Monday, May 5, 2014

Badass people I know [and what they're up to]: Gaby Kappes

Professor Kappes
This week in Badass People I Know [And What They’re Up To]: Gabrielle Anastasia-Forrester Kappes!

Gaby and I have been friends since the sixth grade, when we met on the playground at school in New York. In our adult lives, we’ve kept in touch through postcards and other regular reminders of mutual support and admiration. We have the kind of sacred friendship that is nurturing and timeless, entirely devoid of judgment or drama. As Gaby says, “We can call each other up at whatever time of night and talk about our Pap smear results.”

Gaby is currently a doctoral candidate in English at the City University of New York, and teaches literature at Lehman College. She’s an accomplished poet and long-distance runner, and one of the most serious thinkers I’ve ever met. She’s also a total sassbag, which is why we get along.

On being a grownup:

Shtetl Chic: How’s your new apartment?

Gaby: Everyone who comes here is like, “This is an adult apartment.”

Shtetl Chic: It is grownup. You have curtains and things that match.

Gaby: Yeah, kind of. So, you have interview questions?

Shtetl Chic: Have you always been a cat lady?

Gaby: Ha! There was that article in the Times - Did you see that a couple weeks ago? - “Oh, it’s okay to be called a cat lady these days.” Like there’s not a stigma against it.

Shtetl Chic: Was there ever a stigma?

Gaby: Right, exactly. Like, thank you, New York Times, for validating my lifestyle.

On nature, the urban experience, and learning to teach:

Gaby: I love living across from [Van Cortlandt Park] and seeing this wide expanse of the Fair Grounds, the trees surrounding it, Cemetery Hill…but I miss seeing the Hudson River every day.

Bodies of moving water just have this very calming effect and are also restorative. You’re able to clean out negative energies. If you’re hiking in the woods and you sit at the base of a tree, it’s a grounding energy force to be able to connect with the energy of the tree. It’s a very different feeling when you’re next to a pond or a lake, or when you’re on rocks or big boulders, which have a different energy too. You feel some kind of reverberation going on there.

The city is a very draining place for me, even just walking, taking the subway. Maybe it’s because I can’t tune out. On the train, everyone has their headphones in, or is reading, or whatever. Everyone is constantly putting up these shields to tune out what’s going on around them. I want to be receptive to what’s going on around me, and take it all in, and engage with it, even just observationally.
"The Quarry" by Gabrielle Kappes

Shtetl Chic: Also when you go into the city these days, you’re going to work or you’re going to school, which enriches you, but it pulls from you at the same time. It’s challenging. You go to school near Grand Central -

Gaby: It’s tourist central.

Shtetl Chic: - which is a huge transit hub in Manhattan. Then you have to enter this space that’s this quiet institute of higher education, and sit around a table and talk about the meaning of texts. Just that disparity between the spaces…

Gaby: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Teaching at Lehman College never felt like something I could just easily walk into.The way I got over that was by trying to be myself and not put on an act, which is impossible because when I enter that institution, I’m in a role and my students are in a role. It’s best to not feel like it’s a static dynamic where I’m the teacher and they’re the students, but to also think that I’m not a knowledge-holder. I don’t hold some sort of information that needs to be disseminated to them, and that they need to be receptive to.

I tell my students that it’s a learning process as much for me as it is for them, and it’s important to get your own information on your own terms. That’s a hard thing for me to even say to them, because it seems to overturn the whole dynamic of what this institution is: that you’re coming to a classroom to learn information that I’ve designed, on a syllabus that I’ve chosen.

If they take anything away from that class, I hope that they’re receptive to getting information in a way that’s important to themselves. They’re the ones deciding what they want to learn in their lives.

Shtetl Chic: Yeah, you can look at schoolwork like a mandated thing, or you can look at it like, “How can this inform my fullness as a human being?”

Gaby: I’m teaching English Lit this semester. When we were reading “Frankenstein,” I showed them a YouTube clip of Judith Butler talking about gender performance. We talked about Frankenstein’s creature - his monster - and discussed, “Is he performing his gender? Is he performing his disability? Is society constructing that?” We took it forward to the late Victorian era with “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and thought about performing disability, and whether society is constructing your physicality.

Shtetl Chic: Wow, that’s awesome!

Gaby: So we got to the point where I was like, “Why are we reading this?” And students were like, “Well, we have to.” And I’m like, “Haha…um…thank you. But why do we read literature? Why is this important as an art form in general?” It has to do with engaging with “the now.” It has to do with how to go forward with what’s been said or done politically and aesthetically in the past.

Shtetl Chic: When you’re saying that, I’m thinking about the people I work with who have documented, official diagnoses of disabilities, and who have to constantly answer to that and all the dynamics that result from that. They have to justify it and also fight against it in some spaces. Maybe these people have never read Victorian literature, but they certainly attach to that concept.

Gaby: Right. Also, there’s a burgeoning field of disability studies too, looking at literary texts and academic criticism. It’s very much engaged in the legalities of what rights do unable-bodied - or however you term them - people have, what communities are formed among them… Usually they don’t have a community, or their community is isolated and stigmatized. It’s not integrated into the everyday.

Gaby taught an urban contemporary writers course last fall in which she introduced texts from Amiri Baraka, Charles Olsen, and Sun Ra, among other unconventional thinkers:

Gaby: I was really trying to emphasize, “Let’s break out of what the canon is, and let’s read underrepresented, underexposed, marginalized writers.” And not only that, but, “Let’s go out and find a writer.”

We studied graffiti as a form of written word, art in expression. Students were going to bookstands on the streets where they lived and coming back: “Oh, here’s someone who grew up in East Harlem and wrote poetry about where he lived, and published it with a small press,” and we read that poetry. I called it the Lost and Found Project. That was really cool to try something out that’s very different and not traditional, versus assigning texts on a syllabus.

I didn’t know what we’d read; people would just bring things in and we’d read them. Then they wrote one-act plays, which were phenomenal, and we performed them. It was a really exciting class. Now with teaching the English lit class - that’s a survey course of 1,000 years - I did have to go by the books a bit there, but that’s been really fun too.

Shtetl Chic: That’s cool you can maintain your teaching philosophy for different subjects.

Gaby: I taught composition for two-and-a-half years at Lehman. That was a struggle on my end because many of these students are English as a Second Language students, and English is the language of the colonizer with all those power structures built into it. I say to them on Day One that there is no standard that I’m trying to hold everyone to, that this class is about everyone’s own personal journey through writing. Through constant revision, it’s important to find your own voice and use it as a process of self-discovery.

Otherwise people are always being told how we should think. Like the [NYC-sponsored subway art project] Poetry in Motion thing is about suppressing creativity. There’s this poem - I forget who it’s by; I think it’s on the 1 train - that’s “Be satisfied with your cup of coffee and your memory of a time when things were simpler.”

Shtetl Chic: Yeah, that is pretty much a deadening thing.

Gaby: Right, like they’re making sure there’s not going to be a riot that’s going to break out on the train.

I was at the Whitney Biennial, where they had guided tours through the art. It just seemed that because the art is obviously conceptual and difficult to describe, you have to have that immediate experience with it. A lot of it is based on your physical interaction with the space where the art is.

There’s something to be said for valuing your own self-knowledge. It’s a very personal thing, but there’s guided tours through this, which to me didn’t seem to fit. It seemed so counter to what this art was trying to promote, breaking free from certain constraints of thought patterns.

For the past few years, Gaby has been working on archival research related to the writer Kathy Acker, who is described by critics as a forerunner of the punk movement. Gaby's work will be published next year through the City University of New York's Center for the Humanities. 

Gaby: Kathy Acker was influenced by the Black Mountain poetry school and the Fluxus Network. She has a whole series of journals in the later years in which she’s reflecting on her writing process. She’s even writing about the British Romantic poets.

I got started on this research as part of a seminar project I was doing. I went to the New York Public Library Berg archives and Duke University, seeing what was there in her papers. I found these poems that she called “exercises,” which to my knowledge were never published.

I thought this was interesting because she’s not really known as being a poet. One of them was homage to Leroi Jones - Amiri Baraka - and that was mindblowing. Actually, when I was in Gloucester I asked Amiri about that. I was like, “So, Kathy Acker wrote an homage to you.” And he was like, “No shit, really?” 

Shtetl Chic: Haha you did? 

Gaby: Of course I did. And as for the fact that her poems were never published: What does it mean when the public sphere isn’t a viable vehicle for your political and aesthetic ideas? It speaks a lot to women writing in the zone of the unpublished. 

Shtetl Chic: What about your poems?

Gaby: I returned to writing poetry this past summer. I needed to do that in order to sustain the more critical writing I’ve been doing. I felt like I needed another mode to express myself creatively.

Postcards from Gaby through the years
Working in English programs at this level, people feel pigeonholed to a field or time period because on the job market, you’re going to promote yourself as an expert in one. That’s how the jobs are advertised: “We need a Victorianist.”

Shtetl Chic: To round out our collection of scholars.

Gaby: I’ve been thinking of poetry in terms of reconstructing memory and what that means…How your memory is like a cone in your mind, and what’s filtered down to you, and what’s inaccessible, and how you go back and sift through the past that you’re trying to make sense of, as it’s informing your future…

Shtetl Chic: That’s powerful stuff. Now, with new media, a lot of it is, “Here’s my ego on a page, on a webpage.” There’s very little thought, there’s very little editing, there’s very little collaboration. A lot of it is very atomized. Sitting at your computer and putting shit out there. Certainly it’s creative production, but it’s an interesting sociological concept that we’re so isolated and all we want is to seek community, but we’re doing it through these very isolated structures.

Gaby: I do think that the “social media poet” is an important thing that’s happening right now. I wrote a poem this past winter about “Missed Connections” because CraigsList is a fascinating platform. The world of reality that we’re passing through is so isolating, and you’re removing yourself once again to try to reach out to someone. I wrote a poem inhabiting a speaker who had seen someone and felt this incredible sense of isolation and loss.

Shtetl Chic: I remember one time I was dating F., and someone wrote a Missed Connection about him. He showed it to me, and I was furious, not because someone wrote that - because part of it was flattering, like, “Oh, this perfect stranger thought my partner was adorable” - but I was furious because he was looking at them. And I’m like, “You’re missing the connection with me, and I’m right in front of you!”

Gaby: Well that guy was no good. And what the posts are saying is, “There’s something about this person I just saw...I’m going to put it out there: “Did you see me too? Did you notice me too?” Every day, you come back to check to see if anyone noticed you too. There’s something very void. It’s like the want for human interaction and connection, but it’s almost doomed from the start.

Shtetl Chic: Which is maybe tragically romantic in its own way. Like, “I had this extremely fleeting experience with this person, and half of it is the potential of what it could have been,” which is not negative. There’s a certain element of bravery that goes into that, but it’s a different bravery than saying to someone on the street, “Hey, I find your presence very moving. I’d like to talk more.”

Gaby: That’s a good line.

Shtetl Chic: You can use it.

Gaby: I just recently learned the line “Have we met before?” I didn’t know that was a pickup line until the other day. I thought I had a doppelganger because I had heard it, like, once every two weeks for the past year. 

Shtetl Chic: No one’s ever said that to me. 

Gaby: Really?

Shtetl Chic: Well, not recently.

Gaby: I feel like New Orleans has their game a bit more together than the creepers here in New York.

Shtetl Chic: Well, it’s a smaller city, so the chances of you actually knowing someone are greater.

On friendship: 

Gaby: It’s really cool that even though we don’t live near each other anymore, when we do see each other, I know that it’s going to be a very nurturing and connecting experience. It’s something I always look forward to, no matter what. I really mean that. I’m always so proud and supportive of what you do.

Shtetl Chic: I’m honored that you agreed to be interviewed. You and I both get messages from different realms and different people that what we do is not important, and that’s a lie. Women often are dismissed - “You’re chatting, you’re gossiping” - but those are moments of real connection. We should lift each other up.

Gaby: When I tell people about you, I’m like, “Oh, Arielle, she’s the responsible one in our relationship.”

Shtetl Chic: I feel totally the opposite. I always think it’s hilarious when you ask me for relationship advice, because what the fuck do I know.

Gaby: Well, yeah.


Shtetl Chic: Okay.

Cheer for Gaby in the Yonkers marathon this fall, and check out more of her poetry on “Space for Breath,” a collaborative healing project pioneered by our badass high school friend Tabitha Silver.

Thank you, Gaby, for who you are and all of what you do!

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Badass people I know [and what they're up to]: Abigail DeRoberts

Not too shabby
Dear Readers, welcome to a NEW FEATURE showcasing Badass People I Know [And What They're Up To]!

Now, I haven't been great at following through on most of my NEW FEATURES, but this one is gonna be just grand.

I was telling Abigail DeRoberts, the first interviewee on this segment, that I was inspired to do a project like this because I often find myself trying to break down other people's negative self-talk, and encourage them to elevate themselves instead.

This happens a lot with women, because we are pressured to behave with humility, modesty, and subservience. For example:

Me: "Hey, Female Friend, you're great at guitar!"
Female Friend: "Nah, I'm alright."
Female Friend: [nervously] "I am great at guitar...?"

So I thought I'd interview some interesting people I know, in an effort to give them praise for who they are, and also show other people that it's cool to be proud of whatcha do!

Without further ado, here's some wisdom from my friend Abigail.

Abigail and I met in college during a study-abroad semester in Cuba. I asked Abigail to tell me about a memory she has of our friendship, and I shared one with her too:

Shtetl Chic: This one time when I was visiting you in DC, there was a bunch of us and we were trying to get up on your roof to see the National Cathedral. We went up there and we were getting our little party on. I think there were four or five of us, and it was really beautiful because it was night and the Cathedral was all lit up. And the way you got up there was you had to climb this wrought iron security door and get up on the roof, and the door is kind of swinging. And I'm a little scared of heights  - and by a little, I mean I'm scared of heights -

Abigail: Oh my G-d, you starting freaking! Wait! Wait!

Shtetl Chic: So we're up there, and then we have to get down. And I was like, "Oh my G-d, I can't get down!" Like, I can't do it. I'm gonna be stuck up here forever; they're gonna have to call the fire department. And everyone who's climbed down is like, "Come on, Ari! Let's go!" And I'm in between you and Phil - remember Phil? - And I'm on the door, holding onto the gutter, like I can't get down.

I'm distraught. I'm hyperventilating. I'm losing my grip. Phil is grabbing my leg, you're on the top like, "Ari, you can do it! Just let go with your left hand! Don't worry - you can do it! We do it all the time!" and I finally did.

And I really appreciate that you did not make fun of me! You were just like, "Let's just get you down from here." And thank you for that, because I was really embarrassed after that, but in the moment I was really scared.

Abigail: Well, I knew that you could do it, and you did a great job.

Shtetl Chic: You totally helped me.

Abigail: Well, you did a great job and it was such a fun time. Ummm, I was trying to think of a memory from Cuba. I remember I was really glad when you got there because there were definitely no radical people with intersectional anti-capitalist analysis of the wackness of the world, which really surprised me because I was thinking, "Who's the kind of people who want to go to Cuba?" and there was no one there. So I was really relieved when you came. I was like, "I don't care that she's a socialist. At least she's a feminist and she gets it." And I was so glad that you were there.

Shtetl Chic: And I remember meeting you. You were telling us about some patriarchal bullshit that had interrupted the flow of your day, and everyone was like, "Come on, Abby, you know that stuff happens here," and I was like, "No, that is not acceptable!" And that's when we became friends.

Abigail: Word. 

On queer farming, "queer issues," and the power of collective organizing:

Shtetl Chic: Have you listened to any music today? I listened to a song to get in the mood to interview you.

Abigail: I haven't listened to any music today.

Shtetl Chic: Okay, well I'll tell you about my song, because it's really good. It's called "Limp Wrist and a Steady Hand" by My Gay Banjo.

Abigail: What do they talk about?
Abby & me

Shtetl Chic: They talk about how cool it is to be gay, pretty much.

Abigail: It is cool to be gay. It's like a club that we are lucky to be part of.

Shtetl Chic: I agree. So I actually went to their concert. They came to New Orleans like two months ago. And they had screened this movie about queer farmers before they played, which I thought was really interesting. I was just watching it, thinking, What's so queer about farming? And I thought, Oh, it's queer because not a lot of people farm, and our food sources - we're not connected to them - so it is a queer idea to get back to that. Like unusual, and out of the ordinary, so of course queer people would do that.

Abigail: And queer people are oftentimes forced to fend for themselves and take care of themselves and ensure their own sustainability and livelihood, and I feel like growing your own food is one way of doing that.

Shtetl Chic: When I think about how queer people are asked to justify their presence in spaces or in movements - to have to point that out, and insert queer people in that dialogue, to show that we also are thoughtful residents of the communities that we live in - that I see as the main struggle, you know, being at once apart and part of.

Abigail: That reminds me of a story I read about how in California they're thinking of building a prison just for trans people. Some people are like, "Oh yeah, that's great because they won't face harassment and violence in prison."

But of course the problem is that trans people - especially trans people of color - are criminalized just for being who they are. People and police see them as criminals, drug dealers, as sex workers. For poor people of color, the thinking is, "You really have to keep an eye on them; they're bound to do something wrong." That's what fills prisons up with queer people and trans people in the first place.

Building a prison just for trans people is not something we want to do, because we don't want people to be in prison in the first place. It's complicated to explain to people who don't already understand, because those people aren't going to be targeted from Day Zero as people who are going to have to end up in jail, like a lot of trans and queer people are.

And as for asking queer people to explain all that, and have to answer to "the queer experience," or "the trans experience," it's forcing people to justify their existence, which is totally wack. But we live in a world created for straight white dudes, and anyone who's not that, basically has to justify it, which is wack. Wack!

Shtetl Chic: So you're fighting the wackitude.

Abigail: Trying!

Shtetl Chic: Yeah, it's not a one-person struggle, so it's good you have people around you who are moving with you on that.

Abigail:  Yeah, totally! When I think about that, I think about all the projects I wouldn't have energy to do if I didn't do them with others. I have a wonderful partner, and friends, and a cool communal house. I feel really fortunate to have the people around me that I do.

In DC, I really have created a specific community of people who are really awesome and really wonderful. I can work on these cool projects with all kinds of different people, and we can bring our unique qualities to the work that we do. I am fortunate.

Abigail has been a member of Washington, DC's Latino Media Collective for the past seven years. She produces an audio-blog called La Palabra, in which she interviews people about issues that affect their communities.

Abigail: Radio and audio stories are really powerful for people. They can say whatever they believe. When you do video, people are totally worried about how they look, and that can affect the ways their interviews come out.

The purpose of La Palabra is to highlight and give a voice to stories of what's going on for DC residents. The news out of DC is a lot of political bullshit, but that is so far removed from the everyday lives of DC residents. A lot of the government doesn't listen to these people's stories anyway. It's really hard for a regular DC resident.

I try to highlight queer and transgender issues for the show. Queer and trans people are an important part of the fabric of DC. There are a lot of awesome queer people just doing what they do and being who they are. We try to highlight issues that are going on, and also important organizing that's going on in the trans community, like with Casa Ruby.

Abigail edits a fashion and style blog called Diva City, which showcases people in DC discussing their outfits and personal politics:

Abigail: I love Diva City, and I think it's important, but sometimes it really bums me out that any Diva City post I do will get a million more views than any hard-hitting journalism or crucial coverage of local issues that nobody else is covering. It shows that people are less interested in the sad stuff, which is a bummer, but a total reality.

Me & Abby in New Orleans (2011)
I do think that a fashion and style blog - having people talk about their own personal style experience with a queer perspective, highlighting people of color, highlighting people who are from DC and have DC style - is an important project because people love fashion. It's a great way to connect with people, and show your self-expression. Your own cultural background comes into your style.

A style blog can seem superficial, but you can get deep with people who have a really good analysis of their own personal style, of the fashion industry, of body-positivity, and dressing in ways that make you feel good.

Shtetl Chic: You're using that platform of your website to elevate people who are just people, and look like what they look like, and who are really snazzy dressers, and want to talk about how they picked out their outfit, and what's going on for them that day. I feel like that's actually really hard-hitting journalism in and of itself.

Abigail: It is cool because people do seem to find it pretty empowering. People love being a diva and working it for the camera. They really do open up. Especially people who put care into the way they look, and enjoy that, and view it as a form of self-expression. I think everyone has it in them to work it for the camera.

If you're in DC, check out Abigail's musical projects: the queer/trans punkrock band Gay Lover; the collaboratively DJ'd queer Latin dance party "Frikitona"; and the (currently on sabbatical) hip-hop duo Queer Pressure.

Thank you, Abigail, for who you are and all of what you do!

Interview has been condensed and edited.

"Get off my property," says owner of New Orleans public park

Following my parklet review last week, I had the following email exchange with either the Bywater Neighborhood Association (BNA) or St. Claude Main Street (SCMS), two entities which seem to operate in tandem.

[My confusion was fostered by the BNA's forwarding me SCMS's email to my neighbor, in response to his initial letter of inquiry regarding parklet maintenance. Then the SCMS president emailed me back, CC'ing a number of unidentified people. I wasn't really sure who all was involved in this correspondence, but it fits the history of SCMS' holding secret meetings about the parklet.]

Anyway, here are the emails:

SCMS to my neighbors: You're welcome for the parklet!

Me to SCMS: Again, wtf parklet?

SCMS to Arielle: La la la la

Me to SCMS: I can tell you don't like me & also that you're full of shit

Neighbor to SCMS: Wait, why do we need to fix your mess?

Chris and I haven't received any responses to our last emails.

As it turns out, the reason why nobody's been to the parklet since the police raid is because a good number of people is now banned from it:

Three cop cars responded within minutes after a neighbor called the police on a drunken fight at the parklet last Tuesday (which is crazy, considering it took over 40 minutes for them to respond to a car crash I witnessed in the middle of St. Claude at Congress this afternoon!).

At the parklet, officers detained several people and ran their names through a warrant check.

I talked to one guy who went to court last week over the incident; he told me that 12 of his friends were issued citations and stay-away orders from the premises.

He reported that on Tuesday afternoon, Maurice had encouraged the group to enjoy the parklet, even thanking one person for clearing out some debris from the lot. However, when the police materialized several minutes later, Maurice was heard telling the officers that the people were trespassing on his private property.

So which is it, St. Claude Main Street? Public park or vanity real estate project?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Wtf parklet, St. Claude Main Street

My ordinarily quiet block has been hopping lately, following the completion of our very own St. Claude Main Street parklet. Plenty of people have been using it, which would be great if they weren't also being super screamy late at night and leaving garbage all over the place.

Depending on whom you ask - and as of Tuesday night, this includes the NOPD officers who "detained" several parklet visitors - there is a lively little drug trade on the corner as well.

What is the plan, indeed

My neighbors have written a letter [pictured] addressed to St. Claude Main Street (SCMS), the Bywater Neighborhood Association, lot owner and SCMS Board member Maurice Slaughter, City Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, and incoming City Councilmember Nadine Ramsey.

In it, they ask for more information about parklet maintenance, specifically concerning trash collection, noise control, and the curious aesthetic of the space [pictured].

wtf parklet
wtf parklet2

DIY parklet sewer cover

My neighbor whose house directly abuts the parklet has told me that he resents the space being developed in a way that's so out of touch with how the block actually functions.

He used to spend time every week picking up stray litter from the lot, but now he says he feels unmotivated to do so:

"There's no trash can. Am I supposed to pick up all that trash? Who's supposed to take care of this property? I thought those people [$275,000 ArtPlace grant recipient SCMS] got money to take care of things like that."

He also shared concerns about the safety of the children who visit the parklet, which opens right onto heavily trafficked St. Claude Avenue: "Kids running into the street...It's dangerous."

Really - and I hate to have to keep repeating myself on this count - if SCMS wanted to invest in neighborhood improvement on our block, they might add a street lamp to the parklet (or really anywhere). They might cover that sewer once and for all. They might add a little kiddie fence so children don't run out onto State Highway 46, aka St. Claude Avenue. They might fill in our block's new giant ass pothole [pictured].

Giant ass pothole

They might tell their beloved Board member - and Virginia resident - Maurice Slaughter to stop collecting properties in the Bywater by aggressively hounding my neighbors to sell their houses to him:

Over the past six months, two separate property owners on the block have experienced, in their words, "harassment" when Maurice dug up their tax records and attempted to coerce them into abandoning their properties.

I object to this sort of development, not only because it's sleazy but because it totally squashes the autonomy of a neighborhood to exist and grow on its own terms.

For example, some of us like the idea of the parklet; some of us feel like it's completely uninviting and stupid. Many of us don't want increased police surveillance of our block, and none of us want a space that's unsafe for children. Currently, however, we feel unable to exercise control over any of these factors.

As my neighbors reminded SCMS in their letter, we gave input during the completely opaque planning process for the parklet. We gave feedback to the developers, and we are dealing with the condescension and disregard that followed.
We're now playing catch-up with someone else's harebrained idea of community development, and I really hope things don't get worse on the block before they get better.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

What it means to march for LGBTQ rights

Pre-march pep talk: What do we want? Everything!
 Last night, two different LGBTQ-rights marches took place in New Orleans.

The first was a group of mainly middle-aged white gay men who carried signs advocating increased enforcement of hate crimes statutes.

I joined the second group, composed mostly of younger people with different genders, sexual orientations, and races who chanted slogans like "Build communities, not jails!" and "Hey hey, ho ho, the police state has got to go!"

As we gathered on Rampart and St. Ann, across the street from the first group, a reporter approached and asked why we felt the need to have our own separate event:

- "Are y'all here for the counter-protest?"
- "We're here for the well-being of queer folks in New Orleans."
- "Why are there two protests?"
- "We have different ideas about how to get there. We want actual safety. They're calling for increased police surveillance."
- "So are you protesting them?"
- "We're hoping they'll join us."

The marches began quietly, ours about two blocks behind the other. Winding through the French Quarter, our group doubled in size with the arrival of dancing, hula-hooping, and bicycle-riding allies.

Clusters of observers waved supportively to both marches. One man asked me why we didn't join forces with the first bunch, given how vulnerable queer people are to violence in New Orleans. I reminded him that violence comes in many forms, including those perpetrated by structures of law enforcement.

 - "So they're for the police, and you're against the police?"

 - "Well, they think that police are going to make it safer for queer people, and we think there's other things that promote wellness and self-determination."
 - "Such as?"
 - "Access to healthcare, childcare, employment, and fair housing. The police not targeting queer youth of color for stop-and-frisk."
 - "Yeah, but what about the criminals beating up gay people for being gay?"
 - "We're against that too, but throwing more people in jail isn't going to heal us or prevent it from happening again."

The first march ended at Lafitte's, where we called out a concilliatory message of "Freedom for all!"

Despite the perceived lack of cohesion, our march accomplished an important goal of bringing together people working in solidarity towards safer streets and stronger communities.

We are concerned about white gay men getting beat up by ignorant homophobes; we are also concerned about transgender youth of color being groped by over-eager cops searching for evidence of criminality. We are concerned about the role of politics in creating more opportunities for people to be incarcerated, such as through hate crimes legislation. We are concerned that our communities' needs are not being met. We are committed to having our marches and our movement, and we do continue to hope that everyone will join us.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Collaborative Statement in regards to the police "protection" at the New Orleans LGBT March Against Hate and Violence

A protest against LGBTQ hate crimes is scheduled for tonight in New Orleans. Organizers have decided to invite police officers to march with them, to promote their vision for LGBTQ safety.

A counter-protest is also being planned, by a perhaps unexpected group: Queer people and their allies who believe that police are actually responsible for much of the violence perpetrated against LGBTQ communities. This group - which includes me - believes that safety and wellness of any community can be best promoted through self-determination, as opposed to surveillance, targeting, and incarceration.

Below is the counter-protest statement.

* * * *

Collaborative Statement in regards to the police "protection" at The LGBT March Against Hate and Violence

Who do you protect / Who do you serve
As members of the LGBTQ community in New Orleans, we support the safety and well-being of our community and of all New Orleanians. We believe that increased police presence and the continuing expansion of the prison-industrial complex[1] is not the way to make our community safer.

The LGB...T March and Rally Against Violence to be held Wednesday, April 2 calls for strategies that put our community members at more risk, not less. From Compton's Cafeteria riots and the Stonewall Rebellion in the 1960s to the work of contemporary groups such as INCITE!: Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color* Against Violence, Critical Resistance, Women with a Vision, BreakOUT!, and Black & Pink, LGBTQ people have taken stands against police violence and harassment. Increasing police involvement in our community threatens the safety of many of us.

We ask that the goals of your march be changed to call for real safety for all of us through solidarity, rather than false solutions of policing and jails. We are also calling for dialogue with the march organizers and the wider LGBTQ community.

Policing, surveillance, and imprisonment target specific groups of people: people of color, transgender, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people, street youth, and sex workers. The state of Louisiana still has a "Crime Against Nature" law on the books, and this law is still used against the LGBTQ community, including in Baton Rouge where police were found to be using this law to target gay men. In New Orleans, 82 people have been charged with "Solicitation of a Crime Against Nature" in the last two years, resulting in a felony conviction with required sex offender registration. This law, which unjustly criminalized in large numbers low-income Black women and transgender women of color, was challenged by Women With a Vision and the Center for Constitutional Rights, who won a victory in 2012 that removed approximately 700 individuals from the sex-offender registry.

A 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that in our schools, LGBTQ youth are more likely to be suspended, arrested and imprisoned. The report published by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Locked Up & Out: LGBTQ Youth and Louisiana’s Juvenile Justice System, shares the stories of what happened to many of these young people in Louisiana.

A 2012 study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that transgender individuals experience three times as much police violence as non-transgender individuals, and those numbers are even higher for transgender people of color. In New Orleans, organizations such as BreakOUT! and Women With A Vision have documented patterns of discrimination from the NOPD against the LGBTQ community, including rampant police profiling and threats of using condoms as evidence of prostitution, especially against transgender women of color.

Here in New Orleans, the US Department of Justice found that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has discriminatory practices against the LGBTQ community and specifically addressed these issues in the Federal Consent Decree. This followed organizing by LGBTQ youth of BreakOUT! in their campaign, “We Deserve Better.” The campaign also resulted in the adoption of Policy 402 on the 44th Anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which prohibits the profiling of people on the basis of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. These victories only came after years of grassroots organizing by LGBTQ youth, and yet with continued police harassment, much more remains to be done.

Our home is the incarceration capital of the world. One in 86 adult Louisiana residents is in prison. Approximately 5,000 African-American men from New Orleans are in state prisons, compared to 400 white men. Our city jail, Orleans Parish Prison, is a site of rape and violence that a Human Rights Watch report called "a nightmare" for LGBTQ individuals. Incarceration has not made us safer as a community— and in fact does not deter crime. When our community members are locked away, it tears at the social fabric that holds our community together. Children grow up without parents at home, lovers long for their partners, and groups miss their members.

Policing and incarceration is also a tool of gentrification and displacement, adding to a hostile environment for working class African-American residents still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. We can look to the examples of the controversies in Chicago's Boys Town neighborhood and New York City's West Village. In Boys Town, perceived increase in violence led to white gay men calling for more police patrols, and in doing so the LGBTQ youth of color who hung out near the community center in the neighborhood were unfairly targeted by the increased police.[2] That effort did not support the unity of the LGBTQ community. A similar situation evolved in the West Village in New York City, where residents, many of whom were white, affluent gay men, responding to incidents of violence, pushed for Quality of Life policies. FIERCE, an LGBTQ youth of color organization, has campaigned against these policies, stating: "To this day, LGBTQ youth who go to the pier have reported sharp increases in police harassment, false arrest and racial and gender profiling - usually for just being in the neighborhood.[...]This emphasis on policing drew massive resources from other social services and education that have the potential to actually address poverty and safety. In fact, under Guiliani and continuing through the years of the Bloomberg administration, the only 'public service' that increased funding was 'criminal justice.'"[3]

Here in New Orleans, we've already begun to see the impact of massive gentrification projects on low-income LGBTQ communities of color. The targeting of transgender women on Tulane Avenue by the NOPD continues to put some of our city's most vulnerable populations at even greater risk for violence and danger. For many LGBTQ communities of color, increased policing and increased use of surveillance equipment means increased risk of harm.

Supporting each other in the face of violence does not have to take the form of reporting to police. Community safety comes from solidarity and liberation. It comes from ensuring that all people have access to basic necessities such as food, shelter, employment, and education. We hope that through dialogue we can address concerns of all members of our community and arrive at empowering solutions together.

Signed (in no particular order),

Women With A Vision (WWAV)
Critical Resistance - New Orleans
Safe Streets Strong Communities
Black & Pink - New Orleans
Equality Louisiana
Trystereo - New Orleans Harm Reduction Network

[1]Prison Industrial Complex – The prison industrial complex is a system of control. It is the prisons and jails and detention centers- the concrete and steel buildings that warehouse people. The prison industrial complex is also how the government and companies work together to control, punish, and torture poor communities and communities of color. This includes the police. And immigration enforcement. And courts. And how the news and movies show “criminals.” And cameras in communities. And companies making money on prison phone calls. And how schools are set up to fail us. And many others ways that take power away from many, and keep it with those at the top. (Adapted from Critical Resistance)

[2]See "The Battle in Boys Town":

For the counter-protest:

[3]See FIERCE Campaigns: More
people everywhere!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Punk Jews

"Convention is constricting"
Last night I had the opportunity to watch Punk Jews, a documentary about just that: In the filmmakers' words, "An emerging movement of committed Jews who are asking...what it means to be Jewish."

Though I would say that Judaism has always functioned as such a movement, this film is excellent in portraying many fascinating elements of Jewish identity, including contortionist art, punk-rock and rap music, sexual assault survival, racism, all-night parties, and Yiddish theatre revival. While not overtly Zionist, it touches on the Jewish-American connection to Israel as a metaphor for the conflicted nature of communal and individualistic self-awareness among modern Jews.

Jewish punkness is represented in the movie as a kind of rebellious spirituality. It is not so much anti-institutional or defiant of conventional Jewish norms as it is fiercely present:

For the love of an audience, the Yoga Yente dresses in a bathrobe and headscarf to perform human pretzel routines;

The writer MaNishtana - Hebrew for "What is different?" or "What has changed?" - muses over his Blackness being at once integral and inconsequential to his identity as a Jewish person;

Kal Holczle leverages the collective power of mothers to confront his insular Hasidic community around allegations of covered-up child abuse;

The Sukkos Mob pays homage to traditional Yiddish theatre by bringing religious-themed flash mobs to the commons of New York City;

among other profiled examples.

I was glad to see this film, as it reignited my appreciation for the weirdness of Judaism: its inconsistencies both beautiful and problematic, its braided approaches to truth and self-reflection, and all the people of the world who claim it as their heritage.

For anyone wishing to explore their ties to social groups, whether religious or not, I would recommend Punk Jews. Playful and sincere, the film showcases people who, guided by their love for something larger than themselves, use creativity to navigate a confusing world. Punk at its best.