Category Archives: Signs of the Times

Saving Obama In Selma 2015: For Reading When You’re Not Thinking About Milwaukee

Durham, North Carolina, and Selma, Alabama

In the autumn of 2014, still settling into retirement in Durham, a question began nagging at me: was Barack Obama going to get shot in Selma Alabama the following March?

Now stay with me: was I just being more than normally paranoid?

Consider: March 7, 2015, would be the 50th anniversary of the first march for voting rights over the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma, headed for the state capitol in Montgomery.

When that march was attacked by deputies and state troopers, images of the melee were flashed around the world as “Bloody Sunday.” I was there (and recount it in the memoir, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner). Even though my Bloody Sunday assignment was to march with a second contingent — which didn’t happen because of the assault on the first — the experience left its marks on me as well. Continue reading Saving Obama In Selma 2015: For Reading When You’re Not Thinking About Milwaukee

Bernie! Still All In (Critically) for Joe Biden

New York Times
Bernie Sanders: Joe Biden for President

By Bernie Sanders
Mr. Sanders is the senior senator from Vermont.
July 13, 2024

I will do all that I can to see that President Biden is re-elected. Why? Despite my disagreements with him on particular issues, he has been the most effective president in the modern history of our country and is the strongest candidate to defeat Donald Trump — a demagogue and pathological liar. It’s time to learn a lesson from the progressive and centrist forces in France who, despite profound political differences, came together this week to soundly defeat right-wing extremism.

I strongly disagree with Mr. Biden on the question of U.S. support for Israel’s horrific war against the Palestinian people. The United States should not provide Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing extremist government with another nickel as it continues to create one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern history.

Continue reading Bernie! Still All In (Critically) for Joe Biden

Tell It Slant — With Lemonade: A Book Launch at Haverford

Adapted from Tell It Slant, by Emma Lapsansky-Werner, with Chuck Fager:

George Fox: not a friend of the arts.

For most of the three-plus centuries since the founding of Quakerism, Quakers had viewed the arts as snares and “distractions” from listening to the Word-of-the-Divine within.

George Fox threw down the marker as early as 1678:

All ye Poets, Jesters, rhimers, makers of Verses and Ballads, who bend your wits to please novelties, light minds, who delights in jests and toyes, more than in the simple naked truth which you should be united to, you are for the undoing of many poor souls, it is your work to tickle up the ears of people with your jests and toyes; this proceeds from a wrong heart … which is a shame to all that be in the modesty and pure sincerity & truth and cleanness of mind. …  

Fox had preached against the visual arts, too:  Continue reading Tell It Slant — With Lemonade: A Book Launch at Haverford

Biden In Crisis: What Did Jim Clyburn Say? (And What about Bernie?)

AP News: Clyburn’s discussion of a ‘mini-primary’ fuels more talk of whether Biden should end his campaign.

[NOTE: My first post on the great debate fallout freakout (After the Debate: Keep Calm. Chill the [Bleep] Out. Head Down, Beat Trump.) was posted on June 29.

That was less than a week ago, but it seems like a month or two. The  key question that came up for me in the immediate aftermath was simple:

What Will Jim Clyburn say?

Clyburn, the senior Black member of the U.S House, essentially saved Biden’s campaign in 2020. Would (and could?)  he do it again?

His first comment was staunchly supportive: On the morning after the debate debacle, he compared Biden’s performance to “strike one” in baseball; not good, but not yet a “strikeout.” He told people to “chill out.” Sounded like he was on board, and I think he was.

But Clyburn didn’t get to be where he is by blind loyalty; his input may be crucial, but it’s not the only factor in a fast-moving political upheaval. He, like other insiders, was watching to see what happened on several other fronts:

Continue reading Biden In Crisis: What Did Jim Clyburn Say? (And What about Bernie?)

Tell It Slant, Excerpt #6: Going Postal on EEO & Vietnam at USPS

Tell It Slant, Excerpt #6

[Chuck worked for the Postal Service from late 1985 to mid-1994. He first delivered mail on a rural route, then moved inside to work as a Mailhandler at a huge mail processing facility in Merrifield VA, an outer D.C. suburb. After four years of moving mail, there was a change]:

Chuck: I noticed around 1991 a posted opening for a part-time EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) Investigator at Merrifield. I applied, showed them my books on Selma and the Poor Peoples Campaign, and was selected; spent two weeks outside Chicago in training to do investigations and reports.

Chuck ready to do some EEO work

Thereafter, I was called periodically to the EEO office, for some weeks at a time. To make the switch I traded my work clothes and union apron for a suit and tie left over from my years on The Hill; the transition was from one work culture to another: blue collar/calloused hands to white collar, college-educated office guy with a primitive laptop.

At first it was good to be back dealing with racial justice issues concretely. This was not protest or jail, but the humdrum nitty gritty of making the legal progress achieved through struggle and sacrifice work, day-to-day.

There was a possibility I could have been transferred to EEO permanently, but I didn’t pursue it. I did not want to “advance” in the USPS ranks, as that would involve at least a tacit commitment to stay for a career. Also, such jobs often required taking work home (like complex cases), and I didn’t want to do that. Mailhandler work, despite the tedium, could be left behind when I clocked out, and the rest of my time, packed with family and Quaker projects, was too precious to intrude on.

Even so, I learned much during my stints on EEO duty. With two to three thousand employees of many different ethnicities, Merrifield was both a testament to the “success” of integration in the federal workforce — and simultaneously its reality as an always simmering pot of subdued race-tinted conflicts.

This was, I should note, in the years when “going postal” became an accepted term for mass workplace shootings (twenty-eight USPS employees and bystanders had been killed by postal workers in several rampages during my tenure); the year I left, it even became a visual punchline for a slapstick movie series, The Naked Gun. Fortunately, we didn’t have any such in my time at Merrifield, but the tensions were always there.

A postal worker murdered 14 other employees in this Oklahoma massacre, wounded six, and then shot himself.

I saw telltale signs of hate in the men’s toilet stalls, scrawled on the doors. A lot of it was aimed at Asian-Americans. This didn’t surprise me; there were a great many middle-aged Vietnam-era veterans in the USPS workforce. PTSD was plentiful, and the sight of Asians, particularly from the defeated South Vietnam, now working nearby, set some of them off.

Two personal examples: one of the most confusing EEO cases I had was brought by a woman against her supervisor, based not on race but religion. The complainant was Hindu, and her crew included mainly South Asian persons, some Hindu and some Sikh. The supervisor was, I believe, a Sikh. The complaint was that he chronically favored other Sikh employees when assigning overtime (many employees sought to maximize better-paid overtime; I did not).

Since I knew very little about either religion, it wasn’t easy to sort this out. The supervisor stonewalled, stoutly denying everything.

The case went nowhere; I did not have the “rank” in the system to actually compel the supervisor to produce records or sign a sworn statement.

So, I learned then about the weakness (and protect-management-above-all-else bias) of the EEO machinery, as well as the difficulty in resolving many cases.

The other example was the “biggest” case I ever had, and it also taught me much, especially about gaming the system.

Background: among the many Vietnamese refugees at Merrifield, most were exemplary employees: good at the repetitive work and memorization, rarely absent or sick. They stuck together, and didn’t complain.

However, there was a white male employee, let’s call him Arthur, a Vietnam veteran, who had a thing for Asian females. He habitually stalked the Vietnamese women.

It was creepy: he followed them to the restrooms, repeatedly approached them in the cafeteria, propositioned them (even clearly married ones), ignored brushoffs.

When someone in EEO advised him to cut it out, he proceeded to file complaints against the EEO office Director and staff. I was not named in those complaints, but only because I hadn’t been there when this started.

Which meant the case landed on my desk, as the newbie. Or a piece of it did, one very fat file. But this was just the tip of the iceberg: the EEO supervisor showed me a filing cabinet, in which the Arthur files filled two drawers.

Arthur was like a “jailhouse lawyer.” He was clever and had studied all the regulations I had just recently been introduced to.

One of them was that, if a complaint alleged more than one type of discrimination, each type had to be separately investigated and reported on. At the time, the EEO regs recognized seven types or “purviews”: race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability, plus reprisal for filing. On each complaint, Arthur had checked every single purview. (Disability? What the heck was that about?) And each time he was interviewed by an EEO staffer or supervisor, he filed a new complaint, all purviews checked.

His output had quickly brought the EEO machinery to a standstill, while he continued to stalk the Vietnamese women.

So, I was supposed to master all this material, gather testimony from the women and other witnesses, and put it into a report solid enough to withstand his counterattacks and move some senior official to action.

What kind of action? Theoretically Arthur could be fired; but in fact, such firings were all but unheard of. Between union rules, civil service protections, and just residual racism, Arthur had better job tenure than any professor I ever knew of.

But long story short, though: I pulled it off. Sort of.

Besides burrowing through the mountain of paperwork, the hardest part was getting testimony. I needed the women to tell me what had happened, and then sign statements summarizing it, usually one I wrote and read back to them.

But to a person, they were petrified at the prospect. Several refused and hid. More than one sat across from my desk sobbing and trembling, afraid not only of Arthur, but also terrified of me.

Why me? “I’m on your side,” I protested. “I’m here to help.”

Yeah, sure.

An older veteran explained much of it: back home, besides the North Vietnamese invaders, there were petty and cruel dictators in the South. Official violence, interrogations with torture, unsolved disappearances, were routine. Plus, they or their families had worked for the American military during the war, which was why they had to leave the country after the Communist victory in 1975: they were enemy collaborators and lucky to escape alive. One survival skill they all had developed was that of keeping their head down and saying nothing.

But here they now were: away from their friends, sitting across from me, a strange white man with a beard, a power necktie (and for all they knew, a pistol tucked under my suit jacket, like the Postal Inspectors), interrogating them again, about another white man, and talking English just like that other white man who was after them).

I felt for them. I hated that my very presence was retraumatizing. But there was a job to do, and I really was on their side. After many tears, but without any physical torture, I finally extracted enough admissions for a report.

My senior EEO colleague was Quincy, a Black man who had no legs. He got around on leg-size prosthetics and long crutches. He looked at my report and his eyes widened. “That,” he pointed, “is a piece of art.”

That wasn’t exactly true, but it was Quincy’s highest compliment. And the report worked.

As I said, sort of. A high manager somewhere read it, likely consulted legal counsel, and told Arthur to go home.

On his way out the door, Arthur filed new complaints, again checking all the boxes, and now with my name at the head of the defendants list.

And the supervisor, to stay on the right side of the union, lower the risk of a lawsuit, and generally to cover his butt, did not fire Arthur. Or even suspend him.

Instead, Arthur was put on “administrative leave.” That meant: with pay. And benefits. Accruing seniority and retirement credits.

The term? Indefinite.

That is, Arthur got to sit home (or travel, learn a useful trade, whatever) and collect paychecks, until the matter was settled, which could take years.

That was my big achievement.

On the upside, Arthur was finally off the workroom floor. The Vietnamese women could now eat meals redolent of their pungent fish sauce, chatter in their tuneful tongue about hopefully non-traumatic topics, tend to calls of nature without being accosted.

Was this a piece of the “justice” I stepped into the streets of Selma for, 29 years earlier, walking behind Dr. King, ready to stop a bullet? Was it worth the sacrifice that Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner made a year earlier?

(Gimme a minute ….)

Yeah, I think so.

* * * *

Emma Lapsansky-Werner: How did Arthur’s case finally turn out?

Chuck has no idea.

About the time the report on Arthur was filed, in spring 1994, Chuck got a job offer from a Quaker center near Philadelphia. It paid less than half of what Chuck was making at Merrifield. But, “It was my longed-for escape from postal captivity,” he said. “I jumped at it, and never looked back. Somebody else had to pick up Arthur’s case.”

From “The Naked Gun, 33 1/3”: “O my God, it’s the disgruntled postal workers , , ,”

At about the same time, a new movie was released. Wikipedia notes: “The 1994 comedy film Naked Gun 33 13: The Final Insult (the third and last entry in a “Naked Gun” comedy series) includes a scene where the main character must deal with a series of escalating threats, including the sudden appearance of dozens of disgruntled postal workers, randomly firing automatic weapons in every direction.”

One critic said, “By the time the disgruntled postal workers show up, you’ll howl with laughter. The laughs don’t stop there. … “

Chuck got the jokes, but didn’t laugh.

The film co-starred former football player-turned actor O. J. Simpson, in his last film role before being arrested for two real, non-postal murders in June of 1994.

 

How to order.

More excerpts  from Tell It Slant are online at:

> Excerpt #1: A Quaker’s Life in Our “Interesting,” Tumultuous Times:
> Excerpt #2: “Fighting for A Future”:

Excerpt #3: A Whippersnapper & His Elders:
>Excerpt #4: “Tell It Slant”: Author Emma Lapsansky-Werner Speaks

> Excerpt #5: San Francisco & “Going Naked for a Sign “ — or at least a job