The Plan

This story first aired on the NPR Radio show This American Life on February 29, 2008 as Act Two of Human Resources:

American cities have gone through a massive wave of gentrification in the last few decades. To some people, it’s not a natural ebb and flow of the real estate market, but a plot, by rich, mainly white people, to take over the neighborhoods of poor, mainly black people. This American Life producer Jon Jeter reports on how, in neighborhoods all over the country, the plot has a name, “The Plan,” and most people you talk to know about it. (11 minutes)


Killings of Arbery and Martin tragically similar

Photo: MGN

This article first published 6/4/20 by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Will the outcomes prove similar as well?

News Analysis

As the preliminary hearing gets underway in Georgia for Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and William Bryan in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, it has not gone unnoticed that the fatal shooting of Arbery, an unarmed Black jogger in February by two White men, bears a striking resemblance to another slaying eight years ago—that of Trayvon Martin.

Both the 17-year-old Martin and the 25-year-old Arbery were accosted by self-appointed White vigilantes who shot them at point-blank range after a scuffle. In both cases, prosecutors initially declined to prosecute and charges were filed only after weeks of sustained pressure from the Black communities in both Deep South states.

In the Arbery case, charges were brought against the McMichaels only following protests and the release of a gruesome cellphone video that depicts a clearly unarmed Arbery merely jogging down a neighborhood street in the city of Brunswick in the southeastern part of the state.

No attorney would’ve called the State’s case against George Zimmerman for murdering an unarmed teenager “airtight.” But prosecutors were so ineffective in the 2013 trial that it left more than a few trial lawyers and legal scholars wondering aloud whether the prosecution didn’t intentionally lose the case.

In a 2016 law review article, Boston College law professor Mark Brodin wrote that prosecutors in Florida bungled the Trayvon Martin case by “committing the most inexplicable strategic and evidentiary blunders of a type that experienced prosecutors would very likely not commit in a more earnest effort to convict.”

Of the prosecution’s many missteps, Brodin wrote that the most damning might’ve been the failure to “to convey to the trial jury this simple narrative of racial profiling and stalking by a vigilante not acting under color of law.”

Calling the trial an “homage to racial vigilantism,” Mark K. Spencer, a former deputy state’s attorney in the Washington D.C. suburbs, concurred with Brodin’s assessment of the prosecution’s failure. “The Trayvon Martin case represented one of the gravest miscarriages of justice I’ve ever seen,” he said.

The default position of the criminal justice system, according to Brodin and many other attorneys, is to reflexively protect the killers of Black males, particularly if they are law enforcement officers or their surrogates. This raises a profound question as the state of Georgia prepares to try the McMichaels: Are prosecutors in it to win?

In an email to the Spokesman-Recorder, Brodin wrote: “This ‘playing to lose’ strategy is a theme that runs through many ‘prosecutions’ of White police or vigilantes who have killed Black men. As you know, there are structural and institutional barriers that interfere when police officers commit crimes, as they are viewed as part of the ‘law enforcement team’ by prosecutors.

“And then systemic racism (tainting judge and jurors) often raises its ugly face at the trial when it’s a White cop and Black victim. Thankfully we have a few progressive prosecutors (Philadelphia, Boston, Brooklyn) who are starting to fight the influence of race and class in our criminal justice system, but they are clearly the exceptions.

“The result has been a greenlighting of gross police misconduct across the nation.”

Zimmerman was, of course, only a police “wannabe” although he was friendly with patrol officers in the community. The elder McMichael, on the other hand, was a retired officer who had worked as an investigator with the local prosecutor’s office.

The Thin Blue Line

The video of the assault on Arbery is damning but it is not, in and of itself, enough to win a conviction, explained Spencer, who presently serves as inspector general for the Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Department. The often cozy relationship between prosecutors and police tilts the playing field in favor of law enforcement, he said.

During his early days as a prosecutor nearly 30 years ago, he said it was not uncommon for the prosecutors to encourage defendants to sign a waiver absolving police officers of any liability for the use of excessive force or other misconduct.

“The challenges with accountability for potential acts of police misconduct were, are, and will always be problematic because of the structure of our justice system,” Spencer said. “In my experience most prosecutors avoid being assigned police accountability cases because there has been little reward in pursuing them. The cases are always difficult to assess and present because each of the working parts involves many sometimes interlocking relationships.”

He continued, “Imagine prosecuting a case where the police are the principle or only source of evidence. The police were the first responders to a crime scene or complaint. The police control the crime scene and the quality and quantity of evidence that is collected.

“And the police are potentially the principal witnesses or sole witnesses to an event that may have included police misconduct. Trying to pierce the ‘Thin Blue Line’ is mostly a daunting task.”

The Martin case is by no means unique. When the Bronx district attorney in 2000 failed to procure a conviction against four New York City police officers for the fusillade of gunfire that killed an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, some immediately questioned whether the State intentionally undermined its case to shore up support for the City’s aggressive police tactics.

One African American juror, Lavette Freeman, told reporters at the time that she understood the protests that followed the verdict, but jurors felt they had no choice but to acquit. ”I have to take it back to the district attorney’s office. They didn’t give me anything. Nothing.”

Another complication in the case against the McMichaels will undoubtedly be the state’s “Stand Your Ground” statute, which was cited by the original prosecutor in the case, George Barnhill, in declining to pursue charges.

Stand Your Ground effectively overturns a legal principle dating back to 17th century British common law requiring that a claimant demonstrate a defensive posture before using lethal force. The Castle Doctrine, however — a man’s home is his castle — provides an exemption in the case of an intruder or burglar.

Stand Your Ground laws expand the legal justification for lethal self-defense and give prosecutors broad discretion to apply the law. While Zimmerman’s lawyers did not rely on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in their defense, jurors in Martin’s murder trial were instructed to consider the law in their deliberations. “Trayvon Martin was betrayed by the entire American legal community,” decried Spencer.

Healthcare industry bias portends trouble for Blacks during pandemic

Photo: MGN

This article first published 4/24/20 by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

University of Miami Health System physician Armen Henderson was loading supplies into his van recently, preparing to test the city’s homeless population for the coronavirus under an I-95 overpass, when suddenly a City of Miami police officer pulled up behind him.

From his patrol car, the uniformed officer began to innocuously question Henderson, who is Black. Henderson described the encounter like this: “He [the officer] just said, ‘Are you littering over here? Do you live here? Do you work here?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I live here. This is where we put our bulky trash and the City comes to pick it up every week at this same place.”


Photo courtesy Dr. Armen Henderson. “Dr. Armen Henderson being handcuffed”

Suddenly, the encounter turned sinister, Henderson said. The officer jumped from the car “and started yelling, ‘You call me sir or sergeant when I’m talking to you.’ I never said I was a doctor. But I didn’t cuss,” Henderson told the MSR. “He just grabbed my arms and cuffed me.”

Henderson said when the officer started to handcuff him he called for his wife to bring him his ID. A video of the incident taken by the couple’s home security cameras shows Henderson’s wife exiting the house moments later with what appears to be a driver’s license.

The video shows the officer releasing Henderson from handcuffs several moments later. The video has been viewed over seven million times on various social media forums.

“He just got in his car and drove away,” Henderson told the MSR, “without apologizing.” The confrontation between the two men on the last Saturday in March helps to explain why the coronavirus pandemic is nearly twice as deadly for Blacks and Latinos as it is for Whites. There are, in point of fact, two scourges for two Americas—one biological, one man-made.

While Whites need only concern themselves with the first, People of Color generally, and 42 million African Americans especially are tasked with surviving the worst global pandemic in a century. They must do so with no more material resources than their ancestors owned on New Years’ Day in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

What this means is that the same racist attitudes that compel law-enforcement officers to terrorize Blacks in the streets are often shared by some medical professionals who treat African American patients with a cold indifference.

A recent study by the American Bar Association concluded that, aside from wide racial disparities in access to health care, “Black people simply are not receiving the same quality of health care that their White counterparts are receiving.”

The ABA continued, “For example, one study of 400 hospitals in the United States showed that Black patients with heart disease received older, cheaper, and more conservative treatments than their White counterparts. Black patients were less likely to receive coronary bypass operations and angiography. After surgery, they are discharged earlier from the hospital than White patients—at a stage when discharge is inappropriate.

“The same goes for other illnesses. Black women are less likely than White women to receive radiation therapy in conjunction with a mastectomy. In fact, they are less likely to receive mastectomies. Perhaps more disturbing is that Black patients are more likely to receive less desirable treatments.

“The rates at which Black patients have their limbs amputated is higher than those for White patients. Additionally, Black patients suffering from bipolar disorder are more likely to be treated with antipsychotics despite evidence that these medications have long-term negative effects and are not effective.”

Henderson said that only four percent of licensed physicians nationwide are Black, meaning that on top of the litany of cradle-to-grave disadvantages that help to weaken African Americans’ immune systems—from living in food deserts and atop environmental dump sites, to the proliferation of water and utility shutoffs, to homelessness, to prison overcrowding, to high-stress levels—Blacks are often treated by doctors who share the same racial biases as the police officer who handcuffed him.

Studies have shown that the affluent are tested for the virus at a rate that is far higher than low-income people; as evidence, Henderson noted that a testing site in Miami’s historically Black neighborhood of Liberty City opened only three weeks ago.

Moreover, he said, he’s heard of doctors charging Black patients in South Florida as much as $200 for the $40 test. “I can definitely see bias creeping into decisions about who gets ventilators and who gets [do not resuscitate].”

People are testing positive and getting sent home, and how can you quarantine when you live in a [crowded] two-bedroom apartment? There is no protocol, and if there is no protocol, doctors can do what they want. I definitely think that unconscious bias is playing a role in the way that things are happening the way they are.”

Submitted photo [MSR]. “Dr. Armen Henderson”


These disparities are part of the reason that Henderson and activists with the nonprofit groups Dream Defenders and Showering Love began an outreach effort in the city’s Overtown neighborhood at the beginning of March. “We’ve been out there once or twice a week handing out tents, toiletries, masks, socks,” he said.

“We’ve been testing individuals for COVID-19 because it’s the most vulnerable population. If you want to control the spread, you have to go right to the source and take care of these individuals first.”

The 35-year-old Henderson grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood of North Philadelphia. He was first introduced to racism in medicine when the White dean of a prominent Ivy League medical school advised him to consider a career as a nurse rather than as a doctor, despite the fact that he had a 3.8 GPA and had participated in three clinical trials as a researcher.

Studies have shown that doctors’ racial attitudes color much of the disparate health outcomes for Blacks, resulting, as one example, in a tendency to under-prescribe pain medicine for Blacks because of the myth that they have a higher tolerance for pain and higher rates of addictions. Whites, on the other hand, are more likely to be over-prescribed.

“I’m not saying it’s all doctors, but we know that these biases are passed down from one generation to the next,” Henderson said.
Racial bias, combined with a failed market-based approach to health care, is simply ravaging Black America.

Six years ago, Eric Garner’s final gasping words while trying to fend off a police chokehold, “I can’t breathe” came to symbolize the asphyxiation of African Americans’ dreams for a better life.

Similarly symbolic is a coronavirus patients’ breathless question earlier this month as a New York city nurse anesthetist connected him to a ventilator: “Who’s going to pay for this?”

Negative reactions to Kobe’s death not as straightforward as they seem

Photo: MGN. “Kobe Bryant”

This article first published 2/13/20 by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

For everyone within earshot of these virtual disputes over whether Kobe Bryant deserves our mercy in death, do NOT think this is some isolated argument about a celebrity with a checkered past.

It is about the fire next time, and who, exactly is going to be engulfed in flames.

The obvious racial schism in this debate underscores the oligarch’s success in transforming a class war into a race war. History is fairly clear about what comes next: White and Black will reconcile, and we will fight together against our rulers; or Whites will turn on us violently, and America will revert to 1919 or Nazi Germany, or some combination thereof.

Am I saying that all White people must agree with me or with Black people generally? I most assuredly am not. What I am saying is that if White people understood that the ONLY way they will be saved is by collaborating with us as full and equal partners, they would, at the very least, respect our losses and our community as we always have theirs. Their dehumanizing language, contemptuous tone, and binary narratives (“you’re either with us or against us”) tells me that Black people better brace to defend ourselves and party like its 1919 all over again.

I was not a Kobe fan especially. Had Allen Iverson or Dwyane Wade or LeBron died in a helicopter crash, I would likely be beside myself with grief. And I certainly understand anyone who says that they are not mourning a celebrity, with a checkered past, who they did not know. But I remember Kobe’s dad when he played alongside my childhood idol, Dr. J, and I remember how Kobe gave such joy to so many children, Black and White, the way Dr. J did for me. What’s more, I know that at 41, he might well have redeemed himself for the tremendous pain he inflicted on that young woman in a Colorado hotel. His death saddens me, if only because it saddens others, and because he may have contributed great things to this world before all was said and done.

What I don’t understand, however, is the gracelessness of people who cheer his death, the way some cheered him on the court. But for some reason, the White settler needs the Black man, and the Black woman on the stake, like Jesus, suffering, dying, for your sins, for no other reason, I believe, than that it reassures them that no matter how much things change, they will forever be the master, and we will forever be their slaves. For this reason, and only this reason, the laboring classes in America are a defeated people, and will remain so for as long as we walk this earth.

And if you think I am wrong, if you doubt what I am saying is true, then answer this question: would White women who are so outraged by Kobe be so animated, so contemptuous, so hateful, if his victim had been Black?

Jon Jeter is an author, political commentary writer and long-time journalist.

Tell A Story, Shame the Devil: How Pundits, Tweets, and Listicles Destroyed American Journalism

Jon Jeter - Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador - Efrojas

The cover story of the December 6th, 1993 issue of the New Yorker was akin to a thunderclap. Written by Mark Danner, the article entitled The Truth of El Mozote is a 22,000-word account of the My Lai-like massacre of nearly 1,000 villagers in the central American country of El Salvador. It begins:

“Heading up into the mountains of Morazán, in the bright, clear air near the Honduran border, you cross the Torola River, the wooden slats of the one-lane bridge clattering beneath your wheels, and enter what was the fiercest of El Salvador’s zonas rojas — or “red zones,” as the military officers knew them during a decade of civil war — and after climbing for some time you take leave of the worn blacktop to follow for several miles a bone-jarring dirt track that hugs a mountainside, and soon you will find, among ruined towns and long-abandoned villages that are coming slowly, painfully back to life, a tiny hamlet, by now little more than a scattering of ruins, that is being rapidly reclaimed by the earth, its broken adobe walls cracking and crumbling and giving way before an onslaught of weeds, which are fuelled by the rain that beats down each afternoon and by the fog that settles heavily at night in the valleys. Nearby, in the long-depopulated villages, you can see stirrings of life: even in Arambala, a mile or so away, with its broad grassy plaza bordered by collapsed buildings and dominated, where once a fine church stood, by a shell-pocked bell tower and a jagged adobe arch looming against the sky — even here, a boy leads a brown cow by a rope, a man in a billed cap and bluejeans trudges along bearing lengths of lumber on his shoulder, three little girls stand on tiptoe at a porch railing, waving and giggling at a passing car.”

But follow the stony dirt track, which turns and twists through the woodland, and in a few minutes you enter a large clearing, and here all is quiet. No one has returned to El Mozote. Empty as it is, shot through with sunlight, the place remains — as a young guerrilla who had patrolled here during the war told me with a shiver — espantoso: spooky, scary, dreadful. After a moment’s gaze, half a dozen battered structures — roofless, doorless, windowless, half engulfed by underbrush — resolve themselves into a semblance of pattern: four ruins off to the right must have marked the main street, and a fifth the beginning of a side lane, while an open area opposite looks to have been a common, though no church can be seen — only a ragged knoll, a sort of earthen platform nearly invisible beneath a great tangle of weeds and brush.

Relying principally on excavations by an Argentine forensic team sifting through the mass graves, and a Salvadoran woman, Rufina Amaya Marquez, who managed to escape the carnage, Danner tells the poignant story of what happened in a remote corner of the Americas over two days in December of 1981. In doing so, he rebuts the U.S. government’s steadfast characterization of the slaughter as a skirmish between CIA-backed Salvadoran troops and Marxist guerillas.

The New Yorker billed Danner’s Truth of El Mozote as a “parable of the Cold War” and, indeed, it shined a spotlight on the proxy wars that erupted across the global South, pitting the mostly Europeans who owned colonized settlements across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, against the black and brown workers who built them. Yet it also represents a triumph of nonfiction storytelling, and the intimate reportage that is its rebar, providing a showcase for a model of journalism, now defunct, that is transformative rather than transactional. 

Danner’s artful prose has all-but disappeared from today’s media, replaced by 16-character tweets, memes, and something called listicles. Gone are storytellers who trafficked in deep and close-up reporting and interviews with the people-on-the ground, and in their place have surfaced bloggers and podcasters and pundits who seem preoccupied with gazing at their own navels rather than storytelling. Much like the leftist dissidents from Argentina’s La Guerra Sucia, or Dirty War, Rufina Amaya  Marquez and her encounter with evil would be disappeared, airbrushed, as it were out of the picture, leaving the telling of her story to those who tried to kill her, and those who experienced it second-hand, if at all. 

What is lost, ultimately, is an understanding of both the world and each other. Whether we realize it or not, we need stories; the best educators, trial lawyers, and politicians can attest to the power of storytelling. Narrative strengthens our humanity, informs our democracy, fends off ignorance and ennui. Journalism in the U.S. has never been good overall —I can make a compelling argument that the news media’s raison d’etre has traditionally been to head off class war in America by fomenting a race war  — but at its best, as exemplified by Danner’s work in El Salvador, it can narrow the yawning divide that is the source of our discontent.

Today’s journalists have abandoned even the pretense of inquiry in an effort to reproduce inequality by asserting their authority, their singular expertise in addressing all that ails we, the people. This explains why they typically eschew narrative and reportage for access to the powerful and panels of pundits and politicians which continues to center the very same voices who are wholly responsible for the perfect storm of political, economic and environmental crises that are bearing down on us. Consider for a moment the architecture of storytelling like Danner’s, which centers not the journalist, but his or her subject.  

Contrast that with the Intercept’s interview last year with Brazil’s ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was jailed at the time on trumped-up corruption charges pressed by conservative politicians who wanted to derail a reelection bid by the popular president, commonly known as “Lula.” In the wide-ranging interview, Glenn Greenwald covered a lot of ground and did not spare Lula the tough questions about the failures of both his administration or the policies of his center-left Workers Party. But what Greenwald failed to do is identify the narratives that, like Danner’s article 26 years earlier, might’ve deepened our understanding not just of Brazil, but of our own country, and the world.

Greenwald failed to explore in his follow-up questioning, or produce a follow-up documentary based on the interview, which could’ve contextualized Lula and his Workers’ Party as part of Latin America’s Pink Tide, an uprising of leftist governments that began to sweep America’s “backyard” bracketed by the 1998 election of Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chavez, and the 2007 election of Rafael Correa. First elected in 2002, Lula clearly distanced his government from the Pink Tide, choosing a moderate third way, akin to Bill Clinton, that produced some modest, liberal reforms, but did nothing to sever Brazil’s ties to Wall Street finance. For much of his presidency, and that of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil continued to pay interest rates on its public debt that was among the highest in the world, privileging investors while killing exports, and job creation. Given that the only Pink Tide state that survived the offensive from Washington is the nation that embraced socialism most ardently, Venezuela, will Lula embrace more radical, transformative policies that appeal to Brazil’s black majority in his political comeback?  That question would have particular resonance stateside. The Portuguese settlers imported more Africans to toil as slaves than any country in the world —the U.S. is a distant second —and today is home to more people of African descent than any country save Nigeria. Slavery in Brazil outlasted its American counterpart by 23 years. Consequently, Brazil is virtually a mirror image of the U.S. in terms of economic inequality, violence against blacks, and the voters’ choice of a vile, Donald Trump mini-me as president.  Said Lula:

“It’s because this isn’t just an economic question; it’s a cultural issue. One has to remember that it was only a little over a hundred years ago that slavery was legally abolished, and that it continues in the minds of many. That’s why the greatest victims of police violence are black, that’s why those who are black earn less than 50 percent less than those who are white, and that’s why black women earn less than white women. That’s why those who are black have a lower average level of schooling than those who are white. Why? Because slavery is still prevalent deep within people’s consciousness. It’s a harsh thing to say but it’s true. And this doesn’t change overnight. Really, I think deep down it’s not an economic question. It’s a set of cultural, political and sociological issues.”

Sound familiar?

Contextualizing Lula’s interview historically represents journalism that can heal by connecting the dots, and shining a light on our way forward. 

Part of the problem is simply a numbers game. Never especially diverse, the news media has undergone a stark transformation over the last generation, triggered by Bill Clinton’s 1996 Telecommunications Act, which deregulated the industry and allowed giant corporations to buy up thousands of news outlets across the country, tightening their monopoly on the flow of information in the United States and around the world. Since the law was enacted, the number of black journalists in U.S. newsrooms has plummeted by nearly half, from 2,946 in 1998 to 1,560 in 2015, according to the American Society for Newspaper Editors, or ASNE. On a per-capita basis, that figure is slightly smaller than it was in 1890, when the U.S. Census counted 300 black journalists out of a total population of 62 million, compared with 330 million today.

According to ASNE, as a percentage of the workforce, blacks accounted for 5.4 percent of all editorial staff in 2015 — a proportion virtually identical to the 1968 Kerner Commission Report’s estimate that African-Americans represented only 5 percent of the nation’s journalism workforce then. Even fewer, about 1 percent, are supervising editors.

The Kerner Commission was charged with identifying the causes of the season of revolts that erupted in America’s big cities beginning with the Watts rebellion in August of 1965 and climaxed three years later following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The common thread in all of the riots, the report’s authors wrote, was racial discrimination in housing, education, job opportunities and, centrally, the news media, which was so disconnected from the black community writ large that it had almost nothing useful to say about its causes, or how to prevent such uprisings in the future.

Danner is white, but he worked in a journalistic milieu in which there was at least an effort in newsrooms across the country to rectify the issues identified by the Kerner Commission report, although it was eventually overwhelmed by the campaign to whitewash history and discourage whites from supporting the progressive social movements of people of color. Seldom does the media connect us to a world outside the Beltway, or beyond Harvard Square. The result is a media milieu which hits the mute button on Rufina Amaya Marquez, and where, to quote Ossie Davis’ character, Da Mayor, in Spike Lee’s iconic 1989 movie Do the Right Thing, “those who’ll say, don’t know, and those who know, can’t say!”

A Half-Life, Fully-Lived.

I awoke this morning thinking about Brian Coyle.

It’s been 26 years since he died, the first openly gay city council member in Minneapolis. I was the City Hall reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, dumber than the day is long, but energetic, and curious and honest.

Unbeknownst to most of the world at the time, Brian had contracted HIV in the mid-80s and long before I got the City Hall Beat, he’d begun working covertly with a local magazine reporter on a story about this struggle with the virus.

Brian was an intellectual, a conservative fat kid turned liberal gadfly, and remains to this day, perhaps the sharpest-dressed man I’ve ever personally known. He would invite me into his office and explain the city’s Fifth Ward to me, and the world, and when he laughed, it was an experience in itself, somewhere between a howl and a cackle, its sheer joy, and freedom reminding me of my father’s baritone laughter.

In the months leading up to his death, I suspected he was sick, not because he looked ill or had been unusually absent from work, but because his behavior became slightly more erratic; once, he berated me in front of his staff for a story I’d written which he believed reflected the kind of kneejerk liberalism that lost liberals elections. Both in tone and content, it was most un-Brian-like. I said nothing in response, and when he retreated back into his office, his secretary and I exchanged worried, knowing looks.

Days before the magazine story was to come out, rumors began to circulate that he was indeed ill, and he summoned me into his office one morning and shut the door behind me. The story was coming out because he knew he had not much longer to live, but he was concerned that it might make me–the Star Tribune’s young, black City Hall reporter–look bad if I got beat on the story revealing his illness.

So in one of the greatest acts of kindness and love ever shown me, he gave me the whole story, had me accompany him to the Red Door clinic, talk to his doctor, sit next to him while he took breathing treatments to keep pneumonia at bay. “This” he said to me after one exhalation from the plastic tube, “is the only thing I get to suck on these days, Jeter,” he said, and laughed that demonic, gorgeous laugh of his, so loud and defiant and full of the Blues that I couldn’t help but join him, laughing like an idiot as if the tube contained laughing gas that had cast a spell on the entire room. The doctor opened the door, shot us a damning look, then smiled and left.

My story on Brian’s illness was actually published BEFORE the magazine article by a day or two, and because Brian had given me so much information and access, it was arguably just as good. When he died a few months later, his sister called and left a message on my answering machine, saying that Brian had left her strict instructions to include me on the list of phone calls to be made.

I often think of Brian, but he’s been on my mind a lot in recent days. I heard a laugh that reminded me of his the other day, and it’s left me thinking about what it means to give a damn about another human being, and how, ultimately, that’s the only thing that will get us through.

Inseparable, Through Thick and Thin . . . and Homelessness

Losing His Home Was Bad; Losing His Dog Would be Catastrophic

Psychologists posit that we cannot fully develop as human beings without our relationships with other human beings and the storied African concept of ubuntu asserts that our humanity depends on the humanity of others.

And no less an authority on dehumanization than Hitler seemed to make this connection as well: I read somewhere, years ago, that long before he began sending Europe’s Jews to the concentration camps, he prohibited them from owning pets.

I would not think that our pets are a perfect surrogate for human contact, but there is something in the animal world that informs our humanity, and deepens our connection, paradoxically, to one another.



Photo credit: Jon-Mychal Cox and Haku Production House

Helping Ex-Offenders, Up Close and Personal


The legendary photographer Robert Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Capa wasn’t referring to telephoto lenses or zooming in close, but intimate familiarity with your subject, or, actually getting to know the people you are photographing.

The same is true for anti-poverty efforts. If your outcomes aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough. Along with a violence intervention program out of Washington DC, the Peaceholics, this Oakland re-entry program, CTEC, is one of the most impressive social service providers I have ever seen, in large measure, because they get close, very close, to everyone who comes their way for help.


Photo credit: Jon-Mychal Cox and Haku Production House

Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and Celebrating Heroes with Both Bark and Bite

On the anniversary of their deaths, I’ve been thinking all day of Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson. History has reduced both to Hallmark cards, but they were both extraordinarily complicated.

Parks of course, is typically portrayed as a matronly Black domestic who wearily refused to surrender her seat to a white bus passenger in 1956 Alabama. As Danielle McGure reminds us in her sensational book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance, Parks was anything but a novice. By the time of the Montgomery Bus boycotts she’d been an activist for more than a decade, getting her start, in point of fact, investigating sexual violence against Black women as far back as 1944.

And then there’s Robinson, who of course gave Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey his word that he would not respond to racial taunts on the field. But what I’ve learned only in recent years is that prohibition only applied to Robinson’s rookie year.

After that, all bets were off, and Robinson routinely called white rivals everything but a child-of-God on-the-field. His disdain for the famously racist Yankees manager, Casey Stengel, was such that not even the manager’s wife was immune from Robinson’s heckling.

The legend can never compare to the gorgeousness of reality.

Uncommon Grace — BOSS Rising Stars Awards

In a writing career that spans nearly 30 years, I’ve been blessed to see the spectacular work of some of the world’s finest nongovernmental organizations, or NGOS, as they’re known in the development world.

From Detroit’s Operation Get Down to Brazil’s Landless People’s Movement, from the Mothers of the Plaza Del Mayo in Argentina to the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee in South Africa’s storied all-black township, the best NGOS have the unique ability to address people’s most basic, quotidian needs, while articulating a grandiose but still credible vision of social transformation.

No organization I’ve ever seen is more visionary, or grounded, than Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, or BOSS, in the East Bay communities that orbit Oakland, California. Consider, as one example, last week’s third annual Rising Stars awards ceremony, which recognizes 20 East Bay youths who exhibit uncommon grace in meeting the challenges of homelessness, mental illness, poverty and even abandonment.

It is a recognition that for some of our young people, just getting through the day, is in itself, a triumph over fear.



Photo credit: Jon-Mychal Cox and Haku Production House