Monuments that Matter

Men on horseback. Men with weapons. We’ve had enough of the usual statues.

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Monument to New Immigrants by Tania Bruguera. Philadelphia

Philadelphia has a fresh take on public art: An 8-foot Afro pick topped with a raised fist, All Power to All People. A faceless, genderless Monument to New Immigrants.  A mash-up of pedestals sans sculpture called If They Should Ask, spotlighting the absence of women monuments.

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If They Should Ask by Sharon Hayes. Philadelphia has just two statues dedicated to women, Joan of Arc and a Bostonian, Mary Dyer.

You can savor the city’s twenty eye-catching creations the through November 19. The artworks are part of Monument Lab: A Public Art and History Project, which asks, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”

Given this year’s attention to outdated Civil War statues, Philadelphia’s question is timely, but Monument Lab has been working on this project for five years. I hope more people start seeing public art and asking questions. What is a monument that matters? Who are we honoring? Who are we ignoring? Why?

Statues tell stories, about who matters and who doesn’t. In Philadelphia, William Penn is top dog, or at least top statue. No building in center city can be taller than Penn’s statue atop City Hall. Penn is part of Philadelphia’s history, as is Frank Rizzo, a racist police chief and mayor, whose statue may not remain long in the city.

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People appreciating Hank Willis Thomas’s All Power to All People. In background sits another sculpture, Government of the People. Philadelphia

I thought about Philadelphia’s history as I stood across from City Hall recently, watching people taking selfies by Hank Willis Thomas’s 800-pound Afro pick. A group of young African American men smiled broadly for the camera. Then two women took their turn, then another, then another. No one glanced at a massive sculpture, Government of the People, hulking just a few feet from the All Power to All People pick.

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Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Minneapolis

What makes a hair pick art? Maybe the same thing that makes a spoon art. People connect with ordinary objects, especially those made in dramatic fashion. The Black Power comb makes a necessary statement when so many people, including the president, don’t understand that black lives matter.

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Two Me by Mel Chin, standing above right. Philadelphia

In Philadelphia’s City Hall courtyard, ordinary people become the art. Mel Chin’s Two Me lets people step up to the pedestal, literally, and become the monument. I watched a little boy who just wanted to run up and down the long ramp, and a young woman in hijab stand up, tentative but smiling, atop the pedestal.

Monumental messages can come from simple stuff. A spoon, a cherry.  A comb, a fist. The ordinary becomes iconic. Monuments that stay with us, that matter.

 

 

 

 

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Why I blocked a freeway

Your honor, I respect how you have listened to all of us protesters. You have said freeways aren’t safe places to protest. I went on Interstate 94 not to put my life in danger but because other people’s lives are in danger. I don’t think freeways, roads, really anyplace in America, are safe for people of color. Philando Castile was not safe here, in Ramsey County.

The prosecutor has said we protesters destroyed “the peace and tranquility of the interstate.” What kind of peace and tranquility did Philando have while driving? It’s likely he felt fear, rather than peace and tranquility, during the more than four dozen traffic stops he endured.

Last July, Officer Jeronimo Yanez panicked and killed a compliant driver. This June, Yanez was acquitted by a legal system that respects people who wear blue more than they protect people who are black.

We who have power– because of the color of our skin or the authority of our jobs—allow separate and unequal law enforcement and separate and unequal courts.

We allow officers to pull over people of color for unnecessary traffic stops. We allow cops who kill civilians to walk free.

Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds live-streamed racial injustice as vivid and painful to see as civil rights protesters being attacked by dogs and water cannons.

We watched a man bleeding, dying. What did we do?

Philando shrine BIGGER

Many of us rose up. We went to the Governor’s Mansion, an urgent and spontaneous vigil, using our bodies more than our voices to demand justice.

Your honor, you have spoken of police mistakes. When we repeat actions hundreds of times, they can no longer be considered mistakes. Police shootings of civilians are not mistakes. Police shootings are racial injustice which we who have power allow to continue. We need to change laws. We need to change ourselves. We who have power, because of the color of our skin color or the authority of our jobs– judges, prosecutors, lawmakers— we need to accept our responsibility for allowing racism.

Until Philando’s killing, I had been silent about racial injustice. I watched Philando’s blood seeping across his body. I cannot unsee it. I cannot unsee the racism seeping across our history, staining America, for longer than we have been a nation.

Philando died because we who have power did not demand justice for all.  I will stand with and behind people of color. They have spoken out for centuries against the injustices by my people.

John Lewis calls protest “necessary trouble.”  We need to stand up, sit in, kneel on a sideline, block a freeway. Civil disobedience is as serious, as patriotic, and as necessary as voting.

I cast my ballot for justice standing outside the Governor’s Mansion. I cast my ballot for justice blocking Interstate 94. I cast my ballot for justice this morning in court.

We watched a man bleeding, dying. We need to make necessary trouble.

 

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Poster by Leon Wang

When Home Won’t Let You Stay

I saw their faces at the library last week. Minnesotans born in Myanmar, Iraq, Somalia, and Laos.  The boy in a football T-shirt who played in the mud in a refugee camp and now plays soccer here. The young woman whose dream is to get a job so she can begin taking care of the parents who carried her on their backs when they fled Myanmar.

Those refugee stories are part of compelling exhibit by Winona photographer James A. Bowey. The exhibit’s title sticks in my mind.

When Home Won’t Let You Stay.

Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Our government is telling young people who were born elsewhere but have spent much of their lives here that they may not be able to stay.

When Home Won’t Let You Stay.

Today, people around country will rise up, rallying for young undocumented people going to school and working here, young people who consider this country their only home. We will defend 11 million Dreams.

I think of stories of people whose pictures I saw at the library– Mohanad, Dissel, Ahmay, Eh, Bway, Yatha, Zaina– people forced to flee their homes.

Sawlwin, forced to leave Myanmar, told photographer James A. Bowey that, “A refugee is someone who cannot depend on anyone.”

Leng, forced to leave Laos, told the photographer that, “My English is not good. I don’t have much friends. But I can get my children a better life.”

How many parents struggled to get here so their kids could have a better life? Today, our government announced plans to close the door on thousands of young people.

When Home Won’t Let You Stay.

What you can do to Let Dreamers Stay.

https://dreamacttoolkit.org/

Tell your senator to co-sponsor DACA

Robert Reich’s myths & facts about immigration

 

 

 

Stories rise up at East Side Freedom Library

Anchored firmly on the corner of Greenbrier and Jessamine Streets, this brick and mortar Beaux Arts building looks traditional, even staid.

Step inside, and you’ll see and hear a vigorous world of faces and stories, more lefty than stuffy. I hear the urgency of ardent voices– union organizers, community activists, and immigrant neighbors– demanding their stories be heard.

Funded by steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, this library, built in 1917, a year of revolution, reverberates with robust stories.

A blue sign proclaims, “Rebellion to Tyrants, Democracy for Workers.” Posters hang like fresh laundry, an open-air display of the issues of the day: “PHILANDO MATTERS,” “CLERGY STANDING WITH STANDING ROCK,” “RESISTANCE IS IMPERATIVE,” “WE STAND TOGETHER.”

IMG_20170809_155245The walls and stairwell shine with vivid murals of Minnesotans: Immigrants from Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America, along with African Americans, building a community here on the East Side.

The library’s collection of books, art, music and other items highlight peoples whose stories and songs have often been ignored by traditional history books and libraries.

An East Sider couple, labor historian Peter Rachleff and theater and dance professor Beth Cleary, transformed the old Arlington Hills Branch Library into this theater of stories. When Saint Paul opened the new Arlington Hills branch nearby in 2014, Rachleff and Cleary’s nonprofit signed a 15-year lease for this space and launched the East Side Freedom Library. The lease is $1 a year, but it costs $1,200 a month just to maintain lights and heat.

The old building bristles with the energy and heat of activism. This library is more non-conformist than conventional. None of the 18,000 books filling the tall wood shelves can be checked out. Instead, the public are invited to use the books and other research materials here. This is a community space, with movies and weaving, meditation and meetings, including a union job fair.

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A crowded Lemonade and Listening session with elected officials at East Side Freedom Library

One recent rainy afternoon, the library was standing room only. More than 150 people wedged in for a Lemonade and Listening session with U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and local legislators. Stories rang out.

An Iraq War veteran asked McCollum why the VA won’t provide health care for trans people. People talked about climate change, water quality, net neutrality and the healthcare marketplace. McCollum told people they had collective power about health care and other issues. “You have a voice,” she reminded the audience. “That is powerful. The fact that you showed up, spoke out, wrote out…”

An angry man interrupted the congresswoman, outshouting all other voices—disrupting the session until eventually, collective voices won out, and the listening session resumed, with talk about pipelines, broadband, Islamophobia and the need for unity.

Rep. Tim Mahoney joked, “Mr. Carnegie is rolling in his grave…”  about the pro-union, left-wing views of this Freedom space. Managers at the Carnegie Steel Corporation triggered the bloody 1892 Homestead strike. Carnegie emigrated to the U.S. from Scotland at age 13 with his family and became one of the 19th century’s richest businessmen then spent years giving away most of his wealth, launching more than 2,000 libraries, along with what’s now Carnegie-Mellon University, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

IMG_20170809_154716So perhaps it’s fitting that the immigrant tycoon’s traditional library is home to stories of other immigrants. The Freedom Library’s collections include the African diaspora and Hmong Archives. The library organizes monthly Neighbors meet Neighbors sessions. This month, Somalis shared their stories, history and culture. In September, Karen immigrants take the stage.

On summer Tuesdays, I’ve had the joy of sitting in this library of stories, finding my own words, then sharing lunch and conversation with fellow women writers. We’ve sat on the steps outside, talking about our work, families, places we’ve been and want to visit. Next week, we’ll read from our summer’s work.

One afternoon, a construction worker repairing alley potholes stopped by. His crewmates took their lunch break in the truck parked in the library’s tranquil shade. He made himself at home by us, each woman with our organic veggies and fruit packed in re-usable containers. He started talking, telling his opinions about city projects and politics. We hadn’t invited him, he just came. Needing to talk, a blue-collar worker saying what was on his mind, on the steps of a community library that embraces so many stories.

This brawny building is packed with stories of people, their voices rising up.

 

Hearing the sirens

Talking about the weather, and race

Next Wednesday, July 5th, at noon, sirens will blare, piercing Minnesota skies with sharp warnings of impending danger, severe storms and all manner of natural and unnatural disasters, from toxic leaks to power plant failures.

Minnesotans know the drill, literally, about extreme weather. We can handle droughts, floods, straight-line winds, sub-zero and triple-digit temps. We’ve got basements for shelter from tornadoes, cold weather rules blocking utilities from shutting off heat and community cooling centers so people won’t overheat. Our phones beep updates about volatile storms.

We know what to do about weather.

We don’t know what to do about race.

Philando shrineNext Thursday, July 6th, marks one year since Philando Castile was killed. To many white people like me, the killing seemed shockingly out of the blue, a sudden squall that couldn’t be predicted. The jury’s verdict almost two weeks ago seemed nearly as stunning. The dash cam video shows Saint Anthony Park Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez shooting seven shots into a parked car with a 4-year-old in the backseat. Diamond Reynolds’ livestreamed Facebook video shows her boyfriend, Philando Castile, bleeding out. We watched a man dying in his car, and the man who shot him walked free.

Philando’s killing and the jury’s verdict weren’t fluke eruptions that came out of nowhere. Police killings and police not-guilty findings are as commonplace as summer rains. A day before Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando, two cops in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling while they were holding him down. The day after a Minnesota jury found Officer Yanez not guilty in Philando’s killing, a Wisconsin jury found an ex-cop not guilty of killing Sylville Smith, a black man who was seen on video throwing his gun away, with his hands near his head.

How can we ignore the torrents of racism that have drenched our country? We knew about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and so many others. The casualties mount, still many people—white people– refuse to hear the alarms. People of color can’t ignore the warnings. They live buffeted by sometimes deadly cyclones of racism while whites carry on comfortably in our bubble, shielded by invisible umbrellas, an unacknowledged wall of whiteness between us and reality.

The fact is, we own racism just as surely as we own climate change. Humans have spread greenhouse gasses along with far more toxic waves of hate and fear. Yet many of us just duck our heads, ignoring the inconvenient truth of racism. Continue reading “Hearing the sirens”

Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere

A belated thank-you to teachers

In the shadow of downtown, as I walked toward an urban park, a Great Blue Heron flew past me. I stopped on the sidewalk overpass, mesmerized. Once again, I had seen a big gray bird, the talisman I’ve looked up to for most of my life.

I thank Mrs. Judy Larzelere for that. Every heron I see carries me back to junior high.

IMG_20170607_101249During a unit of regional New England writers, Mrs. Larzelere assigned our eighth grade American Studies class The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, by Sarah Orne Jewett. We read bigger names, including Thoreau, yet it’s Jewett’s modest characters that have stayed with me for decades. In “The White Heron,” a 10-page story, I met Sylvia, a shy girl who safeguards a heron’s nest, forgoing a bounty that would have benefited her poor family. Every heron reminds me of that lonely country child and the teacher who introduced us.

In this season of high school graduations, with Pomp and Circumstance wafting through the air, I figure it’s time to say a proper thank you to Mrs. Larzelere and the many the teachers whose lessons I carry.

Teachers teach and sometimes, students learn, yet neither teachers nor students can know which lessons will take hold, shaping lives. Sometimes, the lessons sink in long after the final grades are entered, the graduation robes returned.

It’s been forty-three years since I sat in Mrs. Larzelere’s Haverford Junior High class, reading regional New England writers, stories that seemed a world apart from my suburban Philadelphia life. Yet Mrs. Larzelere and Sylvia made me want to see the herons in this world. Continue reading “Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere”

Four Ways to Prevent a Tainted Presidency

In five days, December 19th, the Electoral College is expected to elect Donald Trump president.

The Russians hacked our election. Putin shouldn’t decide who gets the White House. The Electoral College was created to safeguard the presidency from dangerous and unqualified candidates, including those who are  not independent from foreign powers. Newsweek Trump’s foreign business deals jeopardize US

Unless you are among the 538 electors who will cast a ballot on Monday, you may feel powerless to stop Trump’s tainted presidency. Think again.

Here are four things we can do, right now.

  1. CALL President Obama, Congress and governors to demand that electors get the information they need. Ask Obama to declassify the CIA report about Russian hacking so electors can get intelligence briefings. Over 50 Dem electors call for intelligence briefing  White House 202-456-1111; Sen. Franken 202-224-5641; Sen. Klobuchar 202-224-3244; Gov. Dayton 651-201-3400
  2. ASK our state and national Attorneys General  to postpone the Electoral College vote until there’s a complete investigation about Russia’s role in our election and Trump’s ties to Russia and other countries. U.S. Attorney General 202-514-2000, comment line is press 4; MN Attorney General 651-296-3353.
  3. SHOW Electors we are watching. Groups including  Hamilton Electors and Stop Trump + Defend Democracy are planning vigils and statehouse events nationwide for December 18 and 19.
  4. BELIEVE in democracy. Believe that we, the people, have the right and the responsibility to shape our country we want. From the Boston Tea Party to Black Lives Matter, Americans have shown amazing fortitude to stand up against intense powers, be they a British king or homegrown white supremacists. Already, more electors are standing up to protect our country against an unfit leader. More electors will vote against Trump

Whatever the outcome of the Electoral College, I will stand up for what our country should be. I’ll continue to listen, read and be informed; to make phone calls, write letters, stand up and speak out for what is right, and protest what is wrong. We, the people, have power. Now is the time to use it. Now.

“The Founding Fathers intended the Electoral College to stop an unfit man from becoming President. The Constitution they crafted gave us this tool. Conscience demands that we use it.”  — The Hamilton Electors