Monday, November 23, 2009

In Which Nofrat Gets Arrested

This is Nofrat Frankel. Nofrat is 25, and she is a medical student. She was arrested, November 18, for the henious crime of wearing a tallis at the Western Wall. Sources say that in addition to this crime, she may also have been praying.

She was arrested, detained by Jerusalem police for two hours, and ordered to stay away from the Kotel for fifteen days.

A Jew. In Jerusalem. Was arrested by Israeli police for wearing a tallis, and ordered to stay away from the Wall. No, this is not science fiction.

Nofrat may face charges of 'performing a religious act that offends others'. That may carry a penalty of six months in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Reuters states that Nofrat was "wearing a prayer shawl, which Orthodox Jewish tradition dictates is only for men." This is not true. 'Orthodox Jewish tradition' does not forbid women to wear tallitot. In additional, "Frankel was also holding a Torah, a Jewish biblical scroll, in contravention of Orthodox Jewish tradition." Did you realize it was assur for a woman to hold a Torah scroll? Apparently Reuters does. Hmm. I wonder who told THEM?

Apparently, the management at the Wall are digging their heels in, going once again after women following Jewish customs considered to be invalid by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the man in charge there. He has announced that women praying together at the Wall are a 'desecration' of the site.

Meanwhile, Nofrat asks the question on my mind. "If I cannot wear a religious garment at the Western Wall, where can I?" she asks.

Good question, Nofrat. I think the answer is meant to be pretty clear.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Oceans of Lotions

I seem to be giving the impression this month that my students are just a bunch of victim-blaming, narrow-minded, callous little begrudgers, and this isn't the case at all, of course. To present a lighter side of them, let me tell you about my locker-room gig.

Last year, St. Dymphna, in the rush to balance the budget, let go the only female gym teacher. Part of the reason I was called back is that they realized in the fall that they were going to have to answer the first question everyone else asked--'who's going to supervise the girls' locker room'?

Three blocks a day, that would be me. My role, such as it is, is to be there at the beginning and end of the block, and supervise as the girls change into and out of their gym gear.

This would be simple, except that:

1. They often forget stuff, and run around screaming things like "Does anyone have an extra pair of shoes?"

2. They have to remove all their jewelry to play, and this sometimes takes a while.

3. Some of them are more modest than others, necessitating hiding in the bathroom stalls to do all this.

4. Some of them feel it necessary to reapply their eyeliner both before and after playing volleyball.

and 5. The lotion thing.

They get ashy, you see. Now, when I was the age of my students, ashiness was a specific African-American issue, and mostly limited to things like elbows anyway. But ashiness has gone big-time since then. Now it is racially universal, and everyone worries about being ashy. They worry about their arms, and their legs. They have to be completely moisturized at all times, or a flake of ash might show, and then they would die.

So they moisturize. They apply lotion before leaving the locker room, and when they come back. They borrow lotions from one another, and apply them with a liberal hand, while the air fills up with sweet fruity-floral odors. They run around screaming "Does anyone have lotion? I'm ASHY!" Someone always comes to such a classmate's aid. The ashiness of one is the ashiness of everyone.

Then, just in case they might not smell fruity-floral enough, they pull whole bottles of body spray or cologne out of their lockers, and spritz each other until the whole place smells like Bath and Bodyworks after a bad earthquake.

I don't complain. The male gym teacher gets to supervise the boys. I don't know if they care about ashiness, but they worry about smelling bad. So they use AXE.

I'm getting off easy.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hard conversations

Yesterday, after school, hanging out in the freshmen religion teacher's office, one of the boys says: "I still don't understand why that girl isn't in trouble for under-age drinking."

This has been a recurrent question, asked at the assembly too. I don't fully understand why it preoccupies them so, but they seem troubled, seriously, by the idea that several young men are in custody for rape and battery, while an under-age drinker gets off scot-free.

"Try to look at it this way, Moish," I said. "Let's say you steal a book from Baruch's locker. That's wrong, it's against the rules, and you will get in trouble for it, right?"


"But let's say that before we get a chance to punish you for stealing a book, Baruch comes after you with a baseball bat, beats you to within a inch of your life and puts you in the hospital. Believe it or not, we are going to be so concerned about the felony Baruch committed, that we may not even bother about punishing you for the book, especially since you're in the hospital, recovering. Got that?"

"I guess so."

"If that girl had been black, this wouldn't even be in the papers," says Baruch.

"I think maybe you guys are making too big a deal out of this," says Ahuva. "I mean, it's kind of a big deal. But this has been going on for weeks, and it's not THAT big a deal."

"Ahuva," I say, "I don't want to start reciting all the details of this crime, and trying to scare you. But the detective who's been working this case, every time he speaks to the press, says that this was horrifying, one of the worst things he's seen. This is a guy who's a detective for the Richmond PD. He's seen everything. If he says it's bad, I believe him."

Apparently, one of the girls simply refused to wear one of my turquoise ribbons to the assembly. She told her teacher that "that girl" shouldn't have been drinking with guys, and it wasn't her problem.

Cold world these children live in.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Turquoise Ribbons

Today, St. Dymphna had an assembly for the rape at Richmond High School, and about sexual assault and safety in general.

Turquoise is the awareness-ribbon color for sexual assault, at least that's what I was told over the loudspeaker earlier this week. Some sources now say teal--anyway, we believed it was turquoise, which is why the Balabusta went to Jo-Ann's yesterday and bought eight yards of turquoise acetate taffeta--they didn't have a cotton-poly blend in the right color--and today spent several hours slicing the stuff into ribbons to put on the students at the assembly. Note to self--acetate taffeta frays like a mother. Next time we have an assembly needing ribbons I will get a couple of rolls of ribbon.

Right before I rolled my class into the gym for the assembly, one of the girls asked what the ribbons were for, and I told them it was to show solidarity with the victim. One of my freshmen looked me right in the eye, and told me that what she heard was that "that girl" was seen walking around in Pinole, and didn't have a bruise on her.

"The police report tells a different story," I said, and left it there.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Those High-Rolling Lesbians

Reading David Gibson over at Politics Daily, the Balabusta comes across this theory on why Maine voted down same-sex marriage, from Anne Underwood of Catholics for Marriage Equality:

"Tourism is down, fishing is a disaster, and people who used to work in the mills in Maine don't have anything anymore," Underwood said. "When you are struggling to meet the basics, it is much more difficult to be persuaded to extend yourself into understanding justice for people who don't seem to be affected by the same economic ills that you are."

I have nothing against Anne Underwood, who seems to be a nice person, but this little snippet set my teeth on edge. Gay people in Maine who want to get married 'don't seem to be affected' by the same economic ills that struggling straight folks in Maine are? Is it really that profitable to be gay in Maine? Are there secret pockets of great lobstering that only lesbian coops know about? Let's get real. Gay Mainers are losing their jobs at the same rate as straight Mainers.

What I think Anne Underwood means is that struggling straight folks in Maine have been sold a bill of goods by the same out-of-state deep-pocketed religious groups that targeted California during the Prop 8 run-up. They've been told, among many other things, that gay people who want to get married are not their friends, their neighbors, their coworkers, they're an affluent, privileged 'other'. This is, of course, grade-A BS.

It's going to be another hard-candy Christmas in Maine as well as most of the rest of the country. Voting for the gay lobstermen in their lives to be able to marry would have been the cheapest and best early Christmas present ever. Too bad some of the electorate was convinced a bunch of rich folks with an agenda were on their side.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Here's how to do it right

Meanwhile, the Rev. Byron Williams, pastor of the Resurrection Community Church of Oakland,CA, gets it absolutely right.

He writes: The imagery conjures memories of the gruesome photos of whites gleefully posing in front of black lynched bodies. It is the sense of elation rooted in profound hatred that is beyond comprehension for most humans.

He writes: Some might suggest that had the victim not been drinking alcohol to excess, as it has been reported, none of this would have happened. Even if alcohol was consumed, since when does drinking too much justify taking someone's humanity?

And he finishes with a resounding defense of non-human kind: Someone referred to these perpetrators as animals. They are not animals. I'm confident the uncivilized acts committed at Richmond High are beneath any behavior exhibited by my dog Zeus.

Read the whole thing. This is a spectacular piece, angry, insightful and absolutely correct.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Preconceived Notions and Prepackaged Ideas

I came across this piece by Daisy Hernandez, while reading articles about the rape at Richmond High. I remember Hernandez's work from back when she was writing for Ms.--that was back when I could still read Ms.--and now she's apparentlythe managing editor of Colorlines Magazine. I have to say that as an analysis of the role of race in this horrific situation, this article completely sucks. It's full of assumptions, bizarre statements, and half-understandings. And it makes me angry.

Hernandez writes:

The gang rape of a 15-year-old at Richmond High School last weekend has shaken many of us. The details have made us shudder. We’ve refused to read the details of the assault or we’ve analyzed more than a dozen people watched and did nothing or we’ve quietly thanked women like Margarita Vargas and Atianna Gibbs who upon hearing about the rape say they called the police. More than two hours had already lapsed.

The rape has also raised the issue of race.

Not in Richmond. Online, among the unpaid commenting classes, yes, some hideously ugly racial stuff has come up, but not in Richmond, with only one exception that I can think of. And her nephew is a suspect, so she's not entirely accountable for what comes out of her mouth.

It’s hard to figure out what’s most disturbing about this video—Kami stumbling through tears and anger to make her points but ending on an enigmatic reference to Asian students or that a white student immediately jumps to the idea of checking the IDs of Latino men as the only way to feel safe or that CNN made no reference in its written report to Kami’s insistence that school security policies vary according to the skin color of students.

Here we suddenly diverge from reality. I've watched video several times, and Kami Baker makes no reference to the race of the men whose IDs she wants checked. What she accuses the school of is allowing twelve to fifteen men who couldn't prove they had any reason to be at a high school dance, to loiter outside without being challenged. That's an egregious failure of good security practice at any high school. But we do not know that those men were 'Latino'. We don't know, because Kami didn't mention it. Because it's not important. Regardless of their race, their IDs should have been checked. Hernandez seems to want it both ways here--to acknowledge Kami's accusation that systemic racism played a part in Richmond High's lousy security, but to imply that checking the IDs of men hanging around a high school dance would be racist.

Meanwhile, the school has received emails from across the nation comparing its students to animals, forcing young people of color in Richmond to defend themselves, their school and their community—precisely at a time when they are in terrible grief and shock.

“It’s stigmatizing an entire people,” say Nicholas James, director of special projects with Youth Together, an organization that develops student leaders at six sites in the Bay Area including Richmond High School. “Why can’t we see this for what it is—violence against women of color.”

Except that the victim is white, the accused perpetrators are white, black and Latino, and the school is multi-racial, so this basically means absolutely nothing, unless you're prepared to define the city of Richmond as a 'whole people'. Seriously, what does this mean?

As of Friday morning, cops had also arrested six people including teenage boys and young men. One of them is a young Black man, whose family insists he was only arrested because he is Black, prompting comments that the family is playing the race card and leaving the rest of us to wonder how much worse this is going to get before it’s over.

You know, it's pretty bad already.

This piece angers me. It's a cheap attempt by an outsider to fit prefabricated ideas about 'young people of color' over a real situation in which a young woman living in a tough neighborhood was horribly victimized because she was a woman.
Think first, write later.
Hernandez also includes this information which I cannot better:

* * *
Donations are being taken for the victim. Checks can be sent to:
Assault Victim Fund
Richmond High School
1250 23rd St.
Richmond, CA 94804

The checks should be made out to "Richmond High School Student Fund." On the memo line, write "Assault Victim Fund."

Vigil at Richmond High

Yesterday, some of the staff and students from St. Dymphna's walked over to Richmond High for a rally and candlelight vigil for the young woman who was raped and beaten on campus a week and a half ago.

The first thing I notice, of course, is that their students look just my students--young, cute, vulnerable, exasperating. Same neighborhoods, same clothes, except for our school khakis and polo shirts. They wear their hair the same way, and greet each other identically. No distance here. These are the people in our neighborhood.

Our little group was greeted, and given white cloth armbands by students and parents. We sat down on folding chairs in the late afternoon sun, and watched the rally. There were signs--"Harm 2 One Is Harm 2 All". "Never Blame The Victim". Hand-labeled, painted in bright colors.

The rally began with an Aztec ceremony conducted by one of the teachers. Speaking in English and Spanish, he explained that he would be honoring the directions--and added, as an aside, that he hoped the smudge smoke would not bother anyone, but that if you were offended, you should consider that it was less offensive than the pot smoke that had contaminated our neighborhoods for too long. As a young man blew a conch shell, he swung a smudging pot to the four directions, to the sky and the earth. Substitute a shofar, substitute a lulav--amazing how similar all these things are, stripped down to essentials.

He was followed by students who read poetry, the mayor of Richmond, the principal of the school, a coach who sang a gospel piece, and school board members. There was a dance performance. The St. Dymphna crew crept away at this point, but left behind our principal, and some students from the neighborhood who were there with their parents. The group stayed on until dark, and lit candles in the twilight.

It felt inadequate, all of it, and I think it's because of the language people are using. Everything was heavily couched in the same social justice language we in the Bay Area use for everything from solar panels to street crime, and it just fell flat, it felt stupid and inexpressive. "Sustainable social change", said one kid "speaking truth to power, demanding change" said the mayor. "Healing from violence," said everyone. The media were chided for presenting a negative image of the school. It wasn't until one of the school board members stood up that I heard a direct message to the students that they were responsible for opposing sexism, homophobia, violence. You stand up, he said, and you stand up even if you're the only one who stands up.

Thank you, Mr. Medrano. That was what I needed to hear. I could have also stood to hear "and you call the police when a crime is in progress".

It was nice to be there. It was even nicer to hear that there are now six young men charged in the case. I am so angry. I am even more worried about my students than I used to be. Bad times.

Monday, November 02, 2009

All Souls

We had a mass for All Souls at St. Dymphna's this morning. I love mass at St. Dymphna's. I wish we did it every week. It's spiritually intense to sit in our gym on the bleachers with almost six hundred teenagers, listening to the folk-rock-mass choir sing, and making the Mass come to life with kids in sneakers carrying up the gifts, and the collection going into big manila envelopes.

The kids from Campus Ministry made a bazillion little colored paper fish for people to write names of departed loved ones on, and with the fish, and some fishnet, they created some beautiful decorations. There was boat, with a mast and sail, and nets draped on the altar. Very kitschy. Very lovely.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

A Long Bad Week

Last Saturday, St. Dymphna's had our homecoming dance.

The same night, Richmond High School, a mile and a half from St. Dymphna's, also had their homecoming dance. And there was a gang rape at theirs.

Some of you are probably already following this in the news. For those of you who aren't, it's easy enough to Google.

It's been a long, bad week.