Judith Armatta

Judith Armatta is a lawyer, journalist and human rights activist

A Historical Template for Today's Racism

           In 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina was a majority black town. Three of the city’s 10 aldermen and 10 of its policemen were black; there were black postmasters and magistrates, a black county jailer and treasurer, a black federal customs agent, a black state senator and U.S. representative. Two banks were black-owned, as was a newspaper. Blacks owned property and some were quite wealthy. Black professionals included lawyers and doctors. 1898 was about 12  years after Reconstruction had collapsed in other states of the former Confederacy. For a group of influential white men, this was intolerable. They formed a conspiracy to reverse gains achieved by black citizens – through whatever means necessary, including violence.

            They planned and organized for months before the 1898 election. A massive propaganda campaign raised the (false) specter of the black man as the rapist of white women. White-owned newspapers published blatant lies, provoking hatred, anger, and violence against black people. White supremacists organized vigilante groups who armed themselves, while businesses refused to sell firearms to black citizens. Whites intimidated and threatened black people and their allies – if they voted, their property would be burned and they and their families would end up dead.  

            In the event, 60 black men were murdered; 50 blacks and white allies were banished from Wilmington forever; their businesses and homes were burned; a majority black city (56%) became majority white, as people fled to safety elsewhere. The black population eroded to 18.3% in 2018, black voters in North Carolina plummeted from 126,000 in 1896 to 6,100 in 1902. In 1899, only 21 of Wilmington’s black citizens registered to vote; only five went to the polls.

           “The killings and coup in Wilmington inspired white supremacists across the South. No one had ever seen anything like it. Wilmington’s whites had mounted a rare armed overthrow of a legally elected government. They had murdered black men with impunity. They had robbed black citizens of their right to vote and hold public office. They had forcibly removed elected officials from office then banished them forever. They had driven hundreds of black citizens from their jobs and their homes. They had turned a black-majority city into a white citadel.”[*]

          Though the coup organizers were perfectly comfortable calling themselves “white supremacists,” they disguised the nature and cause of the 1898 events, characterizing them as a race riot instigated by blacks. They must have known that what they did would not be well-received by everyone, particularly in the North (though anti-black sentiment was also widespread there, evidenced by how quickly Northerners accepted the white supremacists’ lie). The myth of the Wilmington ‘race riot’ was accepted throughout the country until 2006 when an investigation initiated by two black state legislators published a 480-page report describing what really happened.[†]

          “It concluded that the coup was a ‘documented conspiracy’ by Wilmington’s white elite to overthrow a legitimately elected government ‘Through violence and intimidation.’ White supremacists statewide were incited to violence by Josephus Daniels and his News and Observer [newspaper], the report said. Federal and state authorities failed ‘at all levels’ to respond to the violence or punish the perpetrators. The report concluded that the coup and killings led directly to strict residential segregation in Wilmington, decades of Jim Crow discrimination, and the disenfranchisement of the state’s black citizens.”[‡] 

          This is the history that today’s white supremacists (many would deny the label) don’t want taught in our schools. It wasn’t taught in my elementary or high school, university or law school. It wasn’t even known until 2006! This hidden history and the myths created to disguise it have assured that racism lives on, allowing dominant white society to deny it, arguing that we are a post-racial society and, in fact, white people are the disfavored group whose rights are jeopardized.

          The fear that lies at the heart of MAGA is the same fear that motivated the white citizens of Wilmington in 1898 -- the fear of being a minority, ruled by black people, the fear of losing white privilege, the fear of being treated the way ‘we’ have treated ‘them.’ Today it’s known as “The Replacement Theory.” The one commonality among the January 6, 2021 insurgents was their residence in a county where the white share of the population was in decline.[§]

          Though white rage is more obvious today, it has been a major force since emancipation. While the South was defeated in the Civil War, that defeat was not accepted by a broad swath of citizens of the Confederacy and it has haunted this country ever since. Among the most obvious examples are the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, the Aryan Brotherhood, The Order, and the Posse Comitatus. Militias formed throughout the country. The media presented them as separate, isolated, and aberrant groups, whose leaders were mentally unstable. Just so, Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, was treated as a disturbed individual acting on his own with a couple co-conspirators. In fact, he was a member of the KKK, connected to the “white power movement’s war-on-government leadership . . . .”[**]  According to Kathleen Belew, author and history professor, supposedly disparate groups were all part of the White Power Movement.

          Those who organized the January 6, 2021 insurrection don’t need to reinvent a strategy for a coup. Wilmington provides it. Whether they are even aware of it, their efforts are eerily similar. Widespread propaganda (i.e. lies – Trump won the 2020 election); fear-mongering; stripping power from election officials who can’t be controlled; destroying ballots; stuffing ballot boxes; gerrymandering; passing voting laws and regulations aimed at eliminating black votes; using threats, intimidation, and violence. As Gellman writes, “[T]he chaos wrought on that day was integral to a coherent plan. In retrospect, the insurrection takes on the aspect of a rehearsal.”[††]



 

 

[*] Zucchino, David, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, New York: Grove Press (2020), p. 329.

[†] In 1951, Helen Edmonds, a black scholar, debunked the white myth in a meticulously researched doctoral thesis. White supremacists were still dominant and were able to bury it.

[‡] Zucchino, 341.

[§] Pape, Robert A., “The Jan. 6 Insurrectionists Aren’t Who You Think They Are,” Foreign Policy (January 6, 2022).

[**] Belew, Kathleen, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts (2018), p. 213

[††] Gellman, Barton, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” The Atlantic, December 6, 2021.

No Shirts, No Shoes, No Service . . . .

Everyone’s familiar with this notice put up by private businesses. It also applies to schools and many public spaces. Are our children allowed to go to school barefoot? Without shirts? Why then is a mask so different, particularly when it’s intended as a public health measure. This is not tyranny. It is not the last step toward totalitarianism. It is not fascist (that overused and misunderstood word). 

 

Given the every person for themselves, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps American culture, I shouldn’t be surprised at the vitriol that this one little piece of cloth has generated. Attempts to stress community responsibility are labeled socialist (now a pejorative for many) or, from people of a certain age, communist. Caring for our neighbor used to be a value. All religions preach it. 

 

Please, just accept the little (temporary) inconvenience of a mask and we’ll get through this together, as a community. For children, masks can be fun, when every day is Halloween!

Montavilla Is Mourning

Montavilla’s heart is broken. Two stalwarts of our community, Mel Hafsos and Errol Carlson, who operated the Taylor Court Grocery for 25 years, are no more. Death took Mel a few days ago, while Dementia overcame Errol, his business and life partner.

The Taylor Court Grocery, over 100 years old (though by different names), is one of a handful of once thriving neighborhood groceries that still remain. In their heyday — before the big chains — Portlanders were served by 800 such stores. Mostly, first and second generation immigrants owned the store before Mel and Errol bought it in 1996. At one historical point, the neighborhood was called Swedeville.

Mel and Errol were truly the heart of our little community. They operated the grocery themselves, often working seven days a week, 12 hours a day. On Halloween, they kept the store open in the evening and gave out candy to small ghosts and goblins. For the Fourth of July, they organized a block party and a parade. I’ve read that they crowned a queen who had to be at least 80 years old (some accounts say 75) and to have lived in the neighborhood for 50 (some say 25) years. We missed those events, having moved into the neighborhood eight years ago, when Mel and Errol were slowing down.

But we were here for the grocery’s last years where a visit to the little store (filled to the rafters with organic and natural foods, as well as Ben & Jerry’s) was welcomed by Errol behind the cash register and Mel managing the inventory. Errol always exchanged a pleasantry and made teasing, light-hearted comments about your purchase, the weather, the neighborhood, or another timely topic. Kids, young and old, looked forward to buying their special treats from the candy aisle or the ice cream freezer. Mel and Errol and the store were truly the heart of the neighborhood.

Walking by one day a couple years back, we found a Closed sign on the door. It wasn’t Sunday or Monday, regular closing days. We worried, then learned that Errol had had a heart attack. Both men were in their seventies. Neighbors posted Get Well wishes on the windows and door: “We appreciate your service to the community;” “We love you and miss you. Your Montavilla neighbors and friends.” When Mel took the notes to the hospital to share with Errol, both men wept. Within a short while, the Closed sign flipped to Open. They were back in business and the neighborhood breathed a sigh of relief.

Perhaps it was another year before they put up a For Sale sign, causing consternation throughout the community. Yet we knew it was time. They both deserved a less harried retirement. Still, the store remained open. It seemed the only people interested in buying it were developers who intended to tear the store down and put in a three-story apartment building or a couple of those modern houses that look like they have garages in their living rooms.

And then the pandemic hit. Somehow, though people were afraid to go into shops and be around others, Mel and Errol kept the store open for a couple months before they regretfully had to shut it down and eventually remove the inventory. Notes went up: “Thank you for many good years of service to our community.” “We love you and will miss you.”

Mel and Errol lived just up the street. We saw them around. Someone invited them to our Sunday evening sing-a-longs in honor of front line workers. They graciously declined. It was too much. We continued to see them in the neighborhood until a few days ago. Then, at last Sunday’s sing, two of the neighbors passed along the sad news. Mel had died. Errol was in a care facility. An era had passed.

Signs went up once more:

We love you, Mel & Errol! For a generation you made dreams possible in our neighborhood. With your Kindness and 4th of July parade, drawing a chalk star at the 4th of July Festival, and Halloween extravagances - you made the heart of this Neighborhood. You made memories — precious memories — possible for us. Walking to Taylor Court Grocery with Rose to get an ice cream, dressing up for Halloween and taking our daughter through the store to get candy, and always . . . always your kindness. You are wrapped in angels’ wings. Bless you forever, Tim, Melinda, and Rose

* * *

We will miss you Mel. You and Errol have touched so many lives in this community! Blessings to you on your next Journey. The Bridger Family

* * *

Dear Errol & Mel, Thank you for all you’ve done for our community.Your store gave us cool treats on summer walks, kept us stocked during snow storms and gave us somewhere fun to trick or treat. We will miss your kindness and hospitality. We appreciate you and wish you all the best. Love, Jennifer, Seth, Light and Aurora (The Bestulic Family)

* * *

As I get older or maybe it’s the incurable disease that I live with or the growing number of friends and family who are no more, I find myself anticipating the next loss, fearing it. Kinda inhibits the “live for today” philosophy. I just don’t like surprises. I like to be prepared emotionally, though I know that’s impossible. Losing Mel and Errol disrupted my sense of community. This little corner of the world will never be the same. The Taylor Court Market slips into history along with two lovely gay men.

URGENT!! MONTENEGRO IS LOSING ITS DEMOCRACY

 

“[W]e are just fighting for this country to be a safe home for all its citizens, regardless of religious, national, ethnic affiliation. That is why every help is precious to us, especially from those people and organizations with whom we share a commitment to freedom, justice and equality.” (Mirna Nikcevic, email to author)

Montenegro is in trouble. A pro-Serb, pro-Russian government took power (by election but with Russia’s inteference) in August 2020, ending the 30 year rule of President Milo Djukanovic’s party. The electorate was reportedly tired of corruption and cronyism and voted for an alternative that turned out much worse. While Djukanovic’s party wasn’t perfect, it was an aspiring multi-ethnic democracy, the only state in the former Yugoslavia to not base citizenship on ethnicity. The new government is changing that. Their aspiration is “Serbia World,” formerly known as “Greater Serbia.” 

[In a half hour interview, Mike Haltzell (Joe Biden’s foreign policy advisor when he was in the Senate) provides a thorough overview of the situation.  https:youtu.be/sM5u1I8tIfI] 

Greater Serbia was the call to arms that set off the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It was the reason for ethnic cleansing and genocide. It is more than a little disturbing to hear it again as a political aspiration 30 years after a hundred thousand people plus were killed and far more lives destroyed. 

Montenegro is currently a multi-ethnic state, made up of Montenegrins, Serbs, Albanians, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. Multi-ethnicity is provided for in the constitution and something they are justifiably proud of. Given the nationalisms sweeping the world, it is a precious example that we need to preserve. 

Montenegro has also been secular, in that no one religion is favored over another. That, too, is changing as the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) is reportedly behind much of the political change. 

After several years in Montenegro and other parts of the Balkans, I left in 2000 and have only been back once. I fell in love with the country of the Black Mountains (Crna Gora/Montenegro) and the passion of its people for democratic change. What a joy they were to work with on law reform! When I left, I left part of my heart with them. The future looked bright and hopeful. I’m terribly saddened and worried over the current situation.

Recently, a Montenegrin colleague and former diplomat, Mirna Nikcevic, contacted me, knowing I will always be a friend of Montenegro. She asked me to expose what is happening and told me that my friend and former co-attorney, Aleksa Ivanovic, who is head of the State Election Commission, is in danger of being fired for his pro-Montenegro stance. Other pro-democracy officials in the bureaucracy have been replaced or demoted. 

Mirna started an NGO called “Montenegro International” to fight for the country’s democracy (montenegrointernational.org). MI has contacted numerous officials and organizations in Europe and the U.S., as well as in the United Nations. MI has also given interviews, produced videos and press statements, taken legal action, among other efforts. (You can read about them on MI’s website.) The European Union is aware of the situation — and is “monitoring” it. Because someone in the new pro-Serb government leaked a confidential NATO document, NATO is also watching. While President Biden is a longtime friend of Montenegro and Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, is knowledgeable on the Balkans, as are others in the administration and several Congresspeople, the U.S. has remained mostly silent.

 It is vital that information about the situation in Montenegro be widely publicized. While local people are doing everything they can, they’re up against not only Serb extremists, but also Russia, which attempted a coup (including the attempted assassination of President Djukanovic) three years ago. Montenegro has joined NATO and is well on its way to become a member of the European Union. The mountainous country (population: 620,000) gained independence in 2006 following a vote of the people. Russia (and Serbia) opposed independence and Russia especially opposes Montenegro’s membership in NATO. While two people involved in the coup attempt were convicted, the new government released them.

Montenegro’s independence and multi-ethnicity are in danger. The pro-Serb forces passed a law that allows the Serb diaspora in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosova to vote in Montenegrin elections, but prohibits Montenegrins working abroad from doing so. Obviously, it is designed to shift power to Serb Montenegrins and Serbia proper.

Janusz Bugojski, Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C., writes: “[T]he Biden administration must become more active to undercut [Serbia’s President Aleksandar] Vucic’s Greater Serbia goals through a three-pronged approach. [emphasis added]

1. “[T]he Serbia-Kosova dialogue has to be given teeth in line with Biden’s recent letter to Vucic calling for mutual state recognition.

2. “[A] multi-national initiative must be launched to implement necessary constitutional changes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and develop a fully functioning state.

3. “Vucic must be warned that political interference in Montenegro’s politics will rebound negatively against a government with destabilizing foreign connections. The tentacles of Kremlin influence in Belgrade and Podgorica need to be unearthed and amputated. [emphasis added]”

Your help is needed. You can contact your congresspeople and the Biden administration, post on Facebook, write a blog. While the U.S. and the world are preoccupied with Covid-19 and the Middle East conflict, Russia has nearly a free hand to undermine Montenegro’s independence, promote a Greater Serbia, and place Montenegro in its orbit, contributing to the extreme right nationalism that is rising up throughout the world, including in the United States. The world looked away when Milosevic initiated his Greater Serbia campaign in the 1990s with wars in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. More than 100,000 people died. His subsequent attempt to establish Serb hegemony in Kosovo caused another 10,000 deaths. The wars of the 90s ended former President Tito’s dream of “Brotherhood and Unity” and a multi-ethnic society, except in Montenegro. Please help save her and keep the dream alive.

Thank you for what you’re able to do. It will be gratefully appreciated here and in the Black Mountain.

 

 

 

 

What Doesn't Kill You . . . .

 Don’t you just love cliches? Particularly when they’re offered in the form of advice, as in, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” Really? Wowee! We should all be Atlases after four years of Trump and nearly a year of the Corona Virus. I’m not feelin’ it. I am relieved that Joe and Kamala won the election (though Donald and 70% of Republicans don’t accept it). Not that the skies opened up and showered these Dems’ path to the White House with stardust. Wasn’t going to happen. Trump is hanging on for dear life or is that pomp, power, and attention? What of the Republicans? With a few exceptions, they’ve fallen in line, “waiting until all votes are counted.” I’m waiting to see if that child arises to tell them that the emperor has no clothes. And whether they’ll believe her. 

I can’t say I feel any stronger after four years of DJT’s lying, blasphemy, and bullying, not to mention the holes he’s ripped in our democracy (ok, it wasn’t perfect, but still). Is it right that the majority of Americans should be ruled by a minority cabal of senators, supreme court justices, federal judges, always Trumpers, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox news? And that one senator from Kentucky of all places can determine who should sit on the nation’s highest court, in essence seizing one of our three branches of government for the Republicans for the rest of my life?

A quarter million Americans aren’t feeling too resilient these days, having succumbed to the Corona Virus. But Trump survived. He’s resilient. He also had special treatment and a team of the finest expert doctors not available to Grandpa Robinson or your next door neighbor or you. 

Like the rest of the country (and the world), Oregon is undergoing a spike in CoVid 19: over a 1500 people were found positive for the virus today. Fourteen died. Not to be outdone by the crowds of worshippers assembled to hear their great MAGA  leader defy the medical experts, Oregon has our own eminence: Tootie (swear to god, that’s her name; also the name of my partner’s childhood stuffed lobster) Smith, chair-elect of the Clackamas County Commission. Chair-elect Smith tooted on facebook: “My friends and family will celebrate Thanksgiving with as many family and friends as I can find. Governor Brown is WRONG to order otherwise.” She says she’ll do the same for Xmas. I wonder how resilient Tootie, her family, and friends will be? And the nurses and doctors who will have to treat them?

 Let’s not take the spotlight off Mr. MAGA for too long. We don’t want a tantrum. Mr. Trump (which he’ll be on January 20, 2021) also believes in his POLITICAL resilience. Facing 79 and a half million people who chose Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over him (6 million more than voted for him), he’s doubled down, aided by his trusty sidekick Rudy let’s-file-another-lawsuit Giuliani, and declared himself the winner. Now that’s resilience!! No matter that his lawsuits are being thrown out of court right and left and five of his attorneys have resigned rather than be laughed or kicked out of court. So, his latest is to take over the Electoral College and have himself declared the winner no matter the people's choice. America's first dictator? 

I wonder if Trump is stronger after his humiliating loss? Perhaps. Most likely, he will persist in giving his opinion as often as the media allows. Given theirs and the public’s penchant for the outrageous, he will continue bullying, pontificating, lying, stirring up trouble, and reinforcing the divisions among us. Resilience isn’t always a virtue. 

And what about my resilience? My “what doesn’t kill you . . .” self?

*     *     *

I’ve always been considered resilient, i.e. having “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties,” according to google dictionary. I made it out of my origin family alive and hopeful despite some serious, if invisible, emotional scarring. There were a few bruising relationships resulting from my disability to choose well and one or two who escaped because they weren’t so disabled. But, alone among catastrophes, partnership failures grew a few muscles, enabling me to find and hold onto my one true love. Yet, like a moth to a flame, I sought career and volunteer opportunities where other injured souls gathered to work out their karma on each other. I wasn’t strong enough for that. I grabbed a life vest and abandoned ship.

But ever resilient, I packed up my papers, books, and supposedly stronger self and headed for a foreign land to help establish a fair and independent judiciary struggling under a “soft” (read “lying” and “manipulative” with a healthy dose of secret police) dictatorship. That didn’t work out so well for me or them. Next stop: a war zone. I should have been mucho strong after that. I crawled home taking thousands of tragic stories with me. 

Self-deceived into believing in my resilience, I took in a disturbed teenager to keep him out of jail. Success? Not so much. He went to prison for 16 months. Continuing my strength training, I defended him, bailed him out of jail, provided a free home and meals. Objects started disappearing: a keyboard, binoculars, prescription drugs, money. Slowly, oh so slowly, I began to realize he might fit into my resilience pattern. I cut him loose. Stronger? I became ill for three months with an undiagnosable mystery disease.  

None of this has killed me. But am I stronger? I don’t feel it. I retreat into the warren of rooms in this old house, and, lacking motivation, obsessively read the national news that substitutes for a life. I feed the birds, squirrels, and the neighborhood cat who’s adopted us at least for meals, though no lap sitting or sleep overs. I feed myself and my partner —with a different menu, of course. I walk and rake leaves in lieu of strength training and cardiovascular exercise at the gym. With atrophied biceps, I now need help to open jars and lift our cast iron pans. Occasionally, I think of the memoir I’ve been writing for three years or more. It rests in pieces somewhere in my new laptop, inexplicably saved in different programs that refuse to recognize one another. The piano has been neglected so long it can’t carry a tune. And seven years of my photos are floating somewhere in the ether.

Resilient? I don’t feel like it at 1 a.m. as I lie in bed obsessively reviewing the things I didn’t do right, the things I didn’t do, the people I’ve lost (dead and alive), searching for positives to replace the negatives, but the negatives have a built-in dominance to keep the bears and snakes away. I take a CBD tablet to fall asleep and silence these insistent voices. Morning draws me from dreams scattered like pieces of a dozen jigsaw puzzles all mixed up. What for, I wonder? My bladder forces me to put on slippers and head downstairs. After the toilet, I turn on the kettle for tea and my computer for the latest news, where I expend half my day. During the other half, I feed all the animals, walk in the neighborhood, and go another round with my computer before collapsing in a chair to read with little comprehension. Is this resilience? Is this a life? Maybe next year.

 

 

 

It's Been Gone A Long Time and I Don't Remember Where I Left It

I’ve been hunting high and low. It’s not on the top of the refrigerator. Nor hiding in a cupboard or crouching in the back of a closet. Underneath the couch conceals only dust bunnies. I thought it could be inside one of my thousands of books. Likely not the ones on Genocide or Racism or Mental Illness. I don’t think I have any Dave Barry, which would be a more likely place. 

I look through the pantry: it’s not among the bags of coffee or cereal; not under the cans of Costco tuna, sardines, or chicken; nor behind the almond milk; the crackers, cookies, pickles, five jars of mustard (it was a mistake), 6 bags of hot cereal (intentional), green tea, gifts of cactus candy which we are hoping to regift, 3 bottles of catsup (another mistake), two gallon bottles of canola oil (They didn’t look so large in the pictures — a problem of online shopping.).

Maybe it’s outside. Not buried in the squirrel food. The bird seed is also a no show. Perhaps the weeds, the weeds, the weeds!!! Could I ever find it there? How many years would it take? Maybe a squirrel or a bird made off with it, enticed by a shiny object. Stashed in the garden bed or a tree? I would look in the basement but I don’t have a hazmat suit and my nephew tore down the fiberglass insulation, leaving it hanging.

OK, it’s unlikely, but there’s still my office. Oh no!! It can’t be stowing away in the broken laptop or the broken printer. No way. The framed photos couldn’t possibly hold it. I just realized they’re all of dead people. Filing cabinets? Not a chance. And if it is, I’ll never find it since I can’t find anything else in them. 

I’ll try the living room. My reading chair offers a slight possibility. I recall laughing out loud over something in the Mitch McConnell book, but I can’t remember what could possibly be funny about Mitch. The stack of newspapers with articles on the Corona Virus, Trump, the 2020 election, the Corona Virus, Trump, the 2020 election, the Corona Virus, Trump .  . . . Why I read more than one edition is a self-defeating mystery and there is not a chance in hell it could be lost among the stories on the Corona Virus, Trump, the 2020 election.

Not much left besides the bedroom, the place that wakes me the instant my head falls on the pillow, unless it’s morning, in which case it takes a loud siren to get me out of bed. Why would I even consider that it might be here? Because I’m running out of possibilities.

Perhaps I lost it during my travels or my sojourn on the East Coast. I didn’t have it during my treatments at Dana Farber. It wasn’t useful when I was writing my book. Just didn’t belong. Nor was our Nation’s Capital a welcoming environment, despite the Obamas living there. I might have to go farther back in time and place to The Netherlands, but I don’t think it was with me when I first went there or throughout living alone monitoring the trial of a war criminal. It was definitely not in Serbia. Maybe Montenegro. Maybe that’s where it still is. But if so, why would it want to leave and join me in the U.S. these days, though it is very much needed and would be highly welcome?

I’m at a loss. Lost in Trumpland in a pandemic. Separated from my once-reliable friend. I don’t know how to win it back. 

So I googled. And, it appears, it’s been with me all the time. Very close at hand, so to speak. The internet tells me that a synonym for “sense of humor” is “funny bone,” which my mother told me was my elbow because it went all pins and needles when I hit it. Somehow, that did not make me laugh. Yet I know I used to have a sense of humor that let me laugh at others’ jokes and witticisms and even let me make some of my own. It seems to have taken leave of me. I don’t know when and I don’t know where to find it. 

So what is a sense of humor and where is mine? Maybe I’ll go listen to old George Carlin records or watch The Daily Show videos. 

 

 

"IT COULD NEVER HAPPEN HERE"

 

I was preparing for my new job as legal liaison for the American Bar Association’s Central and East European Law Initiative (ABA/CEELI) in Serbia, one of the remaining republics of the former Yugoslavia after its breakup. That required some new clothes. At a little boutique in Ashland, Oregon, the young clerk who was helping me asked about my upcoming travels. When I told him where I was going, he surprisingly knew something about recent Balkan history, specifically the five years of war that divided the country geographically along ethnic lines. When he pronounced “That could never happen here,” I realized he didn’t know so much about U.S. history. “But it already has,” I informed him, reminding him of our Civil War.

My main job in Serbia was to find ways to support a handful of judges who had defied the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic, which bore primary responsibility for the years of war. Cities throughout the country had just voted in the opposition to Milosevic’s rule. Never one to shy away from electoral manipulation, Milosevic sued and the court overturned the results. But the citizens were tired of his autocratic ways which had proved disastrous for the country, so they took to the streets in massive numbers — and stayed there for three months in the winter despite freezing temperatures. Five courageous higher court judges supported them, publishing an open letter that showed how Milosevic’s actions were illegal and violated the constitution. With the judicial support and demonstrators’ persistence, Milosevic backed down and the opposition took over in Serbia’s major cities.* 

More than two decades later, the U.S. is immersed in a similar situation. We’re facing an election that many fear will not reflect the people’s vote, an election where the winner (if it is not the current inhabitant of the White House) may refuse to concede. Moreover, our judiciary is losing its independence. Trump and McConnell have appointed 216** judges of their political persuasion. And now, they will take the opportunity to appoint another ideologue to the highest court in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court. 

I am reminded of a speech I gave to a conference of the nascent Serbian independent Judges Association. I congratulated them on their achievement (several hundred judges had joined by this point) and added these fateful words: “Someday we may need your help to maintain the independence of our judiciary.” While I knew our judiciary wasn’t perfect and reflected class and race biases, I never thought it would become the puppet of one political party.

We are experiencing a nonviolent coup, where a minority has persistently acted to take control of our government — all three branches: the Executive, the Senate, and the Judiciary. While the House stands apart, its power is hamstrung by the Senate that walks in lockstep with the President. Where are those Serbs when you need them? Sadly, they are experiencing a return to nationalism. Those still fighting for independence have their hands full and cannot come to our aid.

There’s an ill wind blowing around the earth. Despite deep feelings of despair and hopelessness, we have no choice but to continue fighting. I am not an optimist, but I know that change is a constant. I am also reminded that in Serbia’s darkest days, citizens were encouraged by their young people. And their youth never gave up. They ousted a dictator. I am also reminded of what I said to a Serbian colleague when he was despairing, “Democracy and human rights are never permanently won. We must get up each day and fight for them anew.” And so we must.

 

 

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* Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Milosevic triggered another war in Kosovo and hung on for five more years. In 2000, the citizens voted him out of office and followed up with mass demonstrations. Within a matter of months, the reform prime minister shipped him off to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, where he died from a heart attack on March 11, 2006 before the trial could be completed.

** As of September 17, 2020

 

 

 

 

Waiting for Time to Pass

I remember standing in my Den Haag flat, staring out the balcony doors, seeing nothing. I was wishing for time to pass, for the endless days of a trial I was monitoring to finally end so I could go home. I’d been at the Tribunal three long years, and there was no end in sight. I missed my partner, friends, and family. I missed Oregon’s giant fir trees and its scrubby pines. Den Haag was a sweet village with cobbled and bricked roads, canals, boutiques, museums, cafes. It was not a hardship post like Belgrade. But I wanted time to pass. It struck me how appalling it was to wish my years to pass more quickly, for what’s at the end but death. I didn’t want that. I wanted an imaginary future, where I was always happy, loving, and loved, where beauty abounded, life was interesting, I was never bored or burdened with other people’s sorrows.

It is now sixteen years later and I find myself wishing these days would pass, these days of confinement, of being locked down, locked away from friends and family. I’m older and there’s not so much time left. Will I yet sip cappuccino or Turkish coffee at Marino’s funky Bosnian café? Talk with Zoa for hours at Monti’s about politics, philosophy, and family, snacking on a blueberry almond scone? Will my favorite restaurants still exist? My precious Jade District is shut down and people are afraid of anything Asian, especially Chinese. Will we lose Ocean City, HK Café, and Pure Spice? Will my local farmers’ market, where we shop for fruit and veggies but also go to meet neighbors and listen to music, open as the crops come in? Will the crops come in? Who will harvest them?  Is there a visit to the Academy Theater in my future? Do I have a future? I have an “underlying medical condition” and I am over 65 (by quite a bit).  

I do not want to wish time to pass. There’s so little of it left. But I am not in prison. I am not surrounded by grey cement walls in a 6 X 10 foot cell. I am not confined in solitary. My beloved Kate is with me, as she was not in Den Haag. We have a lovely house (these days, it is well-lived in and I trip over stacks of books, shoes, and displaced chairs). Our refrigerator and freezer are finally getting cleaned out. Our pantry still holds nourishment and cookies. I can sit in my overstuffed chair patterned with books and read from the hundreds I have not yet read and reread any of those I cannot remember having read. Kate will always be here for dinner. We can walk together in our neighborhood and occasionally up Mt. Tabor when others stay home – a boon of all those rainy days. There is Britbox on our TV, though streaming is a challenge at times, as are most technical devices in my vicinity – the printer is broken, the computer has three dozen programs on it that won’t close, most of my photos are inaccessible, entire files vanish when I save them to my three terabyte thumb drive. (I think fondly of the old days when I just turned on the TV and a screen appeared. I could twist a knob and select from four channels, but then PBS only showed British mysteries and comedies on certain nights, not Friday evening at seven or whenever we have time and inclination to watch. Nothing is perfect.) I can watch the squirrels gobble up corn and sunflower seeds on our side porch, though I’ve run out of squirrel food and they’re not so fond of bird seed, of which I have 44 pounds. But then there are birds to watch. Kate, for the first time we’ve lived here, has planted a garden. Every day at least once she rushes outside to see whether any sprouts have pushed up their wee heads. She’s keeping worms in a compost bucket and assiduously cutting up veggie and fruit scraps. We have a few flowers. The tulips are up. The geraniums and primroses that wintered over continue to display their multicolored petals, while the jasmine drapes over the neighbors’ fence, safely dispensing fragrance through the air with no chance of carrying a virus (I don’t think). I saw a fat, black and white bumble bee the other day, foraging on the ground. I don’t know why. We are warm. We eat well. We have gloves and masks (bought several years ago for cleaning and preventing wildfire smoke inhalation).

A bounteous life. Why would anyone want time to pass quickly? We don’t know what May, June, or July will bring. We only always ever have today, now, this minute. A mix of abundance and loss. Today I am given the opportunity to observe and accept what is – with equanimity, and possibly joy. Am I up to it?

THIS MACHINE HATES ME!

It’s only the latest. First there was my desktop computer. Then it was the new laptop. Before that, it was the television. And, of course, my cell phone. The latest is my printer/copier. None of them are fond of me. They find ways to disturb my peace and to make me sound like a raving maniac. Very successful, they are.

Confession first. I am a Luddite. I miss my electric typewriter. I miss a landline. I miss a television with only four channels and a dial. I called the first computer I used “Murphy” after Murphy’s law (whatever can go wrong will go wrong). You young folks keep “improving” technology, then try to explain it to us Luddites from another era using your tech terms that make instructions read like Mandarin or Gaelic spoken backward. I do not live with anyone under the age of 40. I do not have an IT person at my beck and call. I’m on my own with changes (should I mention that I hate Microsoft 10?) and glitches and major breakdowns. Now, without the ability to take a device to someone with tech expertise, I’m really on my own—an unhappy prospect for my partner who must listen to me rant and rave. I haven’t yet destroyed anything.

Which brings me to the latest breakdown. My printer/copier. It was working fine until I tried to stop it in the middle of a print job. It didn’t like it. Though it eventually started again, it didn’t last long. Soon, I got the dreaded flashing light and ERROR MESSAGE: “An error has occurred. The printer needs repair. Turn the device off and unplug the power cord from the power supply [i.e. electric outlet]. Then see the manual and contact the service center.”

I looked through the entire 100 page manual but found no advice for this problem. The service center was closed. I went on-line and watched several videos, showing me how to fix this particular problem, one video was in German. In another, a very pleasant woman demonstrated a trick, which unfortunately didn’t work for me. She suggested the company programs this error into their printers so that people will buy new ones (assuming we would be stupid enough to buy the same brand!). My favorite video was by a fellow who started by laying out the tools I would need, beginning with a bottle of beer. So far so good. Then, a screwdriver, an electric screwdriver, and a hammer. He proceeded to take a swig of beer, then to unscrew parts of the printer. I was a little disconcerted when he took the beer outside, then returned for the printer which he placed in his firepit. He opened the printer cover and poured beer all over it. Next, he walked over to a woodpile and selected a large log and proceeded to smash it on top of the computer. He wasn’t done. He picked up the hammer and struck the printer over and over and over until it was a jumble of plastic and he was well satisfied. He finished the beer.

I haven’t been that brave yet, but I do have a hammer.

How NOT to Win Over Bernie Bros

Bernie Bros and others who support and have supported Bernie Sanders are good people. They are not miscreant children so please do not lecture or condescend to them. They have good values just as Bernie does, just as you do. They don’t want a totalitarian state or a communist government. They want our communities to be healthy, educated, comfortably housed, well-fed, gainfully employed with a livable wage, and safe. That includes addressing the global warming and Covid-19 emergencies, prioritizing life on this planet over corporate profits.

If Joe Biden becomes the Democratic candidate for president and your highest priority is defeating Trump, bullying and criticizing Bernie supporters will not get them to the polls. How about recognizing their concerns as legitimate and having a discussion with them (and Bernie) about which ones should be included in the Democratic platform? How about valuing them (and their votes) and INVITING them to support Biden? Some pundits believe we cannot defeat Trump without courting disaffected Republicans and moderates, at the same time they disparage Bernie supporters as leftwing extremists. Does this make sense? Is this any way to unify opposition to Trump after a bruising primary?

I am not a Democratic Socialist, but I share many of their values. I supported Elizabeth Warren and am saddened on many levels that so few saw her brilliance, vision, compassion, and leadership. Now, in my seventies, I have spent nearly all my adult life voting AGAINST a candidate (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Robert Dole, George Bush). Only twice did I enthusiastically vote FOR a candidate (Barack Obama despite disagreeing with some of his policies).

If Joe Biden is the Democratic candidate, I will once more vote AGAINST the Republican. I worry about Biden’s lack of courage and vision, evidenced in his leadership in passing the 1996 Crime Bill, a major factor in mass incarceration, and welfare “reform” that significantly increased the number of Americans living in poverty, as well as his opposition to busing to implement Brown v. Board of Education. I worry about his belief in compromise and bipartisanship given today’s Republican Part. Consider how it worked for Obama. I am not convinced he is the best candidate to defeat Trump, as I imagine him on a debate stage with this unscrupulous bully and liar. Will he be able to stand up to him? Still, I will vote AGAINST Trump.

Please, Biden supporters, have some respect for those who have a different view, but also want to hold onto and improve our democracy. ASK (politely). Don’t TELL.