Friday, January 11, 2013

Django, the Drug War, and Black History Month

My blood tends to run a little faster every year when the calendar flips to January. It’s not so much the Cleveland winter — global warming is taking care of that; rather it’s the one time of year when our community kinda sorta celebrates blackness, or at least says it’s ok to talk about it in a positive way. The period lasts about six weeks or so, from the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day through the end of Black History Month, and then it’s “ok, recess is over, back to normal.”

I’m not referring to “our community” as either just black folks or white folks. It’s almost as if an unspoken pact exists between in-laws. Most everybody around here tiptoes around race. We know the subject is explosive; we know it’s problematic. We know it’s the Eight Ton Gorilla in the family room. Which is why we stay in the kitchen and visit the family room only on special occasions, and even then according to carefully scripted rules of engagement. So during MLK day we talk about the content of our character but not about our national propensity for warmongering and sustained violence at home. And during BHM African Americans can salute our ancestors and how they overcame the Middle Passage, Slavery, and Jim Crow, without any discussion or analysis of why we are not doing anything about 21st Century New Jim Crow in education, criminal justice, or the economy.

This year feels a little different to me. Thank you Django! It seems everywhere I turn people are talking about the movie, and therefore talking about ticklish aspects of our history. If there were an Oscar category for most provocative film, Django would be a hands-down winner.

Of course a lot of our discourse on race is echoed in views long ago forged into cast-iron. Many times when we think we want to talk about race we can’t get past skin. So an ESPN commentator questions the racial bona fides of Washington ‘Skins quarterback Robert L Griffin III — is he a ‘down’ brother or a ‘cornball brother’? — because RGIII: a) has a white fiancĂ©e and b) disdains simplistic comparison to other mobile quarterbacks who happen to be black, aspiring to one day achieve the status of the best QBs ever. (The commentator, Rob Parker, was first suspended and then let go. This was an appropriate result, not because Parker crossed some forbidden line but because his analytical frame is too flat for him to be a social commentator in any medium.)

Jeffrey Blanck, Reno NAACP president
In a similar vein is the reaction of many across the country to the headline that the Reno NAACP elected the first white president in its 66-year history. Many blacks greeted this news with groans from a familiar grab bag of perpetual victimization and helplessness: ‘white folks gotta run everything’, ‘couldn’t they find a black man’, ‘black people always think white is right’, etc. They were oblivious to the story of the NAACP’s interracial founding, its guiding principles, or the decades of civil rights advocacy that justified the fellow being entrusted with the honor of serving as branch president.

These examples of call to mind the succinct and wise counsel my friend Julian Earls likes to share with young, aspiring black folk: “Every black person is not your friend, and every white person is not your enemy.”

Agentic African Americans

Still, this season seems different to me because I see local African Americans who are not making automatic skin responses but choosing instead to be agentic in the struggle to address core community issues. Microsoft Word doesn’t seem to like “agentic”, giving it the red underline; it is a fine word, and I use it here to describe people who do not accept victimhood but are “active agents in their own deliverance”.

That quote is from another friend Trevelle Harp. Trevelle is a community organizer who heads the Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope [NOAH]. In two weeks his group will present the Cleveland-area premiere of “The House I Live In”, which last year won top documentary honors at the acclaimed Sundance Film Festival. The powerful film questions why the United States has spent over One Trillion Dollars on drug arrests since the beginning of the Nixon Administration, only to become the world’s leading jailer of its own people, while drugs remain cheaper, purer and more available than ever.

To quote Eugene Jarecki, the film’s director, a prime result of the “drug war” is that “We have more black men incarcerated today, in one form or another, than were enslaved at the end of slavery 10 years before the Civil War ended.”

The special screening will be Saturday, January 26, at the East Cleveland Library, 14101 Euclid Ave. Admission is free and doors open at 1 PM. The film will start at 1:30 PM. A moderated discussion will follow the screening.

NOAH under Harp has concentrated its efforts on the East Cleveland community. Its organizing approach involves training and developing local leadership, identifying common issues, finding collaborative and strategic ways to address those issues while systematically strengthening the institutions in our regions. They are on a perpetual search for agentic partners.

South Euclid councilwoman Ruth Gray is advancing a second example of agentic approach. Concerned about her community’s failure to offer sufficient resources to its youth, she has convened a forum next week to address this issue. I will talk about this effort more on Monday but I encourage you to put the event, “Youth in Peril”, on your calendar. It will be held Wednesday, January 16 from 7-9 PM at the South Euclid Community Center, 1370 Victory Drive, in South Euclid OH 44121.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

New Day Dawning for Cleveland NAACP | Django Gets 5 Oscar nominations

It’s sorely needed and it has been a long time coming, but a new era will be ushered in next week for the Cleveland NAACP.

This Sunday, a new set of officers, featuring a new president for the first time in twenty years, will be sworn to serve for the next two years. Hilton Smith was elected as president by in November in what was the highest turnout by local branch membership since 1992, when former Cleveland City Council president George Forbes defeated Rev. Larry Harris and former Cleveland councilwoman Mildred Madison in a dramatic three-way race.

This year Smith, a longtime executive with Turner Construction, handily defeated venerable NAACP activist Jocelyn Travis and up-and-coming businessman Clint Bradley.

Smith and his cabinet, which includes Rev. E. T. Caviness, Bishop F. E. Perry, and retired judge Sara Harper as first, second, and third vice presidents, will be sworn in along with all twenty-four members of the group’s executive committee.

Smith has said one of his main objectives will be to engage young people with the organization.

That task is likely to be a major challenge for the Branch’s incoming executive director, whose hiring will be voted on by the newly-installed executive committee when it meets this Monday, January 14, at 6PM at University Circle United Methodist Church, 1919 East 107 Street, Cleveland OH 44106. [Map

Both the day of the meeting and the location may signal a change for the organization, which for years has met on Tuesdays in its severely cramped and unattractive local office on Stokes Drive.

 • • •
Quick Hit: Django Unchained has been nominated for five Academy Awards. The controversial film bagged nominations for best picture, best supporting actor [Christopher Waltz), best original screenplay, best cinematography, and best sound editing.

Other Oscar notes: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln set the pace with twelve nominations including best picture. Also, Denzel Washington was nominated for his turn in Flight.

The winners will be announced on Sunday, February 24 in Hollywood and broadcast live on ABC [WEWS-TV5 in Cleveland].

Monday, January 07, 2013

Irreplaceable Ken Johnson? Not at that price!

I was speaking with a friend today who — apropos of an acquaintance who, reluctant to challenge a workplace bully chose instead to reward to reward his nastiness — was musing over the consequences of yielding to bad behavior. We seemed to agree that the culture of an environment suffers when bad behavior goes unpunished.

We had barely finished our chat when the news arrived that Cleveland City Council members had agreed in caucus to re-appoint Ken Johnson to the $74,000-a-year Ward 4 council seat he had resigned just last week. The move, regarded as unprecedented for a city councilman, makes Johnson a double-dipper: he will resuming collecting his councilman’s wage even as he begins to draw down his retirement benefits from his three-plus decades of “public service”.

[Some wags, mindful of Johnson’s less-than-stellar attendance record at council committees, might see this as triple-dipping, on the theory that Johnson was already semi-retired.]

Johnson had resigned because of a change in state law that would have reduced his pension benefits had he chosen to retire anytime after December 31.
Ken "I'm Mr. Irreplaceable" Johnson

While I think double dipping is a practice best restricted to very special circumstances if not banned outright, it is state law and Johnson has taken advantage of it. Given his me-first request, there was little doubt a majority of his fellow council members would support it, no doubt empathizing with his situation.

Johnson is now having his cake and eating it too, in full view of those who pay for the ingredients, bake it, serve it, and clean up afterwards. Most of them struggle to afford even the crumbs of such munificence.

The part that bothers me most is that some of these elected officials seem to think they are indispensable. The reality is that Cleveland would function just as well if Johnson were in his own rocking chair instead of the public one from which he purports to render leadership on behalf of its constituents. Faced with a choice between finding a worthy successor and feathering his nest, he looked in the mirror and cried, “Me!”

What's next, declaring himself Mr. Ward 4 Emeritus?

Respect for the councilman and his colleagues took a sharp hit when Council sanctioned this bit of selfishness. Let’s hope he doesn’t compound this insult and injury by standing for reelection.