This post is to announce that I am returning to leadership within Unitarian Universalism. Many years ago I chaired the racial justice committee. That committee promoted diversity, organized a Kwanzaa event, organized a drum circle and tried to change the church culture. Unfortunately, the committee seemed to attract the same core group of people. I underwent a personal transformation that led to a divorce, and the development of a whole new career as a certified peer specialist. There were years in which I was barely active.
The committee was dissolved but in recent years new people have entered the church with a different set of ideas. One person in particular Mary Devitt has been a catalyst under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Mary has involved the First Unitarians in several events, most recently organizing a showing of a film about the 53206 neighborhood, which focused on the impact of mass incarceration on the low income community. She was also in the campaigns to change police practices after the killings of black men by police in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. Her most recent accomplishment was a workshop on racial justice at Alverno College that featured Chris Crass, a speaker from Kentucky. Over 350 people attended the event which was organized with a remarkable coalition.
Mary has been a sort of one woman committee within the church which lead to her being given a designation as a change agent. At the same time Mary recognized that it was problematic for her to be in charge of black lives matter. She has what she calls her “cabal” that she can pull together on an ad hoc basis to achieve goals. However, that could easily lead to burn out. So we began a conversation this week about my leading a transformation of the black lives matter cabal into a committee to carry on the things she has started.
I have agreed to take this on at a time of turmoil within the Unitarian Universalist movement. There is more happening every day and it demands that someone from Milwaukee help give direction. The UU is a place where I feel comfortable sometimes. When my allies aren’t present and people ask me, where have I been, I feel like becoming invisible. That needs to change. A lot needs to change. Let the drum speak.
I have been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee since the 1990s. Like many people, I was drawn to the many progressive things that the church members did. They were affirming the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry and have children. They supported the right of women to control their own bodies and led a clinic protection coalition when right wing anti abortionists threatened to close down clinics. They marched against American interventions in the affairs of other nations. And I was also drawn to what the Unitarian Universalists did not have, which was a religious creed. No one was forced to believe in the existence of god, which I never have. I have never read more than a few pages of the bible and don’t believe in any form of supreme being.
I also joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation a few years ago because I found that public officials routinely brought their religious views into the lives as mayors, senators and other forms of elected office. They violated the separation of church and state. In that way I felt that they violated my rights.. I am excited when I read of ordinary heroism done not in the praise of some being I consider imaginary. I am able to nourish my friendships and work on doing good for its own sake. I am part of a struggle to help transform the Unitarians from a largely white middle class denomination to a one which welcomes people of color and affirms that my life as an African-American matters. I want to know that these are people who will have my back. That is what I believe.
I just finished reading a pamphlet about the difficulties faced by people on probation or parole who are re-incarcerated without committing any new offense. This is a serious problem in Wisconsin. There are thousands of people behind bars who don’t belong there. Wisconsin is known for many negative statistics concerning African American men and these are especially glaring when it comes to criminal justice. Black men are over represented in the prison system as inmates both for people who committed crime and for those who whose probation was revoked.
We are the poster child for the problem of mass incarceration. Instead of seeking alternatives to incarceration we have a system which rewards probation and parole officers who use technical violations as excuses to send people back to prison. We have people who went back to school and began earning college credits winding up in prison. We have a system which does not offer due process, and offers incentives for people to make false accusations to send their former friends or spouses back to prison. There are bout 3,000 people sent to our state prisons every year because of “revocations” and I would bet that the vast majority are black or brown. We also have the problem of Truth of In Sentencing a horrendous law that was passed several years ago in fit of “tough on crime” which ended ended probation and parole for new people who are being convicted of crimes. Truth in Sentencing is applied to 11 crimes that apply to the majority of prison inmates. When you examine charts you find a tremendous increase in the number of inmates Wisconsin due almost entirely to truth in sentencing. which increases the length of prison sentences.
These issues need to be discussed to look at the cost to society, the failure to reward people who are truly attempting to turn their lives around and the stress that it puts on people who are caught up in the system and whose technical violations could be resolved in alternative means.
I recommend becoming involved in groups like WISDOM a statewide network with EXPO an organization of former prisoners who have direct experience. You can call 414-831-2070 to find out how you can help.
I just listened to a story on This American Life about Alan Pean, a young African-American man who experienced a severe psychiatric breakdown while living in Houston, Texas. Alan was a college student who had previously survived a couple of episodes of manic depressive disorder. Alan came from a high achieving family with doctors including his father.
Alan found that his mind was overpowered by a delusion that caused him to jump off the balcony of his third story apartment, make his way to his car and crash through the gates. He drove toward St. Joseph Hospital, a major medical facility in downtown Houston. He crashed and totaled his car into the hospital and somehow told the emergency room staff he was having a manic episode. But he was never treated for his mental disorder. His father who is of Haitian descent arrived a few hours later and also told the staff that his son was having mental problems and yet Alan was still not evaluated by a psychiatrist.
His father left to try to arrange getting Alan help for his mental illness and shortly afterwards the staff had trouble with Alan and called for security. This turned out to be Houston police with guns who were not trained in dealing with psychiatric patients. Alan was tasered, then shot and almost killed and later charged with assault. Although the charges were later dropped there is a disturbing pattern of mental patients being shot or tasered by police who have little or no training in dealing with them.
There is a New York Times article about the incident involving Alan Pean. People need to be aware of these kinds of incidents and understand that psychiatric patients need help, not bullets. They need people trained to deescalate and force is the last thing you would ever want to use to help someone recover his or her mind.
This story raises other questions, such as what if Alan and his father had been white? Would the outcome be different? Would the hospital staff you turn to for help be able to recognize that when a white person says he needs mental help, they would hear the person and attempt to provide help? What prevents them from hearing the same statements from people of color? What information is available about the hospital you use and their policy about the use of force? How equipped are they to handle people with a mental illness? Is the person the staff calls for help going to be an armed police officer? And finally, what safe alternatives are there to hospitals for people with mental illness and how widely known are these alternatives?
Despite the fact I am mostly introverted, I do have my moments of fun in the community. I usually find some money for a gym membership. I have belonged to the Jewish Community Center, several branches of the YMCA, Bally’s and now the latest is Planet Fitness ever since they opened a branch near our office. I have been dissatisfied with the rather worn down Bally’s that I have belonged to for more than a year. The Bally’s was taken over by Blast which promised to invest money into the business. Thy have done nothing to the equipment, the locker rooms or anything else. Their only advantage has been convenience, they are not far from our house.
Recently I learned they had closed one of their branches and the one I have been going to may be next on the list. Now I have a reason to tell them goodbye. Well I signed up to Planet Fitness yesterday and the results have been impressive. I spent time in an exercise chair and an exercise bed. Those were very relaxing. I also got stuck in something called a body enhancer which demonstrated the difference between my girl friend and me. She would not step inside a gym but in the things she does, she thoroughly reads the instructions before doing anything.
Me I figure I don’t need no stinkin instructions. Which was how I ended up stuck inside the terrifying, not body enhancing machine for 10 minutes. I almost thought of yelling for help but I figured there were probably simple instructions on how t escape printed somewhere. Well, it’s all good, I got out without breaking the enhancer. It turned out the massage chair was more my style, anyway.
I have been watching videos of a remarkable church in Washington DC the All Souls Unitarian. It is an intentionally multi ethnic multi cultural church that rocks. All Souls is a historic church that has been in forefront of struggles for civil rights. It has a staff that is a mosaic and the services, as far as I can see, are often lively. It is a welcoming place to be and I would hope that other churches would take a lesson. I have posted many of their you tube videos on my facebook page. This is the first time I have ever posted something like this about attending church!
Tonight I attended a screening of the 53206 movie at the First Unitarian Society. The movie showed the impact of the mass incarceration of African Americans focusing on a few families in this impoverished zip code. The zip code has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country. I remember years ago being at a sign of hope in the community, a business incubator that was intended to help small business formation by African Americans. The businesses are long gone and what remains is the empty building.
The 53206 movie was shown at a Unitarian church in downtown Milwaukee to a packed crowd many of whom I did not know. There was an organizer from the 53206 project and talk about the lives being wasted and the depiction of a family hoping and waiting for their father figue and husband to return. He was denied parole, which is the most common result of parole hearings in Wisconsin. The governor plans to cut the parole department staffing even more.
The situation is complicated by the fact Wisconsin passed a truth in sentencing law in the late 1990s mandating that prisoners serve the full term of their prison sentences. But there are thousands like the man in the movie who are eligible for parole like the man in the movie but find the door slammed shut time and again. There is a lot of discretion still in the system and there are alternatives to long prison sentences but the fact we are not using them means that people are making money keeping things just the way they are. Who will have the courage to speak up? We signed cards tonight asking for changes but this is a long term project.