In The Hills On My Own

Reflections of a Twenty-Something Georgia Boy

Month: November, 2016

Who I Voted For

I voted today.

I’m a straight white Protestant male in the South. I could have stayed at home and watched ESPN all day today and things would be just fine for me tomorrow. But I went and voted. I voted for the people who couldn’t. I voted for the people who need an extra voice.

I voted for my great-grandmother, who had the audacity to go to college.

I voted for my grandmother on my father’s side, who fought alongside men in World War II when doing so wasn’t proper.

I voted for my grandparents on my mother’s side, who had fascinating conversations about metaphysics and psychology and religion with diverse groups of people, at a time when doing so in Mississippi could get you in a lot of trouble.

I voted for my mother, who taught me that when one person is treated unjustly, we are all treated unjustly. Who despite a myriad of challenges in her life has always spent time and energy on folks who need it. Who stood up in front of Senators on my behalf when I was a child with health problems and no health insurance. Who was forcibly removed from the Georgia State Capitol for speaking up for poor people.

I voted for my father, who taught me critical thinking and analysis, and the importance of being well-informed. Who worked hard every day for 25 years to make our city a better place, in his own way. Who taught me how music and art can be more than entertainment, but can convey a message of hope and change to people.

I voted for my brother, who until recently was my sister, who has shown more bravery in the face of personal challenges than I ever will, and whose community continues to struggle for the rights that they deserve. I voted as an ally.

I voted for my future family, so that they can live in a place of which they can be proud.

I voted for the formerly incarcerated, the legal aliens, the undocumented immigrants, and the folks without a photo ID, and all others who fight disenfranchisement. I voted with the hope that soon the promise of our democracy will be open to all who live here.

I voted for my city, so that it can continue to blossom into a place that is, as someone recently said, not only too busy to hate, but brave enough to love.

I voted for my state, flawed as it may be, so that it can continue to grow and progress into a place that combines the charm and creativity and class and culture of the American South with the forward-thinking open-mindedness of the best that our country has to offer.

I voted for my country, because when you love something, you work hard to make it better.

I voted for all of this, and more. I voted because I can, and others cannot.

I voted because it’s my responsibility.

I voted today.

 

 

Redneck Beers

“We don’t serve redneck beers here,” she said in a Carolina accent. I took a look around the outside bar and saw ads for Miller, Coors Light, Bud. I looked back at the server, she was waiting for me to ask for something more refined than PBR. She must have mistaken the incredulous look on my face for one of confusion, because she repeated herself, slightly louder. Everything on the patio seemed to slow down, and then stop, except for the ceiling fans struggling to move the thick Columbia air.

It was 2012. The night before, a group of friends and I had driven to South Carolina from Atlanta, listening on the radio as the Braves lost to the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card game in what would later be known as the “Sam Holbrook game.” We were in Columbia to watch the Georgia Bulldogs take on the South Carolina Gamecocks, a matchup of two top-ten teams trying to take the next step to the top of the SEC. Georgia lost that day in depressing fashion, and we all cursed the oppressive heat and general meh-ness of Columbia, South Carolina and swore never to return. A promise I have kept over the last four years.

I used to get self-righteous and judge people for liking things I don’t like. I was the record store clerks in “High Fidelity,” and the beer snob, the sports-talk radio call-in guy, and the guy who didn’t listen to commercial radio – if you didn’t like the things I like you were either stupid or somehow financial invested or probably both, and I spent a lot of energy letting you know. Thank god I didn’t have Twitter then…

Look, if you like an album, or a book, or a football team, or a restaurant, or a beer, or a political candidate, or a church, or NOT going to church, that’s awesome – talk about why you like it with other people who like it, or people who don’t, or people who are just curious. Just recognize that your opinion is just that – it’s what YOU like. All of those things are a matter of personal taste, and taste can’t be right or wrong.

We should do more to evaluate intentions rather than opinions, and understand that most people on this planet are just trying to do what’s best for themselves and the people they love. What we think is the best album of the 1980s (it’s Graceland by Paul Simon, COME AT ME), or the greatest American novel, or whether PBR is a redneck beer, or the best way to secure our country against those who wish us harm… all of those are conversations we should have. They are healthy and they are what lead to growth. But when we let our tastes and opinions become dogma, we stunt and cripple that growth and pit us against ourselves. We can do better.

Guarded

It was jarring to walk into the Cathedral of St. Phillip and see officers from the Georgia Department of Corrections patrolling the aisles.

I hadn’t been in a church in a while, but I remembered what to expect – usually the most intimidating presence is the usher, whose subtle and quiet guidance to an empty pew is more of an invitation than a command. Seeing the sky blue shirts and navy pants that symbolize the Georgia law enforcement community here was at once disturbing and distressing, so out of place against the clean stone and marble of the center of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.

The officers were there to escort Voices of Hope, the choir made up of inmates at Arrendale State Prison, a women’s prison located in Habersham County, GA. The choir had come to lend their voices to the Homeless Requiem, an annual service memorializing those members of Atlanta’s homeless population who lost their lives in the past year. It is a powerful and moving event, one that brings people together from across our diverse community to celebrate, mourn, and advocate for this often-ignored group of Atlantans.

I was there for the homeless community, but I can’t shake the images of the corrections officers. After reading so much recently about our criminal justice system, it was discomfiting to be in such close proximity to actual prison guards. All of them were white, as were the warden and assistant warden of the prison who were also in attendance, though the choir was in the neighborhood of 80% black. There were two women officers, one of whom seemed particularly interested in the women she was guarding. She stayed closest to them, and while they performed she sat in a pew, leaning forward and watching intently. She seemed to genuinely care about the women in her charge, and it was refreshing to watch.

One of the male officers reminded me of an Atlanta Police officer that spent a lot of time at my high school that we called “Officer Hardass.” He appeared to be in his thirties, and had either extremely short or no hair. His face wore a constant smirk, and he alternated between sitting at the front of the church staring at his phone and wandering around the sanctuary with the air of someone looking for a fight, a walk I know all too well from my time in bars in Athens. He made me wildly uncomfortable, and I can’t imagine what he did to the psyche of not only the inmates he was escorting, but also the guests at the service from the homeless community. Statistics vary, but researchers estimate that anywhere from a quarter to half of the homeless population in America has been incarcerated at some time. How difficult it must have been, then, to be reminded of that at a funeral service for a member of one’s community.

The average base salary for a corrections officer in Georgia is just over $28,000 a year. The job, I would imagine, attracts a variety of people. Prisons are often located in communities where a salaried position with benefits working for the state of Georgia is something to aspire to. In many places, the prison is the largest employer. It is an industry, one that turns the incarcerated into a product, and the officers charged with guarding them into the equivalent of an assembly line worker, offered little compensation for what can be dangerous work, because it is the only decent job in town. Like any other job, there are employees that work hard, take it seriously, get paid, and provide for their families. But there are also the ones who use their position to take out their frustrations and insecurities on those they are guarding. It is another product of a flawed and unjust system of punishment that is deeply in need of fixing.

I ended up leaving the service after passing the peace with my neighbors in the pews – I was troubled and needed to get out of there. Maybe next year I’ll be ready.

On Environmental Injustice

For a long time, our response to harmful or potentially harmful industrial activity has not been to question whether it should take place, but rather to move it to places where, we believe, the community is powerless to object. We see that now in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but consider also today’s Colonial Pipeline explosion in Monroe County, Alabama, 49th of 67 Alabama counties in per capita income. Consider the 2014 Duke Energy coal ash spill in Eden, NC, where the average per capita income is barely over $15K a year. Time after time, whether it is coal mine collapses in West Virginia, or contaminated water near fracking locations in Pennsylvania and New York, it is our low-income, marginalized communities that bear the full weight of our environmental carelessness.

Often these communities are told that these industrial projects will bring jobs and economic development, but the jobs are often temporary – once the pipeline or dump site or well is built, they take little to maintain, especially in the deregulatory environment advocated by laissez-faire capitalists. The tragedy then becomes that the father who built the fracking well loses his job and watches from home as it poisons his daughter with cancer. Or the mother who worked on the pipeline is killed when it explodes. Or the uncle in West Virginia who is injured in the mine spirals into addiction to the opioid painkiller prescribed to him because it was the only job he can get.

We are not only killing our earth with our environmental recklessness, we are killing our most vulnerable citizens, communities left increasingly voiceless by gerrymandering, barriers to voting, and false promises made by demagogues who leave them at the altar the day after election day. It is no accident that dangerous chemicals are routed through low-income, marginalized communities often with large populations of people of color – it is an intentional action, the result of the worst kind of NIMBYism.

As we continue (hopefully) to search for ways to be better environmental stewards, we absolutely MUST stop pushing the effects of our industry onto those least equipped to object.