Ten dead in Oregon: How many more?!

As I write this, there is an “active shooter situation” at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. 10 people are dead according to reports, while possibly 20 more are injured. Soon the politicians will express their regrets and condolences and the feeling that “what can you do?” and let’s not politicize this (from Republicans); or anger, and bluster, and then “Washington gridlock” what can you do? (from Dems). Right now I want the anger to burn. This is a terrorist conspiracy which has been unleashed on the American people by the NRA, the gun industry, and their lacky politicians from both parties. Right now as ten more people lie dead we have to focus our anger on our electeds and tell them that it is time that they looked into the contracts that the government has with the gun industry, and whether those contracts are directly or indirectly funding this kind of terror—by funding NRA and anti-gun control propaganda. We have to turn to our clergy, rabbis, priests, imams, and demand that they declare a state of moral emergency. It is impossible to create a just society in a state of war. It is impossible for people to come together in a state of war. We must stop the shooting, and get rid of the guns, before there is any hope of moving towards a more just society. Declare a state of moral emergency. Start investigating the NRA as being an accessory to murder. Stop contracting with companies that lobby against gun control laws. People are dying in the streets every day. Almost 10,000 people are dead this year. Over 20,000 are injured. From gun violence. Enough.

Call your congress people. http://www.contactingthecongress.org/

Call your state reps. https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials

Isaiah’s State of Emergency (on homelessness in LA)

The good news is that Los Angeles has declared a State of Emergency on homelessness. This will enable the city to focus $100 million in resources towards housing those on the streets and preventing others from falling into homelessness. The bad news is that there has been a homelessness crisis for years. In fact, for much of that time, the city was part of the problem. At the beginning of the summer, City Council passed an ordinance which allowed LAPD or other city workers to confiscate (“steal”) the private property of people living on the streets—including their ID and medicines. While the summer in the poverty and homelessness committee of City Council has been spent in an attempt to gently walk back parts of the ordinance (which our mayor didn’t sign, but did not veto, and therefore it became law), the basic idea that being homeless is a criminal activity deserving of punishment still standsIMG_1393.

It is therefore a positive development that the same Council members from the Homelessness and Poverty Committee, were those who were, with the mayor, announcing a state of emergency. One, however, remains skeptical. In the last budget, approximately $100 million was allocated for homelessness. However, out of that $81 million was for LAPD while only $13 million was for homeless services. Criminalizing and jailing homeless folks will not solve the problem. This morning, the mayor again promised $100 million for fighting homelessness, and again said that $13 million would be put towards housing. In Los Angeles’ insane housing market, when there is not enough existing housing stock to house all those who need housing, $13 million is woefully inadequate. Luckily, along with members of the business community (a lot of the same folks who opposed the $15 an hour wage) there was a strong showing of housing and homeless advocates at the press conference this morning, to remind the mayor and the council that we will be keeping a wary eye on where the money ends up, and whether the community has serious input into those decisions.

On this day before Yom Kippur, I felt the spirit of Isaiah standing with us, with his stern and steely gaze taking in the press conference, but also seeing the folks who had spent the night sleeping on the grass of the South Lawn, and also the five to six thosuand who were living in tents and in the open five or six blocks south on skid row.

I heard him saying:

Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him…

It is appropriate to go into the fast of Yom Kippur bothered and unsettled by this.

To all who are fasting, may it be meaningful, may it propel you on to do the work of justice, may you and yours merit a good and healthy year.

On Power and Violence (Baltimore, for example)

Watching, reading, and thinking about Baltimore, the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police, and the current nonviolent and violent reactions to that killing, I keep going back to Hannah Arendt. Arendt, in her essay on violence, draws an important distinction between violence and power.

Politically speaking, it is not enough to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.  (Reflections on Violence)

The power that concerns Arendt is the power of political communities. Power is the result of people coming together for political ends. Or as Arendt says: “Power needs no justification as it is inherent in the very existence of political communities…”. However, Arendt here adds a supremely important caveat: “…what, however, it does need is legitimacy.” Power is dependent on legitimacy. This is why violence is the opposite of power. When the power of a political community is legitimate, when it is recognized as legitimate by those who form the community, then there is no need for the violence of domination. It is only when legitimacy disappears that violence takes center stage. Continue reading

Sitting with the powerful (on the women’s fast for $15)

I had the unique pleasure and privilege late yesterday afternoon to sit with six of the twelve powerful, brave women who were in the seventh day of a fifteen day fast. They are fasting to bring attention to the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It was a privilege to be brought into their circle.

They shared their challenges and their blessings. Martha Sanchez grew up in Mexico, and raised her seven siblings by herself as her mother had emigrated to the United States in order to send back money to support the family. She said that this was the first time she felt comfortableamong these women—to publicly recount the hardships of her childhood, the hunger and the abuse. She is driven by the hope that her children’s life will be better. That she and her husband won’t both have to work so much, because of low wages, that they don’t see their own children.IMG_0936

TJ Michaels is an organizer with SEIU 721 and the Fix LA coalition. She is fasting as a sacrifice to identify with the sacrifices of single mothers who, in her words, “make 26 sacrifices every morning before I wake up.” She spoke her frustration earlier yesterday at a City Council meeting. She pointed out to council members that 40% of Angelinos make under $15 an hour, and if they really wanted to do something about homelessness in the homelessness capital of the country, they would raise the minimum wage. (A living wage for an adult with one child in Los Angeles is $23.53 an hour. $15 an hour is a step in the right direction, but it is not the shores of Canaan.) Continue reading

On the way to Sinai (on racism and economic justice)

We are on a journey. This period that we are now moving through, the seven weeks that start on the second day of Passover and end at Shavuot or Weeks,  the next holiday in the calendrical cycle, is a journey from Egypt to Sinai. It is deeply symbolic that as the first day of Passover was waning this year, we were marking the 47th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year that anniversary was marked amidst the outcries of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, amidst the sounds of gunshots and the cries of unarmed black and brown men killed by officers of the law, of the state.

Africa shootingWe are on a journey—but where are we going? Continue reading

Together We are Strong (On the labor horizon at this moment)

At a dinner the other night I was talking to a good friend who works in the hi-tech industry. Knowing that I blog about economic justice issues he suggested I write about the “Uber and Lyft economy.” “The whole world is Uber and Lyft,” he said, arguing that the working conditions of Uber and Lyft drivers—wherein the company controls the working hours and working conditions of the drivers, and yet considers them to be independent contractors and therefore is not responsible for paying their social security tax, health insurance, etc.—are not exclusive to Uber and Lyft. Rather, he said, corporations in general were trying to move to a model wherein all workers were independent contractors and therefore the corporations have no obligations to them beyond basic salary.

I agreed with him that this is a serious issue. When I suggested however that it was tied to the larger labor issues in the economory—wage theft and working conditions amongst low wage workers, truck drivers at the ports and other folks—he was surprised. He did not know that wage theft was such a problem. (In truth, this should be the reaction of any moral person. How could someone steal someone else’s wages? In the Talmud, wage theft is compared to “murder” (Baba Metzia 111b) ) Continue reading

This is not a travelogue (With AJWS in Central America)

The word that kept coming up was “accompaniment” (acompañamiento in Spanish). In the second floor offices of the poetically named sex workers’ rights organization Flor de Piedra (Flower from the Stone) in San Salvador—ten or fifteen off-white plastic chairs set in rows on a tile floor under a glass roof; coils of barbed wire on the wall between this building and the next—a reflection of the high rate of violence and fear pervasive in El Salvador—four or five staff in their thirties and forties, sex workers of the same age who were members of the organization.

In the heavily secured (thick metal gate at the top of the steep staircase, barbed wire visible through the window) second story offices of COMCAVIS Trans—a necessity because of the violence faced by trans women on a daily basis—sitting in a cramped corner office with the slightest hint of a breeze on a typically hot San Salvador afternoon. Listening to Natalie, a member of the board of directors, speak about the dangers that the trans women who are members of COMCAVIS trans face on a daily basis. The mission of the organization is to represent, defend, and promote trans women’s human rights. However, when Diana, a native of San Salvador, who joined after a friend was assassinated, spoke of the importance of COMCAVIS, she spoke of accompaniment. Sullai spoke about the fact that COMCAVIS helped her get a restraining order against her brother who had threatened her. Other members recalled sitting in the hospital with a member who’d been attacked because her family refused to come see her. Continue reading

Are we still marching with King?

Speaking@SCLCThese are remarks I made at the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California Interfaith Breakfast in honor of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to open this reflection with a quote from the sixth century Babylonian Talmud: “Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage.” (Yoma 22b-23a)

Celebrating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one might think that I could have found a more appropriate quote than this one. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind and I think it appropriate. “But wait!” you might object, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” This is true. However, the Talmud is teaching us that there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for righteous rage is tar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Rabbi who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Rabbi. The Rabbi who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Rabbi. Continue reading

When Our Judges Need to Be Judged

IMG_0708_11At Leimert Park, the man was holding a sign that said “We now have judges that cannot judge.” Midst chanting “No justice, no peace” and “Hey Ho, racist cops have gotta go” I kept coming back to this plaintive sign. It brought to mind the midrash which comments on the first verse in the Book of Ruth: “In the days when the chieftains ruled.” The Hebrew uses the same root for both noun and verb and has the more poetic: biymay shfot ha-shoftim. When the judges judged, perhaps. The midrash comments: “Woe to the generation which judged its judges, woe to the generation whose judges needed to be judged.” (Ruth Rabba 1:16)

Police officers are part of the judiciary. When asked about the role of police officers in light of Jewish textual tradition, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv (in a small book called Dvar HaMishpat: Hilchot Sanhedrin 1:7) discussed the idea that the police are invested with judicial authority and not merely with punitive or protective authority. Therefore, the Talmud’s demand (Bavli Rosh Hashanah 26a) that a court has two obligations—both judging (deciding law based on the facts and testimony) and saving (attempting as best as they could to find a defendant innocent)—would also apply to police. This translates to the fact that police officers are in a situation wherein they are obligated to defuse, and deescalate a situation rather than to “put down” a threat.

We are now in a time when some of our police officers, and some of the officers of the courts, cannot or will not judge. They will not judge the judges. Woe to our generation for our judges surely need to be judged.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—eighth night

The deepest yet also the simplest truth of Hanukkah is that it is a holiday about a miracle. The real power of the miracle, however, is not that one cruse of pure oil was found after the Temple was defiled by occupying forces. Neither is the real power that that one cruse of oil burned for eight days when it should have burned for only one day. The real power is the story of the miracle itself.

In the earliest accounts of the Hanukkah story (the Books of Maccabees) and even in the earliest liturgy (the al hanisim prayer that is still recited today) the focus is on a military victory. The Rabbis refocus the holiday to celebrate a miracle of light. This is the powerful story. A narrative of uncontrolled violence—which is what every armed conflict becomes—is replaced by a vision of light.

Tonight as we shine the full power of the Hanukah lights into the public domain, let us draw from that miracle and proclaim that violence only ever begets violence and darkness. Only light begets more light. This is our charge. This is our time.