of the one person still facing charges.

Clearly, the type of marijuana law reform championed by Peachtree NORML, OnePlant United and Georgia Care Project is central to the case of the #Cartersville70. If marijuana were no longer stigmatized, it could be utilized as a versatile medicine and mind-opening form of adult stress relief. Law enforcement would no longer have grounds to disrupt and damage the lives of nonviolent offenders.

The #Cartersville70 also reminds us that marijuana initially received its status as a federally controlled substance—not because of being a hazardous gateway drug—but rather because of its potential as a gateway through which illegal immigrants and marginalized American citizens can enter the prison industrial complex.

While incarcerated, several members of the #Cartersville70 experienced abuse and denial of their basic rights. The arrests themselves also present multiple civil rights violations which have drawn the attention of the NAACP—along with additional social justice organizations, activists, community leaders and politicians. Many of these gathered, alongside members of the #Cartersville70, to speak last night at the Cartersville Civic Center. While all shared their uniquely engaging takes on marijuana and civil rights, the simple through line can be summarized as follows:

Keep learning, being active and speaking your mind—regardless of your color or creed. Remember that it is the American people's right to change laws which feel inherently unjust. Use your right to vote to elect leaders who authentically represent you. 

One such leader, Dee Dawkins-Haigler, pictured with me above, has been active within the Georgia General Assembly since May 2008 and is currently running for Secretary of State. While researching the possibility of introducing marijuana reform to Georgia alongside representative Allen Peake, she has visited Colorado and witnessed the state modeling how to return the profits from the cannabis industry back to the people. “We cannot legislate morality forever,” Dee says. Based on her experience, she says it's time “to let the grown folks decide what they're going to do.” 
For those of you who agree, there are a few things you can do right now. While these apply directly to Georgia residents, they can be modified to work anywhere.

  1. Come to Atlanta's Gold Dome this Thursday to lobby for state-wide marijuana decriminalization and de-classification. Click here for details.
  2. Reach out to local officials to let them know that the #Cartersville70 matters to you. This can happen over the phone, over email or in person at local city council meetings.
  3. Write editorials to local papers and post in social media with the hashtag #Cartersville70.
  4. Join Peachtree NORML, and keep in touch with me about a new Bartow/Floyd chapter.
Finally, I want to emphasize again the importance of recognizing that marijuana reform is about more than the right to use a plant for medicinal or responsible recreational purposes. It is fundamentally a civil rights issue. As such, it does not exist in a vacuum. It is directly connected to the work of organizations like NAACP, ACLU, Amnesty and more. Personally, I am dedicated to cultivating these connections and bringing them to light with fierce compassion.

As always, if you were moved by my words, please share them. Let this post plant a seed we can grow together.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

For Nini, With Love

Nini  & I, Dec. 2009
I wish I had reached out more to my grandmother Nini, given her more hugs and let her know more often that I'm grateful for the care she showed me in childhood.

Then again, life has an odd way of distilling emotional truths from complicated circumstances.

Perhaps, the taboos of my adult life would have proven too much had I shared more of my mature self with my grandmother. If my stories of infidelity, agnosticism, protest and shamanic quests had stood in the way of her receiving my core truths, I'm confident she'd agree that would have been a greater travesty than my relative silence—especially since I did share carefully selected reflections on making music, running a business and caring for my unique children. As I age, my experience with Nini has inspired the following goals:

  1. Never place the burden on the children to keep in touch. Instead, continue reaching out to them, sharing tidbits of life as an old crone, reflecting on memories of their youth, encouraging them to discover new things and to keep taking action always.
  2. Keep taking action always within a community large and loving enough to offer support to my immediate family when I die.
  3. Continue exercising the ability to hold space for loved ones without casting moral judgment.

Maybe it's odd, but I am very thankful for these goals. I am also especially thankful for my last three visits with Nini.

The first happened last winter. My cousin Will, a fellow only child and thus substitute sibling, had come to visit Nini as well. He'd made the trip by plane from Virginia, and I drove down from Northwest Georgia, where Nini had spent my childhood across town from me and my parents.

Scene from Nini's Memorial
On last winter's trip, Will and I had a lot of time alone together. We delighted in the ways our paths have paralleled and diverged. We addressed deep family stories about the way love and fear have created limitations in our ancestry, and about the ways we are re-writing some of these patterns in our lives. Near the end of my visit, when Will and his father were settling into their own rhythm at my uncle's apartment, I took one-on-one time with Nini. We sat at the kitchen table laughing and talking. Were it up to me, I could have stayed through the night, but there was (as there often was) something pressing against our time together. It has always felt a little as though my grandparents open a portal to communicate with me—their world on the other side marked by more complexity than they ever wanted to show. I remember standing in the driveway hugging Nini. I showed her my new car, and she was concerned that my children could crawl out the back seat. I assured her they traveled safely there.

Playing TerraPan @ Nini's Memorial
The second visit happened in a Columbus, Georgia, ICU following Nini's first stroke. My mother (Nini's daughter) and I were allowed back together with no other guests. I had brought a TerraPan with me, but my mother insisted I leave it in my car because she feared it would create a stir with the staff and upset her father and brother. I obliged and focused instead on a drawing my daughter made of herself and Nini standing on opposite sides of a rainbow bridge. I also brought a stack of photographs. Most of the time my mother and I were present at Nini's bedside, Nini slept and snored just the same as she had on long trips back from Florida. Fortunately, she woke before my departure. She couldn't speak or focus well, but it was clear she knew I was present. I put my hand on her shoulder and tried to say only what felt most important to me:

I love you. I see the parts of your story which you could not fulfill. I thank you for giving me the chance to nurture those in my own way. I live with immense gratitude for you, for my parents, for my friends and for my children. You have influenced how I treat all of them, and everything is exactly as it needs to be. I will always remember you and will greet you with joy should our souls meet beyond death.

My mother and I formed a circle with her then and meditated on the colors of the rainbow, washing through each of us, affirming our bond, giving us courage despite our fear. Leaving that day, I felt I would see Nini one more time.

Will & I @ Nini's Hospice
After my son's 7th birthday and the solar eclipse this past August, Nini had a second stroke and moved to hospice. My mother and I drove to see her there, and my cousin had again come down from Virginia. This time, Nini was deeply asleep and could not speak. I touched her and attempted to connect with her thoughts. All I saw was hummingbirds. It reminded me of an experience I had once during an indigenous ceremony when I felt myself die and then be reborn. In that meditation, I was carried back from the depths of myself to my waking life on the wind of hummingbird wings, which beat around me and whispered deep truths about my choices, triumphs and fears. This August, I felt Nini readying herself for the hummingbirds to take her far beyond the proverbial veil. I felt her tell me only to go get my instrument and play.

Again, my mother feared this would create a disturbance. However, I walked calmly past her and sat down outside my grandmother's room in the sun. My grandfather and uncle sat in rocking chairs guarding her door, and I said I was going to play for them. When I finished, they made the request that I play for Nini. So, I did. Her breathing seemed to calm, and the music set a peaceful tone for the gathering of me, my mother, my cousin, his father and our grandfather as we embraced and connected with the few other guests who came in that day—my great aunt Meg, always regarded as being particularly smart and strange, and my grandmother's baby sister Patsy, the organizer of big holiday gatherings from years past. When I left that day, I felt it would be the last time I saw Nini. I touched her tenderly and said goodbye. My mother drove me back to my town, and we waited in the park for my children to greet us there. They came running toward us drenched in the special sunbeams which fall at dusk from the north Georgia sky.

Nini & Grandaddy's Visit After My Son's Birth
Nini's body is ashes now. My grandfather eschewed the burial ceremonies he'd long championed and instead made a small altar for quiet reflection within his home. Meanwhile, my mother and I planned a memorial within her home for me, my parents, my children, my husband and one dear friend to attend. With my father's help, we cleared a garden area near the sun room and placed a bird bath there. We dedicated it to Nini and hung a print of a hummingbird on the wall inside. I shared a eulogy and played my TerraPan. Afterward, we scattered seeds and seashells around the bird bath in the drizzling summer rain—a group of soulmates mourning and moving on.

I still struggle to tell all my family how much I love them. Nini's death also helps remind me this might not matter that much. As much as I love words, they have always created as many barriers as bridges.

A month after her death, my mom and I traveled to Nini's house to help my grandfather sort through her things. He told us then her last moments there had been in the kitchen, sitting as she had with me last winter. She had been looking out the window, watching hummingbirds.

In Nini's honor, I would like to share the eulogy I composed here:

Painting a Birdhouse @ Nini's Memorial
Laura Alice Allen Yarbrough, affectionately known as Nini, spent 81 years alive on this earth. The time I remember her best was here in Rome, Georgia, taking me on after school adventures, falling asleep (against my orders) during movies, giving tours of the plants in her yard and making sure that everyone had enough to eat. She had a bold sense of humor and a level of social and academic intelligence which surpassed the norms of her time, especially for women.

Her final years of life centered on the challenge to take ownership of her own healthcare. In may ways, she succeeded in this. Nonetheless, her body still had its final say, and she gracefully released her soul to become part of whatever exists outside our human perception on August 24, 2017. While this process always comes with some level of sadness and regret, it also comes with joy and gratitude. All life is a fleeting part of a much greater whole, and death the natural culmination of life.

In addition to whatever cosmic form her energy now takes, Nini's spirit will continue to live through everyone she has ever touched. Together now, we carry forward her story with a focus on gentleness, transition, change, hope and love.

We light a candle for these things now and draw their energy into this garden grove to be dedicated in her honor September 5, 2017.

Thank you for acknowledging these stories.

Me, my mother & my children--returning from our final visit with Nini.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A NORML Mom Celebrates! #DecrimATL, #FeeltheBern, #MaytheFortBeWithYou, #KillerMike

A Mighty Step Forward
Killer Mike likes my shirt! Read to the end for details.

In the midst of a culture riddled with violence, natural disasters, economic uncertainty and threats to our civil rights, small steps continue to move us forward. Tonight, I'm celebrating the good news: Atlanta, Georgia, just passed a city ordinance to decriminalize cannabis! It is official: Possessing up to one ounce of marijuana in the city of Atlanta no longer guarantees a criminal record. Rather, it can be resolved with a simple citation and $75 USD fine.

While law enforcement officers will have leeway in choosing whether to honor the new ordinance or the harsher penalties called for by Georgia state law, today's vote shows major progress. It at least allows people a chance of escaping the dead-end downward spiral which an arrest record can cause. It also sends the message that, while cannabis use isn't for everyone, it isn't a crime either.

Legalization is the next step. I have total admiration for all my friends within Peachtree NORML who have worked relentlessly to insure that people keep talking--among themselves, with their local government officials, at their places of work, at their places of worship, in the media, and via their personal art and activism--about the benefits of cannabis and the need to reform the laws surrounding its use. Georgia Care Project also deserves tremendous credit for bringing change to Atlanta.

The same is true for the government officials who support our work as activists. This past Saturday  I witnessed Senator Vincent Fort give voice to his promise to legalize cannabis in Atlanta should he win his current campaign to become mayor. Fort, backed by none other than Senator Bernie Sanders and Atlanta's own hip-hop activist Killer Mike, explained that legalization is a significant human rights issue. I learned Saturday that Atlanta tops national charts for limited class mobility. I also learned a leading reason for this is the crippling series of events which often follow an arrest for possession of marijuana.

Unintentional Complacency

Unfortunately, one thing I've encountered in my activism is a stunning lack of enthusiasm for legalization as a social justice issue. If policies do not impact people directly, in ways they immediately feel, many become dismissive. For them, the systemic racism inherent to the drug war does not matter if they are not a person of color themselves. Likewise, the threat of arrest for marijuana doesn't hit home if they either abstain or have lived successfully under the radar for many years.

The same principles apply to other issues facing Atlanta right now as well--specifically the loss of homes to imminent domain, the fight for a living wage and public education reform at both the K-12 and university level. The urgent need for solutions is lost on those who have never lived in a threatened zone, never struggled to meet their basic needs, never sought learning alternatives for their children, or never graduated with advanced degrees and no employment in sight.

In my opinion, the passage of today's decriminalization ordinance can galvanize people to wake from  unintentional complacency. This is thanks to its potential to eliminate some deeply held stigmas. For example, unconscious racism, passed down through generations, will abate when fewer people of color are arrested over time. Likewise, I feel derogatory attitudes toward drug use will abate when adults openly demonstrate responsible use of marijuana.

Most importantly, people who have intentionally placed themselves within boxes because they wish to be "law-abiding" will feel more empowered to take ownership of their health and to fulfill their desires for the peace of mind and physical pleasure which cannabis use can bring. Signaling that use isn't inherently criminal affords people greater safety stepping outside their self-imposed comfort zones and literally experiencing new ways of perceiving reality.

My Grandmother's Boots

Thanks to my maternal grandmother, Laura "Nini" Yarbrough, I've had a unique opportunity for experiencing life in another person's shoes. This is because Nini died August 24 and left me the legacy of her wardrobe. My favorite item is a pair of high-heeled burgundy boots.

Nini always showed tremendous intelligence and a level of social awareness which transcended the norms of her time, especially in rural Alabama where she came of age. She always "got" my poetry and was proud I attended the Women's March on Washington. Nonetheless, she made peace with a homemaker's life and dedicated much of her personal energy to challenging healthcare providers whom she ultimately discovered had done her as much harm as good.

One of the last times I saw Nini, I thanked her for the story she passed on to me, and I pledged to continue carrying her energy out into the world. I take great pleasure in knowing that I am bringing her spirit into spaces where I feel she would never have stepped, yet nonetheless inspired me to go.

So far, my favorite of these places has been a photo opp with Killer Mike after the rally I attended Saturday. While Bernie Sanders and Vincent Fort made a respectful but swift exit, Killer Mike remained longer to take pictures with fans and to chat with the media. I find it fitting that, of the three, he is the artist, the one who shares his cause not so much by speaking about it as by allowing us to feel it--through his music mostly, as well as through the experience of knowing him, albeit fleetingly. Very patiently, he took time to calmly connect with each person gathered around him. He looked at, not past, each of us and found something positive and unique to say. Based on our energy, he gave hugs and high fives, extended invitations to come see him in his barber shop and to keep in touch. When people asked him to back their causes, he kindly asked to see some information first, establishing a boundary with grace.

 When it came to me, he said he liked my shirt. I was in "NORML Mom mode," showing up in support of the decriminalization measure which passed today.

From a Moment to a Movement

After the rally
It strikes me that Killer Mike's celebrity both protects him and leaves him vulnerably exposed. Thus, there is courage in his kindness. As I've described, he also handles himself with a striking amount of humor, humility and honor--for his own positions and for the humanity we share.

Speaking to the public, Killer Mike directed us to transform moments of inspiration into a movement supporting a greater cause, and I feel this greater cause centers on the ability to recognize and embrace our inherent and shared humanity. Doing this will allow us to begin re-shaping some of our driving cultural stories so that we can better address major challenges of our time--from climate change, to police brutality, to affordable housing, to minimum wage, to healthcare, to education reform, to nuclear war, to religious oppression, to freedom of expression, to a transition from capitalism to whatever comes next.

By encouraging freedom of expression and action, decriminalizing marijuana allows us to be just a little bit more in touch with our inherent humanity, and this is one of the reasons why it excites me so much.

To help Atlanta take their latest victory forward into a greater movement, please consider joining Peachtree NORML or the Georgia Care Project in their efforts to move from decriminalization to legalization. Also, if you have the opportunity to vote for Vincent Fort, please do! I know campaign volunteers will remain welcome from now until the election as well. To explore Fort's platform and access details about election day and volunteering, please visit

Finally, I thank you for reading this column and ask always that you allow this post to be a seed. Share it, and watch it grow!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Support, Empathy & Truth: On Borderline Personality Disorder, Fascism & Antifa

My husband says goodbye prior to a rally
I have started and re-started a detailed post about my view of antifa, a loosely organized and widespread group of antifascist anarchists. As I describe in my previous post, I have marched alongside antifa. I have found them at that event, and others following, to be a far cry from dangerous to the general public. In fact, my experience is that people identifying as antifa take specific measures to keep people safe and that this is done in accordance with their principles, not as a publicity stunt.

With this in mind, I've found much of the conventional, social and fringe media's coverage of antifa troubling. I agree with assertions that antifa's willingness to use violence, alongside its broad parameters for identifying a potential fascist threat and its emphasis on protest over policies are inherently problematic. However, I disagree heavily with the way much of contemporary media has placed more attention on criticizing antifa's methods than on understanding their motivation. In my opinion, it is both counter-productive and dangerous to marginalize and/or condemn antifa's efforts in this way. This insight takes root in my personal observation that both sides of the fascists/antifa struggle exhibit signs of borderline personality disorder, which I have come to intimately understand via both academic study and my direct experience living with, loving and working alongside borderline people.

Borderline personality disorder happens when children who are born with sensory processing and integration differences (either mild or severe) grow up within a home which invalidates their life experience either through benign but consistent neglect or through deliberate, consistent physical and/or verbal abuse. Within relatively healthy environments, sensory processing and integration differences look like anything from learning disabilities, to ADD/ADHD, to OCD, to anxiety, to depression, to autism—all of which require their own level of understanding and care. However, within neglectful or abusive environments, children with sensory processing and integration differences also become hard-wired to be borderline—which is clinically characterized by extreme emotional responses, intense fear of abandonment, self harm, a tendency toward black or white thinking (which leads in turn to the intense idealization or demonization of people or groups), and periods of intense disassociation from reality.

Once wired to be borderline, there is not a chemical fix to the imbalance. The brain has to be re-wired, and the process takes dedication and time either from unusually committed therapists, unusually committed family members, or both. In order for the re-wiring to occur, borderline people have to fully express their truths to the extent that THEY FEEL heard. This often means that they are permitted to absolutely unleash waves of intense verbal rage, condemnation and manipulative rhetoric onto the people around them until they feel their point is made. Then, they must be met with support, empathy and a firm but gently issued statement of truth which recognizes any realistic core of what they've unleashed as well as everything which was grossly out of touch. This must be repeated over time with understanding and persistence. In response, borderline people eventually re-wire themselves and become healthy people who firmly break some seriously destructive family cycles.

A commitment to healing is not singular. It requires intense collaboration, persistence and understanding both on part of the borderline himself/herself, on the family members and on the therapists who all must be extraordinarily grounded in their sense of self so as not to suffer their own severe breakdowns in the face of the borderline's emotional outbursts. Statistically, most people walk away from borderlines for their own self preservation. Often, they walk away condemning the borderline, preaching that they could have done more had the borderline simply been able to “suck it up, take responsibility for his/her life and stop spewing abuse and playing the victim.” That line (suck it up, take responsibility, stop playing the victim) can be good for a borderline person to hear if it is said in an atmosphere which continues to offer actual support. However, I rarely hear it issued under those circumstances. It isn't “good old fashioned tough love and telling it like it is” as many moderate and popular conservative thought leaders seem to spin it. It is a self-protective measure which perpetuates an unpopular pathology currently pervasive in America and showing itself in the current fascists/antifa extremes.

What I think the response to antifa should be is public support, empathy and truth—in that order. That is an important step along the path to healing a culture of abuse, which strikes me as a core issue right now. Transcending humanity's violent tendencies does not heal their source. Participating with and/or encouraging antifa certainly doesn't either when that is all a person does. However, it does play an important role, and I feel it should be viewed as such.

In context, I feel antifa comes at the beginning of our culture's healing process. It represents the crash and catharsis which ultimately empowers the public to fight diplomatically for lasting change. It also allows people more aligned with fascism an opportunity to see their aggression reflected and to re-consider their own views. In my opinion, people who fall far on the side of fascism are those whose response to abuse has been to consciously perpetuate it. After spending formative years consistently condemned for being OTHER, legitimizing the abuse and claiming it as one's own returns a sense of purpose to the former victims' lives. Meanwhile, antifa strike me more as people who have realized there is nothing innately wrong or unnatural about being OTHER. For them, their life experience is validated by confronting their abusers head on.

The support I'm calling for from the public would ideally be directed toward each side. It would need to recognize that the fascist side legitimately feels as though it has been abandoned by a culture which has relatively steadily evolved to meet increasing needs of women, people of color and other former minority groups at the same time that financial crisis has meant a dramatic reduction in income and available jobs. It would also need to recognize that the antifa side legitimately feels as though it has been abandoned by a small but powerful sector of society which will do anything it can to blot out the existence of everyone with a different ideology than it. Empathizing with each side would mean recognizing that each is authentically afraid and has the best interests of humanity, as each side perceives it to be, at heart. Empathy also means avoiding the aforementioned and seemingly all to common pitfall of invalidating each side by acting as though their struggles are not real, can be remedied by some hardcore self-work, or should be met only with gratitude that circumstances are not worse.

With that in mind, I want to close with some truths which feel central to this struggle and stand out most to me right now. Some are verifiable, measurable objective facts. Others are observational and more personal in nature. I recognize the difference between the two and feel it's important for me right now to share both:

  • Cultures have enslaved and abused each other throughout the whole of human history. However, everyone's ability to claim this heritage does not exempt us from taking responsibility for our present acts of oppression.
  • While the United States of America does offer extensive opportunities to people of all backgrounds, it also breaks records for imprisoning its population, and the severity of consequences for the same crimes varies widely across racial, gender and class lines, with a heavy bias against lower class women of color.
  • It is the privilege and duty on American citizens to vote to change laws which do not reflect justice, and there are several reputable studies on the drug war which demonstrate that it is extremely unjust.
  • The United States and other global super powers wage wars purported to fight terrorism which focus more on the security of territories and the natural resources they contain, which in turn are exploited to the detriment of people and the planet.
  • Militarized police forces often escalate circumstances to points of violence which lead to divisiveness and erode trust.
  • Dogmatic teachings which have repressed the rights of women, people of color and a wide variety of non-conforming individuals are eroding despite opposition to change. As this happens and new social norms are established, there are a variety of approaches our society can take which have unique consequences.
  • How we express ourselves – be it in the form of active protest, petitions, spending choices, journalism, or the creative arts is very important to both revealing and shaping the direction of our culture. By all means, we must use our voices. We also must remain aware that how and when we express ourselves makes a statement of its own and always merits a response of some sort.
  • Our economy, education system, health care system and justice system have changed in response to a number of global factors, and there are multiple directions these can take in the future which all bear attention right now. Generation X, Xennials and Millenials are not simply re-waging their parents cultural wars but rather making unique contributions to human history.
  • Making uniform assumptions about ANY group holds inherent danger. Being overly cautious of what one says can also cripple our self expression. Fortunately, humans are capable of expressing a wide variety of views and objectively analyzing these to form more balanced perspectives over time.
  • We are all going to be drawn to different aspects of the cultural revolution unfolding around us. We will accomplish more from recognizing and respecting this than from fighting it. We owe it to ourselves to do our individual parts well and to allow others room to do the same.

As that last point is concerned, writing this essay has been one of my parts. I appreciate the people who have inspired me through their unique brand of opposition and support. Additionally, an excellent resource for understanding borderline personality disorder is the book I Hate You, Don't Leave Me, linked here. Detailed information on the war on drugs and incarceration rates in the USA can be found here and here on sites for the Drug Policy Alliance and the Center for Prison Reform. 

As I wrote after reviewing a Drug Policy Alliance conference in April, I still believe love wins in the end. However, love itself, in my opinion, defies easy definitions and requires its own dedication to understanding and perseverance over time as it leads us all, not above and beyond our pain, but rather through it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Re-Dreaming America (Thoughts on Charlottesville & Atlanta Anti-Fascist Rally)

My Children & I at Sunday's Rally
There is a lot happening in America right now. I think this is true on any given day. However, it feels increasingly like we are taking solid steps to create a significant cultural shift. We are revisiting ideals of civil rights explored and exploded in the sixties in a way which has the potential to create solid and lasting change. This is not to say that changes of the sixties were not solid. Yet, I grew up in 80s and 90s America with the distinct feeling that, as soon as we'd ended overt segregation, welcomed women in the work force, allowed evolution into science classes and cleared the path for divorce and abortion, people with a mind to fight for human rights kind of leaned back on their laurels and coasted through a psychedelic revolution, which ended in either destructive chaos or complacent retreat into the comfort of the American Dream, which looked a lot like having 2 children, stable employment, a picket fence and a dog. The common refrain through all this seemed to be something like: Embrace your uniqueness and live your dreams as long as they do not upset the status quo in any major way. Everyone is entitled to a good life, but nothing is perfect. Make the most of the America you have. It's better than it used to be! Work hard enough, and anyone can go far.

Around the time my generation of Xennials graduated from high school, the twin towers fell, and our adult lives took root in a time of war. We learned through direct experience that employment and benefits are not guaranteed for any of us by virtue of skill, social status, determination or education. It feels like this has meant clinging more tightly to how we self-identify apart from our professional titles. At best, this means taking time to explore our individual authentic selves and to flourish in creative endeavors unique to us. At worst, this means clinging so tightly to cultural identifiers—like race and religion—that we become a violent force stopping at literally nothing to exert the power of our identity at the absolute expense of all others.

My Rally Cry
A limited number of extremist views can exist within, and contribute to, the balance of a healthy society. However, when an extremist position moves into the mainstream, balance becomes offset in critical ways which deeply endanger the existence of any group. In my opinion ,American culture has been normalizing extremes long enough that it is now in critical condition and showing symptoms.

Donald Trump's presidency is a symptom.

Police brutality is a symptom.

The recent violence within Virginia is a symptom.

In particular, the death and injuries left in the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, represent both the prevalence of racism and of the propensity to de-humanize anyone who holds a different world view. Specifically, I'm talking here about the white domestic terrorist's ability to de-humanize the people he deliberately struck with his vehicle when he drove into a crowd of people who disagreed with his assertions of white supremacy and radical nationalism.

Meanwhile, I also recognize that white supremacists, radical nationalists and neo-Nazis of all stripes can make the claim that they too are being dehumanized by Antifa and others who explicitly condemn their actions. To this I say, white supremacists are not being de-humanized when they are being held accountable. Accountability can look many different ways. Personally, I disagree with those who say accountability is eye-for-an-eye condemnation. However, I also disagree with those who say accountability looks like prayerful peace. And, if I have come down squarely on one side or another, I'll stand with the Antifa crowd before I'll stand against it.

My Husband & Daughter
Accountability requires direct action: Sometimes that is marching in solidarity with others against violence, shouting with the beat of a drum that you do not accept what supremacy has done and that you are not afraid. Sometimes accountability looks like hacking a website and exposing the personal details of closeted supremacists. Sometimes accountability looks like removing or re-purposing artwork and monuments designed to celebrate historical victories which have come to look a lot like fascism.

Accountability can be as simple as signing petitions and labeling white supremacists as domestic terrorists when you speak about their actions. It can also be as complicated as dismantling and re-assembling the very systems at the bedrock of society which have allowed covert forms of extremist ideology to become the status quo. One of these systems is the prison-industrial complex. Connected to that, is the war on drugs. Revolution in these areas will do a lot to end racial profiling, modern day slavery and the stereotypes which accompany these practices now. Another system in need of changing is that which allows politicians to buy their power and to bow without consequence to industries, like oil, which threaten the survival of our species by ravaging our land.

Linked to these systems needing change are abstract concepts connecting the mind, body and spirit of society as a whole. Specifically, our view toward religion, science, art, philosophy, education, gender, race, relationships, work, money, neurological divergence (including mental illness), drugs, morality, healthcare, technology, capitalism, heritage and identity itself are due for an upgrade, so to speak. We use these ideas to create stories which communicate the shared values and goals of our culture, and many of the current stories have devolved (or are presently devolving) into dogma, which harms all of us by enforcing stigma rather than honoring our inherent humanity and all its unknowns.

Contributing directly to dismantling destructive human systems while shifting cultural norms to reflect and contextualize this restructuring is a goal of my personal activism. I write and teach to educate, introduce new ideas and spark discussion bringing about actual change. Sometimes, I also boycott, sign petitions, make calls and march. Sometimes I do this alone. Other times, I include my children. To a degree, I feel their long-term well-being relies on exposing them to current social issues, showing them firsthand the circumstances their generation will have to collaborate with my generation to change. I also want them to see that, when something happens to directly counter my personal morality and threaten what it means to exist within a country I do love despite its glaring faults, I take direct action to voice my dissent and to draw awareness to the need for change—even if imperfectly.

To this end, my family participated as a group in one of Atlanta, Georgia's, recent rallies against racism. It began before sunset at Woodruff Park on Sunday, August 13. Activists gathered on a pavilion, behind a memorial to the victims of the Charlottesville violence, and spoke about the need to combat hate with more than love alone. There was an open mic to the public, and my 9-year-old daughter spoke. Her focus was, arguably, the importance of love across race lines, yet the crowd did accept her warmly despite some differences in rhetoric. I felt very proud as a mother that she was brave enough to share her voice. For me, showing up at the rally was equivalent to what I wrote on her poster (pictured to the right): Our presence there meant we stand with C'ville, which in turn means we support a better way for all people to exist together. It is, in my opinion, not a time to defend or destroy our collective history but rather to acknowledge, as objectively as possible, who we have been, while creating new stories about who we are and will become.

After the rally, the crowd departed Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta with signs and flags held high, marching to the beat of drums. We shouted chants—against Trump, against supremacy, against hate, for democracy and the power of the people. My 6-year-old alternated between walking himself, resting in my arms and riding atop my husband's shoulders. My 9-year-old walked boldly forward the whole way, her poster in her hands, but felt exhausted by the time we reached the destination at Piedmont Park. There, the crowd gathered around a statue, representing peace at the end of the Civil War, which the march's leaders adorned with chains and some streaks of red paint. It seemed the intention may have been to pull the statue down; however, a piece fell off injuring two demonstrators. A few marchers, my husband included, circled around the monument and the injured leaders, as one lone police officer joined the scene and announced quietly that no arrests would be made provided that the statue remain standing. The statue stood. No arrests were made. The crowd dispersed.

Talking to the Press, Outside Piedmont Park
By the time the vandalism had started, I had already walked my children to the sidelines of the event. Marching itself had felt empowering and focused in a way I hadn't experienced even at the Women's March on Washington, DC, but the energy upon arriving within Piedmont Park felt different than the energy on the journey there. I commend Atlanta as a city for the total lack of violence Sunday. I also commend the demonstrators for knowing when to evaluate the circumstances, make a sound judgment call and stand down. However, it does strike me as a bit bizarre that the targeted monument was one representing peace.

After much consideration, I feel the value of vandalizing that specific monument was to show that the peace and progress brought about by the end of the Civil War has been an illusion. In this case, the chains and red paint symbolize the pain, bloodshed and institutionalized prison-based slavery which continues in the present day and will no longer be complacently accepted. This is an important message, to be certain. It also symbolizes the willingness of the Antifa and its supporters to fight, if necessary, for the freedom of all groups oppressed by a society which continues to normalize extreme prejudice. Perhaps these metaphors could have been better expressed via some radical performance art or via the creation of an entirely new structure giving voice directly to our contemporary concerns. However, those projects may be better realized somewhere along the horizon. Change has to start somewhere, and I feel the positive impact of what we asserted on Sunday in Atlanta exceeds the negative. I'm honored to have been there.

As the future unfolds with more supremacist rallies and counter protests to come, I know I will attend some anti-fascist demonstrations and sit out others. However, I'm undeniably struck by the importance of art to the rising revolution. What we all create and boldly share has value now. Thank you for reading my stories. In the video below, my daughter and I speak.