Kneeling and the Flag

The biggest thing in the news right now is the “controversy” in the NFL with players kneeling during the National Anthem. This is such big news that it has completely overshadowed the tragic and unexplained shooting in Las Vegas. I have many thoughts about this “controversy” and the essential right behind it: free speech. Because I have so many thoughts, the most coherent way is to bullet point and number them. Here’s Laura’s Take on this issue:

  1. Regardless of how one feels about NFL players kneeling or standing during the National Anthem, it must be recognized that this is an issue of free speech, rather than patriotism. In that, whether one choose to practice patriotism or not is a component of freedom of speech and expression.
  2. We must also reason there are inherent assumptions behind the intentions of a NFL player who stands or kneels or sits. That is, much of this debate has been hijacked by those who are assuming that the NFL players intend on disrespecting the flag by kneeling.
  3. The kneeling NFL players report that they are doing so to bring attention to the issue of police brutality. Is kneeling during the Anthem the most effective way to do so?
  4. Is kneeling during the flag actually disrespectful? A friend pointed out that when he prays to God, he kneels down. This kneeling symbolizes respect and honor.
  5. What free speech are we willing to defend? Freedom of speech is not an absolute, but it is damn near close.
  6. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right granted to us as Americans. But, it is not always comfortable. I do not think that flying the Confederate flag, burning the American flag or wearing a white hood is good or even just but I will defend the right to do so because I recognize it gives me the right to have opinions and express them in places like this blog.
  7. Freedom of speech and expression is not a right for which we can pick and choose what is allowed and what isn’t. We must take the uncomfortable with the comfortable.
  8. Freedom of speech and expression does not mean that we have the right to do whatever the hell we want wherever we want. Namely, at our place of employment; which brings me back to the NFL. I cannot wear a shirt to work that has a can of beer on it or says something like, “fuck the police.” I recognize conditions of my employment prevent me from doing these things, in the same way conditions of being a NFL player can do the same.
  9. So while I support NFL players expressing freedom of speech, I also recognize their employer has the right to limit their ability to do so.
  10. Now onto the elephant in the room: how ironic is it that the same group of people against “PC” culture and easily offended people are…easily offended by this issue?
  11. Whether or not one chooses to stand or kneel during the Anthem does not make one more “American” than the other. Defending the right of free speech and expression, however, does. The defense of our Constitution and Bill of Rights is what “makes” us American.
  12. So, where does that leave us? The NFL has essentially two options here: get rid of players’ ability to kneel or get rid of having the National Anthem prior to NFL games.

I stand for the National Anthem with my hand on my heart; I also do not get upset or, frankly, care if others choose not to. I recognize others have the right to do things that are different than me.

During a NFL game a couple of years ago, I was wearing a stocking hat due to the fact the game was during the end of January. During the Anthem, I stood up, put my hand on my heart, and watched the flag on the field. A random guy sitting next to me reached over and ripped the stocking cap off of my head and told me I was being disrespectful. That is, he assumed I was being disrespectful. In the same way that we’ve assumed what kneeling or standing during the Anthem means. I told this guy that I was not being disrespectful but, rather, I was being cold. He argued this point with me because he knew what I was doing, regardless of what I said. The same thing we’re doing now with this issue that has overtaken the news.

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Sexual Harassment

Let me tell you the story about the Director of Residence Life that mysteriously disappeared while I was in undergrad.

When I was a student pursuing my bachelors’ degree, I, like many other women each day  in this country, was sexually harassed. I, like many other women, faced an uphill battle in trying to report it. Let me tell you the story:

I was very active in student government while I was an undergraduate student, so it was natural for me to volunteer to help out at the commencement ceremony. I had a couple of friends graduating so I thought it would be a good opportunity to lend a hand, and guarantee myself a ticket to the ceremony. While I was volunteering, I was assigned to help seat people in a certain area. I was told not to worry because John Doe (pretty safe pseudonym, eh?), the Director of Residence Life, would be there to assist me. I had maybe 5 minutes of total interaction with John Doe and then went to another area to assist. I looked down at my cell phone and noticed that John Doe had requested to follow me on Twitter, which I thought was pretty weird because I don’t even think I told him my first and last name. I didn’t accept this request right away because I thought it was kind of strange but, after mulling it over for a little while, I accepted it thinking it was harmless.

Wasting no time, John Doe sent me a direct message (DM) on Twitter. I don’t recall exactly what John Doe said but he started conversation with me about graduation. The conversation was normal and seemed harmless so I engaged in it. I carried on with my life and didn’t think anything of this but did notice that John Doe was “liking” a lot of my Tweets. And the DM’s continued.

Like most predators, John Doe was savvy. The DM’s were harmless conversations about things like baseball. They were never inappropriate, albeit weird, but never inappropriate. John Doe eventually asked me what my phone number was and gave some type of reasoning why he wanted it, which I somehow fell for, still believing this was all harmless.

While at a national conference for Residence Life professionals, John Doe took the opportunity to send me selfies and ask my opinion about his matching and tie/shirt combinations. This was extremely weird, especially considering the fact that this man was in his 50s and I was a 21-year-old student at the University he was a high-ranking member of administration at. I cannot explain why I did not stop communication with him at this point. I think I still believed this was harmless, though I cannot explain why I didn’t catch on to where this was heading.

Recently, an inmate told me about an adage, “befriend then betray,” that inmates use to turn staff and have them engage in illegal activities. I consider myself to have reasonable common sense, though I did not recognize that, at the time, “befriend then betray” was exactly what was happening to me, though in a very different sense.

While at the same national conference, John Doe began the process of “betrayal,” in that he began the process of sexual harassment. I started receiving messages and pictures that were sexual in nature and had no idea what to do. I often turned the conversation back to something safe like baseball, or ignored them all together. Summer was coming to a close and the semester was about to start back up again, my senior year, nonetheless. Making everything even more interesting, John Doe admitted to me that he was forced to resign from a college he previously worked at because they “didn’t like things” he “was doing.” He admitted he agreed to a severance package that had a confidentiality agreement attached to it.

I eventually told off John Doe after receiving far too many creepy messages but still found myself at odds with what to do. I felt like I was complicit in what happened, even though I did not want this to happen to me in any way, shape, or form. I did what many other women do when they experience this type of thing – I engaged in victim blaming: I blamed myself.

The semester started and I felt extremely uncomfortable on campus. This was a college of 5,000 people, it wasn’t exactly easy to hide. So, I texted a good friend of mine that had recently graduated and explained to her the entire situation. Then I asked what to do. She suggested that I report it and named a couple of campus administrators that she believed would be a good outlet. I ended up emailing someone from Judicial Affairs, knowing full and well that this was not the correct person to reach out to.

I met with Judicial Affairs and, after picking her jaw up off of the floor, it was explained to me that I needed to talk to someone higher up the chain. This was such an obvious issue that someone higher up the chain was called into the room immediately. I again explained what was going on and was told they would take this issue even further up the chain and to Human Resources and I would be contacted with next steps.

After meeting with HR, an investigation began. Though, it was explained to me that because I was not a subordinate of the Director of Residence Life, this was technically not a sexual harassment issue under the University’s policy. It was an issue of consensual relationships, though this was not a relationship and it was not consensual. I was informed that unless someone who was a subordinate of John Doe came forward, there was not much the University could do.

Obviously, I was not settling for this, as I had already put myself out there and through embarrassment with University administrators. So, being the active student in student government that I was, I reached out. I talked to fellow students that were employees in Residence Life and they reached out to other students and eventually at least 3 students who were somehow employed by Residence Life came forward and had very similar stories. Though I never met any of these women personally, I think they were incredibly brave. One of the stories I heard through the grapevine was that one of the women received text messages from John Doe with things like, “I’m outside of your dorm room. I can see you.” Another report was that John Doe would often be seen walking through women’s dorm buildings with no apparent reason. These stories made me all the more glad I came forward.

I was asked by HR if I feared for my safety on campus and, though I didn’t, I was extremely uncomfortable. They designated John Doe as “persona non grata,” Latin for “person not welcome” on campus while the investigation carried on. It was towards the end of the semester when I was informed by HR that they could not comment on personnel issues but John Doe would not be coming back to campus. I was left under the impression that John Doe reached a settlement for resignation with my University. And then it was brushed under the rug. The only further mention of it was by the school newspaper and an article pondering where the Director of Residence Life has mysteriously went and why the University would not explain. There never was an explanation, there was just more of “the University will not comment on personnel issues.”

Interesting enough, while this was all ongoing, the University sent out an email stating that they were revising their sexual harassment policy and welcomed feedback from students. I never found out if it changed at all. It didn’t really matter. My University did what many universities across the country do – they hide what isn’t comfortable. It doesn’t help admissions if it hits the news that an administrator was fired for sexually harassing students. So, universities pretend it doesn’t happen. They cover up whatever doesn’t look good for them.

I still don’t know if the University changed its sexual harassment policy but I did encounter something interesting a couple of years ago: I was getting ready to run a marathon in a city 40 minutes away from where my former University was and I ran into a former professor. He was there with a girl who appeared to be college-aged. They were holding hands and caressing each other. I said hi to him and laughed to myself. A 50-something year old professor in a relationship with a student. The University’s consensual relationship policy would support that – though anyone with a clear conscience would recognize that was a man in power using his position for his own gain. A tradition at colleges across this nation, and surely at the one I attended for undergrad.

Death Row

When I was a graduate assistant with the Department of Corrections in the state I went to school at, I had my first encounter with a Death Row (DR) inmate. Well, if you want to call it an encounter.

I was finishing up rounds in the Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU) when I saw that an entire wing was closed and there was just one inmate on it. I asked one of the corrections officers what the deal was and it was explained to me that one of the inmates on DR was being housed at our prison because he had to go to court in our county. This piqued my interest so I said to myself, “I wonder if I can talk to him.”

Now, this might sound a little strange, but, I should point out that one of my biggest interests is the death penalty. If there was a list entitled, “Top 5 Political Positions Laura Cares About,” then the death penalty would be on that list. And, I’ll explain more about that later in this post.

So, I decided that I would talk to my supervisor about speaking with the DR inmate before deciding to just go and have a conversation with him. Another thing to point out here, I typically do not reveal the gender of inmates I’m speaking about but there are so few women on DR that I will just go ahead and make it clear that I’ve worked in prisons in states where there are men on DR, which is every state that has the death penalty.

This was on a Friday and towards the end of the day so I decided I would just ask my supervisor about it on Monday. Monday comes along and I go and ask her if I can talk with him and she says that I can, though I think she was a little confused as to why I was so interested in doing this. I went over to RHU to talk to the inmate and, of course, he had already been shipped back to DR, which was at a prison hours away. I missed my chance.

Fast forward to the current day where I have the opportunity to work at the prison in my state that houses the DR inmates. But, my situation is a little different this time around. In the last prison system I was at, I was in mental health and could pretty much justify any conversation with any inmate. Here, however, I work as a social worker and typically only work with inmates that are releasing soon. Which brings up the next story.

Every once in a while, I walk past the DR unit in RHU. DR is kind of its own general population where the inmates can sometimes intermingle and walk freely in their own unit, though they cannot interact with other inmates in other units. Each time I walk past DR, one of our more “famous” inmates is often out and about and says hi to me, to which I wave and say hi back. A couple of weeks ago, I walked past DR and the same inmate I usually say hi to calls out to me. I said to myself, “okay, what do I do here?” and ignored him for a second. He called to me again so I decided I didn’t want to be rude so I walked back over to him.

“Are you mental health?” he asked.

“Not really. I’m social work.” Was my reply.

Naturally, he replies, “Well, what’s social work?”

I shrugged in an apologetic way and said, “I get things set up for people who are leaving” then while clenching my teeth, I said, “I don’t really know if I can help you, bro.”

He laughed, thankfully. I said to him, “if things change then let me know and I’ll help you get stuff set up for when you leave.” He said, “if I ever get out of here, I’m getting as far away as possible.” I smiled, gave him a thumbs up, and said, “good luck on your appeals, man.” So, that was my experience in talking to a DR inmate. Not exactly how I drew it up but a good story, nonetheless.

Now, onto why I do not support capital punishment. I could spend blog post after blog post arguing this so I’ll break it down as simply as possible:

  1. If the United States has ever executed someone who was innocent, we should not ever be able to execute someone again as there is too much of a margin for error. There has been close to 1,500 inmates executed since 1976. Arguably, there are cases where there is strong evidence that the dead defendant may have been innocent. According to the ACLU, since 1973, over 156 people have been released from death rows in 26 states because of innocence.  Nationally, at least one person is exonerated for every 10 that are executed.
  2.  It is not that I do not think people have committed crimes that should result in their death but it is that the death penalty is not fairly applied. For instance, if we believe the adage, “an eye for an eye,” then shouldn’t each person convicted of murder be sentenced to death? Why do some get life (or less) but others are sentenced to death? The argument is that only the most heinous are condemned, but I’ve personally met inmates that committed murders that were premeditated and calculated and those inmates got life; whereas, there are inmates condemned that killed others during the course of a robbery, not necessarily planning to kill. Interestingly enough, most inmates that have been sentenced to death did not commit a pre-meditated crime, most of them committed their crime in the heat of the moment.
  3. Capital punishment does not deter murder. Nor does prison deter crime. I have never met a murderer that said to themselves, “you know, I better not kill this person because they could sentence me to death!” People who commit crimes to not think like that because, if they did, they would not be criminals. It is simple logic – law-abiding citizens think like that, criminals don’t.
  4. The death penalty is disproportionately applied to blacks, relative to their total percentage of the population. Blacks who killed a white victim are even more likely to receive the death penalty, even though whites are more likely to die at the hands of someone of their own race. The same thing goes with the poor – around 90% of those on death row could not afford to hire a lawyer when they were tried. (For more on this, the ACLU breaks it down).
  5. What about the families of victims? I do not question the suffering of the family and friends of murder victims, and cannot fathom how I would feel if I was in their shoes. But, I would argue that life in prison is much worse that death will ever be. Prison, despite popular misconception, is not a nice place, and is a place those that kill should reside for the rest of their time on this Earth.

So, longer than expected, but there are my thoughts on the death penalty today. I have probably 5 other reasons why I don’t support capital punishment but those are the main points. This is a recurring theme for my blog that will surely be broached again.

Eclipse

Today I, like many other Americans, was able to witness the “Great American Eclipse.” Though, my company for the eclipse was unlike many others: I watched with inmates.

For the past few months, I have been irritated in the amount of hype the eclipse has gotten. From the news coverage, to the marketing, to the consumerism in the products for sale, all of this was really was starting to annoy me. I had become so over the eclipse before it even started, so much so that I went to work this morning with no real desire to even watch the event.

I had a conversation with an inmate this morning about the eclipse and the inmate was overjoyed for the opportunity to be able to witness the moon completely cover the sun, as we were in the “path of totality.” I still was not sold on this event that brought millions of people to areas across the United States from Oregon all the way to South Carolina. An event that also probably resulted in millions upon millions of dollars in tourism profits.

However, my opinion of the eclipse finally changed during it. As the moon positioned itself in front of the sun and the sky went dark, hundreds of inmates surrounding me cheered and clapped. The amount of joy that I felt on the yard in prison was unlike anything I had experienced before.

The reason it was enjoyable to watch the eclipse with these inmates was because of what it reminded me of: it reminded me how much we take for granted. The eclipse was nothing to me because I had taken it for granted. I didn’t recognize the joy or value that the eclipse could bring to some people, especially to some people living in a miserable place in perhaps the darkest point of their lives.

We all take many things for granted. Freedom is something that most of us take for granted each and every day. Some inmates have suggested to me that it is acceptable for them to treat prison staff poorly because staff get to leave prison each day. A counter argument to that is that we have made choices in our lives that allow us to have the freedom to leave each day. But, in reality, many of us have also made choices that could have landed us in prison if they didn’t work out for us the way they did.

Freedom is not just the difference between prison and “the streets.” It is also a mindset that we can all choose to have. One does not need to physically be in prison in order to be in prison. Some people carry their prison around with them. One way to free ourselves from prison is to appreciate what we have. To show gratitude to those of us around us. To find joy in small things. These actions and attitudes act in a way that can have positive impact on those around us, as well as ourselves.

An alternate definition of the word eclipse is “a loss of significance, power, or prominence in relation to another person or thing.” Too often we are eclipsing those of us around us, and those things we have in life that we need to be grateful for. In the theme of the “Great American Eclipse,” we should all strive to be great to ourselves and one another each and every day. In doing so, our positivity will have a path of totality.

Labeling Theory

In sociology, there is a concept called “labeling theory” which essentially asserts that if you are labeled as something then you will fulfill that label. The most often used example is that of “deviant,” in that if you are labeled as a deviant then you will act out with deviant behaviors. Labeling theory is typically used to explain criminal behavior. This theory is ever-present in my job in a prison but, I would also argue that it is becoming increasingly present in the way we talk about politics.

The way we label each other is becoming increasingly disruptive in the way we have political conversations. When it comes to politics, labeling theory acts in a way wherein whatever you’re labeled, whether you chose that label or not, is how others perceive your every view/position. For example, if you’re labeled as a liberal then there are some inherent assumptions made about what you believe. The same goes for being labeled as a conservative.

More often than not, these labels carry negative connotations. A liberal is always pro-killing babies, anti-religion, a wild free-spirit feminist, hippie environmentalist, and someone who is fine with outrageous government spending. Whereas, a conservative is always someone that wants tax cuts for the rich only, thumps on the Bible, hates women and LGBTQ individuals, and is ready to go to war with anyone at anytime. Assuming that each person labeled as either liberal or conservative holds those beliefs is a fatal flaw with labeling. Labeling does not allow us to believe anything other than what it is assumed that we believe.

When having a political conversation with someone who is labeled in your mind as either liberal or conservative then it is not possible to have a constructive conversation with them. When we use labels, we already know what the other person believes. The other person holds beliefs and positions that we associate with the labels, not with what they’re actually saying in the conversation.

We like labels because they’re lazy. Labels quickly give us all of the answers that we’re seeking. Labels don’t require us to ask questions or take the time to get to know someone. Labels prohibit us from actually listening and taking into consideration what another person thinks or believes. Labels are a large factor in how hostile the political climate is today.

Liberals nor conservatives alone are to blame for where we’re at as a country. Both of these groups, and the labels themselves, are to blame. Many people love these labels and take pride in using them to describe themselves. Those people are as much to blame as the rest of us.

The definition of liberal is someone who is open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values. The definition of conservative is someone who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes. Those definitions are not what we’re using to label one another with, though those definitions more accurately capture what the words were designed to mean in politics.

When describing my political opinions, I don’t like to label myself. I have opinions that are on the right side of the spectrum and opinions that are on the left. I am an individual, I am not a label.

When we chose to label one another, we are increasing hostility and decreasing conversation. Those that label one another in the political world should themselves be labeled as a fool: a person who acts unwisely or imprudently.

Disease or Choice?

A month or so ago, I saw someone on my Twitter feed making the argument that drug addiction was a choice and not a disease. This concept is something that I have struggled with throughout graduate school and into my current employment.

Because individuals chose to use drugs, it is very difficult to see addiction through the lens of it being a disease. But that’s just it: someone chooses to use drugs, they don’t chose  to become addicted. I can see the counter arguments to that concept, such as that becoming addicted is an inherent risk of choosing to use drugs. But, there are a couple of things that dispel that argument. Namely, the fact that everyone that choses to use drugs does not get addicted.

For example, I have been prescribed opioids numerous times throughout my life. I’m sure most people reading this also have been prescribed these medications, especially considering the fact hydrocodone was the most prescribed drug in this country for a significant period of time. For as many times as I’ve had to take opioids, I have never once became addicted to them. In fact, I have never enjoyed any aspect of taking opioids because my body as adverse reactions to them.

This leads into my theory that some people are predisposed to becoming addicted to drugs and others are not. Many people become addicted to opioids because a doctor prescribed those medications to them, not because they found a guy in a dark alley to sell them. My reference point is opioids so it isn’t to say I wouldn’t get addicted to meth if I was to chose to try that. But, I would argue that I am someone who is not predisposed to becoming addicted to drugs. Someone’s predisposition to addiction can be in their biology, environment, or development.

People chose to use drugs for many reasons, whether be it that they were prescribed them and became addicted or they’re using them for fun or they’re using them to escape their reality. There is choice in the use of drugs but not in addiction. We also don’t chose our biology, environment, or development.

However, my biggest difficulty with accepting that disease is a choice is that people living  with addiction seem to continue to make choices that are incredibly destructive and harmful to themselves and their friends and family. It is extremely difficulty to accept that drug addicts have a brain disease causing them to make these choices rather than that they are actively choosing to make these bad choices with a clear mind. Sometimes it is easy to see calling addiction a disease as an excuse for the behaviors that addicts demonstrate but, rather, it is an explanation not a cop-out.

Addiction is very similar to mental illness, in that it completely changes the way your brain operates. The brain is the mechanism of choice; thus, when the brain is addicted to something, the choice mechanism is disrupted.

When society characterizes addiction as a choice, the support behind treatment for it decreases. Addiction is problem that impacts almost all Americans, whether directly or indirectly. Our prisons are filled with individuals that have drug addictions, which costs each individual tax payer around $300 per year. Even if you don’t have friends or family suffering from addiction, your wallet is still affected by it. At the rate the U.S. is addressing its addiction problem, we’ll all soon be addicted to paying for it. And it won’t be a choice.

Keeping It Real

I got fired from a job once. In between my first and second year of graduate school, I decided it would be a great idea to work at a waterpark. After having worked in corporate pharmacies throughout undergrad and part of grad school, I decided I wanted to work in a less stressful environment for the last summer before I got a real job. Less stressful: boy, was I wrong.

Customer service is one of the more humanizing jobs one can have. Humanizing in that it shows you how absolutely awful some humans can be. At this waterpark, I was a manager for the cashiers, which is a pretty straightforward job. The vast majority of our customers were great and were there for fun. That was before the bee infestation happened.

A combination of the heat, water, and trash caused a massive amount of bees to set up residence at our waterpark, causing some serious issues with customers. I began getting pretty used to having customers complain about this, and did what I could to appease them. That was until my fateful last day.

It was our policy to not give refunds. This was posted behind the cash registers and hammered into our heads during orientation. A customer and her young child came into the waterpark and attempted to enjoy their time, until they discovered the bees. The woman came up to the register demanding a refund because of the bees. I explained our “no refund” policy, which obviously did not make this woman happy. The woman began berating me about how her child was allergic to bees and how I was trying to kill her child. Yes, you read that correctly: she accused me of trying to kill her child. It was as if I had woken up that day, put on my tacky waterpark polo and khaki shorts, looked into the mirror, smiled, and said to myself, “I am going to kill someone’s child with bees today.”

I typically can handle most scoldings from customers, so much so that in the corporate pharmacy world I had customers accuse me of changing their insurance, telling me that I didn’t mean anything to the world because I didn’t make as much money as them, and some even would throw their pill bottles back at us if we were unable to read their minds and give them the pills they wanted. All of that I could handle; however, having someone accuse me of trying to kill their child was not something I could deal with.

The woman asked my name because she was going to get me fired for the bees and I told her, “my name is Laura, I’m a seasonal employee, and I don’t give a shit.” Telling a customer that I didn’t give a shit was my demise but it was the damn truth. Should I have said that? Absolutely not. Did I give a shit? Absolutely not.

I often get asked why I work in prison. There are numerous reasons why, many of which are noble. The fact I can swear when I talk, however, is not one of my more noble reasons for working in prison. My personal counseling philosophy is “keeping it real,” which prison happens to be the only environment this type of counseling is suited for. I never swear at inmates but I don’t hesitate to swear when speaking to them. Prison allows me to be myself, and I sometimes swear like a sailor. I maintain a professional presentation in all situations that call for it but sometimes the best thing you can say to an inmate is, “yeah, that is some bullshit.”

I remember arguing with a fellow classmate in grad school about whether or not it was appropriate to swear when talking to inmates. My classmate believed that it was inappropriate and would make inmates disrespect me, particularly because I was a female. I believe that it allows me to be me, instead of putting on a front. Inmates respect when people are real and I’ve never had an inmate complain that I sometimes swear.

The moral of the story here is to keep it real. Be true to yourself. Too often we put on a facade of who we want to be, rather than who we are.

If I could go back, would I not say what I did to that waterpark customer? Hell no.