When is enough enough?

Turquoise and lemon, lilac and orange, rose and gold. From across the room, the pretty painted circles and shimmery ribbons bejeweled with rhinestones look sweet.

part of Melanie Bethke’s When is Enough installation

I walk closer, checking out Melanie Bethke’s vibrant art. Then I spot the shell casings. Dozens and dozens of dull brass spent shells strewn on the carpet, sprawled amid the dainty ribbons. Each casing once held a bullet. Each colorful circle holds a name and age. Benjamin Wheeler 6 yrs. Angel Luis Candelario Pedro 28 yrs. G.V. Loganathan 51 yrs. Steve Berger 44 yrs.  Alyssa Alhadeff 15 yrs.

The artwork’s  Sensible Gun Reform banner reads like a timeline of pain: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (SC) 6-17-2015, Inland Regional Center (CA) 12-2-2015, Pulse (FL) 6-12-2016, Harvest Music Festival (NV) 10-1-2017, First Baptist Church (TX) 11-5-2017, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 2-14-2018.

Bethke’s pretty and pointed installation is on exhibit at East Side Freedom Library through October 17th, along with other political art.

Nikki McComb has been using art as a catalyst for change for almost two decades. Her black and white photos challenge viewers to think about other people’s pain. By a chain link fence puffy with Mylar balloons, stand a somber man and child. The man holds a sign, DANA WAS MY WIFE. Another photo shows four children, elementary school aged. No smiles. Each child wears a T-shirt with a big red X over a gun. Two girls hold a sign, LET ME LIVE

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Nikki McComb photograph

The messages in this political art show are straightforward, not subtle. When it comes to gun violence, there’s no point in being coy. As Bethke’s colorful installation proclaims, When is enough enough? NOW

Panel Discussion on Gun Violence and the Possibilities of Reform, Monday, October 15, 2018, 7:00 – 8:30 PM, East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul 55106 651-230-32946 Free and open to all.


Men in power; women will rise

Once again, the Senate is choosing to ignore a credible woman and reward an angry man.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford quietly told her painful truth, just as Anita Hill had twenty-seven years earlier. And just as Clarence Thomas lashed out in fury, so too did Brett Kavanaugh. The Senate, then and now, shrugged its shoulders, and let the bullying men have their way.

It’s likely that by Saturday, two of the six male justices on our country’s highest court will have faced credible accusations of sex harassment or assault. How supreme is that?

The Senate is siding with Kavanaugh to cement Republican judicial power for decades. This morning’s vote to move Kavanaugh one step closer to his dream job is the Senate’s way of telling women we don’t matter. It doesn’t matter if a man tries to rape us. It doesn’t matter if a man exposes himself to us. It doesn’t matter if a man lies to Congress. He matters. We don’t.

But women will remember.

Next month, we will remember this craven Senate when we vote in the midterms. Two years from now, we will remember this shoddy Senate and the wretched president who mocked Dr. Ford when we vote in the presidential election. The 2020 election will mark the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. The vote is our voice. Men in power, in the Senate and in the White House, have chosen to ignore our voices now. Kavanaugh’s victory will be Pyrrhic.

The men who hold power now, the men try to mute and mock women’s voices, they will hear our vote.

And women will rise.

Always Another Country

What does it mean to be from a place?  Always Another Country, Sisonke Msimang’s memoir of exile and home tells the story of a “little girl who cried every time it was time to leave for another country.”

The daughter of a guerilla fighter forced to flee his native South Africa and a Swazi mother, Msimang grew up in Zambia, Kenya and Canada before coming to the U.S. to attend Macalester College. It’s not until after graduation that Msimang moves to her ‘home’ country, South Africa, where she realizes “that I look like I belong but I don’t.”

Throughout her childhood, Msimang longed for stability. It’s a coming of age story of someone trying to figure her place in the world. As she and family moved, Msimong observes life as an outsider, with clear-eyed insights.

Living in Canada, she saved money to buy a bike, so she could fit in with girls who snubbed her. When her family moved back to Kenya, a young boy stole Sisonke’s prized bike. Bystanders force thief to return the bike and apologize. At age 14, Sisonke had perspective to understand why the thief looked at her with disgust: She was rich enough to have a bike while he barely had food.

When she first arrived in Minnesota, she saw a man masturbating in his car and then another  man stalked her. She realized, “America is just like Kenya which is just like Canada which is just like Zambia which means there is nowhere in the world any of us can go to be safe… because when you are a girl, Trouble is always just around the corner…”

At Macalester, Msimang reveled in political action with her Sistahs ‘n’ Struggle poetry troupe, who believed that “with the guiding spirits of Steve Biko and Malcolm X, we have discovered blackness.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 2.10.11 PMIn South Africa, she was flummoxed when she fell in love with Simon, a white Australian man, whom she eventually married. The storyteller doesn’t flinch from her moments of pain. When she gave birth, her first reaction was shock: How could her baby be so white? She writes about becoming a homeowner and “complicit in “the South Africa Inc,” classist system of the wealthy using poor people to maintain posh homes and lifestyles. Parenthood forces Msimang to face the chasm separating her comfortable affluence and the poverty of many native South Africans, including the young nanny caring for Msimong’s child. The fear of South Africa’s widespread violence spur Msimang’s move to yet another country. Now, she and her family live in Perth, Australia, where Msimang works for the Centre for Stories.

Her storytelling shines throughout, particularly at the memoir’s end, when Msimang realizes that throughout her life, she always had a home. It was less about a place on a map and more about a place in people’s hearts. Her parents, especially her mother, gave Msimang and her two younger sisters their sense of belonging. True identity isn’t simply what’s on a passport. For Msimang, “it was those we loved, and not where we lived, that would make us belong.”

SISONKE MSIMANG is one of several women writers who will talk about Borders, Stories, and Transformations at East Side Freedom Library this Friday. Along with Sisonke Msimang, will be:

KAO KALIA YANG, born in the Ban Vinai refugee camp, grew up in the McDonough Homes project of St. Paul, author of The Latehomecomer and The Song Poet

VICTORIA BLANCO, who grew up on the border of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the Loft and is writing a memoir focused on the lives of the Raramuri

LINA JAMOUL, born in Syria, raised in Cyprus and England, and educated in the U.K., where she earned a Ph.D., Executive Director of MAPE, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.

Borders, Stories, Transformations, Friday, September 28, 2018, 7:00 – 8:30 PM, East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul 55106 Free and open to all.

The saddest nine words

Losing Earth is more than a magazine story. It’s our story, the story of what’s happening to our home. We can’t ignore it.

The cover was black, with a barely visible dark gray masthead. All that stood out were nine simple words.

“Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet.”

That sentence sums up the cover story– the only story– in the August 1st issue of The New York Times Magazine.

I didn’t read Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth when it was first published. I thought I knew about climate change.

Weeks later, on a westbound flight to LA, I started reading. There’s no one shocking revelation; instead, like a thorough detective, Rich spent 18 months doing more than 100 interviews, documenting a worldwide tragedy.

Losing Earth focuses on a decisive decade, 1979 to 1989, when people could have controlled global warming. It’s a riveting whodunnit, only it’s a who didn’t do it. Who didn’t act to prevent our world from getting too hot. It’s not an expose of one party or one politician. There’s enough blame for all of us.

Presidents as far back as LBJ knew about climate change. Exxon knew. Even four decades ago, the key facts of global warming were out there. We knew that the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer our planet becomes.

Rich’s narrative reads like a horror story. If it was a movie, we in the audience would shout warnings, “Run, get out of the house, save yourself.”

Scientist James Hansen, one of the people Rich profiles, tried to warn us what climate change could do. He testified to Congress, used simple props to make his case to the public, and advised top government officials about the looming danger. Hansen told us that even a two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures would be a long-term disaster.

Most of us didn’t listen. We didn’t demand our leaders act. The epilogue notes that economics, “prices the future at a discount: the farther out you project, the cheaper the consequences.” Climate change always seemed to be down the road, not right in front of us.

And so it seems like humanity flunked the marshmallow test, the experiment where little kids got to pick whether they wanted one treat right away, or two treats if they could wait, say fifteen minutes. That famous Stanford experiment found that kids who could delay gratification, who could wait 15 minutes for two marshmallows rather than getting one marshmallow right away, tended to had better lives, higher SATs, and education levels, etc.

When it comes to climate change, we humans couldn’t look ahead. We held tight to the one marshmallow we had– our comfortable way of life, filling our cars with gas, heating our homes with coal, instead of being patient and working toward a future with better outcomes– two marshmallows of a livable world in the future.

“Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet.”

We didn’t act. Now, we are seeing the damage. We’re seeing more extreme weather, more floods, more droughts, more wildfires. George Steinmetz’s Losing Earth photos are disaster panoramas. They could be Exhibit A, documenting the crime scenes of climate change.

A new draft U.N. report suggests that Earth’s temperatures will almost certainly exceed 1.5 Celsius by the 2040s.

It’s hard to ignore the evidence that climate change is here. We can’t escape what’s happening in front of us. Losing Earth is the biography of our home. It’s our story.

Ain’t Gonna Whistle Dixie Anymore

People Get Ready, We Shall Not Be Moved, A Change is Gonna Come

Think of America’s greatest civil rights anthems and chances are, those songs by The Impressions, Mavis Staples and Sam Cooke spring to mind, along with others, like Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam and Minnesota’s Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a Changin’.

Now, you can hear a fresh protest anthem, from another Iron Range native, singer-songwriter Paul Metsa, who’s spent decades standing up and singing about civil rights.

After last August’s deadly White Nationalist march in Charlottesville, Metsa wrote Ain’t Gonna Whistle Dixie Anymore as a tribute to Heather Heyer, who was killed when a white nationalist drove into her and other counter-protesters. The new song also features legendary soul singer Wee Willie Walker and three-time Grammy Award winners The Sounds of Blackness.  

This Monday, August 20th, 7- 9:00 PM, all are welcome at the East Side Freedom Library to hear Metsa’s new anthem and other songs. The half-hour performance is a part of Metsa’s IndieGoGo fundraiser campaign to release two new songs and a remastered 25th anniversary edition of his Whistling Past the Graveyard LP,.

Screen Shot 2018-08-16 at 10.53.09 AMThe musical activist has earned eight Minnesota Music awards, and a dozen original recording projects.  He considers his songs, including the classics Slow Justice and Jack Ruby, “bullets in the machine gun of peace.”

During this first anniversary of the Charlottesville tragedy, it’s fitting to hear and remember Metsa’s lyrics:

“Four wheels of hate down 4th Street raced

Heather Heyer died

Now her Blue Ridge Mountain angel voice

forever magnified.”

In time, Ain’t Gonna Whistle Dixie Anymore may join The Nation’s Top 10 Civil Rights anthems.

MONDAY, Aug 20, 7:00 – 9:00 PM  

Hear Paul Metsa perform a short set of songs, including his powerful new protest song, as he raises funds for his IndieGoGo project to release and publicize Ain’t Gonna Whistle Dixie Anymore, featuring legendary soul singer Wee Willie Walker and three-time Grammy Award Winners the Sounds of Blackness. Read more about Metsa here!

East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul, 55106. Free and open to all. info@eastsidefreedomlibrary.org 651-230-3294   

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Standing with Muslims against hate

Last year at this time, I was standing on a Bloomington football field with 800 other Minnesotans, after our state’s largest mosque, Dar Al Farooq Community Center, had been firebombed. Minnesotans showed up en masse, sending a clear message that we stand with our Muslim neighbors and won’t tolerate violence against them.

Last week, another mosque was hit. Vandals spray-painted the Islamic Institute of Minnesota’s Al-Salam mosque with hateful graffiti. As far as I know, no crowds rallied outside the Maplewood mosque. I didn’t show up.

Muslims — in Minnesota and around the U.S.– need to know we stand with them. So what can we do? We can help CAIR-MN, the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Continue reading “Standing with Muslims against hate”

Angel Island’s wooden house of paper sons

We still don’t know how many immigrant families this administration has ripped apart, or if they’ll ever be reunited. It’s not the first time our government has wielded policy against people based on their ethnicity and home countries. A century ago, instead of barring Mexicans and other Latinos, America was determined to exclude Chinese people.

Their story starts in San Francisco Bay, not far from Alcatraz, America’s most notorious prison, now a popular tourist destination.  Tucked around the bay, stands a less celebrated place of history, Angel Island.

Named by a Spanish explorer, this idyllic spot became an American immigration detention center designed to discriminate against Asians. An Immigration Service brochure notes plainly, “Dubbed the ‘Guardian of the Western Gate,’ by its staff, this facility was built to help keep Chinese and eventually other Asian immigrants out of the country.

Today, Angel Island welcomes all visitors. On a pleasant May morning, I mush aboard a ferry from San Francisco with a raucous bunch of high schoolers. Twenty minutes later, I’m first ashore, ready to speed hike up to the immigrant station, before the shuttle arrives with the teenage thrum. I climb 140 steep wooden steps then stride a mile along a paved road. To my left, far below, the bay’s turquoise waters sparkle. Tall grasses, willowy trees and reddish tan cliffs rise to my right.

Walking the curving uphill road, I pass postcard views of sailboats at play, then come to a wood and wire fence by three worn buildings on a sloping hillside. A small marker on the ground confirms that this is Angel Island Immigration Station.   

From 1910 to 1940, more than 300,000 immigrants, mostly Chinese, were detained here. Many were held two weeks, some for six months, and at least one immigrant was kept here for over two years.  To them, Angel Island was a prison.

Where barbed wire fences and gun towers once stood, today, the remains of a rickety wooden tower slump near a rutted driveway. I walk hesitantly down the drive, unsure if this is the public entrance. A sign notes that when the Army took over the island in 1941, it built two new guard towers around the detention barracks, which were used to house WWII German and Japanese prisoners of war.

At a bell tower overlooking the bay, Sam Louie, a cheerful native Californian, welcomes the high school and elementary students and the few adults for the daily tour.  He tells us that his father, mother, and siblings all came through Angel Island. He casually points to an immigrant’s quote on a stone tablet: “It was a tough trip. I was only twelve and I was living with the rest of people, hundreds of them in the freight hole. The beds were stacked up two high…”  “That’s my brother,” Sam says, eyeing John F. Louie’s name. 

Sam says his parents never talked about Angel Island. Now, the retired educator does his part to share the story of this somber place, a chapter of history many Americans never learned or choose to ignore.


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Sam’s weathered face crinkles as he tells the school kids on the tour he’s recruited a substitute tour guide — his father, Louie Share Kim. Turning his back, Sam dons a black Chinese jacket, and in a flash, becomes his father. We learn that Share Kim was 14 years old when his father told him to leave their poor rice farm in Guangdong Province, China and travel to “Gam Saan,” Gold Mountain, what Chinese people called America.  

When Share Kim arrived in 1916, thousands of Chinese immigrants were already here, many working in mines or building railroads. As the economy soured, America’s anti-Chinese sentiments exploded.  Chinese immigrants and new citizens faced racism and violence, ranging from special taxes aimed at Chinese miners to numerous towns that forced out hundreds of Chinese residents. Dozens of Chinese were lynched.

In 1882, Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to bar Chinese immigrant laborers. Senators, including John. F. Miller of California, the bill’s sponsor, called Chinese a “degraded and inferior race.” Other senators voiced fears that Chinese immigrants’ “muscles of iron” would overwhelm American workers.

IMAG2498 (1)It was the first time America used race to keep out one immigrant group. One senator, George Frisbee Hoar of Massachusetts, lamented  “old race prejudice,” and called the Exclusion Act “a crime committed against the Declaration of Independence.” The Exclusion Act did allow some Chinese into America — including scholars, diplomats, merchants and children of U.S. citizens. That last category became a loophole for many immigrants.

Sam explains that after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed government records, many Chinese immigrants arrived, claiming to be the children of Chinese already living here. They were paper sons, not blood relatives of Chinese already here.  

Sam tells us his dad was a paper son. Share Kim, like countless other desperate immigrants, lied to get into America. “I knew as a child growing up that I was never to reveal to others that my father was a paper son for fear that we might all get deported,” he said. For decades, Sam kept his family’s secret.

IMAG2540 (1)One scholar estimates that during the half century the Exclusion Act was law, some ninety to ninety-five percent of all Chinese who came to America with false papers. “The first to be restricted, Chinese became the first ‘illegal immigrants,’” writes University of Minnesota Professor Erika Lee, director of the Immigration History Research Center. Another estimate notes that now, one in three Chinese Americans are themselves paper sons or daughters are or their descendants.

Sam herds our group up to the detention barracks, where his father and other immigrants stayed. Sam explains that officials here interrogated immigrants to weed out the paper sons and daughters. The interrogations often lasted two or three days, with hundreds or sometime a thousand questions. “What was the distance between your house in China and your neighbors?” “To which clan did your next-door neighbor belong?”

Sam’s father passed his interrogation and was admitted to the U.S, as the son of a native. Share Kim got a job at a San Francisco noodle factory, then periodically returned home to China, where he married and had children. When he tried to bring his family here in 1936, he and his wife gave different answers about what the flooring in their bedroom was. The family was only admitted only after Share Kim convinced immigration officials that his wife tiled the dirt-floored room while he was in America.

This cramped detention barracks at Angel Island housed 300 immigrant men at a time.

The questioning was nerve-wracking. Then came the waiting. Sam gestures around the men’s restored barracks, sparsely furnished with exhibit displays and replica cots, asking us to imagine spending weeks or months or years here. In this big, drafty room, some 300 men crammed in skinny triple-level bunk beds. Women and children stayed in a nearby barracks.

Gesturing to the wooden slat walls, Sam tells us that Chinese people called this place “mook ook”– wooden house. In China, he explains, only animals, like chickens and pigs, lived in wooden structures. “They thought they were being treated like animals,” Sam says. A multitude of trees still shape the island’s landscape; when explorers first visited, they named it “Wood Island” for its ready supply of trees.

IMAG2606I look out the barracks window and see two palms trees, through a geometric grid of chain link and barbed wire fences. Between the trees, an American flag flaps in the wind, neatly framed within a diamond of the fences.  How many immigrants stood by this window, looking out to freedom?

“The sad person sits alone, leaning by a window.”

Sam reads those words, the last lines of one of the many poems inscribed on these wood walls. Scholars have uncovered more than two hundred poems, many hidden under decades of paint. Sam translates a few lines from varied poems.

“I used to admire the land of the Flowery Flag as a country of abundance…”

“I thoroughly hate the barbarians because they do not respect justice…”

“I am anxious and depressed and cannot fall asleep…”

“Even if it is built of jade, it has turned into a cage.”



Those poems saved this wooden barracks. Back in the 1970s, a state park ranger spotted calligraphy inside the decaying building. That discovery stopped the planned demolition and spurred historic renovations. Today, this old immigration station is part of a California state park.  Angel Island attracts visitors who come to camp, hike, bike, Segway, picnic, and explore the island’s forts, as well as the immigration station.

Less than 20,000 people tour Angel Island each year, a fraction of the million who tour nearby Alcatraz or the three million people who visit America’s most famous immigration station, Ellis Island. Still, the stories, poems and grief embedded in these walls reverberate today.

Angel Island was part of what one scholar called “The Great Wall Against China,” an echo the White House conjures with its fantasy wall against Mexico. Our country’s fear of Chinese immigrants, who accounted for less than five percent of all our newcomers, plays out again with this administration’s racism against Mexicans, Syrians, Muslims, and other immigrants.

We are doomed to repeat the history we ignore. We need to see and understand what happened in this wooden house of paper sons, a secluded lockup just around the bay from America’s most celebrated prison.