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Atticus Has Left the Building

America’s white-centered historical narrative is on thin ice

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Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’

With people spray-painting rebukes on statues of John C. Calhoun and Robert E. Lee across the South, who would have thought the first icon to be pulled off his pedestal would be Atticus Finch?

Until a few days ago, Atticus was the moral pillar of fictional Maycomb, Alabama. His children are endangered when he defends a black man falsely accused of rape. He tells his tomboy daughter Scout, “You never really understand a person … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

That was in To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s beloved 1960 novel of Depression-era children encountering racial injustice. Now comes Go Set a Watchman, written in 1957 but only published this week, in which an older Atticus says, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Scout has grown into 26-year-old Jean Louise, and returns home from New York to find disillusionment.

Real people are full of contradictions. Genteel racism is harder to confront than the crude variety. In Mockingbird, when Mayella Ewell broke a taboo by kissing a black man, it was taken out on him to prove that he was lower even than poor white trash. Modern racists seldom admit to being bothered by a mixed-race president, but they act to thwart him every day.

The climax of Mockingbird is the attack on Scout and Jem, whereas Tom Robinson dies offscreen. I was struck as a child by the beauty of actor Brock Peters. Only later did I realize the injustice of his character’s requisite saintliness. In another Sixties movie, In the Heat of the Night, it was a breakthrough when Sidney Poitier slapped a white plantation owner back.

While millions fretted over Jem and Scout, real black children were being attacked, like the four little girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing in 1963. This un-romanticized reality is familiar to anyone not swathed in myths of whiteness cleansed of the supporting brutality. The whitewashing continues today: new social studies textbooks in Texas downplay the role of slavery in the Civil War and are silent on the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic, “The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”

One of my mottos as an activist is “It’s not all about you.” For whites to insist on being at the center of everyone else’s story is pathological. We are too eager to declare problems solved, like the biblical false prophets who “have misled my people by saying: Peace! when there is no peace. Instead of my people rebuilding the wall, these men come and slap on plaster.” (Ezekiel 13:10)

Removing the Confederate battle flag does not rebuild black communities destroyed by white mobs. It does not restore the lives of lynching victims. It does not repay those cheated by redlining and vote suppression. It does not bring justice to adults or children murdered by police. It does not clear away the Spanish moss from paternalistic media narratives.

Chauncey DeVega describes in Salon how America is poisoned by the toxic masculinity embraced by Dylann Roof and other mass murderers, rooted in aggrieved privilege and rape fantasies and fueled by gun manufacturers (see the ad for Bushmaster assault rifles with the tag line, “Consider your man card reissued”). Yet some people appear to be bothered more by a smartphone in the hands of social media activist DeRay Mckesson (@deray), and mock him with hashtags like #gohomederay.

Despite the noise, social media activists are exposing white supremacist violence, whether from lone wolves or police departments, and organizing to demand accountability. Others are gathering support for black and brown women filmmakers (@AFFRM). They bypass traditional industry gatekeepers. They are not bound to follow another’s blueprint. As Alice Randall writes in The Wind Done Gone, “It’s easier to live where fewer dreams are buried.”

We can live with our disillusionment. We can confront our history’s uglier ghosts even as we fondly recall fictional heroes. And we can heed our neighbors of color who have had enough martyrdom.

DeRay is not going home, and Atticus has left the building.

 

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at [email protected].

Copyright © 2015 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.

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Opinions

Pinto shepherds ‘Secure D.C.’ crime bill through Council

Republicans in Congress are closely watching measure

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D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Council member Brooke Pinto is shepherding the comprehensive crime bill, Secure D.C., through the Council. This is not easy considering some Council members are always looking to ensure we aren’t too tough on criminals, especially juveniles. In talking with Council member Pinto, she is cognizant, and reminding her fellow council members that the Republican Congress is watching this closely. 

I know Mayor Bowser is concerned about this as well. She submitted a bill, most of which is now included in the comprehensive bill, and wants to see it passed without additional amendments. On Feb. 6, the bill was passed on a first vote by the Council 12-0, with Ward 8 Council member, Trayon White, Sr., not voting. It is in his Ward most of the crime is being committed. Those living there deserve to be protected as much as those who live in Ward 3. 

As the Council now moves toward a second vote, which is needed before the mayor can sign the legislation, the plan is to do that in March. The mayor has asked that it be done sooner and that there are no more amendments weakening the bill. Once it is passed and signed, it will go to Congress for the review period and everyone is aware of what they did to the rewrite of the criminal code. Not only the Congress, but the people of the District, want a strong, tough on crime bill. People are afraid. 

Last year was a tough year for D.C. with crime running rampant in parts of the District. There were 274 homicides, a 20-year high. Carjackings were epidemic. There were 906, more than double the previous year. People are scared. A good friend recently told me it is the first time in years he looks behind himself when walking in Dupont in the evening. There was the recent shooting near the Dupont Metro on Connecticut and Q Street. The police have still not released detailed information on that. It was rumored to be a road rage incident, but the facts aren’t out. Again, people are scared, and that is not how anyone wants to live.

I am not naïve. There are many reasons one can point to for the spike in crime, including juvenile crime. The pandemic had a lot to do with that. There are young people who weren’t in school for two years, many without any supervision. Their parents were the ones out working, making a living, having to leave home to go to work. They didn’t have the option to stay home and work remotely so they could monitor what their kids were doing. Many juveniles committing crimes come from homes where there is food insecurity, and other issues impacting their lives. Clearly, we must deal with those issues if we are to change things in the long term. But the reality is we cannot wait to do that, the Council must act now. We must make those who are thinking of committing a crime understand there will be serious repercussions for what they do. 

The bill the Council is considering makes carjacking a more serious offense, as well as any crime committed with a gun. We also need to deal with the parents, or guardians, of children, like the recent 9- and 13-year-olds, who threatened a woman with a knife. Someone must be held responsible for those kids. Do they need to be removed from the situation they are now in? What is that situation? We need to involve the faith community, as well as all city resources, in this effort. However we do it, we must pass a serious crime bill that will pass muster with both the people of the District, and Congress.  

There are issues about the bill that are still being debated. One relates to drug free zones in which loiterers would be subject to arrest. Then they have removed the section that would have allowed all people arrested to be swabbed for their DNA. One issue being debated is how long one can hold both adults and youth in detention while awaiting trials. The bill would make it a felony to discharge a firearm in public, making permanent something that was put into emergency legislation last summer. 

Again, the bottom line is, for both the mayor and the Council, they must do something about crime. The debate is simply how tough to be on criminals, and what programs need to be funded that will make a difference, and make people safer. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Letter-to-the-Editor

Real Agency for Community Development helps LGBTQ Ugandans who have fled country

Yoweri Museveni signed Anti-Homosexuality Act in May 2023

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Real Agency for Community Development was established by a proactive group of people who have fled persecution due to their sexual orientation in their respective districts of origin (Isingiro, Mbarara and Ntungamo) and now live in the Nakivale refugee camp where they hoped to find greater safety and freedom.

Homosexuality, however, is illegal in Uganda and they face new challenges: Arbitrary arrests, discrimination, corrective rape, kidnapping, robbery, stigma, homophobia, harassment and bullying. RACD has identified more than 123 LGBTQ Ugandans and other refugees living in the Nakivale and Oruchinga refugee camps. The organization provides them with services depending on their unique situations.

The legal and social marginalization experienced by these people results in many violations of LGBTQ persons’ liberty and threats to their safety. 

Since the beginning of this year, we have already seen three people arbitrarily arrested for being LGBTQ. Another two LGBTQ community members were brutally attacked by a gang of 10 homophobic neighbors in Kampala. One of them had his jaw shattered and had to get a surgery to insert a metal to his jaw. HIV prevention drugs and equipment are always a necessary part of the work with LGBTQ people and female sex workers. The general economic situation in Uganda is decreasing rapidly, and LGBTQ persons suffer the most. Many members reported that they pass many days without being able to obtain any food.

Please email [email protected] for more information about RACD. Donations can also be made to RACD through this GoFundMe link.

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Are raids on LGBTQ bars making a comeback in 2024?

Public officials, law enforcement targeting members of the community

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(Photo by Jose AS Reyes/Bigstock)

There’s been a noticeable uptick in police harassment since 2023, that began with legislators proposing bills aimed at LGBTQ people. More recently police and other public officials have seemingly gone out of their way to target the LGBTQ community. This includes spaces in “red states,” like Missouri where police officers arrested the owners of Bar:PM (a leather bar in St. Louis) after they wrecked their police cruiser into it. “Blue states” however, are not immune to this — as was the case in Seattle where authorities raided The Cuff and The Seattle Eagle citing them for “lewd conduct” because of a bartender’s exposed nipple, and patrons wearing jockstraps.

As many LGBTQ activists are already aware, federal policymakers have been enacting legislation at the local and federal level targeting the LGBTQ community. Among those at the federal level is the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal in May of 2023. Endorsed by President Joe Biden, the bill is a bipartisan initiative to “protect” kids from harmful content online by placing a responsibility on online social media platforms to regulate content and services. Republicans have noted, if passed, the bill would be used to protect “minor children from the Transgender [sic] in this culture and that influence.”

While KOSA seems to have stalled, despite urging from the Biden administration to pass it, some states have begun passing their own versions of the bill — or by enforcing laws at LGBTQ venues like The Cuff in Seattle. Utah’s obscenity laws has even caused PornHub to pull out of states passing these laws, due to their vagueness.

While some may dismiss these concerns as overblown, it seems clear that it is only one part of a larger strategy aimed at curtailing LGBTQ expression. The irony is that those espousing “freedom” are the same ones passing censorship laws. This gradual ratchet effect, which began last summer by targeting children’s books and LGBTQ persons online, has now shifted into something targeting LGBTQ institutions. It’s the same rhetoric used in the 1960s—which included government produced propaganda directed at LGBTQ people painting them as a social contagion dangerous to kids. At the height of this moral panic were laws prohibiting positive depictions of LGBTQ persons, the impact of which is still being felt today through stereotypes and negative framing.  

Even in states that aren’t adding to this moral panic, KOSA has provided the framework by which states can pass vague “obscenity” laws that appear neutral, but in practice are aimed at LGBTQ people. Structural forms of discrimination also exist online as social media platforms act as determiners of what is allowable under their guidelines. In reality, moderation disproportionality impacts LGBTQ people, and especially trans women online. According to a  recent study, content moderation against trans people was roughly five times more to occur than cisgender counterparts. These facts and figures resonate with trans content creators we spoke with, like Polly People who was recently de-platformed for “inappropriate attire” — the same attire that is promoted by cisgender women on the same platform.

Whether it’s jockstrap night at the local leather bar, trans content creators trying to express themselves, or protests of expressions of sexuality at Pride or events at Folsom, we are quickly descending into an age of marginalization that many LGBTQ people haven’t experienced since before Stonewall. While some of the established forms of collective organizing and community have been forgotten or lost, new forms are emerging to fight against these laws and regulations designed to further marginalize and render invisible the lives of LGBTQ Americans.

Christopher T. Conner is assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Missouri. They are author of numerous scholarly publications, including ‘The Gayborhood: From Sexual Revolution to  Cosmopolitan Spectacle.’ Fletcher Jackson is a senior undergraduate student at the University of Missouri, Columbia in Religious Studies and are co-teaching a class in spring 2024. Their research is at the intersection of psychology, spirituality, and queer visibility.

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