Thursday, February 6, 2020

Ending Jackie Lacey’s Turncoat Reign of Terror

By Sikivu Hutchinson

“I’m Black and I grew up in Los Angeles.” Without a hint of irony, embattled two term District Attorney Jackie Lacey uttered these defiant, fighting words midway through last week’s D.A. debate. Moderated by KPCC and the L.A. Times, Lacey squared off against challengers former San Francisco D.A. George Gascon and former public defender Rachel Rossi. In the runup to the March 3rd race, Lacey has faced a firestorm of community pressure and criticism about her authoritarian law and order reign. The litany of misconduct allegations against Lacey are long, deep, and well-documented: During her tenure, she has sent twenty two individuals to death row, all of whom were people of color. She has failed to prosecute killer cops while cowering behind the code of legal authority and ducking the community’s calls for accountability. She refused to support the realignment Proposition 47 on the grounds that African American and Latinx folks in L.A. County were more likely to be victims of violent crime. She has refused to prosecute big name sexual predators (Ed Buck, Harvey Weinstein, Bikram Choudhury) and opposed cash bail and marijuana sentencing reforms. Faced with two strong challengers, she has scrambled to paint herself as a criminal justice reformer while presiding over a ballooning police state bureaucracy and the mass incarceration of the mentally ill.

Lacey’s attempt to play the Black authenticity card is significant because Black folks have been her staunchest critics. Black Lives Matter L.A. has denounced Lacey’s refusal to bring charges against police guilty of using deadly force, confronting Lacey with the families of victims slain by the LAPD and LASD. Over the past eight years, community groups such as the Youth Justice Coalition, ACLU, Community Coalition and the L.A. Urban Policy Roundtable have blasted Lacey's inaction and called for her removal. Lacey has also been challenged by deputy D.A.s in her own office who charge that she has further institutionalized Black and Latinx criminalization.

Last Wednesday, Lacey attempted to silence her many critics by smacking down her opponents’ records on crime, mass incarceration, mental health diversion, and police shootings. Lacey assailed Gascon for being hypocritical in his failure to charge killer cops. She dismissed Rossi as an out of her depth neophyte. Her lies, smears, and deflections were met with deafening pushback from BLM and other audience members. Yet, Lacey also had her own amen corner of sycophants who fawned over her Robo Cop tough-on-crime posturing.

Neither Gascon nor Rachel Rossi support the death penalty, and both oppose the use of gang enhancements to increase the sentences of Black and Latinx defendants ensnared in the CalGang database. They support removing police misconduct investigations and oversight from the D.A.’s office through the creation of an independent prosecutor’s office or “Civil Rights Division”. In 2014, Gascon co-authored Proposition 47, which was designed to reduce the number of individuals who were sent to prison for non-violent offenses and mitigate the odious impact of Three Strikes mandatory minimum sentencing. Lacey vehemently opposed Prop 47.

Thus, while progressive reform prosecutors are rising in D.A. offices across the nation, Lacey remains steadfast in her support of killer cops and serial abusers in law enforcement. In a boost to her election bid, the corrupt Police Protective League has poured over a million dollars into an anti-Gascon PAC. Other establishment Lacey endorsers include most of the L.A. County supervisors and a good chunk of L.A. City Council, State Assembly, and U.S. Congress members.

During the evening, Lacey touted the advances she’s allegedly made in diverting mentally ill individuals into treatment facilities and away from prison. However, according to a recent report from the Rand Corporation, the Office of Diversion and Reentry (created in 2015) has only transitioned 4,305 “diversion-eligible people” to community mental health programs and facilities. The report recommended that approximately sixty eight percent of current county inmates should qualify for mental health diversion.  In response to Lacey’s reform claim, Gascon blasted Lacey’s mental health division as a “joke”, citing an 86% increase in the incarceration of the mentally ill during Lacey’s tenure.   

Indeed, while the D.A.’s office claims to be leading reform on mental health, a third of LAPD shooting victims have been mentally ill. Moreover, police criminalization of unhoused mentally ill folks has been a major point of contention with activist groups pushing back against city and county-initiated sweeps of homeless encampments. At the debate, Rossi was critical of the high rates of street criminalization, emphatically stating that she would not prosecute the unhoused simply for being unhoused and vulnerable. She also stressed that she would not criminalize sex workers, noting that the majority of those who are prosecuted, convicted, and jailed for sex work are women of color. Rossi’s attention to this issue is important, because of the systemic pipelining of Black sexual abuse victims into juvenile facilities and adult prisons.

According to The Appeal, Lacey’s surrogates have been busy vilifying Gascon for his record on street crime in San Francisco. They allege that he presided over a surge in property crimes and petty theft, bucking the statewide trend of declining crime rates. San Francisco Mayor London Breed and City Attorney Dennis Herrera have criticized Gascon for dropping the ball on street crime, citing it as one of the ostensible reasons they’re backing Lacey.  Gascon has pinned the blame for the spike on the SFPD’s refusal to arrest offenders.

Gascon’s record in San Francisco has not been perfect, and Lacey made repeated reference to his failure to prosecute the SFPD officers who shot and killed residents Mario Woods and Luis Gongora Pat in 2015 and 2016. In both cases, Gascon cited his inability to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the officers’ use of deadly force wasn’t justified as his rationale for not prosecuting. If he defeats Lacey, his complicity with the status quo in San Francisco bears scrutiny. On the flip side, his pursuit of decriminalization, reduced sentencing rates, ending cash bail, and support for the original version of last year’s AB392 bill ( which revised the standards for police use of deadly force), demonstrate that he would be an antidote to Lacey’s destructive police state tenure. Ultimately, the election of either Gascon or Rossi will put an end to Lacey’s reign of terror.  On March 3rd, voters will have the rare opportunity to right historic wrongs and send turncoat Lacey packing.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Dirty Americana, Rock 'N' Roll Heretics

Malina Moye @ 2018 Future of Feminism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Picture this. A blond white woman in a sleeveless tank with an electric guitar graces Music Radar’s recent article shouting out the ten leading blues guitar players in the world. No Black women merited inclusion on the list. Not blues powerhouse Ruthie Foster; not mega talent shredder Malina Moye. Only three Black men scored. In this universe, the blues long ago left the building as a uniquely African American art form steeped in the poetry of secular lamentation, Black struggle, and irreverence.  

Ruthie Foster

It’s no revelation that “eating the other”(to use bell hooks’ term) is as Amerikkkan as apple pie and mass deportations. In the funhouse mirror of twenty first century minstrelsy, white folks rule blues and rock, white rap hipsters have become yawningly pro forma, and white women hawking border chic in flavor of the month novels like American Dirt are anointed to speak for the brown downtrodden.

Like many women of color writers, I was outraged when I heard about the gushing adulation, Oprah Book Club endorsement, and obscene payday that American Dirt writer Jeanine Cummins received for her fetishized portrait of Mexican immigrant life. Shutting down the Cummins’ hype machine, Latinx writers Myriam Gurba and Esmeralda Bermudez dubbed the book an empty narco-thriller that trotted out racist, sexist stereotypes about Mexican immigrant communities for the white gaze. The organized backlash against Cummins’ gringa brownface ghost abduction of Mexican bodies was a rare instance when the longstanding grievances of women of color about white supremacy in the literary establishment had swift, national repercussions. Cummins’ book tour was cancelled, and Latinx writers from the #DignidadLiteraria group reportedly got her publisher to commit to increasing Latinx staff representation as well as book acquisitions. After the cancelation, some in the media attempted to portray Cummins as the victim of angry Latinas with pitchforks. Her wounded chagrin was reminiscent of the white fragility sweepstakes which arose after author Kathryn Stockett was slammed by Black writers about her Mammy-splaining novel The Help. In that instance, white gatekeepers wasted no time securing film rights and bankrolling a movie that showcased the pride of Miss Ann’s Hollywood lording over noble Negroes in a deep Jim Crow South notably devoid of civil rights activists.

When Black, Latinx, indigenous, and Asian novelists and fiction writers scrape to get by, shrug off rejection after rejection, and see white folks get outsized acclaim for writing about communities of color it confirms that nothing has changed in literary plantation politics. It’s estimated that nearly 80% of publishers are white, and that the majority of acquisitions editors are white women (most of whom probably fall all over themselves to denounce Trump).  This divide between liberal window dressing and the reality of plantation lit politics is underscored by publishing’s neoliberal bottom line. As poet Shivana Sookdeo notes,  “Without support for the marginalised already within publishing, from living wages to protection from backlash, you can’t attract more. Without that growth of the workforce, you can’t effectively safeguard against exploitative works. Without those safeguards, you make it even more inhospitable for diverse talent. Then you’re back at square one, publishing establishment, safe, whiter voices because the entire chain has been neglected.”

So who shells out crazy ducats for the Black gaze on white America?

Rosetta Tharpe

Picture this. Decades after her death at twenty seven from a drug overdose in 1970, the legacy of Janis Joplin still looms Godzilla-large over women’s history in rock music. Joplin was the first white woman musical colonist to ride her ear-bleeding, angsty rip-offs of Black blues standards to big bucks stardom and notoriety. Post crash and burn, Joplin has been the subject of umpteen biopics, documentaries, books (a new biography just dropped in October), musicals, and gushing odes to her own peculiar brand of parasitic white woman alchemy.  While Joplin’s cottage industry rolls on, it’s been only recently that the queer Black women rock and blues pioneers Joplin stole from—musicians like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Rosetta Tharpe—have received mainstream recognition for their trailblazing impact on American music.

I started writing my long delayed (!), forthcoming novel Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe out of my lifelong, ride or die love for all types of rock music (from Son House to Tharpe to Memphis Minnie to Band of Gypsys to Sonic Youth to Neil to Jimi to Love to PJ Harvey to Parliament/Funkadelic to King Crimson to Malina Moye to Brittany Howard), as well as the desire to explore the theft of Black creativity in a genre whose Black origins were hijacked by corporate America. One of the novel’s central themes is the artistic travails of Black women rendered invisible by the genre’s association with Alpha male whiteness in the post-British invasion era. The lived experience of working, Black women musicians are rarely captured in fiction.  Thus, I wanted to explore the everyday challenges, failures, and quiet triumphs of being a Black woman guitarist on the road playing dive bars and middling concert halls in the day-to-day grind of trying to keep a band together and the bills paid. Loosely based on Rosetta Tharpe—a gospel guitar titan criticized for embracing secular rock, blues, and country music—my protagonist grapples with the PTSD of sexual abuse, sexist/racist discrimination by record labels, promoters, and managers, and getting old in a youth-driven 1970s pop music culture. Fronting a band of men, she navigates a cutthroat record industry that chews up and spits out Black musicians who don’t fit neatly into accepted radio formats and hyper-feminized marketing images that appeal to white consumers. Like Rosetta Tharpe, Rory is a queer musician in a notoriously homophobic, testosterone-driven world. She’s also losing faith in god amidst a wave of prosperity gospel Black evangelicalism. While her “star” is waning, she comes into conflict with a Joplin-esque white artist who tries to capitalize on her outlier status to add street cred “spice” to her own career.

The novel allowed me to pose a number of central questions about female creativity within the context of extreme generational and religious trauma. For example, how do Black women musicians self-determine in shark infested professional waters? What role does women’s ambivalent desires play in forging complicated, often toxic artistic relationships? How did older Black women resist in a multi-billion dollar industry that sucked up Black ingenuity while deifying white male rock “gods”? And, finally, how do Black women artists navigate depression, as well as persistent thoughts of death and dying, when they’re expected to buck up and be self-sacrificing superwomen?
Many women of color fiction writers know this syndrome all too well. Writing outlier fiction—often in a snarling void, often pushing up a Sisyphean hill of preconceived, reductive notions about the Black imagination—is a tightrope walk. After years of rejections, deflections, games, and crickets from the publishing industry (e.g., being told things like, “[your short story] was among the finest pieces we received. [but] it did not exactly suit our needs at this time”) I self-publish most of my books. I can’t wait for the literary gatekeepers to give my voice “permission” or validation. As Alice Walker once said, “I write not only what I want to read, but I write the things that I should have been able to read”. I write for Black girls on a mad wanderlust quest for signs of themselves in the heart of dirty Americana.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the forthcoming Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical, Due April 2020, as well as Rock ‘N’ RollHeretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe (Infidel Books, 2020). @sikivuhutch