Almost by accident, in 1997 I became a crime reporter, specializing in church-related financial frauds. My first major investigative report, called “Fleecing the Faithful,” is still online.
Michael Cohen’s book “Disloyal” brings back those years.
The crime schemes I covered were obscure, and often complicated to explain. Although they ruined many lives, they did so quietly. Cases typically lacked physical violence, dead bodies or sex. Hence few except the biggest ever got much media attention.
Yet religious based frauds were (& are) plentiful & destructive. And they didn’t have to directly involve “church” to be religious, at least for me. That’s because these crimes, like others, involve one of the central religious issues, namely the reality of evil. In fact, these cases’ lack of lurid melodrama made it easier for me to focus, at least In reflecting on them, on the underlying question:
Chekhov: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”
Sometime around the late 1980s, I started having two recurring nightmares:
One, I’m maybe at home, or out somewhere, when the sky darkens and a dull roar starts up. It’s a tornado, bearing down on right where I am. I look for shelter, and either there isn’t any, or it’s not enough, and the tornado gets bigger and louder and then its roaring over me; I wake up trembling a with night sweats. Or
Two, I wake up, or at least I think I do, but when I try to move, I can’t. I’m paralyzed, and can’t speak either. Much later I read somewhere that this is a twilight, in-between state, no big deal, which goes away quickly. But I didn’t know that then; I would lie there in growing panic until, miraculously, a hand or a foot responds with a wiggle and then I was okay. But I still worried about if, next time, it could be permanent.
Post Office work is more than drudgery. It’s honest, productive work, an integral part of what keeps our society going.
I kept reminding myself of that. But I often wondered: do many children in the United States daydream about growing up and getting a job as a mail handler?
I doubt it. Maybe a few want to be letter carriers. Or even postal clerks, like an admired parent or role model.
Mailhandlers are semiskilled laborers. Google was unable to find me any history of the job, or craft in postal lingo.
But it looks like it was an example of “occupational segregation,” which was long rampant in the post office, like everywhere else in the U.S. Mail handlers filled a space between carriers on the outside, and clerks on the inside, lower in status than either.
On Google, the mailhandler’s “Functional Purpose” reads “Responsible for loading, unloading, and moving mail by the bulk. Duties may include long periods of standing, walking, pushing, and reaching. Candidates may also handle mail containers weighing up to 70 pounds.”
Was such a space filled originally by Black workers, who were excluded from other crafts? The fact that I can’t find an answer to that query suggests it was.
[Note: This is the second part of a Dog Days series on how early civil rights work and later years in the Postal Service came together for me. The first installment is here.]
For a mail handler, the mail stream is much more like a moving body of water. A lot of it came flowing past us, on conveyor belts. I spent many hours leaning over these conveyor belts, heaving bundles, bags and parcels in one direction or another, usually into big canvas hampers marked with zip codes.
This might sound like the sorting I did at Fairfax Station on Route #77 – but here we come to a key bit of postal wonkery and hierarchy: sorting meant throwing individual pieces of mail into address slots arranged in a delivery route or “scheme.” But tossing a bundle from a conveyor into a hamper marked Zip 22039 (Fairfax Station) was distribution or mail “handling”.
Sorting was clerk or carrier work and was paid more, in part because clerks and carriers had to memorize various long and intricate address schemes. Mail handlers didn’t memorize schemes, just recognized the zip codes they were part of.
I was quite content to be part of this lower order. I also soon noticed that many more mail handlers were black, which was also fine by me. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that mail handlers were originally a segregated lower level craft.
How did this come about? Who knew?
I did know the post office was older than the republic; which meant it had evolved through a century of slavery, another century-plus of Jim Crow, had been subject to winds of change, and by 1986 was more multiracial than many other American institutions, at least on the surface.
That was enough for the moment. We weren’t grad students studying postal history, anthropology or sociology; we were workers riding the daily six-million piece stream, helping pour it in at one end, and aim it out the other.
Much of the time the conveyor mail stream was hypnotically dull. But often enough, intriguing flotsam and jetsam drifted by. It was variegated enough that I soon felt that, although physically walled off from the outside world, much of the rest of America came coursing past me day by day: the mail stream was part of America’s bloodstream.
For instance, I soon felt as if I had seen every kind of catalog American business put out; and new ones kept popping up. One, that only turned up once, stopped me cold: from Massachusetts, it had a phone number in large bold print on the cover:
I couldn’t resist: turning away, out of sight of any nearby supervisor, I flipped a few pages. The number spoke truth: the company bred and sold rats, mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits and other small animals, and shipped them in large quantities for laboratory use. They were packaged to order, in different colors and sizes, with carefully-guarded pedigrees to assure uniformity for experimentation.
Then there was the CIA, whose headquarters at Langley was only six miles away (almost next door to Langley Hill Friends Meeting, where I was a member). It openly sent bundles of thick bulletin-type documents in clear plastic wrapping.
I covertly eyeballed a few through the wrappers. The Agency then operated its own Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS): somewhere it had linguists trained in as many as 80 foreign languages, reading foreign papers, listening to radios and watching TV. These expert readers produced summaries, which were printed and sent out.
By the way, this is no exposé: none of that stuff was secret. You or I could subscribe to, say, the Lithuanian bulletin, and it would be sent openly, like all the issues that came past me.
One other, of many anomalies: we had what were called U-carts, midsize and wheeled, with canvas baskets for bundles and parcels. On a featureless, not terribly busy day, I was tasked with unloading several, and dumping the contents in other sacks.
In one cart I found thick printed documents, something between phone books and very high-end catalogs. I glanced at one, and then looked again: it was the Alumni Directory of the U.S. Air Force Academy. I thumbed a few pages: it was arranged chronologically by class, with brief sketches about each of the grads.
As with the lab rats catalog, I couldn’t resist. But this called for extra precautions. I trundled the U-cart down the wide aisle between other sorting centers and various machines, looking for a spot that was momentarily deserted. Finding one, I leaned away from the aisle, where supervisors might appear, and opened the book–
— But first, some explanation.
My father was a career Air Force officer, mostly a pilot. He started in World War Two, and retired in the early 1960s. I grew up on and around various Air Force bases, in what expanded into a large Catholic family. Nobody recruited me, but I long assumed that I would follow my father into the Air Force.
In 1955, when I turned 13, the Air Force Academy opened, to much publicity. To me, it was the military equivalent of an Ivy League school, and I resolved to go there.
And I almost did.
Why I didn’t is another story (and it’s in my book, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.) But I was still on that path enough that I joined Air Force ROTC in college, at Colorado State University. That program would have pinned a lieutenant’s bars on my shoulders, and likely shipped me off to pilot’s school, after graduation with my Class of 1964.
But I didn’t do that either: I didn’t finish ROTC, go to pilot’s school, or graduate in 1964 (I did complete my degree, after a couple very busy and distracting activist years.)
If I had gone to the Academy, I would have finished pilot’s school just in time to be assigned to combat in the Vietnam War. Instead, I ended up an antiwar peacenik, a conscientious objector, and a Quaker.
But that again is another story. Instead here I was, almost 25 years later, suddenly able to look down that road not traveled.
How many of us get a chance to do that?
I quickly paged to the Class of 1964. Of course I didn’t know anybody, but I was interested in their thumbnails anyway: most were retired, and now into second careers; real estate seemed to recur. A few were still in, as generals, near the top of their heap but not quite there. Several others were dead: killed in Vietnam, or in training crashes.
The deaths did not surprise me; the Air Force is a war machine. Nor did the real estate; war machines don’t teach much imagination. What was most impressive was my lack of envy. I didn’t hate ROTC, but had felt no regrets when I quit. And none slipped out of the pages I turned at this other end of the passage.
I did miss one thing, though, not mentioned in the sketches: each of my surviving generational peers was getting a generous monthly pension check, while I stood here, in a tattered mail handler’s apron, grimy work gloves shoved in the pocket while holding the book in genuinely calloused laborer’s hands.
Yes, I envied them those checks; but that was all. I pushed the U-cart back to the conveyor belt, and dropped the book in its proper mailbag.
The retired could do something they wanted to do; I knew what I wanted to do, yet had to punch the clock and pursue it on the side. A job was better than no job; but I often felt hemmed in, and stifled.
Still, that was the Post Office way: in Merrifield it sometimes seemed that all of us in the laboring crafts led double lives. This ambivalence moved a writer in Ebony magazine to note a saying that while such jobs were stable and paid comparatively well, “the post office has often been called ‘the graveyard of Negro talent.’”
Yet another historian argued that “when unionized blue and white-collar employment was becoming a stepping stone to a middle-class lifestyle, autoworkers and meat-packers, nurses and postal workers, displaced the ‘talented tenth’ as agents of Black community advancement.”
And now it’s time for an apology: In Part One I promised to tell about the double life here. Except I ran out of time and space. But fear not: more on my ambivalence and double life in the next part.
In my experience, the work of overcoming racism and its sordid history has many aspects, and can be pursued in many ways. Some are loud and disruptive. Others are calmly persuasive. Different strokes for different folks.
Here I want to pay tribute to a current worker, a friend of mine, and fellow Quaker, Ron Osborne. On August 17, he appeared at the meeting of the Alamance County board of Commissioners, to do one small piece of this work, namely moving the tall Confederate monument from its longtime site in front of the old county courthouse in downtown Graham, the county seat.
Outside the building there were some noisy protesters, who could be heard in the background. Ron spoke quietly but clearly, The Commission sets aside up to 30 minutes for general public comments, in 3-minute segments. Ron made his three minutes count.
The Commission at this point has taken no steps toward moving the monument. But this work continues.
Ronald Osborne: I have lived in North Carolina all my life and in Alamance County for over 35 years.
My family first settled in North Carolina in the 1660s. Part of my property has been continuously owned by my family since the 1750s. My direct ancestor was a neighbor and acquaintance of the Regulator Herman Husband. Their names even appear together on some deeds. Another ancestor made muskets used at [the 1781 Revolutionary War Battle of] Guilford Courthouse [in Greensboro].
My grandfather’s grandfather fought for the Confederacy, was captured at the Battle of Chancellorsville and wounded at Spotsylvania. My grandmother’s great grandfather fought at the Battles of New Bern and Kinston.
My wife’s grandmother’s great uncle was killed at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg. Our ancestors were also involved in other battles, including Gettysburg.
I share these scraps of family background to convey to you that I have a deep appreciation and awareness of History. My sons and I are Civil War reenactors, and I’m familiar with the inscription on the Court Square monument which appears to pay homage to those, like my ancestors, who served in the Confederacy.
I must tell you that the simple presence of this statue in the courthouse square, a place which should promote and guarantee justice for all, which should be a place which represents all citizens equally, is as much a divisive symbol of the injustices inflicted on many of our citizens, as it is a reminder of any gallantry and sacrifices of my, and perhaps your, ancestors.
History tells us that those who dedicated this monument were the very citizens who lynched Officer Wyatt Outlaw in the same square. They enshrined this statue not just as a memorial, but as a veiled threat, set in stone, to all people of color to know and keep their places as second-class citizens.
You, our elected leaders have been confronted with a choice: Do you accept as your legacy the defense of a symbol of our checkered history, where both you and our county are known for refusing to acknowledge our known shortcomings of the past? Or do you embrace this opportunity to seek our community’s redemption, to improve our reputation, improve our economy, and demonstrate that we are a county welcoming and fair to all?
Move the statue away from our house that aspires to Justice. Demonstrate that “blue lives as well as black lives matter by memorializing the travesty our community visited upon Officer Wyatt Outlaw and other citizens of color. Be known through posterity as the leaders who embraced an opportunity for positive change. For if you don’t, future leaders surely will, robbing you of this momentous honor that could have been yours.
If I believed I was a prophet, I’d say that after three years of agony, a breakthrough in SAYMA’s logjam/paralysis is in sight.
It will soon be a month since the summer representative meeting of Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association, or SAYMA. Held by Zoom on July 20, its major business item was the first reading of SAYMA’s delayed budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Our account of it is here.
On that budget, the key item was a proposed $2500 for the Uplifting Racial Justice Committee (URJ), headed by Sharon Smith. The Committee had taken $16000 from SAYMA last year. It had demanded $20,000 from this new budget, and a pledge of $10,000 more annually in perpetuity.
There was plenty of murmured unease and even opposition to this demand, and in fact to the activity of URJ and the consistently antagonistic and disruptive behavior of Smith. At least two SAYMA meetings had already sent in minutes opposing any future funding for it, and many individuals had quietly expressed similar sentiments.
Meanwhile, Smith had a claque of supporters who continually repeated her claim that any and all questioning and opposition to her “anti-racist ministry” was “white supremacy/Quaker racism” and nothing else.
Any experienced Quaker Clerk in such a situation would see that there was no unity on this budget item in the body, which means the body doesn’t approve it. It seems clear that SAYMA’s officers do see that, but most have been so fearful of open conflict and/or intimidated by Smith’s cries of “racism” and violent tantrums that they have ducked and dodged every occasion to make an actual stand. Continue reading SAYMA: The Gravy Train Is Lurching toward a Stop→
This just in: a lawsuit filed against Friends Central School (FCS) in Philadelphia in 2017 by two teachers who were fired after a Palestinian speaker they invited in February 2017 was disinvited by school officials. The order of settlement is below. (More text follows.)
The speaker, Sa’ed Atshan, teaches at Swarthmore College. FCS Students protested, walked out, were ignored. The Philadelphia Daily News slammed the administration action:
Philadelphia Daily News: Friends’ Central lacks integrity in shunning controversial speaker
“ANOTHER WEEK, another hit delivered to free speech, this one coming from an unexpected source – a Quaker school.
Last week, the head of Friends’ Central School, a Quaker private school in Wynnewood, uninvited a Palestinian who had been asked to speak by a student club. Students protested that decision, in part by walking out of an all-school gathering. This week, head of school Craig N. Sellers suspended two faculty advisers to the student group, saying – in effect – that they were inside agitators who had whipped up the student protest.
Or, as Sellers put it in a statement, the teachers disregarded “our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace and integrity.”
We see it differently. In our view, it was Sellers who disrupted the peace of the Friends’ Central community. And you can hardly call the muzzling of an invited speaker an example of integrity.”
The teachers’ attorney, Mark Schwartz, filed for many documents to begin discovery. At some point, the school chose to negotiate, and the settlement was entered earlier this month, more than three years after it was filed.
The terms of the settlement were not announced. Schwartz’s full statement in response to my query was: “NDA.” That is, “nondisclosure agreement.” I speculate that it was a generous amount of money, enough to move the plaintiffs to agree to keep quiet about it.
In the world of employment lawsuits, such settlements are generally counted as a qualified success: at least the plaintiffs have something for their trouble, and interrupted or terminated career.
For the record: Here is a list of the blog posts on the Friends Central School lawsuit:
One of the less useful of the recent media tempests involved a report about the fate of David Shor, a somewhat lefty data analyst.
Shor had tweeted a summary of a paper by Princeton scholar Omar Wasow. Wasow argued that his research on 12 years of Black-led protests, particularly in election years, moved public opinion in a progressive direction, whereas those marked by violence to property and persons moved the needle toward support for reactionaries, helping bring Nixon, Reagan et al to power. In his own words:
Evaluating black-led protests between 1960 and 1972, I find nonviolent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, Congressional speech and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to nonviolent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share among whites increase 1.3-1.6%.
Protester-initiated violence, by contrast, helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse and public concern toward “social control.” In 1968 . . . I find violent protests likely caused a 1.6-7.9% shift among whites towards Republicans and tipped the election.
Shor’s tweet provoked a storm of online denunciation of its purported racism, and in a few days Shor was fired from his job at Civis Analytics, a Chicago-based “data science software and consultancy company,“ for somewhat lefty clients.
I mention it not to rehash the cliched debate about cancel culture. Instead, I want to say a few things about Omar Wasow’s overall thesis, that violence in protests helps reactionary politics, while nonviolent direct action boosts progressives.
First, I strongly agree with Wasow’s main point. My conviction is not based on academic research, though; it comes out of fifty-plus years of surviving the ’60s and their aftermath, under the heels of Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes, and the Orange Menace.
Oh—and second, if it’s not permitted for a lefty progressive to say such a thing, so shoot me. Though that would be a waste of ammunition, given my age and retired status.
Third, and most important, there are others who also agree with Wasow, and are acting vigorously on that conviction, but with very different and anti-progressive ends in view. Also with far more clout than I’ll ever have.
A vivid glimpse of that reality is what moved me to write this post. It came in the latest edition of “The Righting,” an email newsletter that brings “Top news headlines from the Far Right for the rest of us.”
The rightwing media this letter aggregates rant about many issues and topics.
Yet the current issue is essentially focused on just one: how violent protests are terrorism unleashed, that are burning up the cities, threatening the country. They must be stopped, and only harsh repression by their preferred leader can save us.
Looking this over, and remembering the Shor & Wasow hoo-haw, it suddenly hit me: the far right totally believes both of them: they’re convinced violent protests can move the needle.
And they’re desperate to move the needle. All the credible polls are showing Trump lagging Biden, many by huge numbers. Some foolish pundits are already announcing that it’s all over, and trotting out their pet names for a Biden cabinet.
But it’s not over yet. And every urban nightscape that is lit up with flames and resounds with gunfire presents a chance for them to stop the Trumpist slide. Maybe their only chance. Will the violent protests give it to them?
Americans are not overall a radical, or even radical-leaning people. They want some peace, quiet, a real crusade against the pandemic, a way for families out of the new depression, open and SAFE schools, and action on police misconduct and the racism behind it.
Violence in the cities threatens the positive momentum that has been built up on all these matters since George Floyd’s murder. And putting up with or excusing it is no better. Here I am following the words and example of those who have been most honored this month: C. T. Vivian, John Lewis, and both Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King.
This appeal is particularly aimed at “my people,” the liberal Quakers and those of similar outlook, who have largely stuck with this heritage during my lifetime, I know it’s tempting to rationalize or give into the rage that’s loose. The sight of unidentified federal stormtroopers snatching mostly peaceful protesters off the streets is enough to send most of us over the edge.
But resist that impulse, Friends. As the old freedom song says, “keep your eyes on the prize.” Advocate for, plan, and carry out protests and actions that are strictly nonviolent.
It’s not only safer. It’s both strategically and tactically smarter. And the stakes could hardly be higher. If Americans become desperate for safety, many can be persuaded they will only get that from the right, and they can and will turn that way — it’s happened often before.
The far right knows this. So they are all out for the opposite to happen. Don’t fall into the trap.
SAYMA’s Representative Meeting gathered on Zoom the evening of July 20, and lasted amost four hours. More than forty persons were on the line. It was not an easy session.
The main agenda items were a summary review of the 2019-2020 budget, and the initial reading of the 2020-2021 proposed budget (their fiscal year begins in October). SAYMA budgets are typically presented at one business session (usually at their yearly meeting, canceled for 2020), then acted on by a later session.
While the budget was the stated main item, the elephant in the room was the URJ Committee and its Clerk, Sharon Smith, and her demand for $20,000 of SAYMA’s funds for next year. This “elephant” appeared in comments about how URJ’s reporting on how it spent funds granted this past year lacked adequate accountability and raised “integrity issues” for the body. Indeed, these concerns are broadly shared enough that some meetings (e.g., Celo and Chattanooga, here) and individuals have called for an end to any funding for URJ and its replacement after careful and searching SAYMA-wide discernment.
So the elephant made itself known frequently, but without any clear resolution.
The proposed budget includes a $2500 allocation for URJ, quite a comedown from Smith’s $20,000 demand, but still $2500 more than than some preferred. That figure was not discussed, however.
What was discussed, at length, was a proposal not in the budget, but put forth by the new Finance Committee Clerk, Geeta McGahey.
McGahey wanted to add $500 as initial funding for a new Committee on “Conflict Transformation,” which would hire a facilitator from the Friends Center for Racial Justice, a project based in Ithaca, New York. The new Committee, she explained, would begin consultations in SAYMA aimed at “transforming” the ongoing conflict over URJ and Smith.