Online vs Face-to-Face Community: The #mypolytheism Question

John Beckett recently voiced some doubts about the #mypolytheism website and project. There was a huge number of comments in response, mostly expressing disappointment, and sometimes anger, at John’s lack of support. As I mentioned already, I am a contributor and fan of the project. I love hearing from a variety of polytheists presenting their religious perspective in a non-judgmental platform.

John’s main criticisms were that he questioned the “no debate” format and felt like it would squelch potentially fruitful discussions. More to the point of what I want to address here, he felt that to form a community, people must come together face-to-face via groups or events. An online forum, especially one so diverse, is not going to manifest a real Polytheist community.

 

To address my thought on this, I have to break a convention, in a way, and talk about this blog. I have been blogging for over three years here. I think the habit of writing regularly has improved the quality of writing. I would like to think that the level of writing and thoughtfulness is on a par with most of the “Pagan blogosphere”, although I would not claim to be among the best. I have certain posts which seem to show up in search engines and get somewhat regular clicks. I occasionally catch the attention of a high profile blogger who comments or shares a particular post, which means extra clicks.

But let’s be honest, I have a low readership. As a gay pagan vegan writing reflective posts, I don’t exactly expect to be a viral sensation. But honestly, I do wonder why I am still relatively obscure within the world of pagan bloggers. For example, when The Wild Hunt does a compilation of commenters and the subject is something I write about frequently, they would never think to ask for my contribution. I am even toward the top of the list of “Fall Funders” (it’s alphabetical), so my name appears prominently on their web page. Yet, I am not on the radar.

Part of my lower profile is that I don’t court controversy. I don’t make outrageous assertions just to get clicks. I don’t write rants or screeds. I don’t jump online and respond in a heated way to something I just read. I usually think about and balance various perspectives before writing on a subject.

 

But to take John’s point and turn it on its head, I am beginning to suspect that a lot of people don’t pay attention to writers in the Pagan blogosphere unless they’ve physically met the blogger or seen them talk. It’s like the online presence isn’t acknowledged or deemed worthy of attention when there’s no physical presence at events.

I don’t show up at the big national conventions. I have never been to PantheaCon or Many Gods West. I have never gone to any of the major camping festivals. I haven’t even been to more regional conferences like Paganicon or ConVocation. I just have not had the time or money to play along, to “show up”. I also feel like flying across the country several times each year is not compatible with an environmentally responsible ethic.

I belong to my own local group, which is very small. Many of them do read my blog. It’s rare that the content is so tradition-specific that they would be the only ones to appreciate it. I have gone to our local Pagan Pride, and I will again. I have met some other Pagans and Polytheists in this context. I have even been on a local esoteric radio program and made presentations to local groups. I am still far from a well-known person, even within the local Pagan community.

 

So, sadly, unless I am overestimating the quality of or audience for my writing. I think that there’s a kind of harsh validity to John’s point. An online voice is probably an unheard voice – unless it has been backed up with some other presence, particularly a physical presence at the right events. The online Pagan community is basically a way to amplify the voices of people who already have a voice via books, public speaking or group leadership.

 

Judging from what I’ve read from many of the contributors to #mypolytheism, many will never have those other platforms. Many will have difficulty attending large events to get the attention of the right people. Many of them are not likely to lead groups, even at a local level. This isn’t me criticizing these contributors. This is simply meant to be an honest observation.

Can #mypolytheism be a true community that brings unheard voices to a larger audience? That is certainly a part of its aim, and I hope it can achieve that goal. We’ll have to see if it works out that way, if it can sustain this initial flush of new and unique contributions, or if it ends up sliding into being a platform for voices that are already represented in the Pagan and Polytheist online world.

 

Some Updates for September

It’s Pagan Pride season, and our Chicagoland celebration will be held on Sunday September 18, 2016 in Oak Park, Illinois (just west of Chicago). I wrote about last year’s celebration here, and I included a number of photos.

Brotherhood of the Phoenix will be leading the opening ritual this year, and I will be helping our spiritual leaders in that task. Leading a large public ritual, outdoors and filled with many strangers, is quite a bit different from celebrating our usual group rituals. Two years ago, I did take a role in a public ritual at Pagan Pride led by Earth Traditions, so it’s not an entirely new experience for me. I held one of the eight points of the circle around which a giant web was woven, which was a wonderful visual image. (I am in the deep background in photos 5 and 12 in this photo set.)

If you are in the area, please join us on Sunday the 18th. In addition to leading ritual, the Brotherhood will have a tent/table, so you can connect with us there.

 

On a separate note about my ongoing involvement with Brotherhood of the Phoenix, I was elected to the Council of Guardians at the National level for the organization, which is the organization’s governing body. I have already been involved with the Council for our Chicago Temple, but this is a new level of involvement, and as always, I am learning a great deal at each step along the way. It is an exciting time for the Brotherhood, since there is likely going to be a new temple within the next few months in a new city, which represents a significant expansion for our small and emerging order. We’re also revamping the website and going through various other interesting changes.

 

I love the Fall, and my garden has been very productive with tomatoes, summer squash, turnips, kale, and other goodies. Ceres is a great provider and I am in constant awe. I think the worst heat of the summer has passed (although you never can really tell). I’m looking forward to the next few months, even as I realize the country in general, and the Pagan community in particular, is in a divisive mood. Certain people’s prejudices have been on display more boldly and harshly than usual lately. I want to hear people’s perspective, but sometimes I have to unplug from the anger and, frankly, lack of compassion that I hear so often.

 

Enjoy the harvest season, my friends!

My Polytheism

As part of a project to present many different views of polytheism, as shown on the My Polytheism website, my contribution is here.

________________________

My Polytheism is about variety. At its heart, it’s based on a belief that no one is “in charge”, at least not in any over-arching sense. There are many powers in the world, many of which are greater than human powers. As we make our way through the world, we encounter many of these (if we are paying attention) – Gods, Goddesses, spirits, genii loci. Some are specific to places and times. Some have greater power to exist over long periods of time and great expanses of space. Human perception of them is limited. Human understanding of them is incomplete. But, if we are lucky, we are able to have some kind of communication with them.

I understand these powers to be distinct beings, therefore I embrace the term polytheist. Trying to think of them as part of some unified being seems intuitively wrong to me. Sometimes they seem to look almost human and communicate in a human way, but that may be either their effort to be relatable, or my own mind’s attempt to comprehend what I am experiencing. Sometimes they have existence that is clearly not like that of humanity.

In creating my own framework for a modern polytheism, I look to ancient Rome for inspiration, but I do not aim to slavishly recreate Roman practice.

I love that the Roman religious world was multicultural, eclectic, and pragmatic. Gods and Goddesses from various traditions were incorporated into the Roman religious landscape without any perceived contradiction. I love that at least one major strain of Roman devotion has a tradition of not using animal sacrifice (the Numa tradition).

I am fascinated by the way that Roman religion worked in multiple layers.

  • There was a home-based religion, based around the hearth and the lararium.
  • There were public temples and shrines, as well as festivals, often sponsored by wealthy individuals or groups. These could be for the benefit of a neighborhood, a full city, or on the roadside for travelers. I would love to see some of this in our modern age.
  • There was a state-sponsored religious cult*, dedicated to certain Gods, and eventually to deified Emperors. I don’t have much interest in a revival of this (and I don’t even understand how that would work in our current society).
  • At the same time, many people belonged to mystery cults* – initiatory organizations usually devoted to particular Gods and Goddesses and offering a more personal revelatory and/or ecstatic experience. These organizations had their own rules and practices.

None of these methods of devotion were contradictory. People could pick and choose their devotion (although for political reasons, there were expectations or even compulsions for the actions of public figures around the public festivals and state religious rites).

*When I use the word “cult”, it refers to a devotional tradition and it does not carry the negative connotation that it often does in modern usage.

At the same time, the Romans were deeply conservative, in the sense that they revered any practice or tradition that was seen as ancient. There was a strong cultural drive to maintain rituals, both in the broad and specific senses of the word. They were very picky about the specifics of how rituals were performed, often stopping and starting again from the beginning if something unexpected happened. They had the tendency to continue traditions long past the time when anyone had the faintest idea of their purpose or origin.

This kind of unexamined adherence to the past is not my way. In fact, if it were, I would likely still be a Catholic, perhaps even a priest of that Christian religion where I was raised. The truth is, for my family and for nearly everyone in this country, there is no unbroken line of polytheists. Any such traditions are revived (with varying degrees of guesswork involved) or created anew.

Because I believe in the reality of the Gods, Goddesses and various other spirits, I believe these new traditions can be valid and guided by divine inspiration. But going from divine inspiration to concrete ritual, texts, and institutions will always be colored by the current cultural landscape and individual personality of those involved.

And that brings me to my involvement with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix. The Brotherhood is a neopagan order for men who love men (gay, bi, trans, queer). Being neopagan, it isn’t explicitly polytheist, but my experience of the Gods of the Brotherhood is polytheistic. As part of the emergent tradition, there are eight Gods that we work with (an example of my work with them here), and I understand them as distinct deities. Not everyone in the Brotherhood does. But the training that I have gained through the Brotherhood has been formative for me, and it has effected my practices beyond the Brotherhood Gods.

The Brotherhood traditions are influenced by Western Ceremonial Magic tradition, and my sense of ritual and ecstasy, of mental preparedness for spiritual experience is formed by this. Going back to the framework of Roman religion, this is an initiatory group, with a special spiritual focus for the enrichment of its members. I include it in the broader scope of my religious life, and lately, it has been in a central place.

Finally, I want to say that my polytheism is ecstatic (or it aspires to be). I think the experience of Gods, Goddesses, and various other spirits is what makes it all meaningful. My polytheism doesn’t give commandments, it offers experiences. It may be that sense of wonder when walking in the woods on a gorgeous day or looking out over the ocean and trying to comprehend its vastness. It can be much more specific – a God talking to you, appearing in some form, giving you messages. It can be the feeling of a Goddess giving you a message that you must write down and pass along.

To me, much of the purpose of devotion is to honor and grow closer to the deities and spirits, to welcome them into our lives and value who they are, as far as we can understand it. It may even be just to express our awe and appreciation, and it may be to ask for guidance, focus our minds and hearts, or provide us peace. As long as we understand that these relationships do not work like vending machines, but rather that we are cultivating relationship, we can see the value in our practices.

Where is the Spirituality? (or Why I Stay Away From Certain Controversies)

This is supposed to be a blog about my spiritual journey, and it occurs to me that not much of what I have written just lately is quite what most people think of as spiritual. A lot of it has been social justice, cultural trends, environmentalism. These are bound up with my spiritual self, certainly, but much of what I have been writing is not specifically about Pagan spirituality.

I have started writing a number of posts on theological topics that are hot within the Pagan blogosphere just lately. There has been a good deal of argument between atheist Pagans and devotional polytheists. There’s an ongoing spat between radical left political pagans (particularly those of anarchist and Marxist leanings) and those who are more concerned with piety than politics (and seem to be eternally offended by the political types).

I even started a rant, of sorts, against Pagan and polytheist use of the term “blasphemy”. In a world where people are literally killed for things like blasphemy and apostasy, I have no interest in my community adopting these poisonous concepts.

I never completed any of these posts. It just hardly seems worth it to defend one side or another in these disputes. One of the basic ideas of the Pagan “umbrella” or “tent” is that there is no orthodoxy, i.e. required belief, to fit into the Pagan community. There is no single unifier that defines Pagan identity.

I am still a fan of the Big Tent version of Paganism (as explained by John Beckett here). It explains how I see that we come together as a community, even as we are dramatically disparate. I have always know that the paths that I follow make me a minority even within the relatively tiny community of Paganism. I am not a Wiccan. I am not a Druid. I am an initiate into an order that has a very small number of initiates. Even the Reconstructionist traditions that inspire some of my personal practice don’t have the critical mass for a local group. But I still see a value, or at least I want to see a value, in being a part of a larger Pagan community.

There are many arguments around definitional issues for specific terms and who gets to use them. In terms of the atheist vs. polytheist argument, trying to adopt both of those terms does seem like a logical contradiction, but that doesn’t mean that people of both identities can’t be called Pagans. Some traditions do have specific definitions and processes that allow people to use particular titles. These should always be understood in context, though. If your organization defines what it means to be a Priestess in your tradition, that doesn’t mean that somehow you own the word and anyone else who calls themselves a Priestess is a fraud. They’re just not a Priestess of your tradition.

And I am not about to set myself up as the arbiter of who can be called a Pagan and who cannot. I can tell you what particular titles mean within certain traditions I know, and whether you fit the qualifications (as defined by the current organizations or by traditions and text). That doesn’t mean I can claim any right to own these terms or their specific definition, and it doesn’t mean I need to rage each time I disagree with the way someone uses a term. The world is vast and varied place. It is not my job to police every claim someone makes, particularly on the internet, which is a special home for baseless claims.

So here is my spiritual goal for today:

I will work to learn my own path.
I will work to embody the spiritual virtues that will improve the world. I will deepen my relationship to my deities, my community, and those spirits who are in relationship with me.
I will continue to seek further understanding.
I will make room for those who believe and practice differently than me, but stand firm in my assertion that my perspective has a place in the larger conversation.

Riots in Milwaukee – My Native City’s Racist Heritage

I grew up in Milwaukee, on the north side, although not in the Sherman Park neighborhood where this week’s rioting happened. I haven’t lived in Milwaukee for over two decades, but I still have many connections with the city, including family and many high school friends in the area.

I am a little too young for any memory of the late 1960’s race riots, which seemed to have had an indelible mark on my parents and many adults I knew. I grew up with the idea that outward signs of racism against black people were not socially acceptable. “The N word” was not to be used, ever – not at home and certainly never in public. I attended the aggressively desegregated Milwaukee Public Schools, and I count myself very lucky in this. I went to a magnet high school located in an almost entirely African American neighborhood. The school population was slightly over half African American students. It was a wonderful place to go to school, and I will always appreciate that education for many reasons. The true diversity of the student body was a definite asset, and the ability to make friends with people from different backgrounds was a great benefit. Also, I was lucky enough to be in a choir with singers who had grown up with the marvelous tradition of choral singing in African American churches, and the rich musical culture that came with that.

 

But in spite of the effort in the schools, segregation ran deep in Milwaukee, and racist attitudes were common. It wasn’t until I was in high school when I began to understand some of the racial dynamics of Milwaukee real estate. Many north side neighborhoods experienced dramatic “white flight” episodes, when a few black families move into a neighborhood and racial panic-selling ensued. The plummeting property values then motivated other sellers less concerned about race, but were sensitive to a perceived impending financial disaster. The racial makeup of a neighborhood could change dramatically within a few years.

My neighborhood had a real estate agent who practiced what I now know as “steering”. I didn’t understand the dynamic at the time. It wasn’t until I thought back on it years later after getting my own salesperson’s license. If a house in our subdivision went up for sale, she simply did not show it to African American buyers. Eventually, sellers began to realize that her method often resulted in a lower sales price, and she lost her dominance.

I am sad to hear that Milwaukee is just as residentially segregated as ever – one of the most segregated cities in the country, in fact. And I am sad to hear that the program to keep the schools desegregated has been entirely reversed. The schools are more of a reflection of the neighborhoods, and therefore segregation and disparities are the rule.

 

In addition to these dynamics, I remember a certain narrative often repeated. The story went that unemployed people would come to Wisconsin to take advantage of our generous welfare benefits. There was a certain hand-wringing that we were attracting the lazy and the parasitic to Milwaukee because we were too generous. Like Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” story, it was charged with an unspoken racism. These people were presumably African Americans coming from southern states to take advantage of the system.

In truth, industrial jobs held by workers of all races were being lost throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Low-skilled workers were finding it harder to find employment, and that was undoubtedly at the root of the larger dependence on government aid programs. Milwaukee is a “Rust Belt” city. Iconic factories were closing and downsizing. Even those that stayed around began to depend more heavily on automation and employed fewer people. There was no need for this bogeyman of the welfare immigrant. There were more than enough people right under our noses that needed help.

 

But it seemed that a spirit of generosity was far from plentiful. And things only have gotten worse for those who are in greatest need. Government aid programs, youth employment programs, public education – all these safety nets have been cut. Milwaukee area was hit hard in the housing crash. Job opportunities in the suburbs are often inaccessible with the area’s patchy public transportation system, so are unavailable to those in the poorest areas of the city.

Poverty, hopelessness, and violence often go hand-in-hand in many of the largely African American neighborhoods of Milwaukee. I wish I could say it was surprising that violence would flare up like it did this weekend. The truth is, it isn’t. Sherman Park seems to have had a recent history of racial tension centering on the gas station that was burned down. When the police shoot someone in the neighborhood, the residents’ anger and grief, primed by a string of recent national incidents, will come out and be directed at police and institutions like that gas station. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that all this will result in violence.

 

I think tonight, things are quiet in Sherman Park. Aggressive policing may calm things down temporarily, but the underlying issues are still there. The segregation, economic inequality, hopelessness, and anger are still there. And I’m afraid my native city doesn’t even seem to be moving in the right direction away from these. My heart breaks for those who live in fear and hopelessness. My heart hopes that my native city can turn this around, recognize and help their neighbors and find some real change.

 

Here is some more reading on these recent incidents and reflections on the larger picture:

Reggie Jackson in the Milwaukee Independent – a voice from the neighborhood

Syreeta McFadden in the Guardian

A sad history of the re-segregation of Milwaukee schools

New Name, Same Blog

Hello, Friends and Readers!

I just wanted to put a quick note here about the change in the title of the blog. I have been contemplating a “rebrand” for a while. After three and a half years of blogging, my focus and perspective have changed. I originally started with the title “Looking for Wisdom, Ancient and Modern” with the subtitle “A Seeker’s Journey”. Last year, I decided “Seeker” was no longer quite the right word. I am still a seeker in many senses, but I have been around Paganism in general and my chosen traditions in particular for a number of years, so at least in those contexts, I am a little less inexperienced than that title may suggest.

Now, I decided to change the main title to something more concrete as a theme for my blog. I have always said this is about my Pagan “path”, and I decided to give the metaphor a context. Of course, I am still looking for wisdom (as we all should be, right?)

I hope you continue to enjoy my writing here, and as always, feedback and respectful discussion is welcome.

Reading List for “John Michael Greer and the Steampunk Future”

My talk to The Owen Society for Hermetic and Spiritual Enlightenment was pretty well received today. We had about 15 people, many of whom seemed interested and engaged. Of course there is so much more source material than I could present, so I put together a reading (and watching) list to follow up on some of the issues covered.

 

The Long Descent and Catabolic Collapse

How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse (academic paper that is fairly technical)

http://ecoshock.org/transcripts/greer_on_collapse.pdf

On Catabolic Collapse

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2006/05/on-catabolic-collapse.html

The Trajectory of Empires

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2012/02/trajectory-of-empires.html

 

The Myth of Progress

What Progress Means

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2015/02/what-progress-means.html

This Faith in Progress

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2007/01/this-faith-in-progress_10.html

 

The Steampunk Future

The Steampunk Future

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-steampunk-future.html

The Steampunk Future Revisited

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-steampunk-future-revisited.html

 

Green Wizardry

Seven Sustainable Technologies

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2014/01/seven-sustainable-technologies.html

 

John Michael Greer – YouTube Playlist created by me

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJF1Nk3eL3u-jokYzVMJG0GJ0Fzze5N0F

 

John Michael Greer books:

The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, 2008

The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World, 2009

The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered, 2011

Apocalypse Not: Everything You Know About 2012, Nostradamus and the Rapture Is Wrong, 2011

Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and Other Hands-On Skills From the Appropriate Tech Toolkit, 2013

Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress, 2013

Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America, 2014

After Progress: Reason and Religion at the End of the Industrial Age, 2015

Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush: The Best of The Archdruid Report, 2015

Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead, to be released Sept 2016

 

Other resources:

The End of Suburbia (52 minute documentary about Peak Oil and the work of Howard James Kunstler)

https://youtu.be/Q3uvzcY2Xug

A Victorian lifestyle in the spotlight (Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman of Port Townsend, WA)

https://youtu.be/O9S_fIw_7fs

 

Other books:

Muddling Toward Frugality Paperback by Warren Johnson

Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher

Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update by Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis L. Meadows

Rainbook: Resources for Appropriate Technology by Lane deMoll

The Book of the New Alchemist by Nancy Jack Todd

Talk this weekend – John Michael Greer and the Steampunk Future

This Sunday, I will give a talk to The Owen Society for Hermetic and Spiritual Enlightenment, my Steampunk esoteric group. I have given several talks in the past to this group on different topics.

This time, my topic is “John Michael Greer and the Steampunk Future”. John Michael Greer is an author, Archdruid and polymath who writes on a wide variety of topics. Specifically I will be covering some of his writings about Peak Oil, the decline of Industrial civilization in general and American culture specifically, and his suggestions for personal actions to make the slide down a little easier, as covered in his blog the Archdruid Report.

I have written about John Michael Greer several times in this blog over the years, especially here

The talk is over brunch at a pleasant local restaurant. It requires an RSVP, and space is limited. The information is here. The Owen Society is one of my favorite groups, and the people are delightful – creative, supportive and stylish.

 

.My last talk at the Owen Society, "Food of the Gods"

My last talk at the Owen Society,

“Food of the Gods”

Yesterday, I watched two men die

Both were on video, and both cases were very recent. All these videos were and are available to everyone with internet access.

The first was Alton Sterling, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana man shot at point-blank range while pinned to the ground by police officers in a convenience store parking lot. The first video I watched was from a nearby car, which was blurry, but clearly showed the shots being fired. The second video from the same incident, was a clearer image and showed pretty clearly that the man was unarmed, and did not appear to be a threat. This video also showed a massively bleeding chest wound and the victim’s final moments.

The second video was Philando Castile, the driver of a car with a broken tail light. He identified himself as having a concealed carry permit and while he was reaching for his driver’s license in his wallet, the officer fired at him multiple times, again at point-blank range. His girlfriend started a live Facebook video while he was bleeding out in the front seat and the officer’s gun was still drawn. It continued to show the victim lose consciousness, and then the girlfriend being taken out of the car and detained, all while broadcasting live.

I watched the Alton Sterling videos a day after the incident and the Philando Castile live broadcast a very short time after the incident. As a former St. Paul resident, I have many connections in the area. Friends were posting the live video in shock, even before Twitter exploded with the news and long before major news outlets were picking it up. Facebook removed the video this morning, but much of it is still available on other online sites.

These men were not wanted fugitives. There was no evidence of violent crimes. These were not hardened criminals. But yet, they ended up dead at the hands of police after encounters under the most mundane of circumstances. It’s shocking and disheartening.

 

My perception of the police has varied throughout my life. I grew up in a middle-class, largely white area with a fairly low crime rate. There was a police officer that lived down the block. Things were safe, generally, and I don’t remember a lot of interaction with police. They were available when needed, but mercifully they weren’t often needed.

In my teen years, thefts and break-ins became common in the area, and our house was broken into at one time. I went to a city magnet school outside my neighborhood. The neighborhood, largely African American, had problems with roving gangs that claimed and patrolled the area. At one time, a friend and I stayed late for a musical rehearsal, and we were accosted and mugged by some of these gang members. I had my wallet stolen, losing a bus pass and some cash. My friend was punched in the face and had his glasses broken. The incident was done in a minute and the young men were gone, leaving us unable to get home. I know that I interacted with police on those occasions, but I have little recollection.

After coming out as gay, my perception of the police shifted. In the late eighties, things were starting to get better between gay and lesbian identified people and the police, but only barely. Sodomy and public indecency laws were either being repealed or were rarely used. The habit of police raiding gay bars just because they were gay bars was fading, but the community had those recent memories and it still happened in some parts of the country. Bowers v Hardwick, 1986 had allowed states to have and enforce Sodomy Laws, a decision that was not reversed until Lawrence v Texas in 2003. Besides this, it was well known that many police officers in many places had longstanding anti-gay bias issues.

Assaults against people showing same-sex affection or being particularly flamboyant were subject to the kind of victim-blaming similar to what women experience around sexual assault. The attitude was often that “they were asking for it”, and little sympathy or assistance was given to victims.

But I watched things change. In places where I lived, and in many places throughout the country, police departments changed their cultures to become less homophobic, less anti-gay, and in many cases they were partners and allies with the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities. As with so many of these issues of social change around LGBTQ issues, the Trans and Queer inclusivity and acceptance lags behind that for gay and lesbian identities.

I had a turning point on this when I was still living in East Lakeview (nicknamed Boystown, a neighborhood associated with Chicago’s gay community). I don’t recall the exact date, but it was early in the tenure of Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard, who served from 1998 to 2003. There had been a rash of assaults in the area. Hundreds of neighbors, many of whom were openly gay and lesbian, came out to voice support for a police initiative to increase bicycle based patrols. The neighborhood is very congested and car responses were often delayed simply due to traffic congestion. Bicycles had the advantage of quickly navigating sidewalks and narrow alleys to arrive at the scene quickly. Bicycles were rarely used by police in Chicago prior to that time. Much to Superintendant Hillard’s surprise, already accustomed to weathering constant complaints from the public about police, the neighbors were largely supportive of police and very welcoming to partnership with them.

So, I am telling all this because, until recently, I had hope for police forces. I had hope that real cultural change could happen within police departments around the issues of race. It had happened around the issues of sexual identity. I had witnessed it first-hand. They were not an unchanging, monolithic block of hopeless bias.

 

But the story of police relations around race, particularly around police relations with African Americans, is much more complex and doesn’t seem to be improving. As anyone who is paying even a small amount of attention knows, police continue killing African American citizens after routine and nonviolent interactions. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are the most recent and most visible, but there has been a long string of recent incidents.

Here in Chicago, we had the shocking case of Laquan McDonald, who was repeatedly shot while running away from police. He was acting erratically, but had not done anything violent and was not directly threatening anyone. In that case, unusually, the officer has been charged with murder and is awaiting trial. Most police involved in such shootings never face any legal consequences.

So many of them are really awful, but two of these cases really stick with me and haunt me.

Eric Garner was a forty-something man who was doing something technically illegal (selling loose cigarettes), but not in any way threatening or disruptive. Unfortunately, like many people that I know, he was overweight and had various health problems including asthma and a heart condition. It should not have been that hard to guess that he may have had some health issues – these are all quite common. Police apprehended and physically restrained him with excessive force, using choke holds that look like they are trying to emulate WWE wrestlers. Garner laid gasping for breath, shouting “I can’t breathe”, and it was caught on camera. He was literally dying before their eyes for a crime roughly equivalent to a parking violation. And the police persisted and failed to offer any help.  As a forty-something person who is overweight and had a history of childhood asthma, I can’t help but see myself in this poor dying man. And my heart breaks.

Sandra Bland was a smart, articulate woman from Naperville, Illinois who had just taken a job with her sorority in Texas. She was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. There is a witness video of her arrest. The officer had no cause to arrest her. It was a ticketable offense at most. And yet, she was taken to jail and died soon afterward under suspicious circumstances. When I see her and hear her voice on that video and other videos that she made, I recognize her. In her, I hear someone who may have been a high school classmate or co-worker. She seems just a step away from someone who may have been my connection. And I think about what may have happened to her in that cell, with no friends and no hope. And again, my heart breaks.

African Americans are stopped by police at a higher rate than whites and have a far higher likelihood of being killed in police custody. Police bias is clearly a huge factor in this. Why do interactions between police and African American citizens escalate into violent confrontations so quickly and so frequently?

 

So where do we go from here? Or specifically, how do I react beyond my heartbreak? What can I do?

I will admit that not so long ago, I considered myself a supporter of the police. We had some issues on our block and in my building a few years ago. The adult son of one of the residents in my building (not African American, incidentally) decided to team up with people down the block to deal drugs out of our front yard. It was very intimidating and unwelcoming to walk through this frankly hostile traffic just to enter my own home. It also attracted the attention of rivals from nearby areas and there were numerous instances of shots fired nearby. My neighbors and I called the police frequently. My neighbor with small children was especially furious, and eventually ended up leaving and short-selling their condo at a huge loss just to get away from the situation.

The constant police presence did eventually lead to the drug dealing activity moving somewhere else in the neighborhood, and the neighbors down the block involved did not have their lease renewed due to neighbor complaints. The people involved (dealers, customers, lookouts, etc.) were of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds, as well as ages, but many of them were Mexican American, African American and Caribbean American men in their teens and twenties.

I know one of the tactics the police used was stopping people using flimsy excuses in order to underline that the police were watching the area and the open drug dealing needed to go away. To my knowledge, the police did not injure or kill anyone, but they certainly did use some fairly aggressive policing tactics in my name and in the name of my neighbors. If I think about this now, I had some misgivings, but at the time, I was just glad to have this activity out of my front yard.

Of course I have always known that some police officers can be obnoxiously over-reaching and who seem to abuse their positions of power. But I had been lulled into thinking that was a fairly rare case.

 

I have had to reevaluate my own perception of and relationship to the police. In the past, I did not hesitate to call police in any instance that I thought suspicious. My trust is eroded now, though, particularly in instances where there are African Americans involved. I don’t feel I can trust the police to judge the situation fairly and not escalate it into something violent, even deadly. And frankly, that leaves me feeling a bit adrift.

As a single heading-toward-middle-aged person, I don’t feel like I can confront problem activity that I encounter. If I see a confrontation, evidence of a crime, or a person in distress – I call 911. I don’t have the resources to deal with these problems directly. But if I can’t trust that 911 is going to deal with the situation appropriately, and even make the situation worse, what resources do I have?

I really am at a loss when it comes down to the practical day-to-day reality of it. At the same time, I realize the fact that I felt secure and trusting of the police is an example of my own privilege, and one privilege I have not always felt when I feared the anti-gay attitudes of the police.

 

Fortunately, I do see some resources for addressing bigger picture questions. I like a lot of the policy suggestions from Campaign Zero. I can get behind these recommendations and engage with my elected officials to push them. I can hope that they get implemented and hope they help. I can try to keep telling myself to hope.

 

And in the meantime? I am not at the center of this. I am not a typical target of police brutality today, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore it or unplug. I can shy away and not watch, but that is shirking responsibility. The police do act in my name – as a citizen, as a voter, as a taxpayer, as a member of the community. They need to be held to a higher standard, and I need to watch and speak out until they live up to it.