My brother died three years ago. He did not live to see marriage equality prevail, ending triumphantly in last week’s Supreme Court’s historic ruling allowing homosexuals to marry in all 50 states. He was against gay marriage on the grounds that “marriage should be between a man and a woman.” His sexual orientation was never a good fit. He died halfway out of the closet, uncomfortable being gay until the end.
If my brother was against marriage equality, it is certain that despite the ruling, millions of Americans are still homophobic. Laws are designed to change behavior, but it’s a long hard road ahead to change people’s hearts and their ideas about religion and many other long-held negative beliefs that I prefer not to innumerate.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told county clerks in the Lone Star state their religious beliefs could enable them to flout the legalizing of same-sex marriage. While adding that although some may face litigation for refusing to issue licenses to gay couples, they should take that risk anyway. Is that what the Founding Fathers meant by religious freedom? Is refusing to do your civic duty, obey the laws of the land based on your religion,” honoring the separation of church and state, a cornerstone of democracy? That concept seems to have fallen, along with good-old common sense.
In spite of Paxton and others like him, the ruling is great news — a hopeful sign that even in this age of unequal wealth and mass incarceration Civil Rights still matter in America. Nevertheless, full equality for gays marks the diminishing of a flourishing proud culture that grew magnificently during the AIDS crisis, fueled by the necessity to create a world of art, music and theater where marginalized voices could he heard.
The two front-page headlines of The New York Times, Saturday June 27, “5-4 Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage A Right Nationwide” and “Historic Day For Gay Rights But A Twinge of Loss For Gay Culture,” reveal even this amazing gain comes with a small price.
The shooting and capture of escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat is certainly very good news. Someone assumed because I volunteer in prison and I’m vocal in my sympathy to the plight of prisoners victimized by injustices in the system that I might sympathize with the escapees. I am not a left wing, head-in-the-sand idiot. These guys and thousands of others need to be locked up, some forever. The men I know in prison agree. They have families on the outside and have a vested interest in public safety.
Some reporters have glamorized the break, touting it as “brilliant” and “ingenious.” For the last week, CNN has repeatedly flashed “BREAKING NEWS” for the same not-at-all new item over and over trying to pretend it’s a new scoop when it’s the same exact event incessantly reported.
Andrew Cuomo seized the opportunity for some sensational publicity. He rushed to the prison and was photographed inspecting a hole in the pipe the two inmates crawled though. On the news, Cuomo seems excited and energized like an actor in the film The Shawshank Redemption.
Twenty-two million dollars of taxpayers’ money was spent in the chase; money that will surely come from services. Heads will roll! People, rightly and wrongly, might lose their jobs. Prisons, already difficult environments, will become even harsher. Suspicion will fall on everyone — staff, prisoners, volunteers and civilian workers.
In the long run, a toll will be taken on public safety. Ninety-seven percent of all prisoners will be released. If services are cut and prisons become worse, rehabilitation efforts, fair practices for correction officers and a myriad of other support services which may be scaled down or eliminated entirely will mitigate against efforts to prepare men to safely re-enter society.
On July 20, 2012, James Eagan Holmes killed 12 people instantly, injuring 70 more during a mass shooting inside a movie theater in Colorado. On December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members. Immediately, both “boys” were reported to be mentally deranged, which became the basis for their defense. Most white boys who commit mass murders are reported to be mentally ill.
Last week, Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man with an “unsettled personal life” and a recent history of anti-Black views, shot and killed nine people, including the senior pastor and State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney. As the story unfolds, I predict that Dylann’s defense will also be mental illness, already hinted at by the words, “unsettled past.” I hope not. If racism is a mental illness, then we need to hospitalize millions of people.
Bryan Stevenson in his book Just Mercy, sites case after case of young black kids, some as young as 13, sentenced to life without parole — a few for crimes they actually didn’t commit. These are children who were in dozens of foster-care placements by the time they were ten — victims of sexual assaults and beatings, many with mental and physical disabilities who had been condemned to “death-in-prison sentences.” They’re almost all from the South. These children had documented serious mental illnesses, schizophrenia, PTSD, bi-polar and other disorders.
Unlike James Holmes and Adam Lanza, these children of color could not afford proper lawyers and were represented by court appointees. In all cases sited in Just Mercy, their lawyers never presented mental illness as a mitigating circumstance.
If a white boy commits a heinous crime, he will be labeled “mentally ill.” If a mentally ill black boy commits a crime, he will be labeled a thug, a criminal. This is just one more of the many ways institutional racism functions in the criminal justice system.
Dominating the news
The Supreme Court ruling, the prison break and the mass shooting in the South Carolina church have dominated the news these past few weeks. The Supreme Court ruling is good news. Still, much work is still needed to change the hearts and minds of people who are homophobic, and the recent legislation can fuel the fires of prejudice as easily as it can create positive change.
While all the attention on the prison break could spark an inquiry into the problems in prisons, it could also create more problems. If driven by fear, the public takes several steps backwards, believing that tough-on-crime initiatives protect from harm, we could create more problems, spend less money on rehabilitation and sensible policies, which will spill people back into society unprepared for citizenship.
In the aftermath of the church massacre, if we take comfort in the utopian reports of love and unity among the races and neglect that often after these catastrophes is a waking up which doesn’t last, then racism — an ongoing problem requiring enormous efforts to change — could be forgotten as soon as the next sensational news event occurs.