Genocide, the Border, and Water

Water station operated and maintained in the Sonoran Desert by Human Borders.
Pima County, Arizona.

Genocide and water.

Thinking about aspects of genocide and efforts to eliminate groups of people who get in the way of governments and their ambitions. 

An important but hidden issue behind NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] was that displacing indigenous groups in Mexico would open up access to aquifers under their lands. 

One of the ways of controlling those then displaced people attempting to go North, by design, was and remains funneling those people into the Sonoran Desert, an area notably devoid of water. 

Attempting to aid the displaced people by putting out water for them is a crime in some areas but not in others.

The Sonoran Desert has become a vast cemetery for those displaced persons who had no access to water. 

On the last and most important day of Passover, Jesus stood up in the Temple and shouted, “Come over to me and I will give you living water!” Even the Temple police began to desert, joining Jesus.

The Pharisees, who were collaborating with Rome, began to quake.

Why Good News Is Not Fake News


This is the Greek way of presenting what is translated into English as “Good News”. The word embodies the idea that there is a messenger bringing news. Good News is news is news that is reliable, accurate, and tells the listener something he/she needs to know. It embodies the idea of something which has just happened—that which is news in the newspaper or nightly news sense.

There is not much in the gospels—the good news—which is cheery or light hearted. It is often troubling news which challenges understanding, which challenges predominant narratives. Good news is a contrast to the fake news spouted by Empire. My thinking is that good news, reliable news whether cheery or disturbing, gospel news, the news one needs to hear and understand is losing out to fake news. I’m talking about the fake news of news media whether of Fox News or the New York Times. I’m talking about conspiracy theory news and magical thinking news.

I think we Americans are in pretty deep. I think that despite our veneer of Christianity, we can no longer distinguish between gospel, i.e. reliable, truth telling news and conspiracy theories or magical thinking.

Asking Mr. Jones To Save Us From Whitey

From Guest Contributor, Majadi Baruti



Majadi Baruti

When he asked, “What happened to BLACK Liberation Revolution?”

I answered with unintended but pregnant verse . . .

It became the insanity of youtube videos and

womanizing men who get paid to speak publicly in cities at


kwanzaa events and bring

the same information every year. It became

people who refuse to read,

people who disrespect Black Women as if their part of our struggle is somehow


It became I-phone sickness and lack of engagement, it became

alleged Black Panther presentation at Super Bowl events

it became presidents and mumble rap,

it is firmly locked in the erroneous belief that we need to and can rebuild


to its greatness.

It is a dance by some girl named

nae nae

it is black beauty supply products being black owned and then sold to koreans,

black liberation revolution is a marxist black family who never read marx and has completely ignored

Angela Y Davis, Claudia Jones.

it went the way of quiet talks in black barbershops that suddenly turns to

discussions of black hoes and bitches after a sister drops her son off for a haircut she could barely afford because daddy shitted on her child support,

it went the way of facebook activism, and is tucked and hidden colors hidden by

ankhs and allegations

that the sisters should follow black men that

have no,

want no

and ask no direction,

it is soft when she needed an erection not an election,

when we gave her an infection when she asked for

an insurrection. It is whips and ripped souls, no aims and no goals

BLACK liberation revolution is a pair of kneepads

asking Mr. Jones to save us from whitey

Majadi Baruti, December 15, 2017, Birmingham, Alabama

Twelve Songs of Dignity



No more manager scenes. Resistance this time.

i. John of Patmos understood. In his apocalyptic vision he saw a great sign in heaven—a Woman clothed with the sun, her womb struggling to bring forth new life, who so antagonizes the Powers (Powers, represented by a Dragon, which deceive) that they sweep to earth a third of the stars. The Woman flees to a plot of land which is prepared to nourish her for a time and times and half a time —1,260 days!

ii. Orishas are Yoruban deities. Some of them crossed the Atlantic on slave ships. One of them, Oya, is an Orisha of winds, violent storms, lightning, birth, and death. Named for a river in Niger which has nine tributaries, she has been torn by the nine children she bore.

iii. An apocalypse is the full revelation of the knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge so well articulated and widespread that it necessarily brings with it the destruction of the present age.

iv. Dynamite Hill was the nickname given to Center Street, the site of multiple drive by bombings in Birmingham, Alabama which itself was known by the sobriquet “Bombingham”. Between the 1940s and 1960s, there were some forty bombings in a city known for the viciousness of its segregationist sentiments and practices.

Center Street marked the residential color line running through the area of Birmingham known as Smithfield. Whites claimed the land to the west. Blacks were consigned to the land to the east. At the top of the hill, prosperous middle class Blacks steadily chipped away at the boundary as zoning laws were successfully challenged. As it chipped away, occupying White land, the Ku Klux Klan pushed back with fires, gun shots in the night, and dynamite.

Theodora Shores, the wife of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores, once found a case of dynamite in her garden. Her home was a frequent target of mob violence which led to a Shores family ritual: hit the floor and crawl to safety.

The frequency of fires and bombs prompted a neighborhood group called the Dynamite Hill Defenders, a rifle patrol, to defend their properties from attack.

v. Mary, her son, Jesus, growing in her womb, sang a resistance song about bringing down the powerful from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things. So dangerous was she that she had to flee to the hill country of Judea. When her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who also was pregnant, heard Mary’s approach, she cried out loudly, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth’s own child leaped within her womb.

vi. Susan Diane Mitchell has borne nine children all of whom survive. She lives now on Center Street and 11th Court North. Inspired by Dynamite Hill’s legacy of resistance, courage, and self-determination, its community spirit, and the sight of revolutionary Angela Davis’s former home across the way, in 2015 Mitchell initiated the Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust with support from the Magic City Agriculture Project. The Project emphasizes democratic decision making in the development of sustainable, cooperative agriculture. Mitchell and her beloved partner, Rev. Majadi Baruti, find spiritual nourishment in remembering the Black Goddess.

vii. The Black Goddess bears a resemblance to the Virgin of Guadalupe who is a representation of the Woman who fought the Dragon. Clothed with the sun and with stars on her cloak, she stands on the moon, pregnant. Known in Mexico now as the Queen of the Americas, the madonna first appeared to an indigenous man near Tepeyac sometime after the Conquest. The Spanish had destroyed a temple to the Aztec’s mother goddess, replacing it with a chapel dedicated to their European goddess, Mary. But resistant indigenous people knew she was, in fact, Tonantzin.

viii. In 2014, Birmingham had been chosen as the site of the 2021 World Games. With tax incentives, the choice accelerated the development of Downtown Birmingham. For residents of the Smithfield Community, the first community west of Interstate 65 and Downtown Birmingham, “development” is a euphemism for “gentrification” or the displacement of the low and moderate income residents who already lived there.

ix. Susan Mitchell and Majadi Baruti have a home in Smithfield. In the land around the house, they grow food to eat, sell, give away, or barter. A registered urban farm, they named it Ua Mer which means Beloved Water. The name was chosen in solidarity with the millions of women around the world have no access to clean, nourishing water.

The Land Trust Susan established is part of a plan to provide access to affordable housing and sustainable agriculture in the five predominantly African American Smithfield neighborhoods through a process of land adoption. A cooperative, the idea is that the Trust will own the land but individual families will have access to their own plot. There, they will give back to Mother Earth more than they receive.

For Susan, the Trust is an act of resistance and remembrance.* Her resistance is not only to gentrification, but it is resistance to the toxicity of living on earth in the present age. She dreams of creating small villages where people live communally, share what they have, acknowledge the indigeneity of land, and where they can have a home to care for.

The Trust is also an act of remembrance of a time before patriarchy, before large scale agriculture, and before capitalism when land was not owned but was worked by women. Susan remembers the time before the Garden spoken of in Genesis.

x. The Black Goddess whom Susan and Majadi remember is the crystallization of this long ago time when the black or brown or red earth was our Mother whose womb provided home and hearth, living waters, clean food, and safety.

xi. In an act of resistance, members of indigenous communities all across Colombia marched to demand the country’s leaders adhere to the terms of a peace agreement. They said, each and every one with the red and green flag held high, with pain and anger for their fallen comrades at the hands of the government for the sole reason of defending their territories, the platform of struggle and the principles of unity, land, culture, and autonomy called them to defend life, Mother Earth, and every being that inhabits it. They called each and every indigenous in one voice to sing a single song of dignity.

xii. So angry was the Dragon with the Woman that it tried to drown her but the earth came to her rescue, opened up its mouth, and swallowed the river pouring from the mouth of the Dragon.

*Many thanks to Susan Diane Mitchell for explaining what the Black Goddess, Ua Mer farm, and the Land Trust mean to her, in a phone conversation, October 31, 2017.

Ellin Sterne Jimmerson

To Those Who Were Ever Oppressed: Time to Pay it Forward



The time has come to pay it forward.

Those of us who were ever poor white, African American, Asian American, Middle Eastern American, German American, Irish American, indigenous from anywhere, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Pentecostal, atheist, LGBTQ, or a woman

and someone who was not poor white, African American, Asian American, Middle Eastern American, German American, Irish American, indigenous from anywhere, LGBTQ, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Pentecostal, atheist, a day laborer, or a woman actively worked to change the system which was oppressing us:

it is time for us to try to change the system which is oppressing undocumented people and others today.

#Resist #JusticeNotDeals #Not1More

Render Unto Caesar: Would Jesus Salute the Flag? Would He Stand for the National Anthem?


With my questions, of course I am referencing Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem prior to San Francisco 49ers’ football games. As the quarterback has explained to NFL Media,

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. . . . To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

As an ordained Baptist minister, I applaud Kaepernick’s decision not to look the other way when minority Americans are suffering from police killings which are going unpunished and from other types of systemic abuse. His decision has also raised these Jesus questions in my mind. The answer, at least in part, to the Jesus questions turns on my understanding of who Jesus was. It also turns on my understanding of what the Roman Empire was. My overall conclusion is that Jesus, in the tradition of the Prophets, was at odds with the Roman Empire. His religious commitment could not be separated from his political and economic commitments – drawing a distinction between the Caesar who dealt in death for minorities within the Empire and God who dealt in life for them.

The Jesus questions raised by Kaepernick are rhetorical and the answers hypothetical. They also are anachronistic making it impossible to draw true parallels. For example, Niners’ coach, Chip Kelly, noted Kaepernick’s rights as a citizen of the United States. Kelly told reporters afterwards that Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the national anthem was “his right as a citizen”.

Jesus, by contrast, had no such right. He was not a citizen of the Roman Empire. He was not a Roman. He was a Jew and as such part of a religio licita, a permitted religion.

Jews, as were members of other ancient religions within the Empire, were allowed to exist as a people as long as they agreed to the Empire’s terms.

The primary expectation of the Empire was that Jews not be subversive and that they not offend the Emperor, the Roman people, or the Roman gods. The Temple, by the same token, was expected to maintain order among the Jews and, to some extent, aid in protecting Rome’s national security state from them.

When I posed the question recently of whether Jesus would have saluted the flag or stood for the national anthem, a number of people referenced Jesus having said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”. Does that not indicate that Jesus acknowledged separate realms over which Caesar was due commitment while God was due commitment in another realm? Does that not indicate that he would have saluted and would have stood?


Titian, The Tribute Money

This is what I think. Jesus said what he did in response to a question posed to him by some Pharisees and followers of Herod: “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Asking them to bring him a denarius, Jesus responded by asking them, “whose face and whose title is on the coin?” The obvious answer is that they were Caesar’s. Then he remarked, in what I understand to have been a double entendre: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are Gods.” By which I think He meant, “Of course it is not lawful! Mosaic code prohibits it! We do not owe taxes to Caesar! To pay them is blasphemy!”


The interpretations of that saying hinge, I think, on whether we believe Jesus to have been apolitical or whether we can acknowledge that there was no apolitical Jesus, no apolitical Galilee, no apolitical Rome.

For him, as for others of his day, there was no separation of religion, economics, and politics. Jesus’s mission involved preaching the reality that the Kingdom of God was dramatically different from the Empire of Rome.

Two stories vividly illustrate the degree to which Jewish leaders and Roman leaders understood this. Some 15-20 years before Jesus’s birth, Herod the Great demanded that all Jews swear an oath of loyalty to Caesar and to Herod as Caesar’s stand-in among the Jews. The Pharisees “over 6,000 in number, refused to take the oath”, according to Josephus, the ancient historian. I think these Pharisees, Jesus’s forebears, may well have understood Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the national anthem.

Even more dramatic was a singular act of Jewish rebellion and bravery. Herod had a giant golden eagle, a symbol of Rome, erected at the great gate to the Temple. It was a humiliating reminder that Judea and God were subject to Rome and Rome’s gods. While Herod lay dying, two of the most learned and gifted Jewish scholars encouraged some of their students to cut down the eagle in order “to avenge God’s honor”, as Josephus wrote it. Herod ordered the teachers and their students be burned alive. These acts of Jewish resistance were only a few of both ad hoc and organized acts and rebellions which formed much of Jesus’s thoroughly political religious heritage.

Jesus was subversive. One of the few things about which the Gospels agree is that Jesus’s disruption in the Temple was what led to his arrest, trial, and execution by crucifixion, a punishment reserved for non-citizens and used to intimidate marginalized peoples.

In his book, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, Richard A. Horsley, writes that crucifixion was a punishment used to intimidate “provincial rebels”, often thought of by Romans as “thieves and bandits”. The Bible tells us that Jesus’s executioners, acting for the Empire, understood him to have been a rebel leader, thus mocked him as “King of the Jews” in several languages.

Jesus, to my mind, saw Rome and Caesar for what they were: dealers of humiliation, poverty, and death especially for Jews and others at the the margins. They demanded complete obedience and the forfeiture of complete obedience to God.

Would Jesus have saluted the flag? Would he have stood for the national anthem? Hard to say as the context is significantly but not completely different. Rome was an empire which dealt in death. The United States is an empire which deals in death. The penalty for challenging Caesar’s empire was dramatically different from the penalty for challenging the American empire. But, I think Jesus would have wholeheartedly approved Colin Kaepernick’s decisions not to be cowed and not to turn away from the realities of what America is for far too many people.

Are We Native Americans Your Pets?

Photos, Bios, Mike Wilson @ San Xavier, Mission - Dia de los Muertos Pilgrimage, by Hyatt 10-31-09

Photo courtesy of Michael Hyatt

Last week I had the pleasure of having Mike Wilson and his partner, Susan Ruff, in my home for a few days. Mike is a tribal member of the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona. The reservation on which the nation is situated straddles the United States / Mexico border. I got to know Mike and Susan when I was filming my documentary, The Second Cooler, in which Mike appears.

Mike is an original. He is a Native American who joined the United States Army and trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He became a member of its Special Forces. Sent to El Salvador in the 1980s, his duty was to “win the hearts and minds” of the Salvadorans. That means that he was to encourage Salvadorans to assent to US domination.

While there, he had what in Christian circles is sometimes referred to as a Road to Damascus moment during which he encountered who he was and what he was doing. He concluded he was a “North American imperialist” in El Salvador.

He says that he was “called” out of the Army and into seminary, then called back out of seminary “by faith”. He was prompted by his conclusion that the Church had become an instrument of imperialism. He spent a year as a lay pastor, however, at the Presbyterian church in Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation. For those who do not understand the idea of being “called”, it refers to a belief that God has placed a special task on a believer’s shoulders.  Today, Mike says, everything he does is because of his faith in God.

One of the issues which Mike, Susan, and I discussed at length under the cool arbor on my deck was Mike’s frustration with white people who will not confront tribal leadership on life and death issues. In this short clip from The Second Cooler, Mike talks about the running conflict he has had for years with tribal leaders of the nation. The context in the clip is the criticism he was receiving from his Presbyterian Session in Sells.

Mike With water

From The Second Cooler. Adam Valencia, photographer.

The conflict has to do with the fact that Mike puts water on tribal lands for migrants crossing there illegally. The migrants, who come from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere disproportionately are indigenous. Tribal leadership forbids him putting out water because they believe it encourages migrants to cross through their lands.

Part of the problem is that the militarization of the US / Mexico border, especially at the Arizona border, has been deliberately designed to push illegal immigrants into the vast, treacherous Sonora Desert which makes up much of the Nation’s land. Figures are difficult to come by, but estimates range from a very conservative 7,000 to approximately 21,000 since 1997 when records began to be kept.

Mike also has had a running conflict with immigrant advocates in Tucson. Advocates there, who are white or Latino, work day in and day out to rescue migrants, call attention to their deaths nationally, and keep records of deaths. Yet, they will not tell tribal leadership that they are wrong to contribute to migrant deaths by refusing to give them water.

Mike wants white and Latino advocates to stand up to tribal leadership arguing that human beings are suffering and their lives are hanging in the balance.

White and Latino advocates will not. They argue that to do so is a form of racism: “White people have told Native Americans what to do for too long.” And so, Mike not only is persona non grata among tribal leadership, he is persona non grata among the non-Native advocates in Tucson.

While we talked, I remembered a remark he made at the screening of The Second Cooler in Tucson at the Arizona International Film Festival in 2013 during the Q&A. A number of those whom he had tried to persuade to support him by standing up to tribal leadership were in the audience that evening. I recalled him having said to no one in particular, “What do you think we Tohono are? Your pets?”

Mike believes, and I agree, that preferring to let migrants die rather than stand up to the people who could help save their lives is, in and of itself, a particularly toxic form of racism. As Mike pointed out while we talked, refusing to stand up to people who hold other people’s lives in their hands because of their racial or ethnic identity is applying a different standard to their actions or lack thereof. I believe that a separate standard is necessarily a lower standard reflecting a lingering belief that Native Americans are too emotionally delicate, too childlike, to take criticism. And, because they are Natives and made fundamentally different from Whites, according to the logic, they are inherently incapable of racism.

Or, as Mike asks in the clip from The Second Cooler, rather than stand up to tribal leadership or wrestle with the nuances of racism, is it just “easier to let the migrants die”?

This is the racism which we can deny by taking the moral high ground of ultra sensitivity to Native Americans’ feelings.  We can deny our and Native racism while colluding in the brutal deaths of thousands of Mexican indigenous. Applying any moral yardstick, how can we justify this? Do migrant deaths really matter? Are Tohono O’odham tribal leaders full grown men and women?

Or are Native Americans our pets?


Crucifixion at Orlando: A Meditation on John1:14 and God’s Trans Nature


Source: NYTimes

In light of Saturday night’s massacre of 50 gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, and transgender people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, we Christians must repent of our narrow vision of who God is. By repent, I mean that we must change our way of thinking. This is what I believe the Bible has to offer as I meditate on the crucifixion at Orlando.


It is often said that “God never changes”. I do not not see it that way. God not only changes, God is by nature change. God is so fundamentally about change that, according to the writer of John’s gospel, God is trans.

In verse 1:14 of his gospel, John wrote in the most beautiful way that before the present age began, God already was trans. Before the present age, God was abstraction then transitioned to Good News. Before the present age, God was Word then transitioned to Flesh. Before the present age, God was Poem then transitioned to Prose.

What was right for one context and in one age was not right for another context in another age. In the abstract Beginning, the world had been a place of liveliness and peace. It had been a garden. But by about 30 CE, or thereabouts, the world had become a place of paranoia on the part of pharaohs and caesars obsessed with national security and of religious leaders obsessed with their arrangements with pharaohs and caesars.

Living on a brink which was crumbling, as they presumed, because of a seismic shift in the order of things, they were in a profound and continual existential crisis. Because they were in a profound, existential crisis, they caused to suffer anyone who threatened their existential well-being. Whether the threat was real was not the issue. The issue was the existential crisis and the on-going dreadful sense of being under attack.

They were terrified. By the same token, they resorted to acts of terrorism.

They turned to the ways they believed would allow them to hold onto order, the status quo, the cash coming in, oil for the chariots, and regalia for the soldiers. They turned to humiliation and death. They turned to the terrorism of crucifixion. At first it was only one or two bandits. The next thing anyone could remember, it was 72,000 bandits crucified along the Appian Way. (Not that they really were bandits; they were revolutionaries who had announced that God was the God of Life and not the Idol of Death.) Once it reached mass execution proportions, crucifixions had become official announcements to the masses that Caesar was God.

That Caesar was God was a lie. God knew it was a lie. Thus, God decided that God could no longer be the authentic Lord of Life so long as God stayed Word. God had to transition to Flesh in order to maintain God’s integrity as Lord of Life.

And so the God who since The Beginning had been trans made God’s transition from Word to Flesh as a sort of counter announcement.

If we are familiar with the Bible, we know what happened next: after about 3 years or so, God, too, was crucified.

What happened in Orlando was a re-run of sorts. It seems to me that if the crucifixions are to end, we might do well to reflect on who God is. We might consider that God had no fixed nature. We might consider that God was trans.

48861807.cachedIn memory of all those died at Pulse, June 11, 2016.

The Not So Grand Jury: My Experience


I recently served two weeks on Madison County, Alabama’s grand jury. For those who may not know, the grand jury is the legal agency which decides whether there is “probable cause” to indict. That means it is the grand jury which decides whether someone arrested for various criminal offenses, including misdemeanors and felonies, will face a jury trial.


Wikipedia offers the following information:

A grand jury is a legal body that is empowered to conduct official proceedings to investigate potential criminal conduct and to determine whether criminal charges should be brought. A grand jury may compel the production of documents and may compel the sworn testimony of witnesses to appear before it. A grand jury is separate from the courts, which do not preside over its functioning.

The experience was deeply disturbing to me. Using the Wikipedia article as a reference point, I can say without reservation that “investigating” had little to do with my grand jury experience. Nor was I ever under the impression I could compel the production of documents or appearances of witnesses.

During the two weeks, we jurors actually deliberated over the course of only about seven days. During that time, we made decisions about whether to indict on somewhere between 500 and 600 cases. Those cases included something like 1,000 charges because many cases involved more than one charge. We were not allowed to keep our charges list nor our notes which is why I cannot be more specific about those numbers. That information was destined for the shredder.

The first afternoon included an introduction to illegal drugs, illegal drug production, illegal drug paraphernalia, and what are called “precursors” which refers to such things as Sudafed, glass tubes, spoons, and others things used in the production of meth. The officer passed around baggies of white power, rocks, and marijuana of various types.

The reason for this became clear as the days progressed: the majority, although not the preponderance, of the cases had to do with the production, trafficking, or possession of illegal drugs.

I had the impression, too, whether correctly or incorrectly that there was a subtext: illegal drugs are ubiquitous and dangerous and so are the people associated with them. There were no other show and tells: no introduction to knives or guns, for example, although weapons charges were among those we considered.

The officers who often appeared as witnesses relayed that many of the drug charges began with officers pulling drivers over for traffic violations — failing to use their turn signal, driving with their bright lights on, changing lanes improperly. This often would lead to the officer’s claim that he or she then smelled marijuana. That led to inspections. When no drugs could be detected, the canine units were brought in.

There was one instance in which the officer said he could not find any drugs on one particular defendant nor could he find drugs in her car. However, he said, he saw her take a pill as she was standing outside the car and throw it into the car. He said he never was able to locate the pill, but her car was a mess which, he felt, explained why he could not find it.

We were indicting, in many cases, people who were found to be in possession of a single pill without having a prescription for it.  We indicted for possession of a single tablet of Xanax, Adderall, or Hydrocodone, for example — all of which at one time or another I have had in my medicine cabinet. I have used these medications, to be sure, with a prescription, but I did have them and used them.

Disproportionately, it seemed to me, these traffic stops, according to the testimonies of the officers, were on Huntsville’s poorer and predominantly African American north side. One of my fellow grand jurors was black and a detective. I asked him, during the second week, “is what we’re seeing here cases of ‘driving while black’?” He laughed and gave a noncommittal answer — saying neither “yes” nor “no”. “Driving while poor?” I asked. He shrugged.

There was only one other African American juror. All appeared to be middle class. There were no tell-tale signs of chronic poverty such as bad teeth. This was of interest to me because it seemed to me that the grand jury did not constitute a jury of the peers of most of the people who had been arrested and whom we were indicting.

The few arrests in the southeast, where I live, were arrests at a certain notorious motel where drugs are often trafficked and at big-box stores where shoplifting was a problem as it was at Parkway Place mall and at other big-box stores around town.

It also seemed to me that the grand jurors were more lenient or more understanding of those with whom they could identify. For example, the jury did not want to indict a man who had shot a neighbor in the stomach after provoking him then shooting around him in the air when the man came onto his property. When I protested that this met the test of “probable cause” in the intention to commit bodily harm, I was met with protests of “how would you feel if you were in his position”?

One of the cases we heard was an exceptionally complicated assault case involving a transgender person. Sometime during the alleged assault a man died although not because of the assault. This was according to the coroner’s report.

The lawyer who presented the details of the case said that the family wanted the person charged to pay some price — meaning a jail term. I felt that conveying that information was inappropriate since it is not the family’s day in court, not the family facing indictment. I believe this is a good legal principle. I said as much to the DA six years ago when the man who killed my daughter and her boyfriend was coming to trial for murder. While suggesting to the other members of the grand jury that I did not think the family’s wishes should be taken into consideration, I also pointed out that the person had been in jail already for seven months and with other prisoners who did not conform to the alleged assailant’s gender identity. I could not imagine that the assault, in this particular case, could ever result in more than seven months.

But the family wanted to see us “do something”. So the jury voted to indict. After voting, one of the members of the grand jury asked the attorney, “Where is it (the transgender person) now?”

After the first afternoon’s deliberations, it became very clear to me and others that we were, in essence, “rubber stamping”, as another juror put it, previously made decisions on the part of the District Attorney’s [DA’s] office.

It also became abundantly clear that we would never understand what was going on in far too many cases. I began to listen out for these words: “confession” and “video”. If I heard those 2 words, I raised my hand to indict. One reason is that it all went extremely fast as you can imagine with 550 cases or so in seven days. There were times I did not vote because I had not been able to locate the case on my case sheet to track the charges and the testimony was over by the time I found it. Another reason is that the testimony often was jumbled. In many cases, the officer or other witness had not reviewed the details in the months or years that had transpired between the arrest and his or her appearance before the grand jury.

There was one case where the witness, who was well-dressed and articulate, gave a long, detailed, well-organized testimony with names. After looking at the names of three people being charged on our case sheet, one alert juror asked her to tell us how they fit into the case. After naming each one, she said she did not know them. We were taken aback as was the DA. These were the only people named in the case. We never understood what happened there. Right witness, wrong case? We obviously voted not to indict.

In other instance, this same alert juror asked the officer to explain to us again what tied the defendant to the case? The officer seemed embarrassed and admitted he had not been the arresting officer and was picking up a random case. As there seemed to be nothing in the case to tie the charge to the defendant, we voted not to indict.

Out of the 550 or so cases, we “true billed” or voted to indict in about 500 cases. There were only one or two instances where we did not deliver what the DA expected. Once, the DA came back to us and told us we had made the wrong decision. The DA outlined for us why we should have true billed the charge. We re-considered and eventually true billed it. The other “no bills” or votes not to indict for the most part came at the instruction of the DA. These were for lesser charges in a case with multiple charges. The DA did not want the defendant to have lesser charges to which he or she could plead guilty.

The DA or testifying officer told us on many occasions that the defendant had “priors” or prior arrests or convictions. Although I think that might useful information in some situations, I did not think that should be taken into consideration when voting whether to indict on a new case. We supposedly were looking for “probable cause” in these particular cases not deciding whether the defendant was of good moral character.

Often, I and others had to ask the officers to slow down or speak up. Once when I asked an officer to slow down, he gave me an arresting officer’s intimidating glare which he held for a good five seconds. I suppose he had forgotten that I was not a good candidate for intimidation.

During the second week, we were given what was called an opportunity to “inspect” the Madison County jail and the juvenile detention home. This inspection, one juror quipped, amounted to a tour of North Korea given by a North Korean official — it was designed to let us see what the DA’s office and the Sheriff wanted us to see and nothing else.

The visit was carefully planned. We ate lunch with several wardens and Sheriff Dorning. I asked one of the jailors whether this was the same lunch the inmates were having. The answer was “no”. After asking, I was told that the budget for each prisoner’s food is $4.00 a day. I asked whether the inmates ever got to go outside. The answer was “yes” and was told the routine.

On a tour of the facility, they took us to the outside area. It was a small concrete room, with walls about 20′ high (I’m not good with estimations of this nature) and a concrete floor. At the very top of the walls, there were a number of windows through which you could glimpse the sky. There was an open roof covered with a mesh wire top. I was not under the impression I was outside despite the fact that I could feel a breeze just as I am not under the impression that I am outside as I write this although there are three windows in my office. This is the area, we were told, where the inmates could jog if they wanted. Again, not being good with these estimates, I cannot suggest how big the room was, but I can say that jogging in there would have been next to impossible.

We never interacted with the prisoners. We were shown empty cells which housed eight to a cell with one open toilet. We were shown where the prisoners ate. The only prisoners we saw were those few who were being checked in or out and were in a waiting room.

One of the wardens was a tiny woman. When asked if she was afraid of the prisoners, she said “no”. She said that she helped raise some of the prisoners. When I asked what she meant, she said some of the prisoners had never had anyone tell them what was appropriate or inappropriate behavior. She said some of the prisoners kept in touch with her after leaving the jail.

I asked Sheriff Dorning a version of a question I had asked many times of people I have interviewed. “If you could change one thing to make it such that there was no need to lock up 700 people a day in Madison County, what would you change?” His answer was, “Bring back prayer in schools.”

The detention home for juveniles gave me a somewhat better feeling. I had the impression that the wardens cared about the kids. To be sure, it was a jail. Each child was locked in his or her room at night behind a metal door. There was a small window in each room.

Yet, there was a school room with no more than twenty desks. There was plenty of food and safety. There was a much bigger gym than the “outdoor” space at the County jail where the kids were encouraged to play and work off steam. There were encouraging posters around with ideas on how to get along socially. We were treated to cookies and Kool-Aid.

There was a school nurse who had an office. The warden said that every possible ailment and disease had been diagnosed and, as far as possible, treated. Almost all the kids needed dental work. But, the nurse also had diagnosed or been part of diagnosing several types of cancer, lupus, and HIV / AIDS. Once they left, their treatments often stopped.

Most of the kids were from about 12 to about 16 years old. There had been a few as young as seven.

The children were only allowed visits from their parents and grandparents. When asked why they could not have siblings, the answer was that too often siblings would bring them marijuana. A few parents had been known to bring it to them.

I asked the warden whether any of the kids ever expressed a desire not to leave. He said occasionally that had happened, but not often. He said that if they allowed marijuana in the detention facility, there would be many who would rather stay indefinitely than leave.

I am glad I had the opportunity to serve on the grand jury. It made me feel good to do my civic duty. At the same time, however, I felt I had been complicit in America’s unjust mass incarceration system. I wondered who the primary beneficiaries of our indictments were. As an ordained Baptist minister, I believe I have some obligation to change the system if only by helping others understand what little I have learned of it through this experience.









Whom Will We Crucify Tomorrow?


Salvador Dalí

Jesus of Nazareth. Crucified because he was a threat to the Roman Empire’s national security state.

On Holy Saturdays, we Christians contemplate whom we will crucify tomorrow (although we don’t care to admit it).

Thumbs up? Thumbs down? What say you?

Josseline Janiletha Hernandez Quinteros (frozen, aged 14, El Salvador)  —  a “deterrent” said the Southwestern Border Strategy

Tamir Rice — a palpable threat said the officer on the day we commemorated the assassination of JFK

Transgender Asian prostitute  — “where is It now?” said the Alabama grand juror as the  amused attorney laughed (I swore I would not reveal her name)

Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, captured by Al-Qaeda — it was a mistake said Obama, we thought they were terrorists . . . . “collateral damage”

The Cracker (he flies a Confederate flag!) — “Don’t you get it? You ‘set the system’ “, said Jon Stewart after sipping coffee in the Oval Office

Gaddafi — “we came, we saw, he died” said Clinton (Hillary), laughing

Ricky Ray Rector — “will you save my pecan pie for later?” he asked the executioner, arranging his dessert on the side of his plate while Clinton (Bill) mentioned “I want to make sure he’s good and dead” (paraphrase) in Arkansas

Marissa Alexander, standing her ground — “we’ll tell you when to stand your ground” said the Florida jury as it sentenced her to 20 years

Frank Kameny, one of Dirksen’s “lavender lads”, ipso facto a threat to the National Security State and thus had to be fired

James Byrd, Jr. dragged to his death by white supremacists — “I don’t believe in capital punishment,” said his only son, “please spare the men who killed my father . . . . ”

Whom will we crucify tomorrow? What say you?