Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Syracuse resident and Trump supporter Walter Scammell spray-painted ‘BIDEN’ on a sofa he put out to the curb for trash pickup. He wanted to see what reaction it would generate on his street, which is staunchly pro-Democratic Party. “It beats the hell out of getting your house paint-balled and egged,” Scammell said. Photo © Michelle Gabel.

By DENNIS HARROD

If I had a nickel for every house with at least one sign supporting Democrats or Black Lives Matter on Allen Street in Syracuse, I’d have at least $1.50. If I had a nickel for every house with a Trump sign, I’d have … well, a nickel. 

“Being a Republican around here,” says Walter Scammell, “doesn’t amount to a flea fart in a hurricane.”

Scammell’s house at 506 Allen Street is festooned with banners, bumper stickers and signs supporting the incumbent president. Large blue banners flank the upstairs windows and say TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN and POLICE LIVES MATTER.  On the porch pillars are vertical banners that say TRUMP and 2020. A lawn sign with a picture of a grimacing Joe Biden says: “SAY NO TO CREEPY JOE.” Along the top of the porch is another message: HELP! # NO COPS # CALL A CRACKHEAD. On his back door a bumper sticker says: “I’m a Happy Deplorable.”

His neighborhood thinks otherwise. In the half-mile stretch of Allen Street between Euclid and East Genesee streets, more than 30 houses have lawn signs and banners promoting Democrats or Black Lives Matter or both. The surrounding streets boast only one lawn sign for a Republican (Sam Rodgers for state senate). 

Of all the houses on Allen Street showing support for BLM and/or Democrats, the loudest is directly across the street from Scammell at 515 Allen. Across the front of the second story of Jeffry Mateo’s house are large banners saying BLACK LIVES MATTER and FLUSH THE TURD NOVEMBER THIRD 2020. Another banner suggests that one perform a sexual act on or with the president. Metaphorically, one hopes.

The house on Allen Street across the street from Scammell’s home. Resident Jeffry Mateo put up the banners after seeing Scammell’s pro-Trump banners and signs. Photo by Jim McKeever.

Mateo says he initially put up a banner in response to Scammell’s “Trump” and “Police Lives Matter” banners. Then, Mateo says, Scammell put up more, so Mateo did also. “It was kind of tit for tat,” he says. In spite of their visual sparring, the two have never spoken to each other. Mateo says he figures he will one of these days. Scammell answers “Probably not,” when asked if he will try to talk with Mateo. “I gave up on this area as far as trying to change anybody’s mind.” 

Allen Street’s lean to the left is due in large part to the influence of nearby Syracuse University, Scammell says.  And he doesn’t think highly of the university itself. A few years back, he says, he was at a coffee house on Westcott Street. “There was a professor of sociology … expounding all this wonderful crap and he said, ‘We should get rid of the military.’ I couldn’t take it and looked at him and said, ‘Why are we getting rid of the military?’ He said, ‘Nobody will ever invade us,’ and I said, ‘Why wouldn’t anybody invade us?’ and he said, ‘They wouldn’t be able to run our economy.’”

Scammell throws up his hands in resignation. 

“I had no response,” he says. “I mean, OK, they’ve dropped the bombs, they do the artillery and then they’re going to send in the accountants?” He shakes his head. “So that’s what Syracuse University is all about: They’re so far out there that they’re hard to talk to.”

His opinions have gotten some pushback. 

“They put three paintballs into the Donald Trump sign and threw a couple of eggs onto the porch, but nothing else has happened,” he says.

A while back, he put a sofa out on the curb for pickup. Then, “just for the hell of it,” he spray-painted “Biden” on the sofa. “I wanted to see what the reaction would be.” He placed it so it was perpendicular to the house so drivers on Allen Street would see it. Someone at night turned it so the “Biden” faced Scammell’s house. Scammell turned it over so the “Biden” was hidden. Next day, it was right-side up again, with “Biden” for all to see. Scammell saw it all as good fun. “It beats the hell out of getting your house paint-balled and egged. If they were going to do something, I’d rather have them tip the couch over.  It’s a low way to resist, I guess.”

Scammell, an open and wiry guy of 71, agreed to chat on a recent evening and laid out his ideas and opinions across a picnic table in the back yard of the house he’s lived in since 1983. He says there are a few other Republicans (“maybe one each block”) in the area, but none of them are making it known by way of lawn signs or banners. He grew up a Democrat and only switched parties in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran for president. He’s been a committed Republican since.

Walter Scammell’s home on Allen Street in Syracuse. Photo by Jim McKeever.

Not just a Republican, though. He is a whole hearted supporter of the president. “Best thing that’s happened to this country,” he says. He sees Trump as having followed through on his promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington. All the other politicians are crooks just getting rich off the American people. He dismisses criticism of the president as either fake, exaggerated or inconsequential. The U.S. media has been out to get Trump since even before the 2016 election, he says, and never lets up or reports anything positive about the president.

He believes that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. He saw a Power Point proving it. “Defund the Police” is a gift to the gangs. He agrees with the president that John McCain was a “loser” but doesn’t fault the president for not serving. “Nobody wants to go to war,” he says. The performance of Obama and Biden when the N1H1 flu struck in 2009 was worse than Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. The Biden family is corrupt and in cahoots with China. And so on.

Scammell says he doesn’t listen to or read news produced nationally. For his news, he principally relies on RT news. That’s a television and news network funded by the Russian government, according to Media Bias/Fact Check. RT news gets a “Very Low” rating on Factual Reporting and “presents news that is generally in line with the narrative of the Russian Government. … They are highly biased in favor of Russia,” according to Media Bias. Columbia Journalism Review has called RT “a propaganda outlet” for Russia.

He also likes Al Jazeera and says they cover the president more objectively than U.S. media outlets. 

Asked if he thought the country would be able to pull out of its current malaise and get back on track in the future, regardless of who wins the election, Scammell answers: “Not in my lifetime.”

In spite of his views that run contrary to those of the neighborhood, he says he gets along with most of his neighbors, other than one person across the street who no longer speaks to him, and his former dentist who Scammell says crosses the street to avoid him. As he and I say goodbye in his driveway, a young couple has paused on the sidewalk to look at Mateo’s house across the street. Scammell says hello to them. The young woman walks on as if she didn’t hear. The young man looks at Scammell and then he, too, walks on without saying a word.

“See what I mean,” Scammell says.

A view of Allen Street in Syracuse, where signs in support of Democratic candidates and the Black Lives Matter movement abound. The front yard of Scammell’s home, with the light pole, is in the background. Photo by Jim McKeever.
A neighbor, middle, opposing a Black Lives Matter protest in front of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, N.Y., engaged protesters in a heated argument on June 19. Police were called. Photo © Michelle Gabel

By JIM McKEEVER

The summer of 2020 was one of violence.

More violence — and deaths — seem inevitable with the approach of the Nov. 3 elections, widely viewed as a referendum on the current administration and its policies. 

Anxiety and tension have risen with more videotaped incidents involving police officers and Black men, threats of voting fraud, warnings of armed conflict and inflammatory statements and lies by those with a public forum. 

But violence — and deaths — in the streets can be avoided.

A June 19 incident at a Black Lives Matter protest in Fayetteville, N.Y., provides insight into ways to avoid violence. That situation was not as volatile as many other protests, but it shed light on de-escalation methods that can be useful in any heated situation. (June 19 is Juneteenth, an important event in African-American history marking the day in 1865 when enslaved people of color in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863):

Note: We encourage readers to use the Comment space below to share experiences that were successfully de-escalated by police or by others — or stories of conflicts that spun out of control — and the circumstances involved. This post includes an edited transcript of an interview with two Town of Manlius police officers who helped de-escalate a potentially violent incident.

The context: 

Black Lives Matters protesters in Fayetteville held daily actions for several weeks following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Dozens of protesters – I was among them — stood in front of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center along busy Route 5 for 90 minutes every afternoon, holding signs and waving to passersby.

Most people were supportive, but some objected to our presence and our messages, including a neighbor of the Gage Center who engaged protesters in a heated argument. He had briefly shown his opposition at earlier protests, but on June 19 he wouldn’t let up, coming close to protesters on the sidewalk and proclaiming “This is white country in front of my house!” and “You’re all being paid by George Soros!” 

Someone called the police,  and three officers arrived – an Onondaga County Sheriff’s deputy and two Town of Manlius police officers. They spoke to protesters and to the man on his front porch for about 20 minutes, and then left.

I was certain that as soon as the officers were out of sight, the man would be back at it. Instead, he didn’t budge from his porch. As far as I recall, he didn’t appear at any of the remaining days of protests. 

Onondaga County Sheriff Deputy Helen Sorrento, middle left, and Town of Manlius police officers Alicia Hibbard, middle, and Julia Quinlan, middle right, were called to a Black Lives Matter protest in Fayetteville, N.Y., when a neighbor, left, drew protesters into a heated argument on June 19. Photo © Michelle Gabel

What did those officers say that kept the man quiet? 

I contacted Manlius police chief Michael Crowell, who agreed to an interview and arranged for me to talk with the two Manlius officers involved, Alicia Hibbard and Julia Quinlan.  

Crowell, who was a Manlius officer for 17 years before serving as chief in North Syracuse and returning to lead Manlius’ department, was eager to talk about a communication style known as Verbal Judo. Crowell learned of the strategy more than a decade ago in a class taught by its founder, George Thompson, who was a police officer, college professor and martial arts practitioner. Thompson died in 2011.

Verbal Judo includes communication strategies for police to use in tense situations with people who may be agitated. For example, police may ask rather than order the person to do something. They may also give them options as opposed to threatening them.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Crowell said. “I had 15 years a cop, and I realized a lot of what I was communicating was wrong. It was a revelation.”

Crowell brought the technique to Manlius, where all 38 officers go through annual training. 

“Ninety-nine percent of what we do is communication,” Crowell said. “All forms of de-escalation (use) listening, paraphrasing” and avoiding confrontational language.

After officers master the technique of Verbal Judo, Crowell said, they can resolve difficult situations calmly and leave a positive impression on the people involved. “And it helps morale and the well-being of the officers,” Crowell said.

Here are excerpts from my Aug. 21 conversation with officers Alicia Hibbard and Julia Quinlan, who discussed the June 19 incident and how police — and protesters — can use de-escalation techniques when such confrontations occur. Their recorded comments were edited for length. Hibbard has been an officer three years, Quinlan more than two years. Manlius is the only department where they’ve worked.

Quinlan: A lot of what we do and are trained to do is just talk with people. Like a family member, try to understand where they’re coming from and not judge them … it’s hearing them out on what they say, and a lot of what we do is finding points on how to relate to them. Officer Hibbard did great (with the angry neighbor). She made a connection with his hometown and calmed him down from the get-go … it was a way to get him off the topic of what he was upset about and yelling about at the protesters, to get him into a different place where he was more calm and relaxed. When he was (calm), we said, “They’re doing nothing wrong by standing out there protesting in front of the Gage House and you have to respect that. You have your own opinions of what should or shouldn’t happen in life.” 

Hibbard: He was (agitated). I recognized him from my hometown … He was upset, and as soon as I said, “Are you from there?” he came down. We were just talking about our hometown. As Officer Quinlan said, as soon as you get someone down from that angry state of emotion, that’s what you run with. When you’re up here (raises her hand to show an elevated emotional state), you’re not really thinking clearly at the moment, but as soon as you bring them down to a level of calmness, you can relate to them more. Once we established he was ready to hear us out, Officer Quinlan did a great job of saying, “Look, you both have your First Amendment rights but you have to be respectful of one another.” … That’s part of Verbal Judo, relating and getting that person from that highly emotional state to a place where they’re thinking more clearly, so that nothing escalates. It’s all about de-escalation. We didn’t want anything to happen to you guys and we didn’t want anything to happen to him either.

Onondaga County Sheriff Deputy Helen Sorrento, top right, and Town of Manlius police officers Julia Quinlan, bottom left, and Alicia Hibbard, were called when a neighbor, top left, opposed a Black Lives Matter protest in Fayetteville, N.Y., June 19. Photo © Michelle Gabel

Quinlan: Venting is a lot of Verbal Judo, and it’s a lot more listening than talking. A lot of it is just talking to them in a monotone — you’re not screaming at them. Screaming at one another doesn’t help. If anything, it makes it worse, but you want to talk to them with a soft voice. I have a quiet voice, so people will (lower their voice) just to hear what I’m saying. 

Hibbard: People will match your voice level. If you’re screaming, they’re going to scream as well and obviously that gets the blood flowing a little bit faster and the heart pumping. 

Quinlan: It’s not 100 percent, but our first go-to move with any call regardless of what it is, is to use our words, to de-escalate the situation — just talking to them, not with just commands, communication first. Worst case scenario, resort to our duty belt, which is not where we want to go. Our belt is a tool for us, but it’s not something that we’re looking to use. It’s just an accessory to help us do our jobs better. Our words are what we use every single day, every single call and (they) help us get through the day and help us get home safe at night, just being able to talk with people. 

Hibbard: Obviously, during this time (in America) people want to be heard. … We can sympathize with them and respect their First Amendment rights. We take no sides. We try to resolve situations. … I’m hoping the protests still continue to see the change that needs to happen, or that people think needs to happen. Reform is a good thing when it’s benefiting the protection of people. 

Quinlan: The hard part responding to a call like that, there’s so many people, trying to figure out the issue, who is the instigator, different things we’re focused on, keeping everybody separated. That day specifically, Deputy (Helen) Sorrento was already speaking with the gentleman on the porch. We tried to tell the protesters to ignore him, not engage with him, and that really helps. When you give him the satisfaction of engaging with him, it’s just going to fuel him more to come after (protesters). That helped a lot, because with him not getting the attention — 

Hibbard: — It’s not fun anymore — 

Quinlan: We want to protect you guys … we already knew you guys had numerous complaints about people being rude and obnoxious and harassing you guys, whether it’s people driving by or whatever. We want you to feel safe enough to demonstrate your First Amendment rights. You resort to your training to keep everyone calm, so no one’s hurt and everyone goes home safe. It’s no different. … Deputy Sorrento had told the Black Lives Matter people to ignore him and not give him attention.

(Do you have any advice for protesters?)

Hibbard: It’s very hard to have that type of (self-)control especially when you’re that passionate about something. Besides listening and sympathizing, say … “I hear you, but this is what I’m doing and this is what I believe in. And it’s my First Amendment right.” Always keep it at that calm level, try not to yell. Try to sympathize, listen and use a calm voice.

Quinlan: Some of it is to try to find avenues that you can both benefit one another … show them you’re trying to not only voice your opinions and rights but you care about people in the community and what’s going on in their life. … It’s easy to react with emotion and anger. You’ve got to step back and think of what you’re going to say and be cognizant of how your words are going to impact somebody else and how they could impact whether this gets into a physical altercation or agree to disagree and head in our different directions.

Hibbard: There’s always common ground somehow. Talk and listen to get to that point, but not if you’re always talking and not listening. 

Quinlan: Right now we’re also in a tricky time period, it’s tricky with COVID. “Domestics” have gone up, people are stuck at home, they get on each other’s last nerve and sometimes take it out on each other, let out some steam, push the real issue aside and nit-picking with what’s in front of you … it’s easy to point fingers at someone else. We see a lot of that, too. … A lot of people remember the little things we do, the kind gestures. Even people at their worst point, you do a kind gesture even taking them into custody — we’ve had people we’ve arrested thank us because of kind gestures we’ve done during that process. 

Hibbard: That’s where that trust comes in. If you’re up front and say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on and we’re going to do this together. It’s not the end of the world. We’ll do it together and we’ll get through it.” That’s better and builds that trust and rapport. … not “because I say so.” 

Quinlan: I don’t know any officers who go that route of, “You’re going to do this because I told you to.”

(How could that situation at the BLM protest have gone bad? What factors make things go wrong?)

Hibbard: We’re all trained the same. It’s kind of up to the person we’re talking to if we end up going a different route. … It’s up to people. If he (were) charging at you guys, we might’ve had to detain him to get him to calm down. We want to protect protesters and protect him. if it escalates, we’re trained enough that it’s not something we did, it’s something we had to get to the point where it’s because of the subject’s actions, not ours. … It’s difficult. Everybody’s different. … If you don’t know people on a personal level, you don’t know (if they might have) weapons when we walk into a situation. We have no idea about that stuff.

Dominique Barr, of Fayetteville, one of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter protest in front of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, N.Y., talks with Town of Manlius police officer Julia Quinlan after a neighbor argued with protesters June 19. Photo © Michelle Gabel

Quinlan: We all try to treat people with respect. Once they have a bad experience with an officer, they take that to the next officer regardless if it’s same officer or not. It’s important to show respect to everybody, no matter what kind of crisis they’re going through. … Show them respect and they’ll give respect back, is mostly what we see around here. Even if they don’t show us respect, we have to show them respect. That’s our job to remain calm and handle the situation. 

Hibbard: There’s nothing saying you can’t make the wrong right. Say you made a mistake, just apologize. … We’re never perfect. This job’s about learning and adjusting. On a call, we realize what we said may trigger some people and may make others feel good. Everyone’s different, especially with mental illness. You find something that makes them get down to that level. If we say something that brings them back up, OK, that’s a red flag, don’t bring that up.

Quinlan: That’s a lot of the trick of our job. You don’t know people’s history. It’s about getting to know the person and getting to know a little bit about them to help us do our job better and keep them safe.

___

Since our interview in August, the list of incidents involving police failures to de-escalate situations has continued to grow — especially those involving white officers and Black men. The most well-known recent example is the videotaped shooting in Kenosha, Wis. of Jacob Blake, shot seven times in the back. Video has also emerged of Rochester police using a “spit hood” for two minutes over the head of Daniel Prude, a naked man having a mental health crisis on a street last March (Prude lost consciousness and died seven days later after being taken off life support). And, in Syracuse Sept. 14, a city police officer was videotaped challenging a man verbally and then shoving him in the face.

I asked Crowell subsequently how he and his officers react to watching those videos and what they can learn from those incidents. Here is his Sept. 16 e-mail response.

“We do use videos for training but today they have become prolific and we could not possibly address each and every one. In addition, the officers know that videos are often one dimensional; meaning, they alone cannot offer all of the factors one would need to consider before forming a proper opinion. 

“Some videos however, offer enough information for officers to discuss and compare our various laws, guidelines and procedures which we are all sworn to follow here in NY. This allows for healthy debate and/or discussion among the ranks which often spills over into roll call and other training sessions. 

“Video can be used to play the ‘what if’ game which is a daily training exercise for many of us. I’m certain the officers would agree that if any one video tends to cast a police officer in a negative light, we all feel hurt and or disappointed. 

“Often we are judged by the perceived poor performance by any policeman in any uniform in any area of the country. Also, they know that perception is not always reality. This is why we use tactical communication always – we always assume we are being recorded and do not want to be the one who tarnished the badge.”

Note: After the Black Lives Matters protests in Fayetteville ended in July, a group of protesters — many of whom had not known each other previously — decided to continue the connections they had made by forming a book club. The first title the group discussed was “Nonviolent Communication,” by Marshall Rosenberg. 

A driver in a passing car shows support for the Black Lives Matter protest on Route 5 in Fayetteville, N.Y., June 19. Photo © Michelle Gabel
Photo © Michelle Gabel.

By JIM McKEEVER

A character in Linda Britt’s play, “American Dreams: Immigration Stories,” delivers a searing monologue challenging the sanitized view of American history, its omission of brutal European colonialism and the centuries of suffering it caused people of color who were here first or brought here as slaves.

The character, a young woman who emigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua, points out that Americans are taught their ancestors came here, worked hard and succeeded — facts of stolen land, discrimination, rape and murder are omitted.

“You never question your good fortune,” the character, Alicia, tells the audience. “You take it for granted.” She says she has had to study and work hard in America, yet is told to go back home, that she is “lucky” to be here.

Alicia concludes her monologue: “So I ask you, how did you get here? What did you do to earn what you were born with?”

Those words come to me frequently these days.

A new, part-time job takes me into neighborhoods in Syracuse that I would not otherwise visit, simply because I haven’t had to.

There, a 15-minute drive from my comfortable middle-class suburban life, I see poverty and despair that cuts across racial lines. I tell my friends and family that the living conditions for some in these neighborhoods are far worse than what I have seen in migrant shelters in Mexico — mold, bug infestations, syringes and condom wrappers in hallways, foul odors, litter.

Inside a tiny apartment strewn with trash, a young man tried to smile when he said to me, “My family is kind of broken. That’s why I am the way I am.”

A friend asked me the other day how the new job is going. I told him some of what I have encountered, the blatant disparities between my life and theirs. His response provided crystal-clear historical context.

“Laws exist so that we don’t have to care about them.” 

It is something so obvious, yet I doubt it occurs to the comfortable among us.

Yes. Laws, written and unwritten, in place for generations, have allowed many of my suburban neighbors to “not have to care” about anyone other than their own kind.

School district funding systems that ensure unequal education. Housing red-lining that keeps people of color out of white neighborhoods. Employment-based access to quality health care. Eminent domain. And so on.

These are the walls that have already been built across America, invisible barriers to “keep people in their place.” Out of sight, out of mind. 

Which brings me to another phrase that I cannot get out of my head. 

It’s from the courageous attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy” and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Birmingham, Ala. Stevenson says with urgency, “Be proximate.” Get to know “the other,” their struggles, their hopes and their dreams. 

Do this, and you may tap into a vein of empathy, of humanity. 

“Incredible things happen when you’re proximate to those who suffer,” Stevenson told a Syracuse audience in 2017.

Change only happens “when good people are willing to do uncomfortable things,” he said.

Stevenson’s words, for me, dovetail perfectly with those of Alicia, Linda Britt’s character from Nicaragua. 

“What did you do to earn what you were born with?” 

While that question was directed toward people born into opportunity, if not privilege, its full scope must be considered:

What about the poor person, the person of color in America, the person born into poverty and violence anywhere in the world . . . 

What did they do to earn what they were born with?

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. Editor’s note: The headline, “You have seen their faces,” is borrowed from You Have Seen Their Faces, the 1937 collaboration between Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. Their book, written by Caldwell with photographs by Bourke-White, documented the plight of the poor in the depression-era south. More than 80 years after its publication, we are still looking at the face of poverty.

By JIM McKEEVER

Weeks after several other Black Lives Matter signs on a fence in my village had been ripped down, one remained — “No Freedom Till We’re Equal.” Its creator had taken some care with it, using different paints, tape and plastic ties to attach the sturdy foam board to the fence.

Its message is clear and positive. Some may see it as a threat, but I don’t. And it is not a retort like “All Lives Matter,” which is so often hurled at Black Lives Matter activists. “All Lives Matter” entirely misses the point. Of course all lives matter; “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t say “more than yours” after it.

When I drove by the fence these past few weeks, as thousands do every day, I looked at the sign and saw hope — the hope inherent in the message, but also in the fact that the sign remained unscathed.

Until recently. 

That’s when a pro-police passerby felt the need to superimpose his or her views and block the original message from view. 

My first reaction was anger. Then frustration. 

The vandalism is a perfect example of our country’s seeming inability to heal itself. 

Why not place the pro-police sign next to the original, instead of gluing every inch of the paper to the sign underneath? Does your act of censorship help bring people together in any way? Do you even want to bring people together?

If your goal was to convince people to value the lives of police officers, it failed. If anything, it likely validates the anger felt by everyone who was appalled by the video of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer (to name just one incident).

No, I’m not anti-police. I know and have encountered a lot of good cops. I taught a couple of them as high school students in the ’80s, and had one as a neighbor for years. A high-ranking member of the New York State Police is the godfather of one of my sons.

Are there people who have no business being cops? Yes, as is the case in all professions. But with law enforcement, the stakes are obviously higher. And it’s not just a few “bad apples.” There are way too many bad actors and silent enablers backed by powerful unions that protect their own, no matter what. Think of how many Derek Chauvins were on the street using their guns and badges (and knees) to exorcise their demons before the advent of cell phone videos. And it hasn’t stopped.

Ideally, there would be conversations among people who have different views on this and other issues that cause so much anger and divisiveness. But we have a long way to go.

To the person who vandalized the “No Freedom Till We’re Equal” sign, I hope your view is more nuanced, that you have an understanding of the systemic racism this country was built on, an awareness of centuries of oppression and violence based on skin color alone. 

You and I likely will never have that conversation. 

But I am curious about something — did you vandalize the sign in broad daylight? Or did you sneak up to it under cover of darkness? 

I ask because I have a “Black Lives Matter” sign in my front yard, where I often sit in the evenings, hoping passersby will stop and talk — even if they don’t share my views. 

The reality, however, is that a neighbor had her “Black Lives Matter” sign stolen from her yard a few weeks ago. And earlier this summer an angry driver spewed loud profanity about my sign as he drove past my house. 

Until we’re equal I’ll keep the sign on my lawn. But until we can have rational conversations without hostility, I’ll continue to take it inside the house at night. 

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He is an independent journalist and advocate.

The Gramzas during an Alice Cooper concert, summer 2019, at CMAC in Canandaigua, N.Y. From left, Janet, Jewel, Joyce and Joyce’s wife, Z.

By JOYCE AND JANET GRAMZA

Whether we believe in Heaven, the Great Beyond, the Other Side, the Rainbow Bridge, or nothing at all, we fear death most because its one certainty is that it will come. Everything else about it is a gaping unknown.

In our most comforting vision about how it may come for us, our closest loved ones surround us, holding our hands as we breathe our last.

This wish is one that we’ve been blessed to help grant for our mom, Florence Cavuoto Gramza, and our baby sis, Julie Gramza (Jewel), both of whom made it clear they did not want to die in a hospital.

It’s a wish and a comfort that has been denied to many dying people and their families during the quarantine restrictions of COVID-19 — a denial that has amplified survivors’ grief, magnified their feelings of guilt and been portrayed as one of the most horrible things about this pandemic.

Yet lately we’ve been revisiting our own wishes about where and how we want to die — and we now feel compelled to retract them.

Our mom passed away at age 75 at the home of Joyce and her wife, Z, who thankfully is an RN and gerontology specialist, on Sept. 23, 2013. As death came for Mom, Joyce was lying next to her in the hospice-provided hospital bed, Janet was in a chair holding her hand, and Z was alongside Janet. 

We had all fallen asleep when Janet awoke at about 1:45 a.m., feeling someone had tapped her on the shoulder. Mom was barely breathing. Janet woke Joyce and Z, saying, “This is it.” Z bent over her with her stethoscope, hearing her heart’s last beat at about 2 a.m., and pronounced her.

With the same gentleness and dignity that we provided in her last weeks, we washed Mom and dressed her for the hospice and funeral home people to see to.

Our presence throughout had helped ease her fear. Her death was peaceful, aided by morphine, and it was a huge blessing, even a major accomplishment, to have it happen the way she wanted.

But it was devastating for those of us who were there. Seven years later, we have still not fully recovered from the ordeal, and our family members who weren’t there don’t understand, after all this time, why it remains so hard to process.

Julie ‘Jewel’ Gramza and her mother, Florence Cavuoto Gramza, on Jewel’s wedding day to Jesse in 2009, Jekyll Island, Ga.

More recently, we were there for our baby sister’s death at her home in St. Augustine, Fla., at about 5 p.m. on Feb. 5, 2020, one week shy of her 55th birthday.

Jewel had a rare type of gallbladder cancer and we had been obeying her requests that we take turns visiting her — until her husband summoned her three siblings and two daughters because the end was near. Janet, Joyce and Jewel’s friend Becca kept a vigil keeping her comfortable, and with no medical professional there, the hospice nurse advised us to start the morphine and call her when Jewel was gone. We held her as much as she could tolerate and loved her through her last breaths. 

Treating her with the gentleness and dignity we tried to provide during her dying, we bathed her, combed out her beautiful hair, and dressed her in her husband’s chosen outfit for the hospice and mortician people to see to.

It seemed a huge blessing to be with Jewel for her death — but it was devastating for those of us who were there.

Despite caregivers’ best efforts, death isn’t often quick, dignified or pretty. For loved ones untrained in comfort care and who do not know what to expect, it’s a recipe for trauma. 

An NPR story on hospice care shared the stories of people who did their best to give their loved ones “a good death,” and why some are now reconsidering their own last wishes. Families who helped loved ones die at home said they weren’t prepared for the amount of nursing care that would fall on them or the exhaustion and helplessness they felt in the last days. 

“I do think that when they are at home, they are in a peaceful environment,” said a palliative care doctor. “It is comfortable for them. But it may not be comfortable for family members watching them taking their last breath.”

Was being there for our mom and our sis something we are glad we did? Absolutely. Is it something we would ask of our own spouses and children? No way!

Our last memories of our mom and our sister are in death, eyes and mouth open, their bodies empty shells — and that’s not how we want to be remembered.

The experiences have left us thinking that when our time comes, as afraid as we may be, even if our loved ones want us to die at home, we wouldn’t wish it on them.

Looking back on our mom’s and sister’s deaths, we also realize that we were likely more present and focused on their dying moments than they were. Both were on morphine at the end, which dims awareness, and both seemed to be elsewhere well before their physical bodies shut down.

Many people who have had near-death experiences describe being outside their bodies and being pulled back reluctantly. After our mom’s death, we wondered why we woke up just in time. We felt like she was behind it — like she had already left her body and stopped to wake us before she departed. We now believe she wasn’t even in the building for the part that pains us to this day.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that our frontline medical workers are true heroes. We have heard story after story of people who died “alone” — without their families present — but who had professional providers by their side, comforting them and caring for them with the devotion and expertise that befits their vocation.

We know that, odds are, if we can’t have our favorite nurse, Z, holding our hands when we go, we’ll be totally blessed if some other nurse is there. We’ve decided we will likely choose to go to the hospital or a skilled nursing facility rather than die at home. We want to die knowing that some kind, competent, knowledgeable and calm caregiver is there for us. And then, they’ll be there for our family.

Janet and Joyce Gramza are identical twins who both grew up to be journalists — Janet in newspapers and other publications, and Joyce in science media. They reside about 20 miles from each other in Oswego County, N.Y.

This is one of many heart sculptures in the Playas (beaches) of Tijuana, Mexico. In the background is a section of border wall separating parts of Mexico from the United States. A mural on the wall honors those who have been deported from the U.S. or are in danger of deportation. Photo © Jim McKeever, September 2019.

Bleeding Heart

By DEBRA ROSE BRILLATI

The very idea
that someone thinks
calling me a bleeding heart
is an insult
is at the heart
of our inability
to understand one another.

If my heart did not bleed
for the pain of others
if it did not boil
hot inside my chest
at the sight of a child
being separated from her mother
if it did not send thick blood
rushing pulsating throbbing
to fill my head with
a deafening static
at the news of shots
ringing out in a sacred place

Then I would wish my heart
simply
to stop.

Because after all
what is the alternative
to a bleeding heart?

One made of stone?
or ice?
or paralyzed
by a hard shell of hatred?

My heart may bleed
but it continues to beat
and as long as it does …

I will bind up my wounds
so I can tend to the wounds of others
I will get close enough to the cold-hearted
so that my heart’s warmth
might melt their own
I will cushion the landing
as others fall on hard times
so that hearts of stone cannot crush them.

Yes, I am proud of my bleeding heart.

Maybe I’ll even wear it on my sleeve.


From the author:

I wrote “Bleeding Heart” during a time when the news was filled with images of kids in cages, separated from their parents, lying on cement floors, unable to be touched. My heart was already so full from news of daily atrocities, from the stoking of so much hatred, from so many lives lost or destroyed.  

One day, I pulled a T-shirt from my drawer. I had purchased the black shirt at a recent talk by John Pavlovitz (author of the blog “Stuff That Needs to be Said”). On the front is a red anatomical line drawing of a human heart and the words: “I’d rather have a bleeding heart than a dead one.” As I pulled on the shirt, I got to thinking about how the phrase “bleeding heart” is so often hurled as if it were an insult. And I was moved to respond.

Debra Rose Brillati received her BA in Literature from Bard College, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Tufts University, and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Andover Newton Theology School. She is enrolled in a 2-year Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. She lives in Auburn, NY, and is involved with the Social Justice Collective, Celebrate! Diverse Auburn and the Harriet Tubman Boosters. She is a certified spiritual director and a lay pastoral minister at St. James Episcopal Church in Skaneateles, NY.

The author and his daughter, Ruth, just above a sharp left turn on a rapid nicknamed “The Wall” on the Black River, Quebec, 2011. The wall of rock is not particularly friendly to canoes being forced hard right.

Push Day

By MIKE FISH

Seven portages already, muskeg up to here

Big water, stiff headwind all day

Hands hard, good mates, no fear

Where’s the site, you say

Around the bend and through the narrows

            

Sun baking down, visions of a place

Esker topped with pine, plenty of space

Shoulders sore, fading daylight

Where, where’s that site

Round the bend and through the narrows

                

Hailstorm of insults, hate all round

Grotesque

Rights pushed underground, free press?

Where — oh, where — is that new sight?

Round the bend and through the narrows

                              

End of another river day, 1971. Three pots going, and bannock in the reflector oven. Author, foreground, who guided a 50-day canoe trip to Hudson Bay via the Attawapiskat River, opens a can of corn for dinner for 10.

Reaching Hudson Bay by canoe – after 50 days of paddling – takes a bit of work. Even a push day or two.

No roads. And no tolls. Except two-load portages, clouds of black flies, and splitting standing dry wood for 150 meals.

This poem, born by a river in early 2017, is dedicated to journeys that matter. Around the bend and through the narrows. Perhaps we’ll get there.

Mike Fish, former reporter for The Post-Standard of Syracuse, is Assistant Editor of Nastawgan, the quarterly journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association in Toronto.

By DENNIS HARROD

Dedicated to the memory of Gary Van Dusen.

A good copy editor is hard to find. If she’s a great copy editor, you never even know she’s been there. Instead of leaving tracks, she erases them, leaving a trail of words that’s easy for the reader to follow. She smooths the bumps in the road, removes the debris and paves the potholes. After a good copy editor is done, the reader has an open road ahead and can settle in for a pleasant ride.

I’ve had the good fortune to have known and worked with some great copy editors. I’ve worked with some great writers, too. But all writers need copy editors like pitchers need catchers. In the end, the pitcher gets the win, the save, the glory, but it’s the catcher who called the game. Behind a mask. Like a copy editor. The better either one does the job, the less you even know they are there. You don’t believe it? Name any of the seven catchers who caught a Nolan Ryan no-hitter. No cheating.

Copy editors come to mind because one of the great ones died recently. He and another great copy editor with whom I worked were both quiet, unassuming perfectionists dedicated to their craft. They never bragged about how they made a story better and were rarely credited with having done much of anything at all. They were viewed by many writers the same way factory managers view OSHA inspectors. Picky pains in the ass. But they saved a lot of asses.

Quiet and unassuming and avoiding the limelight are not in vogue now. We celebrate those who yell the loudest, who shout “Look at ME!” and it doesn’t matter if what they shout is true or not.

Yet the vast majority, the silent majority, if you will, are just that. People who are not on the front lines, putting themselves out there for the cause. They are going quietly about their lives as best they can, many doing good when no one is looking. And they don’t brag about it. But they are there. Like copy editors and catchers and supply chain managers and a million other jobs that go unnoticed, they do good work for the sake of doing the work and get little or no credit and often not much pay.

Poet John Milton, who lost his sight as an adult, concluded his sonnet, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” with this oft-cited line: 

They also serve who only stand and wait.

Many of us are blind to what is happening and it is good that the national dialog is opening eyes to the ills that surround us. But just because someone isn’t putting themselves out there doesn’t mean they are not doing good. 

The pandemic has made us more aware of the millions of “essential” workers we have taken for granted. Let’s hope that a lasting side effect of the Corona crisis is that we don’t forget them when the virus is beaten.

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He has been a reporter, editor and critic for newspapers and teacher of Spanish at Syracuse University. Below is a segment of the author’s rendering of a fictitious news story in the hands of a diligent copy editor.

Broadway, between Canal and Howard, Manhattan, Friday April 10, 2020 at 11:50 a.m. Photo by Eric Tortora Pato.

By ANA MORLEY

By the summer of 2020, America seemed to be roiling in escalated conflict after an unrelenting Spring of Coronavirus sacrifices. From the Friday the 13th shutdowns in March, the pre-pandemic planning failures, crisis healthcare responses, sluggish research, inconsistent governmental policy decisions to the widespread commercial and educational interruptions, there seemed to be little relief to our existential struggles. The growing economic crisis and tragic mortality tolls set a grim stage when the temperatures began to rise, and the tumult of civil unrest began. 

Americans had been asked to bring functioning society to such a screeching stop that the ripple effects will take decades to comprehend. The hallmarks of modern life were unceremoniously canceled. No school. No work. No church. No public transportation, No social events. No weddings. No graduations. No sports. No salon visits. No leisure shopping and no clear sense of when the restrictions would lift. 

For a couple of months, a wave of charity seemed to unify Americans around service to offset the terrifying daily numbers of infected, dead and intubated. People spent their days researching preventive measures to battle the deadly virus, socially distancing and stockpiling cleansers and paper products. The mental impact was devastating, and the collective consciousness turned to admiration for the most valiant among us.

Towns posted signs cheering on healthcare workers. Shoppers in surgical masks and rubber gloves tipped their grocery cashiers. They dusted off grandma’s forgotten sewing machine and got to work mass producing face masks to distribute to their neighbors. Internet groups formed to connect people with needed items that were in short supply. Families began connecting by digital screens in order to avoid spreading the virus. The nation’s school children recorded musical performances by Zoom to soothe our grieving souls. 

Supportive signs in Fayetteville, NY, March 29. Photo by Jim McKeever.

But as months passed, the realities of widespread hardship under a record-setting unemployment rate and a slowing ticker of both deaths and the spread of disease fomented a call to return to work. Loud voices called to reopen the American way of life. In phases, communities unlatched their doors to invite the public back into their marketplaces with a few requirements. The avoidance of closed, confined spaces unless each customer wore a protective face mask and maintained a six-foot distance, certainly seemed a small request if the alternative could contribute to an increase in deaths. 

You would think. 

As it turned out, the time that had been spent sequestering people into a forced isolation with nothing but fearful news alerts and the toxic friendship only Twitter can provide had taken a toll on the emotional well-being of too many Americans to count. As people stepped out of their shelters, there seemed to be daily cellphone videos documenting abusive interactions between people who appeared stunted and frozen in the anger stage of their grief for the “normal life” that had been placed on pause.

Then, at the end of May, when a cell phone recording of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd in a nine-minute show of sadistic brutality emerged, the dam that had held any reservoir of civility broke. The other deadly epidemic of black deaths by cop had tragically claimed another life. 

In the fog of reactive protests that were mostly peaceful, some found a new combat theater to act out on all the frustrations of the past months.  When riots and looting in cities broke out, the foundation of American lives cracked at all the well-worn politicized fault lines. Raging intolerance kept communities segregated in parallel ways to those that had been unjustly red-lined. Political parties bunkered to their sides ready to pin blame for the unrest on the opposing ideologues. Those most marginalized by the lasting effects of America’s racially oppressive history were, by far, suffering more severely under the lock down measures. The virus had been ricocheting through densely populated communities that had less access to mitigating services. Daily demonstrations were being met with increasing push back and under the leadership of President Trump, military tactics were used to disperse public crowds. 

I like to think that the choice to open vacation resorts and bars in states like Florida, Texas, Nevada and Arizona was less a failing empire’s attempt to distract the plebs, and perhaps a hopeful invitation for raging Americans to go out, pour a cold one and take a stress break. At least, the economy could advance some first rehabilitative steps.

You might think.

One of many New York State signs asking for cooperation.

Unfortunately, Coronavirus had other ideas. Throughout the summer, infection numbers continued to rise, and the country sprouted new epicenters of the pandemic. Defiant citizens who seemed to have had enough of other people, in every possible way, took to social media to announce what was canceled. This time it was not just Junior’s two weeks at summer camp but also greedy corporate brands, bloviating public figures, racist monuments, and generally anybody who disagreed with a burgeoning Tik Tok star.

The way this mood manifested itself in real life was not to be believed.  People engaged in heated public arguments, invoking Jesus Christ about how wearing masks was a loss of their civil liberties. Others joined white supremacist human shields under the auspices of rising to defend fully riot-armed police forces. Organized boycotts spread in all directions and cell phones recorded more outrageous behavior around the map. All the while, the virus infected more than three million people and claimed upwards of 135,000 lives.

The nation stayed stuck in the ANGER stage of grief.

By July, fireworks events were canceled but tensions around Independence Day felt combustible. Those of us sidelined by caring for the vulnerable in our families despaired of a return to decency. If the pandemic had exposed the places in our society in most urgent disrepair, where had that original spirit of sacrifice and heroism faded to now that the cure relied on a communal sense of responsibility? The virus hitched rides on young people to wreak havoc on the frailest among us and the country was sorely lacking a moral voice to unify the mission. 

In the absence of more contemporary counsel, I found solace in the advice of American scientist, George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery, survived the 1918 flu pandemic, contributed to the field of environmental sciences and died in 1943:

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.

It is my hope that Dr. Carver’s wisdom reaches new minds, now when we need it once more. 

Ana Morley is a freelance writer and editor living in Fayetteville, NY.

The author’s husband, Matthew, walks their boxer-hound mix Martin past a mansion in Savannah’s Ardsley Park neighborhood. Photo by Jenna Bower.

By JENNA BOWER

I took my dog on a reflective walk this morning. I left our house, a recently renovated bungalow standing in contrast to the dilapidated rental properties home to my neighbors, most of whom are black.

Some people have lived here for generations. My husband and I moved into this house two years ago because the rent was affordable and it had a backyard for the dogs. This morning as I set out on my walk, like almost every other morning, I crossed the street from my neighborhood into the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Ardsley Park.

After hundreds of these walks around my and adjoining neighborhoods, I’ve started to notice that no one else seemed to be crossing the street into my neighborhood or vice versa.

Bull Street is just a street in Savannah, Georgia. But if it is just a street, then riddle me this: Why do the people on either side of it not cross to get to the other side? There is a barrier here, and it is reflective of the more significant racial divide we have in America — and have always had.

Gentrification is My White Housing Privilege

My neighborhood is called Bingville. If you ask any Savannah resident where Bingville is, I doubt they would know.

From the stories I’ve gathered from my neighbors, Bingville has been a historically black neighborhood. I have no explanation for the fence with enormous bands of razor wire encasing our backyard. Either someone installed it to keep intruders out, or to keep someone in. Clearly, I have a bleak understanding of where I live.

My white privilege is in having enough economic mobility to move into any neighborhood that I want to live, without having to have a historical understanding of that place or what it means for me as a white person to be living there.

Our landlord, and we, are a part of the gentrifying force of this small neighborhood in Savannah. Or maybe it’s the other way around, or perhaps it’s cyclical. If our names on the lease application had sounded more ethnic, more “black,” would we have been accepted as renters?

My white privilege is in being trusted to be a good renter based on the whiteness of my name on an application and the whiteness of my skin during a home tour.

The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has student housing units that take up massive swaths of land on Barnard Street, which happens to run directly through the center of our neighborhood. This plays a significant role in the gentrification of this neighborhood as well. Since I moved to Savannah to attend SCAD in the first place, to attend a prestigious graduate program that I could only afford due to the inheritance of generational wealth, that is also my white privilege.

My white privilege is having access to generational wealth that allowed me to get my undergraduate and graduate degrees, debt-free.

A home in the Bingville neighborhood in Savannah, Ga. In the distance is the entrance to Ardsley Park. Photo by Jenna Bower.

Barriers in Crossing From East to West

Many of the streets where I live don’t have sidewalks, which is probably the result of historic city planning that prioritized vehicular traffic over pedestrian safety. Yet after all these years, these streets have not been updated with sidewalks to protect pedestrians. Why is that? Our street is one of the only ones with a sidewalk, and it is a recent addition that is only on one side of the road.

So why would anyone from the east side of Bull Street want to risk their safety by coming to walk on streets with no sidewalks? 

That’s the rational explanation. But there are others. 

The median household income in Ardsley Park is $75,272, and homes for sale range anywhere from $250,000 to over a million dollars. In Bingville, the median household income is $20,774, which is $18,000 lower than the median income in the city of Savannah as a whole. Bingville is 57.5% Black and 30.5% white compared to Ardsley Park – Chatham Crescent, which is 82.8% white and 3.9% black

Culturally, white Americans have been conditioned to view people of color as more dangerous than whites. Of course, the white person wouldn’t cross the road to get to the blacker side. 

And so – no one crosses Bull Street from the East to the Westside.

Barriers in Crossing from West to East

In comparison, all of the streets on the east side of Bull Street have sidewalks. They not only have sidewalks but lush green pocket parks where white people can bring dogs to frolic in the joys of this alluring historic city. My husband and I got married in one of these parks a few months ago. I walked in my wedding dress across Bull Street to the park where the ceremony was held. Cars stopped, honked, and waved at me as I hobbled in my high heels across the road.

Why don’t I ever see my neighbors from the West side of Bull Street walking across the street to enjoy these beautiful public spaces? This is probably because underneath the charming Spanish moss dripping with morning dew and gorgeous Live Oaks draped with resurrection ferns, they do not feel safe there.

As a woman, I always bring my largest dog with me on long walks – even through the wealthiest Savannah neighborhoods. In the morning, in the afternoon and at night. I look around at these affluent neighborhoods, and I see safety personified, but I am always on guard.

Whenever a man walks down the sidewalk toward me, I cross the street, whether he’s black or white. And I know when I cross the road away from a black man that he sees my racism in action, and so sometimes I will stay the course to smile and say hello. 

But as a white woman, if anything were to happen to me on one of these residential streets, it’s safe to say that another white neighbor would come to my rescue and call the police.

However, if my black neighbors were to take a leisurely walk across Bull Street into Ardsley Park, I imagine their fear would be much higher than mine. They would get peered at through windows and surveilled by predominantly white homeowners. Some of the more entitled neighbors might question them as they walk through their neighborhood.

They might ask, “Who do you work for?” – mistaking them as gardeners, landscapers, or house cleaners.

They might ask, “What brings you here?” – assuming that they’re “up to no good” or about to commit a crime because, in our culture, people of color are perceived as more dangerous than whites.

Or they might not ask anything at all, and instead call the police to report “suspicious activity” from the safety of their homes.

And so – no one crosses Bull Street from the West to the Eastside.

Reckoning with my White Privilege 

My white privilege is being able to cross this street. 

My white privilege is being able to rent a house in a predominantly black neighborhood while having unencumbered access to public spaces in the mostly white communities adjacent to us.

My white privilege is being able to cross the street and be welcomed into a neighborhood that is not my own because I am white and not viewed as a threat to the white homeowners.

When we first moved into this neighborhood, it seemed we were the only white people on our street. We bought a Ring security system to protect us and our belongings from the unknown. We have never had any break-ins. However, our security alarm went off on multiple occasions because we forgot to disarm it before opening our front door. I’m sure our neighbors had a great laugh at the young white people who moved in and continuously set off the security alarm at their own house.

I’m embarrassed that we ever purchased it.

The unknown, it turns out, was a street filled with kind neighbors who always say “Hello!” or “Good morning!” and ask about our day – even though we are actively a part of the force that is gentrifying their neighborhood.

They’ve checked in with us during the Coronavirus pandemic, they’ve invited us to have beers outside with them, they’ve let their children come over and say hello to us and play with our dogs, and they congratulated us as we walked back from our wedding in the park across the street.

We don’t need a security system, because we have good neighbors who spend their time hanging out with their friends in their front yards, having eyes on the street. They know us, and we know them.

So what am I to do now, with all this insight? I don’t know yet. But I do know that insight without action is wasted, and so I will figure it out.

Jenna Bower is a designer and writer living in Savannah, GA with her husband and three dogs by way of Rochester, NY. She holds an MFA in Design for Sustainability from the Savannah College of Art and Design. When she’s not writing, reading or marketing for her day job, she serves on the board of Keep Savannah Beautiful and feeds baby raccoons at a local wildlife rescue.

Author Ed Griffin-Nolan, with loyal pup Gracie, aboard the Carol Ann in 2017.

By ED GRIFFIN-NOLAN

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that shopping Malls in New York would not be allowed to open until they cleaned up their air supply, I immediately thought of Che Guevara. I’m sure you did as well. Che, the Argentinian Doc who fought in Fidel Castro’s guerrilla war to overthrow a Cuban dictator, didn’t coin the  phrase, “el hombre nuevo” (the new man), but he gave it a certain sexy (and sexist) twist that turned the heads of utopian thinkers and idealistic young people around the world half a century ago.

The “new man,” Che told the Woodstock generation, would be a selfless, introspective, socially conscious citizen dedicated to the socialist principles that Fidel preached, the ideals that Che fought for in Cuba and Angola, and in Bolivia, where it got him killed. The revolution, Guevara believed, would not only transform our social structures but our very essence as people, redirecting our motivations and our passions, from service to self to promoting the common good.

Around the same time, less idealistic American capitalists were creating a new man and a new woman, shaped not by a revolution or an ideology, but by an enormous enclosure and a slapdash collection of cash registers, plate glass windows, food courts, boutiques, arcades, parking lots, and stale air – the Shopping Mall. 

Since the 1950s, the essence of what it is to be American has been to shop. Not too long ago, when shopping involved procuring necessities, it was called going to market. It was done as infrequently as possible and with the minimum expenditure permitted by law. For most people in the United States of today, shopping has become a pastime, a hobby, entertainment, and an addiction.

Shopping in lieu of living is a soulless pursuit. Like most addictions, it produces no fulfillment, only a greater hollowness that begs for repetition of the experience, in hopes that the next exhausting trip to the big box that holds all the big box stores will give us a lasting jolt. Failure is as predictable as indebtedness.

Onondaga County in Central New York is a beautiful piece of land dotted with lakes and drumlins and parks, golf courses, ski slopes, and picturesque neighborhoods. It is home to a city with sports arenas, libraries, museums, theaters, a world class zoo, and more. Yet the No. 1 reason that people visit our county is to shop at the Mall. Buses cross the border from Canada to buy our wares. We are a city on a lake but most of us never visit the lake; we’re too busy finding a place to park near the Best Buy. 

Gracie, aboard the Carol Ann, in 2017.

And then, in a flash, the Coronavirus caused us to quit our Mall habit cold turkey. Many of us turned to online purchases to fill the void. A good number of us, however, found this unfulfilling. We turned to other pursuits. Reading. Conversing. Learning a language. Picking up an instrument. Taking children on hikes. Riding bicycles. Making masks. Supporting the front-line workers. Saving money. Protesting racism. Painting our houses. Living.

The virus and the Governor may have conspired to remind us that we were not just born to shop. Those stale air facilities known as Malls have sucked up the days and the lives of too many people over these many decades. I wonder, now that Cuomo is allowing many Malls to re-open, if maybe we will just be over that phase. Maybe we will have found that we have evolved, moved on to other pursuits. Maybe that next pair of shoes or earrings will have lost some of its appeal in a world that confronted death at close quarters.

Sixty percent of people polled recently say they are still too worried to go to a Mall. I would say that’s a healthy fear. The Governor’s demand that Mall owners remove the virus from their air supply is a fantasy –- I hope he knows that. There is no technology yet proven to remove the threat of breathing in the virus in an indoor space that recirculates the air we breathe.

I am secretly hoping that instead of chasing the virus from the air conditioning vents, the virus may have chased from our psyches the notion that only by constant consumption can we live fulfilled lives. Maybe Che, like Oscar Wilde before him, was on to something with that sexist notion of a “New Man.” But the joke is on Che -– it won’t be a socialist revolution that led to his “hombre nuevo.” 

It was a tiny bug that made us look at the world and our lives in a new way. 

Years ago, Ed Griffin-Nolan managed a restaurant and a toy store in a shopping mall. More recently (in 2005), he was arrested at Carousel Center, now Destiny USA, for suggesting to two police officers that they stop beating up a young Latino. Ed lives, writes, runs and sails near Syracuse, NY. He wrote this essay a week before Gov. Cuomo decided to allow malls outside of New York City to open. Ed’s book, “Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore,” is forthcoming from Rootstock Publishing.

A grandfather hands his granddaughter a dandelion “parachute,” or pappus, on a pesticide-free lawn. Photo © Michelle Gabel.

By ALLISON SKLANEY

The color of the sun, perky and plentiful, the dandelion evokes emotion, usually a negative one. Brought to America by European settlers, the once prized dandelion is now perpetually rooted up and sprayed with chemicals. In a culture where curbside appeal equals the two-inch grass of a golf course, the starry shaped dandelion has become a symbol of neglect.

In upstate New York, I walk around my yard and watch the chubby, wild rabbits feast on the bright yellow “lion’s teeth,” as bumblebees and butterflies clumsily pollinate the early spring flowers. Chipmunks eat wild strawberries as robins and Carolina wrens wrestle worms and grubs out of the soil.

I wonder at the life all around me. In a time of worldwide environmental vulnerability, I feel peace with the biodiversity flourishing in my yard. I don’t think of the sturdy, deep-rooted dandelions as troublesome weeds, but as fertilizer for the grass, food for wildlife and first aid for my family.

When my husband and I moved here from New York City 13 years ago, we weren’t sure how to take care of our new yard. We saw the neatly trimmed lawns of our neighbors, heard lawnmowers going from morning until night, spring until fall. We weren’t excited about mowing the lawn every week, but we definitely felt a pressure to maintain the standard look of the neighborhood, and I admit I was ashamed of the quickly multiplying dandelions.

We watched as lawn care companies patrolled the neighborhood, knocked on doors, sprayed lawns with chemicals and put up yellow signs warning passersby to stay off the grass for 24 hours. As our toddlers played outside, and tumbled off bicycles and scooters into neighbors’ yards, I felt worried about the pesticide signs.

I knew enough about science to know that chemicals don’t break down right away. They can aerosolize, drifting across the lawns, or wash into storm drains, nearby creeks and the water supply during a rainstorm. But even if they remain put, the chemicals do more than kill weeds: they destroy the microorganisms that live in the soil, affecting the health of the soil and ultimately everything that depends on it.

At the grocery store, organic food sales have reached almost $50 billion in the United States. Consumers spend extra to buy fruit, vegetables and grains grown without pesticides yet paradoxically they buy 59 million pounds of pesticides for the lawn. The most popular and heavily applied is glyphosate, which is used on more than 100 food crops and is the active ingredient in many weedkillers, including RoundUp. 

Weedkiller exposure is linked to harmful biological effects in mammals. Photo © Michelle Gabel

Introduced in 1974, glyphosate has been considered a low hazard to mammals for decades, although in 2015 the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) re-classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on epidemiological, animal and in vitro studies. Other agencies, such as the EPA, have stated that “there are no risks of concern to human health when glyphosate is used according to the label” but admit that glyphosate-based formulations (GBFs) may be more toxic. 

It’s not easy to figure out the ingredients of weedkillers. Aside from the active ingredient, all that’s listed on the label is “other ingredients.” In several studies glyphosate-based formulations have been shown to negatively affect mammalian biology. Exposure has been associated with kidney and liver damage in rodents, arrhythmias, endocrine disruption and electrophysiological changes in rats and rabbits. 

There have been many studies on the effects of GBFs on humans, and despite a couple of studies that found a statistically significant positive meta-RR for B-cell lymphoma, the consensus is that there is no determined causal relationship. Despite this, tens of thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Bayer, the company that sells RoundUp. On June 24, Bayer agreed to pay around $10 billion to settle the cases. RoundUp remains on the market.

As a result of herbicide use, lawn care companies and homeowners often use synthetic inorganic fertilizers to bring nutrients back to their lawns. Unfortunately man-made fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium are risky to the environment. Not only are they often derived from oil products, but they are then mixed with ammonia, urea and formaldehyde.

While the EPA says synthetic fertilizers are safe to use as directed, overuse and runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous into wells, lakes and oceans have led to oxygen depletion. Babies exposed to contaminated well water can literally be starved of air by developing a condition known as methemoglobinemia. Lakes and oceans can develop “dead zones” where fish cannot breathe because the overgrowth of blue-green algae consumes oxygen faster. Cultural or human-induced eutrophication is due to an increase of phosphorus mainly, but also nitrogen, as it builds up in fresh waters from fertilizers and sewage treatments. 

While individual use of weed killers and fertilizers on the lawn once or twice a year isn’t the sole cause of damaged ecosystems, sick wildlife or cancer, it’s the cumulative effect of many individuals and big agriculture that is worrisome. According to the EPA, the U.S. uses over a billion pounds of pesticides a year. We should all be concerned that there are pesticides in our water, on our food and inside our bodies.

In a study conducted by the EPA, 46 pesticides were found in groundwater in 26 states due to agricultural applications. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, deduced that around 70 percent of U.S. produce contains pesticides. According to the National Institute of Health more than 90% of the U.S. population has pesticide biomarkers in their urine or blood. With so much chemical exposure outside of our control, the question becomes why add more chemicals to the mix by spraying our lawns with toxic herbicides?

There’s 40-50 million acres of private lawn in the United States — that’s a whole lot of potential for creating healthy ecosystems. Without pesticides in the grass, lawns become a safer place for children, who are more susceptible to chemical exposure, to play with beloved pets. It’s true that dandelions will flourish, as do strawberry plants, clover and all kinds of native plant species, but consider the insects, birds and mammals who will benefit.

Daisy rests on a pesticide-free lawn as she keeps an eye on a bee hovering around nearby dandelions. Dandelions benefit bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Photo © Michelle Gabel

Let’s think of the sunny dandelions as a gift, a reminder that there’s a whole lot of work to be done in learning how to care for our green space naturally. With the future health of the Earth and ourselves in mind, the dandelion can once again be a symbol of patience, love and healing. But every once in a while, feel free to manually pull out a particularly big one or squirt it with a dose of vinegar.

Tips to keep your lawn healthy without chemicals

  1. Cut the grass more frequently at a higher setting (don’t remove more than one third of the leaf).
  2. Return grass clippings back to the lawn to add nutrients like nitrogen.
  3. Aerate turf when soil is moist, not wet, to allow air to into the soil, to improve drainage and breakup compaction. Better aerated soil has more microbial activity reducing thatch and stimulating root growth.
  4. Add garden or leaf compost, topsoil, sand or charcoal to the lawn for extra nutrients when soil is dry during growing season. Take care to brush it in evenly so you don’t smother the grass. 
  5. Intermix native perennial plants and flowers with the grass to enrich soil with billions of microorganisms (fungi and bacteria). Legumes such as clover attract nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which convert atmospheric nitrogen to fertilizer.
  6. Check your soil’s pH. You can buy a test kit at the hardware store or contact your local Cooperative Extension Service. Slightly acid to neutral pH (6.5-7.0) is good for most grass types. You can add sulfur to make the soil more acidic, lime to make it more neutral. 
  7. Water consistently or don’t water at all.

Risks of glyphosate-based products

The pesticide glyphosate is the active ingredient in many weedkillers. 

The EPA has set the glyphosate limit at .75 mg per kilogram body weight per day, but there is no safe limit determined for chemical mixtures. A recent study by the National Toxicology Program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found genotoxic activity in glyphosate-based formulations (GBFs) with diquat dibromide, metolachlor and mesotrione. 

It’s not just glyphosate-based herbicides that have disturbing health risk associations. Another popular one, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), has been linked to a higher bladder cancer risk in dogs and risk of Parkinson’s disease, immunosuppression, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, hypothyroidism and lower sperm counts in humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the human health effects from 2,4-D at low environmental doses are unknown but that it has “low acute toxicity.” 

Allison Sklaney teaches design and digital illustration at Syracuse University. Passionate about the environment, she thinks dandelions get a bad rap.  

Jamal Johnson, second from left, outside a House of Representatives office building in Washington, DC, last week after completing his fourth Stop Killing Us march from Philadelphia. Photo by Mary Anne Bucci.

Jamal Johnson, 63, is a retired postal worker and Marine who lives in Philadelphia but travels wherever his activism and passion take him. He’s been to Mexico to deliver food to migrant shelters; to Minneapolis, Seattle and Birmingham, Ala. to support Black Lives Matter protesters, and to California where he took part in a desert water drop for migrants crossing into the U.S. (The three Sense of Decency co-founders volunteered with Johnson in California and Mexico last September.)

Each of the past four summers, Johnson has walked from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., on his Stop Killing Us (SKU) march to call attention to the disproportionate number of killings of Black people — by people within their own communities, and by police. 

He wrote this essay June 25 as he neared the end of this year’s march. 

By JAMAL JOHNSON

I am on the next-to-final day of the march that began June 5 from Philadelphia Police Department headquarters to address the ongoing police brutality that the Stop Killing Us (SKU) organization has been marching and bringing to the attention of lawmakers in DC for the past four years. 

Of course, with the untimely death of George Floyd, it seems to have more support and recognition than in the past three years. But this has also been the most disappointing of the past marches and I would like to share why.

We black people in this country are in a moment of change like no other. The whole world is now claiming to feel our pain. They have come to realize, at least on the surface, the pain, abuse, humiliation, and degradation that we have been victims of for over 400 years. 

Jamal Johnson in Minneapolis during Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd.

As a result, those who don’t look like us and are the majority in this country are leading protests, tearing down statues, and are getting in direct physical confrontations with police. And that’s all well and good, except for one thing. Where are we?

Our numbers in most of these marches don’t compare to the 14% of the population that we comprise in this country. I’ve participated in marches across this country and stand alongside people that don’t look like me. These same people are occupying and burning buildings, setting up street communities, and setting the narrative of our struggle against police brutality and systemic racism. 

Meanwhile, what are we seen doing across television screens every night? Looting the stores that our parents and grandparents patronize and continuing our self-genocide in our communities by decimating our own communities with continued murder and mayhem.

Our so called self appointed leaders, kings, and protectors of the black race are nowhere to be seen or encouraging the looting which will only hurt those who use the stores and now can’t. The computer cowards and armchair activists are telling others what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what to do about it, but they are not on the streets leading anything. 

But they don’t hesitate to share their conspiracies from their self-imposed thrones. They talked revolution and now when the atmosphere is ripe for it, they are nowhere to be seen. As a result, those who have become woke by their knowledge are sleeping on the job of changing things.

We need to lead this, whenever possible, because when it’s over, it’s over. Stop Killing Us (SKU) has been presenting standards of police reform for the past four years, in person and after walking over 140 miles, to the Department of Justice and the Congressional Black Caucus, and has gotten nothing but a deaf ear. 

Jamal Johnson in the California desert, September 2019, during a water drop with Border Angels. Photo © Michelle Gabel.

If these standards had been attended to and put into law since 2017, those like Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and George Floyd may never have been murdered. But if we let others lead our fight and don’t participate in changing things and holding others accountable, then we are no better than the officer that kneed George Floyd to death.

It is time to take the reins of this moment and make it a movement, and continue this fight until laws are passed preventing the death of us at the hands of others. We must also take charge of our communities and stop our hypocritical cry of police brutality while we continue our silence of the murders of each other, by each other. 

People are watching how we address this moment in time and if we don’t capitalize on their assumed empathy and concern, not only will we be disrespected further, but our sincerity of our complaints will be questioned, which is why it has taken so long for this to happen in the first place.

“… the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”

— Albert Camus, 1947

Sickness surrounds us. It’s more than the physical and emotional assault of the pandemic that afflicts us; we suffer daily under a spiritual assault of conflict with and rejection of those with whom we disagree. The onslaught coarsens us, wears us down, makes us reduce our enemies to something not human, but something to be ridiculed, crushed, and destroyed. And destruction begets destruction and in the end there are no winners.

We’d like to try to change that by offering here a free and respectful discussion of contemporary life, on any subject that shines a light on who we are. Common decency will be the common denominator. By decency, we mean taking the time to listen to others, seeing things through their eyes.

We’ll still disagree. But we will listen to and hear those with whom we disagree and take a moment to think about their interests, their dreams, their desires. Why do they think like that? Why do we think like this? What is it we have in common with all people? How can we move forward?

If we can talk to one another rather than about one another, we may be able to look beyond our faults to find our common virtues and from there move toward a better world for all of us.

More than 65 years ago, Joseph Welch famously asked Senator Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Should we ever be asked the same question, we hope to be able to answer in the affirmative.

— Dennis Harrod, 2020

Sense of Decency

The author and his daughter, Ruth, just above a sharp left turn on a rapid nicknamed “The Wall” on the Black River, Quebec, 2011. The wall of rock is not particularly friendly to canoes being forced hard right.

Push Day

By MIKE FISH

Seven portages already, muskeg up to here

Big water, stiff headwind all day

Hands hard, good mates, no fear

Where’s the site, you say

Around the bend and through the narrows


Sun baking down, visions of a place

Esker topped with pine, plenty of space

Shoulders sore, fading daylight

Where, where’s that site

Round the bend and through the narrows


Hailstorm of insults, hate all round

Grotesque

Rights pushed underground, free press?

Where — oh, where — is that new sight?

Round the bend and through the narrows


End of another river day, 1971. Three pots going, and bannock in the reflector oven. Author, foreground, who guided…

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