A Q&A With Law Professor Katherine Franke

Franke was turned away at the Israeli border after appearing on an anonymous site targeting more than 2,000 critics of Israel.

On March 6, 2017, the Israeli Knesset, by a vote of 46 to 28, passed a law banning entry to all foreign nationals “if he or she, or the organization or the body for which he or she operates, has knowingly published a public call to engage in a boycott against the State of Israel or has made a commitment to participate in such a boycott.” The law has stirred worry, both within Israel and without, for its seeming compression of the idea of supporting boycotts as political speech or intellectual expression, and the idea of boycotts as security threat. That much is the subject of healthy debate among Israeli citizens, in universities, newspapers, as well as in the Knesset.

For noncitizens of Israel, however, the debate about boycotts and divestment has carried a different toll: Since the law’s passage, a variety of foreign individuals, NGOs, and other organizations have been banned or deported from the country, including the American Friends Service Committee. One such banning that sparked particular international concern was the detention and deportation of Columbia Law School professor Katherine Franke. I should disclose that I am also a Columbia Law professor and therefore a colleague of Franke’s. I interviewed her recently; the following is an edited transcript of the conversation. 

Patricia J. Williams

Patricia J. Williams: What happened?

Katherine Franke: I was traveling to Israel and the West Bank as part of a 20-member delegation of civil-rights leaders from the United States. When we landed in Tel Aviv on the morning of April 29, 2018, four members of the delegation, including me, were detained, interrogated, and then deported. [The rest of the delegates exited the airport without issue and proceeded to Jerusalem to start the trip.] I was told that I would be banned from entering the country—one person said it was for life, another for five years. The deportation order I received did not clarify this.

PW: What was the purpose of your trip?

KF: First, I am the chair of the Board of Trustees of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and CCR had organized the delegation. The group included lawyers and activists working on Native American resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline; advocates fighting police violence in Ferguson; human-rights defenders in Puerto Rico; lawyers challenging the Muslim ban in the US; and the cochair of the Women’s March. We had scheduled visits with civil-rights advocates and others in Israel and in the West Bank.

Secondly, I was traveling in my capacity as Columbia faculty, to meet with two graduate students whose dissertations I am supervising. One is an Israeli citizen living in Haifa. The other is a Palestinian human-rights advocate in Ramallah who cannot get a permit from the Israelis to exit the West Bank. The only way for us to meet in person is for me to travel to Ramallah.

I had also scheduled a meeting with a scholar in Ramallah to discuss a possible collaboration between several law schools in the West Bank and Columbia for a joint human-rights masters program. Further, I had scheduled meetings with colleagues at Adalah, an NGO in Israel with whom the Center for Palestine Studies has been collaborating for several years as part of our Palestine and Law program. We had planned to discuss programming for the next academic year.

PW: Did that activity constitute the stated basis for your deportation?

KF: I was not given the opportunity to tell the immigration officer who detained me about the purpose of my trip as I just described it, because he was convinced that I was traveling to the region to promote the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions (BDS) movement. I told him I have been to Israel a half-dozen or so times, the first time in 2000 and most recently last October. All of those visits had been for work-related purposes. Several years ago I was hired by the EU to do capacity building for the Women’s Committee of the Palestinian Bar Association. Last October I was invited by Adalah to speak about academic freedom at a Palestinian Law Students conference in Bethlehem.

After I told him this trip was a mix of work and tourism the interrogation took a more hostile turn: He yelled at me: “You’re here to promote BDS in Palestine, aren’t you?” I responded that I was absolutely not. He yelled again: “You’re lying!” He then asked me if I volunteered with any groups in the US. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at, so I said I volunteer with many groups, including CCR. Then he barked: “You work for JVP, don’t you?” I said I did not work for JVP, which is true. “You’re making my job easy, you’re lying to me,” he said, at which point he showed me his cell phone, displaying what I believe was Canary Mission’s page on me. This went on for over an hour.

PW: JVP?

KF: JVP, Jewish Voice for Peace is a nonprofit membership organization based in the US that advocates for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine. JVP has institutionally endorsed the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel (BDS). The BDS call came from civil-society groups in Palestine in 2005 as a way to engage the international community in their struggle for justice, borrowing a tactic that had been used by anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. The call asks the international community to boycott the state of Israel, divest from investments in all Israeli companies and from international companies involved in violating Palestinian rights, and that states impose sanctions on Israel until it comes into compliance with human-rights laws and norms.

The BDS movement has three primary goals: (1) ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem; (2) securing the rights of Palestinians living in Israel to full equality, and (3) recognizing the right of Palestinian refugees living across the globe to return their 1948 homes and properties as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 194. Prominent supporters of and organizations that have participated in BDS in the past include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Stephen Hawking, Naomi Klein, Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, Connecticut AFL-CIO, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and several Quaker bodies.

Several years ago I served on the executive committee of JVP’s Academic Advisory Council, which has since been dissolved. I am not a member of JVP, but do work closely with them on issues of academic freedom, defense of free-speech rights, and other issues on an ad hoc basis. I am also a donor to JVP. None of this do I consider to amount to my being a “leader of JVP” or holding a “prominent role” with them. That said, even if I were a leader of JVP I would object to being banned from entering Israel on account of my political views or that of JVP.

USACBI is a related campaign calling for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. It asks academics and cultural workers to boycott any event or activity that is funded in whole or part by the Israeli government. Over 1,400 academics, myself included, and nearly 500 cultural workers have endorsed the academic and cultural boycott. This means that I will not participate in a conference funded by the Israeli government, for instance, but I do collaborate with Israeli academics and supervise dissertations of Israeli graduate students. I have not endorsed a boycott of all of Israel or all Israelis, but rather only the current Israeli government because of its human-rights record.

Nevertheless, when journalists have asked the Israeli interior minister about why I was deported the answer was: I am a prominent supporter of BDS and/or a leader of JVP.

PW: And what is Canary Mission, the site whose page you said that the immigration officers had on his cell phone?

KF: Canary Mission is one of a number of sites—AMCHA is another—that track thousands of academics and students in the United States and labels them anti-Semites based solely on their critique of Israeli government policies or their support of Palestinian rights.

PW: This is an official government site?

KF: We don’t actually know who is behind Canary Mission; the site is run anonymously.

PW: That sounds as though it may present problems of procedural fairness, if a private or anonymously sourced list of names becomes the metric for passing through a legal checkpoint.

KF: The current Israeli government seems to have outsourced the determination of who is an enemy of the state to unaccountable online entities and rumor mills, with no procedural mechanisms to counter hearsay or trolling. The individual gatekeepers—the border guards and airport security agents deciding who may enter Israel—seem to rely to some considerable degree on such sites.

PW: In recent years, universities—in Israel as well as the US—have become the sites of our most relentless head-butting about the possibilities and fears of censorship. Do you think the Law Against Damage to Israel Through Boycott poses a real-world test of those principles?

KF: It is a concern shared across boundaries, especially in Israel and Palestine. A core value of democracy is protection of academic freedom and the rights of political dissenters. Eighty Israeli law professors, representing all 13 law schools in Israel, have signed a letter protesting my deportation, stating: “Preventing a scholar from entering the country due to criticism the scholar emitted is an anti-democratic act that undermines freedom of expression and academic freedom.” Jewish law professors in the US have circulated a letter as well and a similar statement was issued by nearly 100 Jewish-studies scholars,

What is more, citizens of Israel are harmed by the denial of entry to critics of the government, denied the opportunity to meet with allies from abroad. Part of the purpose of our delegation was to meet face-to-face with human-rights defenders in Israel and Palestine in an effort to build bridges and strategies across movements.

Of equal importance is the fact that entry to Palestine is controlled entirely by the Israeli government. When scholars and advocates such as myself are banned entry into Israel, we are also effectively banned entry into Palestine, and the airport becomes nothing more than a checkpoint, a key instrument in Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. Thus, we cannot meet with colleagues at universities in the West Bank, such as Birzeit University outside Ramallah, Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, or An-Najah National University in Nablus. This is particularly problematic since residents of the West Bank cannot leave without being issued a permit from the Israelis, something that is very difficult to obtain. They are already systematically restricted in their ability to attend conferences and other academic gatherings in Europe, the US and elsewhere. Our ability to travel to the West Bank is essential to Palestinian academics’ ability to engage a global community of scholars.

Finally, it is essential that scholars and human-rights activists be able to document conditions in Israel and Palestine, and to monitor the state of human-rights compliance or noncompliance. By denying entry to its critics, Israel has essentially walled itself off from international accountability to human-rights monitoring. It is right to denounce the Egyptian and Russian governments when they refuse access to human-rights inspectors, and so too we should criticize Israel when it deploys similar measures.

PW: How Israel might patrol, protect, or occupy the vast penumbral range of its borders—particularly in Gaza or the West Bank—surely raises issues of international law. Yet why is it that American academics should expect protection of the constitutional traditions of First Amendment speech and academic freedom when seeking admission to another country?

KF: While these values are embedded in our Constitution, they are not exclusive to it. Such notions reflect very basic aspects of human freedom. Free speech, liberty of movement, collective study, and exchange of ideas—these are essential to the very idea of democratic self-government and human flourishing, and are protected under international law regardless of the context. Banning the movement of scholars based on their research or political speech violates fundamental principles on which the legitimacy of any government stands.

PW: My final question: Could you say just a word about the similarity between Israel’s anti-boycott law and the growing movement to pass nearly identical laws here in the US, at both state and federal levels?

KF: As the BDS movement has gained momentum internationally, measures in the US to punish its supporters have been introduced in legislatures across the country. Since 2014, more than 100 anti-BDS measures have been introduced in state and local legislatures across the country. At least 24 states have enacted anti-BDS laws. These laws take different forms, but many of them, such as an executive order issued by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and a law passed by the Arizona legislature in 2016, bar any business or organization that supports the boycott of Israel from bidding on public contracts and requires the state to publicize a blacklist of their names. So, for instance, the Presbyterian Church would be blacklisted and prohibited from running homeless shelters with public money because of its decision to divest from companies involved in the demolition of Palestinian homes. These laws treat constitutionally protected political activism as a form of treason. A federal judge in Kansas recently blocked enforcement of an anti-boycott law in a case brought by a public-school math coach who cannot take part in a state program to train other teachers because she refuses to sign an anti-boycott certification.

Almost every social movement has at some point deployed boycotts as a tactic to advance its political goals, along with demonstrations, picketing, strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of direct action. Yet the ardent defenders of Israel portray boycotts as a kind of hateful, dirty trick—an ironic position to take given that American Jews convinced the World Jewish Congress to call for a boycott of German goods in 1936. And when the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of black citizens’ boycott of racist businesses in Mississippi in the 1960s, the American Jewish Congress submitted a friend-of-the-court brief coauthored by Nathan Dershowitz [Alan’s brother] arguing that “politically motivated economic boycotts have a long and honored history in America,” and that boycotts “are forms of expression undoubtedly protected by the First Amendment.”

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Nation Radio: The Legacy of Lynching

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Peace, Justice, Ida B. Wells-Barnett

by Patricia J. Williams,  Published in The Nation Magazine, May 2, 2018  https://www.thenation.com/article/ida-b-wells-barnett-deserves-a-bigger-statue/

Whenever I play the piano, I do so under the watchful gaze of the great civil-rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. A beautiful bronze bust of her sits atop my old spinet. I may play terribly, but she lends me courage in all endeavors.

Born into slavery in 1862, Wells-Barnett attended what is today Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The college was founded in 1866 by members of the Freedmen’s Aid Society, who came south after the Civil War to set up schools where it had so recently been against the law to teach slaves how to read and write. Many had feared that literacy among slaves would “excite dissatisfaction” (as North Carolina’s law expressed it) and lead to rebellion; indeed, Mississippi’s antebellum law against educating slaves required that freed blacks leave the state altogether.

This fear metastasized after Emancipation. Northern missionaries and reformers flocked to Southern states to establish primary and secondary schools as well as the institutions now referred to as “historically black colleges and universities,” or HBCUs. But white resentment of black empowerment ran deep and strong in the South, culminating in the emergence of terror organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. The repressive backlash of the post-Reconstruction era would be formalized as Jim Crow.

It was during this period that Wells-Barnett came of age. As literacy spread among the former slaves, black journalism flourished across the nation. Wells-Barnett co-owned and edited the newspaper Memphis Free Speech. She urged universal suffrage, including for black men and women. Among other things, she refused to leave a first-class carriage from which a conductor tried to expel her, and filed an early lawsuit challenging whites-only railroad cars. And she launched what would become a lifelong crusade against lynching.

The latter is undoubtedly what she is best remembered for today: Wells-Barnett traveled across the South delivering searing investigative reports on the extrajudicial spectacles of hangings, burnings, and dismemberment. After three of her friends were lynched in 1892 for daring to open a grocery store that competed with a white business, she urged African Americans to pack up and leave Memphis. So many hundreds followed her counsel—among them my grandmother and her sisters—that civic leaders tried to persuade her to retract that advice because of the drain on manual and domestic labor. When she refused, a mob burned down the offices of her paper and vowed to kill her. She fled to Chicago and continued to write.

It is in recognition of this determined advocacy that the newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, has dedicated a space to her. The memorial is an evocatively beautiful structure composed of hundreds of suspended stelae, symbolic tribute to the thousands of men and women whose murders by lynching were meant to frighten African Americans into silence and submission. Its existence is largely due to the efforts of the extraordinary lawyer Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization dedicated to challenging racial and economic injustice.

While nursing this project to fruition, Stevenson and the EJI began a campaign to label buildings that were once slave warehouses, put up signs where slave auctions took place, and make sacred the places where lynchings occurred. These markers are intended to remind and give pause, to stimulate contemplation of what has been suppressed and denied. They are designed to do the same emotional work as the artist Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones“—small cubes inscribed with individual names, placed in the sidewalks of European cities to mark the last place where victims of Nazi extermination had lived.

Much of the coverage of the memorial’s April 26 opening focused on poignant interviews with the descendants of lynching victims. But there are at least three more topics that must be foregrounded to honor all that this project intends to evoke: first, the equally urgent, equally unsettling encounter that must be had with the descendants of perpetrators. Murderers wreak not just public forms of terror, but intergenerational havoc in intimate and domestic spheres as well; their victims include their own children, who were taught that unjust death was just life.

Second, we mustn’t forget that this memorial recognizes the diversity of the victims of lynching—which, while directed mainly against black men, spared few who defied white supremacy, including women, Jews, and those deemed foreigners.

Third, we need to think about the inexpressible horrors that have rendered it so hard to erect any monuments at all to the legacy of slavery other than sentimental paeans to honey, magnolia blossoms and the virtues of hard-work. This is not only about Confederate imagery:  the symbolic accumulation of things and people we commemorate speaks for itself: Of 152 national monuments, only three are dedicated to women; of 30 national memorials, not a single one is. That’s why it was so good to see Wells-Barnett honored at the national memorial in Montgomery. But perhaps that should inspire us to even greater ambition: Let’s remember that, in addition to being a courageous journalist and a Rosa Parks-before-her-time, the polymathic Wells-Barnett was also a schoolteacher, a businesswoman, a political candidate, a statistician, a sociologist, a wife and mother of six, an opponent of anti-miscegenation laws, and a feminist who fought for the right of women to vote (while refusing requests that she and other black women march at the back of suffragist demonstrations).

In short, Ida B. Wells-Barnett deserves a bigger statue than the one on my piano. Luckily, there’s a movement to build her a proper monument of her own in Bronzeville, on the South Side of Chicago, where she spent the latter years of her life. It will cost $300,000, only a third of which has been raised; if you wish to contribute, you may do so at idabwellsmonument.org. Also, her descendants have set up a foundation to provide scholarships for needy students attending Rust College; contributions may be made at ibwfoundation.org.

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Leading and Bleeding

The attacks on the Parkland survivors are designed to humiliate, threaten, and dehumanize.

It has been unsettling to hear the language with which the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been attacked. They’ve been accused of being crisis actors, dupes, paid agitators, hooky-playing homosexuals, attention-seeking mental cases, pawns for the FBI, and communist traitors. If it is rare in American history to see upper-middle-class white children so viciously described, it would be wrong to consider it altogether anomalous. Looking at the list of epithets hurled at these young survivors—Emma González and David Hogg in particular—I am reminded of the hateful stereotypes used to demonize the young white Freedom Riders who challenged segregation nearly 60 years ago. And, perhaps predictably, the rhetoric has become even more vitriolic since a number of the students called attention to racial disparities in the media’s coverage (one could easily have assumed from the initial images that Stoneman Douglas was entirely white) and reached out to align their movement with the black youths who have advocated gun control under the broad umbrella of Black Lives Matter.

One of the most disturbing features of this mockery is its calculated dehumanization. The most searing comments seem far less concerned with the Second Amendment than with personalized humiliation, designed to threaten, break, or even destroy young people who are protesting in the name of peace. This discourse far exceeds mere incivility. We have witnessed the massive circulation of allegations that March for Our Lives activists are profiting from the blood of their fallen classmates, dancing on their graves, and ripping up the Constitution. We have heard guitarist Ted Nugent calling the anti-gun-violence protesters “soulless” and “mushy-brained”; indie-rock performer Jesse Hughes—himself a survivor of the horrific slaughter at the Bataclan music hall in Paris—likened giving up guns to prevent violence to “chop[ping] off my own dick to stop rape.” Leslie Gibson, the now-former Republican candidate for Maine’s House of Representatives, has called González a “skinhead lesbian.” Actor Frank Stallone described Hogg as a “pussy” and a “headline grabbing punk” who “is getting a little big for his britches,” adding, “I’m sure someone from his age group is dying to sucker punch this rich little bitch.” At Arkansas’s Greenbrier High School, three students who walked out of class for 17 minutes were given “two ‘swats’ from a paddle.” (As Wylie Green, one of the students, later observed: “The idea that violence should be used against someone who was protesting violence as a means to discipline them is appalling.”) Most notoriously, Fox News host Laura Ingraham mocked Hogg as a “whiner” when he didn’t get accepted by his top four choices for college.

The statistics of who is actually dying in our society have been drowned out by all this cruel noise. But the combination of gleeful misogyny, gratuitous threat, and just plain bullying is its own culture of disgrace. Unfortunately, dehumanizing our youngest citizens isn’t a new feature in our most vexed political encounters: I am thinking of Ruby Bridges, who in 1960, at the age of 6, integrated the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans; she made her way each morning through hordes of angry white parents—mostly women—who spat at her, threw eggs at her, and threatened to poison her. I am also thinking of Linda Brown, who died on March 25 of this year; as a child, she was the beneficiary, along with her sister Cheryl, of the ruling ending “separate but equal” in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

I am also remembering a significant precursor to the March for Our Lives: the Children’s March of 1963. Fifty-five years ago this May, thousands of schoolchildren marched through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, to protest racial inequality. Freeman Hrabowski, now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was 12 at the time, and recalls encountering the infamous public-safety commissioner, Bull Connor: “My knees were shaking. He looked at me and said, ‘Little nigra, what do you want?’ I said, ‘We want to kneel and pray.’” Hrabowski and hundreds of others were thrown in jail before the day was out, and Connor went on to use attack dogs and fire hoses to disperse the crowds. (The water pressure was so great that it not only tore clothing and flesh, but dislodged bricks from nearby buildings.) The brutality captured in news footage from that day endures as the symbol of repressive racial separatism in a city whose nickname—“Bombingham”—stemmed from the frequency with which black homes and churches were bombed by white vigilantes.

Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who spent her own youth on the front lines of the civil-rights movement, has written poignantly of the four young girls who died in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and of the “wounds that are less visible and harder to reconcile.” She writes that bombing survivor Sarah Collins Rudolph, whose sister Addie Mae was killed, and who lost one of her eyes in the blast, “is seeking financial compensation for the extensive medical expenses she incurred after the attack. After suffering the consequences for the past five decades, she said, even after all these years, nobody remembers her.”

González, Hogg, Naomi Wadler, and the other speakers at the March for Our Lives are the most memorable of the young people affected by our scourge of gun death. But more than 187,000 students have been exposed to school shootings since Columbine in April 1999. Many remain in various degrees of physical or mental pain; they are a population whose remaining years will be etched with the stresses of catastrophe. And while many of the young leaders of this new movement are smart, strong, and media-savvy, we should never forget the toll taken on their lives—not only with regard to the unspeakable trauma they’ve already endured, but in the reiteratively staged depravity that sics hungry dogs upon those who kneel to pray, codes cruelty as freedom, and takes decency for weakness.

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Midi info – Audio fil du vendredi 30 mars 2018 11 h 41 | Cinquante ans après l’assassinat de Martin Luther King : Table ronde avec Greg Robinson et Patricia Williams

https://ici.radio-canada.ca/premiere/emissions/midi-info/episodes/403914/audio-fil-du-vendredi-30-mars-2018

 

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The Pluperfected Future: Encountering Ghosts in Family Photos, Historical Dolls and ‘The Black Panther’

by Patricia J. Williams

Published in The Nation Magazine, March 9, 2018

black-dolls-maison-rouge-otu-img.jpg

Some time ago, I discovered a trove of boxes stashed away in my late parents’ attic, and, ever since, I’ve been working my way through this archive of family photos, letters, scrapbooks, and other ephemera, which extends back almost 150 years. Two of the most precious things I’ve found are photos of my paternal great-grandfather and my maternal great-grandmother, both born into slavery. I am fortunate enough to have grown up with lots of stories passed down about both of them, but I had never seen either of their faces before. The sudden apparition of their oddly familiar features has been so startling, so jolting, so magical that I often feel as though I’m hallucinating. It is almost as if their images had coiled upward from the scrapbook, like smoke, and entered my body.

Their presence has bloomed within me, but also beyond me, like a gentle aura. There is something dark and inexplicable yet entirely illuminating in the eeriness of this encounter with ghosts. It is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle you thought you’d finished, but suddenly there are thousands of extra pieces, and you realize it’s an assemblage with no borders and an endless number of combinations. I try to read their lives from the fragments, the tea leaves of their long-gone presence.

I have always thought of reality as a present tense. But in this family archive, reality has leached all over the geography of time. I feel porous, unsettled in the coherence of an identity I had thought of as my own. It brings felt meaning to the koan that the novelist and Zen master Ruth Ozeki frequently cites as her meditative inspiration: “What did your face look like before your parents were born?”

This intimate encounter with images of my family’s past has overlapped with my visit to a museum exhibit featuring 150 black dolls from the collection of Connecticut lawyer Deborah Neff. The dolls were handmade by African-American women, most of them enslaved, and intended as toys for both their black and white charges. The show is on display at La Maison Rouge, a small museum in Paris, through May 20. Beautifully curated by the French filmmaker Nora Philippe and the American art historian Deborah Willis, these gathered dolls are a quiet army, the careful craft of women who left little other trace, whose names and lives were otherwise erased.

The dolls were fashioned from whatever materials lay at hand—scraps of sackcloth, gingham and silk, bits of leather and wool, coconut shell, hardwood, seeds and beads—but it’s the scripture of their faces that I found most arresting. Their wordless witness invites a kind of guessing game about who their makers were and for whom they were intended. I pore over the smallest stitches and details of style and color, as though I could decipher a grammar in each placement of a ribbon; I search for meaning in their button eyes.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that it is the face-to-face encounter that inspires one to serve and to give to others, for it “involves a calling into question of oneself, a critical attitude which is itself produced in face of the other….”

In my meditations on those photos of my great-grandparents, imagining what my face looked like before my parents were born has merged with the mute inscrutability of those collected black dolls’ faces into a field of unconfined mythmaking. Thinking mythologically is comforting, I suppose: It signifies something beyond quotidian concerns and invites a sense of belonging to a grand narrative or idealized creation story. In supplying archetypes that are foundational and originary, myths connect the generationally disconnected, providing a sense of continuity from the past to the present, and then on to a promised—or even destined—future.

At the same time, the yearning for creation stories can be born of discontent, displacement, and despair. Mythmaking can sometimes risk generating a too-romantic sense of nostalgia for times-that-never-were and for the purities of blood-and-soil belonging. (The tension between these two visions—utopia and the exile therefrom—are on full display in the furious online debates about cinematic representations of home, loss, and heroism in Black Panther. Indeed, the central challenge of Afrofuturism, the sci-fi/fantasy genre of which Black Panther is a prime example, is how best to imagine a future in which children of the African diaspora survive, make the temporal crossing safely, and endure.)

The word “utopia” literally compresses into its etymology a good place that is also a nonexistent place. Therefore, when I search the photos in my family archive or the dolls in the museum for signs of who I ought to be, I have to remind myself that I am not only trying to reconstruct the precise facts of particular lives. Like Wakanda, the idyllic setting of Black Panther, these objects are imaginative spaces, fields of psychic desire. Their insistent traces offer a resistance to ultimate effacement as well as room to dream theories of the possible.

In this sense, these complex visual effigies have taken up residence within me like marvelous secret agents of love, sadness, healing, and heroism. Their shapes have insinuated themselves as armatures for carrying on, brave imaginaries for the mind and heart. They are surely available as well to be mined for all sorts of direct connections within unbudging political frames, but, while the dolls are singular in form, I experience each unique depiction as expressively unbounded. Thus they have become ethical reference points in the seeping disfigurements of trauma, rage, cruelty, and death. They speak figuratively. The echo of their voices is an epiphany of repair, an assurance to lost children of their place in worlds to come.

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Teachers Are Being Trained to Shoot Their Students

But we can’t shoot our way out of America’s gun-violence crisis.

Within the first 23 days of 2018, there were 11 school shootings in the United States. In lieu of any serious discussion about gun control, there has been instead a proliferation of laws and bills that would arm teachers, and train them to be able to kill. Observes Adam Skaggs, of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “it’s the idea that people need guns everywhere—city streets, public parks, even government buildings.” It’s also the response of a nation at war with itself.

One example of the trend is the Buckeye Firearms Foundation’s funding of so-called “Faster” programs, three-day training sessions for teachers from around the country. In addition to target practice, one day of the training is devoted to “mindset development,” or bolstering teachers’ preparedness to shoot after split-second assessments. Trainees are asked “to close their eyes and imagine the student entering the classroom with a gun” and then are taught how to command the grit necessary to kill that student. One teacher from Colorado told the BBC that “she decided to picture her favourite student during the preparation exercises, in an effort to harden herself to the worst possible eventuality.” A Faster instructor was quite encouraging of such resolve: “if we can have them win in their minds first, against that student, then when it comes to the actual incident they will prevail.”

What an astounding proposition, this tragic lesson about winning “in their minds first, against that student….” This adherence to a toxic shoot-‘em-up Wild West ethic puts teachers in a clear bind: They must labor from the untenable position of actively imagining their students in the crosshairs, the objects of target practice. If this isn’t the end of civilization, I don’t know what is.

Deputizing teachers as locked-and-loaded “peace” officers speaks volumes about how challenged police are by the quotidian nature of gun violence. It should make us ponder how much democratic assumptions about the state having a monopoly on violence have been frayed by anarchic ideologies of “every man for himself.” And it brings that us-versus-them mentality into the classroom. The Colorado teacher imagined her favorite student; I’m guessing that many would imagine their worst student, or some stereotype of dangerous otherness. Either way, the imaginative act of seeing the best as worst and the worst as expendable is a separate danger in itself—a premeditated license to shoot faster, ever faster…

In the United States, more than half the population believes that having a gun enhances the chances of survival in a world overrun by gangs of terrorists. But data shows very conclusively that gun ownership is much more likely to increase the risk of harm. Research shows, as Slate notes, “a gun in the home was far more likely to be used to threaten a family member or intimate partner than to be used in self-defense.” According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, not only is “[t]he risk of homicide…three times higher in homes with firearms,” but in addition, “[k]eeping a firearm in the home increases the risk of suicide by a factor of 3 to 5 and increases the risk of suicide with a firearm by a factor of 17.” There is no reason to suppose that such figures wouldn’t apply to gun-centered classrooms.

I can’t comprehend this foolish disregard of empirical data about what actually reduces gun violence.

When the nuclear-warning system accidentally went off in Hawaii a few weeks ago, many experienced the profound helplessness of confronting an unfathomable force of violence. Perhaps it lends a certain sense of control to imagine that we’d have time to “protect” ourselves by crawling into an air-raid shelter, but in case of nuclear attack, it is clear that anyone within broad range would be incinerated instantly. The only real hope for survival is limiting access to and control of the weapons themselves.

The same holds true for the extraordinary arsenal Americans own privately. We can do our best to protect ourselves against every unexpected irrational attack like the one in Las Vegas, but unless we wrap our bodies perpetually in Kevlar and travel in bomb-resistant tanks, the problem remains: There are simply too many guns in circulation for us ever to imagine that we might protect ourselves without simply reducing the number of them. In America, guns exact a toll greater than that of active warfare. According to The Guardian: “Since 1968…there have been 1,516,863 gun-related deaths on US territory. Since the founding of the United States, there have been 1,396,733 war deaths. That figure includes American lives lost in the revolutionary war, the Mexican war, the civil war (Union and Confederate, estimate), the Spanish-American war, the first world war, the second world war, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, the Gulf war, the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, as well as other conflicts, including in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Haiti.”

And yet… Faster’s training does map rather neatly onto America’s romance with redemptive vigilantism. Previously in this column, I recommended Harvard scholar Caroline Light’s excellent book Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense. Let me add to that recommendation Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story “Erostratus.” There, the narrator derives misanthropic and sexual pleasure from carrying a gun hidden in his pocket. That exhilaration comes, he says, not from the gun, but rather “it was from myself: I was a being like a revolver, a torpedo, or a bomb.”

Philosopher Robert Esposito writes that “things constitute the filter through which humans…enter into relationship with each other.” Guns, torpedoes, and bombs are precisely such things. Warns Esposito: “The more our technological objects, with the know-how that has made them serviceable, embody a sort of subjective life, the less we can squash them into an exclusively servile function.”

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