Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Voting Rights vs. Statehood

As recently as Sunday afternoon (three days ago), I would have been much more joyful about the prospect of the citizens of Washington, DC getting a vote in the House of Representatives, and very skeptical of the notion of statehood ("are you kidding me? A governor, statehouse, two senators, etc., all for one city?" I thought).

Then, along comes Mike Brown, one of the Districts two elected "Shadow senators", and within 15 minutes, there goes my worldview (again!) Here's what I quickly learned:

1. Getting a vote on the house floor will not effectively change the governmental structure of the District, nor will it give the government any more autonomy.
2. The trade-off at the house level is that Utah will be granted a new seat in the house as well, giving that state 4 seats (and almost assuredly a Republican seat knowing that Utah is, by voting record, the most Republican state in the nation).

So, while the citizens of the District will most assuredly now have a voting person in congress, the District government will be no more autonomous, and in fact could very-well be further away from that autonomy. Why? Becuase on a national level there could very much be a sense that now that there is a voting voice in the House, the District should just be quiet about any other complaints.

What other complaints could there be? Well, here's three examples:
1. This city, with its high rates of HIV, cannot establish its own policies regarding such things as needle-exchange programs (which have been proven to be effective in reducing HIV-transmission). Thankfully, last year, President Bush authorized needle-exchange for the district, but it should not come to this.
2. The district cannot tax the incomes of people who work in the district but live in Maryland and Virginia. This is the only city in the country not doing this. As the Brookings Institute pointed out, it's like a restaurant being forced to serve all-comers, but only being able to charge one-third of the clientele.
3. The federal government effectively can establish gun laws in the District, moreso than in any other city.

This lack of autonomy effects so many things, including environmental policies, water policies, education policies, and the list goes on.

This city has so many challenges - internally and externally. It is a very divided city (just sit in Starbucks in Potomac Palisades, and Starbucks by Eastern Market, and you'll see the difference - and that's just within Starbucks). It has such a long history of disenfranchisement. That history continues. So, while it seems certain that there will finally be a DC voice (1 in 436) on the House floor, and Holmes-Norton may finally get her wish, it may be the long-time citizens of the District who will continue to suffer.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A model of non-violence is detained

Over this past weekend, I heard through the facebook network that Phil Rizk, someone I had known when he was at Wheaton College, had been abducted by the Egyptian police. The circumstances surrounding Phil’s detention are still not clear, and are unfolding as I write this. Phil’s parents have gone to Cairo to be with his sister and to do what they can to get Phil released (Phil is half-Egyptian and half-German). Amnesty International has sent lawyers in to protect the family from unwarranted harassment by the police (who were apparently trying to force Phil’s father to go with them to the police station as well, and were doing illegal searches of home and office without warrants). Technology (in this case facebook) has allowed hundreds of us who know Phil to follow things minute by minute. It has been as eye-opening as it is troubling to get e-mails and updates of what is happening in the moment, as opposed to an event that is in the recent past, for example, seeing posting from Phil’s sister asking people to make calls for an immediate intervention.
I first met Phil in late 2002. He was a junior at Wheaton College, and had become actively involved in Student Global AIDS Campaign fresh on the heels of Bono’s Midwest AIDS/Poverty caravan. Phil and a fellow student, Brian Davis, were the two early leaders of SGAC on this Christian campus, and were also two of the handful of students who fairly quickly looked beyond AIDS in Africa, building relationships with local people with HIV (such as myself) and local services (such as the one I was working for). The passion, compassion, and thoughtfulness of Phil and Brian (I also need to mention John Campen here as well) opened my eyes to something I had not expected: openness, respectfulness, and a profound dedication to service and making the world a better place. All three of them continue to be models for doing what Quaker author Parker Palmer wrote about – letting one’s life speak. John remains dedicated to his love of music and his dedication to family – sharing the joys and the struggles with friends and family while addressing some of the social and corporate inequities of our world. Brian has spent much of his post-college career with his now-wife Susan in Kenya and Uganda committed to serving others, most recently opening up a cyber-cafĂ© in Uganda that is both a social and a training center for youth. He and Susan have also included me in family events both in Illinois and in Kenya, further crumbling the misperceptions I had about Christians and not just tolerance but real acceptance of sexual diversity.
But it is Phil I really want to write about. While I have kept in some contact with Brian and John over the years, I lost touch with Phil. After helping open the door for Wheaton College to get involved in HIV/AIDS work, I remember Phil spending his last winter college break in Iraq – this was after the US invasion. Phil went on a mission trip to try and bring healing and reconciliation through community-building. After that, we maybe saw each other once more before he graduated. Then, earlier this year, came across a blog written by Phil. Apparently he had been spending much of his time in the West Bank, mainly, from what I could tell, writing about the impact that the Israeli/Hamas battles were having on Palestinians. He has also done some films that are meant to simply bear witness to the day-do-day lives of people caught in the crossfire (To see more, go to It seems that it is because of some of these writings and films, and his subsequent involvement in calls for action that focused on human rights over nationalism, that he has been apprehended (he was part of a demonstration in Cairo over the weekend; all the other demonstrators were released).
For those of us who consider ourselves pacifists, I think all three of these young men are models for us, and in very different ways. John demonstrates the importance of caring for family and friends (it was John who first drew my attention to Phil’s plight), and Brian completely dedicates and immerses himself in what he does. Unlike so many people who stay in the comfort of their own homes and try to solve problems elsewhere, Brian and Susan have completely dedicated their lives to what they are doing.

Phil takes this to an entirely different level. He has gone into the heart of conflict – first Iraq, then the West Bank – not to engage in military conflict, but to intervene on behalf of human rights. A quote from the article linked above says it best about Phil’s latest movie: The other unspoken message that Rizk captures through his lens is a creed of nonviolent resistance that each of the individuals portrayed in the film have made part of their daily lives. In continuing to cultivate fields, rebuild destroyed homes and simply refusing to yield their places on the land to others, these Palestinians embody a relentless steadfastness, shunning the weapons of their adversaries that would’ve automatically allowed the world to question their moral authority had they been employed. For Rizk, showing the rootedness of nonviolent resistance in the lives of his characters was a central aim of the film. “We wanted to address the fact that violent forms of resistance, widely reported by international media outlets, overshadow more common non-violent forms of Palestinian resistance like sumoud, longsuffering and perseverance in the face of Israeli occupation,” he explained.

Military soldiers are often noted for what they are willing to die for. Each one of these men are models of what it is to commit your life to something, at great personal sacrifice and commitment. When I think about the Quaker youth that we work with, and all youth who refuse military service, I think about people like Brian, John and Phil who also do not pick up guns as service. But they also do not pick up protest signs from the comfort of a safe place. They put themselves out there. And, as we have seen over the weekend with Phil, at great peril. It is a reminder to me of what true pacifism is all about – not just standing on the sidelines in judgment, but a full-on life-and-death commitment to create a better world through non-violence no matter what the personal costs. At times over the past 7 years, they have been my inspirations to step out my comfort zone, and to really see what my commitment is to a more just world. Especially these days, perhaps we can all look to Phil as the ultimate model, and pray that he can continue to be that model.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Unjust Prejudices

The other morning, I was sitting in Meeting for Worship, and there was a man sitting doing some kind of knitting. This completely disturbed me and was something I have noticed about. It is completely against everything I believe and stand for to have the kinds of reactions that I have to men knitting. I try to really promote and live that we love and accept things as they are without judgment. Heck, as a gay man living with HIV, who am I to sit in judgment of anyone? But when it comes to men knitting, I struggle.

So, what do I do? I think I have found an answer that works for me, at least for now. Rather than try to repress my negative feelings that morning, I reveled in them. I let the vision of me going up to this complete stranger, slapping the needles out of his hands, and saying "what the heck is wrong with you?" As I did this, what I released was not a cathartic sense of my righteousness, but instead the complete absurdity of my prejudice. Am I completely over it? No way. But what is different, is I have embraced my prejudice - my emotional reactivity - for what it is, just silly and funny. I have defused its potency. I think when we deny our prejudices, the repression may come back to bite us. It's tricky business. It's not pleasant to admit we have prejudices, but we all do. Perhaps when we can learn to accept them, we can learn to dishonor them and laugh at them. At least, for me for right now, it's a way to move through it and perhaps now connect in a deeper, more meaningful way with the male knitters of the world.