Archive for January, 2011

Arizona is America

Monday, January 10th, 2011

I say this because Arizona is not the problem. We the people are the problem.

That is, we Americans who think it is cool to engage in rhetoric, political or otherwise, that encourages division, ugliness, hatred, and violence, directly or indirectly.

Over the past several years, we’ve witnessed this madness via certain television networks, tv and radio talk shows, the internet, and various rallies and protests: a climate of hatred and, yes, violence, which has been boiling, with a quickness, in our America.

This is not about left versus right political philosophies, nor Democrats versus Republicans, or progressives versus Tea Party followers, or about the wackness of Arizona, a state that once, aided by one of its senators, John McCain, refused to celebrate the Dr. King holiday after it was made a federal law (to be fair, Mr. McCain eventually backed away from that position).

Not per se.

But it is about any of us who are so politically, emotionally, and spiritually immature that the only way we know how to participate in dialogue on any issue is to scream, curse, or otherwise threaten and dehumanize each other. Or move to murder each other. Quite literally.

Add to this cruel reality show the new world order our technological revolution has birthed in the form of the social networks, and you suddenly have these spaces where an angry and misguided individual or groups of angry and misguided people can post the most anti-social pronouncements imaginable, grow an audience, and prepare, right in front of our very eyes, to unleash their rage on unsuspecting and innocent persons.

So, yes, it pains me that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at point-blank range by 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona. Painful, too, that 19 others were wounded and 6 are dead, including John M. Roll, the chief judge for the United States District Court for Arizona, and a 9-year-old girl named Christina Green.

According to Christina’s mother Roxanna Green, mother and daughter were there at that Tucson, Arizona area Safeway parking lot because her daughter was interested in government and wanted to learn how to give back to the community. A little girl full of life’s possibilities blown away by a young man mentally unstable enough to believe he could change the course of history, with a gun I am sure he was able to purchase rather easily.

As a result there will be no giving back for little Christina ever again because no one can give that child another breath. But what we can do is heed the words of Clarence Dupnik, the Pima County sheriff at a press conference:

“The anger, the hatred, the, uh, bigotry that goes on in this country, is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona has sort of become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

Well, yes, indeed, when you review, say, the horrible anti-immigration sentiments there. Plus the fact that the late Judge Roll had to accept protection from the Federal Marshals Service in 2009. This was in response to his allowing to proceed a civil rights lawsuit by a group of Mexicans against an Arizona rancher who thought it his right to stop people at gunpoint as they crossed his land, then turn them over to the Border Patrol.

Regardless of where you may fall on the issue of immigration, pointing guns at other human beings, or outright shooting them (which has occurred often in those parts), is simply not the way. Nor is threatening the life of a federal judge because you do not agree with his decision. Says that we are not quite the fair and egalitarian civilization we claim to be, at best. Says some of us are barbaric, at worst.

Beyond Arizona, nor is it acceptable for the flames of anger and venom to be blown, mightily, at those Summer 2009 townhall meetings on the pending healthcare legislation.

Nor has it been acceptable the barely masked threats against President Barack Obama, a constant stream of verbal aggression so nasty that you wonder if someone wants to do total harm to his presidency, just because—

Nor is it acceptable for Sarah Palin’s website to not merely list 20 vulnerable Democrats to target in 2010, but to have the picture of a gun crosshair displayed for each of the 20, including Congresswoman Giffords.

Nor is it acceptable for The Tea Party to condemn the Tucson shooting (while scrambling fast to state Jared Lee Loughner is not one of them) but still not have the moral courage, nor outrage, to condemn, once and for all, its own oratory, these many months of its movement, that dance right at the doorstep of political anarchy and, yes, violence.

For when we use the words and images of violence, be we on the left or those of us on the right, we invite violence right into our lives, even if it is a moderate Congressional member simply hosting an outdoor gathering to meet her voters on a weekend trip back to her district. Because once you’ve fostered, egged on, and actually kick-started a violent atmosphere and a violent mindset, there is no sacred ground in our America, and you will not be free from violence and tragedies, be it in the ghettos or in the suburbs.

And as long as there is an incredible addiction to violence in America—ranging from averting our eyes from the regular practice of domestic violence against women to our acquiescence in unnecessary wars overseas, to our love affair with violent blockbuster films and video games, to this twisted need to define our culture (especially we men and boys) through the barrel of a gun, you come to the clear-eyed conclusion that violence, as one 1960s activist put it matter of factly, is as American as apple pie.

But it does not have to be. But only if we Americans are collectively willing to be morally responsible enough, and mature enough, to engage in conversations that do not seek to hurt or destroy others, just because you may not like them or their views. In our American journey we’ve witnessed violence against Native Americans, Blacks, poor and ethnic Whites, women and girls, the handicapped and the disabled, gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals, Latino and Asian immigrants, Arabs and Muslims, Jews (it is not lost on me that Representative Giffords is the first Jewish Congressional member from the state of Arizona), and more members of the human family than we could list in this blog.

It is seemingly the preferred way, to resort to violence when we believe everything else has failed, when we feel alienated, angry, and confused, as evidenced by Jared Lee Loughner’s internet postings (as was the case with the Columbine shooters in Colorado back in the day). Or when we feel our way of life, our way of viewing the world, is threatened.

For example, when I hear some Americans say they want their country back, that they want things the way they once were, I as an African American often wonder, Want your country back for whom? And, The way things once were for whom? If we followed that logic I would be, say, my long-dead grandfather: not able to look White males or females in the eyes for fear of violent punishment; having to jump off the curb if a White person were walking in my direction; and my life reduced to work in someone else’s cotton or tobacco field, or as a source of cheap, service-oriented labor, and my life permanently imprisoned by poverty and no hope whatsoever. If that or any other brand of social injustice is not a form of violence, then I do not know what it is.

So part of this unraveling of violence in our society, too, has to do with all of us, of every race and culture and gender and faith and class and sexual orientation, having the chutzpah to talk shop about our country, mountaintops of mistakes included, both past and present. In other words, in order for us to have a future not completely defined by violence, anger, and finger-pointing, I am essentially calling for a very necessary kind of soul-searching that America needs to do before what happened to Congresswoman Giffords becomes as routine as the too-many-to-count assassinations and assassination attempts we witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s.

In our America—


The Mess at Medgar Evers College

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

“You can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea.”—MEDGAR EVERS
(NAACP Field Secretary in Mississippi murdered by Ku Klux Klan in 1963)

And, no doubt, Medgar Evers must be tossing and turning in his grave at Arlington National Cemetery this very moment. For how terrible is it that a college named in his honor is in the midst of the ugliest chapter of its long history, a history born of the sweat, and the blood, of the Civil Rights Movement?

The problem, to put it mildly, are the president and the provost of Medgar Evers College, two Black men who, by virtue of one baffling action after another, demonstrate no respect for the mission of a school built in the heart of Black Brooklyn, and who ostensibly have little to no respect for faculty and staff, nor the community that surrounds that institution. That their behavior and mindset are akin to the Southern White segregationists of the Civil Rights era who went out of their way to block, literally and symbolically, the doors of their schools rather than allow Black students in, must be something the president and provost have conveniently forgotten. That the leadership of the City University of New York, which governs all 23 of the four- and two-year schools in its system, has allowed this now very public spectacle to fester and rot begs this question: Who really cares about the mission and future of Medgar Evers College?

I mean, seriously, would this blog and the protests and pending lawsuits be necessary if we were discussing, say, John Jay College, Lehman College, or Medgar’s borough cousin, Brooklyn College?


However, we are talking about Medgar Evers College, though not technically an historically Black college in fact, but certainly so in its creation, sense of purpose, and the overwhelming numbers in terms of faculty, staff, and students. Indeed, for those who do not know, Medgar Evers College is a four-year commuter school of 7000 students nestled in what we call Central Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not only the largest of New York City’s five boroughs (with 2.5-3 million residents we would be America’s 4th most populated “city”), but Brooklyn also contains the biggest Black population in our nation (nearly 1 million people of African descent from across America, and the globe).

And the original mission of Medgar Evers College, as stated currently on its website at, was “a result of collaborative efforts by community leaders, elected officials, the Chancellor, and the Board of Trustees of The City University of New York. The College, named for the late civil rights leader, Medgar Wiley Evers (1925-1963), was established in 1969 and named in 1970, with a mandate to meet the educational and social needs of the Central Brooklyn community. The College is committed to the fulfillment of this mandate.”

Obviously someone didn’t mention this bit of history and purpose to President William Pollard or Provost Howard Johnson. Or perhaps the duo has simply not bothered to read the website during their tenure. Because in my 20 years of living in Brooklyn, and an extensive association with that school—as a community and political leader; as a writer and artist; as someone who has given numerous lectures there, and participated in more panels, conferences, and seminars than I can count, there; and as an ally and supporter with my own critiques of Medgar Evers College—never could I have imagined, when these two took over the leadership in August of 2009, such a swift and abrupt deterioration of the way the school is administered.

Immediate past president Dr. Edison O. Jackson definitely was no perfect leader, either, but you at least got the sense he genuinely loved the school and the community about the school. Conversely, at a chance encounter with President Pollard the summer of 2010, I came away thinking the man not only did not like Brooklyn (it took everything in me not to suggest he should leave if he despised it, and us Brooklynites, so much), but that Mr. Pollard was eager to do whatever he could to dismantle the inner mechanisms of Medgar Evers College, even the parts that were working just fine. It is one thing, as a leader, to put your own stamp on an enterprise you are now running, as every leader should have her or his vision on how things should be. It is quite another to give the appearance of destroying that enterprise entirely, with reckless abandon, just because you can—

Yet I am not even sure if “incompetent” is the right word to describe what is happening here. But it is abundantly clear to me, when one reviews the backgrounds of President Pollard and Provost Johnson prior to their coming to Medgar Evers College, that whoever thought these two gentlemen deserved to run a major institution for higher learning must not have seen any of the numerous articles critical of their prior escapades.

In Mr. Pollard’s case, we are talking allegations of the gross mismanagement of millions of dollars at his previous job as president of the University of the District of Columbia:

In Mr. Johnson’s case, we are talking allegations of the plagiarizing of an academic plan from Syracuse University, where he formerly worked, and which he gave to his new employer, the University of North Texas:

So is it little wonder that since the arrival of Mr. Pollard and Mr. Johnson in August 2009 we have the present mess at Medgar Evers College, including:

    1. Some very curious faculty dismissals
    2. Threats of shutting down academic centers on the campus
    3. Faculty concerns about the administration’s lack of respect for shared governance (in the past month 66 faculty members (89% of those who voted), mostly tenured, cast a vote of “no confidence” in the president and the provost)
    4. No strategic plan by the president or the provost, after one year on their jobs, on the future of Medgar Evers College
    5. The Provost eliminated the Writing Center and the Center for Teaching and Learning (what college does not have a Writing Center?)
    6. The Administration removed Carver Bank ATMs (Carver is the largest Black-owned bank in America) and replaced them with Citibank ATMs
    7. The Administration issued an eviction notice for The Center for NuLeadership; and although the proposal for formal approval of the Center under CUNY guidelines was approved before the current administration came into power, the President and Provost have refused to forward the proposal to CUNY

For a full accounting of faculty, staff, and community concerns, please check this excellent blog:

And there are many more issues, but the one that sticks out to me is the apparent attack by the Medgar Evers College administration on the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions. As was stated in a recent press release, the Center for NuLeadership “is the first and only public policy, research, training, advocacy and academic center housed in the largest urban university system in the United States, conceived, designed, and developed by formerly incarcerated professionals.”

In other words, these are not just “ex-cons” running wild at Medgar Evers College. These are individuals like Dr. Divine Pryor, formerly incarcerated person, who has turned his life around and become a valuable asset to community and academia. And I can honestly say, in my travels throughout America, to literally hundreds upon hundreds of colleges and universities, community centers and religious institutions, and jails and prisons of every kind, that I have never encountered someone who is as articulate, dynamic, and passionate in identifying ways to stop the school-to-prison pipeline so real for American ghettos as Dr. Pryor.

And if Medgar Evers College was founded with the expressed purpose of meeting “the educational and social needs of the Central Brooklyn community,” then does it not make sense to house a center that deals directly with the record numbers of Black (and Latino) males being shipped off to jail each and every year, in Brooklyn, and all the Brooklyns in America?

Not by the logic of President Pollard and Provost Johnson. Perhaps that is why these two Black males, along with CUNY central administration officials, saw nothing wrong with a December 17, 2010 late-night “raid” of NuLeadership’s offices, and the seizure of computers personally owned by Dr. Pryor and his colleague Kate Kyung Ji Rhee.

Or why the Center for NuLeadership was asked to vacate its offices by December 30th (the center had to go to court to block the eviction, temporarily).

Or why the president and the provost have refused to forward the recommendation by the college’s governing body to establish, officially, the center at Medgar Evers College.

Or why the president and the provost have blocked the Center for NuLeadership’s funds, and refused to approve a $2.4 million grant that would have given first-time non-violent offenders a second chance by sentencing them to college rather than prison.

The great sadness and irony of these two Black male administrators doing this at a college born to better the most underserved parts of Brooklyn is not lost on me. Doubly sad and ironic that we have a president of the United States (Barack Obama) and a Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) who have consistently called for innovative solutions to prepare and propel the most marginalized populations in America.

And sad and ironic, furthermore, because the City University of New York actually has a system-wide Black male initiative. But how can we seriously discuss any initiatives for Black males and not include in that conversation ideas and best practices to cease the rapid flow of Black (and Latino) men in and out of the criminal justice system?

So as we approach the annual Dr. King holiday in less than two weeks, the president and provost of Medgar Evers College and the City University of New York hierarchy find themselves with a major dilemma, bad publicity, and unnecessary and very preventable beefs, in and out of court, with Medgar Evers faculty and staff, and Brooklyn community members. As one tenured professor at Medgar Evers College said to me in an email, what is happening at the school “should be a national outrage.”

For sure, the mess at Medgar Evers College is a national outrage, and a deeply moral failing, too, especially at a time in our history when America’s inner cities require, need, demand, nonstop and pro-active solutions and remedies, and as many opportunities as possible for our communities, particularly for the young and the poor.

And wasn’t that the point of Medgar Evers College in the first place, to serve the people?