Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Small Protest: One Asian Face

Unlike my bud Aarti from the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue who gets to march alongside Father Pflager in big downtown marches against the mayor and the police, I opt to stick close to the temple. When I saw on Facebook that there would be a demonstration at the main intersection near the temple today, I arranged my schedule so I could join in.

It was billed as a protest against the state budget cuts. Almost everyone I talk to in social services says they feel the impact of the funds withheld by the Illinois government. So I envisioned this would be a huge event with so many social services agencies in Uptown, but I wondered why I wasn’t getting any emails from ONE Northside and other community activist groups about it.

I was expecting a blocking of traffic like what happened on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, but I saw only a small circle of picketers on one corner. Then they gathered everyone together to hear a couple rally speeches over the bullhorn. Instead of a traffic disruption, the announced aim of the gathering was to deliver a letter to Bank of America, protesting their support of the governor.


Just as well it was chilly out and I not only had my University of Minnesota hoodie on but the hood of my winter coat pulled over my face – because that branch of the Bank of America being close to the temple is where I often go for personal business. I guess it’s one thing to show up as a protester but you don’t want to be recognized by the bank staff as a regular customer.

Most of the bullhorn speeches were made by a 40-ish white guy, but he let a young black guy do some speaking. As that young guy spoke, I couldn’t help thinking it’s hard to sound credible protesting against “the man” when you have a Starbucks cup in your hand. (I know it was chilly out and one needed something to keep warm.)

Then it was announced we’d go all go into the bank to deliver the letter. The security guard and a couple of bank clerks stopped people from going in. Then a tall black man of imposing build came to the doorway and announced he was a bishop of some denomination and called for calm. I thought they might give him the bullhorn so we could hear him but instead the leaders started chanting slogans to drown him out.

A policeman who came to stand alongside the security guard called in a report saying there were “about 30 protesters” but I’d say it was more like two dozen. Most of them were either baby boomer or very young whites and a handful were black. I was the only Asian face. There were a couple of video cameras with reporters but the only identifiable network presence was a young woman with a Univision microphone.

One older white woman read the letter to Bank of America aloud but it stayed in her hand – no one in the bank was willing to receive it from her. So twenty minutes after the scheduled time, the 40-ish man with the bullhorn thanked everyone for coming and invited everyone to a meeting up the street later that evening. Me – the bourgeois that I am, I went to the yuppie bar to write this while having poutine and wine. “We’re sold out but the banks are bailed out” – yes, I chanted but I know I’m not suffering materially like so many people are.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Interfaith Breakfast: "Sixteen Shots and a Cover-up"

Yesterday I attended the annual interfaith breakfast in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. that has been hosted by the mayor of Chicago for thirty years. Unlike previous years, this breakfast was held in an atmosphere of controversy. Instead of explaining it all, here’s a link to one of the early stories http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20160114/downtown/activists-call-for-religious-leaders-boycott-rahms-mlk-breakfast

In a banquet room of maybe a thousand people, I estimate that 80% were African American Christians, 15% were white (Jewish, Catholic, evangelical) and no more than 5% were all other ethnic groups of non-Judeo-Christian faiths. Although the north side of Chicago and including downtown is racially diverse and has most of the wealth, it is the south and west sides of the city with most of the population and geographical area. So I felt I was seeing the true religious landscape of the city where Buddhism is just a tiny blip.

When I arrived around 7am for the pre-event reception at the conference center across the street from the hotel, there were no protesters to be seen. I had worried I wouldn’t get in because on the news, the activists calling for a boycott of the event said they would be blocking all the entrances. When the reception winded down and we were told to make our way to the banquet room, it was a quick walk through the second story skybridge to the hotel. I stopped to look down on the scene – protesters were on the street level, picketing and blocking the front entrance. I wondered if any of my north side (white) pastor friends were in the group, but I only saw only black men of all ages and a few young black women. I saw on the news later that they shouted “Shame!” to anyone trying to get inside from the street-level front doors – but there was nothing to prevent people from entering the second floor through the skybridge as I did.

I won’t go into all the goings on of the event (I submitted an article for our temple’s February bulletin about it), but I want to comment on how those at the breakfast spoke about the protestors. Early in the program, a long-serving alderman (in Chicago all city council members regardless of gender are called “alderman”) was supposed to say a few words of remembrance about working with Dr. King. As she went to the podium, a young woman burst into the room holding a sign and repeatedly shouting, “Sixteen shots and a cover-up!” (referring to the shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald by a police officer which was hid from the public for over a year by the police and city government). The crowd expressed disapproval of the protester, but the alderman at first sounded sympathetic, “Oh let her go on. I was like that when I was young.” But after the protester was removed from the room, the alderman ripped into the whole movement of recent protesters, led mostly by black youth. She said they were not in the spirit of honoring Dr. King, because they didn’t have training and learn strict principles like the alderman said she had as a member of Dr. King’s following. She made it sound like the current protesters were undisciplined kids making a lot of noise and obstruction, reflecting badly on the black community. The audience seemed to eat it up, chiming in agreement with the alderman’s criticism.

[above: the silent protest that I wore, written in Chinese characters]
At a later point in the program (after the interfaith unity prayers that I participated in), a young black man in a clerical collar got up with his sign and shouted the same protest chant, “Sixteen shots and a cover-up!” He made his way throughout most of the room before he was escorted out and the criticism started up again by the speakers.

I’m not naming names here because some of these people in the religious community are doing admirable work in interfaith relations. I feel disappointed by the animosity they voiced towards the young protesters, but I admit I don’t really understand what’s going on the Chicago black community, spread across wide areas of various neighborhoods, several generations and in many socio-economic layers from upper-middle class down to the lowest level of poverty.

To me it sounded like a bunch of gramps and grannies complaining about the young whippersnappers who don’t know any better. I’m sure Dr. King had his head-scratching moments of wondering what the younger generation of activists were doing, but I think he would not have scolded them for betraying and sabotaging the civil rights movement. With all the rioting going on in major cities during his last few years, he never dismissed the rioters as thugs bent only on theft and destruction. Dr. King felt the same rage they were feeling and kept trying to convey the reasons for that rage to white society.

As much as Buddhism and Asian culture tells us to listen to the wisdom of the elderly, I think we have to have respect for the young and the outsiders and give them space to express views and take actions that we may judge as imprudent. There can be no development if we all stick to our same-old same-old ways of doing things, refusing to listen to different perspectives. “Tried” doesn’t necessarily equal “true.” In the Buddhist teaching of impermanence, what is untried might be a truer response to the current flow of events.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Grand Jury Selection Process FYI

I often say Buddhism teaches us to be non-judgmental, but as citizens we are called to pass judgment on our fellow citizens – in voting in elections and in serving on juries. I’ve learned, particularly from Shinran’s teachings, that it’s impossible for me to ever fully know another person and their situation, so any judgment I make about them is based on incomplete knowledge at that moment. None of our judgments can be final because time will reveal aspects that we didn’t know about or consequences that we didn’t expect. However, I feel it’s still important to vote and to serve as a juror – to make decisions based on our best assessment of the situation and within the context of the political system our karma has brought us to.

When I received the summons by certified mail to report for the grand jury selection, I tried to find out more information online. I’ve been called to “petit jury” duty (put into pools and panels to be called for serving in trials) many times and served only as an alternate juror once. But I didn’t find much through internet searching that was helpful about how grand juries are different. So I’m writing this post as a public service to those of you wondering what a grand jury is.


In Chicago there are two grand juries seated each month – one is strictly for the city of Chicago cases and the other is for the circuit court of Cook County which will hear cases from Chicago as well as other municipalities of the county. I was summoned for the Cook County grand jury – what I heard may not apply to the city one and I’m sure in time the details will change (see my later comments on reforms I’d like to see).

There were about 120 of us put in one section of the jury waiting room.  It was quite a diverse collection of adults – from young to elderly, of various ethnicities and speaking several different languages. After being told to ignore the presentation going on for the petit jury people, an hour went by and then our orientation was given by one lawyer with the State’s Attorney’s office. He explained that criminal charges are usually determined in a hearing before a judge, but a grand jury of sixteen citizens needs to be convened for certain types of cases. Hearings are open to the public, but grand jury procedures are conducted out of the public eye. This privacy is needed for cases such as drug dealing where undercover police don’t want their identities known to the general public and for cases such as rape and assault so that the victim is not further traumatized by speaking before the defendant and his/her defense team. In a grand jury procedure, the accused is not present, so in cases where the accused cannot be easily brought to court (he/she is out of the area or not located), criminal charges can be made against them.

It was clear from the presenter’s tone that he felt the grand jury’s duty was to help the police, to carry on the process of justice that the police began – identifying the perpetrator and making the case of his/her guilt and their punishment according to the laws. The grand jury after hearing the prosecution’s presentation of the evidence must make a majority (at least 9 of the 16 people) vote of indictment, “true bill,” or no indictment, “no bill.”

Unlike serving in a petit jury which in most jurisdictions is for one trial only, a grand jury is selected each month to serve for 17 days, each weekday from about 9am to 3:30pm. Grand jury members are allowed time off for particular appointments (medical, business trip etc.) and there are ten alternates that can be called in to fill in for them. The presenter said most days are scheduled hearing drug-related cases in the morning and felony cases in the afternoon.

After the presentation, we were called row by row to be interviewed by the assistant state’s attorneys. There were four young people at one table in front and another person way in the back of an open hallway. While I was standing in line, I saw four of the attorneys seems to be asking a lot of questions to each person, maybe spending about ten minutes with each, but one woman was whizzing through her candidates like it was speed dating – the person in the seat across from her kept changing every two minutes or so. So she’s the one I ended up with – she asked if I had any planned vacations or medical procedures coming up, what my job was, whether I was the victim or accused perpetrator of a crime and if I had served on a jury before. When she asked whether I was willing to serve, I said it would be a hardship on the temple if I were gone for 17 days – even though I had a team of volunteers, it was my responsibility to oversee the building and the administrative work. I told her I was willing to serve as an alternate.

It probably took the assistant state attorneys about an hour to go through all of our interviews and decide on the list of sixteen jurors and ten alternates. I felt relieved but also a bit disappointed to not hear my name called. My total time at the courthouse was from arriving around 9am and leaving at 12:45pm.

Now here are my opinions. For one thing, the State’s Attorney presenter went on and on about wounded veterans as his argument for why we should be willing to serve as jurors. I’m too cynical to believe in that patriotic sentimentality – that our rights to vote and be judged by our peers were won by the soldiers fighting overseas. I believe wars are mostly fought for economic reasons and for power politics, not because tyrants were threatening to take away our ballot and jury boxes.

For me what is important is to exercise our rights as citizens – I’m not as cynical as those who feel the system is already fixed so what good does it do to participate in our democracy. If you’re not happy with the criminal justice system, you need to see it up close and try to affect it as a juror and to vote for those with some influence in reforming it.

But I saw yesterday how biased the system can be. I felt like that young “speed dating” attorney already had ideas in her mind of who to grab for the grand jury and who to write off (I wondered if I shouldn’t had volunteered that my temple is in Uptown – where the undercover cops are all over, but maybe just saying “Buddhist” puts me in the peacenik category).

The length of seventeen days is a high barrier for most people if they have jobs or other responsibilities. Like with the petit juries, you end up with mostly retired people who tend to think conservatively. It would be better if they had twice a month grand juries for maybe nine days at a time.

So I learned why there are so many stories in the news of grand juries voting not to indict police personnel who killed or were suspected of causing the death of people of color (Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice et al). Grand jury members are chosen by prosecutors and they want people who tend to side with the police rather than with people of underprivileged communities (I sure didn’t hear many non-Anglo sounding names in the list of people chosen). Unlike in the petit jury panels where you get a barrage of questions from the judge to determine your impartiality, in the grand jury selection process, they size you up snappily by how you look and sound. Since grand jury procedures occur out of the public eye, there’s no sketch artist around to show us how homogeneous the jurors were.

Among all these other causes I’m concerned with, now I see the need for changes in our criminal justice system that should include reform of the grand jury process.