Star-Spangled Healing

November 16, 2020

No matter whom you voted for, there’s enough anger, frustration, and exhaustion to go around.

Voters who cast their ballots against Biden–those who couldn’t digest the left chanting, “Defund the police,” for example–are keeping their eyes on the Crackerjack prize.

Talk to many of 45’s voters and they’ll tell you: They’re well aware he’s a monstrosity of human being. They might not have realized it back in 2016, but they certainly don’t deny it now.

The incumbent president is fool’s gold all right, but he’s their fool’s gold.

Some of the president’s supporters will even explain “God uses flawed people” to advance His cause.

Voting for the incumbent to protect our guns, our embryos, and the would-be Middle Eastern stage of a literal, fiery apocalypse—these are all reasons, for them, that the ends justify the means.

***

Who added the Book of Machiavelli to my Bible?

***

Religion, particularly American Evangelism, comprises a set of deeply held convictions and principles, which serve to guide people. The practice of that faith, in turn, which often occurs in groups and bestows a group identity, can become a proxy for belief itself.

Belonging is an essential human feeling, and knowing the “group” to which one “belongs” becomes a heuristic, a tool, for important decision making.

Being a “good Christian,” then, for some, means voting for the man adored by the evangelical right.

It may not be the kind of decision-making practiced by Limbaugh’s so-called “navel-gazing liberals,” but it accomplishes a choice, nonetheless.

The non-navel-gazers, after working forty-plus hours per week and caring for their homes and families, may welcome the spiritual portentousness of a viral YouTube video about 45’s mother and “The Hebridean Bible.”  

Even if it is bunk.

***

Advances in filmmaking construction—and proliferation—are no less revolutionary now than Gutenberg’s printing press was in 1440.  

The talented filmmakers—I won’t say propagandists—at the Lincoln Project, for example, know how to combine images and sounds with precision to bring one to a certain conclusion—or to edify a conclusion one has already reached.

They also know something about affects, the pre-emotional, instinctive, biological responses humans produce in response to environmental stimuli. As the twentieth-century psychologist Silvan Tomkins explained, negative affects yield much more bang for the buck than positive affects.

Forty-five deals mostly in negativity: Distress. Fear. Disgust.

While he promises to “Make America Great Again,” the vow has meaning only in its juxtaposition with the threat of loss: the loss of a particular flavor of American, cultural identity.

Unlike former President Ronald Reagan, however, the incumbent president wasn’t able to consummate his second-term sale.

Reagan, a former actor who sold us “Morning in America” in 1980, understood the unsustainable nature of negativity. Former President George W. Bush, brought us further along, understanding the power of conciliatory positivity:

“A kinder, gentler nation.”

“A thousand points of light.”

***

Negative affect, it’s true, is more potent than positive affect. But it doesn’t last.

Millions of years of evolution have hardwired us to be able to amp-up in reaction to existential threats, after all. Our ancestors didn’t have to stop and think, for example, when they saw a lion charging at them on the African Savannah. The reaction was immediate.

The high-pitched, intense burst of negative affect calls the body to seek immediate resolution; it’s a survival mechanism.

Our Creator didn’t design emotional negativity to be sustained.

We are wired, instead, to resolve negative affect. As any trauma specialist or recovering PTSD sufferer will tell you, that energy has to go somewhere, lest it take up residence in the body.

***

            Negative energy is contagious, and like a virus, one person might catch it just as another is getting over it, reinfecting the first person. So, resolving negativity is bound to take longer when it reaches the level of national frenzy.

            But just as we’re close to delivering a vaccine that will prevent COVID-19, we’re also very close to the incumbent’s followers running out of steam.

Outrage is exhausting.

Even 45 realizes the fever is breaking. He knows he has lost the election.

            The biggest question facing our nation is, “What we will do next?” To stretch a metaphor, instead of beating swords into plowshares, we’re now called to transform tiki torches into energy-efficient lanterns.  

Fear into light.

Powerful, ultraviolet, infection-killing light! Inside the body (politic)!

America, to borrow from Coldplay, is like the sky.

She’s a sky full of stars.

May we all stand beside her, and guide each other, with God’s help, through this very strange night.

The Deadliest One

A message about Anorexia Nervosa

October 2, 2020

Anne Schindler of First Coast News reports Kimberly Kessler, a Nassau County inmate charged with first degree murder, is in danger of dying of starvation. Corrections personnel are seeking a court order to force-feed her.

Her starvation is not the fault of the corrections staff, nor is it, I believe, willful behavior. I have not met Kessler. But I have met the monster I believe* is now threatening her life.

Fortunately, my loved one survived it.

Kessler’s life is most likely in danger from the deadly eating disorder, Anorexia Nervosa. If so, food is the first and most important prescription necessary to save her life.

It is no less important than insulin to a diabetic with high blood sugar, whom we would unquestionably medicate, even if his illness resulted in an altered mental state.

Further, the intervention needs to occur in a medical setting, not a jail.

Anorexia nervosa is a poorly understood mental illness.  

It’s a genetically based disease that some scientists believe may have benefitted our ancestors, long ago in our hunter-gatherer days, as they tried to avoid starvation. After a certain period of sustained, lowered caloric intake, the theory goes, the AN gene “flips on” to boost a person’s energy.

According to this evolutionary theory, the ones “blessed” with the AN gene during early human history experienced a manic state, and could venture out farther, with more endurance, to help their tribe find food. The tribe would presumably nurse them back to health after the ordeal.

Nowadays, however, our brain “hardware,” i.e., our genetic makeup, gets all tangled up with the “software,” i.e., culturally influenced behaviors.

Since the mania associated with AN is “ego syntonic,” the brain enjoys the feeling of euphoria and seeks to continue the behavior that activated the gene–foregoing food. Throw in prevailing cultural ideas about ideal body images, and you get a self-reinforcing, cultural-behavioral-genetic cycle that will absolutely persist until either the person gets fed, or dies.

Given our society’s strict gender norms regarding body image and thinness, most victims of AN are women.

Untreated, AN is the deadliest of all mental illnesses. Without forced feeding, Kessler will die.

*I’m not a trained psychologist or psychiatrist, but when you’ve seen the monster up close and personal—closely enough to have to learn how it operates—it becomes a duty to share one’s perspective with the rest of the world, particularly when someone’s life could be in danger. Again, I haven’t met Kessler.

From where I sit, however, the dots are presenting themselves too clearly to not connect them.

Our family had to travel hundreds of miles away to get competent, science-based help for our loved one. Dr. Sarah Ravin in Coral Gables provided lifesaving guidance, which helped our family member survive and thrive.

Information about evidence-based treatments for eating disorders can be found on Dr. Ravin’s website pages.

My heart, and my deepest condolences go out to the victims of Kimberly Kessler’s alleged murder, the beloved family of Joleen Cummings.  

I cannot imagine the pain of losing a loved one to homicide. Nor can I imagine the horror of facing the possibility that AN-related psychosis may have played a role in her (alleged) murder.

But I do know how deadly that monster is.

As the court personnel do their important and urgent work of parsing out the legal definitions of sanity, in light of what we know about mental illness, I hope they’ll prevent this monster from taking a second life.

Real leaders cultivate hope, not fear.

September 16, 2020

Here’s my response, as published in today’s Florida Times Union, to Rep. Jason Fischer’s race-baiting, fearmongering editorial, to which I will not provide a link.

Column: Fischer unfairly linked protesters with rioters

In his Sunday guest column, Rep. Jason Fischer’s writes “Pandering to the woke will not protect you”—just the kind of race-baiting and fearmongering that should shame us all.

Fischer deliberately conflates peaceful protesters with people who commit crimes. He would have readers believe that all of us who seek more police transparency are criminals. His writing aims to activate political dog-whistles to the ignorant and the fearful, those who would aim guns at our children from their front lawns, when they could just as easily choose to hand out bottled waters.

Rep. Fischer, there’s still time to get on the right side of history. Several prominent Jacksonville Republicans have publicly denounced Trump, among them, former mayor John Delaney. The number of government officials and other associates close to Trump who have repudiated him is astounding. The number of criminal charges and indictments brought against Trump’s cronies breaks recent historical records.

Sadly, those who still support him are left with only one thing on their side: fear. Trump’s record of incompetence and divisiveness speaks for itself. Nearly 200,000 people have died on his watch from COVID-19, in the wake of his mendacity and reckless inaction. The American people are suffering in ways not seen since the Great Depression. Thinly veiled, racist fearmongering is intended to distract voters from Trump’s colossal failure of leadership.

As our nation grapples with what author Toni Morrison labeled, “America’s original sin,” most of Jacksonville is finally facing up to our racist history. One of the bloodiest moments in the Civil Rights movement, Ax Handle Saturday, finally garnered the local and national acknowledgement history demands.

As Trump fanned the flames of hatred, we in Jacksonville came together to mourn that infamous day. As Trump’s inciteful rhetoric emboldened a teenaged white supremacist to commit homicides, activists in Jacksonville went to work.

The people Mr. Fischer would characterize as criminals have sat in rooms with our Sheriff, our State Attorney, and other officials to help ensure police enforce the United States Constitution in a manner that protects everyone. Their lawsuit settlement could serve as an instructional template for police departments across the nation.

A tremendous amount of work remains, but here in Jacksonville, it’s underway. Fischer’s letter demonstrates a refusal to understand the role of peaceful protests in our democracy, and insults the work of Jacksonville’s real leaders. 

Nineteen years later, we still don’t know.

A reflection on what the autism community and the rest of humanity might have lost on that bright Tuesday morning.

September 11, 2020

On that Florida blue-sky morning nineteen years ago, I was researching autism online when my mother-in-law called me with the unthinkable news. Switching websites, I saw the still photos of the smoking, collapsing twin towers.

I packed up the baby and fetched our older two children from their school.

Panic struck me, knowing our country was under attack. After the horror of realizing thousands of people were dead, my thoughts wandered to the inevitable, ensuing war.

Those who died deserve to be remembered. In recounting what else we lost that day, I intend no offense or slight. I intend, instead, to bring our collective sacrifice into sharper focus.

This I knew, on that morning nineteen years ago: America was not going to let this attack go unanswered, and our answer would be exorbitantly expensive–in terms of dollars, lives, and opportunities lost.

Once again, all the progress in the world, including advances in medical science, would either decelerate or grind to a screeching halt.

***

Science takes a gut punch every time humanity’s collective resources are called to fight a war.

Following World War II, we forfeited, among other things, half a century’s progress in our understanding of autism.

Hans Asperger is credited with discovering “autistic psychopathy” in 1938 in Austria, before Leo Kanner’s famous 1943 paper on autism, says Herwig Czech, a researcher published in the journal, Molecular Autism.

Asperger was a Vienna pediatrician, whom Czech contends was a eugenicist and Nazi “accommodator.”

Asperger is better known, however, for identifying the syndrome that bears (or bore) his name, Asperger’s syndrome, a subtype or variation of autism. The eponymous disorder is thought to be a milder degree of autism.

Renowned expert Tony Atwood credits the Viennese doctor with identifying a handful of boys who exhibited a distinctive set of symptoms: “a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversations, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements.” (Click here for a link to Atwood’s book, Asperger’s Syndrome, A Guide for Parents and Professionals.)

Asperger’s work changed the way we think about what we now call “autism spectrum disorder.”

Too bad it took fifty years for his writings to come to light.

***

Asperger’s work was thought to be lost when the Allies bombed his clinic in 1944.

Dr. Lorna Wing revitalized the physician’s writings in 1991, and “Asperger’s syndrome” was adopted as a diagnostic term in the next catalog of mental disorders, the DSM IV, in 1994. (The DSM V subsumed Asperger’s syndrome into “autism spectrum disorder” in 2013.)

Perhaps it was the revolutionary nature of Asperger’s 50-year-old work, as relayed through Wing and Uta Frith, who translated his writings, which lent an air of heroism to the man.

Depictions of Asperger in the 1990s featured flattering characterizations. Writers insisted he advocated for children with disabilities, and tried to “save” them from Nazi euthanasia.

But Herwig Czech appears to have debunked the “savior” portrayal of Asperger. Czech found evidence Asperger referred disabled children to a clinic where he knew they would be killed by the Nazis.

My point is not to debate whether Asperger was a Nazi collaborator–it appears he was. Instead, my point is to illustrate how war derailed progress in the field of psychiatry for half a century.

***

Meanwhile, between World War II and Lorna Wing’s exhumation of Asperger’s work, parents and psychiatrists were left with a limited–and harmful–understanding of autism.

Bereft of Asperger’s contributions, leaders in the field went so far as to fault parents for the disorder. Bettleheim attributed autism in children to an uncaring, aloof attitude on the part of their parents. This notion became known as “the refrigerator mother” theory.

The lack of Asperger’s scientific insights caused other harm as well.

Atwood theorizes many children with milder, less disabling degrees of autism may have grown up with worsening maladaptive behaviors, leading to misdiagnoses of schizophrenia as they approached adulthood.

***

Wing brought Asperger’s work, and autism, out of the shadows.

Instead of damning children into a frightening, dim, and categorical prognosis, she reframed the disorder as a matter of degree, contending that there are individuals of all ages who fall somewhere along the “autism spectrum.”

As authors Francesca Happé and Simon Baron-Cohen report, thirty years of research since 1991 have proved Wing right.

So here we are, in 2020, enjoying the fruits of three decades of research from which we might have otherwise benefitted, sans Hitler, by 1970.

***

So yes, I remember and mourn the people we lost on that tragic Tuesday morning, nineteen years ago.

I was terrified that our country might be invaded. I remember fearing Jacksonville’s Navy bases might make for an attractive military target. I remember praying like crazy.

I’m grateful for the first responders in New York, for the unbelievably brave passengers who preemptively crashed their plane in rural Pennsylvania, sparing the terrorists’ targets in Washington, D.C. I’m thankful for those who answered the call to serve in our military.

But having witnessed the immense suffering of families who could not access the best science had to offer in understanding and treating their autistic children, I also remember cursing the upcoming war on terror.

***

We know the progress we lost between World War II and 1991 for one devastating medical condition, autism.

We’ll never know the medical innovations, art, literature or other contributions that didn’t come to fruition over the past nineteen years, as we waged the war on terror.

What if all our resources had been spent on addressing climate change, instead?

When, if ever, do we get to return to the business of advancing humankind?

Florida: The Magical Thinking Kingdom

August 18, 2020

Most of us are familiar with the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. I’m here to write about the Mickey Mouse regime in Tallahassee.

Late in July, the Florida Department of Education sent a letter to Duval County Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene denying the district’s request to suspend active shooter drills during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It seems the regular practice of piling into closets together to avoid armed madmen doesn’t contemplate the airborne contagion of the Coronavirus.

For those of you who don’t live in Florida’s realm of Magical Thinking, you might not know how the current legislature was, in great part, hand-raised by National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer. You also might not be familiar with our state’s response to the tragic Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, which occurred February 14, 2018 in Parkland.

Florida was not going to lead with sensible gun laws. No Sirree, Bob. Not the Gunshine State.

Picture assiduous shills carefully lifting their thoughts off of NRA stationery before formulating the bills authorizing these two gems: underpaid and undertrained yet armed school “guardians,” and active shooter drills.

Florida’s kindergarteners, one hopes, know these drills only as “Code Red.” Code Red means “hide for your life.”

Teachers lead students to hide behind “hard corners” in their classrooms. Sadly, “hard corners” is a term easily Google-able in the days before the hard fall of the NRA.

Attorneys in New York have uncovered massive fraud and self-dealing among the leaders of this nonprofit organization.

May they rot in prison cells adjoining, if at all possible, the likes of Ahmed Arbery’s killers—among any number of NRA dog-whistle followers. Through insidious laws like Stand Your Ground, the NRA falsely empowered myriad racist, white men to practice the deadly antics of America’s once-Wild West.

Sorry, school teachers. The tail end of the NRA’s hegemony seems to be overlapping with a phenomenon even more deadly than this nation’s gun violence: COVID-19.

But, fear not. The same Thought Giants asking you to re-open in-person school have suggested ways you can be flexible with your Code Reds. In an August 7 memo, officials say teachers can use exponentially more classroom minutes conducting drills one student at a time!

(Just don’t let it cut into your curriculum-pacing guidelines.)

And don’t ask why Florida—whose new COVID-positive test rates have not yet dipped below 5% for the recommended two weeks—is mandating in-person school options for students.

That’s a whole ‘nother division of The Magical Thinking Kingdom.

With hundreds of employees in Florida’s 67 county health departments—all of whom failed to blow the whistle on the Governor’s gag order—we might call that division “Brownshirt Land.”

As published in the Florida Times Union today: Florida reports 576,094 cases of COVID-19, with 34,194 total hospitalizations due to the virus, and 9,534 resident deaths.

Florida is graduating fast from “God’s waiting room,” to DeSantis’s morgue.

From Morning to Mourning in America

My “Dear John” Letter to Reaganism

August 11, 2020

I almost lost a friend.

In these contentious times—when protests, a global pandemic, and an economic depression have us all on edge—the last thing anyone needs is a Twitter blowout.

I became guilty of something I charge my children with: over-relying on forms of communication that lack facial expression, tone of voice, context, and often, courtesy.

“Pick up the phone,” I tell them.

Ah, how I wish I had.

Instead, I lost my patience—not with my friend, exactly, but with what I believed he represented at that moment: equivocation about our current president, He Who Shall Not be Named.  

***

My decades-long friend is a Republican former mayor and university President whose opinion I value and respect. I admire his public service career.

Over the years, he and I have enjoyed some goodhearted political exchanges—we agree as much as, if not more than, we disagree.

My accomplished compatriot hails from a long line of prominent Republican leaders who cut their political teeth while coming of age on the University of Florida campus.

I got to Gainesville a few years later than he did, where I learned quickly how to stand my rhetorical ground amid young, white, fraternity men who worshipped Ronald Reagan.

***

Reagan was a masterful orator who inspired pride in an entire generation of young Republicans. The linguist George Lakoff characterizes Reagan as a strong father figure who leaned on rhetoric meant to imbue a sense of safety, righteousness, and cultural “propriety.”

Picture a TV commercial for Belk department stores, with preppy-clad families enjoying a picnic in the Southern spring sunshine.

Perhaps they’ve just come from church.

Perhaps Dad will enjoy an after-lunch round of golf.

The family is safe from harm, the outdoor scenery is well landscaped, and the picnic, abundant.

The voiceover in the ad crowds out whatever sounds might emanate—we imagine children’s laughter as they tussle with their fathers—but we know for sure there’s no rap music.

I love Belk. Belk has great sales. I shop at Belk, and my aim is not to pick at them.

Their ads are an illustrative fit, however, for the feeling I imagine Reagan conjured among his followers.

***

Belk is as apt to feature Black people as often as white people in their commercials now. On its face, there is nothing endemically white or Black about a portrait of middleclass “family values.”

Reagan used buzz words, however, designed to signify the exclusionary whiteness of his vision of “American family values.”

At a time when our nation was still busing for desegregation, during a stump speech in Mississippi, he made an appeal to “states’ rights.” He was invoking code for the rejection of federal court orders mandating school integration under Brown and other cases.

Even our current democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, opposed busing in the Senate in the 1970s and 80s. Senator Kamala Harris took him to task on the subject in a primary debate last year, insisting, by way of preface, Biden was no racist.

I wonder whether she would extend the same generosity to former President Ronald Reagan.

***

In addition to invoking the racial trope, “welfare queen” in other speeches, Reagan further restricted his vision of “family values” to straight people, with a preference for evangelical churchgoers.

After Reagan’s politics married Jerry Falwell’s religion circa 1980, the “Moral Majority” was born.

Reagan declared his era as “Morning in America.”

Soon, the Reagan-Bush years spawned radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s success, with all the misogyny, homophobia, racism, anti-intellectualism, and climate change denial Limbaugh could cultivate. The Rush Limbaugh Show’s 1988 launch into national radio syndication followed the repeal of the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987.

The rest, as they say, is history.

***

In her August 4 essay, Washington Post columnist Laura Ellyn Smith explicates anti-intellectualism in the South.

She draws a bright, straight line between the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee and the anti-science, anti-mask-wearing sentiments now sweeping the Bible Belt.

Sweeping along with them is COVID-19.

As a liberal born and raised in the South, I was taught to respect the salt-of-the-earth opinions of literalist religious believers—unlike that rude, leftist talk show host, Bill Maher. I was taught, too, to respect the opinions of those with whom I disagree.

Respect does not include, however, tolerating racism under the guise of “family values;” nor does it entail abiding misogyny and homophobia under the guise of “religious freedom.”

Respect certainly does not mean indulging the ignorance sold by abusive demagogues as “political difference of opinion.”

***

To borrow from Isaac Asimov, we have entered an era in which some define democracy as, “My magical thinking is equal to your expertise.”

Living in a state whose Department of Health denies important epidemiology guidelines to our public schools, as Coronavirus deaths are peaking, is unacceptable.

Ignoring climate change as a matter of policy is, in my opinion, a sin against God.

Disparaging educated people because they tell us things we don’t want to hear is neither religious, cultural, nor political.

It’s just plain stupid.

***

While Limbaugh et al might persuade his listeners that “East Coast elites” want to run their lives, what he’s really rejecting isn’t “liberal ideology.”

He’s rejecting the idea that any of us should become specialists. God forbid anyone should defer to anyone else’s expertise on anything.  

I don’t fix my own car. While I might ask questions to avoid getting ripped off, I wouldn’t dream of micromanaging the mechanics tasked with tuning up my automobile.

I also don’t grow my family’s food, replace rooves, or perform surgery.

We are shifting, in our highly complex society, away from old, false hierarchies.

Collectively, we’re struggling to give up the vestiges of white supremacy, misogyny, and, to the extent it seeks to oppress, fear-based religion.

While we may no longer afford automatic deference to white men on the basis of their whiteness or their maleness, we are still called to defer to people who know more than we do on certain subjects, in certain circumstances.  

It makes no more sense for HWSNBN to flout expert medical advice than it does for me to fly a plane, or perform a tonsillectomy.

He Who Shall Not Be Named deliberately conflates cognitive error with “political difference of opinion” to perpetuate his own power, i.e., to keep himself in office.

Staying in office, after all—short of resigning and obtaining a presidential pardon—is the only thing likely to keep him out of prison.

***

The magical thinking now pervading our society; the wholesale rejection of reality, science, and the rule of law; the sh*tshow that we once called “the White House;” all of it stands on the shoulders of Republicans who benefitted from the “cultural politics” package they’ve been selling to white, Evangelical voters for the past forty years.

 Amalgamating fear-based religiosity, sexism, racism, otherism, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism—all for political gain—became the hot asphalt that paved the way for the man who tells people on national TV, in a time of global pandemic, to drink bleach.

(Go back further in my blog and you’ll find more on gun mania, which is also part of the “package” sold to the voters who put the bleach-drinker-in-chief in office.)

***

My republican friends would tell me there’s more to their political conservatism than the things I’ve mentioned in this essay.

But with HWSNBN sucking up all the air in the Twittersphere and elsewhere, it’s incumbent on them—Republicans—to tell the rest of us what those things might be.

Absent their clear pronouncements, the definition of Republicanism defaults to the autocratic antics of He Who Shall Not Be Named.

The silence of his fellow party members, aka his enablers, has become deafening.

Fortunately, there are exceptions.

Local republican business magnate David Miller has defected from HWSNBN.

Prominent local attorney and legendary tobacco litigator, W.C. Gentry, another registered Republican, stood up to the GOP by suing to prevent Republican National Convention events from occurring here. 

Last month, my friend the former mayor did well to publish his personal manifesto in the inaugural edition of Folio 2.0.

His essay, like mine, won’t fit in a tweet.

Florida’s Year of Magical Thinking

August 7, 2020

After her husband died, Joan Didion wrote a critically acclaimed book about her mourning experience entitled, The Year of Magical Thinking.

The title refers to a characteristic practice of grievers: denial. Ms. Didion wrote, among other things, about her inability to give away her husband’s shoes; surely he would need them, she thought, when he “returned.”

Apparently, denial is not just for those mourning the dead.

Magical thinking has also become the go-to method of governance for public officials in Florida.

Today’s Palm Beach Post reports Gov. DeSantis’s administration ordered county health officials to withhold important guidelines from local school districts in reference to reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

“Following a directive from DeSantis’ administration, county health directors across Florida refused to give school boards advice about one of the most wrenching public health decisions in modern history: whether to reopen schools in a worsening pandemic, a Gannett USA TODAY NETWORK review found.”

This move, which is straight outta Mein Kampf, evokes an anger at the Governor which can only be outweighed by the anger aimed at the brown-shirted county officials for “just following orders.”

Eclipsing that anger, however, is sheer, unadulterated terror for our students, teachers, and other school personnel.

If COVID-19 deaths were homicides, our governor and state health officials would be accessories to murder.

Governor Ron DeSantis has refused to issue a statewide mask order, despite scientific evidence demonstrating mask-wearing saves lives.

He habitually takes his cues from He Who Shall Not Be Named, the one who stars in the sh*tshow we once referred to as the White House.

Magical thinking may not just be for mourners, but it surely will usher in more mourning in Florida.

Below is my letter to the editor of the Florida Times Union, which was published today, before I knew about the gag orders.

***

Use Science, Not Politics, In Reopening Schools

The decision whether to reopen Duval County Public Schools, given our current COVID-19 infection rate, should be no more controversial than the decision to close schools in the face of an impending hurricane. Just as we look to meteorologists to understand our risks of being hit by a hurricane, so should we look to medical experts—physicians and epidemiologists—to guide our decisions during this global pandemic.

The silence of current state and local health officials on the subject has been deafening. Fortunately, the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics has chimed in with science-based guidelines for reopening schools. Children are absolutely, without question, better off in school than out of school, says FCAAP, but only when school is safe.

On July 29, FCAAP defined “safe” by recommending school districts reopen only in locales which demonstrate, for two consecutive weeks, a 5% or lower positive COVID-19 test rate. Otherwise, FCAAP says, school openings should be delayed until positive test rates decline to the 5% threshold for 14 days. FCAAP provides additional guidelines which can be viewed on its website.

Superintendent Greene and the board are to be commended for looking out for Duval’s most vulnerable children during these challenging times. Our city’s longstanding inequality problems compound the technology gap for many students in underserved neighborhoods, and more students are bound to fall behind if schools are closed. Additionally, providing school meals when schools are closed is logistically daunting, despite the heroic efforts we saw last spring.

No one is more concerned about school equity, however, than Duval County School Board members Ashley Smith Juarez and Darryl Willie. Both voted “no” on the district’s reopening plan. They understand that COVID-19 is akin to a category 5 hurricane, bearing down on an entire nation.

Willie brainstormed creative ways to help reach our most adversely affected students. Juarez argued, much like FCAAP, that science—i.e., the infection rate—should be the arbiter of when and whether to reopen schools, not politics.

As teacher and District 3 school board candidate Chris Guerrieri said, “We can make up for lost learning, but not for lost lives.”

History will not be kind to state leaders who, when tasked with important policymaking, forsake science for magical thinking. The Florida Department of Education, apparently devoid of advice from the state’s public health officials, should permit school districts to adopt FCAAP guidelines in their reopening decisions.

Slip Slidin’ Away

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

It seems important to write this down—this barely noticed, largely unquestioned power grab that occurred in our city Sunday evening.

As local activist and state house candidate Ben Marcus says:

“Totalitarianism rarely shows up overnight. It’s a slow drip that eventually drills a hole through basic human rights like speech and movement. We cannot allow unjustified executive power grabs go by lest we make it the norm.”

            So, we need to document the drips. We need to especially document those “drips” for which people end up getting arrested.

On Sunday, May 31, 2020, at 5:54 pm, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry tweeted news of his decision, in consultation with Sheriff Mike Williams, to implement a citywide curfew beginning at 8 pm, to end at 6 am Monday morning. Mayor Curry tweeted:

“Due to criminal activity that threatens first responders, other people, and private property, Sheriff Williams @jsosheriff and I have decided to implement a citywide curfew. Effective 8pm today until 6 am tomorrow, I am putting a curfew in place for the City of Jacksonville.”

            “Let me say this plainly,” the mayor went on to tweet in the same series, “if you are in our streets after 8 pm you are subject to arrest by law enforcement.”

Whether or not our city needed a curfew isn’t the issue. Imposing one might have been a good decision. I appreciate the complex calculus public safety officials perform in order to make decisions about protecting our people.

But do our city ordinances permit our mayor to restrict, via Twitter, with two hours’ notice, by virtue of one telephone call, the movements of 958,000 people?

Do a phone call and a tweet enable him to have people arrested for violating his decree?

Ben Marcus didn’t think so. And I’m with Ben.

***

Chapter 674 in our local ordinance code confers power to the mayor to declare a civil emergency. He is obliged by 674.306, however, to convene the city council in a special meeting when he invokes those powers. Subsection 674.306 reads as follows:

Concurrently with the declaration of the state of civil emergency, the Mayor shall convene the Council in special meeting, at which he shall report to the Council all the facts and circumstances known to him concerning the civil emergency and his recommendations in connection therewith.

Concurrently.

Google defines the word as meaning, “at the same time,” or “simultaneously.”

“Convene,” in turn, means to “bring together for a meeting or activity,” according to Google.

What “convene” does not mean, in this non-lawyer’s opinion—particularly in conjunction with the word “concurrently”—is “put a meeting on the calendar.”

The rest of the section lays out the mayor’s obligation to state his reasons to the council for the civil emergency and to make his recommendations. The city council’s power to override the mayor’s decision is described in the chapter, as well.

Arguably, the requirements of 674.306 were put there to ensure a legislative check on local executive power. But it does not appear the mayor bothered with fulfilling those duties.

“Sheriff Williams and I have decided,” he tweeted.

I saw no official declaration of civil emergency, nor any special meeting convened concurrently with said (unmade) declaration.

When I reached out to city council representatives this morning to express my alarm about this potential abuse of power, I was told there would be a Zoom meeting on the issue today. I asked whether a meeting had been convened on Sunday, online or otherwise. None of them answered the question.

It stretches the imagination, even for the very imaginative attorneys in the Office of General Counsel, to read “concurrently” as “two days later.”

Since people were arrested for violating the curfew, its legality is bound to become a litigable point.

Because the arguably illegal curfew order involved the official power of the state, I’ll leave it to the lawyers to determine if those arrests constitute grounds for civil rights lawsuits. At the very least, given the two-hour window, there’s the problem of fair warning, which, as even non-lawyers like me know, is inherent to due process of law.

Lest there be any confusion, the curfew is easily distinguishable from the declarations regarding business shutdowns this past March. We knew those were coming ahead of time, and there were no criminal penalties. No one got arrested, to my knowledge, for going to work during the shutdown.

***

Our nation has survived tumultuous times, and I believe we will get through the current uprising. The protesters are on the side of the angels, after all. They want more police accountability and transparency.

Most of all, they want what any person of conscience in America wants—to heal racism. Racism is the default-cultural setting in our nation, a legacy in part, of slavery, which Toni Morrison named, “America’s original sin.”

As scripture will confirm, our country’s sin is now being visited upon our children, slaughtering them: Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia; Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; and Jordan Davis here in our own city. The list is unconscionably long, but these are our kids.

***

Council Member Brenda Priestly Jackson said it best on Melissa Ross’s show this morning: “There’s a fine line between authoritarianism and protection.”

He might not be wrapped in a flag and waving a cross, as the quote about American fascism goes, but President Trump is crowing about law and order. He’s threatening to deploy the military into our hometowns. He’s rolled back liability protections for social media platforms. And he’s using flash bombs to clear crowds so he can pose in front of local churches, Bible on full display.

Drip, drip, drip.

Justice Cedes its Ground

May 18, 2020

I wish my father were still alive. I’d like to talk to him about Ahmaud Arbery’s killing.

Dad was a homicide detective who taught me the value of due process of law. He also carried a concealed weapon every time he left the house. He’s not here to see the ugly intersection laid bare: Second Amendment activism overlapping with naked racism in America.

If he were here, I would ask him about the difference between policing and self-defense. I’m pretty sure he’d tell me self-defense doesn’t entail chasing down other people with guns, as video released today in Arbery’s case purports to show. Arbery’s killers, according to news accounts, pursued him for four minutes before they confronted, shot, and killed him.

I wonder how my father would feel about Stand Your Ground authorizing everyone to work a job to which he dedicated his life for 26 years.

I never thought twice about my father’s ability to defend himself or the public. Policing was his profession, after all. He’d long ago been screened, trained, armed, and entrusted by the state to serve and protect the public at large.

That training included chapter and verse about meeting force with force—a split-second calculus designed to ensure, among other things, a police officer’s ability to return to his family after his shift ended.

He also swore to uphold the United States Constitution. I’d like to think the solemnity of taking that oath involved something more than “grab your gun and hop in the truck, son.”

Those are the words I imagine retired district attorney investigator Gregory McMichael uttered to his son, Travis, before the two chased, confronted, shot, and killed 25-year-old Arbery.

Now it’s the McMichaels, not Arbery, who are being afforded due process of law.

***

Instead of calling the currently badged professionals, the father-and-son duo took it upon themselves to patrol their mostly white, unincorporated “Satilla Shores” community in Glynn County, Georgia. The two maintain Arbery, who was black, resembled a burglary suspect they had viewed on video.

The first DA assigned to the case recused herself, noting the elder McMichael worked for her office for two decades. She’s on record stating the incident was portrayed by police as an attempted robbery, followed by the McMichaels’ attempted “citizen’s arrest.”

The second district attorney, George Barnhill, recused himself only after Arbery’s family, citing conflict of interest, demanded the case be assigned to someone else. Before his recusal, Barnhill had made the decision not to prosecute the McMichaels or the man who video-recorded the shooting, William Bryan.

In a widely publicized letter, Barnhill outlined the reasons he didn’t think any of the three men should be arrested for Arbery’s homicide. Barnhill cited laws pertaining to citizen’s arrest, open carry, self-defense, Georgia’s “no duty to retreat” statutes, and the defenders’ “reasonable belief” about an impending felony.

With prosecutors like that, who needs defense attorneys?

In Barnhill’s defense, prosecutors are trained to file charges only for cases they believe they can win in court. It’s an in-depth legal calculus necessitating evidence. (I’m not a lawyer, but I’m married to a former prosecutor.)

After two months, but within only two days of receiving the case, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation calculated differently and arrested Arbery’s attackers.

Before GBI took the case, however, Stand Your Ground had clicked into place, like a lens in an optometrist’s phoropter, zooming in on the potential defenses of killers while blurring evidence that could speak on behalf of the victim.

This farsighted analysis also overlooked a critical factor, one meant for jurors to decide: are the killers telling the truth?

Whether the McMicheals’ “perceived a threat” and whether their beliefs and actions were “reasonable” also seem like questions for a jury to answer, in this non-lawyer’s opinion.

Assume Arbery’s killers were telling the truth. Assume—though there’s no evidence of it—that Arbery was committing a felony. Can the US Constitution withstand how Stand Your Ground’s matrix of “perceptions and beliefs” eclipses a young man’s right to live?

***

There is a newspaper photo from the 1980s, featuring my father bringing a suspect to jail. The perpetrator in the photo, escorted by Dad and his partner, was accused of pistol whipping a police officer to the point of broken bones.

I asked him why he was smiling in the picture. He told me it was because they had brought in the suspect unharmed.

A white policeman who graduated the academy in the 1960s, Dad joined the force about when Miranda v. Arizona began to change the manner in which police did business. He explained to me bringing in suspects unharmed—particularly in cases involving injured police officers—had not always been a top priority.

From the perspective of black family members who have survived a loved one’s police victimization, it still isn’t. Bad cops exist.

Good ones do, too.

Suspects have rights, my father taught me, and the challenge was to protect those rights so the system—the criminal justice process—could work. He acknowledged the system wasn’t perfect, but he insisted it was better than anything else the world had yet tried.

He abhorred vigilantism, aka “street justice.”

While my father is not here to shake his head, pause before speaking—as he always did—and then judiciously explain what he might have done differently in the same situation, I have no doubt: he would not have approved of the McMichaels’ actions.

Instead of acting like police, if they were concerned about a burglary, they should have called the police.

***

SYG repealed centuries of common law and a millennium of common sense.

In Stand-Your-Ground states, lawmakers have removed the “duty to retreat” from the laws of self-defense, ostensibly deputizing every cop-wannabe in the land. The streets of Florida and Georgia, as a result, belong to any armed person who would claim them as his “castle.”

George Zimmerman. Michael Dunn. Gregory and Travis McMichael.

Dunn failed in his attempt to get away with murder against former State Attorney Angela Corey’s office. Though it took two juries to accomplish it, as the first one was split on the murder charge, the State Attorney in Jacksonville was a quick study. After Zimmerman, her office wasn’t about to let Dunn get away. He’s now serving life in prison for the first degree murder of Jordan Davis.

Citizen patrollers have now imbued themselves with the once-reserved power to police, thanks to SYG–as if factually fraught police use-of-force scenarios weren’t enough for society to contend with.

The laws of self-defense sufficed, before 2005, for force-users in public who were unable to retreat. The Castle Doctrine, as old as common law itself, has never required any defender to retreat from his own home.

Ahmaud Arbery, Jordan Davis, and Trayvon Martin would all be alive today if overzealous, unbadged, gun-toting white men had not felt empowered by the police authority Stand Your Ground purports to confer.

That ought to offend all good cops who take seriously their distinct position of public trust, their professionalism, their training, and their oath to uphold the US Constitution.

Instead, SYG licenses Wild-West style vigilantism. To this cop’s daughter, that’s untenable.

This opinion column is dedicated to the beloved memories of Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis. I pray for your families, for those who uphold and enforce the US Constitution, for justice, and for the abomination that is “Stand Your Ground” to be forever stricken from our law.

Ode to a Fallen Comrade

The death of yet one more print publication is a heartbreak grieved amid much larger, overarching tragedies. Folio Weekly, howeverJacksonville’s alternative weekly magazine—was more than just any publication. She was the written repository of progressive souls in an ostensibly conservative, Southern city.  To her progressive-minded readers, writers, and workers, the loss of Folio Weekly is nothing less than a punch to the gut.

Good thing we’re tough.

As we reflect, here in the United States of Narcissus, in the middle of a global pandemic exacerbated by presidential recklessness, as we count our dead, 78,200 Americans, 1,600 of them Floridians,

while we hear news of cold-blooded murder in the streets of Brunswick,

and hard-won human rights ordinances hollowed out by hyper-technicalities,

with a million unemployed Floridians battling a system designed to deny them benefits, under a governor doing his best to suppress the votes of poor people, while their livelihoods tank, and our local schools literally leak and crumble

in neighborhoods where homicides multiply

under a mayor bound and determined to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars to one of Earth’s richest men, who in turn will lower bridge ramps as the planet’s waters rise,

yes, as we reflect,

we might even be numb to this last, dizzying, punch.

Here, in the bluish top-right corner of a purple state ravaged by gerrymandering and GOP-hardball, the news of Folio’s demise bruises, but does not bloody us. Progressives in Jacksonville, after all, are a tough-skinned bunch.

For thirty-three years Folio Weekly afflicted the comfortable, comforted the afflicted, and helped deliver to the meek what was rightfully theirs. It encouraged and fed our arts scene and local artists, who in turn fed the content in an outwardly spiraling dance I can barely begin to comprehend, and which can never be undone.

We’re not going to quit because someone ran off with our megaphone. (To Sam and Farrar, it’s only a metaphor. Thank you for publishing Folio for as long as you did and for stalling her COVID-19 death, for as long as you could.)

Folio held people accountable, especially people in power, in ways no other local media outlet did—or dared. If I had to pick one word to describe the six editors I wrote for, or the numerous writers, countless other contributors, and everyone else who kept Folio going, it would be this:

Fearless. 

Brains and courage are in our DNA, so let’s not lose heart.

Folio Weekly, under the expert editorship of Anne Schindler, helped this writer find her voice. I won’t shut up now, no matter how many secret service agents check me out on LinkedIn.

I hope you won’t, either.

So, keep your face masks on, and keep six feet between you and everyone you meet.

And, in the words of the inimitable Jesse Jackson, “Keep hope alive.”