Freedom, justice, and rights: blockbusters and sequels

Freedom, justice and rights.  Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Freedom, justice and rights. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Summer is typically the time for blockbuster movies and their sequels: Iron Man, Star Trek, X-Men; the list goes on.  But this summer, you don’t need to go to the movies to participate in blockbusters and their sequels. History it seems is a series of blockbuster events with sequels, taking the form of declarations, laws, court-decisions, executive-orders, opinion-pages, blogs, marches, rallies, and the unfortunate loss of dialogue manifesting itself as gridlock, filibuster or most regretfully as violence and battlegrounds on the streets where we work and live.

Several anniversaries of blockbuster events concerning freedom, justice, and rights in our nation’s history occur this summer; some are annual rituals, others are commemorations of significant anniversaries.  Juneteenth celebrated annually on June 19 commemorates the day slavery was abolished in Texas in 1865 as a result of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.  The Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969 were a series of spontaneous and sometimes violent demonstrations by members of the gay community (many of whom were angry and fed-up drag queens) protesting a police raid on gay bars. As a result gay rights organizations and newspapers were formed in New York and nationwide seeking civil rights for gay Americans. As a result, the first gay pride march was established in 1970, an event celebrated annually in cities throughout the United States and the world.  July 1 – July 3, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg considered by many historians to be the turning point in the Civil War, whose origins lay in contentions over the abolition or extension of slavery in the United States. July 4th is of course our annual commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence proclaiming all men are created equal, a statement universally adopted as human rights. On August 28th, our country will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where in 1963 more than 300,000 Americans rallied at the Lincoln Memorial calling for civil and economic rights for African Americans; this march is credited for the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

This summer has brought several poignant sequels to these litany of History blockbusters.  On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, originally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson aimed at eliminating various legal strategies to prevent African Americans and other minorities from voting by preventing racial gerrymandering among other actions. The Court’s decision freed nine states mostly in the South, to change their election laws without federal approval. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting from the bench declared “the nation’s commitment to justice had been dis-served” Shortly after the decision, the State of Texas announced the voter identification law would be in effect immediately and that redistricting maps would no longer need approval.

On June 26, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court supported gay rights with two decisions favoring same-sex marriage ruling the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional and the permitting a lower court ruling to stand that struck down the state of California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Practically, the decisions mean that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits and by declining to decide a California case, effectively permitted same-sex marriages to occur there, increasing to thirteen the number of states permitting same-sex marriage. The Court did not say there is a constitutional right to these unions, and the ruling left in place laws banning same-sex marriage around the country. In expressing the majority opinion on DOMA, Justice Anthony Kennedy declared the law’s basic flaw was the “deprivation of liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment.”

Although unrelated to the dilution of the Voting Rights Act, additional sequel events happened this summer raising concerns about the erosion of freedom, justice, and rights for individuals in the African American community. On July 12, 2013 the movie Fruitvale Station, opened in Oakland, CA at the Grand Lake Theater. Not a blockbuster by Hollywood’s box office standards, the movie is a passionate, powerful, and important film for the local community and the world. The film tells the story of Oscar Grant, a young black man tragically killed by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale Station in the early morning hours of New Year’s day 2009.  Ironically, the next day, July 13, 2013, a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Travyon Martin, another young black man. Like the Grant experience, reaction to the Martin verdict included marches and demonstrations (some sadly degenerating to unnecessary violence and destruction) and sit-ins such as the Dream Defenders occupying the area outside Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office demanding the repeal of the Stand Your Ground law and the end of racial profiling. On July 16, 2013 Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that criticized “stand your ground laws” in the wake of the Florida jury’s verdict  acquiting George Zimmerman ; in the speech Holder stated stand your ground laws “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.” [1] Accepting the jury verdict, President Obama on July 19, addressed the frustration of the African American community saying “it’s young men are too often painted with a broad brush as potential criminals….black men in the United States, himself included, commonly suffer racial profiling.” He also said that “thirty-five years ago Trayvon Martin could have been me”

The blockbuster historical events and their sequels continue. Will we take part?  To be measured, History must be made, and each of us has a role in History making.  History can be made by forming our opinions through reading, thinking, and by voicing our opinions through word and deed. August 28th, 2013, Washington, D.C. will host the the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Conferences and a rally will be held and a grassroots civil rights movement will be launched at 3PM that day called “63 Minutes of Peace.” 3PM was chosen, because that was the time Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech “I Have a Dream.”  The idea is to take 63 minutes of your day to volunteer to help change someone’s world, be it mentoring a young person, aiding a homeless person, or participating in voter registration.” So, in some cases we have made progress, and in others, there is much work remaining to be done. In the end, we must progress forward; we must voice our opinions and take action to achieve freedom, justice, and rights for all persons.

more or less

Chicago’s Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler.

From a distance, the sprawling city of Chicago soars from the flatlands like the emerald city of Oz.  So accustomed to California’s topography  — rugged coastlines, deserts and mountains honed by earthquake and tide, wind and rain — I am enchanted by the Midwest with it’s boundless horizon punctuated solely by skyscrapers; bold sentences spoken by vertical and horizontal voices. My profession brought me earlier this month to Chicago, home of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), serving on the program committee, shaping our summer 2013 annual meeting. Early Sunday morning I walk Chicago’s streets awestruck by the artistry of the built environment. Sunrise flirts momentarily on the glazed terra cotta, accessorizing these temples of industry in pink and orange. Laura Tatum’s spirit accompanies me as I walk amongst these towering icons of American architecture on my way to the meeting. Chicago, a living building museum, graced by artifacts in a range of styles, created by Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van Der Rohe.

A prairie city, Chicago is home for corporations monetizing the labor of farmers and ranchers and now profiting from the labor of programmers and analysts. Migrants of all nationalities, races, and creeds – from all compass points – came to Chicago to work in factories and services spinning straw into gold (turning raw into retail). Barrack Obama, our first African-American President and native-son of Hawaii, elected last week for a second-term, like so many others was drawn to Chicago and makes his home here – this land of Lincoln. The 1871 Chicago Fire wiped the slate clean and a new city rose on the shores of Lake Michigan giving birth to the skyscraper, a building type made possible primarily by the manufacture of inexpensive steel able to frame and support multi-storied structures. Chicago architect Louis Sullivan considered by many the “father of skyscrapers” coined the phrase “form follows function.” These skyscrapers were and remain today the home offices for many corporations.

My hotel room, situated above the Chicago River provided wonderful views of North Michigan Avenue’s Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower. Built in 1921 in the neoclassical style, the Wrigley Building, an early skyscraper sheathed in white terra cotta, glows when lit at night. Personally, it provides a visual and stylistic reminder of the buildings populating Burnham’s White City also-known-as the Chicago World’s Fair. Across the avenue, is the Tribune Tower, a product of the 1922 international design competition held by the Chicago Tribune newspaper. While this gothic-revival design won, the competition inspired many modernist architects to envision skyscrapers in the emerging international style.  One of these young architects, Mies van de Rohe, soon to become a “master” at the Bauhaus and its last Director, submitted a visionary design for a Tribune Tower with transparent plate glass walls on a steel frame. Known for his clarity and simplicity, Mies, is perhaps most famous for his Barcelona Pavilion and Villa Tugendhat. Given the outcome of the Tribune Tower competition, it is somewhat ironic that Mies would become the Director of Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology bringing his “less is more” design aesthetic to what is now known as the Second Chicago School of architecture.

part of something greater

Between the Dark and the Light. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

The Rabbi’s words from Psalm 23 hang in the stillness of the First Congregational Church.  Her clear strong soprano sings “yeah that I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.”  Some two hundred voices join her singing the prayer; my voice cracks a little, overcome with feelings I didn’t realize were buried.  On January 13, I attended the “American Unity Town Hall” in Santa Cruz hosted by the Honorable Sam Farr seventeen term Member of Congress from 17th Congressional District of California.  The church’s pastor opened the meeting with the words “I need to be with a group of people tonight for healing and growth.”  Congressman Farr followed reflecting on Congresswoman Gabriele Giffords “for all the wrong reasons, the world is now aware of how special you are” and “our children are being raised on hate talk…..a democracy based on negative talk cannot survive.”

A community gathered that night in an ecumenical setting to seek meaning from tragedy and reaffirm belief in our republic’s democratic process.  Wendall Berry wrote in The Way of Ignorance “our religious principles are justice, mercy, peaceableness, and loving kindness toward fellow humans and the gifts of nature, as our political principles are freedom confirmed in law, honesty, and public accountability.  These are not the principles of a party. These are our free inheritance as human beings and citizens living under the Constitution of the United States.”

The senseless shooting of Congreswoman Giffords and the deaths of six others in Tucson are a tragedy;  the impact of that moment resonates in Santa Cruz in many ways.  We lost Gabe Zimmerman, Director of Community Outreach for Congresswoman Giffords; he was a University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) 2002 graduate in Sociology.  UCSC Professor Paul Lubek said “Gabe fulfilled the ideals of the University….he engaged in public service to perform social justice.” A few days after we absorbed the events in Tucson,  campus administration announced the threat of a possible active shooter at UCSC on January 18.  Living with guns and acquiring the skills to survive an active shooter attack are sadly becoming the norm, and I ask: was this the intended outcome of our Constitution’s Second Amendment the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed?  Sometimes it feels like Frederick Jackson Turner ‘s historical thesis has been revised:  the American Frontier was closed, but now it’s officially reopened! Life is mimicking the final scenes from Gunfight at the OK Corralthe great vendetta myth of the American West. Yeah, that was in Tombstone….Arizona. Irony or foreshadowing?

In the last week my healing has begun, but as January – the gateway to the new year —  closes I wonder what the rest of the year will bring.  Ever hopeful, I walk through the doorway inspired to climb the mountains ahead and committed to being a better listener  and more attuned to sufferings around me.  Speaking at the Memorial Service in Tucson, President Obama quoted from the Book of Job “I looked for light and found darkness” and he asked us all  “to expand our moral imaginations” and “to talk with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Because “how we treat one another is entirely up to us” and  “the forces that divide us are not as strong as the forces that unite us.”  And in his State of the Union address, he said “amid all the noise and passion and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we came from, each of us is part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference…..we are still bound together as a people [and] what we can do  – what America does better than anyone else – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people…..we do big things.” We can climb the mountains ahead of us.

A New Deal

Born in the 1970s in the African American, Afro-Carribean and Latino communities of the Bronx, Hip Hop culture includes DJing, breakdancing, graffiti writing and rapping.  According to Johnny Otis, rhythm and blues musician and teacher, in 1975, Mayor Abe Beame was faced with New York City going bankrupt. His choices were few as neither the federal or state governments would come to his aid.  So, to solve his problem he fired over 19,000 city workers, and 15,000 of those workers were teachers responsible for instruction in the humanities: literature, art and music.  Suddenly a generation of children had no access to instruments and formal music instruction.   But ever resilient, these communities looked inward, drew upon their cultural heritage and created a new musical genre “rap,” one of the pillars of hip hop culture, using all that was available to them: language and percussion.  The human spirit creates no matter how stripped bare. 


Despair. Copyright 2007 Robin L. Chandler

Today our society, and by default, our educational systems are undergoing transformative change. To manage the fiscal crisis, our California state government is making deep cuts to our public universities, and campus and university administrators are now struggling with how to manage these reductions that will no doubt profoundly change our educational system. They will be faced with choices making decisions about what programs, what departments what campus units are sustainable and support the core mission of the university.  External funding from public and private sources, though comprised during this economic crisis, continues to be available to support research in medicine, science and engineering, but not so readily available to the arts and humanities, Institute Museum Library Services (IMLS), National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanites (NEH), National Historic Publications Record Commission (NHPRC) and the Mellon Foundation being among the most valiant exceptions.  Writing in the New York Times recently, Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University wrote “since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in pre-professional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify.  As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.”


Oakland gritty streets. Copyright 2007 Robin L. Chandler

In the September issue of Harpers Magazine, Mark Slouka (Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia University) wrote “the humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth.”  Slouka also wrote “By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.”

During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration invested in creating jobs across a wide spectrum including the arts and humanities. These became the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Writer’s Project.  There was also the Historic Records Survey which employed archivists to identify, collect and conserve historic records throughout the United States.  Rand Jimerson writes in the introduction to his recently published book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice “Archivists [can] contribute to a richer human experience of understanding and compassion. They can help protect the rights of citizens, and to hold public figures in government and business accountable for their actions. Archivists provide resources for people to examine the past, to understand themselves in relation to others, and to deepen their appreciation of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. This is the essence of our common humanity.” Archives and teaching in the humanities are crucial to the formation of citizens able to participate fully in our democracy.

In February 2009, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ARRA which included stimulus funding making investments in infrastructure such as transportation, public schools, college financial aid, renewable energy programs, healthcare and homeland security.  Conspicuously absent is direct funding for teaching and research in the arts and  humanities, nor for libraries and archives. In his public high school rhetoric class Marcus Eure provides students with critical thinking skills as they study issues about civic morality.  Eure believes “every marriage, every job, every parent-teacher meeting hinges in some way on the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one’s beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity. “  The time is now to invest and provide federal stimulus packages in our arts, humanities, libraries and archives.  It is our duty and obligation to the future, to build citizens to grapple with the challenges of today.

To shape the future

There are two holidays that serve as book ends for my mother’s life: the 4th of July marks her death and Labor day marks her birth. This year – 2009 – marks the 20th anniversary of her passing and would have been her 92nd birthday were she still with us. My mother was an energetic woman hugely impacting my life; it wasn’t always easy, but I know and love the gifts she gave me. She loved making music and creating things. Growing up, there was always some kind of project in the works be it making candles  (and spray painting them gold for whatever reason), sewing clothes for me and my sister, or preparing for her teaching job or her girl scout troop. She had so much energy and intelligence and she was driven to do something helpful for others.

When I was very young, my mom worked as an occupational therapist. One of her patients was a young man with polio confined to an iron lung. I remember that he painted the most wonderful paintings using only the movements he could make with his big toe. My mother had built a splint for that big toe enabled to cradle a paint brush and she spent hours with him making sure it fit correctly and gave him the support he needed to do his art. From my mother I learned that a person could do anything with a little help and kindness, and beautiful artwork flows from everyone.


Pain. Copyright 1989 Robin L. Chandler

Unfortunately, the last years of my mother’s life were spent in nursing facilities and hospitals. Our family was fortunate, because the government’s Medicare provision and my father’s health insurance covered those expenses. During the last few weeks of her life, I visited my mom in the hospital and I tried to capture those moments in watercolor. Robert Henri wrote in his book Art Spirit “the beauty of the lines of the drawing rest in the fact that you do not realize them as lines, but are only conscious of what they state of the living person…you have been let into that life.” It was important to paint her, so that I would never forget her pain. Over the years I have returned to those paintings to remember my mother and think about the good things she did for others. I share one with you now to serve as a call to action. This is our time we can make a difference and help others.

In the middle of August 2009, the group Remote Area Medical provided free health care services to some 10,000 residents of Los Angeles for eight days providing the uninsured with routine services like eye and dental exams, mammograms and access to special treatments like kidney dialysis. There is a crying need for healthcare reform in this country. We need to find the right model so that no one is without healthcare in our country. The latest recession figures indicate there are 40 million Americans living in poverty and they cannot afford healthcare. T. R. Reid’s book The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care describes four basic models of health care at work in the world: Britain’s Beveridge Model where health care is provided and financed by the government; Germany and France’s Bismark Model where private insurance funds — financed by employers and employees — cover everyone and are government regulated to keep costs low; Canada’s National Health Insurance model which uses private-sector providers financed by government insurance plans into which every citizen pays; and lastly the “out-of-pocket” model most found in undeveloped nations where you get what you can pay for. We can do better than the last model. Wednesday night, President Obama laid out his vision of healthcare reform stating “if you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who don’t currently have health insurance, the second part of this plan will finally offer you quality, affordable choices. If you lose your job or change your job, you will be able to get coverage.” He went onto say we can help people in need and we can solve this big problem. When I remember my mom, I think of someone who was always trying to do something useful to help someone in need. Like my mother, everyone deserves access to healthcare through every stage of their life. Now it’s our generation’s turn to help others. Lets bring about healthcare reform and shape the future by our actions.