Category Archives: Social Justice Commentary


A couple months after Meech Davis died while being detained by the Buffalo Police Department (which was ruled a homicide), there was an incident in what’s nominally my neighborhood where the police shot a man during a traffic stop. The story has changed a lot, but the initial narrative was that the detained shot the ear off an officer, to be shot in the shoulder and arm by the officer’s partner. Later, the story changed: it seems that the officer wasn’t shot at all, it was an injury sustained by the airbag when the detained man’s car, which he hit the gas for after the officer reached into the window, hit a house. The New York State attorney general is investigating the incident, as it now appears the suspect, now deceased, was not armed after all (unless you consider a car to be a weapon, which a lot of pedestrian and cycling activists suggest can be appropriate). There have been protests about the Erie County Sheriff, Tim Howard, because activists say too many people have died in the holding center (the talking point says 26 people – I haven’t verified it, but a couple people promised me a list[UPDATE: Got the list, looks legit]).

There are lots of questions these circumstances pose to the Buffalo community, but the one on my heart is this: do we permit institutions of authority to err on the side of death? If so, how often? In what circumstances? Why? How much scrutiny do we give those institutions of authority when interactions lead to the loss of life? On some levels, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 26 or 14 or 5 people whose lives ended in the custody of the government if your threshold for acceptability is 0, if you decide that life is so precious and we’ll make sure we treat everyone’s life as precious no matter the accused sins of the person living it are. If life is that precious, then you make sure people get the medication they need, are protected from violence, and not subjected to overt violence from the institution itself. We have not made that decision as a society. Instead, we’re using public institutions of accountability to reinforce power and moral codes. Restorative justice is on the margin in favor of incarceration. The rhetoric of deserving is very strong, that terrible circumstances happening to people deemed unworthy are considered acceptable. It comes up in some seemingly benign ways too – Think of the way people rejoiced when the homeless man who assisted at the Manchester attack suddenly got access to basic means of living. He deserves it, I’d see repeatedly on social media, as if people who are homeless and just trying to live have not otherwise demonstrated deserving.

We have far more methods to ascertain negative consequences for those who threaten police, or any other centralized authority, than we have in the other direction. The police have the authority, institutional and societal support, and motivation to pursue charges and justice against those who threaten the officers that serve. That’s a statement of fact, not one of judgement. Policing is a difficult job that exists because most of human history is a list of the ways people treated each other horribly. Police are people too – its ranks will include people who are awesome at their work, people who are alright, and people who are not because policing is a human institution and not exempt from human foibles and flaws. It needs to be held to the same accountability as the rest of society in order to hold legitimate trust. Arguing against that accountability, to me, is arguing that we risk dying so they can keep their power. Remember, you are always a potential target of someone else’s mistake, even if you do not consider yourself likely to be.

If there is tension between the government’s role to preserve order or to protect life, which is the direction that we prefer as a society? There will always be gray situations. I worry – we are a society characterized by inequity in material circumstances, political power, and the power to self-determine. It seems, to me at least, that the gut preference for most people is overwhelmingly in favor of decisions made by whatever entity holds power more so than to another idea or ideology (truth, life, etc). You could say that whomever causing death or deprivation is always wrong, but that’s not where most people’s instinctual reactions go. I worry about this. In the case of refugees, I’ve heard a lot of people expressing anxiety that permitting refugees (remember: people fleeing war) to come here introduces an unacceptable risk to their own safety. Because our own status is so important to us, because we are so quick to draw borders, boundaries, and lines, that we accept no risk despite the suffering of someone who is just as human as we are. Favoring the well-being and status of the better-off instead of the group as a whole is basically supremacy. The powerful need few advocates, and yet they have many.

Life is the most precious thing a person has; it is the reason we are all here; it is the only reason we are. How much accountability do we require of institutions of authority, police or otherwise? Where is the line between what we consider acceptable and unacceptable? How is that line decided?

Everything is defined by its edge – that is where we decide what is, and what is not. What is good, and what is not. What we value, and what we do not. Where is it? If we are to have a democratic society where individuals have sufficient rights to self-determine and be without imposing on others, we must require that our government and social institutions prize life, practice transparency and accountability, and defer to the people more often than it rules over them. Democracy and equity require the deference of power to others by those with excess and the acquisition of power by the disadvantaged. Our institutions could be great assets in facilitating that, but they need to be willing to take anti-supremacist views on the sanctity of life. We need our institutions and our society to value everyone, not just those who conform to the dominant ideas of worthiness.

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Every now and then I imagine how it could be so different.

Word on the internet is that we have a military-heavier, social welfare-lighter budget. I’m dismayed with the HUD cuts. I’m dismayed with the arts cuts. I’m dismayed by the cuts to meals for children and elderly and things that stated, as a society, that we cared for one another. If budgets are moral documents, as the participatory budgeting folks insist, I am dismayed that our top moral is dominance. More money to towards death of other human beings – literally. We’ll be building more weapons. Couple that with how capitalism is a competitive system, and when you cut the things that would make being on the losing end less painful, you assert the supposed-morality of dominance. Supremacy becomes righteousness. We could be so different.

As a society, we could do more to prioritize being human. Arts, mercy, charity, kindness, stuff like that. I am Unitarian Universalist. We disagree about a lot but we hold sacred the inherent worth and the dignity of every person. Being is enough. Inherent worth does not require that one’s body or abilities meets the metrics of what is useful or that one has lived their lives perfectly however society chooses to define “perfectly”. Inherent worth does not require a certain faith, ethnicity, or cultural heritage. I live in a society that often acts directly against that, in that we’ve distributed the things required for living on a basis of this competitive system, which ensures that some will go without. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of excellence but no one should forgo the means of survival when there are enough resources for everyone. There will always be people doing well and people doing badly under capitalism – shuffle the deck and see how it will go. The only thing that changes are your personal odds of landing in various parts of the deck – someone will always be at the bottom.

How you spend your time, energy, and treasure says a lot about your values. “Your” can be a person, group, country, or culture. I feel such sadness watching us devote so many of our resources to war. The military of my country inflicts so much death in the name of pro-active safety for us, and only us. It is wrong and I feel powerless. We do this to maintain our dominance meanwhile we dial back the support of some of the people within the country that dominance is suppose to befall on. It is not that we care about us, it’s about how much we valorize strength and the morality of winning.

Being human is sacred. We’re so bad at respecting that. We reflexively retreat to tribalism of whatever our favorite defining characteristic is. We’re struggling (to put it mildly) to make the space necessary to let different people just be, to let the fact that we’re all people be the overriding factor. We do not look at each other with eyes seeking affinity.

Supremacy is a cruel ideology. Things like immigration bans, turning away refugees, ending meals on wheels and the Community Development Block Grants in the name of more military spending and tax breaks for the rich make a lot of sense if your belief is in supremacy. Refugees are people who lost. Immigrants are people who lost. If you believe in the importance of winning, then turning your back on the suffering of others is easy to do. You win by eliminating your competition in supremacy, not by empathizing with them. At some point, the targets are just details. I see the bigger fight as a radical effort against the logic of supremacy and dominance. Making it normal for the so-called losers in our society to be dignified members of it, that undermines supremacy. The president of my country rose to power decrying “losers”. He’s so directly into supremacy. I see people of my ideological affinity tearing apart the details of what he does when most problems come down to this pathological need to win, win, win. Think about the prosperity gospels. Think about the rags to riches story. Think about the fact that so many people see civil rights as a zero sum game.

It is not even just rights – people see life itself as a zero-sum game, acting like others are inherently our competitors. We act like we’ve cheated death if someone else dies first, and if their death makes us believe in our own triumph, so be it. We act as if the grim reaper isn’t standing in the doorway, thumbing her way through a list that we just haven’t been called up yet. As humanity, we could decide to make death our common enemy, put down our weapons, and decide we want to sink our energy into the collective pursuit and preservation of the sacred: life of human beings. We don’t. We never have, at least not in a complete way that doesn’t talk about of both sides of our mouth. We could be so different. Yet, here we are.

I work in homelessness alleviation as a way to defy the norms of supremacy. I advocate anti-racist ideology to undermine supremacy. I do my best to practice generosity as way to erode the cultural ethos that states acquisition and dominance is the most important thing. I don’t have it right. I think I have it better though, than living by the capitalist ethics of power. I think about it constantly – how do we level power? And how do I show other people my vision of how we could be. I think the way that I do largely due to religion – both the Catholicism of my youth and the Unitarian Universalist humanism that I practice now. That’s hardly universal. People of faith are the most radical dissenters and ardent enforcers of supremacy. So how do I go about making this better until my name shows up at the top of the grim reaper’s to-do list?

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Filed under Dystopia, Social Justice Commentary

limits of my power

I keep asking myself, over and over again:
What can I do?
Who do I do it with?
What can I accomplish, with this increasingly diminished amount of energy?

And I look on the margins of what I already do to see if I can do more
And I look at what needs to be done and see if I have the competence to do it
And I try and fail, over and over again

If I ever figure this out, I will let you know.

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Filed under Dystopia, Social Justice Commentary

Sharp blades sheathed

image by Prawny on

image by Prawny on

The younger version of me used to swing her sword around anytime she felt inclined. Elder me keeps it sheathed most of the time. Experience taught me that sharp edges cut, the words I say do land and mean something. I have power, and I chose to be more discerning about it. I don’t want the trees around me to fall because I was not paying attention. So I sat. I watched. I thought. Sometimes I overthought. The fact is this: when you cut a connection, you rarely get it back.

I spend a lot of time on the New York State Thruway. Family will do that. NYS Thruway is pretty through the Catskills, but I live in Western New York state, where it passes through enough flat farm fields for a statistically rigorous sample to conclude they are not terribly exciting to look at. No sight-seeing in this utilitarian endeavor; the goal is to pass through as quick as safety and legality will permit.

Discussions of whether “ends justifying means” or not implicitly imply that the ends and the means are as separate entities as my parents’ home from an interstate highway. Like the experience of the journey is only as important as it leads you to the intended outcome.

Outcome and process are woven together. Rev. Sekou said in this Fortification podcast, “You are making the road as you walk.” You build your destination with the road as well. Each cobble placed in the road becomes a piece of the house’s foundation. Even when a house is “finished”, you don’t put away your tools. Every “finished” house will require more effort in the form of repairs, but houses made of sturdier materials will require it less often.

There’s so much falsehoods flying around this election. A friend attributes it to an “at all costs” politck. We are in an era of institutional distrust. The sort of fact-finding and descriptive statistics I trade in were the currency of a supposed elite, distrusted by many. It seemed that people believed they are right because they believe everything they think. It doesn’t matter the political orientation. I found people of both left and right orientations falling for conspiratorial thinking, an us-vs-them political and rhetorical advocacy, like everyone was trying to paint a black and white world where they stood on the side of righteousness. Confirmation bias runs wild, robbing us blind of our ability to make good judgments. Nuanced opinions were a quiet murmur, the sound of a pond’s ripples next to the boom of jet engines. Even if the majority, they were drowned out.

Sometimes the other-guy got painted as a caricature of evil. If you heeded the battle call, you’d pull out your sword and charge against an enemy that was only partly true, and partly illusion. These battle calls, laced with exaggeration in some cases and bloody truth in others, would tell you that a screw needed a hammer often enough that it was never apparent when the instructions were accurate. I felt betrayed when I realized that sometimes the people I am inclined to agree with are full of it. I sense that sometimes non-profits and politicians fall for the temptation to exaggerate bad situations, maybe through inflated numbers, maybe through connections that don’t exist, to try to rally more support. Problems are sufficiently bad on their own; but what do they actually look like? Uh. Sigh.

I want to build a house, but I can’t if the road you give me for an address doesn’t exist. I cannot defeat an army that’s half mirage. So I sat back, sword in sheath, trowel in pocket, drawing my map as I went because I trusted fewer people as this journey went on. I felt like this path destined me to a crumbling house in a haunted neighborhood.

It seems needless. In a context where I could not discern what was, where so much was not to be trusted, I did not feel confident using my voice as one to lead if I could not feel confident in my own ways to go. So I stayed put and did the best I could. I am still scratching my head at what to do next.

Besides voting. I’ll vote. And then? Who knows.

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Filed under Excessive allegory, Social Justice Commentary


Maybe it is because I am older. I’m finally at a point where I am comfortable with my demons. Not overly so; we aren’t snuggling on the couch watching Sherlock. I no longer pretend they are else where, or no where at all. I am less uneasy sitting at my dining room table sipping my third cup of coffee as we share breakfast. It is better this way. I was ashamed of them, as is normal, and spent my time avoiding the dining room hoping that if I never ate I’d starve them into nonexistence. Problem: I could not survive on incompleteness. So, here we are, passing each other stale toast. It’s not unconditional acceptance. I polished their horns and claws with fine grit sandpaper masquerading as polishing cloth. The instructions said these demons would sparkle so much they’d get confused for the decor. The process hurt, no one is prettier, and no one is fooled; I did succeed in blunting the edge.

I’ve been thinking about protest. It’s a statement. It’s an aesthetic. I’m much more keen on the statement than the aesthetic, though the paint color adorns a wall of the dining room. The demons raise their eyebrows, and motion with the toast, “Really? That? It’s hideous. It’s ugly in it’s own right and it matches nothing else here.” I’ll tell them I didn’t put it up because it was pretty. I thought it was the right thing to do. Then they’ll point out the cracks in the wall and something about lead paint remediation gone wrong. I finish cup of coffee number three.

Protest is a statement, and despite comfort with the sound, I’ve got bandwidth problems. How is it humanly possible to reach one’s arms wide enough to broadcast the messages worth saying and keep holding that which you must not drop? I usually sacrifice the reach, as some of what I hold can only reside in my hands. It is not a perfect solution. Sometimes, when you do not reach, no one else does either. Sometimes, it must be you. I feel like my arms are so outstretched that they are one error of scheduling away from popping out of my shoulder sockets, a fact that doesn’t diminish that there is always, always, always more to do. Some dropped balls bounce. Some dropped balls break. There are glass shards on the floor from when I’ve guessed wrong, permanently ground into the carpet without even the courtesy of a treacherous sparkle.

Maybe it is because I am older; my vision is blurry. I am surrounded by gray. The air is gray, the ground is gray, the sky is gray and even the bathwater is gray. The sharp, defined lines delineating paths have blurred. The easily identified fence between the Good and the Bad has transformed into a mild gradient on a slight incline, where even Good and Bad blur together and it begins to feel like they are the same property. The moral compass spins and fractures, and the map to the right decision leads you to the mistake you’d most prefer. Even when I grab buckets of paint to recolor the world into something my younger self saw, I find I’ve just covered it with a different shade of gray. Sometimes it seems as the paint might as well be invisible, for all this work and it is all the same. Struggling to change the status quo can be insufficient to change it, I learn time and time again. At least this color matches my furniture.

I struggle with what to do. The demons sometimes sound like my closest friends, especially when I ask advice about tricky things, and they say the same thing. I sit at the table sipping my fourth cup of coffee wondering if I’ve miscast these demons, if the story I wrote for them in my life is overly dismissive; maybe they aren’t demons at all. Was the sharp delineation I gave them from the rest of myself just a self-deluded optical illusion? Are they as gray as the rest of everything? Did I imagine that they had a sharp contrast with the rest of myself? I was in stage tech. I sat behind the scenes. I learned all the techniques to make make-believe seem magic. I learned the art of mirage. I am privy to what makes the performance convincing, but have I fallen for it?

Though there is a pile of crumbs on my dining room floor, no one seems to have finished eating. No one seems ready to leave. If I wait long enough, if I overthink everything enough, it’ll all fade to gray, and I won’t be able to see a thing.


Filed under Excessive allegory, Lessons Learned The Hard Way, Personal, Social Justice Commentary

Dusty White

I spent Saturday afternoon in a Presbyterian Church I’d never heard of, in a suburb I rarely visit, for a racial justice training. I’d do it again. Show Up For Racial Justice is an anti-racist organization meant to organize white people for action. The underlying premise is racism is white people’s problem and it is on us to fix it. I went to a training for people of faith. Do it. If you have the opportunity, just do it. Here are a few rough ideas that I got from it, which I wished to share.

Perfection is the expectation of white supremacy, the facilitator, Rev. Anne Dunlap, said. Aha, she is right. Your actions are unworthy if not perfect, you shouldn’t speak up unless you have exactly the right thing to say, your tone of voice and delivery have to be perfect. The person needs to be in the right sort of relationship with you. The stars need to align and then you can talk about racial oppression, this giant machine that pushes forward with every turn of even the littlest gear’s teeth. Your work is slowing the machine, sanding down the teeth, maybe even dismantling the gears. White supremacy demands waiting for the perfect sized hammer that will never come, instead of the one you can reach.

It was illuminating. Prior to that moment I’d struggle to understand what people meant by white supremacy being a scourge on white people’s souls. Listen: my concept of my own soul is like a cup of water held over a lake, only without the cup, just in your hands. It spills out, it’s poorly bounded, prone to evaporate – I mean, what is my soul? My humanism sits on the border of secular and religious. And to say it damages us when we were never meant to be whole to begin with (who gets through life unscathed?) seems a bit melodramatic. I have so little patience for that. But the expectation of perfection made sense. I’m not sure if it’s whiteness or the supremacy (what is whiteness without the supremacy?) but I appreciated that insight.

I’d been saying this, but I appreciated hearing it elsewhere: too many progressive tactics create boundary policing instead of persuasion. Are you a good person who agrees with me or a bad person who does not? Turns out the insult of saying someone is wrong or bad (white supremacy demands perfection for value – being wrong is a threat) is not really strategically effective. So ways to pull someone over. And I appreciate this because I keep finding myself in circumstances where it seems we’ve all forgotten we have to share this country with people we disagree with, and that is frustrating. I would like a shift towards a cultural value of compromise.

White supremacy has defined racism itself, and the way to cope with it, in such as way as to prevent it from being unraveled. Speaking of whiteness is taboo. I have started describing myself as white to strangers looking to meet me, and I sense discomfort with naming my race. It is invisible, co-opting a national culture as its own and claiming everything else is deviant. We have racial prejudice and system participation as making someone “bad” and then made “bad” the worse thing you can be, no acknowledgement of human failing. Thus confronting racism becomes a threat to a white person’s self-worth.

I wonder if having experiences where I feel I can no longer claim moral purity helps on this path. For instance, I’m not a vegan anymore. For a time I was an ardent one. And I wish I could go through the world with the vegan vision: not harming any other life with my own. I learned the hard way that a plant-exclusive diet was incompatible with my health. It was a myth, anyway: we live in houses made from the corpses of trees, wear clothes from the corpses of either plants, cows, or dinosaurs, farming hurts rodents, and I accidentally and unknowingly kill bugs as I walk. Washing my hands kills bacteria. I remember realizing this and felt like it had to be possible, if I just tried harder! Life requires death. I hate this. It’s a tension for me, that I hold, because I do value my existence, and the health of the other two people who have relied on my body for their well-being. And so white supremacy is also a tension, and confronting it feels less like an existential threat to my goodness because goodness is an ideal more so than a reality of perfection.

In any case – good training, you should go.

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Notes from the Hegemon



I remember when the planes hit the towers. I was a sophomore in high school in Academic Support, the euphemistic name the district gave study hall, making up a Global History quiz I missed. My teacher, Ms. Zalewski, turned on the TV. One of the World Trade Center towers was on fire. She was somber. I assumed it was an accident and was astonished that the plane couldn’t miss the building.

I went the band room for the second half to practice clarinet. Soon, I was the only person in the hall. My (to this day!) dear friend Laura pulled me out and told me a second plane hit the other tower. It was then that I, and maybe everyone else, realized it wasn’t an accident. I remember thinking, “Our turn.” See, I’d spent my youth watching coverage of bombs in the Balkans, bombs in Israel and Palestine, mines in Africa and Asia, bombs seemingly everywhere. Violence seemed to be the way of the world. I’ve never met anyone who also had this reaction.

My countrymen were scared. Isolated by oceans and protected by the strongest military in the world, this sort of attack struck everyone else as unfathomable. We reacted. Oh, did we react. We swiftly went to war and we’ve been at war ever since, about half my lifetime.

I watched as we traded civil liberties for a chance at that fleeting feeling of protection. I watched as a group I rarely thought about before – Muslims – suddenly became the denigrated group. I watched as people approximately my age joined the military and hearing about how some of them never came back. I watched as my country opened a detention center offshores, and then another, and then another despite violating war crimes ethics and conventions. I watched as so many of the values I was taught we had as a child were undone in the name of safety and security. Dissenters were unpatriotic. It became thought reasonable to judge an entire religion based on its extremists. White Christians who never apologized for Timothy McVeigh (who is from my area) demanded apologies from Muslims for 9/11, contributing and creating a conventional (if inaccurate) wisdom that Muslims are violent. The surveillance state grew, buoyed by technological advances and the support of a scared population. I felt like I’d lost my country a bit, that this sweet land of liberty was tip-toeing towards becoming a fear-driven police state.

Getting older has been a disenchanting process realizing that we are not now, nor never have been, as good as I thought. As governor after governor (and some of my local politicians) try to block Syrian refugees from settling in their states, I realize this: We’ve learned nothing. This is textbook, exactly what we did with the Jewish refugees and look what happened to them. The terror attacks in France were horrific, as terror attacks always are. Horrific and apparently effective, as politicians are now shifting their rhetoric because they are scared, because they sense their constituents are scared, and exploiting fear is politically profitable. Never mind that this is more or less the goal of Daesh/ISIS.

I had already written letters to several elected officials asking they increase the refugee quotas. I live in a depopulated city near many refugees. My next door neighbor was one. A couple families down the street are refugees. A few blocks over and there are many more refugees. Some of them are Muslim. I love where I live and I have the absolute best neighbors. Then I called the governor, called my Congressman with my telephone as it seemed every public figure on Facebook’s comments were filled with people asking to drive the refugees away. No, no, no, no, no…. not this again.

Listen, I’ve known people with Syrian heritage. Heck, I have kin with Syrian heritage! Some are Muslim. Some are Christian. One is Jewish. Syrians are not a monolith. Everything I know about the Syrian war is that it is absolutely brutal. I can’t read about it. I work on problems of profound human misery for a living and I cannot read about the Syrian War or ISIS/Daesh because it’s too bad for me to cope. I get nightmares for days. I give money to refugee agencies, but that is all I can do as an individual. I rely on forces more powerful than I to make wise decisions and here we are closing the door because of the chance – the chance! – that someone from Syria could cause us harm. The chance that someone born in our own country could cause us harm doesn’t inspire us to more strictly regulate our weapons. The fact that cars are the most likely thing to kill us hasn’t inspired most of us to trade in our keys for public transit. We’re more likely to die from overindulging in our dinners and forgetting to exercise than we are in a terror attack but Syrians are the real threat, and please pass the butter.

Refusing to be afraid is a political act. Walking home at night when you are a woman is a political act when everyone tells you that you are assault bait. Not being anxious going into a “bad” (read: usually Black and usually poor) neighborhood is a political act if you are a white person and your society is structured on fearing non-white people. There is this vein in our culture that anything is justifiable if it could protect us from the people we dislike, as if safety were paramount. It’s completely based on prejudice. Crimes rates have been dropping? Whatever. Immigrants commit fewer crimes? Forget it.

I’m so sick of reading comments on my local news websites written by people using the fanciest technology that humanity has ever known, sitting in the wealthiest country of the world, begrudging letting what ends up being relatively few people to their cushy sphere of prosperity because they don’t want their taxes dollars spent on them. Or because they are afraid of “those people”. “Can you justify the risk” I’ve read, over and over again, “that you or your loved ones might be the target of a terrorist who slips in?” We justify lots of risks all of the time. Yet, here, the risk of one person doing harm to us is so great that we should let hundreds of thousands of people die in the process, because we won’t trust an thorough federal government over our prejudices. We value our lives more than anyone else’s. All of our foreign policies boil down to that. We won’t give up our hegemonic position and we’ll kill or let die anyone who we think might threaten that.

We are no better than anyone else, but we certainly act as if our lives are. At the time when “All Lives Matter” is the preferred dismissive retort to those advocating for African American rights, we turn our backs on refugees and bomb the Middle East. All lives matter indeed.

I often think back to September 11, 2001, and mourn, “It could have been so different.” If only we we’d been, or could be now, a bit braver. I hold on to optimism that we could find courage from common humanity, that we could be so brave as to be the moral example, that we could be the model of ideal humanity. I cannot make that argument as we close our doors and use our powers and privileges to ruthlessly prioritize our own safety. I cannot make that claim as our elected leaders attempt to push out the vulnerable.

We could do better. May we be brave enough to live with moral courage, instead of deferring to the impulse of safety at all costs. All costs have been too expensive and it is not going to become cheaper.

11/18/15-edited for grammar and typos.

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Filed under Class Warfare, Lessons Learned The Hard Way, Race, Social Justice Commentary